Recommended Read – Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution is the first in the Shardlake series by bestselling author, C. J. Sansom.

England, 1537: Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege – a black cockerel sacrificed on the altar, and the disappearance of Scarnsea’s Great Relic.

Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell into this atmosphere of treachery and death. But Shardlake’s investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .

Dissolution is at its centre a medieval detective story with the required twists and turns to keep the reader guessing as to ‘who dunnit’. A strong, well-paced plot which weaves together a well-researched historical background with good characterisation and realistic dialogue makes this a novel which you may find difficult to put down.

The settings of the novel, whether in London or on the Sussex coast, are well drawn so that the reader can almost feel the cold, taste the food, and touch the buildings which breathe life into this book. The juxtaposition of life for the monks in the monastery with that of the peasants who live in the nearby village is carefully drawn and focusses attention on why so many people at that time were keen for the monasteries to be reformed. It was a time of deep mistrust when true feelings were hidden as an act of self-preservation for many whilst they payed lip-service to the new rules.

Commissioner Shardlake is a realistic character with a deformity which creates a refreshing vulnerability in the ‘hero’ of a novel. An astute man he is aware from the very beginning that the truth is being hidden from him not only to cover up a murder but also to try to preserve a way of life which it is becoming increasingly obvious really has no future. Sansom cleverly uses Dissolution to lay out the reasons why people wanted reform – the wealth of the church, corruption in the use of relics and selling masses, the use of Latin to keep the ordinary people apart from the religious leaders etc. At the beginning of the novel Shardlake is a true supporter of the reformation, but as he conducts his investigations and discovers the tactics his superiors are willing to employ to achieve their ends he is led to disillusionment and begins to question his own motives and feelings.

Sansom holds a PhD in history which has enabled him to write authoritatively about the historical context and the driving forces behind the main characters in his novel, but his style is never scholarly or stuffy but rather easy and lending a flow to the writing which entices the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. In Dissolution historical research gives an authentic backdrop to a compelling murder mystery, and I look forward to finding out more about Matthew Shardlake in the next book of the series.

Dissolution can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about C J Sansom here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Second Great Fire of London

Balham. October 1940

During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.

The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.

Air raid shelter in Aldwych underground station © IWM HU 44272
1kg incendiary bomb © IWM (MUN 3291)

Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.

Ludgate

As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.

Firemen at work on Ave Maria Lane on the night of 29th December 1940.

Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.

Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.

While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.

The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.

Bomb damage viewed from St Pauls 1940

It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’

The cover of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung

But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.

Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.

Recommended Read – The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Sometimes when he didn’t know he was being watched Meggie would look at him and try desperately to imprint his face upon her brain’s core . . . And he would turn to find her watching him, a look in his eyes of haunted grief, a doomed look. She understood the implicit message, or thought she did; he must go, back to the Church and his duties. Never again with the same spirit, perhaps, but more able to serve. For only those who have slipped and fallen know the vicissitudes of the way . . .

A classic historical family saga taking the Cleary family from 1915 New Zealand to 1969 Australia and Europe. In The Thorn Birds Ms McCullough has created a family of incredibly realistic characters who fight the struggles of life on two fronts – the harshness of life in the Australian Outback and personal conflicts which shape the people they become.

Australia with its heat and dust, it’s fires and floods is the panoramic backdrop for an unconventional love story which would lose much of its impact without this realistic depiction of just how harsh life was for people who struggled to live off the land. From the wealthy Clearys to itinerant sheep shearers and cane cutters, and the ubiquitous swagmen, Australia is revealed in all it’s unforgiving nature through sight and sound and scent.

At the heart of The Thorn Birds is the love between Meggie and Ralph, a priest who puts his faith and career in the Church before his love for the woman who is the other half of himself. Ms McCullough has crafted a fascinating plot which juxtaposes the difficulties of living this love with the difficulties of living in the outback. The central characters of this novel are totally human, incredibly flawed yet strong, and I’m sure that all readers will recognise something of themselves in them.

Love hurts. That may seem a trite saying but it is one most people can relate too, and in The Thorn Birds we see the raw emotion and hurt that can be caused by such love. This is a powerful telling of human emotion where duty and desire are the two sides of a coin which can never fully be seen or realised at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, sometimes duty sometimes love, but always the other call is there drawing the characters into situations they find incredibly difficult, even heart-breaking, but which they would never be without.

