The War continued by other means

In Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages, Mrs Hilary is travelling across post-war Europe by train, in an attempt to save her daughter from a life of sin. Backfisch literally means “fish for frying”, and denotes a teenage girl.

At Turin Germans got in. Of course. They were all over Italy. Italy was welcoming them with both hands, establishing again the economic entente. These were a mother and a backfisch, and they looked shyly and sullenly at Mrs. Hilary and the other English-woman in the compartment. They were thin, and Mrs. Hilary noted it with satisfaction. She didn’t believe for one moment in starving Germans, but these certainly did not look so prosperous and buxom as a pre-war German mother and backfisch would have looked. They were equally uncivil, though. They pulled both windows up to the top. The two English ladies promptly pulled them down half-way. English ladies are the only beings in the world who like open windows in winter. English lower-class women do not, nor do English gentlemen. If you want to keep warm while travelling (to frowst, as the open air school calls it) do not get in with well-bred Englishwomen.

The German mother broke out in angry remonstrance, indicating that she had neuralgia and the backfisch a cold in the head. There followed one of those quarrels which occur on this topic in trains, and are so bitter and devastating. It had now more than the pre-war bitterness; between the combatants flowed rivers of blood; behind them ranked male relatives killed or maimed by the male relatives of their foes on the opposite seat. The English ladies won. Germany was a conquered race, and knew it. In revenge, the backfisch coughed and sneezed “all over the carriage,” as Mrs. Hilary put it, “in the disgusting German way,” and her mother made noises as if she could be sick if she tried hard enough.

So it was a detestable journey. And the second night in the train was worse than the first. For the Germans, would you believe it, shut both windows while the English were asleep, and the English, true to their caste and race, woke with bad headaches.

I cut’n’pasted this section from the Project Gutenberg etext of the book at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16799/16799-8.txt which could be handy if you’re not as lucky as I was – I found my copy of the novel on sale for £1 at a street market.

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