Saturday, April 24, 2010

Anzac Day 2010

This Anzac Day I'd like to pay my respects to Mr C's father. He died many years ago now, so he lives for me only in story. But he seems like family and I'd like to get to know him.

Edward 'Tony' Roberts joined the RAAF when World War 2 broke out, and was soon seconded to 61st Squadron of the RAF. He flew 42 war time missions over occupied territory, most of them over Germany, usually in daylight. In other words, dangerous missions.

Tony flew in Lancaster Bombers as a navigator bombadier and was also what they called the CO. In this additional role he was trained to perform all the roles of the six other crew members, ready to take over. During one mission, four hours from home, with all the crew dead and himself shot in the stomach, he flew the plane solo back to base.

The flyboys were the glamour people of the war - a tag that annoyed Tony. Everyone wanted to join the RAF. But flying was miserable. Lancasters were made of the lightest fabrics possible and so had virtually no defensive armour. Conditions were cramped, unbearably noisy and you could fly for hours on end - all night to get to a target, maybe 13 to 17 hours all up. You'd be tired and cold - temperatures frequently fell to about minus 40 degrees F and frostbite was not uncommon. There would be so many planes the sky would turn black. There were so many planes that they had to fly in tiered rows. When the upper level planes loosed their bombs, they frequently fell straight on the planes below. Many, many men lost their lives to this friendly fire.

It was also, needless to say, dangerous. After the first mission you had a 90% chance of coming back. This decreased by about 17% every mission. So by about 6 missions your chance of return was pretty much zero. The bombers had a 44.4% death rate. So almost half the men who went out didn't come back. A Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I.

They spent a lot of time waiting for friends to come home - who never came. So in between missions they got pissed and, er, entertained the ladies. They used to get rotten drunk because they'd drink to the memory of those who didn't come home from the previous mission.

Tony was shot down three times, shot in the body twice and once shot down over enemy territory in occupied France. He ditched the plane and was picked up by the French Resistance. He worked with them for six months, helping paratroopers, before he escaped to England by submarine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross - amongst other campaign ribbons - and was asked to join the 617 Dambusters Squadron - an offer he refused as he felt he could be more effective where he was. He was soon promoted to Wing Commander? or Flight Lieutenant? memories get a bit hazy here.

There are other stories. For his first digs in England he was billeted in a castle. One night, he woke to find a wild moor cat - a nasty feral beastie - attached to his face. He fought it off single handedly and hated cats ever since. He was next billeted with the Bonham-Carters, where he had an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter's grandmother. "Lovely people", he said - as well he would.

With the end of the war he worked transporting POWs from camps around Europe then went to work as Aide de Camp for the Field Vice Marshall of the Pacific Theatre, who he accompanied to the United States. Here he had lunch with Walt Disney, met Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers and met and hated Laurell and Hardy.

He left the Airforce when there were no more promotions on offer. But he didn't want to go home, so he stayed in the US - working as a short order cook in a greasy spoon, a ski instructor and the manager of a prize fighter (a black fighter called Sugar Ray Robinson, a daring partnership in the 50s). He returned to Australia to sell real estate by the side of the road - but that leads to other stories.

He wasn't necessarily the best of men, or wisest or fairest but people often aren't. But he was a branve man and he did what he thought was the right thing to do and this isn't always the easiest path. On this Anzac Day I think of him.

I shouldn't have to say this but here goes... What ever your politics, I'd like to ask that you respect this blog. You are welcome to voice your opinions on Anzac Day but I ask that you do so on your own blogs. There's plenty of space on the internet for everyone to play. You're now in my space so remember to take your hat off at the door and to say 'please' and 'thank you'.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Attention to detail

It's not all serious book learning at El Casa del Chairman. Operation Glove Hunt is underway! There are some beautiful gloves available online but with my rather, ahem, broad hands I really need to buy locally. I've found three potential winners (sadly, not the beautiful gloves pictured). They're a bit more than I can afford right now. But they're the last pairs! I can only hope no one else is thinking of gloves while it's still so surprisingly warm for autumn!

