A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

Dear readers,

Before you turn away, this review isn’t on a prayer book. It’s a fictional novel by the US journalist Joan Didion, someone who I’ve suddenly become a fan of. More about why in a moment.

The book is set, it seems, in the 1980s when three Central American nations were at civil war. The country’s fictional name is Boca Grande, although it kept me guessing about which real nation Didion based it on. One of the Northern Triangle countries or Nicaragua, I suspect. It is narrated from the perspective of Grace, a North American living in the country in the run up to a conflict and is married into a powerful family. She looks back to her run ins with another North American named Charlotte Douglas, a mysterious and elusive character who gets embroiled into the conflict, but I will stop writing about her now so not to leave any spoilers.

I must admit. I judged the book by the cover somewhat and assumed it would be more about Central America’s culture, rather than conflict. I originally bought it because, all things considered, I live in the region and I enjoy writing about it. It’s always useful to read other depictions especially top quality journalists like Didion, to inspire or prompt writing, like in all other arts. I hadn’t really heard much of Joan Didion before, and through this book I seem to have found her by mistake. I now feel I’ve been missing out.

I really loved the style of writing. Poetic and a wonderful narrative of broken thoughts, due to the elderly age of the character and stresses on mental health brought by war. I thought this helped unravel the plot seductively at times. However, it slowed the plot down to sometimes tedious levels. It left me both entralled and frustrated.

It depicts Central America well to an extent, especially those in power. I sensed there were a few Juan Orlandos, Mel Zelayas and Tigre Bonillas tucked in there, especially when writing about power hungry politicians and military personnel, but in the 1980s. How close it was to reality is anyone’s guess. Suffice to say, I don’t hang out with such folk. Are there any links to modern day Honduras? Going by the last two months, certainly; especially with military repression and US influence.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book and I would like to read more of Joan Didion. A fascinating writer, a wonderful flowing style that I’ve taken quite a few pointers.

I give the book 4 out of 5 stars. Just because I felt the rhythm got a little slow on occasions. Otherwise, great work.

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The Chaos by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité

Dear readers,

Spanish. I love the language. Its rich vocabulary, expressions and pronunciation, which can be a mouthful and leave your tongue in seizures, is a dance with romance and passion. What I like most is that it’s still fairly easy. The grammar is less complex than French and more rational than English and you get a guide with the accents in the pronunciation. The particularly vowel sounds and rolling r’s can be tricky: always pronounced; no lazy tongues in this language, which is probably the reason why people of the Latin cultures have always been considered the best lovers.

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I’ve always maintained that Spanish is the door to the romantic languages. I also enjoy its hybridity between Latin and Arabic. Then when Latin Americans (especially Hondurans) begin adding slang or pockets of their indigenous languages, your ears end up in seizures, along with your tongue. You are then thrown a life-line when the speaker chucks in a few Anglo-derived words, such as Oh my God or Have a nice day, and your hope rises, even though they are pronounced in a Spanish (or American) twang and not always used correctly in the matrices and discourse of a sentence.

Teaching the odd class in Honduras, students often run a mile when you introduce them to pronunciation and intonation. They enjoy grammar (and games and learning the meaning of vocabulary). There’s no assistance through accents or speech marks, like in other Latin languages, the short and long vowel sounds can’t be distinguished (give me a Lempira for the amount of times I’ve had to stifle laughs when hearing mispronounced faux pas’, such as, “You lay a s–t on bed” and “I’d like to drink a sick pack of beer” amongst the million others), the homophones, the homographs, the heteronyms…egh! You get asked why it is like that, almost pleadingly, yet you can’t say exactly. “That’s the way it is….get over it.”

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You can understand why English language learners hate pronunciation is confusing. I teach such classes with care, trying to raise confidence, giving them assistance bit by bit. On my blog though, I will do no such thing. I want to bruise their brains with a hurricane of the horrors in the confusing English language. While looking for a lesson, I came across a poem which did just that. Funnily enough, the poem was written by Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946), an observer of the English language born in Holland, so if anyone knows the chaos of the idioma, it’s him. The Chaos demonstrates many of the idiosyncrasies of English spelling and first appeared as an appendix to his 1920 textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen.

