I was originally drawn to this memoir by Daniel Snowman because of its title. The concept of the significance of a life lived amongst and alongside global events is an intriguing one. We are all ‘Just Passing Through’ but what is fascinating is the diverse and different paths we take that constitute a life lived. The path will, no doubt, be different depending on where you are born, your gender, the colour of your skin and social class. Daniel Snowman, born in London in 1938 to a Jewish family, led a privileged life that led him to experience a vast number of countries and famous individuals.
In the introduction to the memoir, Snowman writes that ‘the predominant theme running through these pages…is the constant attempt to pass through traditionally accepted boundaries.’ I was fascinated to read about the author’s drive which propelled him to become a student at Cambridge and Cornell. A drive that saw him become a lecturer, reader, writer, critic and Chief Producer at the BBC during its heyday. His fascination with America led him to travel across the country but also to the hottest and coldest climates on our planet. He writes contemplatively about the increasingly pressing matter of climate change and calls for global unity and action in the face of this. Right up to the present day, he discusses the impact the pandemic has had on him personally but also how devastating it has been on the entire world. He also explores (and deplores) other more recent events such as Brexit and the Trump Presidency, poignantly asking, ‘How could anyone in Britain with even the slightest historical awareness vote to quit the EU, an institution set up in the aftermath of two appalling world wars in the hope of developing a new era of international cooperation?’ There is certainly trepidation within the book as to what the future holds.
That is not to say that this is a book that lacks humour or hope. In fact, I would argue the opposite. Some of the most enjoyable sections of the book are reading about the author’s passion and love for the opera, himself a long-standing member of the London Philharmonic Choir. He states movingly that music has the potential to move people spiritually and to change them. There are also some fascinating encounters within the text: a conversation with Harry Truman, Pope John-Paul II and also some intriguing women such as Evelyn Barbirolli and Rosemary Brown. Both individuals I want to find out more about.
There were moments within the text led me wanting to find out more about the author’s personal opinion and reflections. For example, there is a passing reference to the opera singer Beniamino Gigli, who the author greatly admired, singing for Mussolini and Hitler. The writer states that the singer’s actions were down to ‘political naivety rather than active enthusiasm for Fascism’ and leaves it there. Similarly, his interview with Winifred Wagner who freely admitted that she believed the ‘Nazi party had done all it could to boost the noble flower of German cultural nationalism’ and anyone who got in her way ‘a Jewish wife or a tendency to homosexuality, she knew she could always solve things via a quick call to her friend the Fuhrer.’ These encounters raise difficulties and questions as to how we should respond to these individuals once these events have passed. More uncomfortable it raises questions such as, would I have been any different during that time? Would I seek to challenge them in the present?
The author makes clear that personal details would not be present within the memoir, ‘do not look in this book for intimate details of personal relationships’ however I felt the images and photographs printed alongside the text worked to vividly bring these moments to life. The repeated refrain of dates of deaths of individuals who came into Snowman’s life at the end of several chapters felt very poignant and bought again to mind the title. We are all just passing through.
A remarkably thorough, interesting, and broad piece that offers a unique individual’s interactions with a vast number of people and countries. The drive to learn, discuss, challenge and critique was admirable. It certainly has provided me with many other texts and paths I would like to pursue, experience and learn more about.