My year in non-fiction for #NonFicNov 2021

Taking a look at the non-fiction books I have read since November 2020, picking my favourites and the ones I hope to read for this month’s #NonFicNov and #NovNov. Plus the Brand New Books I have lined up for next year.

One of the reading/blogging challenges set for this month is Nonfiction in November or #NonFicNov. I have had an excellent year of non-fiction this year and will be taking the opportunity to fit in a few more during the #NovNov Novellas in November challenge. Due to various distractions, I’m afraid I’m posting late in response to the first prompt:

Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction with Rennie at What’s Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

What have I read since last November?

This year I’ve being making a concerted effort to read books that have been stuck on my shelf for years. They were not necessarily picked because they were the ones I wanted to read most but because they’ve been waiting the longest, making me feel vaguely guilty. This has thrown up some real surprises, most of them good ones.

You may ask why I want to read books that aren’t calling to me or why I even have them. Some of these older books are ones that I bought/acquired at some point in the dim and distant past. Some arrived in 5 boxes of books from the now defunct expat club. Many are books I picked up at BookCrossing meetings, so somebody else will be delighted when I finally write a BookCrossing review (a.k.a. journal entry), at which point they will hear back from their long-lost book. These are the ones I feel somewhat guilty about hanging on to for years, but I feel more or less the same about books I registered myself. After all, I ought to have read and passed them on by now, otherwise why register them? I’ve listed all this year’s non-fiction reads at the end.

My favourite non-fiction this year

In recent years, one of my favourite non-fiction reads was The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, but this year’s unexpected favourites have been:

The Orchid Thief (1998) by Susan Orlean

This was intended to be a simple interview with a man who had stolen rare orchids from a nature reserve in Florida. However, Susan Orlean met so many fascinating people during her investigation that it turned into a whole book. You can read my blogpost about it here. She became somewhat obsessed herself with orchids and collecting stories about the eccentric people in the plant growing and collecting world, many who live in this untamed area of Florida. This whole book spoke to my ADD, fact collecting, trivia-loving generalist brain. As I often translate texts about horticulture and am a keen gardener, it also fitted perfectly into my own interests. To a lesser extent, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren did this too, but I enjoyed The Orchid Thief more, probably because Orlean herself was so enthusiastic, whereas Jahren often complained about the difficulties of ‘being a scientist while female’ which didn’t ring entirely true with me as she somehow managed to start up her own lab after qualifying, not something most postgrads can expect to do, surely.

An Unreasonable Man by Henrie Mayne

I have passed over this book so many times because I thought it was going to be an uninspired slog of a novel like The Diary of a Nobody or Willem Elschott’s Kaas (Cheese), both supposedly humorous books about boring men with boring lives. To be honest, I only kept it because I like the cover. Instead, An Unreasonable Man is true: the portrait of a man who, whilst he was an eccentric pedant with strange habits and a difficult marriage, lived a fascinating life. The book was written by the daughter who was closest to him, I suspect as a response to her mother’s feminist book which painted their marriage as a trap and a disappointment. The reason I thought it was fiction was that she changed most of the names. This gave me the opportunity for many happy hours of scrabbling round the internet trying to find references to the family.

Arthur Mayne’s adult life spanned the Indian Civil Service at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, retiring to Europe but diverted to Canada due to the outbreak of the First World War. His wife nagged him to do something useful so he became a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy and was seconded to Switzerland where he used his organisational talents for sending care packages to POWs, replacing mould-prone bread with a rusk that could be rehydrated and baked briefly. He then went to Berlin where he set up an incredibly efficient system for tracing POWs and refugees – I assume the basis of the Red Cross system still in use today. His repatriation system was so effective that all British POWs were back home within ten days of the end of hostilities and other countries asked him to do the same for them. This is all interleaved with personal anecdotes and tales of the family’s travels and hostilities between Arthur and his wife, who had been one of the few women to go to university and had expected more of life, and the oddness and eccentricities of a man who was almost certainly autistic. All told with much affection by the daughter who shared her mother’s exasperation, but who could see her father’s strengths, particularly as he summoned her to help his work in Switzerland. He wasn’t just an unreasonable man, he was misunderstood and made very little effort to fit in. Read my full review here.

