Friday, August 24, 2012

Birds in a Birdcage

The story of the Eastern Campaign in Salonika

Salonika before the Great Fire of 1917

The background of my novel The Long Shadow is Salonika, now modern Thessaloniki, in Macedonian Greece. It is a place I know well and love as a vibrant and modern city, yet with something of the Oriental about it still. The city was far smaller then and a real 'macedoine', a term coined for the soup of nations and races that mixed there.  The Balkans were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for 200 years and the central sway of Constantinople held this heterogenous collection of nations together in comparative peace. Jews, Muslims, Christians all lived together in a neighbourly harmony and these religions were allowed to be practised for the Turks considered both Jews and Christians to be People of the Book. Plus they taxed the infidels which was a lucrative source of income. Some Jews did convert to Islam but secretly retained Jewish customs and religious practice, forming a strange sect called the Donmeh.  The vast majority of the trade came under the influence of the Jews who had been allowed to settle there by the Turks after they were expelled from Spain. Greeks were in the minoirty at that time and Athens was a little village near the sea.

During the period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century there was much unrest in the Balkans as the central power of the Turks from Constantinople grew weaker. Many countries, including Greece, gained their independence. Salonika fell to the Greeks in November 1912 when Crown Prince Constantine rode into the liberated city amidst the wild cheering of the Greek crowds. The Jewish population was still in the majority but this was to change dramatically with the influx of Greek refugees from Smyrna, the enforced exchange of Turks and Greeks by Kemal Attaturk and during the Second World War when 50,000 Jews were taken away to Auswitzch.

Refugees from Smyrna
 During the period of the Great War the area around the city was marshy, unhealthy and malarial with the River Vardar running through to the sea.  The ancient name for this river was the Axius in Homer's stories. These marshes were later drained by the Americans and became tobacco fields or vineyards.  The city itself suffered a great fire during the war, in 1917.  This destroyed a huge portion of the old city and a modern city rose from the ruins with many of the old and interesting houses, mosques and churches lost forever.

The battles of the Western Front have always claimed greatest attention; Ypres, the Somme, Passchendale and all the other haunting names of the Western Front are well documented and lived over and over again in documentaries. We conjure up pictures of slithering mud, cold trenches, stunted trees and other harrowing scenes of Western battle zones. But who knows much about Macedonia and the freezing Vardar winds, the barren but beautiful mountains, the treacherous ravines and raging summer heat filled with malarial mosquitoes? Curious to know more, I began to explore the subject. The more I read diaries, memoirs, letters of those who loved, fought, suffered together there, the more I felt I wanted to record the bravery and courage of these forgotten and unsung heroes.

Red Cross nurses on stretcher duty
I began by writing to the British Red Cross Society to ask for information and help in research. A reply came from a very helpful lady called Joy Fawcett, sadly now deceased, who lent me several copies of war-time Red Cross Magazines and the Nursing Mirror. These proved an invaluable source of information. I then asked her if she could find anyone still alive who had some memories of their service with the V.A.D. units and a Mrs. Haire Foster kindly filled in a questionnaire for me. Mrs. Fawcett said that the old lady “rather enjoyed remembering the past”. Mrs. Haire Foster has since died but I was amused and surprised too to find that my letter, her reply and her anecdotes are still on file in the Red Cross Archives and the Imperial War Museum also.

The Balkans will perhaps always be a hotbed of unrest, intrigue, nations, languages and crazy patriots - though this arena seems to have shifted to the Middle East now. This area was the tinderbox that set the world alight with war in 1914. Empires were collapsing and struggling to hold on to their power. The death of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the entry of Austro-Hungary into the Balkan conflict, later joined by Bulgaria, ancient enemies of the Greeks. Salonika was the great and flourishing port of Macedonia, holding a strategic place since the times of the Byzantine Empire. It was a prize to be captured and everyone wanted it. The Allies were determined not to let them have it and despite the supposed neutrality of the Greeks (whose King was related to the Kaiser) they sent a force over to “protect” Salonika from the enemy.

