1976 Club: An Unreasonable Man – Henrie Mayne

An obscure biography of a marriage, posing as a novel. Spanning the end of the 19th century to the start of WWII, it tells of Arthur Mayne, an awkward man who worked tirelessly in the Indian Civil Service, for the Red Cross in the First World War, then travelled extensively with his wife Isabel who had hoped for a different life. Fascinating.

Arthur Mayne: a family portrait

Sadly, this fascinating book has sunk into obscurity since it was published in 1976; there were no reviews of this book on Goodreads or Library Thing when I looked. In fact, the only reason I haven’t given this book away is that I loved the cover so much. What I hadn’t realised was that it is not a novel about a boring man, as the back cover blurb suggests, but a cloaked biography written by Arthur Mayne’s daughter, Henrie Mayne, the pseudonym of Margaret Lucy Mayne, married name Peters, who is known as Lucy in the book. Her mother Isabelle was in reality Emily Bonnycastle Mayne (also named Aimee). The mundane Pooter-like life I had expected to read about was far from the truth. The man portrayed in this book may be unreasonable, but he also led a fascinating life as an administrator in India, briefly as a WWI ambulance driver, but was then sent off in charge of organising Red Cross parcels and POW repatriation in Switzerland.

Sadly for his family, his wife Isabelle would have been better suited to a life of socialising, so tensions were often high. However, she had delayed her marriage to him so she could go to university and had expected a more intellectually fulfilling life. After they left India, she was able to express this side of herself and gave public lectures. As her father was undoubtedly misunderstood within the family, especially as he tended to withdraw rather than complain like his wife, An Unreasonable Man is their daughter’s attempt to redress the balance and write more positively about the father she loved and was exasperated by. I have quoted fairly extensively because this book is almost impossible to find for anyone who wants to know what it’s about.

Cover of An Unreasonable Man by Henrie Mayne, a biography of her father. A man sits playing patience at a card table, smoking his pipe, wrapped up in blankets with many medicine bottles on a side table. In the background, two Indian servants in turbans.

A man of promise

Arthur Mayne was a serious but awkward young man who had difficulty making friends. He tended to be a bit of a hanger-on. “Arthur’s final examinations were a triumph. A Wrangler and then third in the Indian Civil Service, at that time the highest competitive examination- in the world.

A number of careers were now open, but he had set his heart on India. His father had never spoken of India, though his thoughts often turned bitterly to the world, from which he had severed himself, of frontier fights, dusty cantonments*, balls in hill stations, pig-sticking. … Arthur’s thoughts were inspired by the Victorian dream of Empire, of benevolent despotism over backward peoples, years of solitary toil in bad climates, with glittering prizes at the end for those who stayed the course.” *Permanent military station

When he moved to India, he lived at first in a shared household with several other unmarried men, a so-called ‘chummery’; needless to say, he was friendly with his housemates but did not make any good friends. He went to work at the provincial Finance Department HQ, then moved to Bombay, which decamped to summer quarters in Simla (now Shimla). The detailed description of his daily duties is fascinating.

After four years in India, with months of famine followed by epidemics of cholera and smallpox and after he had suffered from dysentery and malaria, Arthur was given leave to visit England. Milan Kundera’s point in Ignorance about the people back home not being interested in what you have experienced abroad is borne out here; only Arthur’s youngest brother Bertie is interested.

A remote hill station – Pachmarhi

Arthur’s next posting was as an administrator in a truly remote area. Here, the author tells us interesting snippets of information about local culture, which her father must have told her about as a child, for instance, “If you praise a child, a jealous God might overhear and decide to make away with him. The best thing is to say, ‘That’s a puny little wretch: he won’t last long,’ and leave it at that. Then everyone feels safe. […] Or they might by think you wanted the baby for yourself. You see, generally speaking, if you admire anything, they present you with it straight away.” This sounds remarkably similar to the baboutie (?) system in Kiribati, where people only have to ask for something for them to be given it without question, setting up a system of mutual support and sharing. Though I do wonder if this is a misinterpretation of how things work in India when there is a power imbalance.

By this time, due to sheer persistence and absolute adoration, Arthur had won the hand of a beautiful young woman, Isabelle, the sister of one of his university friends, Archie. She was excited to start her life in the colonies of which she had heard so much, but was dismayed to discover just how remote their posting was. What Arthur hadn’t expected was that his wife was totally unprepared for the physical side of marriage and, being a considerate man, he agreed to delay this until she felt ready. Bored in their remote house, when she got the opportunity to escape, she enjoyed herself. “At the hill station Isabelle had a whale of a time: picnics, dances, riding, tennis, golf, concerts at which she sang with great acclaim. Besides, she was the heroine of a famine. There were times when she genuinely agonised over Arthur working in his stricken district, but they grew fewer. The life of a pretty young grass widow in a gay resort full of unattached gentlemen didn’t allow much time for fretting.”

