Posts Tagged ‘War’

Mention My Name in Mombasa: The Unscheduled Adventures of an American Family Abroad by Maureen Daly McGivern & William McGivern ~ 1958. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1958. First Edition. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

*****

This is a most interesting read; a travel memoir with a very 1950s’ feel – not surprising, seeing as it is a 1950s’ book! I enjoyed it.

The authors were literary figures of their time, and the travels herein described were, it seems from a few comments here and there, both to fulfill a personal desire for wanderlust and to collect material for future books, including this one.

If the name Maureen Daly rings a bell, it is most likely because of her extremely successful young adult novel, Seventeenth Summer, written when the author was herself just seventeen, and published in 1942. Some years later we find Maureen married to fellow writer William McGivern, a successful writer of crime-mystery novels (The Big Heat, Rogue Cop, war novel Soldiers of ’44, and almost 20 more) and film and television scriptwriter (Kojak, Adam-12, and Ben Casey, among others). They had their two children along, 6-year-old Megan and 2-year-old Patrick, when they left New York on New Year’s Eve to travel to Paris, the start of their extended travels.

Long, detailed and quite enthralling chapters describe the scenery, culture and especially the unique individuals the McGiverns came into contact with. The tone is a mixture of worldly-wise (but never condescending), travel guide (but merely to lay out the scene), and very 1950s’ American superiority (but innocent of bluster so therefore non-jarring – at least for the most part). The McGiverns were very eager to give credit where it was due regarding the superior aspects of their temporary homes and tourist destinations, which included Paris, and then a stay in the tiny fishing village of Torremolinos near Málaga, Spain, just on the verge of its discovery and development as a winter-tourist hotspot.

Then come several chapters on Spanish bullfighting, bullfighters and the ranches which raise and train the bulls. The tone here is journalistically non-judgemental much of the time; I never did get a grasp of whether the McGiverns were fully behind the “sport”, though from the farcical descriptions of a number of stereotypical bullfight aficionados which graces one of the chapters, I suspect they had marginally more sympathy for the bovine members of that elite yet widely populist pastime.

Next is a short visit (and hence a short chapter) in Gibraltar, where the McGiverns are rather disappointed in the elusiveness of the famous apes. On to Iceland, and a very travel-guide chapter this is, with loads of facts thrown at the reader, interspersed with short vignettes of some of the US Army families living on the vast NATO air base, and native Icelanders who opened their homes to our travellers.

Then comes the most memorable chapter of the book. During World War II, William had served as a US Army gunner in the European campaign, and his platoon had ended up entrenched on the mountainside near the tiny Belgian village of Fraipont, where the local people showed such generosity and warmth to their American allies that William had long planned to return in more peaceful times. Just over ten years later that sentimental visit took place, with the villagers overjoyed to recognize William and welcome his family. A poignant reminder that the war was not all that far in the past when this pilgrimage took place.

Back to Spain, and then a four-day voyage to the Canary Islands, a visit which seems not to have quite met the high expectations of the romance of the name. On to Morocco, where the McGiverns have several pleasant surprises regarding the locals, and then to Nigeria, on the cusp of independence as a full member of the British Commonwealth, after decades of colonial occupation.

A safari to Abadjan on the Ivory Coast and then to Fort Lamy in Chad doesn’t quite go as expected, but there are compensations in the people who the McGiverns meet as they wait for their travel visas to gain approval from the local bureaucracy. This does not happen, so back to Spain, through France, Belgium, and over to Ireland, where the Daly family is waiting to welcome their wayward relative and her family for an extended visit. Several months in Dublin follow, and then the trip is wound up, with a return to New York over a year after the original departure.

In this book there is a strong sense of how good it is to be an American at this point in history, and how welcome the traveller from the U.S.A. both feels and is made to feel; the McGiverns travel in their French-bought Citroën plastered with American flags fore and aft, and seldom seem to meet with a cold shoulder. Quite a change in the ensuing fifty years!

This is a fine book, and a literary time capsule of the post-war era, before things started to go wrong for the U.S.A., politically speaking.

I suspect it may be hard to come by (I ordered mine for a rather large sum from an online rare book dealer, for the Maureen Daly connection) but if your library happens to have a copy hidden in the stacks, or if you chance upon it in a used book store, it is well worth delving into.

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When the snow comes, they will take you away by Eric Newby ~ 1971. This edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.  British title: Love and War in the Apennines. Hardcover. ISBN: 684-12486-6. 221 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Loses a bit for occasionally awkward phrasing which made me stop and re-read in an attempt to keep the story sorted out. It broke the flow a few times; nothing too serious. Otherwise, a very engaging and sincere memoir.

***** 

I said “sincere” just above, and that is my overall impression of this World War II prisoner-of-war account by the late British travel writer Eric Newby, best known perhaps for his month-long ramble in the Hindu Kush back in 1956. Fourteen years before that famous excursion, Newby was occupied with an even greater adventure after he was interned with his companions in German-occupied Italy after a British Special Forces sabotage mission against a German airfield in Sicily went completely awry.

We were captured off the east coast of Sicily on the morning of the twelfth of August, 1942, about four miles out of the Bay of Catania. It was a beautiful morning. As the sun rose I could see Etna, a truncated cone with a plume of smoke over it like the quill of a pen stuck in a pewter ink-pot, rising out of the haze to the north of where I was treading water.