I recommend it to intermediate or advanced students, or any smart arse students who think they know everything there is to know about the language.

Without further ado, below is the poem. Enjoy.

The Chaos

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does.
Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific, Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation — think of Psyche!
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough
— Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

 


HMT Lancastria: part four (Lancastria Survivors Association)

Dear readers,

The origin of much of the content in the previous Lancastria articles derive from secondary sources, either from the internet, my parents or memories of what my grandmother told me. However, I also called upon the Lancastria Survivors Association, and received considerable assistance from one of its founders Alan Davis.

Instead of recounting bits and pieces, I’ll include the email word for word as he sent it, regarding the HMT Lancastria tragedy, as well as my questions original questions.

Why did the British government cover up the disaster?

The reason Churchill placed a D notice on the Lancastria disaster was a matter of morale. This was both for the armed forces and the general population as the withdrawal from Dunkirk was such a low point. Churchill was concerned that this news would have been devastating to the UK. My father wrote to his mother to let her know he was safe in the UK and would be home on leave shortly. He could not tell her what had happened nor where he was or that he was receiving medical attention with the rest of the survivors. Then as things picked up the D notice was forgoten and I beleive has never been lifted. However, this did not prevent the American press reporting the disaster in their papers and radio. Then the British papers reported on the tragedy. Because now so much time has elapsed it does look more like a cover up. But it is generally beleived that Churchill intended to lift the D Notice but as the allies were making more positive progress in the war it was forgotten.

Why was there such a delay to building a monument to recognize the tragedy?

I think it was two years ago that the chancellor of the exchequer  made a statement in the commons recognising the disaster but the only monuments in recognition of the disaster is a Lancastria Memorial Window, St Katherine Cree Church, London. There is a memorial at the National Arboretum and another in Glasgow where the Lancastria was built. But nothing official from the British government.

What inspired you to set up a group about the Lancastria? Did you have any family relations who died in the disaster?

My father did a lot to try and get some recognition for survivors but to no avail. He was in the Buffs East Kent Regiment and was lucky to be saved along with two of his mates. So my intention was at least to have my own memorial even though it is just on facebook. I have also had a badge made based on the Lancastria Survivors Association blazer badge. The intention was to provide those family members who had missed out on the medal provided by the Scottish parliament, to have something they could wear in memory.

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Image: BBC

How was the tragedy viewed in France at the time and how about now?

The French have always been proactive in remembering the Lancastria they have a large memorial at St. Nazaire and each year they hold services in remembrance. It was because the people of St Nazaire helped rescue survivors and collected and buried the dead washed up on the beaches.

How was the tragedy reported in Germany?

I really have no idea if Germany recogises the sinking in any way, sorry.

If you would like more information about the disaster, visit the Lancastria Survivors Association website. There are also numerous books about what happened. Unfortunately I’ve not read any of them to give you my thoughts on them. However, one that seems to have received a few good reviews seems to be “The Sinking of the Lancastria” by Jonathan Fenby.

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HMT Lancastria: part three (my grandfather)

Dear readers,

I had originally intended to include an interview with one of the founders of the Lancastria Association. However, after my parents sent me pictures of my grandfather, Arthur Rogers, who was present at the sinking of the HMT Lancastria, I had a change of heart. I’ll include that interview in a fourth post about the ship.

My grandfather was born and brought up in Birkenhead in Merseyside (North West England) although his family originated from North Wales. He later moved to Camborne in Cornwall. I was 5 when he died, so much of his experiences in the army he wouldn’t have recounted to a young lad at a tender age. I can always remember being inquisitive about the Second World War as a child. I was obsessed with the scale of it and the quantity of people who died. I didn’t understand death. One day you’re here and the next you’re not. What happens you? Where does your body go? Your soul? Quite profound for a child, when I think about it. But then I’d quickly return to whatever toy or muse I had at the time.

