Friday, 26 May 2017

An astonishing tale from World War I

My plan this week had been to write something about James Brooke, perhaps following up any ideas that had come out of my talk on his life last night. Then I remembered that I have to spend Friday driving to Wales. I'm going to see the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan on Monday and we're making our way there by slow stages.

Anyway, all this activity means I don't have time to put my own blog together today, so I'm delighted to be posting one of the contributions that Marsali Taylor sent to cover my holiday break.

Marsali has a particular interest in women’s history. She has written Women’s Suffrage in Shetland and transcribed the diaries of an old lady she knew when she was a child: Ysabel Birkbeck, who was an ambulance driver on the Russian Front in 1916. Marsali is in the process of revising her edition of the diaries, Forgotten Heroines, using Birkbeck’s own typescript. She hopes the final version will be published later this year.

Marsali's web site is at and her Facebook page is

Aunt Ysabel

When WWI began, Dr Elsie Inglis, one of Scotland’s first women doctors, offered the War Office two front-line units staffed entirely by women. ‘Go home and sit still,’ she was told. Her reply was to create the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service, funded through the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. They established the first hospital outside Paris, attached to the French Army, and Dr Inglis herself went to Serbia. She and two others remained there even under German occupation, while the equally intrepid women with her marched over the Serbian mountains to safety.  When Serbia was relieved, Dr Inglis returned to Britain. She was already ill with the stomach cancer which was to kill her a year later, but she once more led a unit of 75 women to go with the Serbian army to the Romanian front.
         I came to the story of the indomitable Dr Inglis through my equally indomitable Aunt Ysabel. She wasn’t actually my aunt; we spent my childhood summers on her brother’s estate in the Highlands, and she lived in the next cottage along, six miles by boat from the road end. She had a head of snow-white curls, and wore the faded blue tunic and wide trousers of a Chinese peasant, a dress she’d adopted as a teenager when visiting her missionary brother-in-law. She bathed in the burn, read by Tilley lamp and cooked on an ancient gas stove, using provisions sent by post from the Army and Navy stores in London. Chaffinches flew in and out of her kitchen, and she’d take you round the back of the cottage to show you the story of the night’s wildlife in the muddy patch there: ‘That’s the dog fox’s pawprint – that’s an otter cub.’  

Aunt Ysabel at the helm of Mine.

         What I hadn’t known, as I’d helped carry buckets of stones to make a new jetty for Mine, her dinghy, or forced down her tar-black tea on picnic expeditions, was that Ysabel Birkbeck had driven an ambulance on the Russian Front in 1917 – until we bought her house after her death, and I found her diaries, two black-bound books bulging with tiny photographs and watercolour sketches.
         Reading the diaries made me really see how World War I was the turning-point in Edwardian women’s emancipation.  The Buffs, as the drivers called themselves, to distinguish themselves from the ‘Greys’ or medical staff, were mostly ‘surplus’ county daughters who’d resigned themselves to a life of good works and flower arranging.  This was the most interesting time they’d ever been offered, and they were determined to make the most of it.
         The women sailed from Liverpool in August 1916. They learnt Russian and mechanics on the journey out, and met Serbian officers who were to become friends (characteristically, in this photo, Aunt Y is the one talking to the cat).

         They had a fancy dress party to celebrate arriving in Archangel (Aunt Ysabel went as Puss in Boots ‘with wire whiskers stuck through a soft Balaclava helmet and wearing my jacket and field boots and at the beginning of the evening a rope tail.’)  Their two days in Archangel included a visit to the house of Peter the Great, and tea at the Cafe de Paris. They left by train, singing It’s a long way to Tipperary behind the Ship’s Band – ‘formed of firemen and stokers – till roars of cheers drowned out our song. Hundreds of Russian soldiers, which we had not seen because of the dark, were massed on either side of our way. They cheered as I have never heard men cheer ...’ From being surplus daughters, they’d become heroines.  

         When their train arrived at Odessa, they were treated as the guests of the city, and invited to the Opera, where the Grand Duchess Mary Pavlova asked to meet them, and accidentally coined a phrase which the drivers gleefully used to describe themselves thereafter: ‘Are you a chouveur?‘ she asked one of them, and ‘shovers’ they all became, an appropriate designation given the time they were to spend shoving their cars out of mud holes. From the train, they went on a barge for three days – with food only for one day. 

