Review: The Valley of Lost Secrets

On the eve of the Second World War, around 800,000 children were evacuated from big cities like London to the countryside to keep them safe from devastating bombing attacks. Many of the children had never been to the countryside.

The great exodus: children arriving in Devon, 1940. Photo: IWM

This mass movement of the young has long been fertile ground for writers and dramatists. As a child growing up in Wales in the 1970s, I loved the BBC television adaptation of Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden’s novel about children evacuated to Wales. Years later, I watched it again with my then eight year old son, Owen. He was equally enthralled.

Lesley Parr has followed in Nina Bawden’s footsteps with a superb debut novel featuring two brothers sent to Wales in September 1939. Jimmy and Ronnie arrive at the village of Llanbryn after an endless train journey from London.

The author evokes the tension as the children wait in the miners’ institute hall to be allocated to local families. At first, Jimmy is worried about his brother, fearing that his sulky looks and tears will deter the locals from choosing them as their guests. (This reminded me of the petty humiliation of being the last to be chosen for a team in school games in Cardiff.) But we soon find that Ronnie is quicker to settle and develop a bond with their hosts, Mr and Mrs Thomas. Jimmy resents the way his brother calls Mrs Thomas ‘Aunty Gwen’ and wishes their host wouldn’t pretend that the house in Heol Mabon was the boys’ home. Only in time does Jimmy establish his own sense of belonging in Llanbryn.

Lesley was born in Wales, and has a nice way of showing how the boys from London struggle with Welsh names and words. (In many ways, the Wales of 1939 would have been much more of a culture shock to newcomers than today, as Netflix, social media as well as television have created a common culture across countries and continents.) On arriving, Jimmy is puzzled by the name Llanbryn on the station platform : “Funny word. Too many Ls.” Later, Ronnie thinks they are having cow soup for lunch, mishearing the word cawl, a type of Welsh stew.

The author also skilfully develops the character and back story of Mr and Mrs Thomas. At the meeting to pair the children with local hosts, the couple intended to take just one child, but change their minds and provided a home for the brothers. Had they done it for money? As time goes by, we see that they really care for the London boys. Lesley also shows that Mr and Mrs Thomas are set apart from others in the village, with the Anglican vicar in particular badmouthing the nonconformist Mr Thomas. (“Chapel is low, see. Up at St Michael’s we’re closer to God”, sneers the vicar.) Mr Thomas is a far more agreeable character than the cold Mr Evans in Carrie’s War.

The Valley of Lost Secrets also shows the ebb and flow of friendships amongst the young people. Jimmy was wary of Florence, another evacuee from back home whose reputation had been darkened because she was seen as coming from a bad family. But in time he appreciates her qualities and friendship. By contrast, he becomes alienated from his best friend from home, Duff, who joins a gang that intimidates Jimmy.

The heart of the book is Jimmy’s frightening discovery of a human skull in a tree – the lost secrets in the title. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but I didn’t expect the story to develop as it did! This is a comforting tale of warmth and friendship overcoming fear and prejudice.

Before the war changed everything: my father and grandfather, Margate, 1938

My family is familiar with the disruption the outbreak of war caused. My father, Bob Skinner, was 12 when the war began. His school, Emanuel in Wandsworth, was evacuated to Hampshire, but Dad was sent to live with an aunt in Cardiff, and listened to Chamberlain’s famous, sombre ‘This country is at war with Germany’ broadcast in Cardiff on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939. His sister moved with her school out of London, and his older brother joined the RAF. A few years later, their father died of a heart attack aged just 52. Life was never the same again.

PS: a historical curiosity. Lesley refers to Cardiff Central station in the opening chapter. I presume she wanted to avoid confusing modern day readers by using the 1930s name, Cardiff General. British Rail renamed it in 1973.

Books and their readers: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

A bookish read

I’ve loved books for half a century. I remember the moment the love affair began: my grandmother giving me an Enid Blyton tale featuring a wooded island. (The Secret Island?) There was no turning back. My reading status changed: in a relationship.

Martin Latham has made books his working life as well as his passion. He has sold books for 35 years, and has produced a book of his own, The Bookseller’s Tale, that is full of intriguing stories and authors I had never heard of. Even his dust-jacket is revealing: it reveals he was responsible for the largest petty-cash claim in Waterstones’ history when he paid for the excavation of a Roman bath-house floor under his bookshop.

Latham opens by talking about ‘comfort books’ – books we love, and keep buying and reading. They may, or may not, be literary masterpieces. The author recalls the novelist AS Byatt buying a copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book in his Canterbury bookshop and admitting she couldn’t be seen buying it in London.