The Thorn Birds is a well-crafted powerful novel written in descriptive prose and realistic dialogue which cannot fail to move, and as such I highly recommend it.

The Thorn Birds can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Pachinko is a classic family saga set in a place and period of history about which I know (or knew) very little. The Japanese occupation  of Korea during the first half of the 20th century led to many Koreans moving to Japan to escape poverty only to be faced with discrimination, and even when the story ends in 1989 their grand-children and great-grandchildren who were born in Japan are treated as immigrants with less rights than those of native born Japanese.

Ms Min Jin Lee has created a compelling story which encompasses the legacy of the occupation, the Second World War, the division of Korea into two countries during a bitter civil war. But it is not merely a novel about history, Asian peoples have a deep spirituality which also shapes them and the way they live their lives so Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity underpin the actions of a well-crafted cast of characters who bring Pachinko to life. The story-arc is complex, weaving the lives of a number of families together, and it is easy to become attached to them as you sympathise with the troubles they face, the lives they are forced to live and the heartbreak which follows them.

Ms Min Jin Lee has an eye for detail and brings to life the living conditions, food and work place of her characters; life in the city and life in the countryside are equally well portrayed as are the trials and tribulations of an immigrant community where people struggle with a sense of dual identity. There is much in this novel which will speak to people today about their place in society – how welcoming they are to others, how much others strive to fit in. But above all it will speak to people on a human level as Sunja and her family struggle with friendship and duty, pain and loss, and above all love, in a way which affects all people no matter what age or nationality.

Pachinko is absorbing, distressing and yet heart-warming in almost equal measure. Yes, it is a family sage, but it is also much more than that. It is a story of resilience and compassion as four generations of Koreans struggle to find their identity and place in a world which does not want them. A powerful novel which I heartily recommend.

Pachinko can be found on Amazon

You can find our more about Min Jin Lee here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior

On 11th November 1920 simultaneous acts of interment took place at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At each location the remains of an unknown soldier who had died in the Great War were laid to rest, a representative and symbol for all those whose loved ones had no known grave. The burials of these British and French soldiers are the first examples of a Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier.

It was in 1916 that army chaplain Reverend David Railton saw a rough wooden cross marking a grave in a back garden at Armentières, on the Western Front, in pencil on the cross were the words ’An Unknown British Soldier’. In 1920 Railton suggested to the Dean of Westminster that an unidentified British soldier should be buried ‘amongst the kings’ in Westminster Abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands of men from throughout the Empire who had died during the conflict. The Dean readily agreed and the idea was supported by David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister.

The selection of bodies for the Unknown Warrior in France (© IWM Q 109517)

The remains of four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four of the battlefields, (the Aisne, the Somme, Arras, and Ypres), to be taken to a chapel near Arras where they were laid on stretchers covered by Union Flags. Brigadier General Wyatt, responsible for selecting the Unknown Warrior, did not know which battlefields they had come from and chose one of the bodies at random. The three remaining were taken away to be reburied whilst a service led by chaplains for the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, and Non-Conformist churches was said for the fourth body which was placed in a plain coffin.

The Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, November 1920 (©IWM Q 31492)

The next day (8th November 1920) the chosen soldier was taken to Boulogne where the French 8th Infantry Regiment kept an overnight vigil before the coffin was prepared for its return to England. The plain coffin was placed in a casket made from oak timbers from Hampton Court Palace; King George V had personally chosen a crusader sword from the royal collection to be fixed to the top of the casket along with an iron shield on which was engraved the words ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’. The casket was covered with the flag that Rev. Railton had used as an altar cloth during the War (known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel).

HMS VERDUN carrying the body of the Unknown Warrior to Dover at Boulogne Harbour. (© IWM Q 68248)

Six black horses then drew the coffin on an open waggon through the city of Boulogne and down to the harbour. The mile-long procession, escorted by a division of French troops, was led by 1,000 local schoolchildren who marched solemnly as all the church bells tolled and trumpets sounded Aux Champs (the French equivelant of The Last Post). Marshal Foch saluted the coffin as it was carried aboard HMS Verdun which was escorted across the English Channel by six battleships. Its arrival in Dover on 10th November was marked by a 19-gun salute, an honour normally reserved for a Field Marshall.

