Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter (translated by Jane Degras), is a memoir of the author’s year spent living with her husband, Hermann, and another hunter, Karl Nicholaisen, in a small hut on the coast of Grey Hook. This is a barren, stony flatland sticking out into the Arctic Ocean between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Hermann often spent months in this part of the world where he would trap foxes and bears for food and the animal’s valuable pelts. Christiane joined him in the summer of 1934, just as Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany. Experiencing life in the Arctic changed her views on European values and concerns. The daily struggle to stay alive and the need to work with nature had a profound impact on the wealthy Austrian housewife who had left her teenage daughter behind to partake in this adventure.

The story opens with some background. Hermann had previously spent three winters in the Arctic as a trapper, gathering scientific information on the region. In letters and other written correspondence he encouraged his wife to join him, promising her a boudoir in the hut he would take in Spitsbergen. Eventually Hermann’s diaries persuaded Christiane that she could spend a comfortable and interesting winter relaxing, reading books and admiring the landscape. She set out on a ship from Hamburg with more luggage than Hermann had advised.

Arriving in the Arctic Christianne is met by her husband and they continue their journey on a small steamer. Also on board is Karl. The author learns for the first time that he will be living with them.

“We shake hands and smile at each other. We cannot do any more because Karl does not speak German and I do not speak Norwegian.”

Twenty-four hours later they arrive at Grey Hook and disembark. The hut they will be staying in is tiny but Karl and Hermann are delighted with it. A small ante-room leads to the interior containing bunks, a table and a damaged, smoky stove. The promised boudoir has not yet been built.

“I had imagined Spitsbergen otherwise.”

“I have to put it to myself as a hard geographical fact, how alone we are up here. Nobody as far as the north pole, nobody across the sea until Novaya Zemlya, and nobody for three hundred miles southward…”

The following year is covered in journal style, written mainly in the present tense. Thus the reader experiences the evolving situation as events occur. With no choice but to accept what she has taken on, Christiane observes her husband’s behaviour – so different to how he acts when at his family estate in Austria.

“I am amazed at my husband who seems to have quite forgotten how a European woman is accustomed to live. He seems to take it completely for granted that I will feel quite at home in this wretched hut, with beasts of prey for company. Anyhow, his way of introducing me to the wilderness does not seem very considerate.”

As well as contending with the beast of a smoky stove, Christiane must spend periods alone while the men go off to hunt. It is on one such occasion that she experiences her first Arctic storm and the hut is buried under snow. The elemental dangers and severely limited food supplies are recurring challenges. Added to these is the need to cope psychologically. The men have developed a stoicism that Christiane must cultivate. She has heard tales of women who have lost their minds in such circumstances and Karl fully expects her to be similarly afflicted.

As the never ending summer daylight leaves them, and the constant darkness of the winter months descends, Christiane must find routines to keep her from despair. Gradually she comes to appreciate the attraction of the region – its terrible beauty and man’s insignificance. Anxieties revolve around basic survival. It is only the essentials for life that have true value.

“Humanity has lost itself in the unnatural and in speculation. Only now do I grasp the real meaning and the world-transforming element in the saying: “Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.”

The author writes of the cold, the soot from the stove, the lack of meat and other food supplies. She must learn to deal with damp sleeping bags, mildewed bedding and the necessary mending of worn out clothes. Christiane’s day to day role is as housewife, although she writes movingly of the bleak landscape that she eventually comes to appreciate. This is fine travel writing and nature writing as well as memoir.

As an explanation of why anyone would choose to live in the Arctic I remain perplexed. If man’s place in nature is understood by the author and the hunters then why can’t they leave the native creatures they encounter alone in their environment? Why stay?

Occasional artistic pencil sketches add to the imagery of the prose, although the polar bear depiction is distressing if evocative. The book is concluded with photographs taken of Hermann and Christiane and the hut at Grey Hook that brings home how basic it was.

