Book review: Hotel Boy

Hotel Boy ----- by John Trythall/Robert Henley (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2013) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Hotel Boy —– by John Trythall(Austin Macauley Publishers, 2013) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The novel Hotel Boy by John Trythall (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2013) takes the reader through the early years of the Second World War from the viewpoint of ten-or-so-year-old Michael Treloar. In that sense, Hotel Boy can be compared to John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, which is another account of wartime boyhood (although a film, not a novel).

Hotel Boy introduces an interesting and unusual perspective in that the setting is a hotel (smallish, almost a boarding house) in the English seaside town of Forbury. Michael’s father was killed in 1940 while serving in France with the British Expeditionary Force. Michael and his mum are uprooted from their home and transplanted to Roselea, where Michael is dismayed to learn that he is not to have a bedroom of his own. His sleeping quarters will be in the hotel’s hairdressing salon, run by the hotelkeeper’s daughter, Lorna. (Why is it that fictional boy heroes so often find themselves lacking a bedroom? Harry Potter slept in a closet beneath the stairs!)

Trythall cleverly keeps pace with wartime goings-on through quotes from Churchill’s speeches. My favorite, given at the beginning of Chapter 10, is from Churchill’s 1941 speech to the boys of his old school: “These are not dark days; these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived;”

The experience of the times is evoked in many small details. A radio really was called a wireless, and there was a warming-up period between turning (switching) on the radio and being able to hear any sound; the valves (vacuum tubes to Canadians and Americans) needed time to heat up and become active. Unless you kept chickens of your own, egg powder would be your wartime substitute for actual eggs. Coupons were needed to buy clothes, or to buy almost anything at all: meat, poultry, sugar, coal, . . . The list was long.

Tidbits mentioned in the book include listening to radio broadcasts from Germany by Lord Haw-Haw, the British traitor whose ‘la-di-dah’ accent so amused the British public. A less well known tidbit is the bombing raid by Vichy French aircraft against Gibraltar—retaliation for the Royal Navy’s attack on the French naval base at Oran.

The author never lets us forget that Michael is a boy and is doing boy’s stuff. This includes reading the ‘Just William’ books. These were written by female author Richmal Crompton and might be considered the Harry Potter books of the time. She wrote over forty of them, beginning in the nineteen twenties and ending in the early seventies. Just William is the title of the first book. Michael, our boy hero in Hotel Boy, sees the resourceful, up-for-anything William as his role model and tries to live life accordingly.

His life, of course, is impacted by those around him. The central theme of Hotel Boy revolves around the microcosm of society represented by the people of Roselea: guests arriving for the weekend, guests who stay year round, the owner and his wife, their daughter, the RAF pilots who are regular customers at the hotel bar, their girlfriends, the RAF Wing Commander who is the love interest of Michael’s mother and, of course, Michael and his mother, themselves, whose relocation from the city gives them a status akin to being refugees. Toss in violent death, youthful sex, jealousy, and unwanted pregnancy, and one has an entertaining piece of fiction that closely mirrors life.

All in all, if you were fortunate to have lived during “the greatest days our country has ever lived,” or if your parents or grandparents lived through those times, or if you are simply curious, you will find Hotel Boy by John Trythall both enjoyable and informative.

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This week in the War, 15–21 May 1944: Poles capture ruins of Monte Cassino abbey

Sketch of the Monte Cassino battlefield drawn for the HQ of the 2nd Polish Corps [Public domain]

Sketch of the Monte Cassino battlefield drawn for the HQ of the 2nd Polish Corps [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 18 May 1944, the Polish 12th Podolski Regiment assaulted and captured the ruins of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino. The Gustav line, which had held up the Allies for months, had already been breached at many points in the southern sector.

Photograph that appeared in 'Yank, the Army Weekly' showing a monk guiding two soldiers over the ruins of Monte Cassino abbey [Public domain]

Photograph that appeared in ‘Yank, the Army Weekly’ showing a monk guiding two soldiers over the ruins of Monte Cassino abbey [Public domain]

Fearing that his troops may be cut off from the rear, Kesselring ordered his his forces to withdraw. (The German parachutists were already withdrawing from Monte Cassino, itself.)

After a prolonged effort on the part of the Allies—including Americans, Australians, British, Canadians, Free French, Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, and South Africans—the road to Rome lay open.

 

 

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This week in the War, 8–14 May 1944: Rabaul

Crew of a US Marine Grumman Avenger board their plane for a mission over Rabaul, New Britain [Public domain]

Crew of a US Marine Grumman Avenger board their plane for a mission over Rabaul, New Britain [Public domain]

New Britain, Territory of New Guinea, South Pacific: After much heavy fighting, aimed at preventing the Americans from expanding their beachheads, the Japanese retreated to their fortifications around Rabaul. Well over 5,000 Japanese had been killed in the fighting. Over 500 had been captured. (Having such a large number of soldiers taken prisoner was unusual for the Japanese army and perhaps reflected a lowering of morale due to the tide having turned so markedly in favour of the Allies.)

The Allied Command had already decided to bypass the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. The town had been attacked from the air and would continue to be bombed on a regular basis almost until the end of the war. Rabaul’s substantial garrison remained useless and in place. Many of the Japanese aircraft stationed in Rabaul were flown out to other Japanese-held islands, saving both planes and pilots (but not their valuable mechanics).

 

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In the news: Transit of Mercury, 9 May 2016

Transit of Mercury that occurred ten years ago, 9 November 2006 [Public domain, NASA]

Transit of Mercury that occurred ten years ago, 9 November 2006 [Public domain, NASA]

On Monday 9 May 2016, people across the world, including Europe and North America, will be able to witness the transit of Mercury. The planet Mercury will be visible as a tiny black dot as Mercury passes between Earth and the sun.