         They arrived at last on the ‘road’ to Medjidea, where the hospital was to be set up: ‘a worse road than I had dreamed one would ever drive a car over. Water filled the holes and it was impossible to guess a puddle from a pit.’  The heavy kitchen car got stuck, and had to be hauled up by hand. 

         They got to work almost straight away. This watercolour is labelled ‘Road to the Front – shelling ahead.’  

         Ysabel wrote in her diary, ‘My car was the first to be loaded, two stretcher cases, one head case – delirious – and another with a fractured thigh. It was for them the horror, and I, to lessen it as far as possible, and so I drove them back and the memory of it will always be there till I die... the plain, and all those tracks, and not to know the shortest way home, with the wounded screaming at every jolt.’
         They had less than a month at Medjidia before they had to retreat, some by road, some by rail, among chaos and brutality – ‘One saw on every face what we have since called “the mark of the Exodus”. We have all agreed not to talk about it ... we have all seen things we are trying to forget. No, we never, never shall.’ 

         The entire unit was awarded the Serbian gallantry medal (the same medal as the men, to their satisfaction) and some, like Aunt Ysabel, were given an extra medal for courage under fire – in her case, changing a car tyre while under aeroplane fire.
         Safely over the Danube, Ysabel was laid low by a severe case of jaundice, but she was determined to stay, and soon they were back at work, attached to the Russian cavalry near Constanta. Skirts over their breeches were forgotten; they wore layers of greatcoats, and were  reproved by Dr Inglis herself for swearing. In this photo, Aunt Ysabel is on the left; the lively woman by the sentry was ‘Jack’ Holmes, Mrs Pankhurst’s driver.

         By now they’d learnt to flirt in French, German and Russian, and their time here included a magnificent ball, given by the General, with a display of Cossack dancing and singing –  ‘Long coats, tiny waists and shaggy black hats made them fierce and wild-looking ... they stamped and leapt with amazing agility and lightness ... they sang in harsh, rather thrilling, voices of love and war.  When they paused, and I went to the door, I heard guns and it – was it like the night before Waterloo?’
         Rain turned the roads to mud: ‘mud that works its way into ones boots, one’s pockets and one’s hair, mud through which one has to struggle a foot deep at every step.’  It was not a retreat this time, but ‘the retreat. Romania is to be abandoned...’ They spent the night surrounded by soldiers, singing, and were proud to be the last cars across the Danube before the pontoon bridge was destroyed.
         They ended up back in Odessa. Their Model T Fords had survived three months of the roughest treatment, and were due for a rest and overhaul. For the first time the women were bored, as they worked under two male mechanics sent out from Britain: ‘Truly we worked as British workmen should, and do, the whole world over. Slackness has entered our bones. Punctually, at 1, we knocked off for the full dinner-hour...’

         They still managed to have fun at the Opera, and Birkbeck persuaded a sledge owner to let her drive his horse. She and her friend Teddy were sent of to Remi with a ‘bolshoi pacquet’, and were taken under the magnificent wing of a Georgian officer, Alexandre, who was bound for the front.  They returned in a hospital train owned by a Grand Duke. 

         They couldn’t drive during the winter months, because the roads were snowed up, so Birkbeck and others applied for leave. The plan was to go home via St  Petersburg, but they arrived there in March 1917 – just in time for the Revolution. They had another narrow escape when someone fired on the new regime’s police from their hotel. English sang-froid coped even with that: ‘Such a mob as poured into our room – soldiers, factory hands, old men and young – all carrying firearms or knives. We cordially welcomed our visitors (never anger a man with a gun) – and gave them cigarettes ... ‘ After that, they showed one new officer how to wear his sword-belt, and cleaned the rooms of three officials.
         They finally escaped via Finland, and weren’t allowed back; the British Government was desperately trying to get Dr Inglis and her women out of revolutionary Russia. Dr Inglis refused to go until the Serbian regiments, the last Serbian men, were recalled with her. She arrived in Newcastle in November 1917, and died there two days later. A service was held for her in Westminster Abbey, and she was buried in her native Edinburgh.
         Birkbeck and her friends headed for France instead, joining FANY. She was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Bronze star for her coolness and courage ‘in continuing to transport wounded under violent bombardment’ at Verdun. When WWII came, she returned to London, and drove an ambulance once more in the explosive nights of the Blitz. This photo shows her celebrating VE day. 