 

An interesting and well written memoir that vividly portrays life in an extreme and inhospitable place. Despite being baffled as to why anyone would choose such a risky and invasive lifestyle, the tale enables the reader to appreciate how beautiful and balanced anywhere could be – if left to nature.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Hard Pushed

Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story, by Leah Hazard, provides a timely reminder of how valuable the NHS is, and of the appalling demands currently being made of front-line staff. The author is a working midwife and shares stories of cases she has dealt with, and the conflicts regularly faced due to the spectre of rules and a lack of resources. It is not, however, polemic. Written with grace and generosity, this candid memoir presents the business of birth with clear-eyed understanding of expectations and reality. There may be a great many bodily fluids to contend with but bringing a baby into the world remains an emotional event.

The births described are those that were memorable, mostly due to complications, many unforeseen. These include: the young mother who is still a child herself; the woman who became pregnant thanks to IVF and whose partner now has cancer; the rape victim; the prospective mother suffering a serious illness. Between each case study are notes in which the author muses on such subjects as: thwarted assumptions; being human; the many challenges of the job. She has to deal courteously with colleagues who have contentious opinions. When mistakes are made they can have far reaching consequences.

The author writes of a new mother whose own mother undermines her confidence with well-meaning suggestions, and how a midwife must support but never interfere. She writes of: birth plans, birthing pools, FGM and death. She describes the mind-numbing exhaustion faced by staff working lengthy shifts in over-crowded wards where medical emergencies leave labouring women unattended. The professional script she must follow is designed to both minimise patient concern and protect the midwife.

The intense and unpredictable daily demands lead to regular burn-outs, something to which the author is not immune. The job takes a physical and mental toll that can be a challenge to sustain.

This is a fluently structured and fascinating account of a job that, even as a mother of three, I had not fully appreciated. I feel angry on behalf of these hard working professionals for the way our healthcare system is being managed and funded.

Yet the warmth and compassion with which this book is written provides a beguiling and entertaining read. The balance achieved is impressive – recommended for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson.

Book Review: My Oxford

My Oxford, by Catherine Haines, is a short and very personal memoir of the author’s descent into anorexia. She posits that the eating disorder is akin to a religious belief where eating is regarded as a sin. Religions have long promoted fasting as virtuous, gluttony as weakness, bodily pleasure as morally suspect. In a world where thin is regarded as good this is an interesting angle from which to look at the disorder.

Anorexia is more than a desire to attain a fashionable ideal – to harbour a preoccupation with the superficial. It is a potentially fatal mental illness that raises issues within the sufferer about the way they wish to exist in a world that dictates behaviour yet admires self-control.

Catherine’s problems started in 2011 when, realising she had gained weight, she went on a diet. Her mother suggested the Cambridge Weight Plan which replaces meals with sachets of minerals and nutrients. Combining these with a daily meal of pure protein pushes the body to fuel itself with fat.

Having met her weight loss goals, Catherine moved to Oxford to study. Here she continued to restrict her intake to 1000 calories or less per day.

Catherine’s studies involved an exploration of the overlap between philosophy and literature, focusing on Hamlet. To be or not to be; to exist or not to exist; if life after death is better than life before then why seek to continue?

Despite being severely underweight Catherine continued to exercise and deny her body nourishment. When family and friends voiced concern, she would eat publicly to avoid their censure. She subsequently suffered guilt at all the calories consumed and was exhausted by the effort of her performance.

Catherine’s year at Oxford included a religious conversion during which she was confirmed and took her first communion. Her intended celebration was abandoned when she realised that she was now mentally incapable of eating. Her academic writing grew opaque and fragmented as she struggled to retain energy and reason. Not eating had become an addiction; denying the body its necessary fuel a way of conquering the self and finding salvation.

The writing is clear and concise, the reasoning of the sufferer well presented. It is not a misery memoir but rather an intelligent attempt to understand why skewed ways of thinking can develop such an iron grip on the psyche. It offers much to consider in how society blames those who eat ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, and the damaging consequences this can induce in their mental health.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.

Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head

No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), is a memoir written immediately following the author’s escape into Switzerland from Nazi occupied France in 1943. First published in 1945 by a Geneva based publishing house, the few copies printed were quickly forgotten. Rediscovered in 2015 the book was republished and subsequently translated. This edition includes a preface by Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano. He writes:

“That curious impression I had upon reading No Place to Lay One’s Head was also the effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life.”