A family man

Here I need to add a disclaimer: I read this book several months ago, so I am not completely sure of the order of events here. After returning to England on an early furlough due to Arthur’s repeated illnesses, life was too expensive for them, not least because Bertie had to go to Egypt for treatment for tuberculosis, paid for by Arthur. Isabelle’s mother was reluctant to give them a loan. Her daughter was obviously not happy in her marriage. To live more cheaply, they decided to go on a train and cycling trip through Germany and Switzerland. Isabelle’s mother visited them at St Moritz and accused Arthur of not consummating the marriage and providing her with grandchildren. He told her to mind her own business, but after a word with her daughter, Isabelle finally decided it was her duty to the Empire to have children. When they returned to India, to a less remote hill station, Arthur refused to socialise, but agreed to write to apologise to Isabelle’s mother. Sadly, her mother did not live to read the letter or meet her grandchildren.

When Isabelle was pregnant with their second child, they visited Archie in France. Isabelle disapproved of the Corsican woman he was in love with, but Arthur refused to interfere, though soon wrote to tell Archie their feelings. It was not long before they heard that the couple had nevertheless decided to get married. Around the same time, they took Arthur’s sister back to India with them, with a view to finding her an eligible bachelor. However, she seemed to avoid going to social events and seemed ungrateful; she was badly affected by the heat, she said. The household servant Amma soon reported that she had found out what the problem was; she was in fact pregnant. Isabelle shipped her off to England post-haste, where she married the man who had caused the trouble in the first place; fortunately they went on to become a reasonably happy couple.

Meanwhile, back in India, Isabelle had found something to occupy her. “Only in child-bearing could she find relief from boredom. She had given up trying to write articles, to interest herself in the women of the country, to study something of the history, customs and sects of the east. She had adopted the Anglo-Indian woman’s outlook of blasé indifference to those tiresome natives.” As the children got older, Arthur decided to teach them to read. “As babies he had found them frankly rather repellent, but for stuffing the young inquiring mind with miscellaneous information, he had a kind of genius. His sustained patience in arousing a desire to learn, revealed a hitherto unsuspected talent in him that was to play a large part in his children’s lives.”

A hypochondriac with imagination

After taking the eldest two children to boarding school in England, Arthur took to his bed whenever there was anything he wanted to avoid.

“What had once seemed to provide a miraculous escape from the unhappy Isabelle of reality to the living and adorable creature that existed in his dreams was now an escape from Isabelle altogether. […] Unable to specify his chronic illness, he invented one to his satisfaction. He settled for a rare tropical microbe with a Latin name, invisible except through a powerful microscope, that featured in an obscure medical dictionary and which he referred to as his worm.” He claimed he was paid low by ‘fatigue poisons’ exuded by this imaginary worm.

When Arthur reached pensionable age at the start of WWII, they decided to return to England, but had to go via Japan and North America, ending up in Victoria BC in Canada because women and children were not allowed to cross the Atlantic. Arthur took to knitting and playing patience. Isabelle nagged him to do something more manly for the war effort so he travelled to England and signed up with the Red Cross to become an ambulance driver in Italy, telling them he was used to driving on poor roads in India. He was stationed in an area surrounded by mountains and the Carso (Karst plateau), known as the worst battleground in Europe, close to the current border with Slovenia. This was the Isonzo or Soča Front. I have had a book about the Soča Front on my shelves for several years and had no idea where it was! Part of A Farewell to Arms is also set in the same area. Time to reread that, perhaps.

Red Cross hero

Arthur was then unexpectedly appointed as British Commissioner to the Red Cross in Berne, leading Aid to Prisoners of War, packing up parcels of food and clothing. They also ran the office tracing missing POWs. Most of the food they sent in the food parcels was bread due to weight restrictions, but due to inferior wartime flour and the time it took to deliver, the bread was often inedible by the time it got there. Arthur used the skills he developed during the famine in India to organise the delivery of rusks instead.

“The French had evolved a rusk, only three inches long, two inches wide and an inch thick. It was hard but friable. If a small hole were made in the top, a little water poured in and the rusk baked for a few minutes, it swelled into something very like bread. Arthur placed the contract with the factory at Calais, called on reserve supplies of flour from Canada and urged the Swiss bakers to evolve an improved rusk. The Swiss rusks were smaller and harder – little rocks that had the supreme virtue of lasting more or less indefinitely and transforming themselves into excellent bread.” Fascinating!

