Saturday 29 August 2015

What would my subjects make of their biographies?

I have written biographies of two very different women. The Woman Who Saved the Children (Oneworld Publications, 2009) tells the story of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the charity The Save the Children Fund and pioneering champion of children’s human rights. A very independent-minded Edwardian lady, the flame-haired Eglantyne was quite a woman. She graduated from Oxford university to illicit romance in Cambridge. After disappointment in love and a dalliance with spiritualism she undertook espionage in Serbia, and endured public arrest in Trafalgar Square before launching Save the Children in London’s Royal Albert Hall after the end of the First World War. Throughout her life she rode horses and bicycles, saw ghosts and climbed mountains. A woman with a very vivid imagination, she wrote poems, romantic novels, and the first ever statement of children’s human rights. Her courage, passion and determination have forever changed the way in which the world treats children.
Eglantyne was not a self-promoting woman, but she was very good at marketing and quite prepared to fly the flag for the Fund at every opportunity. I am relieved to think she would be quite happy to see her story told, and delighted to know that all the author’s royalties are donated to the wonderful charity that she founded.

My second book, The Spy Who Loved (Macmillan, 2012), tells the secrets and lives of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, a Polish Countess who became the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. Perhaps not surprisingly, Christine’s story has been rather more concealed than Eglantyne’s. My biography is called The Spy Who Loved, because Christine was a very passionate woman. She loved adrenaline and adventure. She loved men – she had two husbands and numerous lovers who all get a mention in the book. But above all, Christine loved freedom and independence – both for her country, Poland, and for herself personally. It was because of her very passionate nature that, after her early death, a group of six men who had once served with her formed ‘the panel to protect the reputation of Christine Granville’ in an attempt to prevent unauthorised books and articles about her from being published. Like Eglantyne, Christine was a woman ahead of her times and these men felt that the world was not yet ready for their very modern heroine. I believe that Christine would approve of many of the changes in society today, such as the greater opportunities for women, although not all, such as the prejudice still facing many Polish people in Britain. So I think she might be pleased that her story was being told within the context of her country’s war history, to remind people of why there is such a historic bond between our nations.

Taking Isabel’s question a little further, however, I can not now help wondering what these two women would have thought about the content of my books, not just the fact of the books’ existence.

Biographers have a tricky job. I aim for accuracy, and yet I know there are many kinds of truth – the dry truth of fact, but also emotional and moral truths, and often these may be contradictory. A person may tell a story, even their own story, and yet the truth told is often not one corroborated by the ‘facts’ found in archives, buildings or photograph albums. Likewise, I have found that there is character which may be unfulfilled, as well as character acted upon. Are things less true to a person, less telling of their nature, if they remained in the realm of aspiration or desire? And to whom does the biographer owe their allegiance, should a story become controversial or someone reveal their less pleasant nature – to their subject, or their descendants, or to the reader and the record? And can any biography be other than anachronistic, however hard the author tries not to benefit from hindsight?

Perhaps I have been fortunate to have written, thus far, about rather remarkable women, both of whom I have found deeply inspiring. And yet both Eglantyne and Christine are women who lived and loved, fought and feigned in a different age, when social mores and personal morals were quite different than those of today. And both these women defied the expectations of their age on several levels.

Biographies, I feel, should be regarded not just as windows onto the past, but as mirrors of our own concerns and interests. Perhaps that is why there are so many biographies of figures like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Joan of Arc. The people we are interested in are anchored in one point in time, but new books are always being written about them from different perspectives, addressing the questions perhaps more pertinent to the writer and reader than to the subject. Of course Eglantyne and Christine might not have wished to have their love-lives exposed, (actually I think Christine would have laughed, but I doubt Eglantyne would have been happy) but had they been born today, I think both might have campaigned for equality, freedom and the enactment of human rights and decency – and, since hopefully these are what my biographies support through the telling of their lives, I think I might just get away with it!

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Friday 28 August 2015

Hiroshima: City of Peace

Hiroshima: City of Peace

Seventy years ago this month, on Monday 6 August 1945, the nuclear bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, immediately killing an estimated 80,000 people. Three days later a second bomb, the equally appallingly nick-named ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki, killing between 60-70,000 people. On 15 August Japan surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War.

It has been argued that President Truman’s decision to drop the A-bombs on these two Japanese cities saved more lives than were lost by ending the war so much earlier than any alternative course of action. As usual the truth is more complex. Truman’s primary objectives were certainly American lives and the earliest possible end to the war, but other pertinent considerations included impressing the Soviets as the Cold War approached, the lasting need to respond to Pearl Harbour, and the pressure to justify the development costs of the atomic project. In this war, sides of very different motivations and experiences all committed atrocities and suffered from traumatising war crimes. I don't seek to suggest equivalence. Nevertheless, it is still difficult understand the detonation of two separate Atomic bombs on the same country within a few days.

Cherry blossom in Hiroshima, April 2015
I visited Japan for the first time this Easter. It was cherry blossom season and the flowers were spectacular, frothing white and pink against bright blue skies. I was traveling around by bullet train and bicycle, visiting shrines and temples, stroking deer, feeding carp, and watching robots hop and skip in Tokyo. I also spent a day in Hiroshima, a vibrant city rebuilt after its almost total destruction in 1945. Modern Hiroshima has its fair share of cherry trees, but the official flower of the city is the Oleander, as this was the first plant to bloom again after 1945.