We also found time to play in a hat store, which was very silly but very amusing. The chap in the store was particularly enthusiastic. He kept bobbing behind the counter to bring me goodies from 'out the back'. We solemnly discussed the merits of the ivory fascinator with veil as opposed to the saucer shaped number with the feathers. Then there were the intricacies of Panama hat design. There's a couple in Melbourne - Truffaux - who make beautiful Panamas. They had the lovely idea of using their vintage car as a photobooth, taking pictures of folks wearing their pieces. A great idea, particularly as the car is such a beauty. Sadly, the folk of Melbourne don't look so flash in hats and the photos are pretty ordinary. But you get the idea...

There's also the fabulous hat store beneath Flinders Street Station, the City Hatters (est. 1910). I've never been there but the original shop fittings and old style displays make it a real treasure. They sell some wonderful Trilbys, with their little tufts of feathers, and the Homburg, made famous by Winston Churchill. And not a pork pie hat in sight...

There's a reason for all this madness! (Apart from the fact that the 40s were very much about a finished 'look' - with attention being paid to gloves, hats, shoes, bags and belts). My father has just announced that he will be marrying in the spring. So Mr C and I will be heading over to Perth for a beachside ceremony. I've snapped up a dress on sale at Vivien of Holloways - you'll get a sneak peek once it arrives from London. So now I'm hunting for finishing touches. As it's an outside wedding we think hats might be the go, though I may opt for a simple flower in the hair. I'll see what you think once you see the dress. I'm quite excited to be frocking up and am very much looking forward to seeing my sister, who also lives in Perth.

After all this larking about with hats, it was the obvious time to go on a trip to Ikea to pick up a $15 shower curtain. It is as ghastly in its off peak times as it is on the weekend. I would have liked to have said that we went to Ikea for dinner but I wasn't very hungry so we shared a $1 hotdog. We manage to resist most things in Ikea (though the cat blankets were very hard to pass up) but we always get lured into the food section. This time we controlled ourselves. Resisting the temptation of the 17 different varieties of herring, we made off with some orange biscuits, chocolate and elderflower cordial. A thoroughly silly evening!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The silent game

I'm fascinated by espionage stories, both real and fictional. I set myself a project: to read the history of the spy story from its earliest days. Now my reading hasn't been strictly chronological but I've largely stuck to pre Cold War fiction at this stage.

After Kipling pretty much sucked my brain out with Kim, I thought I'd take a break and read some critical works. Over Easter I managed to finish two of them: The silent game by David Stafford, and The spy story by Cawelti and Rosenberg. Both of them are excellent books and I'd like to keep them! The third, a previously mentioned Marxist text, is going back to the library unread, unloved and unlamented. I've added to this in recent days with The Special Branch: the British spy novel by LeRoy L. Panek (thank the lord for inter library loans!) The following is a map of what I am reading, and setting out to read.

Pre war
I've read pre-World War I invasion novels of Le Queux, Erskine Childers, E. Phillips Oppenheim, all of whom contributed to the almost hysterical atmosphere of spy phobia at that time. Really, you have to pity German waiters - one of the novelists (probably Le Queux because he was an absolute nutter on the subject of spies) suggests you refuse to let a German waiter serve you until he has shown you his passport on demand. Nauseatingly bad writing.

World War I
In 1915 John Buchan wrote the fabulous The 39 steps. In this era, spying was what the enemy did. Our heroes are gentlemen acting to defend their nation. Richard Hannay is a patriotic clubland hero. The bad guys are easily spotted - they're foreigners! There is much use of coincidence, but this is presented as part of a divine plan to uphold the British Empire. Hitchcock clearly understood Buchan's use of social humour and his film version is a corker. Not so sure about the recent BBC adaption. Though handsome to look at - and it is hilarious to see an old style car chase where the maximum speed of each vehicle is about 10km an hour - I feel that it wasn't true to the spirit of the book.

Between the wars
Post World War I things get a little ambiguous. Here we sense the moral dubiousness of the great game in Somerset Maugham's Ashenden and Compton Mackenzie's works. Both authors combine cynicism about the value of espionage with a fine sense of human folly. In each case it is clear that much of espionage is dominated by bureacracy. Our villains are quite commonplace, shabby men.

