Sailing to Freedom – Voldemar Veedam & Carl B. Wall

This beautiful volume was a gift from a friend in Estonia and tells the tale of sixteen people escaping from the Russians after the annexation of their country post WWII. This edition of the book was published as part of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in 2018 and includes a preface by the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Sadly that initial period of independence was snuffed out by the start of World War II with first the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again taking control, Estonia would not be independent again until the 20th August 1991. Estonians therefore celebrate two Independence Days, the 23rd February marking the first time they were their own state back in 1918 and the 20th August for the current and longest period of independence the country has had in the centuries it has existed.

During the early 1940’s the Russians instigated mass deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and the majority of those sent there never survived to get back to their own country. To escape these deportations many Estonians sailed across the Baltic to Sweden where they were largely held in camps amongst these escapees were the heroes of this book. They were faced with yet another problem at the end of the war as Sweden was set to send the Estonians back to their own country and Soviet control.  In March 1945 Voldemar Veedam was sitting with his friend Harry Paalberg when the first of the letters from the Swedish foreign ministry were received by the refugees informing them that they were to be returned and the Soviets has assured the Swedish government that they would be safe. Needless to say the refugees in Sweden didn’t believe the Soviet assurances and it turned out to be a correct supposition as tens of thousands more Estonians were sent to their doom in Siberia during the 1950’s.

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And so the plan was hatched between Voldemar and Harry to escape, this time from Sweden and try to get to the USA. They would need a boat and a few more people to man it and also help raise the money needed for the trip; this was going to be difficult enough never mind the gruelling ocean voyage. Money was tight and they couldn’t get more from family abroad as Swedish law severely limited the amount that could be sent to the refugees. In the end they managed to purchase a 36½ foot long (11.1m) by 13 foot wide (4m) sloop called Erma and an erratic diesel engine, but only by taking so many people into the escape attempt that the crew numbered twelve adults and four children. Working out how to get all those people on board with sufficient provisions and still be able to sail was a logistical nightmare. So much so that one of the recurring themes is the amazement of bystanders whenever they did manage to make it to a port as to how so many people were aboard. When they bought her Erma was over fifty years old and had been out of the water for years so leaked badly when she was refloated.

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There was a massive amount of work needed to make Erma seaworthy and this took far longer than any of them hoped even with four men working up to sixteen hours a day rebuilding the boat to be able to get everyone on board. So much so that instead of the hoped for summer departure it drifted into the autumn and meant that they ended up crossing the Atlantic during November and December.  This undoubtedly increased the amount of bad weather they hit during the crossing and caused a lot of the delays which hit their rations hard. It really is a magnificent tale of daring-do and remarkable seamanship that they managed to get all the way making repairs to their tiny vessel whilst on the way.

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When the book came out it appears from some of the blurbs reproduced from the old book covers that the trip was compared with that of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition whose book had been published a few years earlier. Somewhat unfairly I feel as his was a well funded trip (along with equipment from the US Army) with no pressure on him other than to prove his own theories. The sixteen people on the Erma had no such backup and made an amazing trip out of desperation to avoid the Soviet oppression in their homeland. I’m amazed that I haven’t come across this book before especially as it was clearly an international best seller in the 1950’s but checking on Amazon it appears that it is no longer in print apart from the edition I have now read which despite being in English does not appear to be available here. Thank you Christel for a fantastic gift which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

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The cover of the first UK paperback edition

The copy I have was published by Eesti Mälu Instituut, The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, and a beautiful job they have made of it. The colourised photos from the trip, a couple of which are reproduced above, are wonderfully atmospheric and the inclusion of lots of covers of previous editions appeals to me as a book collector as well as showing just how popular this book has been around the world. Surprisingly, to me at least, the book was originally written in English by Veedam with the assistance of Carl B Wall who was an American journalist. It was first published in a much shorter form as The Cruise of the Erma in the February 1947 edition of Readers Digest and subsequently expanded in 1952 to the text that is now used. The front cover photo was taken from the American patrol boat John P. Gray soon after they had found the Erma and re-provisioned them for the final few days journey to an American port and journeys end.

Below are some more international translations, including ones on the right where the cover designer has clearly not read the book and has no idea what sort of boat Erma actually was.

