Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Berlin Diaries of Marie 'Missie' Vassilchikov

I continue my world tour in Germany - specifically books set in Berlin during the second world war. The first of these is The Berlin Diaries of by Marie 'Missie' Vassiltchikov 1940-1945.

Marie Vassiltchikov was a white Russian princess and she wrote her diaries in her own version of shorthand that was unintelligible to anyone else. This turned out to be useful because Missie came to be privy to (although not actively involved with) the 1944 conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. Anyone connected with this were subsequently persecuted. Many were executed and many more were imprisoned - together with their families.

Missie, however, escaped although she and another aristocrat seemed to court the attentions of the German authorities by conniving to bring food to their imprisoned colleagues and communicate with them. In fact Missie and the other 'Bright Young Things' seem to have had strangely charmed lives. They seemed to have a rather louche attitude to the idea of working for a living, although by Missie's own account they were impoverished. In the first few years of war, while their embassy friends were still at large, they attended parties and balls and the fact that they were in a country at war served mainly to add a little spice to their daily lives. When basic foodstuffs were rationed they ate lobsters; when beer was in short supply they drank champagne; when clothing became rationed they turned to the milliner for style, and even when they were fleeing bombs and the Soviet advance finding a hairdresser was still of paramount importance. Slumming it, for Missie, was trying to do without lipstick every day.

There was no question of Missie and her friends ever becoming homeless refugees; she seems to have been adept at finding houses (usually the odd schloss, palace or chalet belonging to a distant relative or friend) wherever she went. Even when the Americans come (and have the audacity to 'behave badly' by inviting the village girls to come in and party and walk off with all their abandoned clothing) they have their connections and can count of distant American cousins to pull strings there too.

However, even when all these connections run out Missie survives. She survives because she is not only young, beautiful and multi-lingual but, more importantly, feels entitled. It is this that enables her to sail on through a world that is fracturing at her heels. She is starving and ill but always she finds a bed and people willing to help her. She never gives up because she knows that somehow she will come through - and she does.

It is a fascinating book, enhanced by the editorial notes of Missie's younger brother, Georgie, who encouraged her to publish the book shortly before her death. I am very glad he did because Missie has given the world a valuable record of how it was to live in one of the first cities of the world to suffer sustained aerial bombardment. The intention of the British (specifically Air Marshall Arthur 'Bomber' Harris) was to bring Germany to its knees but it failed - and by reading The Berlin Diaries it is possible to understand exactly why. Her description of what happened after the first siren sounded is vivid and terrifying. She admits to becoming increasingly nervous as time goes on - in the end even an aristocrat must yield to the indiscriminating and horrifying Bombenteppich (bomb carpet).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Interview with Herodotus

To celebrate the publication of Reading Herodotus (on Kindle - paperback and hardback versions out 31st July) by Debra Hamel, I am delighted to present an interview with the man himself...

Herodotus by R. Seidemann

Questions about Reading Herodotus.

CD: So, Herodotus - who exactly are you?

H: Well, some millennia ago the answer to that question would have been fairly straightforward. I'm a travel writer, really. I was born in Halicarnassus, in what you moderns call Turkey, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. It was a multilingual community--people in the street speaking in the various Greek dialects, of course, but also Carians and Persians and traders from the Levant. It sparked my interest in faraway places. I spent a good portion of my prime--we're talking the fifth century here, mind, and that's B.C.--traveling around the then known world, and I wrote about the things I saw and learned. They call me the Father of History, because no one before me had written anything quite like what I came up with--my researches, the History, as it's called. So, that's me. The complicating factor is that it's currently 2012 A.D. My survival into your modern era is a mysterious issue best left to scientists and philosophers.

CD: Tell us a little more about your greatest work. Why did you write it, for instance.

H: A general curiosity about the unknown sparked, as I suggested, by the multicultural milieu in which I spent my formative years. There was a lot of unknown back then, too. I dare say it was easier to be an explorer then than it is now as there was so very much left to explore.