         She was an amazing lady. I feel privileged to have known her.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Dancing tango in Buenos Aires

We’re just back from Buenos Aires so I’m going to indulge myself with the odd blog post about it. It is loosely relevant to my books, of course, because Burke in the Land of Silveris mostly set there. Burke, though, never gets to dance tango, because that didn’t exist in 1806 when he arrived in the city. For us, though, tango is one of the joys of being here. We get to dance tango in all sorts of places, from a sort of house party in San Telmo, to a courtyard in one of South America’s oldest buildings, to a bandstand in a park. The range of different styles and different approaches to the dance was wonderful. London’s growing tango scene offers some variety (even a bandstand in a park) but there is nothing like the range that you get in Buenos Aires. That’s one of the reasons that people travel from all over the world to dance there.

Of course, although we enjoyed all these different environments, we spent most of our time in regular clubs, safe from the increasingly frequent and violent rainstorms that can make journeys outside an adventure at this time of year.

Of all the traditional clubs, the most traditional that we danced at was El Beso which, on a good night (and we were lucky to dance there on good nights) has one of the strictest lines of dance I know.

Tango enthusiasts in London talk a lot about line of dance. It’s the procession anti-clockwise round the room that characterises the most formal tango. Suffice it to say, you don’t see a lot of it in London, which is maybe why dancers there attach an almost fetishistic importance to it.

Dancing in El Beso pushes the concept of line of dance about as far as it will go. It is a unique experience. You have two or three feet between you and the couple ahead and two or three feet between you and the couple behind. Once the place starts to fill up there will be a second line of dance that means you have perhaps three feet toward the centre of the floor. Thanks to tables tight against the floor stepping outwards is just impossible.

This being Buenos Aires people do promenade rather than showing off on the spot, so the ronda moves slowly but steadily throughout the dance. You have your space and you stay in it. If the ronda slows, you take a small step towards the centre, maybe with a simple figure and then back into your space. It sounds limiting and dull, but it isn’t. You don’t have to plan your exciting step sequence; you don’t have to worry about navigation. You make one of the small range of steps open to you and you make them small and as near perfect as you can manage. It’s tango zen, both demanding and liberating.

Why, then, am I irritated by the constant obsession with line of dance in London? 

Because El Beso illustrates perfectly why it is never going to happen in London and an almost-but-not-quite-perfect line of dance can be worse than a relaxed free-for-all. (Buenos Aires has them too. An evening at Milonga X a few years back won’t be forgotten in a hurry.)

For the kind of dancing you see in El Beso to work everyone on the floor has to be totally committed to making it work. You can probably cope with one couple who don’t keep in place. You can maybe even cope with two, provided they are doing their best. After that it just breaks down. Because the joy of a very strict line of dance is that you are dancing not just with your partner but with the whole room. And if you don’t respect the room as much as your partner, it just isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t happen in London and, contrary to legend, it doesn’t happen on most floors in Buenos Aires either. The strict line of dance is to the average Saturday night what pate de foie gras is to meat-paste – but not everybody wants to eat pate de foie gras all the time and we would get very annoyed if people took to Facebook to tell us that people who prefer other meat-based products are ignorant and stupid and shouldn’t be allowed in decent restaurants. Yet not only do people insist on lecturing others about strict line of dance but some even put up little diagrams explaining how the rest of us should move around the floor. It’s just passive aggression and we’re better off without it.

Dancing tango in Buenos Aires is lovely. It’s a unique experience. One of the reasons I like Argentina is its almost heroic resistance to globalisation. Most people speak little or no English; Amazon has failed to make significant inroads and bookshops flourish; chain stores (besides Carrefour) have yet to displace local businesses. Argentina is its own place and dances tango in its own style. At El Beso (as in most traditional clubs), men and women sit separately. You are shown to your seat and that’s where you sit. There’s no free for all and swapping of seats as you do in London – or would if London venues ever offered enough seats for everyone to sit down. Light levels are high enough for communication from the men’s seats to the women’s to be possible by the subtle glance – the cabaceo that invites a woman to dance. The London version of these traditions is an embarrassing compromise. It desperately tries to balance modern notions of freedom and mingling of the sexes with a tradition based in the values of the 19th century Catholicism which was the background to the dance in Argentina. One of the joys of travel is to appreciate the differences between cultures and one of the joys of coming back home is to bring back ideas that will integrate with your own world, not to seek to impose alien values on it.