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The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

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This beautiful Folio Society edition was first published by them in 1979 and my copy is the 4th printing from 2015, it is bound in black artificial moire silk blocked in gold with the title in Japanese characters. The original book was written during the late Heian Period, between 900 and 1000AD, by one of the ladies at the Japanese emperors court and is a rather strange combination of observations, being whatever she felt like writing down at the time. The translation used is that of Ivan Morris from 1967 and he has numbered each of the entries unlike some other translators. It is literally a pillow book because it was a notebook kept by the bed for use when inspiration struck some of the entries are fascinating glimpses into life at court whilst others are just odd lists of objects or places for example entry 140:

Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup. A new metal bowl. A rush mat. The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

Others really are simple lists as in section 108

Hot Springs
Nanakuri, Arima and Tamatsukuri

There are about 150 of these simple lists on subjects as varied as Peaks, Plains, Markets etc. spread through the text. Whether they were just particular favourites it is impossible to tell as very rarely is any context given. The third passage however lets us visit the court itself…

Especially delightful is the first day of the First Month, when the mists so often shroud the sky. Everyone pays great attention to his appearance and dresses with the utmost care. What a pleasure it is to see them all offer their congratulations to the Emperor and celebrate their own new year!

This is the day when members of the nobility who live outside the Palace arrive in their magnificently decorated carriages to admire the blue horses. As the carriages are drawn over the ground-beam of the Central Gate, there is always a tremendous bump, and the heads of the women passengers are knocked together; the combs fall out of their hair, and may be smashed to pieces if the owners are not careful. I enjoy the way everyone laughs when this happens.

I remember one occasion when I visited the Palace to see the procession of blue horses. Several senior courtiers were standing outside the guard-house of the Left Division; they had borrowed bows from the escorts, and, with much laughter, were twanging them to make the blue horses prance. Looking through one of the gates of the Palace enclosure, I could dimly make out a garden fence, near which a number of ladies, several of them from the Office of Grounds, went to and fro. What lucky women, I thought, who could walk about the Nine-Fold Enclosure as though they had lived there all their lives! Just then the escorts passed close to my carriage, remarkably close, in fact, considering the vastness of the Palace grounds, and I could actually see the texture of their faces. Some of them were not properly powdered; here and there their skin showed through unpleasantly like the dark patches of earth in a garden where the snow has begun to melt. When the horses in the procession reared wildly, I shrank into the back of my carriage and could no longer see what was happening.

It is fascinating to see what happens during the period of appointments. However snowy and icy it may be, candidates of the Fourth and Fifth Ranks come to the Palace with their official requests. Those who are still young and merry seem full of confidence. For the candidates who are old and white-haired things do not go so smoothly. Such men have to apply for help from people with influence at Court; some of them even visit ladies-in-waiting in their quarters and go to great lengths in pointing out their own merits. If young women happen to be present, they are greatly amused. As soon as the candidates have left, they mimic and deride them, something that the old men cannot possibly suspect as they scurry from one part of the Palace to another, begging everyone, “Please present my petition favourably to the Emperor” and “Pray inform Her Majesty about me.” It is not so bad if they finally succeed, but it really is rather pathetic when all their efforts prove in vain.

This passage is quite revealing about Sei, she is quite often arrogant and demeaning to others, she also finds it funny to cause problems for people she regards as her social inferiors. In this she is not alone at least according to her own accounts. Entry 292 describes an encounter with a man who has lost everything when his house burnt down following a fire in the Imperial haylofts…

We all burst out laughing at this, including the mistress of the robes; I took a sheet of paper and wrote

If the vernal sun burns strong enough
To sprout the young grass roots
Even a place like Yodo plain
Can ill survive its heat

‘Kindly give him this’ I told Mama throwing the paper to her. With loud laughter Mama handed the paper to the man.

They then instructed him to get somebody to read it to him and set off to the palace roaring with laughter as he set off believing that he had a record slip granting him money. She also claims that when the Empress was told about this she also found if funny.

But for all the casual cruelty of her interactions with others the book is still an important document into the lives of Japanese courtiers over 1000 years ago. She is free (and frequent) with her choice of lovers and this is also clearly normal as is the expectation that as soon as the gentleman has gone home in the morning that he would write a carefully considered letter to her using his finest calligraphy and choose a handsome page to deliver it. We are further told that he should not rush off on leaving in the morning but should linger a while, however if he is leaving during the night then spending time getting formally dressed is not acceptable as who would see him and he should just go when decent. What things look like or at least appear is everything to the ladies of the court, a deep knowledge of poetry and an ability to produce their own lines at a moments notice and of course write them with beautiful lettering is vital.