Unveiling of the Cenotaph and the funeral of the Unknown Warrior, Armistice Day 1920 (© IWM Q 14964)

From Dover the Unknown Warrior was taken by train to Victoria Station in London where he remained overnight before the casket was placed on a gun carriage drawn by black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery in the early morning of 11th November. Huge silent crowds lined the routed as the cortege made its way to Whitehall, the only sound another Field Marshal’s salute from guns in Hyde Park. A temporary Cenotaph had been the focus of commemorations the previous year, on 11th November 1919, and this had now been replaces with a permanent structure. The gun carriage carrying the Unknown Warrior halted at this new permanent memorial which was unveiled by King George V who placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin, the accompanying card read ‘In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920’. After laying his wreath the king then followed the casket on its final journey to Westminster Abbey, accompanied by other members of the Royal Family and minister of the government.

(© IWM Q 31493) King George V following the gun carriage bearing the Unknown Warrior, Whitehall, 11 November 1920

When the Unknown Warrior arrived at the Abbey 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross provided a Guard of Honour as he was carried to the West Nave. During the burial service the King dropped a handful of French soil onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave and Reveille was sounded by trumpeters (the Last Post had already been sounded at the Cenotaph). The Padre’s Flag was laid over the grave. Guests of honour at the ceremony included royalty and statesmen, and more than a hundred women who had lost their husband and all of their sons during the four terrible years of conflict which had taken such a toll on Europe. They watched as the coffin was interred with soil from the major battlefields, and a guard of honour formed to flank the tomb as tens of thousands of mourners filed past in silence; for many this was the only place they would ever be able to visit as their own loved ones had ‘no known grave’ somewhere in northern Europe.

The photograph shows the coffin resting on a cloth in the nave of Westminster Abbey before the ceremony at the Cenotaph and its final burial. © IWM Q31514

For the remainder of the day servicemen kept watch at each corner of the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. When night fell and the Abbey was closed the guard continued to stand, arms reversed, in the light of four flickering candles to keep watch through the night.

Special permission had been given to make a recording of the service but very little of it was of good enough quality to be included on a record which became the first electrical recording ever to be sold to the public.

On 18th November the grave was filled with 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields; a temporary stone was placed over it with the inscription

‘A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918 FOR KING AND COUNTRY. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.’

The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior became a focus for the grieving of a nation, and also an aid to healing for all those who had no known grave for their loved one – who was to say that he did not lie here in Westminster Abbey? On 17th October 1921 the Unknown Warrior was awarded the United State’s highest award for valour, the Medal of Honour, by General Pershing; the medal still hangs on a pillar close to the tomb.

The Tomb is now covered with a black marble stone which was unveiled during a special service on 11th November 1921 at the same time that the Padre’s Flag was dedicated, this, too, is still on display in Westminster Abbey.

When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI in 1923 she laid her bouquet at the Tomb in memory of her brother Fergus, who died in 1915 during the Battle of Loos and is listed amongst the missing on the memorial there. Ever since that day the bouquets of all Royal brides who have married in Westminster Abbey have been laid on the Tomb. Before she died the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, then Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, asked for her wreath to be laid on the Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior, this act of remembrance was carried out by Queen Elizabeth II on the day after her mother’s funeral.

The name of the serviceman intered in the Tomb is truly unknown, he could be a member of any of the three services – Army, Navy, or Air Force – and could have been from the British Isles or one of the Dominions or Colonies which, at that time made up the British Empire. As such he represents all those who died and have no known grave or memorial. In memory of the sacrifice made by so many the heads of state from over 70 countries have laid wreaths in memory of the Unknown Warrior buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey which people are forbidden to walk on. The words engraved on it say

Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation

Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world

They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
His house

Around the main inscription are four New Testament quotations:

The Lord knoweth them that are his (2 Timothy 2:19)
Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (2 Corinthians 6:9)
Greater love hath no man than this (John 15:13)
In Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22)

The artist Frank O. Salisbury attended the burial and made a sketch of the event which was attended by leading politicians, senior military figures and members of the Royal Family led by King George V. The painting which he developed from the sketch hangs in Committee Room 10 in the Houses of Parliament.