Use precautions—view through welder’s glass, as you would for a solar eclipse—if you plan to observe.

Transits of Mercury occur roughly every ten years. On the other hand, transits of Venus can be separated from each other by time spans of several years and also time spans of about a century.

Mercury and Venus have transits. They are closer to the sun than is the Earth. The outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) do not have transits.

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This week in the War, 1–7 May 1944: Going My Way—the movie

'Going My Way' with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald [Public domain]

‘Going My Way’ with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald [Public domain]

This week in the war saw the release of the movie Going My Way, 3 May 1944.

Bing Crosby stars as Father O’Malley, the young priest who is sent to take charge of the parish run by the very much older Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald.

The movie won best picture and Crosby sings a variety of songs. The most notable of them is the Irish lullaby Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral, sung when Father Fitzgibbon’s aging mother arrives from Ireland and embraces her son for the first time in more than forty years.

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Book review: Shadows in a Photograph

Shadows in a Photograph --- by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Shadows in a Photograph — by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The novel Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2016) describes life from the viewpoint of Peter Waring. The story begins not too long after the Great War ends and focuses at first on Peter’s boyhood exile to Cumberland. He and his mother must leave London to live, fatherless and husbandless, with relatives in the north of England. McMichael is a master of setting. His description of Peter’s departure from the railway station and the locomotive, “A black monster, it stood there, wisps of steam escaping with a faint hiss from around its pistons” evokes Harry Potter’s departure for Hogwarts.

In Cumberland, Peter meets two girls: the tomboy, Jamie, and the pretty and somewhat older, Jordan. They resurface later as young women as the story follows Peter into medical school and into the Royal Air Force as an RAF doctor attached to Bomber Command.

Second World War afficionados will appreciate how McMichael lays out the familiar milestones of those early years of war: the removal of signposts throughout the British Isles, the Blackout, Dunkirk, London’s Windmill Theatre (famous for never closing), the fifty destroyers that Roosevelt sent in answer to Churchill’s plea, Churchill himself, his speeches, the importance of radar (‘RDF,’ so-called), the ‘Famous Few,’ including Douglas Bader—the pilot who had lost both legs, the controversy of Leigh-Mallory’s ‘Big Wing,’ and then how, at the crucial stage of the Battle of Britain, Hitler ordered his Luftwaffe to switch from attacking Fighter Command airfields to bombing London.

Back then, everyone in Britain would likely have been a fan of ‘ITMA’—‘It’s That Man Again,’ the hugely popular radio (wireless!) show starring comedian Tommy Handley and his gang of characters. Their catchphrases were famous throughout the war years and McMichael refers on more than one occasion to ITMA’s memorable Mrs Mopp: “It’s being so cheerful what keeps me going;” Also: “Can I do you now, Sir?” And let’s not forget: “TTFN,” which, as everyone should know, stands for “Ta ta for now.”

On a more tragic vein, McMichael’s novel dwells, from time to time, on the horrible burn injuries that can be sustained by aircrew when their planes catch fire. The achievements of the East Grinstead burns unit plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, feature prominently in the book. Of course, the novel’s lead character, Peter Waring, becomes a doctor himself, and readers will expect some in-depth details of the doctoring life. They will not be disappointed by the amputation scene or by the delivery of a baby.

McMichael’s novel is a compendium of compelling scenes, rendered with astonishing care: A WAAF nurse gives Peter his first experience of sex (“Here, let me show you what a woman likes. This woman at least.”); a close call with an exploding bomb (“He could see nothing other than a blood-red curtain, hear nothing but a ringing as if all the bells in the world had been set in motion, . . .”); Peter and Jordan kiss each other (“. . . frantically, violently, almost brutally, open-mouthed, . . .”).

Later in the novel, Peter’s flight in a Wellington bomber on a mission over Stuttgart ends with a crash landing in northern France. Peter and the Wellington’s pilot, Beal, are taken in by Marie-Louise who works for the French Resistance. The chapters that follow are among my favorites and remind me, in some ways, of Flying Colours, one of the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester. In Forester’s novel, the Royal Navy’s Captain Horatio Hornblower is in France with wounded fellow officer, Lieutenant Bush, and they are hiding from Napoleon’s troops—just as in McMichael’s novel, RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter Waring and wounded fellow officer, Squadron Leader Beal, are hiding from the Nazis. Both heroes find themselves houseguests of beautiful women: Marie in Hornblower’s case, and in Waring’s case, her name is Marie-Louise. The similarities soon end, but the comparison is interesting and entertaining, as is McMichael’s entire novel, from start to end: Rich in detail, Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael is a fascinating and moving novel that embraces the gamut of emotions.

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This week in the War, 24–30 April 1944: Gold medal athlete and collaborator, Violette Morris, is gunned down by the French Resistance

Violette Morris, Paris 1920 [Public domain]

Violette Morris, Paris 1920 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 26 April 1944, French gold-medal-winning athlete, Violette Morris, was ambushed by the Resistance. Morris and everyone else in her car, including two small children, died in a hail of bullets.

Between the wars, Morris had excelled in a wide range of sports, from soccer to shot putting to swimming. She was an accomplished cyclist, race car driver and boxer.

France’s Women’s Athletic Federation objected to her ‘morals’ and subsequently barred her from competing in the 1928 Olympics. She was gay.

Morris was later courted by the Nazis and invited to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. She began working secretly for the German security service (SD) and, during the Second World War, she actively worked against Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).

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