Our must-read and audio top picks
The Ticket Collector from Belarus
An Extraordinary True Story of the Holocaust and Britain’s
Only War Crimes Trial
By Mike Anderson and Neil Hanson
(374pp, Simon & Schuster, £20, hb)
“I might did, I might didn’t. I do not remembers it. It is 57 years ago.” Anthony Sawoniuk cut a sorry figure when he took the stand at the Old Bailey in 1999. Diabetic, deaf in one ear, partially blind and suffering from heart disease, the 77-year-old former British Rail ticket collector might have elicited sympathy under different circumstances. But his violent outbursts in and out of court told another story, as did the chilling testimony from a succession of elderly witnesses from Belarus who had absolutely no problem remembering what Sawoniuk had done while serving in the Schutzmannschaft or auxiliary police during the country’s Nazi occupation.
Sawonuik had been greatly feared in his native village of Domachevo where he routinely meted out savage beatings and participated enthusiastically in the massacre of thousands of men, women and children when the town’s Jewish ghetto was liquidated. But it was his execution of escapees in a vicious “search-and-kill” operation that was to be the primary focus of the trial. Some suggested he had killed more than two hundred people, but the tenuous nature of much of the evidence that had been so painstakingly gathered would ultimately render it inadmissible. Sawoniuk would face only four specimen charges, and two of those would later be dismissed by Justice Potts.
Anderson and Hanson present a gripping tale of Great Britain’s only war crimes trial which, although attracting “saturation coverage” at the time, is no longer widely known. From its fascinating account of the tireless work carried out by the newly formed British War Crimes Unit, through to the spirited courtroom wrangling between tall, patrician Johnny Nutting, and the rotund and unflappable Bill Clegg defending Sawoniuk, the book is thoroughly absorbing.
In detailing the remarkable wartime experiences of key witness Ben-Zion Blustein, whose childhood friendship with Sawoniuk adds both immediacy and poignancy to the narrative, Anderson and Hanson never let their readers forget that this is a profoundly human tragedy.
Despite a historic jury visit to the village of Domachevo, which the authors describe in particularly surreal terms, the prosecution would rest entirely on witness testimony. But how reliable was it after half a century? Anderson’s extensive interviews conducted over a period of more than ten years with those involved at every stage of the investigation and trial, highlight that the outcome of this much-publicised courtroom drama was far from certain. JG
My Name is Mercy
By Martin Figura
(36pp, Fair Acre Press, £7.50, pamphlet)
Before taking up the post of poet-in-residence at Salisbury hospital, Martin Figura, described as “a pleasant sixty-year-old gentleman” in a hospital referral letter, was in the army. The Florence Nightingale effect works in reverse in his new poetry pamphlet, My Name is Mercy, in which the reader falls for the doctors and nurses at NHS Salisbury dealing with Covid-19.
The pamphlet begins with “On Being Interviewed by a Poet” which captures the dizziness, not seen since the Spanish ’flu, that these two years have wrought.
How was it for you, this past year, was it:
river swimming in lead boots
or walking in snow, blizzard blind,
was it the Mojave Desert with an
empty map, was it a cumbersome
suitcase and a broken lock
Figura expertly crafts the hopeless feeling of freefall experienced by doctors and nurses at the height of the pandemic. “Morning” conjures the sludge-eyed, heavy headiness of them getting up to push against another day of senseless waste, the feeling of being an exile to one’s core, chilled by a cold air of frustration and fear.
The clock radio wakes me to the news:
infections continue to rise at an alarming rate.
How sudden the day. This first hour seethes
like a fuse, hisses my name through its teeth,
harries me on out through the door.
The phrase, “How sudden the day”, captures the wakeless state of medical staff who never manage to rest enough before facing another shift of sheer exhaustion, working themselves to tatters.
Although the thunderous cacophony of clapping for the NHS on TV moved me at the time, these poems reveal what it was really like on the frontline. And while staff couldn’t appreciate the love because they were too deep in the mud of a killer, this is a moving tribute to the work of those who, as in any battle, didn’t ask to be heroes, but stepped up.
The poems help us understand how segregated these caregivers felt after the sudden restrictions on their lives, put in suspended animation for however many cycles it took (or will take) to rid us of this monster, baring its teeth into our supple necks.
They recapture the sense of living through a disaster film: marquees erected for the treatment of the sick, a shortage of medical equipment, a governmental body slow to respond, many in denial.
But what shines through is a sheer determination not to let the monster get the better of us – how the small human touches, like a nurse saying good morning, make all the difference between giving up and forging ahead.