Recommended Read – The First Casualty by Ben Elton

The first casualty when war comes is truth . . . Flanders, June 1917: a British officer and celebrated poet, is shot dead.He is killed not by German fire, but while recuperating from shell shock well behind the lines. A young English soldier is arrested and, although he protests his innocence, charged with his murder. Douglas Kingsley is a conscientious objector, previously a detective with the London police, now imprisoned for his beliefs. He is released and sent to France in order to secure a conviction. Forced to conduct his investigations amidst the hell of The Third Battle of Ypres, Kingsley soon discovers that both the evidence and the witnesses he needs are quite literally disappearing into the mud that surrounds him.

Ben Elton’s tenth novel is a gut-wrenching historical drama which explores some fundamental questions:

What is murder? What is justice in the face of unimaginable daily slaughter? And where is the honour in saving a man from the gallows if he is only to be returned to die in a suicidal battle?

The First Casualty is set during the First World War but this novel is about more than the physical war. Kingsley, the main character, faces the horrors of the Third Battle Of Ypres on the ground – in the trenches, in no-man’s land, and in a hospital for solders suffering from shell shock. But complicating this is the fact that Kingsley is a conscientious objector. He is not a pacifist against all wars but a moral man who can see no point in a war where men are dying in their hundreds of thousands to take a few feet of land which is likely to be taken back by the enemy at any time. He cannot see either side winning, for how can you win when a whole generation of your young men have been slaughtered? Worst of all, he sees the government and the army as murderers – they know what is happening, they know that victory would be hollow but they send men again and again against the artillery and machine-guns and bayonets rather than sue for peace. Kingsley believes that their pride comes before the lives of the men under their care and so he takes a moral stand and refuses to fight.

Kingsley, a police detective, now has to face those who give him a coward’s white feather, he is sent to prison and has to face men who he put there and who do not want to see him leave prison alive; but most harrowing of all for Kingsley is the fact that he must face the future alone for his wife cannot be associated with a coward and has left him, taking his son with her.

Against this backdrop Kingsley is released from prison to find a murderer somewhere amongst the hundreds of thousands of men waiting to go over the top at Ypres, and the conscientious objector finds himself on the front line fighting to survive the war, find the killer and start a new life.

Ben Elton has written a well-researched and cleverly plotted novel which puts the reader right in the midst of the most terrible carnage. The sights and sounds, the atrocious conditions, the heroism and the loss of hope are all laid bare in a clear and concise writing style which leaves little to the imagination, whilst at the same time you are immersed in a murder enquiry with just enough suspects to keep you guessing until the end. The characters are well-drawn and believable which helps to bring a stark reality to this novel – the wife who loves her husband but cannot face the social ostracism that being married to him will bring; the officer whose unpleasant nature has been twisted even further by the horrors that he has experienced and his expectation  of an imminent death; the ordinary soldiers who put up with appalling conditions to fight for their country; soldiers who have embraced communism seeing it as the only way to end the war and bring about a just and fair society – all bring something to make this novel the well-rounded polemic that it is.

As a murder mystery The First Casualty is intriguing. As an ethical debate on the evils of war, duty to country, pacifism and conscience it is thought provoking. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

The First Casualty can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The black Polish resistance fighter – August Browne

Buried in an unremarkable grave in Hampstead Cemetery is a remarkable man. Few people know of August Agboola Browne who, although born in Nigeria, became a hero of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War. It seems fitting that this courageous man should be remembered during black history month.

August Browne was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on 22nd July 1895; his father was a longshoreman who brought his family to England in search of work. When the family arrived in England August, who was a musician, joined a touring theatre troupe and travelled with them to Germany and then Poland. The young Nigerian arrived in Warsaw in 1922 and by the 1930’s was well known as a jazz percussionist who played in many of Warsaw’s music clubs and restaurants. August was polite and well-liked, his affinity with languages (he spoke six) meant that he was soon conversant in Polish, married and had two sons. Although the marriage failed August took care of his family and at the outbreak of war sent them to England (this was not too difficult for him to do as he was a citizen of the then British Empire). Although he could have travelled with his family August chose to stay in Poland to fight the Nazis.

August was in his mid-forties when Germany invaded Poland, and after having lived there for 17 years he felt an affinity for the country and its people. He helped to defend Warsaw when it was besieged, then later went on to distribute underground newspapers as well as shelter refugees from the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto was a section of the city which had been sealed off by the German’s as living space for the Jewish population. Conditions inside the ghetto were terrible with 91,000 people dying from starvation and disease; a further 300,000 Jews were transported from there to their deaths in German concentration camps.

