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Posts Tagged ‘Great Britain’

The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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Over Thanksgiving weekend I read an advance copy of Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (due out in the U.S. in February). It was a squirm-inducing read; Hudson’s own upbringing “in a succession of council estates, B&B’s, and trailer parks” informs her debut, which portrays the bleak, depressing life of a single mother and her daughters Janie Ryan (who narrates the book from birth) and Tiny as they bounce in and out of housing projects in Scotland and England. Tony Hogan of the title beats the girls’ mother. Drugs and alcohol abound.

The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it. I kept thinking how random it is that I grew up in such a different world, when I know there were kids in my town whose lives were not a lot different than the Janie’s.

So why did I keep reading a book that made me feel miserable? Believe it or not, this is a love story. Because despite the soul crushing poverty and attendant overwhelming pain, Janie and her family love each other. Hudson has written a novel that simultaneously repulses and taps the depths of human pathos. But by the end of the story readers sense that Janie is going to be ok, despite the absent father, the wreck of a mother, the system that sees her as nothing but trash with no future but to repeat the pattern. What might save her? At the risk of over-simplifying, unconditional love. (And, I am extremely pleased to report, regular visits to the library from a young age.)

Hudson’s talent lies in her ability to write a story no one wants to hear but readers can’t seem to put down. The book was a sensation in Britain, garnering critical praise and prize nominationsGibson’s Book Club this week got into a discussion about what deserves to be called a great book. One thing we agreed on was that good writing doesn’t stay on the page — it enters our hearts and minds and lingers.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I continue to think of Janie. A fictional walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how painful, can influence the way we see each other in the real world. Janie was with me when I read an article this week about fast food workers’ hopes for living wages. And her world also brought to mind the families caught in the cycle of poverty in the incredibly moving documentary on hunger in America the Computer Scientist and I saw a few months ago, A Place at the Table. 

 I’m fortunate that with the final page of this book I put away the misery Janie lived with and stepped back into my own very comfortable shoes. I read to the end for her, and for everyone like her. Not because I can save them, but because I believe reading — and understanding in even the tiniest way what other’s lives are like — can save us all.

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