It looks like I have been reading loads after the Thomas Cromwell marathon, but a book of fewer than 300 words is like a sprint now. I’ve had a good selection that I’ve enjoyed and been challenged by them all.
Grace Dent is a food critic and writer who makes frequent appearances on Masterchef on the tv here. She grew up in the small city of Carlisle on the Scottish border. I lived there for 11 years and know it well, so in some ways I had a local link to her experiences growing up. This was far from the truth as my experiences were as a young mother and not a child. She went from a Carlisle comprehensive school, via a Scottish university to editorial assistant at Marie Claire, and subsequently writing for The Guardian, The Independent and the London Evening standard among many others. Most people though would know her for her appearances on tv. This is a shame as she can write, with wit, insight and a sharp cutting edge. Her detailing of her fathers slow descent into dementia while her mother battled cancer is done with such tenderness and love it
The Great Fortune
As a significant contrast, I loved the first of the ‘Fortunes of War’ set of novels by Olivia Manning. This is the first of the Balkan Trilogy. This year is obviously trilogy year for me. It is based on the experiences of Manning in Romania at the start of the second world war as she travels there with her new husband in September 1939. I find the idea of anyone marrying and then leaving the country within one week of meeting the prospective husband pretty unlikely, but apart from that, it’s an astute depiction of life in Bucharest in the first year of the war. The news of the collapse of different countries across western and northern Europe Nazi regime arrives daily. Her husband, Guy works as an English teacher at the university and in the final chapters of the book, creates and manages a performance of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to great acclaim. As the cast and audience leave the theatre, news of the fall of Paris heralds a new phase of the war. The Great Fortune refers to Romania itself, its economy, people and agriculture. It’s a great start and I’m looking forward to volumes 2 and 3 but will wait a while before moving onto them. The whole set was made into a tv mini series back in the 80s starring Emma Thomson and Kenneth Branagh. I’m not sure if it’s still available.
Ben McIntyre has made a comfortable home for himself in the genre of true spy stories. He has the knack of taking now released historical papers from the various agencies involved in national security and converting them into very entertaining tales of derring do. Agent Zigzag is no different. It tells the story of a Eddie Chapman, a roguish criminal in jail in Jersey at the start of the second world war and his recruitment by the German Abwehr to spy on the British. Being a rogue of course he does no such thing and once parachuted into East Anglia with a radio he hands himself into the British security forces and offers to be a double agent. It includes a false explosion in an aircraft factory, a coal bomb, not planted and inaccurate information on the V1 bombings. He is an astonishing character who after the war, was employed as ‘honorary crime correspondent’ of the Sunday Telegraph, ‘whose readers he proceeded to warn against the attentions of people like him’. As with all Ben McIntyre’s books it is a great read and despite being true, almost impossible to believe.