The Dancing Bear – Frances Faviell


After reading Frances Faviell’s memoir of the Blitz, A Chelsea Concerto, I was keen to read this book, written before A Chelsea Concerto but set in post-war Berlin. Frances’s husband was a senior civil servant in the British Administration in Berlin & Frances & their son, John, joined him in late 1946. Berlin was being administered by the four allies – Britain, the United States, France & the Soviet Union – in the uneasy years after the defeat of Hitler & before the Soviets divided Germany & took over the East.

During the War, Frances lived in Chelsea & helped many refugees with her practical kindness & friendship. Her life in Berlin is a continuation of that life in some ways. The  contrast between the lavish social life of the Allied administration & the friendship she develops with the Altmann family is striking. She is exposed to the trauma inflicted by the war as well as the ongoing hardship of the defeated German people & her attempts to alleviate the hardship as much as she can for her friends.

Frau Maria Altmann lives with her husband, Oskar, & their children Fritz, Ursula & Lilli in a barely heated apartment stripped of anything that could be sold for food or fuel. Frances meets Frau Altmann one day when she sees the older woman collapse on the street. Taking her home, Frances discovers that Maria is depriving herself of food to help her children. The Altmanns had been a prosperous family but their belongings are gone & their savings are worthless. Ursula is working as a housemaid for a group of American servicemen & Lilli is a ballet dancer. Fritz, resentful of the allies & with a nostalgic longing for the Hitler Youth he was part of during the war, has become involved in the black market. Another son, Kurt, is missing in Russia. Their lives are made more difficult by the restrictions imposed on Berliners – the tiny electricity ration, the bans on fraternising with the British (the Americans were not so strict) & the lack of food & fuel even if they had any money to pay for it.

As Frau Altmann begins to trust Frances, she becomes more involved with the Altmanns. Assisted by her British driver, Stampie, she is able to help in practical ways. Stampie is adept at all the ways & means of getting hold of just about anything legally or not. He always has money & always knows someone who can help. He is supporting several needy families & has an answer for any problem. Frances also learns more of the Altmann’s story. The horror of the end of the war when the Russians arrived, looting & raping indiscriminately. Frau Altmann hid her daughters in the attic but Ursula couldn’t stand the cramped conditions & was raped several times. Frau Altmann grieves for Kurt & excuses Fritz for his rudeness & laziness but Lilli is the baby of the family & her father’s favourite.Oskar Altmann is a gentle man, bewildered by his change of circumstances & at a loss in this new world.

Frau Altmann has a more difficult relationship with Ursula who has embraced the way things are, talks English with an American accent & comes home with cigarettes, food & smart clothes given to her by her employers. Her mother doesn’t want to question how she gets the extras although she sees more than Ursula realises. She is practically supporting the family although her mother continues to disapprove of her behaviour & attitudes especially when she joins Fritz in his black market activities. Her rejection of the Church especially hurts her mother whose faith never wavers. Ursula becomes involved with Joe, an American who becomes her sole protector, & who wants to marry her & take her home with him to the States. Lilli is frail but, because the Russians love ballet, she is able to continue dancing & the company receive some privileges.Lilli’s health is a worry but her quiet determination to keep going masks her pain until it’s too late.

The Dancing Bear is an affecting & very moving story. By concentrating on the story of one family, Frances Faviell brings home the plight of many thousands more. Maria Altmann is a dignified, stoic woman who understands a great deal more about her children’s lives than they realise. Her blind spot is Fritz, a bitter, resentful young man dealing with the aftermath of the defeat of his country by flouting authority wherever possible. His search for somewhere to belong will take him far from his family. Life in Berlin was difficult for everyone. The Allied Command employees had trouble getting food & fuel but they were the victors & their problems paled beside that of the Berliners who had lived through Nazism & then the destruction of their city by the Russian troops. Frances is able to help the Altmanns with her contacts & Stampie is a miracle worker but the contrast between her daily life & that of her German friends & servants is very great.

There are so many fascinating characters in this book. Fritz’s place in his mother’s heart is taken by her nephew Max who spent much of the war as a prisoner in England, working on a Welsh farm. Max is in love with Ursula & his return to Berlin stirs up emotions that she is unwilling to acknowledge. One of Frances’s acquaintances is Frau von R, an unrepentant Nazi who grieves for the past & is hostile to the conquerors. Frances admires her honesty, unlike that of many others who denied that they were members of the Nazi Party or that they knew anything about the regime’s horrors. Oskar’s brother, Hermann, drinks to forget the present & to remember the glories of the past. Frances’s servant, Lotte, shows Frances her journal, written during the Russian invasion, with its matter-of-fact descriptions of rape & destruction. Frances is an artist & uses her talent to record the life around her. This edition of The Dancing Bear includes some delicate pencil drawings, including a lovely one of Lilli. I’ve read very few post-war memoirs & this one stands out because of the compassion with which it’s told. As in A Chelsea Concerto, Faviell doesn’t flinch from recording the brutal realities of life for these desperate people. The aftermath of war & the reality of living under occupation requires compromises that will test the Altmanns but also shows how strong the will to survive can be.