The tone of Frenkel’s writing is strangely detached, perhaps reflecting the trauma so recently suffered. She was fifty-three years old when she crossed into Switzerland and lived for a further thirty years, dying in Nice. Little is known of these later decades.

Born in 1889 to a wealthy Jewish family in Piotrków Trybunalski, an industrial town in Poland, Frenkel enjoyed beautiful books, music and intellectual conversation from a young age. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she frequented the city’s libraries and bookshops. Her family back home lost many of their fine possessions during the occupation of the First World War but remained alive and well. The memoir does not detail what became of them later.

Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop. It is known that she married yet her memoir makes no mention of her husband (he died in Auschwitz in 1942). When they decided to open a bookshop dedicated to French literature, their plan was to return to Poland. Finding that this market was already catered for they instead moved to Berlin and, in 1921, established a bookshop in what Frenkel describes as the city’s fashionable quarter. The enterprise quickly attracted

“experts in literature and languages, professors, students and members of that aristocracy whose education had been so strongly influenced by French culture”

The author writes warmly of this period, lasting for more than a decade, during which she befriended many of her clientele. The bookshop became a cultural focus, hosting events featuring many of the famous authors of the day. However, by the mid 1930s political events were intruding. As a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi Germany, Frenkel’s comfortable and intellectually rewarding way of life could not continue.

“Oh the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness or pity…
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

In 1939 the author fled to Paris. When France fell to the Germans she travelled to Avignon. This was the start of many months spent moving from place to place as she sought safety from the ever increasing politically motivated dangers. Jews were being rounded up and deported to camps. Frenkel was fortunate in having good friends willing to risk their own lives to protect her.

One aspect that is not explained, yet undoubtedly enabled her to survive, is the author’s wealth. When she was forced to abandon her beloved bookshop and leave Germany she was denied currency and took with her only what she could carry in two suitcases. Despite this she lives in hotels and eats in restaurants. When the round-ups start she pays exorbitant rates to board in small rooms. She bribes those she hopes will lead her to safety. Her French friends are vital in seeking out contacts and posting letters to those abroad who may be willing to assist but there is no suggestion that they provided the funds she required.

Life in France at this time was hard for everyone with the occupying forces requisitioning food supplies leading to a burgeoning black market. Many French citizens believed the propaganda and blamed foreigners and Jews for their difficulties. There were still good people willing to help the refugees but also many who took advantage, whatever the human cost, regarding the situation as an opportunity to make money.

This is a fascinating personal account of an horrific period of history. Its publication is timely given our current political situation. Frenkel writes factually, almost dispassionately, with little attempt to garner sympathy. Her words offer a lesson in the importance of retaining our humanity, whatever indoctrination is being disseminated on behalf of self-serving politicians.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), is a memoir of the young author’s deportation, along with her mother and seventeen year old brother, from their comfortable home in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania, to a Gulag in Siberia. At the time Dalia was fourteen years old but to earn food for her family was required to work sixteen hour days of gruelling manual labour alongside adults. The memoir was written following her escape aged twenty-two, the pages buried in the garden of her Kaunas home before she was arrested and deported again. The papers were discovered quite by chance many years later, after Lithuania had once again attained independence. They were published in 1997, four years after the author’s death. They provide an account of life during Dalia’s terrible journey and her first year in the Gulag. The memoir has an immediacy often lost when writers rely on long held memories. It is a devastating depiction of the dehumanising of a people.

On June 14, 1941 at three o’clock in the morning, following orders from Moscow, mass arrests and deportations began simultaneously in all of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Juozas Grinkevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Bank’s currency commission and a mathematics teacher at the gymnasium, was taken to a concentration camp in the northern Urals where he died from starvation in October 1943. The extermination of his family had also been planned.

This book, his daughter Dalia’s account of her experiences, opens in June 1941 after she has been placed in one of sixty-three covered wagons being pulled by a train leaving Kaunas. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading into an uncertain future.

“Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.”

The train journey lasts for weeks. At stops along the way carriages are uncoupled as some of the deportees are bound for collective farms. Dalia’s worth is assessed as one would an animal. She is housed in a barracks and put to work in the fields alongside deported Ukrainians. Their supervisors treat them as criminals.

