Review of Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City by Jonathan Conlin (Atlantic Books)
Paris and London. London and Paris. The very names of these two world cities conjure remarkably separate and distinct impressions in the mind of the reader. Debonair Paris mixes a worldliness and elegance with a somewhat contradictory joie de vivre which can, at times, verge on the seedy. London, on the other hand, fosters an equally inconsistent image of a battle-hardened and shabby metropolis which prides itself on its stoicism in the face of adversity, while continuing to bask in the rapidly dimming reflection of past glories. Indeed, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, the only real connection between these two vastly divergent cities is their long-standing and deeply-entrenched rivalry.
And, on the face of it, this appears to hold true. Despite sharing similar early histories (both cities were founded by the Romans within a decade of year other), Paris and London have long defined themselves by their differences. It cannot be argued that, from time immemorial, denizens of both cities have not held the other in unconcealed disdain. And it is equally irrefutable that each city derived their sense of identity, at least in part, by holding themselves above and apart from the other.
But this widely-accepted (and one might say, hackneyed) belief in the separateness of the two cities is exactly what Jonathan Conlin sets out to controvert in his excellent examination of the cross-Channel relationship, Tales of Two Cities. Far from developing interdependently from each other, Conlin argues, both metropolises have been engaged in a constant dialogue which has informed their evolution. Borrowing extensively from each other, London and Paris have each exerted considerable influence over the other, and in doing so laid the foundations of the modern cities that have emerged in their wake.
Charming, dashing and aristocratic, Dmitri Bystrolyotov’s life reads like a far-fetched spy thriller. Addicted to danger, Bystrolyotov seduced French, British and German women procuring for Joseph Stalin vital information in the years leading up to war, including, amazingly, Hitler’s plans for rearmament. He was, without question, Stalin’s most daring and successful spy.
But then, in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s purges, Bystrolyotov was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Tortured and crippled, and made to ‘confess’ to fantastical charges, he was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Incarcerated and broken, Bystrolyotov felt the full force of the corrupt regime he had served so loyally for so long. But always one to take risks, Bystrolyotov recorded his experience within the gulags. With the help of contacts he smuggled out, page by page, his damning first-hand account of Stalin’s labour camps.
Now, 38 years after his death, the life of Dmitri Bystrolyotov is retold in a dramatic new book, Emil Draitser’s Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative.
The name is Bystrolyotov, Dmitri Bystrolyotov
Dmitri Bystrolyotov is a well-known name in Russia, an action hero for today reclaimed from the myths of yesteryear. Hailed on TV and film, subject of books and documentaries, Bystrolyotov is to Russia what James Bond is to the West but with one slight difference – Bystrolyotov was real.
One can’t help but gasp with admiration at the life and exploits of Christine Granville, one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines. On reading Clare Mulley’s entertaining biography, The Spy Who Loved, we are introduced to a woman who lived life on the edge and who found ordinary, routine existence a bore. Mulley writes with almost a venerable regard for her subject and rightly so, for one would expect the life of Christine Granville to exist only within the pages of fiction. Indeed, she may well have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, Vesper Lynd, from his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
Born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, 1908, to a rakish father, a count who taught her how to ride a horse like a man, and a wealthy, Jewish mother, Christine Granville, the name she later adopted, enjoyed an aristocratic, carefree childhood, whose tomboy antics earned the respect of her loving father. Granville disdained authority and convention from an early age, pushing boundaries wherever she went. As a convent schoolgirl, she was expelled for setting fire to the priest’s cassock. (He was wearing it at the time).
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Granville and her second husband travelled to London where she offered her services to British intelligence. She was sent to Hungary and from there, skied into German-occupied Poland. And from here, Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless’ and, from another report, ‘ready to risk her life at any moment for what she believed in’. What Granville believed in, was to play an active role in undermining Nazi control of her beloved homeland.
The date is 8 November 1939, the location – the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich. With their uniforms freshly-pressed, their buttons gleaming, their shoes polished, Hitler’s longest-standing comrades filed into the hall, their chests puffed-up with pride, their wives at their sides. This event, on this day, had become an annual occasion in the Nazi calendar, a ritual of celebration and remembrance. The climax of the evening, awaited with great anticipation, would be Hitler’s appearance and his speech in which he would praise and pour tribute on these self-satisfied men, his old-timers.
But there was one man who awaited Hitler’s appearance with equal anticipation – but for entirely different reasons. This man was 36-year-old Johann Georg Elser, a carpenter. For Elser, a long-time anti-Nazi, had planted a bomb with the full intention of killing Adolf Hitler. And his bomb was due to explode half way through the Fuhrer’s speech.