The nonfiction I’m really drawn to

Given I already have such a ginormous TBR, I try not to buy too many new books myself, nor even second-hand ones. If I do buy something new, it’s because I really want to read it. And that’s the disadvantage of reading my oldest books first, because these shiny new books are still sitting there looking pretty without being read. I think I shall have to instigate a Brand New Books amnesty and read one a month next year. The topics that really interest me are travel, particularly to remote places, mountains and peoples. If that is mixed in with history and/or nature, then all the better. I also love a good biography or memoir that illuminates social history, not necessarily by someone famous.

Non-fiction read from November 2020 to October 2021

The Girl Who Smiled Beads (2018) – Clemantine Wamariya 5* As a small child, Wamariya and her sister became refugees from genocide in Rwanda, travelling through 7 countries before being granted asylum in the USA.

Annie John (1985) – Jamaica Kincaid 2* Memories of a childhood in Antigua. Read in Dutch.

Een zachte dood (Une mort très douce) (1964) – Simone de Beauvoir 2* Memories of the hospitalisation and demise of de Beauvoir’s mother. Read in Dutch.

Het sexleven van kannibalen (The Sex Life of Cannibals) (2003) – Maarten J. Troost 3* A young American who aspired to be an author went to live in the tiny Pacific island of Kiribati with his girlfriend who was working as an aid worker. Spoiler: the title is misleading! Reviewed in Dutch.

The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) – Colin Thubron 4* Respected travel writer Thubron travelled at leisure through the Central Asian states in 1991 to 1992, soon after they had gained independence from the Soviet Union. Fascinating.

Out of Africa (1937) – Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen 4* The fascinating account of life on a remote farm in Africa. Not as romantic as the film made it out to be. Not yet reviewed.

An Unreasonable Man (1976) – Henrie Mayne 5* Everyone thought Arthur Mayne was odd, yet the life of an administrator could be fascinating if you were born as a man in the right era and could work for the Indian Civil Service, the Red Cross in the First World War and travel the world.

The Drunken Forest (1956) – Gerald Durrell 4* A humorous account of an expedition to South America that did not go at all to plan. From the Johnny Morris school of naturalists.

In een sluier gevangen (Not Without My Daughter) (1987) – Betty Mahmoody 3* When American Mahmoody’s husband took her to his native Iran to meet family, his personality changed and she was virtually imprisoned and her daughter taken away by family. This is the story of how she tried to fit in and finally escaped. Better than I had expected! Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (2020) – Elif Shafak 3* A mishmash of thoughts about the dangers of becoming so identified with a single belief or identity tat we no longer listen to other points of view. “Perhaps in an era when everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism.” I read this too quickly to take in properly, but most enjoyed the parts about language and having multiple identities. I suspect I will prefer her fiction. I hope so; I seem to have recently acquired three via the library and second-hand bookshops.

The Insect Man (1949) – Eleanor Doorly 4* A children’s biography of scientist Jean Henri Fabre who made great advances in the study of insects using simple equipment and the power of observation and experimentation. Not yet reviewed.

Lab Girl (2016) – Hope Jahren 4* Trees, science and scientists.

The Olive Farm (2001) – Carol Drinkwater 3* Stories about renovating a dilapidated farmhouse and olive grove in the south of France. Not the best of its sort that I’ve read, but I will read the sequels because I have them on the shelf. Not yet reviewed.

Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights (1996) – Elma Softic 3* Eye witness diary entries about life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict. Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed. It was fascinating, but I lost interest when it got to letters Softic wrote.

Freshwater (2018) – Akwaeke Emezi 4* A fictionalised version of Emezi’s own life as someone who feels different and ‘othered’ in Nigeria and strongly identifies with the traditional concept of the mischievous ogbanje spirits that tempt the person they inhabit to die and return to the realm of spirits. Themes of sexual identity, gender dysmorphism, suicide, self-destructive behaviour. Now I want to read more by this author. Not yet reviewed.

De orchideeëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) – Susan Orlean 4* Full of fascinating facts about the flora and fauna of Florida and other things that don’t start with an F.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) – Maya Angelou 4* The third of her autobiographical novels.

The Salt Path (2018) – Raynor Winn. After losing their home and discovering that Winn’s husband Moth has a degenerative disease, the couple take a small tent and walk the South West Coast Path, wild camping and often going hungry. The walking is a huge struggle yet strangely healing. Only half-read so far because I want to save the rest for later.

Non-fiction I hope to read in November

As it’s also #NovNov (Novels in November) time, I’ve picked short non-fiction, all under 200 pages:

Autobiographical

Under the Eye of the Clock (1988) – Christopher Nolan. A profoundly handicapped boy writes about his life.

Conundrum (1974) – Jan Morris. A famous travel writer transitions to become the woman that she has always felt herself to be.

Rebel voor het leger [Rebel for the army] (1985) – Eva den Hartog. Memoirs of a Dutch Salvation Army officer who spent her life working abroad, particularly during the decolonisation of the Belgian Congo, but later in Asia and the USA.

Nature

Winterbloei [Winter flowering] (2019) – Jan Wolkers. Excerpts from various books and letters, all around the theme of nature, by one of the Netherlands’ most prominent authors.

History, society, immigration 

Doe maar gewoon: 99 tips voor het omgaan met Nederlanders (Just act normal: 99 tips for dealing with the Dutch] (1994) – Hans Kaldenbach. Handy for expats/immigrants, providing they can speak Dutch.

What If Solving the Climate Crisis is Simple? (2020) – Tom Bowman. Something tells me it’s not that easy… One of my Brand New Books.

Finding a Voice (1978) – Amrit Wilson. Essays by Asian immigrants in the UK in the 1970s. A new edition of this appeared in 2018 with a new chapter about what the book meant to South Asian women in Britain and comparing their lives to the women in the original interviews.

52 Times Britain Was a Bellend – James Felton. An irreverent horrible history of the things that should make Britons feel ashamed.

Brand new non-fiction to look forward to

As well as the short non-fiction above, I also have some chunkier non-fiction on my TBR with themes of nature, climate and colonialism. Sadly I probably won’t get to these amazing books on my TBR this year, but I’m looking forward to reading all of them. These are the Brand New Books I need to give myself permission to read, as well as continuing to read from my backlist:

Wilding (2018) – Isabella Tree. All about rewilding a farm.

Utopia for Realists (2017) – Rutger Bregman. Changing how we run the world to make life better. The original Dutch title was Gratis geld voor iedereen: Free money for all!

Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez. The subtitle says it all: exposing data bias in a world designed for men.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021) – Sathnam Sanghera

Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) – David Olusoga. The historical connections between Britain and Africa.

Salt on Your Tongue (2019) – Charlotte Runcie. Stories of women and the sea.

The Old Ways (2012) – Robert Macfarlane. Meditations on walking ancient footpaths.

Light Rains Sometimes Fall (2021) – Lev Parikian. A diary of British nature observations mapped on to Japan’s traditional microseasons, each lasting six days. 

Vesper Flights (2020) – Helen MacDonald. Essays about birds.

Whatever happens, I will always have some non-fiction waiting for me, much as I love fiction. There are just so many interesting facts to learn and history and life stories to read about. I don’t only read non-fiction in November, but the challenge is a good way of taking stock of what I’ve read throughout the year, seeing if themes are emerging and savouring the books I still have to read. If nothing else, this blogpost will be a good place to look back at in a year’s time and see how many of those Brand New Books I have actually read.

Have you read any of the same books I have, or the ones I have yet to read? Are there any you would recommend I bump up my list?

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas – Maya Angelou (read for the 1976 Club): thoughts

The third of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies covers her extraordinary life between 1949 and 1959. Saleswoman, wife, mother, singer, dancer, language learner. It’s fascinating and depressing to see just how relevant many of her opinions about race and prejudice still are today.