I really recommend El Beso. If you want to dance like that, it’s the price of an air fare well spent. I’m looking forward to going again. But not everyone wants to dance there and many people lack the technical skills required anyway. They are going to dance the way people dance in almost every other club in the world – vaguely anti-clockwise and doing their best not to kick anyone. Provided they manage not to kick me, that’s the most I have the right to ask for. It ought to be the most anyone else asks too.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Tweets, talks and a whiff of controversy

I’m still in Argentina, where I had planned to take a holiday from social media, but that hasn’t really worked out. It’s less than two weeks now until I’m going to be in Windsor talking about James Brooke as part of the Thames Valley History Festival. I’ll be at Waterstones at 7.30 on 25 May and it would be lovely if you could make it. The need to publicise the talk, though, means that I have had to put stuff on Facebook and Twitter, so social media have inserted themselves back into my life.

I have mentioned before that I am not a natural Tweeter. I find saying anything worthwhile in 140 characters tricky. When I’m tweeting about my James Brooke talk, I tend just to say that I’m giving the talk; here’s where it is; here’s when it is; it would be nice if you could come. That’s about 140 characters.

Tammy complained that this didn’t say anything about why people might be interested in the talk, so my latest tweets tried to tweak it a bit. One said: “Just 2 weeks until my talk on James Brooke and how he won his own country.” With the location and a link, that was pretty well all there was room for. I was then taken to task for using the word ‘won’.

I stuck by ‘won’. I didn’t suggest it was won in a war (it was ceded by treaty because the Malay ruler saw advantages in having it governed by Brooke). And if you enter a situation and leave with more than you arrived with, ‘won’ seems a fair word. And, with only three letters, it is great for tweeting.

The person who complained then said that I was “glorifying history” and “stoking a toxic imperial nostalgia”. I’m not sure about glorifying history: I’m certainly trying to make it into a good story and that may well involve something that could be called ‘glorification’. But I’m hardly stoking imperial nostalgia because Sarawak, having been ceded to Brooke personally as a liege lord to the Sultan of Brunei, was never part of the Empire. (A passing pedant points out that it was briefly under British rule after World War II, but that’s hardly the point.) I am, it’s true, painting Brooke in heroic colours and his role has been critically re-examined of late, but when I first came across him around 1980, he was still seen by the people of Sarawak as overall a positive thing.

The complaint now became that “a place where people live is not a 'prize' to be won (unless you dehumanise the people already there)”. Actually, I had never described it as a ‘prize’ and Brooke’s concern for the people living there was a significant driver of his rule, but it was too late. I have lost a Twitter follower and, he says, a potential reader of my book. That’s a shame, not least because one of the themes of the book is the tension between Brooke’s desire to act for the best and the violence that resulted from his attempts to impose Western liberal ideals which did not develop naturally from the local social norms. The book ends [spoiler alert] with Williamson abandoning Brooke because he can no longer live with the horror of the military expeditions to put down opposition to liberal rule. Some people (I know) think that Brooke’s activities, as presented in the book, are absolutely justified; others agree with Williamson. I have tried to present both views credibly.

The thing is that I think that the whole issue of colonialism is complicated. For too much of the 20th century the British did, indeed, harbour a “toxic imperial nostalgia”. Colonialism was seen as a benefit to the countries we colonised. We gave the Indians railways and cricket and in Africa we shouldered “the White Man’s burden” and the natives should be forever grateful, whatever injustices they suffered and however much their countries were exploited.

Nowadays, we reject this view. However, we have swung somewhat to the opposite extreme. Nothing that the West brought to the rest of the world was of value; colonialists were all evil and colonialism was all about commercial exploitation. I’ve read accounts of how Brooke stole the native resources and made a fortune from opium, which sits uneasily with the easily established fact that he required enormous private subsidies to bear the financial losses that he made from his rule.

