#BookReview Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy @KateHandheld

When Stands A Winged SentryAbout the Book

‘Most people knew in their hearts that the lid had been taken off hell, and that what had been done in Guernica would one day be done in London, Paris and Berlin.’

Margaret Kennedy’s prophetic words, written about the pre-war mood in Europe, give the tone of this riveting 1941 wartime memoir: it is Mrs Miniver with the gloves off. Her account, taken from her war diaries, conveys the tension, frustration and bewilderment of the progression of the war, and the terror of knowing that the worst is to come, but not yet knowing what the worst will be.

English bravery, confusion, stubbornness and dark humour provide the positive, more hopeful side of Kennedy’s experiences, in which she and her children move from Surrey to Cornwall, to sit out the war amidst a quietly efficient Home Guard and the most scandalous rumours.

Find Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry on Goodreads

Format: Paperback (280 pages)        Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 23rd March 2021  Genre: Memoir, NonFiction

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My Review

In her introduction to the book, Faye Hammill, Professor of English at the University of Glasgow, describes Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry as an extraordinary record of the terrifying months from May to September 1940 when fears of invasion were rife. Originally published in the US in 1941 by Yale University Press, it has never until now been published in the UK.

Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is Margaret Kennedy’s own day by day account of what she herself describes as her  ‘inner battle’, involving everything from resolving everyday domestic challenges to difficult decisions about the safety of her family.   Although written with one eye on posterity, Margaret’s journal also seems to have been a sounding board for her concerns and worries.  Frequently she lists the pro’s and con’s of things such as asking the doctor for sedatives to help her sleep, or the morality of taking advantage of evacuating her children to Canada.   In fact, when she does later go to the doctor about her sleep problems, his advice to her is to stop reading the newspapers but if she has to then only to read The Times, and that listening to the wireless four times a day as she does is ‘three times too often’. I think those of us living through the current pandemic can have some sympathy with that, although at least Margaret didn’t have to cope with 24-hour news and social media.

There are welcome moments of humour, many of them provided by the redoubtable Nanny Ross whose habit of mispronouncing words frequently creates confusion. For example, ‘Nanny says that an Abbess is threatening to swallow the whole of Europe’. I chuckled too at the author’s observation about Cotter, the gardener who presides over their garden with ruthless efficiency, ‘It’s my belief that he was born giving instructions to the midwife’.  And Margaret is less than impressed with some of the invasion precautions they are encouraged to take such as, if leaving a car unattended, not just taking out the ignition key but, in her words pretty well disembowelling it, because ‘the Germans know all about hairpins’.

One of the many things I loved about the book is the persistent sense of defiance and fortitude. I found this remarkable given the author did not know at the time whether the war would end in victory or defeat. For example, at one point she writes: ‘But every month, every week, day, hour and minute that we manage to hold on brings it [Hitler’s downfall] that much nearer.  Every day will show the world more clearly what Nazism really is, and open the eyes of those still blind, and convince people that any sacrifice is better than submission’.

There is a message of hope for the future as well. Writing in August 1940 in a chapter titled ‘Owed By So Many To So Few’, the author’s fervent wish is: ‘By the grace of God we may emerge from this ordeal a more admirable society than we were when we went in’. But she’s also clear-eyed about the perilous situation the country faces. ‘We are not giving in. We are just going on fighting… Nobody can let us down any more, because we are fighting alone… Hitler may win; I suppose the odds are still heavily on his side. But, please God, we’ll give him such a pounding before he does that he’ll never be the same man after it’. Positively Churchillian, isn’t it? And at the start of the Blitz, despite the fact her husband is working in London, Kennedy observes, ‘Hitler made a mistake when he bombed Buck House [Buckingham Palace] …Buck House and Limehouse are the two places where he won’t find quitters’.

The book contains some wonderful descriptive writing. I was particularly taken with a scene in which Margaret walks to the top of nearby Holmbury Hill. ‘You look south there for miles and miles across Surrey and Sussex, over a patchwork of little fields and smudges of woods and the red roofs of farmhouses. On the horizon is the blue line of the South Downs, and a little knob of one of them which is the clump of huge beeches called Chanctonbury Ring. And beyond them is the sea. And beyond that France. And there, under the same cloudless sky, all this hell of suffering and terror is going on at this very moment. Farms are blazing. Homeless wretches stray along the road. Mothers howl for dead babies, and children for dead mothers. And our men are dying in this sunshine upon a soil they could not defend.’  