At any rate, my History is, generally speaking, an account of the expansion of the Persian Empire under its first four kings--Cyrus, Darius, Cambyses, and Xerxes. But that's the general framework of the thing, onto which I pack a lot of stories and geographic and ethnographic information. All of it culminates in the two Persian Wars of the early fifth century B.C., when Persia invaded Greece and was twice repulsed by the Greeks, first by the Athenians, fighting more or less on their own, and the second time by a coalition of Greek allies--people who regularly fought wars against one another and couldn't agree on much other than that the Persians could not be allowed to take over Greece. They, the Greeks, were vastly outnumbered and yet, against all odds, they survived, beat back the Persians, and went on to thrive in subsequent decades. The battles were the stuff of legend in my day, and rightly so: it sounds almost trite to say it, but the future of civilization really was hanging in the balance at Marathon and Salamis and Plataea. We're all living in a world that was shaped by the Greeks who fought those battles.

CD: And why do you feel Ms Hamel needs to update it now?

H: It's been a long time since I wrote the History, and it goes without saying that a lot has changed since then. Back in the day my audience used to listen, rapt, as I described the eight principal rivers that bisected Scythia. Now, not so much. Tastes have changed, and information is much easier to come by now. Any child nowadays can log onto Google Maps and see for himself what rivers run through Scythia. No need to read about it from me.

So, if you're out to introduce the History to a new audience, your task is two-fold. You'll want to cull some of the information I included that is not especially interesting to the modern reader. And you'll want to provide readers with the background information I neglected to include because I could assume my audience was familiar with it. Hamel does both while maintaining the general outline of my work. I think the whole project is rather exciting.

CD: I have noticed you are on Twitter. Please tell me what you think of 'Social Networking'.

H: It's the closest thing to magic that I know of. A global dialogue. A global agora, with ideas and information shared virtually instantaneously. How amazing is that? It's the kind of thing where you catch yourself thinking about how astonished people in my day would have been if the capacity to tweet were suddenly available to them. But you can't do that, of course. The existence of Twitter implies the existence of the internet and all the other modern technologies that led to this point in history. Besides, a Twittering man, 2500 years ago, would have been a magician, or a god. Men have become gods.

Kind of you to mention my Twitter account, @iHerodotus. I'm using it to post an abbreviated version of my History, one section per tweet, one tweet per day. We're in book four now. The whole thing should be finished in January of 2015. All the tweets, by the way are collected at, so people can catch up on what they've misse

CD: What are the bare essentials for a classical period travel writer/historian? In other words - what do you pack?

H: Very different from what I'd pack today! A GPS would have been nice. Or a halfway decent map. But I had parchment, of course, for notes, a good knife or two, a blanket, a sturdy hat. Various types of currency, though Athenian owls could open a lot of doors. Onions. Olive oil. A towel.

CD: If you had to pick out the most weird finding in your Histories - what would it be?

H: What leaps to mind is the way in which the Scythians memorialized their kings. A year after a king died the Scythians killed fifty of his servants and fifty horses and they stuffed the corpses and arranged them in a merry-go-round-like display around his tomb. I go into more detail in my book, but you get the idea. I'm not particularly judgmental, but people do some strange things.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?

H: Not to harp on the Scythians, but I refer to them somewhere in my History [4.46] as phereoikos, which means "house carrier," that is, someone or something that carries its house with them. The Scythians were house carriers because they were nomads. The term has also been used of snails, though, who of course carry around their shells.

Someone once told me that in northern Europe there were giant, man-sized snails that the locals hunted for food. After they'd killed and eaten the snails they'd clean out the shells and live in them as if they were snails themselves, and there were whole villages of these snail homes. But I never saw any of this myself and I'm not sure that I believe it, frankly.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?

When I was a boy one of the stories that got told a lot was about Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (before my time), who ostensibly had it all: he'd enjoyed a string of military successes; he had more than adequate wealth and everything that went with it. For all his success, though, and however worthy a man he may have been, he was destined to die a horrible, really awful death. And it happened that there was simply no way for him to avoid this fate. I found his predicament...maybe sad isn't the right word, but chilling, not so much because of his individual fate, awful though it was, but because of the larger truth to which it pointed: that even the most fortunate of us can fall utterly. Fate, as they say, can turn on a dime. It's the wretched lot of humanity.

CD: What is happiness?

H: A life, lived well, that also ends well.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

H: I usually go online. I check my Twitter account, Google myself, that sort of thing.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Living in Silk Exhibition, Castle Museum Nottingham.

The oldest inn in England is tucked beneath Nottingham Castle's walls. Rooms are carved from the bedrock - a sprouted seed caught and long ago threw out roots

further along there is a terrace of doors leading underground

guarded by a bronze Robin Hood.

