Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

Spies in Palestine — James Srodes’ Account of Early Jewish Settlers Who Spied on Behalf of Britain During World War I

James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine — Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn is a concise account of a relatively obscure bit of Israeli history — the spying activities of Sarah Aaronsohn and her family during World War I.   Sarah Aaronsohn stands out as a liberated woman from birth.  Her confidence and initiative were strikingly uncommon for women of her era and made her an unusually placed and fascinating feminist hero.  A very active horsewoman, Sarah  roamed widely with little apparent regard for convention.  The book recounts her relationships with various men in her life.  Although it does not appear that she and T.E.  Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an affair, Lawrence keeps wandering in and out of Sarah and her family’s milieu.  In comparison to boisterous energy of Sarah and her family, Lawrence comes across as a bit of an ineffectual wimp, not at all like the strong, gorgeous hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia.

The Aaronsohns were Romanian Jews who settled in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire in the 1880’s.  Sarah was born in Palestine and lived there most of her life, except for a short, unfortunate marriage that took her to Constantinople.  Her family was based in Zichron Ya’akov and was relatively well known.  Indeed, Sarah’s eldes brother Aaron developed an international reputation as an agricultural expert and used that to leverage international contacts and ultimately to begin spying on behalf of the British.  The Aaronsohns’ spying effort were inspired by the Turks’ oppression of Palestine’s Jewish settlers during World War I.  As it happens, the intelligence provided by the Aaronsohns  through their spy ring was largely unsolicited by the British and sadly lacked discipline.  In fact, it was almost comical how difficult Aaron and his family found it to help Britain.  The Aaronsohns aggressively acquired information on Turkish positions in Palestine in order for the British to plan an effective invasion, but the British did not particularly trust the information and were not particularly interested.  Even when the British decided to accept the Aaronsohns help they showed little concern for their safety and their military efforts were ineffectual.

Sarah become involved after she fled her marriage in Constantinople and returned to Palestine.  On her way home she had observed first hand the Turks’ outrageous treatment of Armenians, and her entire family was appalled by the Turks’ treatment of Jews.  Her brother Aaron had left Palestine to engage in efforts elsewhere, and so Sarah assumed leadership of the spy ring upon her return to Palestine.  Although the information provided the Aaronosohns was good, the group’a execution was amateurish, particularly since the British mixed their lack of interest with a healthy dose of incompetence. They were easily betrayed, and tragedy ensued.  

This is the story of successful espionage, but rather the story of an unbelieveably brave woman who voluntarily led a major effort to gather intelligence for Britain.  Although it did not end well, Sarah’s heroic efforts deserve to be known and honored.

I liked this book for a lot of reasons.  It was well-written and kept a good pace.  More importantly, I learned about an early Jewish feminist who played a significant part in the early history of Israel.  The historical backdrop of early twentieth century Palestine, Turkey and Britain, combined with the presence of the international Jewish community and a fantastic cast of characters made this a compelling read.

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

Still More English Princesses

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I can’t quite kick the habit of reading royal biographies, but at least I’m coming to terms with the fact that English princess led boring lives, largely devoid of intellectual challenge.  The bored looks on the cover photos of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and Queen Elizabeth II as a girl pretty much make the case that there lives were neither interesting nor fun.  As depicted in their respective biographies, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter – a Biography of Princess Louise, by Lucinda Hawksley, and Young Elizabeth, the Making of the Queen, by Kate Williams, both Princesses Louise and Elizabeth had some intelligence and potential, but their parents pretty much squeezed it out of them.

Queen Victoria couldn’t see beyond her own excessively demanding personal needs and generally regarded her children as her slaves throughout their lives.  Princess Louise apparently had some artistic talent and was provided with some opportunities to sculpt, but her personal life and interests were consistently disregarded by her mother.  Queen Victoria never got over thinking that her daughter Louise was difficult and needed to be watched.  Lucinda Hawksley, the author of Louise’s biography, takes some imaginative  leaps and provides Louise with a scandalous love story.  If true, it makes her story all the sadder, given her subsequent marriage.

Queen Victoria at least had the excuse of being a widow and having nine children, although it’s card to imagine her being a loving and caring mother under any circumstances.  Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and his Consort Queen Elizabeth, should have had it a bit easier.  They were a loving couple, and they only had two children.  There seems to have been a decent amount of love and affection to go around.  It is true they were traumatized by George’s sudden ascent to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to “marry the woman he loved.”  Still, Elizabeth’s parents spent time with her.  Unfortunately they completely short-changed her when it came to education.  They were so determined that their daughters have a carefree life, that they didn’t bother to give them an education.  They seemed to think that education was a loathsome thing to be avoided.  Trivial pursuits and playtime pretty much ruled the day.  One will never know if Elizabeth could have become an intellectual, but it certainly seems possible that she might have expanded her interests between horses and dogs had she been given a broader education.  The one lesson Elizabeth seems to have learned very well was to fulfill her responsibilities as a monarch.  That she has done.  She has also picked up a certain amount of political acumen and appreciation for other cultures along the way.  Her life hasn’t been a tragedy, but so much of it has seemed boring and useless waste.