Bulgarian post on Hill 1050 north of Monastir

An Expeditionary force of British soldiers was sent out, landing there on October 5th 1915 as part of the Allied Movement against the Austrians and Bulgarians who at that point held the Struma Heights. Barbed wire defences were set up around the city which subsequently led to its being called “The Birdcage”. Over here in Britain, our soldiers were mocked as “The Gardeners of Salonika” because they weren’t englaged in constant warfare as the troops were in France and Belgium.  According to the newspapers the the troops bunkered down around Salonika seemed to do nothing but dig roads and tend their tomatoes.  That this was totally unfair soon became clear.  To get around an army needs roads as the Romans well knew.  And there were only ancient dirtracks in those mountains, used by goats, bullocks and old carts. The British contributed greatly by building very good roads across these impassable mountains. Though there were fewer major battles, due to the impossible terrain, more men died in these fierce battles at one time than in the Western ones.  If there had been any more, there would have been no army left to fight.  These incredibly brave men assailed steep, dangerous mountain tops and ridges and were looked down upon and constantly under shellfire from the enemy comfortably seated up above with easy supplies and ammunition at hand.  As well as all these difficulties, there was the ever present threat of malaria from the steamy summer marshes which wiped out as many men as the battles did or left them forever blighted by its recurrence after the war had ended.   As my character, Dorothy Clarke, says in her war diary…”It is all very well dying for your country but not for a country that refuses to recognise your valour…” 

Tommies in a trenche nr Bairakli Juma. 
3rd batt Royal Fusiliers

The fact is few British soldiers had much clue about the Balkan area, the politicians hadn’t much clue either, even the Balkan people were confused! Salonika was a mere name on a map to a British soldier and no-one dreamed they’d ever see such a place. As for the Balkan people, they had no idea about the British either, no notion of the supposed might and power of this remote lot of islands in the Northern seas. The Brits of course, considered themselves very important, we had an Empire and all that! So when the two met it was an interesting thing to behold.
The village people were poor, backward, lacking in even rudimentary hygiene, downtrodden by years of warfare, brigandage and perpetual upheavals and dangers. They were sullen and suspicious at first. The rather stiff, quiet British exterior also disconcerted the natives who saw this as dull, heavy and stupid. The Salonikans understood better the flamboyant and extravagant gestures and attitudes of the French, Italians and Serbs. However as time went on they were surprised and glad to find that the Tommy was not there to steal from them or rape their women (which could not always be said of the other soldiers) and by the end of our time there, even the Jews admitted they would have preferred Salonika to be ceded to the British who would be just and fair rather than the Greeks who they knew would soon take over the commerce and push the Jews into a ghetto. Sadly this did occur after the war was over due to the huge influx of Greek refugees from Smyrna which tipped the population further into a Greek majority.

The great battles that began the end of the Great War took place in 1917 and names like Doiran, the Grand Couronne and Struma should take their place alongside Passchendale and Ypres. By then the Greeks and Serbs had also joined the Forces and a concerted effort on the part of the Allies helped to route the Bulgarians who simply fled from their long held heights. Like a pack of dominoes, Bulgaria then Austria fell and the whole Central Axis began to crumble. The war began in the Balkans and the beginning of the end occurrred there also thanks to the supreme, daring and brave efforts of men and women who gave up all to go and serve in this harsh and beautiful place where so many now lie buried in a corner of that foreign field.

Praise for The Long Shadow:

“I’m immensely impressed by the novel, especially the Greek scenes. It’s a marvellously accomplished book and many congratulations on an impressive achievement.” Colin Wilson (author of The Outsider, The Occult, Mysteries and many more)

"Reading Loretta Proctor's, 'The Long Shadow' reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's, 'A Farewell to Arms' but told with more passion and admiration for family heritage." Kimberly Eve

Photos from

Thursday, August 02, 2012

In Love with a dream: Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma

Beeny Cliff, Cornwall

O, the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free
The woman whom I loved so and who loyally loved me.

Beeny Cliff

Thomas Hardy is one of our greatest British novelists.  He has a style and voice that is unique and distinctive and thus hard for academics to analyze and classify.  I like that.  Dry, dusty minds do so love to pigeon hole, compare, criticise and reduce all to components and parts.  It takes the delight of reading away.  Hardy wrote from his heart and soul, a man of great feeling yet who refused to run away from life’s realities.  That is what makes his work so individual and special.  His intense and abiding love for Nature, reflected in his poetry, and the often exquisite descriptions in his prose are not of the Wordsworthian mystical variety.  Rather he saw Nature red in tooth and claw as well as in her shimmering illusory beauty.  Mother Nature, the great and mysterious Feminine, Maya, was his real love, the true love of his life.  And this ultimate love became peculiarly wrapped up in the strange relationship he had with his wife, Emma.
Hardy's birthplace

