Saturday, November 20, 2010


The blackbird sings to him, "Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you may not sing another;
Brother, sing."

Julian Grenfell, Into Battle (1915)

For two weeks now, the Ashokan Farewell has drifted through my mind in random moments. You’ve heard the music: a Scottish lament composed in 1982 by Jay Ungar, it featured throughout the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, a haunting violin capturing the grief of lost manhood more expressively than the words it accompanied.

Until I heard that music in the Great Hall of the British Medical Association building in Tavistock Square, not far from the hospital where I gave birth to two children, the sorrow I felt on the death of Dr. Ian Noble had been largely defined by sympathy for his parents and surviving brother. Joan and Rod Noble had been our first landlords in London and quickly became our dear friends as well. Kinder and more generous hosts could not be imagined. No sooner had the moving van departed than they’d held a cocktail party for us at their gracious Kensington home, inviting young neighborhood couples who in turn became friends of ours throughout our five-year stay in London.

I remember that first cocktail party clearly, because the ring of the doorbell was answered by two handsome ginger-haired boys, aged 12 and 15, whose intelligence and self-possession in adult company astonished both me and my husband. As the years passed, we followed their passages into manhood with delight: the younger and more madcap Jamie went on to the University of Edinburgh and a career in finance, while determined Ian left Eton for the University of Sheffield and became a doctor. In between, we heard noises about boisterous gap years and charity trips abroad. Both boys combined an appetite for adventure with a keen sense of awareness and duty toward those lacking the extraordinary good luck of an affluent London upbringing with loving and supportive parents.

Charmed lives, indeed.

So when I first saw the news – a link posted on my Facebook feed, all very postmodern – my brain couldn’t quite comprehend the information. Doctor, 26, is knocked off scooter and killed a mile from his hospital, the headline ran, and I had to read the article twice to grasp its implications. Ian dead? It was not possible, not conceivable that a young man of such promise, belonging to such magnificent parents, could be killed in the space of a single careless instant by an idiotic motorist on his way to work.

As parents, we all carry that fear, shadowing the backs of our hearts. For all our care and adoration, for all our plans and hard work and agonized decisions, some unknown variable lurks out there in the wide world that can crumble that carefully-built fortress in an instant: a virus, a psychopath, a single mutant cell, a careless motorist. We tell ourselves that the odds are long. We take comfort in statistics. We pray never to hear that phone call in the middle of the night, in the middle of the afternoon; in the middle of a sailing holiday in Croatia, delivered in garbled sentences by a nurse in the very hospital where our son is supposed to be healing the injured instead of succumbing to injury.

That Rod and Joan should have to bear that everlasting burden seemed too unjust to imagine.

At the memorial ceremony at the end of October, I learned enough about Ian’s personality and potential to make my heart break. Stories of terms spent in Nepalese hospitals, of a seat on the British Medical Association board of directors, of rallying friends for impromptu trips to the Lakes, all revealed the passion and enthusiasm I’d only glimpsed in the bright young teenager of our London years. Ian, I realized, was a modern hero, of the sort our society seems rarely to produce any more.

Only then, as the first plaintive strains of the violin wavered in the air, did I really begin to mourn; not just for the agony of Ian’s parents, but for Ian himself, for this reckless and appalling waste of an irreplaceable life. I am not generally given to crying in public, but the tears slipped in long tracks down my face to the sound of the Ashokan Farewell, because Ian was gone and the days that knew his living self were already past.

At the end of the service, when the family filed past, I hardly recognized them. Those faces I had only known with broad welcoming smiles were now shattered, destroyed. Later that evening, I went to visit them at their home, sat on the same green velvet sofa on which I’d laughed and sipped champagne so many times before. Impossibly, they were still the same impeccable hosts. They gave me wine, dinner. Afterward, we walked the familiar steps through the cool autumn twilight to join their surviving son, Jamie, and his and Ian’s many friends at the Churchill Arms. The pub rattled with laughter and energy, with the onward march of young adulthood: a less somber farewell, perhaps, than the one in Tavistock Square, but one that Ian would have approved.
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Dr. Noble’s family and his partner, Dr Annabel Scott, have established a bursary (scholarship) in his memory to provide financial support to outstanding medical students at the University of Sheffield. To learn more or to make a donation, please visit

Thursday, November 11, 2010


In the United States, today is Veterans' Day, a day to honor the men and women who serve, or have served, in the nation's military. Across much of the rest of the world, however, the 11th of November will always be Armistice Day: the day the guns fell silent across Europe and the First World War stumbled to its abrupt and Pyrrhic end.

It's impossible for the mind to corral the scale of tragedy enacted during the four years of the Great War. We say "millions died," as if two words could communicate the infinity of loss and sorrow that accompanied each individual death, and then multiply that infinity by millions. Grief needs a human face, a single human story, and Edward Brittain represents no more and no less than any of the young men thrown into the crucible of 1914-1918.

We know a great deal about Edward because he was the beloved brother of Vera Brittain, writer and peace activist, whose Great War memoir Testament of Youth stands as one of the classics of its age. Like Roland Leighton, Vera's brilliant fiancé, Edward obtained a lieutenant's commission in the British army shortly after the outbreak of war, and saw extensive action across the Western Front.