I remember my grandfather being a serious man, strict, with not a ton of patience. You can imagine how tedious it must have been for him listening to thousands of questions from a child who was ever so curious about life and death. I remember being wary of him, and him telling me to eat up everything on my plate during dinner before returning to watch TV. Somewhere in the photo albums of me as a baby (it was one of the first things my wife asked to see when she first entered my house in Birmingham. My mother was all too happy to present them), there is one of my good self, blond haired, smiling with my half my thumb in my mouth mouth, sitting upon his knee, also smiling. We weren’t taking any notice of the camera. His smile was genuine, happy, so please don’t think he was always serious. He was also generous and kind, buying us tiny toy soldiers and knights and horses. My brother and I had a slightly inaccurate idea of time, having a medeival castle heavily fortified by WW2 soldiers. But that’s a child’s imagination for you. It holds few boundries.

My grandmother, Betty Rogers, told us how my grandfather suffered for years with post traumatic stress because of what he witnessed at war, as well as immediately after it, when he returned to find that his first wife had died, but that’s a story to tell at a different time.

Arthur Rogers in civvy clothes before WW2

He spent the majority of the war abroad. At the beginning he was apparently he was in the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF), although I’m unsure where or how he ended up fighting or how he ended up in Sainte-Nazaire. He was later in the Royal Air Force (RAF), situated in Gibraltar, North Africa and the later in Italy. I don’t know the squadron as such. I’m sure I was told by my grandmother before she died in 2002, although the details are hazy. However, I do have the below photo of my grandfather showing King George VI the guns in the fields in France just before the war.

King George VI on the right

To those not familiar with WW2 history or military jargon, the BEF was the name of the British Army in Western Europe from 1939 to 1940, 10% of which consisted of soldiers in other countries that formed part of the Allies. It was actually formed in 1938 in readiness for the war. It moved into France in September 1939 and spent much of the phoney war digging field defences on the French–Belgian border, before the Battle of France began in May 1940. However, with Nazi Germany in full flow, the BEF retreated to Dunkirk and other corners of France to escape the onslaught. The BEF was disbanded in 1940, after the evacuation, otherwise known as Operation Dynamo.

Arthur Rogers in RAF uniform.

Obviously, learning about your family is fascinating and it’s to my shame that during my youth I didn’t concentrate more to my grandfather’s war experiences while I had the chance. We now live in a period of fast information where we’re easily distracted, glued to our mobile phones and/or social media (what my grandparents would have thought of these anti-social devices I dread to think, but in fairness, my grandmother did demand silence while she watched the QVC shopping channel; one of her favourite muses), but it’s interesting to dive back into the past and recount how we came to have such liberties today. I don’t particularly agree with war, and I think we humans rarely learn from past horrors. But one should bow to a man who has risked his life for his country and his family’s future. No one knows what might have happened had the Nazi’s won that war.

In terms of the Lancastria, I only know that he was in line to embark on to the ship. The line was apparently a couple of miles long. It was cut short a few people before him, according to my grandmother. That’s all I know. He saw friends and comrades die before him. It makes you think of your own existence.

My grandfather died in 1985 from lung cancer. However, I send to him a personal and spiritual bow.

And oh yes, thanks for the toy soldiers!


HMT Lancastria: part two

Dear readers,

Part two comes at an interesting time, a couple of days after the Golden Globes 2018, which saw Gary Oldman winning the award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the movie Darkest Hour; which I’m yet to see. Apparently it’s about the early stages of the war, around Dunkirk when it looked as though Britain were going to strike a peace deal with the Nazis.

The link is very obvious, with the darkest hour analogy very much extending two weeks after Dunkirk to when the HMT Lancastria was sunk off the north west coast of France in Sainte-Nazaire. The Lancastria was originally used to evacuate soldiers and embassy personnel, amongst others as German forces came in droves across France to kill off any Allies left in mainland Europe.