Hardy considered himself as poet first and foremost.  Born in the little hamlet of Upper Bockhampton in Dorset in 1840, he was the son of a stonemason and a fiddler.  His education finished at the age of sixteen when he became apprenticed to James Hicks, a local architecht.  He showed promise in this work, winning prizes which ultimately took him to work in London, a place for which he had no great affinity. Country born and bred, he set his novels in rural scenes and small towns, creating his own landscapes which derived from an inner landscape of his own, a place set in earlier years when his father would have been a young lad.  The world of his father had already begun to change rapidly as the Victorian society, in all its glory and onward march into  industrialisation, modernisation, and expansion, ploughed over society as men once ploughed over the heavy fields.  He felt the heart and soul was being ripped from the land and from the men who worked it.  Despite the grinding poverty he saw around him, he realised that comradeship and the simple joys of country life were fast disappearing as more and more workers migrated to the factories and cities.
Sturminster Newton

Hardy could be said to be a nostalgic writer.  I think many writers are.  Even Dickens set his characters in an earlier period of his life and the two men had in common a sense of the injustices of society, Dickens with urban life and Hardy with rural life.  Dorset was one of the most backward of all the English counties but was a place of unparelled beauty, still fairly untouched or changed, still lovely.  The rolling countryside of Hardy’s youth became the setting for his novels. He called this imaginary place Wessex, after the old Anglo Saxon kingdom which had once covered the area of southwest England.  Hardy drew up maps and gave different names to real places in those counties and to this day the area is called ‘Hardy’s Wessex’.  

It was while Hardy was in St Juliot in Cornwall in 1870 , busy with restoring the old church there, that he met Emma Lavinia Gifford.  It was with her in mind that he wrote A Pair of Blue Eyes.  She was said to be a real beauty then with her vivid blue eyes, long auburn ringlets and rosy cheeks.  Her nature was girlish, cheerful, lively, unrestrained and delightful.  Quite a contrast to the small, slender, uncertain, highly sensitive Thomas with his romantic tendency to depressions and gloom over life. Hardy felt Emma’s vibrant magic and expressed it in this extract from a poem written when he returned to London.
Emma Gifford

When I came back from Lyonesse
With magic in my eyes
None managed to surmise
What meant my godlike gloriousness
When I came back from Lyonesse
With magic in my eyes.

During the four year period of their courtship Hardy seldom visited Emma in Cornwall but she never appeared to complain or look elsewhere.  The pair eventually married in1874.  Almost at once, Hardy felt trapped by marriage as if romance could no longer exist and all the excitement of courtship was over.  Despite many happy years in their early days, he was to say in 1895 that ‘a bad marriage is one of the direst things on earth and one of the cruellest.’  Emma over time changed from the carefree, slightly wild young woman of her youth, the girl, who with her hair streaming in the wind,  rode her horse across the cliff tops to the disapproval of local folk.  She became plump and ordinary-looking, even dowdy, as if no longer taking trouble and could no longer match some of the beauties Hardy encountered while in London enjoying his fame and fortune.   

Hardy at the time of meeting Emma
Opposite natures often match well, like magnets poles, drawing one another together, but there have to be some things in common.  Unfortunately, these two were alike in ways that clashed because they rivalled one another.  That which first drew them together - a love of books, poetry, beauty of nature and a longing to express their feelings in some creative way - ultimately pushed them apart.  If Emma had borne children, it may have helped to channel some of her creative longings into life’s pleasant mundanities.  But this did not come about and she remained emotionally unfulfilled in every way.  This led to her wish to express herself through her own writing and poetry and she did publish some poetry but often at her own expense and without any encouragement. Her poetry was strange and had a mystical bent to it.  Later on in life she said, ‘I have it all here but I have not the power of expressing it’.  With encouragement she may have learnt to express it but Hardy considered her pretensions as a writer as a ‘painful delusion’.   My impression is she had a more universal view of life than Hardy who rested mainly in the human world and whose ardent love of Nature was poetic but at the same time open eyed with a realistic view.  His early faith was, like many others of the time, dissolved by Darwin’s theories.  He found it hard to reconcile the traditional Christian God with the suffering and pain he saw around him and he believed more and more in a malign and uncompromising Fate against which human beings struggled to exist and function. If he had a God it was the stern and uncompromising Jehovah and he was Job.   Emma, however, saw stranger visions that fled beyond the earthy existence.  But they were just as valid: here is one of her published poems.

In misery swirled
Is this one-moon whirled,
But there’s no sorrow or darkness there
In that mighty Planet where
There is no night.
Ten moons ever revolving
All matters its long years resolving
To sweetness and light.

Ten Moons

Emma claimed that she helped her husband considerably with ideas and suggestions when writing his first novels.  Yet there was never any mention of her or acknowledgment in any of his books.  He seemed to take her totally for granted. 