I was shown around the city by a local guide called Keiko. We started at the Peace Park that had opened in 1955. Here Keiko pointed out the new ground level, resulting from the vast amount of imported earth brought in to cover contaminated land. We visited the Genbaku Dome, the skeletal remains of the most central building left standing by the bomb which has been preserved as a memorial, as well as the eternal flame, and the peace pagoda erected in 1966.

Hiroshima Peace Pond in front of the Peace Flame
and Cenotaph in the Memorial Park
Keiko had married into a family from Hiroshima. Her husband’s mother was a young woman living less than two kilometers from the epicentre of the detonation in 1945. Of their large family only she, and a few others who were also away from home that August morning, survived. Keiko's husband was not born until a few years later but Keiko told me that, although rarely talking about it, he still carries the weight of these devastating events on his shoulders. 'As do all the city’s post-war generations', she added.

While other cities like Tokyo and Osaka had been severely bombed during the war, Hiroshima, where several Japanese armies were based, had not been targeted. Anticipating an eventual attack, that August the city authorities had mobilised school-children aged between eleven and fourteen to demolish certain houses to create fire-breaks, with the aim of limiting potential damage from firestorms. Many were helping with this work on the morning that the A-bomb fell, putting them close to the centre of the impact. Amongst other relics, such as melted road girders and roof tiles, the absolutely heart-wrenching Hiroshima Peace Museum displays possessions from some of these children including unopened lunch-boxes, scorched school books and several school blouses that had been beautifully hand-stitched by girls in classes just weeks earlier. In case these seem romantic, there are also some appalling human relics, kept by traumatised relatives who had nothing else. Thousands of other people left no evidence of their lives, abilities or personalities at all.

The museum also holds a display of many of the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was just two years old when she was exposed to radiation from the A-bomb further out in the suburbs of Hiroshima. Having developed leukaemia some years later, Sasaki began folding paper cranes in the hope that when she had made a thousand she might be granted a wish, as in Japanese legend. Too weak to continue, Sasaki died in 1955.

Origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima Peace Museum
Sadako Sasaki statue, holding a crane aloft
Such devastatingly personal effects and relics are deeply telling, but nothing can convey the enormity of the loss. Six thousand Hiroshima school-children were killed when the atomic bomb was dropped. Many more died later from their injuries. By the end of the year the death toll is estimated to have been between 90,000-166,000, possibly more than half of the city’s entire population. Cancer and other resulting conditions claimed many more lives, such as that of twelve year old Sasaki. Around 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings were also destroyed. Nagasaki suffered a similar level of destruction.

Hiroshima was proclaimed a City of Peace by the Japanese parliament in 1949. It has since hosted a series of conferences on peace, developed a dedicated Peace Institute within its university, and established the international ‘Mayors for Peace’ organization, calling for the abolition and elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2020. This may be an unrealistic goal but it serves as a guide to steer disarmament. When one thinks of mothers, their skin hanging off, running towards the suburbs of Hiroshima clutching their dead children to their chests, it seems impossible to conceive of ever using such a weapon again.

The American decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki resonates in other ways today as well. From a historian's perspective, earlier this year the USA took the decision to digitise the records generated by their Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, to make them readily available to researchers internationally. The ABCC was the US body established in 1947 to carry out a medical assessment of the effect of radiation on survivors from the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documents show that many of the US commission’s doctors were deeply affected by what they witnessed, although, as The Japan Times noted while I was visiting Hiroshima, many of the A-bomb survivors later criticised the commission for treating them like research guinea-pigs. Pity, without empathy or respect, is of little value. Preserved images in this collection include many taken to show the ‘atomic bomb radiation effects on the human body’, with some of the survivors photographed holding nameplates. Clearly issues around confidentiality and sensitivity must be paramount, and the full history behind the commission, as well as its findings, needs to be addressed.

Keiko nevertheless believes that the stories that stem from Hiroshima need to reach the widest possible audience. She told me that she feels deeply moved when showing visitors around her city and she hopes that, in this way, she can play a small part in helping to spread Hiroshima’s messages both of peace, and of the ‘evil of Atomic weapons’, around the world. I thought of Keiko as Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell silent for the seventieth anniversary this August, each city remembering the moment when tens of thousands of their citizens were killed. After doves were released and Buddhist bells tolled, vows were taken to redouble civic efforts to halt nuclear proliferation in a world where incidents, accidents, and the threat of nuclear terrorism is ever growing. Since then, countries including Japan and the USA, Britain, India, Australia, China and Russia have negotiated a controversial new deal to limit Iran's nuclear programme, while providing relief from previous sanctions and permitting the country to continue its atomic programme 'for peaceful purposes'.

As I left Hiroshima, Keiko gave me a white origami orizuru, or paper crane, which she had folded as we walked around the peace park. There are many important war anniversaries this year, but among them we must remember the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the message of peace with which Hiroshima has heroically chosen to reply to the world. Pity alone is not enough.