In 1916 it was decided to transfer the most badly injured POWs from German camps to Swiss health resorts such as Mürren and Château d’Oex, where Arthur organised recreation and training centres for tailoring, carpentry, shoe repair, bookbinding, shorthand and art courses. Arthur’s office kept a register of prisoners, keeping in contact with their families, organising family and friends to visit and attending repatriation boards for the very sick. He was also responsible for tracing missing persons. His attention to minute detail was perfect for this job.

This work is described in some detail here, mentioning Arthur Mayne by name, as well as the fact that he probably had Aspergers. 

“Mr. Arthur Mayne who had been director at the Berne bureau from October 1917 to June 1918, moved to Copenhagen. He was a retired Indian civil servant. He was by many accounts a strange character, with an irascible temper, not easy to work with but an exceptionally good administrator. Had he lived today he would probably be diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. It is probably thanks to him that the changes in Berne in June 1918 succeeded so well.” The Copenhagen Bureau, Gerard Wilkins, 30 June 2016.

Lucy a.k.a. Henrie Mayne joins her father

Arthur asked his daughter Lucy to join him. She declined as it was her last year at school, but showing typical stubbornness he withdrew her from school and brought her over anyway. She later agreed it was the right thing to do. He was staying at the Hotel Schweizerhof, where he met all sorts of dignitaries, including the Dutch Minister, ‘Mynheer Jonk van Beg und Donk’. As he consistently mispronounced foreign names, I assume this was more likely to be Dr B. de Jong van Beek en Donk, referred to in this letter from the US ambassador to France in 1918: Peace activist, Director of the Ministry of Justice, member of the Association for a Durable Peace. At the end of the war, Mayne was sent to Berlin to organise repatriation of POWs. According to his daughter, he was the first British official to fly in to Tempelhof airport. He arrived on 18 November, a week after the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.

A misunderstood man

This is where this sort of factual book is dangerous for me as I start to google more information. Apparently there was interference from the British War Office and a committee in Spa (Belgium) that were drawing up plans for repatriation, but Lord Kilmarnock spoke up to tell them the Red Cross was already working on it with the so-called Danish Scheme. This is mentioned in a dissertation on The Danish Scheme: The Repatriation of British Prisoners of War Through Denmark at the End of the First World War.  Mayne was the sole representative of the British Red Cross in Berlin, but characteristically caused an incident by telling POWs that they were now free to vote as they wished once they got home. According to German press reports, he worded it in such a way that he endorsed the Labour leader, Ramsey MacDonald. As a consequence he nearly lost his job, but Lord Kilmarnock intervened to say that the removal of Mayne would wreck the work of moving the POWs from the camps to the ports, and that the Soldiers’ and Workmen’s councils who were currently assisting might object to his being removed on political grounds. He added that Dix considered his retention essential.

Footnote 41 in the dissertation says the following: “TNA FO 383/384 contains many items relating to this incident, including Mayne’s own explanation. He was reported as having proclaimed himself to be a Fabian Socialist at a large meeting organised by Schlesinger, delegate of the Soldier’s and Workmen’s councils for the POW department, to which over 800 British POWs had been invited from the nearby camps. The Germans wanted the POWs to understand that Germany was now very different, and that those in power now were not responsible for their suffering and the treatment they had endured. An account of this meeting and Mayne’s part in it can be found in P. Brown, Germany in Dissolution (London: Andrew Melrose Ltd., 1920). Brown was a British journalist who had been interned in Ruhleben. Instead of accompanying his fellow POWs back to the UK he went to Berlin to take up his work again.”

This all has remarkable parallels with the British response to Covid. After initial incompetence, the rollout of vaccinations was initially surprisingly efficient in the UK. Just as the rest of Europe watched the speed of the vaccination programme in the UK with surprise, the Danish Scheme for repatriation was incredible efficient and successful. Except for those POWs who found their own way home after POW camp commandants released them immediately after the ceasefire was declared, all British POWs were repatriated by 5 December, i.e. in under one month. The German government then requested them to evacuate other nationalities, hence the disgraced Arthur continued to do the same for French, Romanians, Italians and Russians in turn.

I know virtually nothing about the First World War, so I learned a little here. For instance, I had no idea that there was fighting in Italy, I didn’t realise that the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed, I didn’t know anything about the role of the Russians. I had wondered how the Russian Revolution fitted in with the First World War, but never given it much thought. Idiotic, when you think about it, that our school set us poetry by First World War Poets to study (use of hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia), but didn’t tell us anything at all about the background. What I’ve picked up over the years has all been based around trench warfare in the Somme.