You might think that Edward -- tall, broodingly handsome, sensitive, a talented musician -- wasn't cut out to be an army officer, and perhaps you're right. But he fought on bravely nonetheless: on the catastrophic first day of the Somme, he led his panicked men in the first wave of attack, going back twice to the trenches to urge them over the top. Within ninety yards he'd been shot in the right leg by a machine gun, and followed that up with a shell-splinter going through his left arm. Eventually he crawled his way back to the trenches, recovered from his wounds, and earned a Military Cross for his actions.

Yet for all his battlefield heroics, Edward shines most brightly in the role of brother and friend. He and Vera were exceptionally close, and in the prewar years, as she fought to gain entrance into Oxford and pursue a career of her own, he supported her efforts against the opposition of their Victorian parents. Vera's relationship with Roland Leighton began at Edward's own introduction, and Roland's death -- and those of his other schoolfriends -- hit his sensitive nature with devastating power:

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all [he wrote to Vera in June 1917], but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down...

We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother...

In June of 1918, having outlived all the friends of his childhood years, Edward was shot in the head by an Austrian sniper on the Asiago Plateau in the mountains of northern Italy and buried in his blanket in the remote cemetery at Granezza.

After the publication of Testament of Youth in 1933, Vera learned that Edward had, at the time of his death, been facing an official enquiry into allegations of homosexual activity between himself, another officer, and men in their company. Whether the possibility of public exposure led Edward to take risks an officer of his experience should have shunned is almost irrelevant: either way, the end of the war came too late to save him.

This sense of loss and futility still infuses the anniversary of the Armistice. "The war was over," wrote Vera, "but the dead were dead and would never return." Or as Thomas Hardy described it in his poem And There Came A Great Calm:

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: "It had to be!"
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"

(Sources: Vera Brittain, Testatment of Youth, 1933; Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995; Letters from a Lost Generation, ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, 1998)

Earlier posts on Roland Leighton and Julian Grenfell can be found here and here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Missed the Frankfurt Book Fair again? Yeah, so did I. Seems like most of the New York publishing world makes a beeline for Germany every October, and the authors always get left behind, wondering what goes down when 150,000 book people gather together for schnitzel and Jägermeister.

But never fear! This year I plucked the intrepid Liz Parker, foreign scout extraordinaire, away from her groaning post-Frankfurt inbox and sat her down for a few penetrating questions about the Fair, the state of the book market, and just how much lager the publishing industry can consume in a single fevered week.

1) So who are you, Liz Parker, and what's your role in the publishing industry?
I am a scout with Maria B. Campbell Associates, a firm that helps foreign publishers shape their translation lists. In many ways we serve as their eyes and ears in New York (and periodically in other places as well), notifying them of projects on submission and then keeping them apprised of a book’s development. As we aren’t directly involved in the negotiations between foreign publishers and rights holders we’re able to more objectively position a given project. We also serve as the literary representative for Warner Bros. feature and television departments, helping to bring them material to be potentially optioned into a film or series.

2) What's the big deal with the Frankfurt Book Fair? Who goes and why?
The FBF (as locals reference it) is the largest book fair in the world, attracting tens of thousands of people to come and sell, buy or talk books. This year approximately 150,000 industry folks showed up. It’s an opportunity to get your projects seen by editors and publishers outside your everyday circle, and also learn about those books you might have missed when they first went on submission. For the cynic, it’s an absolute chaotic mass of people enduring a week of back-to-back meetings and non-stop social engagements. For the optimist (and those who haven’t attended many fairs), it’s an incredible sight to see a convention center filled to maximum capacity with people who all care about reading.

3) Seriously, though, isn't it all just an excuse for the industry to booze and schmooze on the corporate dime? How much business actually gets done?
It all depends who you are and how well you tolerate said booze… I do think that while a few years ago witnessed more actual book deals being made, now much of the “business” is networking and meeting people in order to extend the circle of contacts. So much of publishing is a social, more personalized business that it’s crucial, especially when you’re starting out, to put yourself out there. And what better social lubricant than German lager at the Frankfurter Hoff?

4) The industry has seen a tough time in the past few years. Any dropoff in attendance and deal flow? How's the mood among attendees?
According to the numbers this year was up from 2009, and the overall mood definitely seemed heightened. While the face of books is certainly changing, the wave of digital attention is sending the message that publishing isn’t dying. It’s simply evolving into a different sort of muscle. A lot of the fair paid due to e-books, royalties and digital marketing – three things extremely relevant to editor, agent and author alike.

5) What's the big buzz this year? Any exciting projects getting talked up?
It was interesting that a YA/Crossover novel swept up a lot of the early-fair buzz as that genre has been the talk of the industry for the past year. There weren’t any major surprises submission-wise, but it was exciting to see that everyone (publishers and agents) had something to show. But I must say that a lot of attention was paid to all-things digital. I think people are starting to think more in terms of a book’s entire package – not just the book’s actual content, but if it could thrive in another format (film, television, enhanced e-book) or grow into a series. This all goes back to how the current climate is forcing publishers to flex their creative muscle in order to remain indispensable. I don’t see publishers becoming dispensable anytime soon, but I do notice everyone is actively trying to think outside the box. All in all, the fair was upbeat and cheerful, and I think offered an encouraging message that books aren’t going anywhere.

So there you have it! Big thanks to the fabulous Liz for the rundown. (Next year, the apfel streudel's on us.)