After being dropped off by a submarine off the Sicilian coast, Newby and five companions had paddled their folbots – portable folding canoes – to the beach, and proceeded to attempt to sneak onto the German airfield and bomb as many of the planes as possible before escaping back to the beach and then a pick-up rendezvous with the sub. Unfortunately for the saboteurs, the Germans were very much on the alert, and the sneak attack ended in a hasty retreat. The canoes sank one by one during the night, leaving the men completely stranded at sea, where they were picked up by Italian fishermen. A year in a rather decent POW camp followed, with numerous unsuccessful escape attempts by various prisoners being attempted, before the Allied-Italian Armistice of 1943 which saw a mass exodus of Allied prisoners and Italian soldiers into the countryside just ahead of advancing German troops.

Eric had unluckily broken his ankle the night before the Armistice, which complicated his movements considerably. Ending up in an Italian hospital, waiting for the inevitable arrival of the Germans, Eric met a young Slovenian woman, Wanda, who initiated a series of language lessons – Italian in exchange for English – which soon led to something more than a disinterested friendly relationship.

When the Germans did show up, Eric was put under guard by Italian policemen, but he managed to escape out of a bathroom window, broken ankle and all, following Wanda’s instructions as to how to find assistance in the town. An underground movement of antifascist/anti-German civilians was mobilizing, and Eric came under their protection and was passed from house to house until his eventual haven in a small mountain village, where he ended up working for a farmer in exchange for shelter and meals.

Wanda kept in occasional contact, mostly by cryptic notes and once by a rare and risky visit, and Eric stayed one step ahead of his potential captors. But as the autumn progressed and the mountain snows began to fall, the period of freedom drew to a close, as it became impossible to hide the presence of Eric and the other temporarily free POWs from the investigative raids of the German patrols.

As the book ends, Eric has been recaptured and is heading to another internment camp, where he will be spending the rest of the war. He and Wanda managed to stay in contact, and were married after the war.

This book is a self-deprecating account of one man’s attempt at maintaining his freedom, though, as Eric himself notes several times, the best thing he could have done both for himself and for the Italian villagers who risked their lives to aid him would have been to surrender. And there was a very real danger to his hosts. Entire families were shot for harbouring fugitives, and though there were numerous people willing to run such a risk, there were others just as eager to turn in both escaped prisoners and those of their neighbours who aided them.

It is also a touching love story, both of a man and a woman who meet and fall in love in most uncongenial circumstances, and of Eric Newby’s deep affection and respect for the Italian peasants who sheltered and fed him at unbelievable risk to themselves and their families.

A sincere and grateful story, written in a modest tone with a good dose of wry humour.

This is one of the recommendations in Noel Perrin’s book about good books, , which I reviewed earlier this year.

I must agree. Highly recommended.

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This November 11th, two poems by ex-soldier Danny Martin of Liverpool, who served two tours of duty in Iraq.

CENOTAPH

The

cenotaph

was first made

of wood;

a temporary tree

for the “Glorious Dead”.

Wood can’t hold the will

of the wolf.

So us little pigs

build in stone now, it lasts

longer. It can be added to

that monument to “the war to end all wars”

spawned more.

 Portland stone
is a blank canvas.
It wants to be filled.
It craves names.
It lusts
for the chisel tip.

Danny Martin ~ 2008

(Note about Portland Stone: Portland stone is the preferred material for many war memorials, including the Cenotaph in London and the new National Arboretum in Staffordshire. During a recent visit to the Arboretum I was struck at the sheer size of its main war memorial, and the vast blank slabs waiting to be filled.  – DM)

LESSONS

Do away with medals
Poppies and remembrance parades
Those boys were brave, we know
But look where it got them

Reduced to line after perfect line
Of white stones
Immobile, but glorious, exciting
To kids who haven’t yet learned
That bullets don’t make little red holes

They rip and smash and gouge
And drag the world’s dirt behind them
Remember lads, you won’t get laid
No matter how good your war stories

If you’re dead
So melt down the medals
Fuel the fire with paper poppies, war books and Arnie films
Stop playing the pipes, stop banging the drums
And stop writing fucking poems about it.

Danny Martin ~ 2008

*****

The sentiments expressed here remind me of the thoughts and words of my own father, a World War II veteran, born 1923, died 2006.  A teenage farm boy conscripted as a soldier in the German Army, he and many other young men on all sides of the conflict did what they were told was their duty. And every survivor bore scars, even those who came through physically unmarked.

Dad had been wounded physically and emotionally, and though he recovered to a great degree, he personally took exception to the term “The Glorious Dead”, which is engraved – as it is on so many others across our country –  on the Cenotaph in Quesnel. Every time we passed it, he would soberly say, “There is nothing glorious about war. Nothing. Anyone who tries to dress it up with words is a fool. It’s just a bunch of boys trying to kill each other, by orders of men standing out of the way of the bullets.  All this fuss with the poppies and speeches is covering up the truth of what goes on in war. We are so stupid that we never learn to do things differently, just find new ways to kill each other, then cry and write poems about it.”

I never had any answer to that speech.

What can we say, those of us who haven’t walked that road?

For more: War Poetry by Danny Martin.

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