Retirement. Isabelle has her day

After his wartime work was completed, Arthur returned to Britain and, after much fruitless house hunting, bought a house in Jersey. He claimed to be at death’s door, yet became a keen gardener. Isabelle, apart from running the house, embarked on a career as a public speaker, lecturing at Women’s Institutes about ‘The position of women in India’, ‘Samuel Pepys’, ‘City churches’ and ‘Wartime Canada’. She also became an enthusiastic member of various committees, including the League of Nations Union, holidays for Welsh miners, etc., all this taking her out of the house. Arthur spent much of the winter in bed, though helped the children with their homework or read aloud to them when Isabelle was away.

Isabelle was an insomniac. If she had had a bad night, she would take it out on the family, not by being grumpy, but by lecturing them, often on the virtues of Soviet Russia: “She was infatuated with all things Russian – their abolition of religion, their experiment with free love, their state-run nurseries, farms, cooperative enterprises, broad backs, ready smiles, square jaws and fine teeth – their absolute superiority, in fact.” She later changed her mind after Edmund paid for her to take a trip there. “At Sebastopol. she basically took a snapshot of the harbour (including distant fortifications), from the deck of the ship which had brought the Party from Odessa, and found herself gaoled without delay. When released, she returned to find that her soap had been stolen.” That was the last straw and she lost her love of the country.

Family life in Jersey

“The youngest son [Richard/Dickie] had a somewhat startling originality of mind, which gave rise to a display of eccentricity wholly inexcusable in the young, in Isabelle’s opinion. In a brief period of teetotalism, he had to have a special trifle prepared without sherry, even a special salad without vinegar. Like many other extremist, [sic] he tended to veer from pole to pole.” He was also a notorious practical joker who tended to the extreme: “There were scandalous happenings from time to time – stink-bombs in the headmasters study; nocturnal breaking-in to neighbouring houses for the apparently innocent purpose of rearranging the drawing-room furniture; and the unaccountable trail of a pair of black footsteps across the newly-painted ceiling of an hotel lounge.”

Isabelle was a crusader without a cause; she would have made an excellent suffragette, but of course, she was out in India so missed the opportunity. In Canada, she had briefly become obsessed with theosophy and spiritualism. Arthur completely rejected religion, spiritualism, saying that if she managed to contact him after his death, it must be an imposter as he refused to haunt her. In his view, religion is “pure wishful thinking. We just don’t like to think of ourselves as insignificant.… The idea of personal survival, of a personal God engaged and supervising the welfare of each one of us, is highly ludicrous.… Mind over matter… M’yes. What I’d really like to see is a shipload of Christian Scientists in a rough sea… Don’t misunderstand me, though, when I speak of the insignificance of individuals. I believe that man, while insignificant from the point of view of the Cosmos, should be given a chance of leading a happy and useful life. That is why I’m interested in social experiments. Morality changes. Theories of conduct are constantly discredited. But what will make for the greatest happiness for the greatest number is an ideal worth pursuing. The response to favourable circumstances must be greater than the response to unfavourable ones. You might say that’s my religion.”

Arthur also became a translator: a German POW’s experiences, a couple of Spanish novels, Tharaud brothers’ historical romances. Lucy collaborated with her father on the translation of The Naked Truth and Eleven Other Stories by Luigi Pirandello. Then she went back to work and he lost interest. He was an all or nothing kind of obsessive (rather like John Laroche in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief). He had developed a love of P.G. Wodehouse, then was exhilarated by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Then, out of the blue, the estranged Archie decided to visit. He had turned into a bald, deaf and shrunken old man. Sadly, he had only come back to commit suicide by poisoning himself on the beach, as explained in the Bonnycastle family genealogy site. He claimed his family was better off without him. There is also a cryptic note about diamonds having gone missing that had been given to his sister (Isabelle/Emily/Aimee) for safekeeping. This contradicts the story in An Unreasonable Man, where Henrie Mayne says he left a note saying he had left his money to Arthur and Isabelle.

Soon all the children had left home and most of them were living abroad. Arthur took to his bed, claiming he had a rare form of TB. Lucy shook him out of it and arranged for the house to be sold. The parents moved to a residential hotel in Bayswater, where Arthur could walk in the park. Isabelle stayed with him for appearance’s sake, but complained whenever one of the children visited.

