Paperback reviews: Back In Blighty; Almost English; Lost, Stolen Or Shredded; The Book Of Rachael; Life Below Stairs

Back In Blighty By Gerard Degroot (Vintage £9.99)

This updated edition of DeGroot’s 1996 history, Blighty, is timely, of course, but his argument that the First World War “did not bring forth a deluge of social and political change” is still a relevant and controversial one. Certainly he has marshalled enough evidence to support that claim: that class barriers remained the same, that class identity was reinforced but not necessarily radicalised. The war helped bring more women into work but, with only a few exceptions, it largely reinforced gender stereotypes: women as nurses, men as fighters.

And the notion of a “lost generation” was little more than a myth: DeGroot argues that perhaps the real generation lost to us was the one that survived not the one that died, “those who had to shoulder the burden of loss ... those who had to continue on horror, grief and guilt,” especially as we cannot be sure of exactly how many men died during the conflict. Numbers range from half a million to over a million.

What the war shows for DeGroot is an emphasis on British conservatism, a determination to man the barricades not just against an invading enemy but against change. Not even a global war could shift attitudes. Drawing on diaries, advertisements, and newspapers, he draws a picture of an unattractive Britain: racist, deceptive, cruel (the treatment of conscientious objectors was little short of horrific), its Army full of vagrants and criminals, its government set on a course of war it was ill-equipped to fight, never mind win. Even Vera Brittain gets it in the neck.

Arguments about the real need for this war will rage on, but for all the doom-and-gloom of DeGroot’s study, perhaps it is encouraging that war in general isn’t the socially progressive tool it’s sometimes viewed as. It would be a sorry state for all of us if it were.

****

Almost English By Charlotte Mendelson (Picador £7.99)

There’s something slightly disingenuous about this tale of a classic outsider, teenage Marina, and her abandoned mother, Laura, who live with Marina’s three Hungarian great-aunts in a tiny flat in London. It’s the sheer polish and sophistication of the writing, which doesn’t quite sit with the ungainliness that Marina feels, for ever in love with the unapproachable Simon Flowers but destined to be groped by the lesser Guy Viney (and then, even worse, by his famous father). And it doesn’t sit with Laura’s endless haplessness, either, whose affair with a married man peaks just as her wastrel husband comes back into her life. Mendelson spins and dances and sparkles her way through this ugly duckling story, so that whilst one may admire the writing, one is never really convinced that Marina is quite the failure she thinks she is. The three aunts, meanwhile, given walk-on parts in a novel about what it means not to be English and how tricky it is to fit in, are utterly believable and deserve a book all to themselves.

***

Lost, Stolen Or Shredded Rick Gekoski (Profile £8.99)

What’s particularly interesting about the rare book dealer Gekoski’s study of “missing” works is that he doesn’t just look at those which actually existed (alongside the burning of Byron’s letters, we might also think of the ones Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra destroyed) and which are now gone for ever. He also looks at works of art that never existed in the first place: what architecture Charles Rennie Macintosh might have produced had he lived in more favourable times, for example. It’s more than a nostalgic game or a kick at our culture, it’s about present absences, about those gaps that we sense should be filled. It’s why stolen works of art have such an impact on a collective consciousness.

***

The Book Of Rachael By Leslie Cannold (Text Publishing £8.99)

Australian non-fiction writer Cannold invents a sister for the historical Jesus, who rebels from an early age. Rachael cuts off her hair, learns to read, interrupts Jewish services. But it’s also a mother-daughter story, of conflict between one who does her duty and one who refuses to. Cannold walks an interesting line between faith and history here, as she explores an alternative Virgin birth storyline (what happens to unmarried women in this society who fall pregnant means, inevitably, that they are keen to stress the intervention of a god). While Cannold lacks the inventive intellectualism of say, Jenny Diski’s Only Human, she does shine a different light on a contested era.

***

Life Below Stairs: The Real Lives Of Servants, 1939 To The Present By Pamela Horn (Amberley £9.99)

Horn’s second Life Below Stairs book (the first took in the Edwardian era to the outbreak of the Second World War) plunges in with figures before you really have a chance to assess what the argument is, or where the book is going generally. Her strengths lie in her recourse to the actual words of those employed as servants, but there’s less from those employed here these days from abroad, on how they feel about their employers and their conditions, than there is from those from the past. Five-star hotels have replaced grand houses, and working mothers have become the new middle-class domestic employers, but it seems little has really changed.

**

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