Sunday, 16 December 2012

'Stranger in a borrowed land: Lotte Moos and her writing

‘Stranger in a borrowed land: Lotte Moos and her writing’
by David Perman
Grendel Publishing in association with Rockingham Press, London, 2012
ISBN 978 0 9566570 1 5

Reviewed by Ruth Rikowski

At the request of Monica Blake, who founded Grendel Publishing a couple of years ago, along with a colleague, I am reviewing this book, ‘Stranger in a borrowed land: Lotte Moos and her writing’. The book is published by Grendel in association with Rockingham Press.

I did not know anything at all about the book, so came to read it with no preconceived thoughts at all.

I read the book in a couple of days, with the aim of getting to the essence of it quickly.

I concluded that whilst it was quite interesting on one level, I did not really think that Lotte Moos necessarily deserved a book like this in her own right; that she had not achieved enough to warrant all the work and attention that she got through the production of this book. The author David Perman gathered together all the relevant material after she died at the age of 98 years (in 2008) in order to write the book (which could not have been at all easy) and Monica Blake and her colleague had to put in a lot of work editing the manuscript and removing extraneous material.

So, why is this my conclusion, one might well ask?

Well, the lady led quite an interesting life, it has to be said, and she had some sound values – she was a socialist, for one thing. She was a German Jewish refugee, fleeing from Germany in 1933. As the author, David Perman, said in the opening pages, Lotte’s:

“…parents were educated, middle-class Jews who were thoroughly assimilated into German society. (p. 10)

Lotte’s husband worked at Oxford and Durham Universities and they had an interesting social network. Lotte lived in a number of different countries, including England, France, Russia and America, as well as Germany of course. And she wrote a lot, particularly poetry. This included writing a column for the government’s refugee paper, Die Zeitung at one time. She also wrote plays, some of which were performed. One of her plays won second prize in a BBC-Arts Council competition, although some of her other plays were heavily criticised (particularly one about Russia). She also wrote some plays for TV.

Yet, the book seemed to be suggesting that she achieved more than she actually did or at least that she was more talented than she was given credit for throughout her life. She loved stories from a child and wrote stories, so obviously I could identify with that. Throughout her life she wrote but most of her work remained unpublished. A list of her works are given at the end of the book. This included poems, plays and prose – essays and stories. But it was largely only her poems that were actually published – with Centerprise Trust, Approach Poets and Rockingham Press. A few pieces were published in places such as the New Statesman and the Women Guardian.

Her and her husband moved to Hackney after they retired and were the founding members of the Hackney Writers’ Workshop there in 1976. Now, surely during this long period, Lotte could have tidied up her work, made it suitable material for publication and found herself a reputable and suitable publisher. And she lived a long life, so she had plenty of time to do this in.

Was Lotte very talented? Is it lost talent that we do not appreciate? Was the author trying to rescue this lost talent? Who knows, as we do not have access to most of her writings! But there are probably many such people ‘out there’ and nothing in the book suggested to me that she was extra special. But if it is about the horrors that the Jews faced during the 2nd World War – well, there are far better examples. Or is it for some other reason, and if so, what is it? For the sake of local history in Hackney perhaps? Whatever the reason – the author does not make this at all clear.

The author seemed to want us to feel sorry for Lotte, I thought – Lotte not being able to finish her degree in England and Lotte getting various rejections and criticisms in the publishing world - although there were also achievements such as her getting her first essay published when she was still a child. But also: Lotte not getting more of her material published; Lotte having to flee from Germany; Lotte facing a stint in Holloway prison and being accused of being both a Nazi sympathiser and a Soviet spy etc. Yet, in many ways she had a good and comfortable life, I thought. She was also provided with many opportunities to shine, such as getting her plays reviewed in top newspapers, and some of her plays being performed in the West End. But these were opportunities that, on the whole, she did not make the most of, from what I could see. Whilst others with more talent are often given far fewer opportunities, I feel sure.

Finally, what are the worth of Writers’ Workshops in themselves, one might ask? Do they tend to help or hinder budding writers to get published? Who knows. But from my own personal experience, I think they should be used with care – perhaps, need a cautionary note on the tin, as they say! Whilst they might give one a few tips, one has to be wary of them ending up just being social gatherings and talking shops with no-one really intent on getting their writing published. The best thing to do, from my experience, is to just get on and write the stuff! And then, tidy it up, clean it up, continually improve and refine it until eventually the material ends up being worthy and suitable for publication. And that is what I am about with my own novel writing – but it is proving to be a long and painful, albeit also a very enjoyable and rewarding process.

The book is well produced and put together and there are some nice photos. There is no index.