“The thought that an unsatisfactory husband was better than none (there were widows in the hotel who actually envied her), the need for a scapegoat on which to vent her spleen, the force of habit and the realisation now that it was too late for her to strike out on her own – all made for a continuance of their life together. The deadlock was complete. Sooner or later, one or the other would crack. The dénouement came as a surprise to all.”

A travelling life

Arthur proposed travelling to warmer climes, buying a car and taking to the road.

“Arthur now revealed a hitherto unexpected side of his nature. He turned out to be that rare animal – the born traveller: one who genuinely preferred travelling to remaining in one place. He had always been drawn towards the unfamiliar and had never much minded discomfort. Now at last he could indulge his excessive curiosity, his love in collecting promiscuous information, his insatiable interest in the bizarre. He had the bird’s-eye view of the countries through which he ranged. All was a perpetual sort of diversion. […] He was no culture vulture, but a bird of passage, here today and gone tomorrow, travelling for travelling’s sake.

    He was enchanted, too, with the casual social contacts provided along the way. A few sentences exchanged with a fellow wayfarer, a few stumbling words (dictionary in hand) with a native did not tax his powers in the way that sustained intercourse did. He need make no effort to get to know the object of his curiosity. What he would have discovered at close range he never knew, for they were no sooner known than lost. They remained a mysterious and diverting memory. He did not want to know more. Isabel had no chance to protest at his reluctance for close acquaintance, for they must be moving on again, lest he take to his bed.”

They visited Italy, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Low Countries, France, Spain, Portugal. 

Adventures in Europe

In addition to the normal traveller’s tales, they had some adventures. Once they were picnicking in the French Alps when they caught sight of someone skulking behind a rock. It turned out to be an eighteen-year-old German-speaking conscript from South Tyrol (then part of Italy) who had deserted when he was posted to Abyssinia. He had escaped to France over the Alps, leaving his gun and a suicide note beside the River Po. In fact, he ‘did a Reggie Perrin’. Arthur put on his organising hat, bought him clothes and enquired what would happen to Italian deserters. As there was strong anti-Italian feeling in France due to Mussolini, they gave him a passe-partout allowing him to travel through France, though no work permit due to the lack of jobs. He was unwelcome in Luxembourg, so they drove him to Germany where he was given work as a farm labourer. He continued to live there happily and sent Christmas cards until the outbreak of the Second World War. Leaving him there, Arthur and Isabelle then travelled to his remote mountain village to tell his parents in secret that he was alive and well.

On another occasion Arthur met an anti-Nazi who wanted to move to Canada to live with his son, but wasn’t allowed to take his money with him. Arthur found the solution: the man handed the money to him when he boarded the ship in Hamburg, and Arthur smuggled money out of the docks in his shoes, with diamonds concealed in his wallet, then presumably sent them on from a safe place. Hitler was already demanding people address him with ‘Heil Hitler’.

Travelling the world

With the places left to go in Europe becoming fewer and fewer, they headed for Scandinavia, then Africa. That was a bit much for them, so they decided to visit Edmund, who was now living in San Francisco. Again, the distances were too great for Isabelle, but Arthur adored the people, the innovation, the food. He decided to take up cookery, intrigued by the new food names. This gave them an opportunity to settle for a while.

Given Arthur didn’t really make close friends, I was intrigued to read that they stopped in Pasadena to visit the author and politician Upton Sinclair, with whom Arthur had corresponded for several years. Why? About what? Sadly, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but Sinclair was a socialist and his novels were about industrialisation in the United States from the point of view of the owners and the workers (including King Coal), so I suspect that was their common point of interest.

They rented a house where Arthur could indulge his newfound love of cooking. Now Isabelle had even less to do at home and her social life was curtailed as she failed to make friends. Her insomnia was also atrocious and eventually she tried to commit suicide. After she recovered, they started travelling again, visiting Salt Lake City. “Polygamy practised righteously and with Divine sanction. Wonderful, that! D’you know that fellow Brigham Young, the apostle of the prophet Smith, died leaving 17 wives and 147 children. Not bad. They were a brave lot,’ he added ambiguously.”

They also visited Niagara Falls. Reading the description, it felt peculiar until I realised that they were viewing it from the US side whereas the Niagara in my head is seen from the Canadian side. Isabelle claimed one of her forefathers went over the falls in a barrel; Arthur maddeningly corrects her; it was her second cousin once removed. I wondered if this was Matthew Webb, who died in an attempt to swim the Whirlpool Rapids below the falls. I’d never heard that before, though I knew he was the first man to swim the English Channel. Fascinating fact: approximately 5,000 bodies were found at the foot of the falls between 1850 and 2011.