A raised passageway leads to the castle entrance

and up towards the keep

and from there look down from where I'd come

or look south to the distant hills and the oldest rock in the land

lies under Charnwood - a forest once contiguous with Sherwood where

those outlaws hid.

Then, at last, my goal - the city museum and art gallery

- where, to celebrate the handing over of the Olympics from China to the UK there is a special exhibition of silk from the National Silk Museum of China in Hangzhou.

This was a place I managed to miss despite staying there a week in 2009 (a confusion of city on my part) and I was thinking I might go back, but how much easier to find that the museum has come to me. So I stood and gawped for hours at tiny pieces of cloth 5,000 years old and wondered at the sophistication of a people who wove not just stripes but managed tiny patterns in this fabric made from insect spit. And heard too an interesting talk by Dr Mary M Brooks who is a silk conservator at the University of Southampton.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Finding Forgotten Cities by Nayanjot Lahiri

The end of Finding Forgotten Cities builds to a scene of great excitement: it is when Sir John Marshall (director-general of archeological office in all of India) calls a meeting in Simla in May 1924. Following a hat tip from another archeologist, Madho Sarup Vats, Sir Marshall invites two of the archeologists who have recently uncovered artefacts in the Indus Valley (Rakhaldas Banerji in Mohinjodaro and Daya Ram Sahni in Harappa) to his home in northern India. Together they compare and correlate what they have found. This leads to the revelation, in the London Illustrated News, of one of the most exciting archeological discoveries of the twentieth century.

The slow build to this moment involves a host of players including the early explorers e.g. Charles Masson, and in the twentieth century archeologists such as the tragic Italian Luigi Pio Tessitor, the studious Sahni and the characterful Banerji. As well as describing this, the narrative gives a very interesting impression on how archeological work is done, and the importance of comparing results. It also gives an insight into the view of the world from the Indian perspective.

Like Peter Hopkirk's books Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, it tells of the drive to discover, but with greater emphasis on the archeological detail and Imperial and local politics...and to my mind a more sensational result: the revelation of an unknown important ancient civilisation.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

An international book haul

Looking at this week's book haul...

it pleases me to note that it has quite an international flavour: Finding Forgotten Cities by Nayanjot Lahiri is about how the Indus civilisation was uncovered (Indian) ; Metamorphosis by Frank Ryan concerns, unsurprisingly, the business of metamorphosis (English) and is a book I have been hankering after for some time; The Berlin Diaries of Marie 'Missie' Vassiltchikov is about living in Berlin in the second world war (Russian/German) and the plot against Hitler; The Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti is winner of the International Dagger Award 2008 and comes highly recommended by Maxine of Petrona (French); and Albert of Adelaide is the first novel of an ex-helicopter pilot, fisherman, industrial worker, truck driver, script writer, film star and producer and now an attorney in New Mexico defending Mexican nationals charged with crimes north of the border...and he has chosen to write about the adventures of a duck-billed platypus (having never lived in Australia). Excellent - I like the sound of this!

Friday, July 06, 2012

An Interview with Charles Fernyhough

After reading the impressive Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough (review here) the author has kindly agreed to answer a few questions from the Keeper of the Snails.


Dr Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. His most recent book, The Baby in the Mirror, was critically acclaimed in the UK and has been translated into seven languages. He is a Reader in Psychology at Durham University and has written for the Guardian, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph.

Questions about Pieces of Light.

CD: Pieces of Light beautifully combines memoir and psychology. Did you have a book model in mind when you started this book?
CF: This book has always felt like a chance to follow up on the approach I took with my previous non-fiction book, The Baby in the Mirror, which is about my daughter Athena's psychological development over her first three years. I wanted to write a science book that read like a novel, and autobiographical memory seemed the perfect topic for continuing with that approach. But in this case, rather than focusing on just one person, I'm telling several people's stories—and my own memories crop up in the book as well.

CD: There have been many metaphors for memory including the intriguing Plan of St Gall mentioned in chapter 7. What would you say is the best modern metaphor for memory (taking into account current theories)?
CF: The discussion of the Plan of St Gall is meant to draw a link between some very prescient medieval views of memory and modern research suggesting that the hippocampus (the brain's powerhouse of memory) works on an essentially spatial basis. As for other metaphors, I use 'collage' quite a lot—it captures the sense of memories being put together from lots of different kinds of information which nevertheless combine to reveal a coherent picture.