However, whereas Dunkirk was made painted as an act of bravery in the mass media for reasons of propaganda, there was no positive narrative that could be spun from the Lancastria. To save the country from a drop of morale, the British government placed a D-Notice regarding the tragedy, meaning it suppressed the news in the UK press. However, it didn’t stop foreign press of hearing about it, which then filtered into the British press, almost five weeks after it happened.

Fatalities are estimated around 4,000, although some figures claim up to 9,000, including women and children. However, the British government accepts that only 1,700 died, just 200 more than Titanic. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had initially planned to release information about the disaster in 2040, 100 years after, which it is legally obligated to do so. After much campaigning from various Lancastria societies to get the MoD to disclose more information and get the government to formally commemorate those who died (which it did finally in 2015), the MoD claimed it has published all its information in the national archives. In further controversy, in 2008 the Scottish government commissioned a medal to honour to survivors and descendants of those who perished, although the British government has remained silent. Furthermore, it refuses to make the site a war grave as it is in foreign territorial waters, even though other war graves have been recorded in foreign waters, such as the Battle of Jutland.

However, the French government have marked the area off where the Lancastria sank. People in St Nazaire have also commemorated the people who died, every year since the anniversary. This certainly goes against the common belief in sections of the UK press about the French being anti-English. Another disaparaging belief about the French in the English press that can be dispelled from both St Nazaire and Dunkirk is about cowardice. Had it not been for French bravery, many more Brits could have died.

Memorial of HMT Lancastria in Saint Nazaire.

My grandmother’s account of what happened to my grandfather is hazy. He died in 1985 and she died in 2002. How my grandfather felt about seeing his friends who perished not properly commemorated up until the day he died by the government he fought for, I guess I’ll never know. He may well of understood why at the time. Who knows.

I’m glad to have had it recorded on my blog though.

There is a third part to this series of updates, which includes the account the son of a survivor, who helped fill me in with some of what happened on 17th June 1940.


HMT Lancastria: part one

Dear readers,

For this post, we sail away from Central America in the direction of France, almost 80 years back in time. It is a personal story, that took place at the beginning of World War Two, involving my grandfather. I’ve only recently learned about the Lancastria, kind of by mistake, after watching the Christopher Nolan movie Dunkirk, released last year; one of my favourites as a matter of fact.

For those not in the know, Dunkirk is a true story about the evacuation of British and Allies forces off the beaches in north east France between 26th May and 4th June 1940, after the German army pushed them into a corner; a surrender or die situation. Many troops were killed merciless, burned in barns or shot from the skies. However, British civilians in yachts and show boats helped save the stranded soldiers; 338,226 to be exact, while over 68,000 Allies troops perished or were captured. It’s believed many boats came voluntarily, but it turns out many were captained by the British army. Up to 933 ships took part in the evacuation, according to data from BBC.

Through rolls and rolls of propaganda, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill managed to change a military embarrassment into an act of bravery.

My grandmother told us the story. She told us my grandfather was in line waiting for a boat to send him home. There were three or four people in front of him when the line was cut and he was unable to board; the ship was full. Moments later, it was sunk, with many of his friends dying before him. My grandmother told us he suffered for years with post traumatic stress. He died in 1985 when I was five. My grandmother died in January of 2002. Arthur and Betty Rogers.

I always assumed my grandfather was on those Dunkirk beaches. However, after telling my Dad I’d watched the movie and how personal it was, he informed me that my grandfather at Saint Nazaire in north west France waiting to board the Lancastria on 17th June 1940. A surprise it was, but more so because of the scale of the tragedy. In the last couple of months I’ve delved into what happened, reading accounts and also contacted a few organisations that work to preserve the memory of the disaster and those who died, which was kept silent at the time and for many years later, for reasons I’ll mention in a second post.

But what actually happened? Let’s go back in time a little first.

The HMT Lancastria was actually born RMS Tyrrhenia, A Cunard liner part of the Royal Mail Service, built in Glasgow on the River Clyde, ans made its maiden voyage in 1920. However, the name was changed in 1924 to Lancastria after it was found that Tyrrhenia was difficult to pronounce. In 1940, it was requisitioned by the UK government to help in Operation Ariel, which was to evacuate British nationals and military stranded in western France, even though it only had a capacity of 1,300 people (increased to 2,200 for the operation), with more than 9,000 waiting to be saved. Captain Rudolph Sharp was given the instructions to fill the ship with as many men as possible, without regard for international regulations.