Reading this book is like reading a summary of all the Black Lives Matter articles I’ve read in recent years about systematic racism, cultural appropriation and Black experience. This is the third installment of Angelou’s novelisation of her life. I have read the first part, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I missed the second, Gather Together in My Name. This is not a problem because Angelou summarised the major points near the beginning of this book and, as she seems to have acted impulsively throughout her life, her actions were so extraordinary that I will certainly try to go back to book two.


The more I read Maya Angelou, the more I recognise set phrases and images which are still used today. I’m not sure if she originated them, whether she picked them up from reading, or from conversation. Some of them may belong to a later racial consciousness; after all, she wrote this book 20 years after the events she described. It’s notable, however, that the majority of people she socialised with in this period were white or the mainly apolitical singers in an opera company.

She went on to explain that much of her pride in her race came from her grandmother who had belonged to a Black American secret women’s society. We also know that her mother frequently cautioned her about the dangers of white people; there is a general background wisdom and folklore about interracial relationships.


Maya Angelou’s political consciousness was probably also encouraged by one of the schools she attended which was blacklisted due to ‘un-American activities’; this was the California Labor School, funded by trade unions, which was listed as a communist organisation.

Life with white people

Maya Angelou was mystified when the white proprietor of a record shop, Louise Cox, asked her name, trusted her to pay back later, then offered her a job. Was the woman lonely? “As far as I knew, white women were never lonely, except in books. White men adored them, Black men desired them and Black women worked for them.”

Even after she took the job, she was on her guard, expecting her boss to show some sign of internalised prejudice. “I waited for one smirk, one roll of her eyes to the besieged heavens and I would have my evidence that she thought her whiteness was a superior quality which she and God had contrived for their own convenience.”

This is an aspect of systematic racism I hadn’t really thought of before, or not until this week, when I read an interview with the ex-footballer John Barnes, who has a book about to be published called The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism. I’m not much interested in footballers, but if his book is half as well-articulated as the interview, then it sounds illuminating. Barnes explains that even white people he likes have shown their innate racial bias. “They’ve said ‘I don’t see you as black’ or ‘I see you as normal’ as if that is a compliment. They can’t say: ‘I see you as a black person’ because in their minds, subconsciously, that equates to them seeing me as inferior. Why can’t they see me as black and normal? Why can’t they see me as the same as them or, maybe in some cases, even superior?”

Angelou comments on Black Creoles from Louisiana who could ‘pass for white’. It’s a concept I only learned about when Brit Bennett’s book The Vanishing Half came out in 2020. I have read neither that, nor the classic Passing by Nella Larsen, published exactly a century earlier; did Bennett realise she was celebrating the centenary when she was writing?

Stealin’ the music

Angelou then goes on to report how white musicians came to listen to Black jazz jam sessions, but the musicians sometimes barred them because “The white boys come, smoke up all the pot, steal the chord changes, then go back to their good paying jobs and keep us Black musicians out of the union.” Again, this is something I only became aware of when my music-loving son told me how many of the songs that were played on the radio when I was growing up had been written and recorded first by Black musicians, without acknowledging the original, sometimes not even on the sleeve notes or label. Of course, the white cover artists got all the fame and riches. If only I had read Singin’ and Swingin’ first, I could have told him myself. While I was trying to find a good link to illustrate this, I found this article about the sidelining of early female Black singers’ work, which is fascinating, but not what I was looking for. An article about whitewashing black rock is more relevant.

Sadly, this is not a dying phenomenon, either, as this list showcases more recent plagiarisms. Black backing singers are also frequently uncredited, though I suspect this is the case for backing singers and session musicians of all races.

Married to Tosh, a Greek-American ex-naval man, Maya became domesticated and revelled in it.“Our home life was an Eden of constant spring, but Tosh was certain the serpent lay coiled just beyond our gate. […] After a year, I saw the first evidence of a reptilian presence in my garden. Tosh told Clyde that there was no God.” To please Tosh, Angelou gave up her faith, but it triggered memories of her grandmother’s tales of having to worship in secret when she was a slave. She repeated this experience by going to different churches in secret, pretending to go to her friend’s house, just like a teenager sneaking out. All the signs of a controlling relationship were there: Tosh told her to give up her job (though this was commonplace in those days), restricting contacts to a chosen few he approved of. At least he spent time with Maya’s son, wanting to be the perfect fifties father.

