Sunday, 20 April 2014

Researching Girl with a White Dog: Guest Post

Marie-Louise Jensen: Today on the History Girls blog, I'm pleased to introduce Anne Booth, author of Girl With A White Dog, which I reviewed here on the 15th of this month. Anne has written a fabulous guest post for us today. Welcome, Anne!

Anne Booth: I feel very honoured to have been asked to write something for this blog, as I have been following it and enjoying it for ages, and I was very proud that my debut book ‘Girl with a White Dog’ was reviewed on it last week, and loved what was said about it. Thank you so much!

I was wondering what I could say for this post, and I thought I might write about my research and influences. I thought I would start with a quote that frequently came into my head during the research for ‘Girl with a White Dog’, and I think, motivated my story telling.

1) ‘Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.’

I realised when I started writing this post that I still wasn’t sure who wrote it, and whilst trying to find out just now, discovered that it has been attributed to a number of people, including Winston Churchill. However, (and I trust ‘The History Girls’ to put me right if this is incorrect) it seems to be by Edmund Burke (1729-1797) whose work I remember reading when I was at university 30 years ago.

Looking at the other quotes from him, I realise that other things he said may well have lodged in my unconscious and have also driven my story, like:

2) ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

This seems to be a very apt quote for anyone looking at the rise of Nazism, and is something I believe to be true in life in general, and in particular in reference to the way the disabled and the sick, immigrants and ‘the other’ are being treated in our nation today. I read about the rise of ant-semitism and the far right in Europe, the links that ‘nice’ UKIP have with far right groups in the European Parliament, and I worry.

I see now that I practically paraphrased this following quote at the end of ‘Girl with a White Dog’:

3) ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.’

I know that I can easily get overwhelmed when I read about bad things happening and think that things are hopeless, and remembering that quote, though forgetting who said it, has helped me over the years to avoid despair. So I have Ben’s grandmother on page 124 of ‘Girl with a White Dog’ telling the children

‘Please, do not despair. Do not think that kindness is worthless, or because you cannot do everything, you should do nothing.’

So here are three quotes which I probably first read 30 years ago, when I was past my childhood, by a man whose name I had forgotten, and which seem to have helped form my attitude to the past and its relevance to the present. I had never realised how influential Edmund Burke’s thoughts have been on my life and perhaps I should have acknowledged him at the back of ‘Girl with a White Dog’ ! I have to be careful though. I can’t remember what else he wrote, and I want to re-read him to see if I agree with everything else he said. I don’t want to say Edmund Burke has been a major influence on my life until I find out more about him!

Steve Biddulph, the educational psychologist, on page 4 of his excellent book ‘The Secret of Happy Children’ says that

'...hypnosis is an everyday event. Whenever we use certain patterns of speech, we reach into the unconscious minds of our children and program them, even though we have no such intention......’

He says

‘Parents, without realising it, implant messages in their child’s mind, and these messages, unless strongly contradicted, will echo on for a child’s lifetime.’

(I give you the Amazon link as you can look inside and read the first pages. It is an excellent book which I strongly recommend getting from wherever you get your books from!)

Imagine then, the power of words explicitly taught to children in Nazi Germany as they were growing up, as illustrated by a display of Nazi textbooks and toys at the Jewish Wiener Library in London. This exhibition had a major influence on my book.

Dr. Lisa Pine’s wonderful history books ‘Education in Nazi Germany’

and ‘Nazi Family Policy’

were vital for my research, and I consciously drew on them for Chapter Fourteen of ‘Girl with a White Dog’, when Ben’s Gran is telling the children about what it was like growing up in Nazi Germany. I actually saw a copy of the poodle-pug-dacshund-pinscher book mentioned by Ben’s Gran, in the Wiener Library exhibition.

So, in my unconscious were (amongst other things!) quotes from Edmund Burke, and I consciously set out to read as many history books as I could about what it was like to grow up in Nazi Germany. I read political history, social and economic history, and books based on oral history. I watched documentaries and films. I read as many children’s books - fiction and non-fiction- about the war as I could, including some reviewed on this very blog. I have an M.A. in Children’s Literature from Roehampton Institute, where I studied part-time from 1993-95; I first studied German fairytales and first learnt about Bruno Bettleheim’s book ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ on that course.

I went to Germany and to Dachau itself. I visited the concentration camp. I went to Dachau town and (with the help of my German-speaking friend ) talked to people in the Art Gallery. I prayed in a Catholic church in Dachau, and wondered about my fellow Catholics who prayed there during the war, and their feelings about the concentration camp on the outskirts of their town, and the starving prisoners they saw marched through their streets. Did they feel guilty? Powerless? Would I have done anything if I had been in their position?

There were other, even more fundamental influences that guided how I told the story and related to the History.

Things like the fact that I am myself the daughter of immigrants, and have found myself present in conversations where people are criticising immigrants in front of me, taking it for granted that I am English for generations back. And that makes me feel worried. I try to always challenge them, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think ‘what if I was a German Jew in Nazi Germany, and the government was explicitly telling my neighbours over and over again for years and years that I was the cause of their troubles? How long would neighbourliness last under such sustained propaganda? When would challenging such talk be infinitely more dangerous than risking simply creating an embarrassing pause in a conversation?’

l also found myself asking - ‘what if I wasn’t a German Jew at all? What I was an Aryan German in Nazi Germany, and if I questioned the government I could be punished? Would I have found relief in blaming my family’s problems on others, whilst knowing I was regarded as blameless and ‘hard-working?’ I must at least acknowledge that I would be tempted. I am not a rebel by nature.

And then, now, looking at our nation’s economic difficulties, I see in our headlines today the same tendency to blame the outsider. We have the same rhetoric we saw in the early years of the Nazis - respectable people against scroungers, nationals against immigrants, We are constantly being told that we are being bled dry or cheated by sections of our own people - we have headlines about people pretending to be disabled, or lying or cheating, or simply about the cost of looking after the elderly and the sick, and how our health service cannot sustain this, whilst we can still afford to pour vast amounts of money into weapons.

And so in my story I have Jessie and her Aunt Tess soaking this propaganda up, hypnotised by the stories we are being told by our press and politicians.

But because I don’t want to despair, or cause others (especially children) to despair, I want to go back to Steve Biddulph and Edmund Burke.

I want to remind us of what Steve Biddulph, the educational psychologist says:

‘Fortunately...hypnosis can be countered if the subject becomes aware of the process.(p.4)

and in the light of that I want to re-present Edmund Burke’s saying as

‘Those who learn from the past are freed to not repeat it.’

I really hope and pray that the way history is dealt with in ‘Girl with a White Dog’ will help readers - child or adult- be more aware of when they are being manipulated or hypnotised, and to be able to stop past terrible mistakes being repeated in the present and future.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for posting - these are important issues!

Leslie Wilson said...

When I went to Auschwitz, there was a poster, dating from the Nazi era, telling the public about two people who had peered in at the camp to see what was going on inside, and so, the poster says 'we put them in there so they could discover for themselves.' This is what we must always remember: that it was a terror society. But I do also find disturbing parallels in current media stereotyping. I think we do need to continue to explore the issues, as long as we don't make the mistake of locating the evil as something done by other people a long time ago. Very interesting blog.

Ruan Peat said...

Thank you for this, I too am considered very English but my mum's generation was the first born in England, and my Dads family only came here because of the War, which my Grandma cursed to her end. I had read of you book earlier in the month and I plan to get this for my library at school! Thank you for your words, I hadn't realised how far back some of them went.