The ship left Liverpool on 14th June and arrived at the Loire estuary on the 16th, some 11 miles south west of St Nazaire. By the 17th, mid-afternoon, the Lancastria was being loaded, with between 6,000 and 9,000 people on board. Around 1:50pm, the nearby Oronsay liner was bombed in a German air-raid. The captain of the destroyer HMS Havelock advised that the Lancastria depart but without the defence of the destroyer as soon as possible. However, Sharp decided to wait, in case of submarine attack.

Then it happened, around 4pm, the Lancastria was hit four times by Junkers Ju 88 bombers, with one going down funnel and detonating in the engine room, spilling burning hot oil into the waters. People on board jumped from sinking ship into the waters, only for the German planes to return to fire strafing into the oil infested water, ignited the fuel and engulfing all those within it.

There were 2,477 survivors. There are only approximations regarding those who died. The Lancastria Association names 1,738 people known to have been killed, although other estimates say anywhere between 3,000 to 6,500 died, claiming more lives than the combined losses of the RMS Titanic (1,517 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,198 passengers), making it the largest loss of life in British maritime history.

Learning of such a tragedy always takes a while to take it in. The disaster isn’t really widely known.

I am obviously thankful my grandfather didn’t die in this tragedy. I wouldn’t be here today otherwise. However, those who did lose their lives should be recognised, and I’ll focus on this in a second post in the coming days.


Success – for 2018

Dear readers,

I won’t ask if you’re hungover, tired, made any resolutions or having a lazy day. I take it as a given that you’re up to at least one of the above list. I write this on New Year’s Day, 2018, wishing you all the best this year, with a message of motivation.

I’ve spent this festive break going through boxes which I left dumped in a spare a room since we moved to the house nearly 18 months ago. My wife’s been pleading me to go through them.

The contents? All sorts. Things I’ve collected during my time in Honduras that have been collecting more dust than mummies in Egyptian pyramids. I wouldn’t call it all junk. A lot of it consists of Christmas and birthday cards from loved ones, drawings and paintings from my nephew and niece, countless copies of Private Eye magazine, CVs, certificates. Collecting such items obviously gives one feelings nostalgia, thinking about life, begging the question, no matter how much of a cliqué it is, where does the time go?

I left the UK when I was 31. I’m now 38. It’s almost seven years since I touched down at Toncontin airport (a slightly dodgy landing if I remember right, with one of nine lives being marked off). Tegucigalpa is now my home, although forever I will be a Brummie, no matter how much caliché I pick up along the way, tamales and baleadas I scoff and made to make an arse of myself by dancing punta.

One little item I found in the box was a little card/message/book-mark. It looks a bit dog-earred and uncared for. I picked it up during a brief stay in Birmingham in 2012. I was doing a temping job; a miserable data inputting role for an insurance company which helped pay for the airfare back to these shores. The office was close to St Phillips Cathedral in pigeon park in the heart of the city. It cost £1, if I remember right. You might think it’s a 99p too expensive for a piece of laminated card. I remember on the day that I really needed the message though. And it’s a message I want to share right here, and there’s no better day than to share it than New Year’s Day, especially when it’s a poem entitled Success.

In this age, we often measure our success by our job, economic circumstances or material ownership, especially in this captialist age. Some look at their relationship status, and a whole other bunch of things, all based on what we haven’t got and what we want to strive for. Nothing wrong with that. It keeps many people motivated and moving. Whether they’re happy is another matter.

What I like about the poem is that reminds us success can be defined in all sorts of ways, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be materialistic. Simple, I know. But it’s often forgotten.

So, if you’re thinking about your goals for 2018, bare in mind you may already be accomplishing success and not realise it. Success doesn’t have to be summed up by wealth.

Have a great 2018.