Hair and appearance


It had never occurred to me in the past that Black hair equates in many people’s minds to ‘problem hair’. Maya was startled to find her son considering straight hair as not just the norm, but better; he wondered when his hair would become grown up as de straight, like Tosh’s. Later in the book, hair again became an issue. Angelou mentioned that the women in the opera company she worked for went to have their hair chemically straightened instead of their usual routine of heating heavy iron combs “heated over cans of sterno”, a sort of petroleum jelly called ‘canned heat’. The issues with Black hair are a major theme in books about Black women, but I first read about it in a book about a fictional white character ironing her hair straight; I suspect it was Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna or something of that ilk. Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana for my book club was eyeopening. It provoked a discussion about hair with a Black friend who was subjected to lots of annoying white folks’ questions, willingly I sincerely hope; I’ve since learnt acting as a spokesperson for an entire race or nation is not appreciated by many people.

Identity politics were different in 1976


If Angelou were writing today, she would probably have written certain things differently. The obvious one is the use of the word Negro, but she also uses comments about appearance that would be frowned upon now. For instance, she often compares black skin to various food or drinks, describing one woman as “the colour of freshly made coffee” and her Greek husband as having “the slow, sloe eyes of Mediterranean people”.

The oddness of equality


“These whites were treating me as an equal, as if I could do whatever they could do. They did not consider that race, height, or gender or lack of education might have crippled me and that I should be regarded as someone invalided. The old habits of withdrawing into righteous indignation or lashing out furiously against insults were not applicable in this circumstance. Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party. The historically oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of victimisation. When access to a better life has been denied often enough, and successfully enough, one can use the rejection as an excuse to cease all efforts. After all, one reckons, “they“ don’t want me, “they” accept their own mediocrity and refuse my best, “they” don’t deserve me.”

When Angelou joined the tour of Porgy and Bess, the opera company first toured to Canada. She commented that Canada was the ultimate destination for the Underground Railroad, the secret route for slaves escaping the repression in the South; hence when Canaan is mentioned in Negro spirituals, it was a coded way of saying Canada. This gave the country a kind of mythical status in Black culture, but perhaps more telling was “the fact that their faces did not tighten when they saw me.” It just goes to show how insidious racism is in the USA.

Maya Angelou always took every opportunity she could and she seemed extraordinarily self-confident, sometimes overconfident, perhaps as a front for her insecurity. While she was in Paris for a season as a dancer and singer with Porgy and Bess, she moonlighted as a singer every night at the Mars Club. “The audience liked me because I was good enough, and I was different – not African, but nearly; not American, but nearly. And I liked myself because, simply, I was lucky.”

In Yugoslavia, “I stood in the dusty store and considered my people, our history and Mr Paul Robeson. Somehow, the music fashioned by men and women out of anguish they could describe only in dirges was to be a passport for me and their other descendants and into far and strange lands and long unsure futures.”

Egypt: Africa at last


On the boat on the way to Egypt, after terrible weather, Angelou met actors from a British film company, on their way to make a film. She talked to actors James Robertson Justice and Geoffrey Keen. There was also a young French actress on board, a certain Brigitte Bardot. The film was Doctor at Sea and it was Bardot’s first English-speaking film role. I have just discovered that Dirk Bogarde was also in the film and that, before the first Doctor in the House film, the producers had difficulty persuading Rank executives that he had sex appeal and could play light comedy as he had played character roles until then.