At home with Lucy: WWII

The description of Lucy’s home in the country reminds me of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a half-ruined castle in Suffolk. It’s one of my half-read books; I’ll have to shoehorn it into my reading ‘plan’ somehow. Lucy’s house “was the gatehouse of an early fourteenth-century castle which had figured heroically in the Civil War, after which the greater part had been blown up on Cromwell’s orders. The gatehouse was left intact. It was approached by a fixed bridge over the moat. The gatehouse itself was a perfect miniature castle, the top floor being one wholly magnificent room approached by spiral stone staircases.” It was also freezing cold.

A full house. In addition to the family, there were a succession of nannies, two Austrian refugees, who supposedly replaced the cook and house parlour maid, but did nothing but eat, an Italian gardener (who also turned out to be a trained chef, rather fortuitously) and evacuees who came from a convent school for dockers’ daughters (of all things). The Austrians were eventually removed by the Home Office. They had to remain within a 5-mile radius unless they had a special permit with a recent photo, but there was no photographer within a 5-mile radius: stalemate.

Reading about the progression of war from England and Arthur and Lucy’s reactions is fascinating. The Phoney War, Arthur’s admiration for Churchill, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the fear of invasion, the Home Guard in the village, armed only with farmer White’s rook gun, the church bell silenced, signposts removed and locals unwilling to give directions or deliberately sending people in the wrong direction, just in case they were spies. The British scuttled the entire French fleet all over the world (Oran, Alexandria, Dakar) so their vessels couldn’t be used by enemy forces. This is the same period I read about in Leslie Thomas’ The Dearest and the Best (20 Books of Summer – still to review) and it’s fascinating to see the parallels.

Isabelle, meanwhile, was in London. She had insisted on taking first aid training and during the Blitz worked at a casualty station and worked as a nurse on ambulances taking air-raid victims to hospitals in the countryside. Just when they thought that things were looking hopeful and Lucy was considering moving back to London so that her daughter Frances could start school, the Germans started sending over doodlebugs. Isabelle was paralysed by sheer terror.

One of the wartime events mentioned was that Germany invaded Russia along its whole border from Finland to the Black Sea, without warning or ultimatum, at 3.30 in the morning. “Hitler issued a proclamation accusing them of aggression… Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy… the usual stuff”, says Arthur.

I’m not sure if the book petered out here. More likely is that I didn’t take any more notes and went off to read what I could find on the internet. It has to be said I found this book absolutely fascinating, covering a period I know little about and illuminating life in a certain class of people in the first half of the 20th century, marrying both domestic and work life. As the author (Lucy in the book) had worked so closely with her father, she was lucky to have gained insight into both aspects of her father’s life. In fact, it is her mother, ‘Isabelle’, who emerges as equally if not more unreasonable than her husband.

Further reading

I suspect it would be possible to find far more about this family. In fact, a biography of ‘Isabelle’ has been published, Prepared for the Twentieth Century: The Life of Emily Bonnycastle Mayne (Aimee) 1872-1958 by Michael Armstrong Crouch , which is also available as a Google Book at great expense or can be downloaded. It describes her as an educated woman, restricted by her milieu and expectations of women during her lifetime.

General information about the Mayne family and about Arthur Mayne and Emily Bonnycastle Mayne can be found on the Bonnycastle geneaology site, showing the true names of their children: Margaret Lucy Mayne, Edward Bonnycastle Mayne, Helen Mary Mayne, Archibald Collier Mayne and Isabel Aimee Mayne.

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.

#1956Club – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Ian Serraillier’s 1956 children’s adventure book about child refugees travelling from Poland, crossing Germany to find their parents in Switzerland remains as relevant today as ever, though today’s refugees come from different countries.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

This was a book I had on my BookCrossing wishlist, so I was delighted when a Finnish Bookcrosser sent it to me as a so-called RABCK (random act of BookCrossing Kindness) in 2011. 

Somehow I had expected this to be about knights and probably Arthurian. I remembered the name Ian Serraillier from shelving books in the school library and thought I had either read this or another of his books. Now I’m certain I didn’t read this and I’m not sure I read any others of his, unless the hated Beowulf the Warrior was the version of Beowulf we had to study in the first year of secondary school (horrible story!). But this is something quite different.

