Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Real Enigma Heroes

Well, my blogging schedule is all out of sync because I have been away for a week. We went to the Isle of Man, which was an amazing and peaceful place, with the most wonderful history and scenery - but incredibly isolated. We took a laptop but, despite the hotel's claim to provide free Internet access we (and the other guests) failed to make any connection, and attempts to use our mobile phones were equally unsuccessful. However, the lack of modern technology made for a thoroughly relaxing holiday with plenty of time for reading, chatting, and sightseeing.

Anyway, now I am back I had planned a review for the Irish Reading Challenge 2011 run by CarrieK at until I remembered that on this day in 1942 Able Seaman Colin Grazier, who came from Tamworth (where I live) lost his life as he snatched German codebooks from a sinking U-boat.

With him was Lieutenant Tony Fasson, who also died, and Tommy Brown, a 16-year-old canteen assistant, who survived, only to die in a house fire after his return to England. The documents rescued by the three men provided vital details which helped experts at Bletchley Park crack Germany's Enigma Code. Deciphering  intercepted German messages meant Allied supply convoys were safely re-routed to avoid German submarines, while the subs themselves were hunted down. It is thought that the recovery of the codebooks led to Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic which, in turn, laid the foundation for the final defeat of  Germany in 1945 - and may even have shortened the war.

Yet Grazier, Fasson and Brown were forgotten for almost 60 years, until a retired miner made a chance remark during an interview with the Tamworth Herald, claiming that a Tamworth seaman had 'virtually won' the Second World War. Deputy Editor Phil Shanahan thought the claim unlikely, but instead of dismissing it out-of-hand some instinct made him check the statement out. Phil was the driving force behind the paper's campaign to uncover the story of the three forgotten heroes, and to win recognition for them, not just in Grazier's home town, but on a national basis.

A memorial featuring three anchors (created by world-renowned sculptor Walenty Pytel) now stands in Tamworth's Market Square and an annual service, when those present drink a glass of rum to honour Grazier, Fasson and Brown, is held on the nearest Sunday to October 30 (so it was due to take place today). In addition, information about the trio, together with the wealth of photographs, documents and memories gathered together by Phil, are on a display in a special exhibition at Bletchley Park's historic Hut 8.

The full story of Grazier, Fasson and Brown can be read in Phil's book, The Real Enigma Heroes (published by Tempus),  in which he also details his five-year search for the truth and his battle to ensure the trio will never again be forgotten. I have reviewed this before (, but am mentioning it again as my own tribute to three brave men.

As I said in the original review, I should admit to a kind of vested interest, because I worked with Phil Shanahan for many years, but it really is a very good book, which gripped my interest from start to finish - if I didn't enjoy it I would say so, even though the author is a friend!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Lyrical Language with an Irish Lilt

TIME to post a review on the first of my books for the Irish Reading Challenge 2011 run by CarrieK at I first read The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry last year, when I wrote about it on my other blog, but I read it again earlier this year, when I was studying 'created tradition' in Ireland as part of an Open University course, so Carrie said I could include it in the challenge.

I've had a quick skim through and I love it just as as much as I did first time around. It is a wonderful read that could only have been written by an Irishman. The lovely, lyrical language sings with an Irish lilt, following the cadences of speech in the author’s native land.

Roseanne McNulty has been incarcerated in a decaying mental hospital for the last 60 years. Now, nearing 100, she keeps a hidden journal, an account of her past life and how she came to be in care. It tells of her childhood, when her Presbyterian father was superintendent of the Catholic graveyard in Sligo town during the bitter days of the civil war, as Republicans fought supporters of the recently formed Irish Free State.

It tells of her job in a café, her marriage, her fall from grace in a society where a married woman had no life of her own, the birth and loss of her child, and her life today. It tells of the parish priest whose word was law in the local community, and whose decisions had such a terrible impact on Roseanne and her family, and it tells of her life and feelings today.

Alongside her tale another story unfolds in the Commonplace Book written by Dr Grene, the hospital’s senior psychiatrist. He sets out to chart his efforts to oversee the closure of the hospital and the moving of patients to a new facility. But he also writes about his own life: his youth, his failed marriage – and his search to discover more about the elderly woman in his care, who seems to have been erased from history, nullified by those who knew her.

Roseanne and Dr Grene have both known love and loss, hope and disappointment, joy and despair as they search for identity. Their testimonies augment each other and eventually converge in an ending which is not unexpected – even though the book blurb describes it as a ‘shocking secret’. There are echoes in Roseanne’s story of Ireland’s infamous Magdalene ‘laundries’ for fallen women, and we should not forget that there are still societies where women pay a heavy price for not conforming.

Verdict: This is a wonderful novel. It made me angry and sad and joyful in turn – and sometimes all at once. It is a beautifully written (almost poetic) tale that I know I will return to again and again. 