In her foreword to the book, dated May 1941, the author writes, ‘All my life I have had a great curiosity to know what it felt like to live through history… Lately, I have lived through history myself – quite a bit of history‘.  Reading the book, I felt I had joined Margaret on that journey.  As she observes, ‘we have certainly taken life to pieces and found out what it is made of‘.  Where Margaret is concerned, I think we can safely say it was made of strong stuff.

For anyone interested in women’s writing or the experiences of those on the ‘Home Front’ during the Second World War, Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is a gem waiting to be discovered amongst the growing list of titles published by Handheld Press. Look out for my review of another of their titles, There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing, 1944 – 1945 by Inez Holden, also published today.

In three words: Powerful, honest, inspiring

Try something similar: Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different At The Time by Inez Holden

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Margaret KennedyAbout the Author

Margaret Kennedy (1896 – 1967) was an English novelist and playwright. Born in April 1896, she attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College, where she began writing, and then went up to Somerville College, Oxford in 1915 to read history. Her first publication was a history book, A Century of Revolution (1922) but her most famous book is the novel, The Constant Nymph, published in 1924.  Margaret Kennedy was married to the barrister David Davies. They had a son and two daughters, one of whom was the novelist Julia Birley. (Photo/bio credit: Goodreads author page)

#Extract One Chance: Surviving London’s Gangs by Terroll Lewis @midaspr

I’m delighted to be joining the launch celebrations for One Chance: Surviving London’s Gangs by Terroll Lewis Published by Ad Lib in hardcover and as an ebook on 21st January 2021, it’s been described as “2021s most inspirational true story”. In advance of publication, I’m able to bring you an extract from the book.  Please be aware it does contain some swear words.

One ChanceAbout the Book

“It’d be easy for me to go back to my old life, but I know where that old life leads you. You’re either behind prison bars or six feet underground.”

Born and raised on Brixton’s notorious Myatt’s Field and Angell Town estates, Terroll Lewis has lived a crazy life. Surrounded by gang culture from an early age, like so many other young inner-city people, he found it hard to resist the lifestyle. By the time he was 15, he had already joined a gang, been stabbed, shot at, and was selling drugs. A chance to play professional football at Stevenage offered him a way out, but the short-term allure of a glamorous street life – the promise of girls, money, and cars – compared to the £50 a week he was being paid to play football, led Terroll back to South London and the notorious OC, or Organised Crime, gang. Violence and drug dealing were the norm in OC, and in 2009, aged 20, Terroll was accused of being involved in an extremely serious crime. After spending 11 months inside Thamesmead’s Belmarsh prison, he was acquitted of all charges and released back into mainstream society, which signalled the start of a new life.

Having used fitness, and calisthenic exercises in particular, as a coping mechanism while in prison, Terroll soon realised there were other people like him who couldn’t pay for a gym membership but still wanted to keep fit. Determined to spread the word further, he created a YouTube video demonstrating his workout regime. The views and messages quickly began rolling in, which encouraged Terroll to start conducting classes in local parks. As his client base grew, so did his ambition and self-belief. Leveraging his rapidly growing social media fame to reinforce his case, Terroll was granted a spot – a converted depot on Somerleyton Road in Brixton – to turn the newly titled Block Workout into a fully-fledged street gym.

Through Block Workout and Brixton Street Gym, Terroll is now able to give something back to the community he was raised in, offering young people an opportunity to follow a different road to the one he took during his adolescence – helping them to develop their minds as well as their bodies – and the chance to live a better life.

Not only is One Chance a truly authentic guide for the urban youth, steering them through the world we live in today – from education and relationships, to jail, social media and mental health issues – it also has the power to educate wider society on the experiences that this frequently demonised demographic face. Whichever form it takes, the aim of the book is to increase understanding on both sides, leading to a more harmonious, progressive, and positive society.