One of the extraordinary things about this particular book is that only one edition of it is listed on Goodreads, not the Puffin edition I have. There is, however, also a script version for the radio adaptation and it was serialised twice by the BBC in 1957 and 1971. Yet everything I have managed to find about Ian Serraillier says that The Silver Sword is his most popular book and I have found multiple blogs online where this is listed as a favourite childhood book. Looking at his other books, the only one I could imagine having read as a teenager is Beowulf the Warrior which we studied in the first year of secondary school, much to my horror; I’d never read anything where a creature’s arm had been ripped off before. Perhaps that’s why I remember his name. The Silver Sword is definitely more enjoyable, even if the story is grim in other ways.

A WWII refugee tale

This is the story of an epic journey undertaken by three siblings from war-torn Warsaw (Ruth, Edek and Bronia Balicki), accompanied by another boy, Jan, who they take under their wing. The children’s father was deported to work in Germany and after being dragged from her home, the children’s mother has fled to Switzerland, her home country, leaving the children alone. Their house is then bombed flat so they live in the rubble. Jan, a wild, thieving boy, presumably an orphan, becomes attached to them because the children’s father gave him a paper knife as a talisman, begging him to tell the children to head for Switzerland. The book is the story of their adventure, the people they meet along the way and the setbacks and strokes of good luck that befall them.

In spite of everything that happens, I can’t say it’s the most exciting children’s book I’ve ever read, but that may be due to my advanced age. Plenty certainly happens; there are numerous incidents that ought to be full of tension and places where it could all have gone horribly wrong.

Nuanced and humanised cameos

Later on in their journey, the children meet a range of adults: a British officer, an American officer at a military tribunal who is sympathetic to Jan’s antics when stealing food, a German farming couple who give them farming work. All these encounters give the opportunity to present a nuanced picture of the post-war landscape. Farmers exploit refugees for their labour, but provide them with food and sometimes shelter. The allied military forces are helping keep order, organising relief efforts, running refugee camps and helping repatriate displaced people.

People like the children in The Silver Sword don’t fit into the grand scheme of things. They are travelling against the flow to a country that is not their own, following the dream of being reunited with parents who may very well have gone back to Warsaw to look for their children or may not even be alive. And it’s worth pointing out, these children aren’t Jewish, so they are allowed more hope than those whose families have been sent to prison camps or have been in hiding. As such, the Balickis and Jan can more easily be accepted by the German farmers.

The military personnel are also humanised: the British officer writes home to his wife and is missing his baby daughter, Ivan the guard in Warsaw is helpful and compassionate, the farmer and his wife have lost their two sons in the war. Nobody is unscathed by the years of war. They pass convalescing soldiers (presumably German) who wave from their sunny balcony as they pass. Everyone is trying to resume life and return to something resembling normality.


Jan has a great affinity with animals. When the other children first meet him, he is carrying a scrawny chicken which he protects against all suggestions he might be eaten. There are other animal encounters along the way. I suspect it’s one of the reasons so many people have such fond memories of the book. While in the transit camp in Berlin, Jan tracks down a chimpanzee that escaped from Berlin Zoo during the aerial bombardment. This reminded me of something else that I read where someone had seen an unusual bird – a stork or a swan perhaps – in somewhere like the Reichstag just after the war. Annoyingly, I can’t remember which book, but I did save this link to Storks in Berlin Zoo, 1936. If anyone knows which book I read it in, I’d love to know.

A personal connection

One particular incident mirrored an incident in my grandfather’s wartime experience. While in Germany, Edek is stopped on the road by the local mayor, who has the job of sending Polish refugees back to Poland. During the war, Edek had been sent to work as a labourer in Germany and could therefore convincingly speak the language. Jan, on the other hand, cannot and so has to pretend to be deaf. This is very like one of my own grandfather’s wartime tales. He had become detached from his unit in France and had to hide in a cave until forced to rely on the generosity of a local family. In return, he helped around the farm. One day, when he was sawing wood with a big two-handed saw, a German soldier came along and offered to help. My grandfather had to pretend to be deaf-mute so the soldier didn’t realise he wasn’t French. I’m sure it’s a ruse that has come in handy for many people in many similar circumstances.

An unexpected Dutch phrase

Just a little aside: something that surprised me was that Ian Serraillier uses the phrase ‘to make a long nose at someone’, in other words, to thumb your nose. I have never heard this in English, but it is a ‘false friend’ translation of ‘een lange neus maken’ in Dutch. I wonder where he picked up that phrase!