The members of the opera company were all excited to be visiting Africa, the continent of their ancestors. They were also interested to note the variety of skin tones in the street. When they arrived in Alexandria, they were taken aback to realise that the best jobs in the hotel were all held by white people. The servants in the lounge were Black. “We looked at them and each other. If we wore the same clothing no one would be able to say we were not members of the same family, yet we couldn’t hold a conversation. (Europeans and white Americans are not surprised to see their look-alikes speaking foreign languages; but except for meeting a few African students in Europe, we had never seen a large group of Black people whose culture, language and life styles were different from our own.”

A little later on she wrote, when she was been courted by a white man, “I needed to think great thoughts about myself and Africa and slavery and Islam, I didn’t want a white man at my side – in fact, I didn’t want anyone distracting me.” This was obviously a time when Black consciousness was directed with Hope towards pan-Africanism; I’m not sure why Islam was considered more authentic than Christianity. “Beggars still hounded our footsteps and the audiences which shouted Bravos at our performances were largely European, but I felt I was at last in Africa – in a continent at the moment reeling yet rising, released from the weight of colonialism, which had ridden its back for generations.”

Nevertheless, in Egypt, the Black men in subservient positions at an Arabic house make all the Afro-Americans feel profoundly uncomfortable.


The overriding characteristic that Maya Angelou conveyed in this book is her sense of her own worth and independence. She stood up for her rights, refused to tell lies (though she later learned to withhold the full truth when necessary) and refused to be used. When a foreign man professed undying love for her, she realised that he wanted to marry her for a green card but “what made marriage impossible was the fact I would have been embarrassed even if I loved the man, which I didn’t. No amount of kindness or fidelity on his part would erase the idea that I had bought a mate with a licence that gave me little personal gratification: American citizenship.”

Maya Angelou seems to have been constantly pushing against the boundaries of what her friends and family considered wise in her own private exploration of the world. It’s what made her who she was and what makes her so wonderful to read about.

The Children’s Village by Mary Buchanan: Pestalozzi then and now

A fascinating insight into the Pestalozzi Children’s Villages in Switzerland and Hastings in England. Set up for children affected by WWII, it offered international education together with mother tongue education and curriculum. An early example of crowdfunding, it was founded on utopian principles, hoping to promote world peace and understanding.

After reading Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, I realised that the children in the story ended up in the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Switzerland.

Serraillier doesn’t name this international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by the sociologist Mary Buchanan was first published in 1951, presumably to raise funds for the British Pestalozzi Children’s Village Trust in Sussex, of which she was the founder and vice president. I note the cover price was 6/6, 6 shillings and sixpence. Of course, I paid much less. I’m sure I bought it because of the lovely dust jacket design. Oddly, the book smells quite strongly of disinfectant, possibly Dettol, in spite of being on my bookshelves for the past 45 years! Or perhaps it’s the ink it was printed with.


There are also some interesting photos of volunteers building the houses and the children who lived there. Two of the photos show artwork done by one of the orphans, starting with a scene of war and destruction, moving on to a peaceful mountain view, just like Bronia in The Silver Sword.

The contrast between a refugee child’s drawings when they first arrived in the village and after they had settled.

A silver sword link

I don’t know if Ian Serraillier knew this when he wrote The Silver Sword, but there is a link between the first Pestalozzi village in Switzerland and silver swords which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t owned this book because the easily available information about the organisation is very brief, especially in English, and seems to contain very little about the history.

“It is in Trogen that, on the last Sunday in April, in alternate years, there is held the ancient ceremony of the Landesgemeinde, when every male citizen goes to the village square to vote on new laws and to elect his cantonal officers. In the small canton of Appenzell there is no parliament. Citizens with the right to vote – that is to say, all Swiss men of the canton who are of age (the women of Switzerland have no vote*) – wear a small sword on this occasion as a sign they are free men.” (p.13)

What an extraordinary coincidence! Surely Serraillier would have used this fact if he’d known it? As it is, the sword that Jan has held on to throughout their ordeal as a talisman, promising that the Balickis will be reunited with their parents, ends up in their mother’s jewellery box. It seems an ignominious end for something that had been held in such high esteem.

* Women only gained the vote at cantonal level in this region of Switzerland (Appenzell) in 1991, though they could vote in federal elections from 1971. Watch a fascinating short video from the BBC about attitudes to women voting when men voted in a referendum on the subject in 1959, including an interview with Switzerland’s first female President, Ruth Dreifuss.

