A Spoonful of Mapp and Lucia Helps the Siege of Leningrad Go Down
How anyone is supposed to find any peace of mind and pay attention to anything other than the early days of the apocalypse is a tricky one.
History books can offer some solace (if only those in power who could some really use the lessons would pick one up) as things have been dire, but we have come through it. Leningrad Under Siege appealed to me as I love diaries, and these are the first hand accounts from Lidiya Georgievna Okhapkina (a young mother with two small children), Yura Riabinkin (a fifteen year old boy) and Georgi Alexeievich Kniazev, a historian and academic. Georgi is an older man in a wheelchair, his options are limited, but even if he had been able to travel in the early days, he feels a large responsibility to save Leningrad’s historical documents, libraries, art, and monuments. With the precise but encompassing view of a historian he describes everything from the efforts to control fire risks in residential homes by covering floors with sand and containers of water (he himself served as a fire watcher), to the sandbagging and shrouding in planks of the statue of Peter the Great, to the requirement for all citizens to hand in any city maps or guidebooks they owned, lest they fall into the wrong hands.
Yura writes better than any fifteen year old I know, rather like diaries and letters home I’ve read from under-age WWI soldiers, it seems the age of considered letter writing really did produce better expression among teenagers as whole before Snapchat and emojis were valid forms of communication. Yura is as full of the patriotic fire as you’d imagine, and gives a very good account of the work Leningraders were all required to do, three hours night hard labour after school or work, fortifying the city, building the defences.
Lidiya’s account is heart-wrenching. Her husband is away, her pre-school son is evacuated, only for it to transpire that the evacuee trains are being bombed, and the Germans are advancing on the places where the children are being kept. People are speaking of walking huge distances, hitching rides in army trucks and going to collect their children. Lidiya has a baby daughter on her hip, she cannot travel easily, but luckily she meets a stranger in a bakery, a grandmother going to collect her little one, and she agrees to bring Lidiya’s son back with her, also. Two agonising weeks go by, but the granny gets him home. Lidiya then tries to get papers for all three of them to leave, the government offices are crowded, frantic masses all desperate to leave. Lidiya positions her boy away from the throng, only for an air raid then to strike, and the poor mite to then be lost in the city. He boards a tram, thinking it will take him home, but it’s the wrong direction. The kindness of strangers keeps him alive overnight, and I have no idea what kept Lidiya’s sanity alive overnight until he was restored to her.
At this point I thought, sod it. I need some E. F. Benson. The 1920s jollity of Mapp and Lucia, of village gossip, piano duets, gardens in full bloom, and ridiculous, frivolous snobbery. Lucia has come out of widowhood and is ready to live again, renting a house in Tilling (based on Rye, Sussex) of a Miss Mapp. This is the pre-courser of AirBnB, as Miss Mapp is renting another, smaller house in the village for the summer, giving her a little extra money, and a change of scenery. This carries carries right through the village, ending with a farm worker who is away for the season to pick hops, leaving his cottage free. A moment of high-drama that sticks in my mind is when the over-bearing Miss Mapp (who enters the house she has rented out without knocking) insists the gardener take orders from her, even though Lucia has to pay his wages while she is resident, demanding he pick her produce while leaving the grass to grow wild. The indignant Lucia soon gets the better of her, and I felt the glow of garden/nosey neighbour victory.
There are a quite a few novels in the series, I’m hoping there will be enough to keep me going, at least until he is impeached. Then I can read them in the way people enjoy a glass of raspberry wine in a summery garden, rather than my current style of consuming therapeutic works, which is akin to gulping whisky from a desk drawer.
For extreme circumstances, I have a load of Miss Reads in a box under the bed, for when I need 100 ccs of village fêtes, marrow competitions, Christmas cakes and knitting patterns, stat. Wodehouse, Benson, Jerome, and the other cheerful writers of humanity and the natural world can see me through this, I have faith!