At the same time there are the popular exotic villain of Valentine Williams' Clubfoot or Sax Rohmer's yellow peril, Dr Fu Manchu (who remembers the hero of those stories now?*) Villains were typically foreign conspirators or a Socialist working class being manipulated by greedy capitalists. Equally popular was the Fascist fiction of Sapper with his Bulldog Drummond series - very anti-intellectual.

World War 2 era
The war years were one of disillusion, with stories about loss of innocence. In the espionage fiction of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene fighting for your country seems a bit hollow. Here the state is not to be trusted. These authors explore the inner landscape of the spy - the compromises, moral crises - or stories of the amateur, regular folks somehow caught up in circumstances they can not control, who do not have the character to rise to meet the occasion.

Post war
Post war saw a return to the heroic adventures of the gentleman spy with Ian Fleming. Now much has been written about the Bond phenomena and I've read none of it. Nor have I read any of the books and I've only seen one of the films and that was the modern Bond so I'm not sure that he's at all the same.

This is a return to the days of Buchan. Patriotism is seen as a bit suspect so Fleming's works are cloaked in irony. James Bond is a typical aristocratic hero (albiet with a modern dose of sadism thrown in). There is a great deal of snobbery, conspicuous product placement, fascination with technology and sexism. It's a celebration of the materialistic age and I can't say I'm very much looking forward to getting to this era.

The Cold War
Cold War spy fiction is John Le Carre, which continues in the vein of Ambler and Greene. Here the enemy is the spy's own organisation or a mole (the influence of the Philby Affair). The story is of betrayal and we have a victim-hero. Things pretty much always end badly.

Post Glasnost

All my books are from the 1980s so I'm not really sure where the spy story is at in these days of terrorism. I'm still stuck somewhere near Eric Ambler so I'll worry about this end of the spectrum later!

Months of reading to come!

*Sir Denis Nayland Smith and his Watson, Dr Petrie. I don't remember them either.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A life in secrets

I've spent the day in my pyjamas watching episodes of The Pacific. I don't think that it's terribly good but now that I've run out of episodes I find myself at a bit of a loose end. So time for some serious blogging. For too long I've flitted about, telling you about my underwear and going out for afternoon tea. I've neglected to write about all the reading I've been doing.

A life in secrets: the story of Vera Atkins and the lost agents of SOE by Sarah Helm was a dreadfully challenging read. Atkins worked for the French Section of SOE, the Special Operations Executive who we've met before, dropping agents into occupied territories to support resistance movements. Unfortunately, the section was compromised fairly early on by traitors and the successful capture of entire networks of agents. In many instances, agents were parachuted into France straight into the waiting arms of the Gestapo. Once having captured the agents, the Nazis continued to operate their wireless transmitters, organising more drops, leading to more captures. That the SOE remained unaware that so many of their agents were lost was largely a matter of incompetence and wishful thinking. Buckmaster, head of SOE French Section, was outrageously bungling and ignored obvious signs that many of the messages they were receiving were sent by Germans.

Atkins' role in all this was as Buckmaster's second in command. She was particularly responsible for supervising the female agents and was indirectly responsible for sending many of them to their death. She's an extremely unlikable character who does do some astounding things. At the end of the war, when the full degree of infiltration was known, SOE was rather hurriedly shut down. Of the 400 agents sent into France, the fate of over 100 of them was unknown. It was Atkins who took it upon herself to track them down, searching the concentration camps of Europe, interrogating captured Gestapo officers and preparing evidence for war crimes trials.

There are some pretty famous names here: Nora Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo and Yolande Beekman. Their fates are unspeakably ghastly and we go into the detail again and again as more evidence comes to light. Every detail is important. This I found quite hard to read. Perhaps, like Atkins, I recognise that it significant to remember all that these brave people did but it was a horrible experience. Atkins, surely, was also motivated by a sense of responsibility - though she never, ever once admitted that she or Buckmaster had made any mistakes.