James Brooke: a good colonialist?

The truth is that the balance sheet of colonial rule is complicated. For what it’s worth, I think that interfering in the rule of other countries and imposing alien values on them seldom works out. You don’t have to go back to the 19th century to see that: the world today provides examples aplenty. But the West continues to interfere in other countries, not only to exploit their oil or other resources, but because we find it difficult to stand by while dictators wipe out their populations, women are subjugated or religious prejudices are allowed to destroy the lives of thousands of innocent people. The West still wants to interfere and intervene: it just does so less wholeheartedly than it did in the past. I’m not sure that the resulting chaos is necessarily an improvement. Ask, for example, the people of Libya.

I am not a philosopher or a historian. I write novels, some of which try, in passing, to look at serious issues and which have a solid historical base. In the end, though, they have to entertain, so a certain amount of glorification may sneak in. If you want to come along to Waterstones on 25 May and attack my imperialist nostalgia, I will do my best to defend myself, but I’m not AJP Taylor. It might make an interesting discussion. And you will at least come away knowing why Sarawak was never part of the British Empire and in a better position to decide whether or not James Brooke can be described as winning the country.

A proper talk will always say more than 140 characters. I hope you can make it. You can buy tickets (oh, come on, it’s only £5.50 – of which, by the way, I see nothing) here:

The book

James Brooke is the hero (for want of a better word) of the first of my John Williamson stories, The White Rajah. It's available in paperback or on Kindle for a ludicrously cheap $2.99/£1.99. Click HERE to buy on Amazon.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Neighbourhood Listen

We’re in Buenos Aires, where we’ve rented an apartment in the old district of San Telmo.

“Please don’t have any parties,” the owner said. “There are families with children in the block.”

We can see what he means. There are, indeed, children in the building. The house has probably been around well over a hundred years and pre-dates any ideas of sound insulation between floors. Plus our apartment, like many in these parts, is built around its own courtyard, a boon on hot days but an arrangement that means that the happy sound of children’s laughter carries into our new home easily enough to confirm that what our landlord says is true.

It’s all very South American. In a country where children seem to be seen as a blessing rather than an irritating interruption to career progression, it’s all to be expected and really quite charming.

What we didn’t expect so much was the clear evidence that, in a city where adults enjoy a famously enthusiastic nightlife, the children, too, never seem to sleep.

The cheery trill of children’s voices seems as likely to be heard at 1.00 am as any other time. And what are they doing up there, immediately above our bed? Hammering is just hammering, I suppose, and if you took a siesta during European notions of a sensible time to hammer, then you might want to catch up with DIY in the middle of the night. But wouldn’t it be easier to rearrange the furniture by daylight?

Some of the sounds defy interpretation. That scratch-scratch-scratch, that had me wonder if there were rodents hiding in the walls may, I suppose, be someone laying carpets – but it does seem unlikely, though with the furniture moving, it might be possible. But why the formation marching? How many people are there up there? Not just the children, of course, for adults come in for animated conversations at random hours through the night and, from the tone of voice, these are not the angry chidings of parents desperate for sleep, but adults calmly discussing the sort of family matters that absolutely, positively, must be discussed at 3.00 am.

If they are aware of the sounds downstairs (and I suppose they can’t fail to be), they probably have similar questions about our tango based lifestyle. Why are there never any signs of life in the morning? And why do they hear us falling into bed anytime between midnight and 5.00 am? But the only reason they can ask these questions is because they are awake to notice. At 5.00 I hear feet by the bed upstairs (the pattern of the footsteps has given me a fair idea of the geography of the roiom above ours). Is our mysterious neighbour, like us, just settling down for the night, or are they waking to make a start on one of the several jobs that people here have to get by in a hostile economic climate? I fall asleep myself before the footsteps gives me a clue as to the answer.

In London the absence of any notion of privacy, at least as far as audible intrusions go, would drive me mad. Here, though, I find it all strangely soothing. I lie, barely awake, as some sort of family conference starts overhead. Perhaps they are arguing about where to put the armchair. I hear it set off scraping across the floor and then, already, I am asleep.