You may all remember some exciting news over the summer from Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow. Working in conjunction with Dean Street Press nine titles that Scott has raved about and championed on his marvellous blog are at last being brought back into print. I believe that there will be more coming out in the future.
I was delighted to receive two e-books from the publishers out of the blue – a lovely surprise. I chose to read A Chelsea Concerto first, a deeply personal memoir of the London blitz.
Frances Faviell lived in Chelsea both before and during the Second World War. Her remarkable memoir opens early in the war, before the devastating bombardment that was to follow. She becomes a Red Cross volunteer– attached to a first aid post, and in those early days there are a lot of drills. At this time Chelsea is still the bohemian district that she is so familiar with, home to artists such as Faviell herself. Like the Londoners of the time, we are lulled into a false sense of security – in the long quiet, uncertain days before the first bombs fall, everything feels normal – just with added sandbags and men in khaki.
In time of course the blitz over London began, and Chelsea was particularly targeted, Faviell is fairly uncompromising in her descriptions of the devastation, the dead, injured, traumatised and bereaved which became a huge part of their lives, night after night after night. Chelsea came under heavy bombardment due to its proximity to the Thames and the bridges which served the river. Time and again Frances is called upon to help people in desperate situations.
“As I hurried by she turned, said something to the others, then called to me, ‘Nurse!’ I went over. The man bending over the hole straightened up, but I could not look at him because of the appalling sound coming from the hole. Someone was in mortal anguish down there. The woman in nurse’s uniform, who was tall and very largely built, said sharply to me, ‘What are your hip measurements?’ I said, above the horrible moaning from the hole, ‘Thirty-four inches.’ One of the men took a piece of stick and measured it across my shoulders, then across my hips, and then put it across the hole. ‘Easy—an inch to spare each side,’ he said”
Obliged to crawl, semi clad, into a tiny space beneath a pile of rubble to chloroform a terribly injured man, on another occasion to grimly piece together the body parts of bomb victims to return to families for burial.
We meet the characters who Frances lives amongst, the people who for Frances Faviell will be forever synonymous with that time and that place. They become people we care about too, involved with and worried for.
“And suddenly, as I stood there, they all came crowding back again – the grey ghost faces, the wail of the sirens, the sound of gunfire, the crash and reverberation of bombs, the drone of planes and the crackle of flames. Back they all came… Kathleen, Anne, Cecil, Larry, Catherine and the baby, Grannie and the horse, Beauty, the East Enders, the refugees…”
Frances is living in a flat, very close to the Royal Hospital – she is friendly with the people upstairs; a woman and her two daughters, one of who is disabled. Her Dachshund Vicki; has become a bit of a local character, affectionately nicknamed Miss Hitler by the neighbours. Engaged to Richard, who is working for the ministry of home security, Frances is soon considering becoming a fully registered nurse. At this point – Frances has already travelled widely, been married once before, learnt a couple of languages and developed a range of skills she able to put to practical use in helping the people of Chelsea during the difficult times in which they find themselves. When Ruth; a Jewish refugee – who left Germany several years earlier – succumbs to paranoid terror and attempts to gas herself, Frances becomes a surrogate mother figure to her devastated daughter Carla.
In the months and years which follow, Frances shows herself to be a brave, calm and resourceful volunteer. Working with Belgian refugees, she becomes a safe harbour for these displaced people. There’s Catherine, who arrives in London at nineteen unmarried and pregnant ashamed of her unmarried status, she feels judged and looked down upon, and The Giant – who is responsible for more than one fracas. There are moments of humour too – A Chelsea Concerto isn’t all tension and horror – there is a wedding – the author’s own – during an air raid – fun, and lovely friendships, a beautiful baby is born, and Vicki the Dachshund attracts an ardent admirer.
As Frances’s involvement with the lives of the refugees’ increases, she is doing so, while Chelsea is being subjected to the most horrendous bombardment, and she is constantly assisting with the casualties that each day brings. It is difficult for us now to imagine such relentless devastation, streets filled with rubble, broken glass, yet another gap appearing in a row of houses, people trapped under piles of debris. I couldn’t help but think of the people of Aleppo – our modern day equivalent I suppose.
This is a remarkable memoir, and it’s so good that people will again be able to read Frances Faviell’s memoir – which could so easily have become another old forgotten book.