Find One Chance: Surviving London’s Gangs on Goodreads

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Extract from One Chance: Surviving London’s Gangs

Chapter 1: Warming Up

I still laugh when Mum tells me about the moment I was born. I shot into this world at 3.20 p.m. on 14 December 1989 – a Thursday. It rained all day, but the vibe was chilled and festive on the maternity ward, with tinsel everywhere and Christmas music playing. Staff wore reindeer antlers and Santa hats and all that crazy stuff. My dad wasn’t there and Mum’s friend Joy went along instead. This Joy woman had dreads down to her waist, loved her weed and always kept two forks in the back pockets of her jeans. ‘Called ’em her weapons,’ Mum says, ‘and she wouldn’t hesitate to use them, either.’

Respect to Joy: seems she got into the spirit of things, sticking by Mum’s side throughout her thirty-six-hour labour, holding her hand in the delivery room and chatting away as the contractions hit. Though when the gas and air got wheeled in, Joy abused her position of birthing partner. ‘She kept nicking me mask,’ Mum explained, ‘She had more of the stuff than me. She was gasping it down.’ Joy watched the entire delivery through heavy eyelids, swaying as she peered between Mum’s legs. As the midwife cut the umbilical cord and I let out my first piercing cries, Joy staggered backwards, hit the wall, and slowly slumped to the floor, saying, ‘Wow, that was one the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced, man’.

That evening, brimming with emotion, Mum called my dad’s mum’s house. There had been bad vibes between her and Terence, but he she had just delivered their child, her first-born. He had a son now and Mum wanted to be the one to tell him so. She shambled out of the ward to the nearest payphone. A woman answered, but Mum didn’t recognise the voice. It definitely wasn’t the Jamaican accent of Terence’s mother,  Big Mama June. Nah,this girl sounded young and cockney. Rude ’n’ all.

‘Who are you? What d’ya want Terence for?’ she snapped. Mum went, ‘I’m Jakki and I’ve just given birth to Terence’s first child. It’s a boy. I just wanted to let him know, in case he wants to see his son … or something?’ The line fell silent for a few seconds, then the girl exhaled loudly.

‘What d’ya mean? What baby? I’m Alison and I’ve got Terence’s baby: I had our girl Sasha in October. Is this a wind-up or what?’

Mum almost dropped the receiver. She was gutted. She suspected my dad had been cheating on her with Sharon, but she hadn’t imagined he’d have another girl on the go at the same time, let alone have a kid with her.

‘Just tell Terence I’ve had the baby,’ she said and hung up.

I was sound asleep in one of those plastic cot things when my dad arrived at the hospital. Mum had drifted off but was woken by the sound of shouting and swearing on the ward. A bloke was going off, audibly pissed, his voice instantly recognisable to Mum. A nurse hurried over.

‘Ms Doherty, I’m sorry but there’s a black man in reception who says he’s the father of your …’

‘I wanna see my fucking son. I’m the father, I’m his fucking father.’

Boom, there he was, staggering towards us, beating his fist into his palm. Eyes blazing, rain-soaked locks bouncing about his head, reeking of booze: my dad. He was there less than a minute before security guards told him to leave. Mum says he was so drunk she couldn’t even have a simple conversation with him, let alone confront him over Alison and the ‘other baby’ drama.

‘He stormed out of there, hollering, “I’m gonna wet the baby’s head,”’ Mum says.

Terroll LewisAbout the Author

Terroll Lewis is the founder of the Brixton Street Gym, a charity-based community gym that has gained a huge cult following in the short time that it has been around. He also founded the BlockWorkOut Foundation – the charitable base that supports this amazing gym, making it accessible to everyone regardless of income – and The ManTalk, an online platform that promotes male positivity.

Terroll had been embroiled in some of the most serious street gang warfare even seen in London, leading a band of armed and dangerous young men through the streets of the city, a wild time that ended in him being accused of murder. He was eventually acquitted of the crime and proven innocent, but is thankful for his time in prison, as it enabled him to re-evaluate his life and come out a better man, the man he is today. Terroll Lewis was named an Evening Standard Next Generation Trailblazer and included in Men’s Health Inspirational Black Men of 2020.