Georg Elser had always been quietly defiant in his hatred of the Nazi regime – he’d supported the communists and, once Hitler was in power, refused to give the Nazi salute. He feared Hitler’s aggressive warmongering and foresaw the coming of war and resolved himself, in his own way, to do something to prevent it – and that was to kill Hitler.
Exactly a year earlier before the fateful night, on the 8 November 1938, Elser attended the same annual commemoration in Munich marking the anniversary of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. And it was this annual event, he decided, that would provide the perfect opportunity to implement his audacious plan. The following night, he witnessed first-hand the vicious Kristallnacht, when Nazis throughout the country terrorized Germany’s Jews in a concentrated orgy of killing and violence. Seeing for himself this state-sponsored anarchy merely confirmed for Elser that what he was doing was right.
The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London by Charles Saumarez Smith – a review by Sinead Fitzgibbon
It is late in the afternoon of 28 November 1768, a Monday. A small group of men – three artists and an architect – converge on St James’s Palace for an audience with the King, George III. There was but one thing on their minds – to secure the monarch’s support for the establishment of ‘a well regulated School or Academy of Design’ which, they hoped, would be the British equivalent to similar, well-regarded institutions on the Continent.
This is the setting used by Charles Saumarez Smith to introduce his engaging account of the origins of the Royal Academy of Arts. It soon becomes apparent, however, that this rather decorous opening scene is entirely misleading. As the author recounts the background to this historic meeting at St James’s Palace – the endless infighting between various artists, the rebellion against the Directors of the Academy’s predecessor, the Society of Artists – the reader soon realises that the establishment of this venerable institution was far from uncontroversial, and the behaviour of those involved was sometimes quite removed from the high-minded ideals they espoused.
I used to write contemporary fiction, writes Sara Sheridan, and in those heady days on the cusp of the internet, my research was largely telephone based. I remember calling the council’s cemetery department to ask about body decomposition in different soil types. Once they had verified that I was a novelist and not a sicko, they were extremely helpful.
My contemporary work always had strong historical backstories and after three novels I decided to switch genre. I was fascinated by the spirit of the early Empire explorers and wanted to write historical fiction based on their real-life adventures. History has been a big part of my life since I was a child. My favourite books were Heidi, Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Pimpernel all of which kept me reading late under the covers. I loved being transported to earlier versions of the world. My father was an antiques dealer and he took me to auction sales. Other times Dad would arrive home with a box of goods he’d bid on and take my brothers and I through the treasures, telling us how each piece was made and why he’d bought it. By the age of ten I could spot a De Lamerie silver teapot or date a diamond from the way it was cut.
The whole perception of war can be changed by a single book: All Quiet on the Western Front is such a book; a novel which shines a light on the horrors of war. The author, Erich Maria Remarque, drew on his own experience as an infantryman during the First World War as his inspiration for the novel. Published in 1929, the book sold over one million copies in Germany within its first year. It became even more popular after being translated and published in other countries.
(Pictured is the cover to its first edition.)
The book is written in a strict chronological manner. The plot alternates between battle scenes at the Western Front and places of peace. The author was no doubt attempting to compare and contrast the two types of experiences to make an impact on the reader, which he did quite successfully.
Plot Summary of All Quiet on the Western Front
Kathryn J. Atwood has written a wonderful book for the Young Adult market recently published. Called Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue, Kathy describes here how she researched the book:
A few months into researching my book, I received a book in the mail from a man who personally knew Hannie Schaft, the young, beautiful, gun-toting Dutch woman who the Gestapo – desperately searching for her — called “The Girl with the Red Hair,” and who Queen Wilhelmina designated, “The Symbol of the Resistance.” And I feel like I’ve touched a piece of history. Again.
In November, 2008 I started writing a book for the Chicago Review Press about female WWII resisters. CRP gave me only 12-14 months to research and write 26 2,000-word profiles, plus an introduction on each country represented.
Meet At Dawn, Unarmed by Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed
On August 5th, 1914, Robert Hamilton (pictured) left his young family behind in Devon to start amomentous six months journey through France and Belgium with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
In his diary he recorded his experiences of the front line which included:
- The famous Christmas Truce in which he played a prominent part
- The humour, comradeship and loyalty of fellow soldiers in the face of constant danger
- the rain, mud and discomforts of life in the trenches
- the daily fight for survival and the constant danger from shelling and sniping
- life behind the lines – the billets, estaminets and local hospitality
Extracts from his wife Renie’s diary highlight the fears and anxieties of loved ones awaiting news from the Front.
Robert’s grandson Andrew Hamilton and Great War enthusiast Alan Reed have complemented the diaries with an informative commentary. They have used a wide range of contemporary evidence, including the cartoons of Robert’s famous friend Great War cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather whose cartoons were based on the shared experiences of the Royal Warwicks’ officers in the first six months of the War.