BBC Radio 4 has a morning Book of the Week slot on week days, it’s not my usual listen, but due to intriguing descriptions in the Radio Times I’ve recently tuned in. I’ve been enthralled by the stories concerning two remarkable women, one trying to escape Nazi occupied France, the other honestly chronicling the effects of living with early onset Alzheimer’s. Both have deeply touched me and I will definitely be buying the books, although I admit that the subject matter are areas I would normally shy away from, finding them upsetting to think about. But the indomitable spirit of both these women shone through the readings, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the next episode, in a kind of “wondering way”. Those ten 15 minute slots taught me more about life, survival, history and compassion than anything I’ve seen on TV. The books are as follows:
NO PLACE TO LAY ONE’S HEAD Francoise Frenkell (Pushkin Press, £16.99)
My interest was caught when the Radio Times commented the book was initially published in Geneva 1945, and then seemingly forgotten until discovered in a French attic in 2010. A second edition was issued in French and now an English translation has been made. A firsthand account of a Jewish woman’s survival and escape from the Nazi’s in France, printed perhaps in the first few weeks of Europe peacetime in 1945, and then untouched until re-discovered in a modern day world. Wow!
Frenkell came from a Polish Jewish family, was highly educated to degree level (I believe) having studied in Paris, and ended up opening a French bookshop in Berlin on discovering no such facility existed. Her clientele was illustrious, business brisk and successful and the future looked bright in early 1930s Berlin. Then the rule of Hitler and the effect of his policies kicked in. I listened as her beloved bookshop managed to avoid destruction as it wasn’t on an official destroy list. How she had to leave it behind and flee in the night, traversing through Europe from city to city, always somehow avoiding major crackdowns, or invasion, by a matter of days. Her skirmishes with authority and her escape attempts to reach Switzerland, finally successful. Frenkell’s words seem to be beautifully translated into an eloquent yet matter of fact way, and I listened with my “heart in my mouth” most of the time. I punched the air when her escape was successful and breathed a sigh of relief. My overall feeling was one of admiration for Francoise and her determined nature to survive in an intolerable society. But there was anger as well at the same society for its blinkered rule of law. It seemed to conveniently ignore, no doubt because of her Jewish ethnicity, the fact Frenkell had all the necessary documentation (residency papers, visa) to live peacefully in France and to travel with ease to Switzerland. My listening ended with Francoise setting foot in Switzerland where she survived the war to write her memoir, about her life before Nazi rule in Europe and her escape from it. The French publishing company Gallimard discovered Frenkell passed away in Nice in 1975 at the ripe age of 86 but could find no relatives.
SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW Wendy Mitchell (Bloomsbury £9.99)
My listening journey with Wendy began with her describing a “fog in her head” and inexplicable falls whilst she was out running. Doctors suggested she could have had a stroke, having discovered a heart condition that was fixed through surgery. The fog continued and eventually a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s was made after a seemingly painfully slow series of visits with health clinicians. Her description of looking at online videos of people living with the condition was searing, the initial thought of “but these are old people nearing the end of their lives” before finding one of a man in his late 50s like herself, who described his experiences in a mirror like fashion to her own.
Wendy worked as a NHS administrator known for her powers of recall and organisation skills. Slowly she had become aware that her grasp on things wasn’t the same. When she told management of her diagnosis the only thing offered was early retirement, there was no procedure to try and enable her to work within her remaining mental capabilities, which were still considerable. Her co-workers brilliantly rallied around to make tasks less stressful and more easy to deal with, enabling Wendy to continue in her job as long as possible. With unexpected early retirement foisted upon her Wendy decided to use her time attending conferences, doing speaking engagements and becoming a leading advocate for those living with Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Through this work she hopes to educate people to have a better understanding of the condition. I was certainly educated as I listened to excerpts from Mitchell’s book. Hearing how familiar things can suddenly seem strange and confusing, city living becoming too noisy to deal with, the use of technology to help try and trick her condition, the coping strategies Wendy uses to deal with the sudden onset of panic. It was illuminating to literally “see the world through Wendy’s eyes” and to hear how her condition is slowly taking over her mind. Her articulation is heartfelt, honest and at times perhaps unconsciously funny with a wry humour, like her wonderment at experiencing a gliding session and how quiet the flight was, whilst knowing she wouldn’t remember a thing about the safety video if disaster struck. The realisation “if you don’t use it you will lose it” after taking a three week break from her work and finding the computer keyboard incomprehensible for a few hours. How the person she is today is someone she doesn’t really recognise anymore, yet for the joys she has lost (like TV shows, long novels, cooking) an appreciation for new joys (short stories, poetry, old familiar films). I shared Mitchell’s sadness and resigned acceptance when her extra income from government support was removed, having been deemed fit enough to function on a daily basis. Much of the “medical tests” used depended on the person remembering how they were before, a ludicrous concept when you consider the nature of an Alzheimer’s condition. Wendy’s resilience and determination to live life to the full for as long as possible was utterly compelling. Once again I had found a woman living in a difficult situation, making the best of it and triumphing in a way against the odds. Somehow both Francoise and Wendy made me feel empowered too.
In closing, I will mention a book that has been on my bookshelf since 2001. It’s called HAPPY TIMES by Lee Radziwill (sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis). I read about it in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and asked my husband to look for it in America when he visited a few weeks later. There is little dialogue in it and is mainly a gorgeous photo book, rather like a family album. I’ve delved into it many a time, but only really read the dialogue this week. I’ve been happily updating my photo album with recent activity pictures, and from Wendy Mitchell’s book there is a strong element of how important photo’s can be for memories. We live in such uncertain times; I’ve chosen to look for the joy in things as much as possible. Photography is a passion and a joy, and my husband suggested I look at Happy Times again and actually read it. A quote in the introduction says it all for me: “I believe that without memories there is no life, and that our memories should be of happy times. That’s my choice”.