I was going to make barm bread to go with The Secret Scripture, but we had lots of oranges, so I baked an orange cake instead, adapted from a Mary Berry recipe, with orange juice, and orange zest, and grated rind on the icing, which went peculiar because it was too runny, but the cake was delicious. Home-made cake and a good book - what more could anyone want?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Wasted Time Will be Refunded

I was going to blog on novels about Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III, but there was an article in The New Yorker about The Phantom Tollbooth, which is 50 years old, so as I knew exactly where to lay my hands on my battered old Puffin paperback (putting the novels in alphabetical order was definitely a Good Thing) I’ve changed my plans.

The Phantom Tollbooth is one of the great classic stories for children – though whether today’s kids would enjoy it I really don’t know. It was written by Norton Juster, with illustrations by Jules Feiffer and is a perfect pairing of words and pictures. Juster’s imagined world rivals that of Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, while the way he plays with words and logic is second only to Lewis Carroll. He is witty and humorous, but has serious points to make and, as with so much good comedy, there are darker, scarier moments, and some interesting philosophical debates.

It is about Milo, a boy who ‘didn’t know what to do with himself’, and how he makes a magical journey and comes to realise that life is full of wonderful, exciting and enchanting things to do. His adventures start when he finds a surprise package in his room. It’s not his birthday, or Christmas, and he hasn’t been particularly good, so he’s a trifle wary, but inside is a ‘genuine turnpike tollbooth’ which must be assembled for ‘use by those who have never travelled in lands beyond’. 

There’s also a map, a book of rules and regulations, some warning signs, coins, and a note which states: “Results are not guaranteed, but if not perfectly satisfied wasted time will be refunded.” Isn’t that delightful? And don’t you wish your wasted time could be refunded?

Anyway, Milo sets off in his little electric car for Dictionopolis, where words grow on trees – well money doesn’t, and something has to, as the residents explain to him. Soon he finds himself caught up in a quest to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. Only then can peace be established between two warring brothers, Azaz the Unabridged, king of Dictionopolis, who thinks words are more important than numbers, and the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, who believes numbers are more important than words. 

Milo is accompanied on his journey by his new friends, Tock the Watchdog (whose body is an alarm-clock which goes tick) and the Humbug, a large beetle-like insect dressed in ‘a lavish coat, striped trousers, checked waistcoat, spats, and a derby hat’.

The cast of characters he encounters include a Spelling Bee (one of the most inventive insects ince Carroll’s rocking-horse fly made its appearance); Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked-witch and Choma the conductor, whose orchestra makes no sound but plays the colours of each sunrise and sunset.

There are also all kinds of demons and monsters who inhabit the ‘evil unenlightened’ mountains of Ignorance: “And out the demons came – from every cave and crevice, through every fissure and crack, from under the ricks and up from the mud, stomping and shuffling, slithering and sliding, though the murky shadows. And all had only one thought in mind: destoy the intruders and protect Ignorance.”

Most chilling of all to my mind is the well-dressed man with a blank face – so blank he has no eyes, nose or mouth. Feiffer’s picture has a nightmarish quality, and looking at it now I wonder if it provided inspiration for the faceless victims of The Wire in the Dr Who episode The Idiot’s Lantern. 

Needless to say, in the manner of all good fairy tales, there is a happy ending and Milo returns home, but the tollbooth disappears. Initially he is upset that he will be unable to make another journey, but when he looks around he sees the world, and his room, for the first time and realises how much there is to do:
“... there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know – music to play, songs to sing, and words to imagine and then some day make real.”  

But The Phantom Tollbooth, like Frank L Baum’s Wizard of Oz (which it resembles in some ways) is more than a fairy tale: it’s an allegory, and Milo’s journey of self-discovery echoes Christian’s travels in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The places he passes through, and the creatures and people he meets are all concepts he rather than fully rounded characters, but nevertheless they spring off the page with a life of their own. Above all, however, it’s a book by someone who loves language, and loves to play with language, and that’s something to be admired and enjoyed. 

If you want to take a look at the article in the New Yorker, which is a fascinating read, you’ll find it at

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

An Irish Reading Challenge

I am taking a break from the book cull (it’s hard work shifting books about) to consider the Irish Reading Challenge 2011 posted by CarrieK at  Ireland Reading Challenge on and since a gentle ramble around Ireland is just what’s needed to unwind, I have decided to join in.