Both of these women suffered from being born into impossible and ridiculous lives of privilege, but their parents certainly made things worse.  Victoria crushed and disdained her Louise, as she did her other children.  Elizabeth’s parents just abdicated their responsibility to educate her.  In a way, that seems the saddest deficit of all.  If nothing else, these books made me think quite a lot about what it means to be a good parent and what we really owe our children.

 

The Ultimate Jane Austen Biography

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What could be better than reading snippets of Jane Austen’s own correspondence, where she surgically dissect the foibles and the pretenses of her circle of friends and acquaintances?  It is an absolute treat to read what the author of Pride and Prejudice had to say about some of the silly and self-important people around her, and it is reassuring to know that she took up a pretty wicked pen at times.  Austen’s correspondence with her sister, unbridled with the need to be kind or conventional, makes for especially wonderful reading and an enhanced understanding of Jane Austen’s personality and the inspiration for her books.

Sadly, very little of Austen’s own correspondence survives.   Much of it was destroyed by her family after her death.  The motivation for this inexcusable destruction isn’t altogether clear, but some of these literary vandals seemed determined to present a more prim and proper depiction of Jane Austen than her own correspondence would support.

Fortunately Claire Tomalin’s brilliant 1997 biography, Jane Austen – A Life, pushes through clumsy familial attempts to deify Jane Austen.  Tomalin makes full use of the correspondence of Austen and her family and friends, as well as a number of descriptions of Austen by her contemporaries, to provide a robust and convincing portrait of this transformative and beloved author.  Jane Austen, as described by Claire Tomalin, is highly intelligent, impatient and flawed.  She also craves independence.  Austen was often described in less than glowing terms by people who met her, but their negative comments often help delineate her personality and independence.  It is impossible to know all, but it seems that Austen was blessed with an independent spirit and wasn’t unduly hampered by the need to please and win over everyone she met.  This Jane Austen likely toned it down a bit when she wrote her novels.  As it happens, the Jane Austen presented in this masterful biography is far more endearing and affirming to a modern feminist readership than a well-behaved and conventional Austen could ever be.

Tomalin provides a comprehensive and compelling analysis of how, when and why Jane Austen came to write her glorious novels.  Full-time authors frequently struggle to find the time and the will to write.  For Austen, a maiden aunt distracted with the demands of a very large, extended family and struggling with genteel poverty, the impediments might have proved insurmountable.  Moreover, Austen lived in a period where women’s education was frequently hit or miss, where very few women wrote books and where access to literature was often limited.  Fortunately, she acquired sufficient education and access to literature to provide a springboard for her writing.  No matter how busy she may have been with household tasks and the needs of her family, Austen was lucky enough to have time to read the literature of her day and to begin writing plays and stories from an early age.  She was also lucky to have an encouraging family that read and listened to her writing and then to helped with the publication of her books.

Austen’s single status also seems to have been crucial to her development and success as a writer.  Her realization that she didn’t need to marry and that she might prefer life as a single woman, gave Austen far more freedom than the average woman of her time.   It must be noted that remaining single also kept Austen alive — the book is strewn with all too many accounts of women dying in childbirth after bearing as many as eleven(!) children.   Austen’s awareness of the relative benefits and risks of matrimony and motherhood provide fertile inspiration, particularly for the female characters in her books.

Tomalin shows that instead of being thwarted by her limited means and often parochial surroundings Austen used them.  Because Austen had no home to call her own and because she had a large extended family , she frequently traveled as a poor relation from one relative’s house to another.  This involuntary nomadic existence presented its own humiliations and challenges, but it also gave Austen the opportunity to observe how others lived and related to each other.  Although she may have been impatient with the constant travel and unvarying routines of these households, she was astute enough to use what she saw as the basis for the characters, settings and circumstances of her remarkable books.

As Malcolm Gladwell has written, when it comes to success there is no substitute for working very hard for a very long time.  Jane Austen produced relatively few books, but she really worked on them over periods of years.  She went through multiple revisions of her novels over the span of her short life.  There were periods of years when she doesn’t seem to have been able or inspired to work on her books at all, and yet she had the fortitude to return to them and keep writing.

Austen worked for years with no publishing success, and even when her books were successfully published, she made very little money from them.  Thought the financial returns were small, it is heartwarming to know how much Austen appreciated these small amounts, because they gave her, at last, some money to call her own.  With that money, came a blessed sense of increased independence.  It is good to know that she had that.  Even better, Austen’s books were successful in her life time. Before she died she knew that her books were widely praised and appreciated by her contemporaries.

This wonderful biography is enriched by its frequent references to the status of the various drafts of Austen’s books and where she may have gotten the inspiration for various characters, settings and plot lines.  Each of the novels receives its own review within the context of Austen’s development and intentions as a writer.  If you have missed or forgotten any of Austen’s novels, Tomalin will point you in their direction.

This is really the perfect literary biography.    Claire Tomalin provides a warm, yet brilliant, depiction of Jane Austen, her books and her times.