CD: Is there an aspect of memory research which you think is in especial need for further research?
CF: There has been huge progress but there is still much to learn. We still don't have a decent comprehensive explanation for childhood amnesia, and I think understanding the role of language in memory will be part of that. We would benefit from knowing more about how memory for trauma works, and that's an area where people's lives could really be changed: if we can find new therapeutic approaches to reducing the pain of certain memories.

CD: I thought chapter 8, which dealt with 'recovered' memory, especially illuminating. Are the findings generally accepted now? Are all methods which claim to retrieve 'recovered' memory discredited? Where does this leave EMDR and hypnosis therapy?
CF: What's been discredited is the idea that trauma memories can be reliably unearthed through therapy. The consensus now is that people don't forget trauma—they certainly don't repress it subconsciously. But they do find ways not to think about it, and so memories for trauma can spontaneously reemerge into consciousness after some time. I would be very sceptical about methods that use hypnosis to unearth 'repressed' memories. We know too much about memory's susceptibility to suggestion and distortion. Simply imagining that something might have happened can increase the likelihood that you will subsequently have a memory of it happening. I give several examples of this in the book.

EMDR is another matter. No one knows how it works, and many are sceptical about the scientific evidence for it. But clinicians and patients I spoke to said that it works: it makes a difference and it changes lives.

CD: I really enjoyed the way you brought in pertinent extracts from some of my favourite novels to illustrate what you were saying. Is there a novelist you hadn't mentioned in the book who you think is especially good at dealing with the plasticity of memory?
CF: I could have written plenty about Kazuo Ishiguro's treatment of how the past underpins the present in books like The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled. I think the latter is his masterpiece.

CD: Does your research as a psychologist feed into your life as a novelist?
CF: The novelist and the psychologist are asking similar questions: How does it feel? What is it like? How we can describe and account for human experience? They use different methods to get at similar questions, and they can learn much from each other. Studying psychology is a great discipline for a novelist, but the best novelists have written about it already. The scientific framework just gives you another way of looking at things. My new novel is very much focused on neuroscience and psychology; the next will having nothing at all to do with the brain!

CD: At the end of the book you mention that memories are changing because we know more about how they work. How do you think memories might change in the future?
CF: There's been a lot of talk recently about how digital technologies are changing the way we use our memories. We are probably relying less on memorising information and becoming more savvy about where to go for the information we need: the Google Effect. But it was ever thus. The arrival of movable type printing would have meant that people didn't have to carry books around in their heads in the same way. Language itself is a technology, and it will have shaped our remembering since we first started to talk.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
CF: Snails are around me all the time, especially in this weather. They crawl up onto the window and I spend a lot of time inspecting them from underneath. They're fascinating and quite calming.

CD: What is your proudest moment?

CF: Being a dad to two amazing children gives me lots of proud moments, but being there at their births was the most special of all.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
CF: I watched my father die, far too young. My life was never going to be the same after that.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
CF: Dunblane, 13 March 1996.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
CF: I would like to be braver.

CD: What is happiness?
CF: Playing jazz guitar after a good day's writing.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
CF: Make tea, catch up quickly with internet stuff and then engage Freedom (programme that blocks your computer's internet access) and start writing.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough

What is a memory? Can a particular memory be said to exist? In Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough shows that this last question is an impossible one because it relies on a mistaken view of what memories are. Memories are, he says, 'mental constructions, created in the present moment, according to the demands of the present.' It is more like a habit, reconstructed anew each time. This makes it unreliable since each reconstruction tends to be different with emotions and knowledge attributed to the memory which were only acquired after the event.

This new way of looking at memory has fascinating ramifications and the chapters that follow look at each one of these in turn. This would make an excellent book in its own right, but what takes the book to a new plane are the personal reflections of the author (who is a novelist as well as a psychologist) which consider not only his own memories but examples of writing from novelists such as Penelope Lively and A.S. Byatt.

Chapter one is called 'Getting Lost' and describes the latest findings on how the brain is used to remember places we used to know. This is illustrated by the author's experience of visiting Cambridge - a place he used to know very well and he describes the odd sense of familiarity superimposed on the feeling of strangeness as he gradually becomes reorientated again. He then describes returning to Sydney - another place he knew well for a short period - and muses over the difference between revisiting a place in imagination and memory.