Latham never quite defines a comfort book. A book you read in difficult times? A volume you loved when you were young, and which gives you a heady draught of nostalgia every time you re-read it? A book that moved or inspired you deeply and which you read time and time again?

The definition may not matter. Most of us have books that we remember vividly and which we will happily read again. Here are some of mine.

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Return to Thomas Hardy country

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset

Few writers have become as inextricably linked with a region as Thomas Hardy. The novelist and poet brought Dorset and neighbouring counties to life as his reimagined Wessex.

Greenwood Grange: its Hardy history

We’re enjoying a holiday in the heart of Hardy country. His birthplace is a short walk from our holiday cottage at Greenwood Grange, a group of buildings built by Thomas’s father. One gable (shown in the photo above) shows its 1840s heritage. Our holiday home Coomb Barton is reputedly mentioned in the last verse of Hardy’s 1915 poem, The Oxen:

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

I confess to thinking it’s more likely a general reference to the then lonely farmyard (or ‘barton’) but it’s nice to think Hardy might have meant the cottage in which I am typing this sentence!

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Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 15.28.51Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.

The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.

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Cycling my own lost lanes

 

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Lost Lanes – an inspiration

I recently discovered the Lost Lanes series of cycling books by Jack Thurston. They’re an inspiration, with evocative 1930s style covers, gorgeous photos and intriguing touring routes. I can’t wait to explore Rye and Romney Marsh, an area that has intrigued me since reading Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine mysteries set there when I was a child. And those lovely Welsh border roads.

In the meantime, I’m exploring my local lost lanes. Tonight I cycled up to Hodgemoor Wood above Chalfont St Giles on my mountain bike – and promptly got lost. It is uncanny how easily I lose all sense of direction in this small woodland area.

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Classic Chilterns: the view from Mumfords Lane

The real object of this evening’s ride was Mumfords Lane, a narrow lane that links the A40 between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross with Layter’s Green near Chalfont St Peter.  I’d never cycled it before but it was a perfect opportunity to widen my route repertoire. There was climb from the main road but my mountain bike’s low gearing made it easy. The view from the top was gorgeous – one I had never seen before, even though it’s barely three miles from home. I’ll be cycling this lost lane again.

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I was lucky to dodge a heavy June shower. I sheltered under a tree as I pulled on a rain jacket. This was the scene as the sun came out as the rain eased over the A40. This was once the main route from West Wales and Oxford to London before the M4 and M40 were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

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I’ve really missed cafe stops on my lockdown bike rides. Especially the longer ones, where a coffee and cake adds to the pleasure. A week ago, I decided to do something about it. I can’t reopen cafes, but I can take my own tea or coffee, thanks to my new Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle. I enjoyed my tea and snack overlooking Maidenhead’s historic road bridge this lunchtime. I even brought my Costa collapsible mug!

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I’ll end on a Lost Lanes note. As a proud Welshman, I smiled when I saw Jack’s note on my copy of Lost Lanes Wales. Cymru am byth – Wales for ever! Thank you, Jack. 

Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

Bill Shankly Red or Dead

I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.

My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.) 

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The Ordnance Survey map addict

One of the joys of browsing in a real, rather than online, bookshop is coming across a brilliant book on a subject you’d never think of reading about. So I was chuffed to discover Map Addict by Mike Parker, published by Collins, during a holiday visit to Waterstone’s in Dorchester, Dorset.

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Ordnance Survey goes metric: the Rhondda, 1970s

I’ve blogged before about my love of maps and the map’s evolution from a printed sheet to an icon on a smartphone. Parker’s book brought back many more memories – such as the lack of any photo on the cover of the original Ordnance Survey maps that replaced the much-loved one inch series. And the fact the 1:50 000 series index map, showing which map covered which part of Great Britain, was cut by a line across the country indicating that the northern maps would only appear two years later, in 1976.

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In praise of Great Missenden’s Roald Dahl museum

Willy Wonka wall

Willy Wonka wall

Roald Dahl was a wonderful storyteller. Over 20 years after his death, millions of children and adults still love his tales of the unexpected. So it’s no surprise that the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden is so popular.

It’s a wonderful place, with storytelling sessions, displays telling Dahl’s life story and even a wall with fighter planes screaming across the sky. (Dahl was a pilot in the second world war, and was badly injured when he crashed in the desert.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Roald Dahl. He was born in my own home town, Cardiff, growing up in Llandaff. He was christened in Cardiff’s Norwegian church in 1916. His stories are dark rather than sugary confections. Great Missenden has done him proud.

Measuring up against the BFG

Measuring up against the BFG

See my earlier post about the museum here.

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…