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I was simultaneously fascinated by and surprised by the details in this book, admittedly as Sei herself says at the end this was not intended for publication, it was her notes for her own pleasure, but it has gone on to be one of the classics of Japanese literature. We do not even know her real name, Sei is either a pseudonym or possibly a family name and Shōnagon is actually her title (a minor counsellor of the fifth rank). She was however of the class that would place her in the court as a daughter of a provincial governor and a long distant descendant of the former Emperor Temmo (630 to 686AD). She was a part of the Yokihito, literally ‘The Good People’. who comprised the aristocracy, and they preserved a complete lack of knowledge and indeed interest of the Tadahito, ‘Mere People’, which comprised the vast majority of the Japanese population. As such she can tell us nothing regarding the life of most Japanese at the time but the rarefied existence at the very top that she enjoyed is fascinating. In fact the Emperor whilst running the country at least in name was for centuries merely a puppet of the Fujiwaras family who were careful to never actually become Emperor but were always the power behind the throne and ensured that the cultivated art inspired court remained completely distant from the people so they could get on with actually controlling the country.

It was an interesting time, the Heian period lasted well over three centuries and there are few other records for us to see what was happening during that period. Sei Shōnagon has left us this record and it is well worth finding a copy and reading.

Note: I have now seen the Penguin Classics version of Ivan Morris’s translation, first published in 1971, and in that he edited it to remove the simple lists so that instead of 326 sections there are only 185. This means that the section numbers above don’t work with this edition. I have therefore given below a cross-reference for passages quoted above:

  • 140 – Things that give a clean feeling becomes 97
  • 108 – Hot Springs is omitted
  • 3 – Especially delightful is the first day becomes 2
  • 292 – We all burst out laughing becomes 168

A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

In 2010 BBC Radio 4 ran a fascinating series where the then Director of the British Museum in London chose 99 objects from the museums collection to illustrate world history. Each object was described in its own radio programme over a period of several months and soon became addictive. By Christmas a book had been produced which not only included versions of each lecture but importantly had a really good photograph accompanying it. MacGregor had done a wonderful job describing each item for the radio but the inclusion of pictures completed the project.

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The book is over seven hundred pages long to cover properly the 100 objects in the series and has an excellent index and bibliography which alone makes the book an invaluable companion to the series. The 100th object was chosen by MacGregor from suggestions by listeners to represent the modern day and was purchased by the museum to complete the collection. Fortunately both the BBC and the British Museum regard this as a milestone project so all 100 episodes are still available as downloadable podcasts from this BBC site. The museum also maintains a series of web pages dedicated to the project including a programme by programme set of pages which also tell you where the object can be found in the museum if it is currently on display (at the time of writing 21 of the 100 objects are not in a museum gallery).

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The above mosaic shows all 100 objects and as you would probably guess this is not a book you can really just sit and read. Not only from its sheer length, but also from the way it was created from 100 separate lectures which were never intended to be listened to one after an other although it does make sense to hear or read them in sequence. Having loved the series from its inception I of course bought the book when it came out but still I tend to listen to Neil when I want to delve into the series, preferably with the book to hand so that I can admire the object as he talks about it.

We start with the mummy case of Hornedjitef and end with a Chinese made solar lamp and charger but I’m just going to pick out five of my favourites:-

  • 12 – Standard of Ur – A truly beautiful object which nobody knows what it was used for. It is inlaid with a mosaic of people coming to pay their taxes to the king so is clearly a demonstration of his power.
  • 17 – Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – Basically a primer in ‘all the mathematics that you need’ in order to work in the Egyptian civil service. How such a document came to survive the centuries is a miracle. I have a book on ancient Egyptian mathematics, maybe I should review that sometime?

  • 47 – Sutton Hoo Helmet – It was reading about the Sutton Hoo discoveries as a child that first gave me an interest in archaeology and history.
  • 76 – The Mechanical Galleon – It was this object that really made me want this book, listening to Neil’s description of this marvellously intricate device made me want to see it and there is a wonderful close up image of the stern with the beautifully detailed figures standing there.
  • 91 – Ships Chronometer from HMS Beagle – One of twenty two carried on the famous voyage where Charles Darwin was inspired in his great work on evolution. The chronometers were used to determine longitude and led to the first truly accurate maps of South America.

So this short article before I hit my planned August reading marathon for this year is yes a suggestion that you should obtain and read the book but really  a big hint to check out the podcasts available via the links I have included and enjoy a master at work.

Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

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November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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