In 1944 there was an Uprising against the German occupiers of Warsaw in which August is believed to have been the only black person to fight. Code-named ‘Ali’, he served as part of the Iwo Battalion of the Polish Underground known as the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The Uprising began when the Armia Krajowa attacked the occupying forces on 1st August 1944 and swiftly gained control of much of the city. Germany sent in reinforcements to crush the resistance whilst nearby Soviet troops, who were supposed to be allies of the Poles, sat back and did nothing to help. The Warsaw Uprising was the largest resistance action to take place during the Second World War; the Poles held out for two months without proper equipment or help but the outcome was inevitable and they were forced surrendered on 2nd October. During the 63 days of the Uprising 16,000 Polish fighters and 200,000 civilians were killed, and the city almost totally destroyed. During those heroic days Polish deaths exceeded those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

As the only black member of the resistance in Warsaw August must have been conspicuous which put him at greater risk than his companions, yet he managed to survive in a city where 94% of the population were either killed or displaced. After the war Auguste continued to live in Warsaw, where he remarried and continued his music career as well as working in the Department of Culture and Art, before emigrating to Britain in the late 1950’s. Living in London he continued to work as a jazz percussionist and gave piano lessons.

August died in 1976 and is buried in Hampstead cemetery, in what is an unremarkable grave for a very remarkable man.

On August 2nd 2019 a stone was unveiled in his memory in Warsaw: “In honor of Augustine Agboola Browne, nom de guerre “Ali”, a jazz musician and a participant in the Warsaw Uprising of Africa origin. Poland was the country he chose to live in”.

Recommended Read – The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye

The Far Pavilions is the story of an English man – Ashton Pelham-Martyn – brought up as a Hindu. It is the story of his passionate, but dangerous love for Juli, an Indian princess. It is the story of divided loyalties, of friendship that endures till death, of high adventure and of the clash between East and West.

To the burning plains and snow-capped mountains of this great, humming continent, M.M. Kaye brings her exceptional gifts of storytelling and meticulous historical accuracy, plus her insight into the human heart.

The Far Pavilions is a long-time favourite of mine. The sweeping saga covers more than 30 years of British and Indian history which has been meticulously researched and is written in such a way as to portray the politics and social life of both cultures in a realistic way that it draws the reader in. Although at the heart this novel is a love story the attention to detail which is found in the descriptions of camp life and palaces, sunburned plains and snow-capped mountains, monotonous travel by train and horseback etc. is testament to the years which Ms Kaye spent in India and her love for the country and its culture. She has also been able to write about the British army during the Raj with a depth of understanding which comes from having lived in military families in India as the Raj drew to a close, and it is interesting to see the roots of political issues which still face the world today grown out of the time and place which is so beautifully evoked in The Far Pavilions.

From India under ‘The Company’ through the Great Mutiny and on to the Second Afghan War Ms Kaye has woven together the lives of people from all levels of society and a variety of religious faiths with a depth of understanding of human nature and morality with makes the story totally believable and it is easy to feel sympathy towards people from both sides of the divide. The writing is beautifully descriptive, some passages are really artistic canvases painted with words. The characters are totally believable and the dialogue realistic which combine to give real depth to the people who fill the pages of this novel. The descriptions of life for women in India is enlightening, and the device of having Ash as a British boy brought up as a Hindu allows the author to show a confusion of identity which gets to the heart of the problems of colonisation and its impact on the local population.

This is a very long book, a saga in all senses of the word, but well worth reading if you are interested in history and the psychology of Empire which has created so much of the modern world in which we live. The Far Pavilions is classic historical fiction which weaves a carefully crafted plot through the realities of the place and time so that it is sometimes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. A great adventure story and a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of a stunning landscape, what more could any lover of historical fiction want?

The Far Pavilions can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about M M Kaye here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Lyudmila Pavlichenko – The most successful female sniper in history

“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Lyudmila Belova was born 12th July 1916 in Bila Tserkva in the Ukraine (near Kiev). Her mother was a school teacher and her father a factory worker who worked his way up to a position of responsibility. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to move to a new town every year which in turn meant that Lyudmila had to start again each year at a new school with new friends.