The Founding of the Pestalozzi Village

The story of the founding of the village is one of early crowdfunding. The idea came from Walter Corti, a Swiss medical researcher who had recovered from TB in a sanatorium near Davos, the same one dubbed the Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Many Swiss people had already taken children affected by the war into private homes for a period of convalescence, helping a total of 20,000 children. In an article, Corti suggested founding an international village for orphans to provide just a fraction of those children a permanent home. Perhaps other countries would follow suit, he thought. It spoke to the Swiss imagination.

Crowdfunding a village

Trogen was one of several places that offered land and the tiny community of 2,000 raised £2,000 (or whatever that was in Swiss Francs) to build a road to the site. The first four houses were paid for by children selling ladybird badges, the emblem of the organisation. These houses were then ‘resold’ for £10,000 each to the Swiss towns of Zurich, Basel and Winterthur plus the major chemical concern Ciba. Other organisations including the cooperative Migros donated a house and there were many small donations, rather like the Blue Peter TV campaigns I remember from my childhood.

The book mentions that all the nurses from a large Zurich hospital went without supper once a week to save up money. Due to currency restrictions, donations from abroad were in kind: oranges from Israel, honey from Australia, coal from Poland. Corti asked Swiss children to ask their municipality to donate a tree, which they then either auctioned or sold as firewood. This raised another 170,000 Swiss francs.

Building a village

Building started in 1946 with the help of 600 volunteers from 17 countries; over 25,000 hours of voluntary labour. The houses were built in Swiss chalet style, designed by Zurich architect Hans Fischli, who even personally supervised the building. They feature lots of wood and had modern facilities including central heating and showers. One half of the house consisted of a living room and a small kitchen for snacks where they could cook their own country’s specialties. The rest of the meals were Swiss-style meals prepared by a central kitchen. The other half of the ground floor contained the bedrooms,  each with two to four children, plus a small sick room and bedrooms for the house parents and teacher’s help. Upstairs there was a classroom and office space, with a workshop and storage in the basement. I suspect the description was so detailed because Mary Buchanan’s book was intended to fund similar homes in Britain.

Home from home

Each house was assigned to a particular nationality, staffed by adults of their own nationality, speaking their own mother tongue, following their own traditions and school curriculum, even with their own parents’ religion. Nevertheless, as a global village, the idea was that children of different nationalities would mingle, to “help them to overcome deep-rooted national prejudices, which are only too often artificially nurtured, and enables them to return to their home countries as true citizens of the world determined to stimulate international goodwill.” The children were involved in naming each house: ‘Thames House’ (British), ‘Stepping Stones’, ‘Pinocchio’ (Italian), ‘Kindersymphonie’ (Austrian), ‘Argonautes’ (Greek) and ‘Les Cigales’ (French).

Photo from Mary Buchanan’s The Children’s Village (Pestalozzi)
The French house mother and children

Changing balance of nationalities

New arrivals and departures had major impacts on life at the village. Children were selected by social work organisations in their home countries. Of the things that influenced morale in the village, perhaps the saddest example is the false hope that other children developed when seven Polish children were reunited with their parents after they had been on holiday to Poland; it turned out they weren’t orphans after all. There were many shifts in the village’s population:

  • 1946 Arrivals: French, then Polish children found by the allies in Merano, Italy, then Poles from Warsaw
  • 1948 Departures: Polish children who had visited Poland for a summer holiday were prevented from returning by their government
  • 1947 Arrivals: Austrians from Vienna, via Winterthur, then Hungarians
  • 1949 Departures: Hungarians recalled to their own country
  • 1947 Arrivals: Germans from Hamburg
  • 1950 Arrivals: 32 British children
  • 1956 Arrivals: Hungarians
  • 1960 Arrivals: Tibetan refugees
Pestalozzi Village, Switzerland
Eating and reading together like one big happy family

Education: combining national and international

The children were all taught their national curriculum in their own language in the morning by the house fathers, all qualified teachers. All nationalities spent the afternoons together, learning whatever suited them from a fascinating and cryptic range of practical and artistic subjects, “music, drawing and painting, dramatics, rhythmics and remedial exercises, handicrafts of all kinds, including leathercraft, metalcraft, weaving, cartonnage, aeroplane- and ship-modelling, gymnastics; sport and excursions and games. German lessons also take place in the afternoons” (p.18), except for the German-speakers, who learnt English instead. There was also a village magazine and other clubs.