There are three levels, for two, four or six books (Shamrock, Luck o’ the Irish or Kiss the Blarney Stone) and you can read anything you want – fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose. The only rule is there must be an Irish connection: to qualify for the challenge books must be written by an Irish author, set in Ireland, or about Ireland. I’ve come to this more than a little late, because it ends on November 30, which isn’t far away, but re-reads are allowed and I’ve actually done some Irish reading this year, so I’m going to brave and aim for four books – unless I’m allowed to include the two I’ve already read (and blogged) without knowing about the challenge, so if I’m allowed to race through them again that would make it six!
The Grianan of Ailech, in Donegal - we used to picnic here.
Even if that’s cheating, I think I’ll race through them again, as a kind of introduction. I’ll start with Sebastian Barry’s The  Secret Scriptures, which I read  in August last year, then looked at again earlier this year when I was studying ‘created tradition’ in Ireland as part of an OU course, because the Irish Civil War setting helped bring the period to life. Then, in May I celebrated St Brendan’s Day by reading The Brendan Voyage, Tim Severin’s account of sailing across the Atlantic in a leather boat, to prove St Brendan and his fellow Irish monks could have reached America in the 6th century,

As far as the challenge itself goes, I’m currently re-reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and on the waiting to be read pile is A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne, so there seems to be a certain synchronicity here, which is strengthened by my next choice. Another of my OU assignments was on Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes (his version of Sophocles’ Antigone). Since then I’ve meant to read his poetry, because I’m not that familiar with his work, although I like what little I have read.  So tomorrow I’m off to the library to hunt out a collection of his poems. And while I’m there I’ll see if I can find a copy of  The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien, another author whose work I don’t know all that well,  but I do know he is very, very funny, and the most amazing wordsmith. 

It may sound daunting to read to such a tight deadline, but I’d love to do this because my grandparents moved from England to Ireland and when I was young we spent holidays there, up on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. Maybe I’ll try and create an Irish atmosphere by baking barm brack or soda bread, and asking The Man of the House to sing and play Irish folk songs and jigs.

By the way, many thanks to Margaret for posting a link to the challenge on her blog at .
Me on an Irish beach many years ago.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Time for a Book Cull

It is, I fear, time for a cull – a book cull. I always feel it’s a kind of sacrilege to get rid of any reading matter, but unfortunately books seem to be taking over the house: without any effort on our part they are multiplying (rather like the Tribbles in Star Trek) and forming new communities in what were previously neutral zones. Since there is no longer room on the shelves (where volumes are double stacked in upright rows and laid flat on the top) homeless refugees have taken up residence wherever they can find a space, and normal life is no longer possible without some kind of eviction taking place.

There are books on the dining room table, dresser and chairs, the front room sofa, and under the bed (last night I even found a stray one in the bed). There are books on the freezer, in the airing cupboard and on the top of the clothes waiting to be ironed, to say nothing of the kitchen cupboard and the wardrobe.

Anyway, what I have in mind is the literary equivalent of an autumnal cleaning and clearing session in the garden, when one prunes back unwanted growth, weeds out unwanted visitors which have sprouted in odd spaces, returns borrowed items to their rightful owners, and provides old favourites with the tender loving care they need to see them through another season. Hopefully, at the end of all this activity, a small area can be cleared where new-comers can be over-wintered.

The main problem is deciding what to keep. I’d love to know what other readers feel about this. Do you hang on to books just in case you want to read them again one day, even if you hated them, or found them boring, or never managed to finish them first time around? What about the books you read once, that have lain gathering dust for years, or books you’ve always meant to read, but never have? Would you discard them after six months, a year, two years, five years – never? And what about your old school books? I still have several, including a learned tome on the Thirty Years War, which I have rescued from the ‘discard’ pile during previous clear-outs, planning to re-read it in the hope that I will understand it better than I did at ‘A’ Level.

Reference books are a minefield because I’m always convinced they might be useful, even if they are out of date or we never look at them. Children’s books can also be tricky. I’ve still got many favourites from my own childhood, alongside modern classics that my daughters loved, but neither they nor I would ever want to re-read any of the never-ending series about ghosts, ghouls and fairies that they once enjoyed so much.

And talking of series, how do you cope with sequels that fail to live up to the promise of the original book, but you continue to buy because you want to know what happens to the characters – fantasy writers seem particularly prone to this.

The next problem is finding new homes for your unwanted books. We do have second hand book shops in the area, but none seem to be acquiring new stock at the moment. I could try selling them online, but I’m not sure how successful I’d be, plus we would have boxes of books taking up space so I will probably take them to a charity shop – unless anyone has any other solutions?

And while I’m in the mood for clearing out I am trying to have something of a redesign on this blog to make it clearer and less ‘busy’, so it should be easier to read. Blogging needs restraint - I get carried away with colourful headers, backgrounds, buttons, accessories and so on, which can detract from the written word – and that, after all, should be the most important thing on the page. I’ve left the background (I think a bit of colour makes it look more interesting) but I’ve got rid of the cutesy pictures and the header because they didn’t add anything to the blog. In addition, I’ve altered the layout in an effort to make it look less cramped. However, the changes are very much a work in progress, so please feel free to make suggestions for improvement.