Documents like this will go down in history for our children’s children to look at and realise: “this is what it was like.” GT
You can listen to Olivia Coleman read “Night Shift” and “The Fifth Season” on YouTube. “Mercy” can be purchased at fairacrepress.co.uk
A Terrible Kindness
By Jo Browning Wroe
(400pp, Faber, £14.99)
It’s a brave author who makes an embalmer the key protagonist of a story, not least during a pandemic. What’s more, the narrative starts with the terrible, real-life catastrophe of Aberfan, in which a coal slurry landslide buried a school, killing 116 children and 28 adults, in October 1966. But it would be a shame if that subject matter stops anyone picking up this book – because it’s an absorbing read, a good, old-fashioned narrative that explores its central theme of love and rupture between parents and children through William Lavery, a relatable, if difficult and conflicted, central character.
The story interweaves between nineteen-year-old William volunteering at Aberfan, his time as a young chorister at Cambridge, where he falls out with his best friend Martin, and his troubled love for Gloria. William’s mother doesn’t want him to go into the family business of embalming, but has high hopes for him as a singer and musician. However, bereft by the death of his father, William cleaves to his uncle, Robert, who run the family embalming firm and teaches him a trade for which he proves gifted.
Browning Wroe has a sure hand with a young man nursing old resentments that keep tripping him up, especially his estrangement from his mother. William’s traumatic experience at Aberfan ultimately plays a key part in him coming to terms with his past, amid fraught themes of love and loss. There’s an underlying call for kindness and compassion in the face of pain, which feels all too relevant to our times.
The stable emotional centre provided by Uncle Robert and his partner Howard would have been more surprising to readers in the Sixties than it is now, although William’s panic when he believes his best friend loves him romantically rather than platonically, is true to the setting of the times.
The introduction reveals that the author grew up in the grounds of a crematorium, which gave her an early understanding and acceptance of death. This perhaps explains her courage in the subject matter, as well as the depth and sensitivity she reveals in weaving a fictional story around one of the worst tragedies in living memory. While William’s scenes at Aberfan sometimes feel awkward, even mawkish, and the embalming detail isn’t for sensitive stomachs, there’s no denying the heart at the core of this book. William’s search for redemption is moving and ultimately affirming. BB
By Robert Macfarlane
and Stanley Donwood
(Penguin, read by Stephen Dillane, 0h 47m)
“Listen. Listen now. Listen to Ness. Ness speaks. Ness speak gull, speaks wave, speaks bracken and lapwing, speaks bullet, ruin, gale, deception…”
Walking alone across a chunk of West Falkland last month, I listened to Ness several times as I passed abandoned helipads, rusting containers and scorched jerry cans in a landscape that could not have cared less that those things (or I) were there.
The latest collaboration between award-winning nature writer Robert Macfarlane (The Old Ways, The Wild Places, Underland) and Stanley Donwood (short story-ist and artist made famous by his work with Radiohead), it tells the mythicised story of the ten-mile-long shingle spit of Orford Ness, where inexorable forces like time and tide crash up against a cathedral-like (and once highly secret) MoD weapons-testing site.
Amid the “lichenous” terrain, littered with plastic trash and oceanographic technical terms, “the laboratories will be drift, soon – and Ness too,” the land reclaiming itself from the depredations of mankind, however terrible. “Listen to the silence of the merman, who would not talk even when tortured and hung up by his feet…”
Ness him-/her-/they-/itself is a kind of composite elemental being (birdsong a speciality). Indoors, the concrete bunkers of this “untrue island” are peopled by ominous, semi-allegorical characters like The Armourer or The Physicist, who speak of centrifuges, End Times, and “injuries incompatible with life”. There is, of course, the military predilection for insane Disney names: Brown Bunny, Blue Peacock. Several times, a chorus sing-songs to “The Bomb”.
Filed, for Audible’s purposes, under Magical Realism, Dark Fantasy and Fantasy regular, Ness is a short, intriguing mash-up of poetry, song, folk tale and play that reads/sounds like a post-nuclear Under Milk Wood (with help, perhaps, from Scarfolk tourist board). The book was blurbed appreciatively by Max Porter – which is a shame, because it rather takes the edge off my saying that it reminded me a lot of… Max Porter.
The Donwood illustrations of the print version have been traded here for brief, unintrusive soundscapes – “the undersong” – by Hugh Brunt (“right, in their darkness, for what’s gone on here…”), and the narration is provided by Stephen Dillane (John Adams, Game of Thrones, The Tunnel), whose untheatrical delivery enables us to take the whole thing seriously.
The real-life Orford Ness is closed ’til Easter. But if you fancy an altogether different kind of trip, I suggest you sit down in the dark, and stick your headphones on. “Shut up and listen, though, will you? Really listen.” AS
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