Auntie Doris’s Book Club #12: “City of Thieves” by David Benioff

city-of-thievesI don’t often read war books. War is a bad business. But this one was a ruddy good book. It is set in Russia, during the siege of Leningrad in World War Two, and although there is bravery and adventure and guns and the occasional explosion in it, it isn’t a sensational “thriller” sort of a book. Thrilling, but about real people in desperate situations, just trying to survive, not always successfully neither.
The people of Leningrad are so ruddy hungry that they have killed and eaten all their pets, are making bread out of sawdust and anything else they can find, and are boiling down the spines of books to make some sort of chewy food out of the glue that binds them together, which they call “Library Candy.” Only the top ranking officers in the secret police and the army get to eat anything decent, and even they find things that they used to take for granted hard to come by.
These two young lads, Lev, and Kolya get the chance to save themselves from certain death, by going on a mission to find a dozen eggs for the Chief of Police’s daughter’s wedding. How do you manage that when everyone around you is eating ruddy goldfish or book spines? Well, after escaping from some bugger who wants to eat them, the heroes of the story end up behind enemy lines, mixing it with the Germans, and risking their lives time after time to get their goal. Are they successful? Do they survive? I’m not telling you. You will have to read the story, or wait for the film to come out. Which it will, have no doubt about it. And when it does, and everyone is going on about it as if it’s the best thing since Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” just tell them that you heard about it ages ago from your old Auntie Doris, who knows a good read when she reads one. And send them to join my book club.
There is an interesting bit of a sub plot in the book as well… It’s about another book called “The Courtyard Hound” by the celebrated Russian author, Ushakovo.
In Chapter 17, there is a quotation from that book that I reckon my nephew Michael and some of his pop music and poetry friends would do well to think on about…

“Talent must be a fanatical mistress. She’s beautiful; when you’re with her, people watch you, they notice. But she bangs on your door at odd hours, and she disappears for long stretches, and she has no patience for the rest of your existence, your wife, your children, your friends. She is the most thrilling evening of your week. But some day she will leave you for good. One night after she’s been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognise you.”

So there you go. A book that you will be thrilled by, learn a bit of history from, and a bit of wisdom too. And one that you will get the chance to show off about if you manage to read it before they make it into a film. If they haven’t got it at your local library (and thanks to the Tories cutting all the local councils’ money, they probably won’t) you had better order it from the Amazons. Or support your local bookshop. If you have one after the Amazons have finished with it.

Auntie Doris’s All Things Must Pass #10: World War Two


Yes it was horrible. Yes loads of people died. Yes, we thought that it would be us next, what with Hitler sending them doodlebugs over every night and only Arthur Lowe and Clive Dunn standing between us and Ruddy Hitler,. But somehow, despite all that, there were plenty of people of my generation who missed the Second World War when it was all over.
I reckon that the reason that we looked back so fondly on it was that everyone felt that they were in the same boat back in them days. Them bombs could have hit any one of our houses from Buckingham Palace down to the grottiest hovel down the darkest back street of our grubby neck of the woods. If Hitler had have come over with his storm troopers, he would have come for the lot of us, an’all. Every one of us would have all been learning how to talk German, salute his ruddy silly flag and eat ruddy sausages made out of horse meat. None of us wanted that. Even when we was hungry. You don’t go eating horses. It just isn’t the British way. Or it wasn’t until the Germans came over anyway and built them Lidl stores everywhere selling their ruddy cheap “beefburgers”
The thing was, that during the war, what with having a common enemy, we all pulled together, and there was a real sense of community. Not like today, where it feels like its everyone for themselves, and them with the money and the power getting the biggest slice of everything. We used to share things out during the war, and if anyone was down on their luck, we used to help them.
There were some laughs too. Raymond’s Mother told me about the time when the sirens went off in the middle of the night while she was in bed. The drill was get your gas mask on and get out of the house and out to the shelter, which was a shared one for all the people who lived in her little terrace of houses. The only thing was she had been to visit her sister that night and forgotten to bring her mask home with her. So she was worried that she might get gassed to death. Then she remembered that she had read somewhere that you could protect yourself by soaking a blanket in water and throwing it over your head. Well she had plenty of blankets around her, because she was in bed, but no water. But there was a pot full of piss under the bed, and she didn’t want to die, so she soaked the blanket in it and ran downstairs and out to the shelter.
Of course, it was a false alarm, but she had to wait half an hour soaked in her own pee before it was safe to go back in. She ruddy stank to high heaven, and the neighbours never let her forget it. Mollie Pittle Head they used to call her. But it was all good natured fun. There was no malice in those days, we were all in it together after all. A real sense of fun and fellowhip. Its all gone now, but so has Hitler, so it all balances out I suppose. All things must pass.