Emma in later life
Why did she change, why did marriage fail her as much as it did Thomas?  He often declared his existence to be a prison . . . why, when he was free to go where he would, often fleeing to his London apartment?  The sense of imprisonment was of his own making. He admired and flirted with several beauties when in London, extolling their writing, dancing with them and enjoying their company.  Meanwhile back home, neglected, ignored, Emma was always there, like a good mother figure while he played the errant son who was always away or else locked in his study with his writings, his despair and depressions.  He was the typical ‘puer aeternus,’ a figure studied and written about by the psychologist, Carl Jung.  The idealistic, creative man who never quite grows up inside no matter how old he may be in years.  He remains a Peter Pan who wants his Wendy there forever caring for him.  Such a man is always attached to The Great Mother or Mother Nature, the eternal Feminine principle.  Marriage is indeed a prison for such a man because it means responsibility, sharing, compromise, loss of total individuality through forming one from two - which is what marriage should be about.  Such a man never ‘feels’ married but always wants to feel life still has creative and sexual possibilities.  

From descriptions of Emma’s character, we get the impression that she was herself a ‘puella’ the female equivalent of Peter Pan.  I suspect she was no more entranced by marriage than her husband but would never have admitted it.  She felt equally trapped though in a different way.  There was a conventional streak to her that made her react with outrage when he wrote in Jude the Obscure that ‘Fewer women like marriage than you suppose . . . they enter into it for . . . the social advantages it gains them.’  The fact was that Emma came from a far higher social background than Hardy and had gone against her beloved father’s wishes in marrying him.  She had in fact ‘lowered’ herself by the standards of the time.  Plus, it was belittling to her to publicly rant about marriage and constantly praise and adore other women as Hardy did.  Scarcely surprising that she tried hard to have Jude the Obscure banned.  In fact, so adverse was reaction to this book that Hardy decided to give up writing novels and concentrate on poetry instead.  It is now considered one of his greatest works.

Hardy was not an easy man to be married to; he was very private with a distaste for prolonged intimacy of any kind, even in marriage. Was he simply a romantic dreamer for whom Woman would forever be an ideal rather than a creature of flesh and blood?   He was a complex man; a realist on one hand and an idealist on the other and very self-centred and hyper-sensitive. Emma was not the right woman to deal with this complexity for she had a longing to be someone in her own right which in that day and age was never to be fulfilled.  She eventually withdrew entirely into her own space literally and symbolically, a room in the attic where she became prey to varied ailments and complaints such as fatigue, shingles, pains, rheumatism and indigestion, all signs of depression, nervous and emotional stress.  On 25th November 1912 she took to her bed and a couple of morning later, Hardy was asked to come up to her which he did with ill grace, weary of such summons.  Within five minutes she was dead.

After her sudden death, reading her diaries and charmingly written memories of their early happiness, Hardy now found himself strangely lonely.  She had always been there in the background of his life, the equivalent of Gabriel Oakes while he played the flighty Bathsheba.  She was the mother figure who sustained him without his even realising the fact.  But, ah! he no longer had the real woman, his heart and soul could dwell forever on the dream, the romance, on his ideal view of the Feminine and Nature…the girl with streaming auburn hair on her horse against the blue of the Cornish sea.  The real person could never live up to that glorious lost romantic vision.  Thus when Emma Gifford Hardy died, she came to life again in all her youthful charm and beauty and his old love welled up in him.  He then wrote wonderful love poems about Emma from her death until the end of his days, even though he remarried later.  On his own death in 1928 his heart was put near her grave at Stinsford Churchyard while his ashes were taken to Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Marsland, Cornwall

In many ways, we can draw parallells with the feelings Dante Gabriel Rossetti had for Lizzie Siddal.  They loved one another madly but as time went on, Rossetti began to ignore the woman who was once his great love and inspiration, though he did at least encourage her artistic endeavours.  After Lizzie’s untimely death, he, like Hardy, felt immense remorse and drew several strange paintings in which she became his muse again, his beloved anima,  Beata Beatrice.  He had always identified with his hero, Dante Alighieri, who loved and wrote about Beatrice, a beautiful girl who had died young and left him forever longing for the unnattainable vision.  Women loved more in death than in life.  In the same way, Hardy painted Emma in poetic pictures of love and longing.  He took a pilgrimage to Cornwall and revisited all the places that they had explored when in love and wrote with poignant sadness over a lost time when life was sharp and vivid, coloured by intense feelings, every minute detail remembered, a time never to return.  His poems are amongst his best work and speak so eloquently of that aching longing for love in every one of us, that something indefinable which no human being can ever really fulfil.

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere - whom the ambling pony bore,
And knows not nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there never more.

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.