Lyudmila was a tomboy – preferring to play rough and tumble games with the boys rather than with girls. When she was 14 the family moved to Kiev where one boy kept bragging that he could shoot better than anyone else, this annoyed Lyudmila who thought she could do anything that a boy could do so she joined a local shooting club. She had a natural talent and was soon winning medals at competitions.

As a teenager Lyudmila worked at the Kiev arms factory as well as working so hard at her studies that she graduated from college a year earlier than other students of her age. Lyudmila married a doctor, Alexei Pavlichenko, when she was 16 and they had a son called Rostislav. Russian women were expected to marry young and start a family so this was not unusual; it was also a matter of pride for women to work full-time and also look after their young family, not like the ‘stay-at-home-mums’ of other European countries. The Russian idea was that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so everyone helped to look after the children of the community which enabled the women to work.

Lyudmila was not satisfied with working in the armament’s factory – she wanted an education and a career, unfortunately her insistence on this led to her and Alexei getting a divorce. Lyudmila studied for a Bachelor’s degree in history at Kiev University with the aim of becoming a teacher. The young Russian was planning to do a Master’s, but then the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and her plans were put on hold after the death and destruction she witnessed during the battle of Kiev made her put aside her dreams of becoming a teacher in favour of killing Nazis.

Lyudmila was 24 when she enlisted in the Russian Army, this was a year before women were conscripted but she didn’t want to wait. The authorities felt that as a woman she should become a nurse but Lyudmila had other ideas and when she showed them her shooting medals she was allowed to join an all-male sniper school (a women’s sniper school was not set up until 1942). When she was sent to the front after her training Lyudmila was initially set to digging trenches, it wasn’t until a colleague was too wounded to continue and he handed her his gun that she had a weapon at last. The young woman had been bullied at sniper school and the other snipers still did not accept her fully so they set her a test – to shoot two of the enemy standing in a field, if she couldnd’t do it she would be sent home. Lyudmila surprised everyone by killing both Germans with two very quick headshots and she was accepted in the ranks of the snipers.

On her first day on the battlefield Lyudmila was frozen with fear and couldn’t bring herself to lift her gun and fire on the enemy. Then a young Russian soldier moved beside her but before he could settle in a shot rang out and he was killed. The shock spurred Lyudmila to action as she had liked the ‘nice, happy boy’, and from that moment on there was no stopping her.

During the Siege of Odessa which lasted from 8th August until 16th October 1941, Lyudmila killed 187 of the enemy saying that she was so successful because she hated the enemy too much to fear him. On one occasion Germans had marked her position in a tree and were firing at it. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before they killed her Lyudmila deliberately fell out of the tree and played dead until nightfall when she slipped quietly away. It was at that point that her comrades began to call her ‘Lady Death’.

Lyudmila later took part in the battle of Sevastopol where she killed 70 more Germans (taking her total to 257) and she was assigned to become a counter-sniper – in other words to target and kill enemy snipers. This took great skill and perseverance as she had to sit still and wait until the enemy sniper revealed himself before taking her shot; on average this took 15 – 20 hours. On one occasion Lyudmila had to lay still in her hiding place for 3 days without food or water waiting for the enemy sniper to reveal himself. In all she was sent against 36 enemy snipers and killed them all.

By the time she had killed 309 Germans Lyudmila had become a Lieutenant and fallen in love with Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko who was also a sniper; the couple were married but Leonid was killed soon after.

The Germans knew who Lyudmila was and were so afraid of her skill that they tried to persuade her to defect by offering her chocolate and the promise of an officer rank in the German army. Lyudmila was never going to agree so the Germans said that when they caught her they would tear her into 309 pieces. This pleased Lyudmila because it meant that everyone knew her tally!

Lyudmila was shot four times whilst on active service and also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds although these did not stop her and she continued to fight. After being hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar shell the ace sniper was withdrawn from the battlefield (by submarine from Sevastopol) to spend a month in hospital. Rather than sending her back to the front the Soviet High Command posted Lyudmila to train snipers, she was also given the role of propagandist.