The next stage of Dahlia’s journey again starts by train but this time they are packed in so tightly they can only stand. Illness and lice now plague them. When finally unloaded they sleep in a stable, or perhaps it is a club hall – five thousand filthy, unwashed people, grateful to be able to stretch out and relax exhausted legs. They are near a river and a rumour circulates that they are to be transported to America. Dalia wants to believe this, it offers hope, but in her heart she cannot.

Housed in wooden sheds and selling their few possessions for food they sing songs from their homeland and gather wood from nearby forests to burn for heat. Soon they are moved onto barges and taken down the Angara River before being unloaded onto a beach. From there lorries transport them the three hundred kilometres to the Lena River. By now leaders have emerged within the group and they are learning of each other’s histories.

After a two week wait, the Lithuanians are once again loaded unto barges. They are being fed but there are still regular deaths. Those who had felt superior in their former lives try to give themselves airs and graces. Dalia understands that any influence they may have had, any ability to offer favours, has been stripped away.

Forests and lesser vegetation are replaced by tundra. Dalia is disembarked where the riverbank is steep and a cold wind blows down from the mouth of the Lena. The people find just a few tents and wooden structures alongside piles of bricks. It is now August 1942 and they have reached their destination – Trofimovsk Island in the Arctic. They must build their own accommodation on this previously uninhabited outpost if they are to survive. They wear only the clothes they brought from Kaunas.

The Soviets have decreed that a fish processing plant will be built and worked by these exiled people. The Lithuanians and then Finnish prisoners are racing against time before the onset of a frozen, blizzard filled winter. In Trofimovsk the sun sets in November and does not rise again until February.

Inadequate brick and timber shelters are built, each housing too many people. Those who can work, including Dalia, are sent each day to walk for miles into the tundra and search for logs carried down from the upper reaches of the Lena river. These must be chopped out of the ice, tied into rope harnesses and dragged to Trofimovsk to be used to heat the apartments and offices of the supervisors. The prisoners do not have the right to take any of this wood. It is the only source of fuel. Dalia sneaks out and steals it, at great risk.

Dalia describes the terrible pain – from illness and wounds caused by the rope harnesses – as she helps drag the logs up the steep and frozen shores of Trofimovsk Island. The workers have no strength or energy. Their feet are wrapped in frozen sacks tied together with ropes. They suffer from exhaustion, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Hundreds die.

The Trofimovsk superiors live in warm houses built from logs. They dress in furs, eat bread, butter, sugar and canned goods sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America. They regard the Finns and Lithuanians as sub species, observing their: lice ridden, rag covered bodies; the damp and filth of their shelters; the pails overflowing with shit from diarrhea. The dead are piled up and left for the wild animals – around three hundred that first winter. Food is withheld from the living to force them to work until they drop. Any possessions the prisoners have managed to retain are taken by the supervisors for a pittance – gold watches for a bag of flour or tinned food that may then be stolen by the other starving people.

Those who somehow survive that first, terrible winter are offered small respite when a doctor arrives at the Gulag and demands that the supervisors allow the workers to eat the fish and other provisions that were always available – the supervisors would have preferred the barrelled fish to rot. Baths are constructed and clothing disinfected.

As the river starts to thaw the workers are sent to other islands to catch and process fresh fish – the working factory envisaged. Dalia lives in a basic yurt but after the horrors of the winter even the pain caused by dipping damaged hands into frozen water and then salting fish is tolerable because she can now steal enough to eat. Unlike the theft of the wood to burn at Trofimovsk, pilfering of fish is tolerated. The work they are doing is pointless anyway. In a country where payment is made per unit and corruption a way of life, the barrels leak and fresh fish mixed with putrid meaning produce rots and will eventually be dumped in the sea.

Dalia describes the main camp supervisor as a  psychopath. It is hard to understand how such treatment of other human beings could be allowed to occur, although at a lesser level brings to mind the actions of our current government towards refugees and the homeless.

This is a striking and searing depiction of survival in horrific circumstances. A disturbingly evocative yet vital read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law