The Dancing Bear is another of the Furrowed Middlebrow list from Dean Street Press.

The Pigeon Tunnel – John le Carré


Earlier this year I listened to Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré & enjoyed it very much. Not long after the biography was published, it was announced that le Carré was planning to write a memoir. Whether it was the process of being interviewed for the biography that spurred him on or whether he felt that he wanted to dispute Sisman’s version of his life is unclear. The result is The Pigeon Tunnel : stories from my life.

The subtitle is significant as this isn’t an autobiography. David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) ranges across his life, telling stories, not always in chronological order. Cornwell’s novels of espionage are probably his most famous but he continued writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall when many critics thought that he would be lost for subject matter in this brave new post-Cold War world. He has proved them wrong by tackling other subjects – corrupt pharmaceutical companies in Africa, arms dealers, post-Glasnost Russia – &, of course, there are still spies even if the enemy is now terrorism rather than the Soviet Union.

38 chapters cover Cornwell’s travels in search of material for his fiction – to the Middle East, famously meeting Yasser Arafat, to Russia, Africa, Panama & Asia. His novels have been made into successful movies & TV series & he describes the process of film making with Martin Ritt & Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) & Alec Guinness (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Almost as interesting are the chapters about the projects that never got off the ground, with Stanley Kubrick & Sidney Pollack, among others. He is self-effacing about the dangers involved in his travels, always generously acknowledging the journalists & locals who took him into dangerous places or to meet significant people. One chapter describes lunch with Margaret Thatcher after he’s refused an honour; another describes the experience of cavalierly accepting an invitation to appear on Apostrophes, Bernard Pivot’s demandingly intellectual interview program. There would be a panel of formidable critics to conduct the interview which would be live on television & take place entirely in French, a language Cornwell hadn’t spoken in many years. He amusingly describes the immersion course in French he took in London before the interview as well as the interview itself which he seems to have come through creditably. Leaving the studio he asks his driver why there’s no one on the street & is told that everyone in Paris stays home to watch Apostrophes.

The extent of Cornwell’s involvement with the British Secret Service has excited more interest than almost anything else in his long career. He has always refused to elaborate on his time as a spy, citing his loyalty to his former colleagues & the fact that he signed the Official Secrets Act which prevents him discussing it. Adam Sisman dug out a little new information but this book maintains Cornwell’s reticence. He must have used his knowledge of the Service to write his books & some within its ranks have felt betrayed by that but he maintains that he has never broken a confidence. One of the most fascinating chapters was his account of a conversation with Nicholas Elliott, a member of the Service & a close friend of Kim Philby. Elliott, like so many others, was betrayed by Philby & devastated when he defected. Cornwell knew both men & gives a sympathetic portrayal of Elliott as he describes his interrogation of Philby in Beirut just before he left for Moscow. Cornwell acknowledges Ben Macintyre’s book on the subject, A Spy Among Friends, & I’ve downloaded the audio book as this chapter was so interesting that I want to know more.

Perhaps the most personal chapter comes near the end of the book, Son of the Author’s Father. Cornwell’s father, Ronnie, was a con man, a charming rogue who spent his life coming up with grandiose schemes to enrich himself regardless of the consequences to others. Cornwell wrote a version of Ronnie’s story in his novel, A Perfect Spy, but he has obviously struggled with the legacy of being the son of a crook who served several prison sentences in the UK & Asia, was bankrupted several times & seemingly had no conscience about the damage he left in his wake. Cornwell’s mother, Olive, abandoned her husband & two sons when David was only five. He didn’t see her again for many years & had a distant relationship with her in his adult life. Ronnie was almost a constant presence – failing to pay his school fees, employing David to collect debts in Paris, using his connection as the father of the famous John le Carré to sponge off David’s publishers, being bailed out by David from an Asian prison, ironically threatening to sue David for the cost of his education etc etc. The anger that David still feels towards both his parents is obvious. He even spent a considerable amount of money on investigators to try & disentangle Ronnie’s lies – without much success. It seems he will never discover the truth about many of the questions that plague him about his mother’s disappearance or his father’s psychology. This section of the memoir is no less fascinating for being inconclusive.

I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed to read The Pigeon Tunnel after reading Sisman’s exhaustive biography. I’m so glad I did, especially as I listened to the audio book read by Cornwell himself. I knew most of the stories from reading the biography. I knew the origin of the title, The Pigeon Tunnel, which had been the working title for many le Carré novels over the years. I’d read Sisman’s version of the meetings with Arafat, Joseph Brodsky & Andrei Sakharov but it was a different experience hearing the stories from Cornwell himself. Naturally more intimate but Cornwell came across as funnier, more self-deprecating, less earnest than he seemed in the biography. I’m glad I’ve read Sisman’s biography which filled in a lot of the background that isn’t detailed in this book. However, I don’t suppose many readers of The Pigeon Tunnel will be totally unaware of Cornwell’s life – there have been enough profiles & interviews over the years. As a collection of stories, some quite slight but many much more searching, this is an excellent insight into the complicated life of a secretive man.