Stalin had been trying to encourage Roosevelt to open a Second Front in Europe without success so in 1942 Stalin sent Lyudmila to America to tell her story. The young Russian woman arrived in Washington where she became the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt asked Lyudmila to accompany her on a tour of the country so that she could tell Americans about her experiences as a woman in combat. Rather than being impressed with Lyudmila reporters on the tour asked why she didn’t wear make-up or style her hair, and what she thought of the military uniform which made her look fat. She replied that “I wear my uniform with honour. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was very impressed with the young Russian and gave her advice on public speaking. As they travelled through 43 states Lyudmila’s confidence grew and she and the First Lady became very good friends. This boost in confidence became obvious when they reached Chicago and Lyudmila confronted the men in the audience by saying “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” She also addressed the subject of equality by saying “Now [in the U.S.] I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”

Lyudmila also visited Canada before traveling to Coventry in England where she accepted donations of £4,516 from local workers to pay for three X-ray units for the Red Army. She also visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral before returning to Russia and continuing to train snipers until the end of the war.

Lyudmila was a national symbol of women in the USSR, she was even featured on a ration postage stamp. After the war Lyudmila returned to Kiev University and finished her Master’s Degree in History, but instead of becoming a teacher she was given a position as a research specialist for the Soviet navy.

In 1957 Eleanor Roosevelt visited Russia and the two women were re-united for an afternoon reminiscing about their tour of America.

Lyudmila died in 1974 aged 58. Her life was commemorated with a second postage stamp.

Awards and honours

  • Hero of the Soviet Union (25 October 1943)
  • Two Order of Lenin (16 July 1942 and 25 October 1943)
  • Two Medals “For Military Merit” (26 April 1942 and 13 June 1952)
  • Campaign medals

Recommended Read – Silence by Shusaku Endo

SilenceBeneath the light of the candle I am sitting with my hands on my knees, staring in front of me. And I keep turning over in my mind the thought that I am at the end of the earth, in a place which you do not know and which your whole lives through you will never visit.

It is 1640 and Father Sebastian Rodrigues, an idealistic Jesuit priest, sets sail for Japan determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians there. He is also desperate to discover the truth about his former mentor, rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues cannot believe the stories about a man he so revered, but as his journey takes him deeper into Japan and then into the hands of those who would crush his faith, he finds himself forced to make an impossible choice: whether to abandon his flock or his God.

The recipient of the 1966 Tanizaki Prize, Silence is Shusaku Endo’s most highly acclaimed work and has been called one of the twentieth century’s finest novels. As empathetic as it is powerful, it is an astonishing exploration of faith and suffering and an award-winning classic.

Silence is set in what is known as the ‘Christian century’ in Japan – Christian missionaries first arrived there in 1549 and the faith spread rapidly; the writings of these Portuguese missionaries are the source of much of what we know of Japan at that time. After an initial period where the western visitors – both traders and missionaries – were respected, those in power in Japan were increasingly worried by the influence of the foreign missionaries. This led to a time of persecution in which many Christians were executed and the foreign missionaries were banned, if they came to Japan they were forced to give up their faith or face martyrdom. Many Christians were brutally tortured before being burned, drowned, or slowly bleed to death. Despite this, missionaries from Europe continued to sneak into Japan which is where the novel Silence begins.

The story of Rodrigues, a 17th century Portuguese priest, is a mixture of history and theology told through the interweaving lives of a range of believable characters. Shusaku Endo writes of the conflict between east and west – the relationship between Japan and Christianity – in a way which shows that Christianity must adapt if it is to take root in a culture so very different to its Middle Eastern origins and European development. It is a tale of the struggle between faith and belief, a study of martyrdom versus apostasy written in a restrained style which reflects the time period yet with a simplicity which gets to the heart of the pain and suffering of the Europeans who were often placed in an impossible position.

Endo writes with sensitivity about the clash of cultures creating a novel which is moving and disturbing in equal measure. Although Rodrigues is a fictional character his story is based upon a real person, the Italian priest Giuseppe Chiara, and like Chiara Rodrigues takes a physical and theological journey to his own calvary, struggling with the eternal concept of why God is silent in the face of suffering. Silence gives us no clear answer to that question but leaves us with much to ponder on and apply to our own situation.

Endo has created a novel which paints a vivid picture of life in 17th century Japan whilst at the same time being an excellent study of man and faith, a book which is at times delicate and at other times brutal, a sometimes harrowing picture of the mental and physical challenges faced by the missionary. It is a testament to the translator that the reader can feel deeply the ideas and emotions which the author so clearly wished to convey. If you feel that a story about a missionary in Japan is not for you then you will be missing out on a philosophical novel which challenges many fundamental beliefs and morals and is likely to change the way you think about life.

Silence can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here