The second chapter compares memories that are activated by smell (and taste) to those activated by sight. Smell tends to bring forth disordered emotional memories - as Marcel Proust observed with his series of memories evoked by the taste of the madeleine in 'In Search of Lost Time'. The explanation - that smell and taste are transmitted to the memory centres of the brain by a different pathway from the other senses - is clearly explained and interesting. An intriguing example of this was Andy Warhol's 'Scent Museum' - who used a different perfume for every three years of his life and then stored a sample in a vial so that he could remind himself of that particular era simply by opening the top. I'd not heard of this before and now feel like starting one of these for myself.

In chapter four I learnt about the difference between various sorts of early memories. In some the viewpoint is preserved, but in others the memory is from the outside - a third person memory (an 'observer' memory). It used to be generally accepted that earliest memories were rarely earlier than age two and a half because it was necessary to have verbal encoding in order to lay down the memory. However, a study from New Zealand of a child who had an operation at five months showed that the child could recall aspects of life in hospital two years later, but these memories had vanished eleven months after that.

Chapter five dealt with the processing of memories and how new experiences are remembered more than established ones. I also learnt that recall works better in the same context as the one in which the memories were laid down - for instance when witnesses revisit a crime scene. The chapter ends with a poignant personal recollection of the author's walk with his father.

Chapter six looked at how it is possible to influence memory - to even invent the memory of someone else by conversation and instil false memories. 'Social contagion' is where a memory incorporates erroneous information supplied (intentionally or unintentionally) by someone else and 'rich false memories' are when whole episodes are invented and retained as memories. I also learnt why witnesses to a crime are kept separately by police until their evidence is taken: 'collaborative inhibition' occurs when people are allowed to discuss an event and this has the effect of them remembering less about it.

In chapter seven introduced to the intriguing Plan of St Gall. It is an invented building and was designed as an aid to meditation in the form of a medieval 9th century manuscript. It provides a way of organising knowledge and corresponds very well with the modern view of memory - using a mental image of a place in order to organise thoughts.

I also came across 'Hyperthymestic syndrome' where the sufferer dwells obsessively on the past and recalls it in extraordinary detail. An examination of the brain activity of these patients has led to more clues of how not only memory but imagination works because it often turns out that when memory is affected, visualising the future is too.

Chapter eight looked at the difference between an imagined 'memory' and a real one. I leant that 'imagination inflation' is where an imagined event becomes confused with the memory of something that really happened (an occupational hazard for a novelist) and this led neatly to a very interesting section on the new ideas about 'recovered' memories. A study has shown that memories 'recovered' during therapy are likely to be uncorroborated.

Chapter nine described some very interesting work on how a device called a 'Senscam' can help amnesiacs by taking wide angle photographs of events in a person's life which are then reviewed several times.

Chapter ten considered 'flashbulb memories' and the tendency we all have to recall the personal context when we hear of shocking events e.g. the death of Princess Diana. However, most flashbulb memories are of personal events, and once again the was a clear explanation of why this should happen in terms of brain structure and neurotransmitters. This led on to a discussion of post traumatic stress disorder and an interesting technique which has helped to alleviate it called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. The therapy allows a different sort of remembering.

I found chapter eleven, The Martha Tapes, especially interesting and involved a project to record the memories of the author's Jewish grandmother. This led to a discussion of how our memories and ability to remember change as we age, as well as the reasons for the change.

In chapter twelve Charles Fernyhough considered various aspects of memory including the importance of memory to fiction writing; would or should we get rid of horrible memories which still upset us greatly; and the implications of new technology to memory in the future.

These are just examples of some of the subjects covered in this impressive book. It really is packed full of interest - part psychology, part literary-appreciation and part memoir - all of it lucidly and, very often, luminously written. I highly recommend to anyone interested in memory (even if you didn't know you were) but particularly to anyone interested in creative writing.

Many thanks to Profile books for sending me a copy.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Heat and Dust is an unusual Booker winner. It is deceptively simple. There are no great angst-laden passages, and the characterisations are subtle - almost subliminal - in the way they take root. The descriptions and dialogues seem superficial and unemotional and yet together give an oddly profound effect. Sexual couplings are depicted with the word 'Afterwards...' Somehow this says more than a couple of pages of steamy prose.Wonderful stuff....

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Anglo-Indian Books

Question: What have these books got in common?

Answer: They are all Booker winners featuring India (or an Indian author) in some way.

I've read three of these: The God of Small Things, Midnight's Children and The Siege of Krishnapur, and I am about half way through Heat and Dust. They are some of my favourite ever books, and since I am going through a bit of Indian phase at the moment, maybe now is a good time to read the rest.