Sometimes I was amused by the dated descriptions. For instance Mary Buchanan tries to illustrate how free from institutionalisation the village was because you could see “that familiar homely sight, a clothes-line, with white and coloured garments waving gaily in the breeze, while the crickets chirp in the grass of the meadows where a donkey, one of the many pets, grazes in the shade of a large lime-tree.” (p.21)

International ideals

Children were eventually expected to return to their home countries, hence the home language education and housing, so it was important to keep links with ‘home’. This was done by either sending them to stay with some distant relative or to a holiday camp. I could imagine neither of these solutions was ideal. A relatively short visit to a country is still not enough to feel at home there. The ideals behind the village were very clearly not just to help individual children, but to promote internationalism as a force for peace. They hoped to provide an example that could be replicated elsewhere, perhaps on a wide scale. 

“Is there a country in this world of ours where the inhabitants can truthfully say they have no feeling of prejudice, perhaps even of hatred, against another people, race, religion or class? There is room for supra-national education in every corner of the inhabited world – not only for the select few, but for the great masses, from whom leaders frequently arise. It is even probable that, hand in hand with supra-national armies, trading schemes and governments, supra-national education could eradicate wars from this planet within 100 years by wiping out mistrust, hatred and prejudice which invariably have their roots in ignorance. To some people the idea of international education may seem utopian. But times change. The world is going through a process of integration. If the best in civilisation as we know it is to survive, then it is essential that peoples of different nations and races come to understand one another, and to respect and appreciate their differences. Young children know nothing of national or racial barriers.” (p.38)

Pestalozzi Village in Britain

When the book was written, the British Pestalozzi Village near Hastings was still in its infancy, with a large house housing a small group of needy British children with their house parents and “feeding some forty additional youngsters, Armenian, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Yugoslav boys and girls from displaced persons camps.” Some of these would have been stateless. The intention was to give them vocational training then send them off, probably to Commonwealth countries. I wonder if this is what actually happened.

The modern Pestalozzi

In fact, in both Switzerland and Britain, the focus shifted towards helping children recruited from partner developing countries, originally in Eastern Europe and later in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. In Switzerland, the village still acts as a residential school for disadvantaged children, but also runs short-term residential camps and holidays for needy children from other countries, as well as providing a conference centre for organisations with similar ideals. During the 2015 refugee crisis, they housed a group of unaccompanied child refugees, though nowadays the children have to go to school offsite as the organisation no longer employs teachers. They also rent out accomodation; I discovered a video online of a man who visited the village and the Pestalozzi museum and stayed overnight in one of the houses, presumably in a separate staff accommodation. In Britain, the village has now been sold off to PGL, a provider of ‘school trips, summer camps and adventure holidays’. When this happened, there was an enthusiastic article in the local press about growing up in the British Pestalozzi village.


I certainly wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been for the 1956 Club and being triggered by finally reading The Silver Sword. It’s a salutary reminder of the current fate of refugees; few people are willing to take refugee children into their own homes nowadays, unlike in times of war. I understand. I have had the opportunity to host children from Eastern Europe and Africa for a couple of weeks’ holiday or football camp and I’ve never done so; having my own children and French exchange partners visiting was stressful enough for me! In any case, this was certainly a fascinating insight into how an idealistic, utopian idea can be turned into a reality to change the world, at least for a small number of children.

Read more

Call for information about the founders of the Pestalozzi Children’s Village near Hastings.
A short biography of the British founders, particularly Mary Buchanan, author of this book.
Link to photos of Swiss village.