Switzerland at last

Even when the children finally reach their destination, the situation is still nuanced. After reuniting with their parents with the help of the Red Cross ITS (International Tracing System), they all have the good fortune to live in an international village, with the Balicki parents becoming house parents to the Polish house. Yet all is not perfect after the traumas of war and their refugee experience: Jan has to unlearn his thieving ways and remains wild, Edek has to recuperate from TB in a sanatorium – of which there were many in Switzerland due to the pure air – and perhaps most tragically of all, the formerly decisive Ruth loses all her self confidence and clings to her mother for security. Only Bronia, too young to really understand and always protected by her substitute mother Ruth, finds it easy to readjust, though at first she can draw only scenes of destruction and escape.

Serraillier doesn’t name the 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 Mary Buchanan. More about that in my next post.

I’m very glad the 1956 Club gave me a good reason to read The Silver Sword, as who knows when I would have got round to it otherwise. I’m not sure if today’s children would find it that exciting because of the way it’s written, but I’m sure a screen adaptation would work very well even today. And sadly, the issues about refugees are just as relevant today as they were back then. It’s still a story worth telling.

Forged in Fury & The Final Reckoning: Jewish revenge for the Holocaust

Was there a secret Jewish organisation taking revenge on unpunished Nazi war crimes? Conspiracy theory or fact? The story inspired Jonathan Freedman’s The Final Reckoning and Michael Elkins’ Forged in Fury and more.

Conspiracy theories, investigative journalism or an overactive imagination?

Forged in Fury by Michael Elkins. Is this fact or fiction? The truth or just a conspiracy theory? If a group of Jews had taken revenge on Nazis after WWII, we would have heard about it, surely, not least neo-Nazis, who would have a field day with it. The book is virtually unknown, even though it was written by a BBC journalist, Michael Elkins, coincidentally the first man to report on Israeli forces destroying Arab air forces at the start of the Six- Day War. CBS queried his report because they couldn’t believe it was true and he resigned once he got back to the US. It was true, but it does cast a slight shadow regarding his credibility.
This book tells the story of a group of Jewish men who were disillusioned by the large numbers of Germans and others who had actively been involved in Hitler’s Final Solution, but who had received little more than a slap on the wrist after the war. They decided to take matters into their own hands and to track down and execute people complicit in the Holocaust, forming an organisation that operated long after the war, known variously as Dam Yisrael Noter (‘the blood of Israel avenges’ or DIN (judgement), Nakam (meaning vengeance), Nokmim, Jewish Revenge or the Jewish Avengers.
The details of their plots to poison the water supply in major German cities came to nothing, fortunately. One of the men responsible for collecting the poison from Israel, Abba Kovner, was arrested, foiling the original plot. He later became one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, but was involved with Soviet partisans during the war and was an activist thereafter. The plot was scaled back and the group may have poisoned several hundred men awaiting trial in Stalag 13 in 1946.

Authors inspired by Jewish revenge stories

Of course, it could all just be a good yarn. Apparently John le Carré mentioned this book and the organisation in A Pigeon Tunnel (2016), a book of stories from his life; another reliable witness, one would think. Well-respected journalist Jonathan Freedman also based a book on the story under the pseudonym of Sam Bourne, The Final Reckoning (2008). Another account called The Avengers (1969) was also published by journalist and Knesset member Michael Bar-Zohar. The question is, are all these accounts true, or just the inspiration for a good yarn?

Conspiracy theory or fact?

I haven’t read Forged in Fury, but based on the few reviews available, it sounds like it starts like a thriller, then sinks into a mire of details and statistics, making it a hard read. So perhaps the subsequent authors were inspired by Forged in Fury, just like Dan Brown was inspired by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to write The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the excess of detail in Michael Elkin’s book makes it sound like a typical conspiracy theory backstory. There’s a fine line between investigative journalism and taking a few details and blowing them up into a full scale scandal, whether it’s true or not. You only have to look at Pizzagate and many quashed cases of libel to know that. Not every investigative journalist uncovers a truth like the Watergate Scandal (revealed in All the President’s Men)  and not every journalist is Bob Woodward. Who, incidentally, has just released a new exposé, Fear (2018) which we are predisposed to consider trustworthy because he was right about Nixon.
In the case of Forged in Fury, I am more inclined to view the claims with a pinch of salt because it was published so long after the fact, in 1971. Surely more would have been written about it if it was true? I am assuming Jonathan Freedman was indulging the urge to write fiction in his version, writing as Sam Bourne, a name imbued with conspiracy if there ever was one (thinking of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Conspiracy video game).
In any case, I haven’t read any of the books about this subject and am inclined to read Freedman’s version if I do, but I’ll keep Forged in Fury because it’s a hard-to-find book, just in case I feel the need to find out more. I have to admit, I do like a good conspiracy theory.
Read more:
Background article by Jonathan Freedland: Revenge, The Guardian