There's a lot to be angry about here - the horrifying ineptitude of the French Section and the betrayals, the horrors of the concentration camps and those 'just obeying orders' - through to the mythmaking that has sprung up about SOE, the cover ups and conspiracy theories, the farce of the war crimes trials and the rush to get them over with. Atkins is a fascinating character, unlikeable yet admirable. A very, very difficult read.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A fine weekend

I've been frightfully busy at work and I'm looking forward to some time off. I'm home from the library, I've popped a cake in the oven and I'm soon going to settle down to watch another episode of The Pacific. I'm hoping we'll get some more rain.

Mum came up from the country last week and I got to spend a wonderful day with her in the big city. As is tradition, we met at the art gallery - the only place in town to get a decent cup of tea these days. The tea rooms are extremely generous with their tea, you easily get four cups out of a pot and their afternoon tea service is divine. We stuffed ourselves (elegantly!) with little pastry savouries, salmon sandwiches, scones and jam and cream and petite fours. My photos are all terrible so you'll have to imagine ladylike morsels on a three tiered cake stand. I'm going to sound like an old lady, but really, the place was run by children. I can't help but look at service industries these days and think 'well I wouldn't let my team run like that'. I'm going to be a very severe old lady I suspect.
We then did a quick lap of the Tea and Zen exhibition. I don't know if we missed a few rooms but it seemed a bit heavy on the zen and a tad light on the tea. We saw the catalogue after and we must have missed a good deal of the exhibition. What we did see was absolutely charming - Chinese, Japanese and Korean tea accoutrements from the 13th and 16th centuries. I adore ceramics so I may need to pop back. There were also some lovely little Japanese nature studies in a concertina book - paintings of insects and flowers - that was quite, quite beautiful. I may have to go back for another, more thorough, look. Oh I am such a dill! The exhibition is still being set up and opens on April 15. I guess we had a sneak peek!

We then popped off to Readers' Feast to stock up on some vintage crime - Josephine Tey and, surprisingly, a 1922 effort by A. A. Milne. I also picked up a copy of Secret Lives, diaries from the Mass Observation Project during the post-war austerity years - currently on its way to Bolwarra for mum to read. There's also a new book on Operation Mincemeat that I'd like to get my hands on.

Afternoon tea at the gallery made me realise that I need a hat and some gloves. I've been hunting high and low for some coloured leather gloves for winter and Mr C may have found some on Chapel Street. Hats are a bit more difficult. I'm not really sure how to do my hair for a hat so I'll have to do some experimenting. I would love a little picture hat like these from 1940s Vogue.
This little fancy is from local milliner Louise Macdonald and is called a High Tea Whimsy. It is shockingly expensive!!! I want it very, very much!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Curvy Kitty, Private Eye!

I forgot to tell you the most exciting thing: today I foiled the plans of a thief in the library! Just like Nancy Drew!

Someone had a wallet stolen and after about half an hour of urging they finally went to the police station. Moments later the police turn up to get my side of the story. They asked if we'd seen a particular person (hereafter known as The Perp) and we had. Half an hour later I get another complaint about an attempted theft. The Perp was still in the building! I called the police from our cordless phone and tailed her (expertly) around the library. And there she was, bold as brass, riffling through people's prams and bags. In the middle of this I got asked a reference question about Scandanavian literature and I have to say that I wasn't clever enough to grapple with both issues at the same time. Anyway, after a while the police turn up and they were all 'allo 'allo 'allo and how are you today? Nah, they weren't like that at all. They were actually two disturbingly young chaps. So there you have it: the mystery of the woman with the walking stick. A Curvy Kitty case!

Tip top and hunky dory

Passion killers!

Praise the lord for antibiotics! I am now on the mend and fair near jumping out of my skin with energy. Had a lovely Easter holiday reading (more about that later), sticky beaking in an old apartment I used to lease (madly jealous because it's now been renovated and looks very fine indeed) and walking with my beloved around the St Kilda Botanic Gardens. I'd been there earlier in the holidays when Miss Donna and I went for an early morning stroll through the rose garden. Very nice. I also popped into the city to pick up some underwear at the sales (that I didn't know were on but who's to argue?) And here is where I apologise to my mother for the years of calling her Harry Highpants. I've bought myself the biggest, highest pairs of knickers ever. And I love them! Now, I shan't be telling you any more about my underwear!