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Posted in Literature on September 9, 2018
*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books. I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly. Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.
Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am. So I’ve devised a plan. I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore. I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today. Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics. Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.
A Childhood with my Head in a Book
How to Be a Girl
The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl. It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me. I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf. You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches. I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).
I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.) Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins. Just).
And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.
L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
Travellers in Time
I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past. And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present. Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge, and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge. My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.
In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up). I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons. And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.
I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different. It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions. It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.
Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe
Thresholds to Other Worlds
And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible. Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas. I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism. But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.
Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling. Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously, Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon. Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.
One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.
Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies. Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well. Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.
C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob. Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question. Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.
J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper. Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me. Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world. And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III. I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive. I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II). All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess
Displaced and Endangered
Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.
The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies. It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure. The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother. The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences. An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans). It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats. Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).
All of these books pull their punches to some extent. They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide. And they are right, in my view, to hold back. What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.
Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers
There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary. Here, the extraordinary is very small. So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes, it can live alongside us but without us knowing. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with. What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this. The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.
Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose
Myths & Legends
As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals. Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends. He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur, which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.
Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset
Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi. The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given. My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives). From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids). These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…
H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids
Reading the Detectives
As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading. I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited. Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit. And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.
Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison
If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt. I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.
Adult Life with my Head in a Book
I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction. Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13
For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists. If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it. Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.
I’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel. No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too. Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings. And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.
L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants
Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald. Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…). Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).
Half of a Yellow Sun
This is a brilliant, powerful novel. For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war. Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.
The Womens Room
Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits. It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one. I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more. But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends. French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing. The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t. And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.
Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t. But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes. The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels, and what I watched on TV and at the cinema. They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years. If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know. I still believe in humanity, despite everything.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there. Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966. Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened. But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything. Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities. It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.
The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945
My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary. But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers. She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear. When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her. The simple questions – why did they have to hide? why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary. My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…
Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews. This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour. But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)
I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV. Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal. As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42). It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.
I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson. But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least. I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.
Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land. It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers. Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.
I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes). David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.
All the President’s Men
This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government. The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things… This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story. There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).
So, that’s my ten books… Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me. I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?
October 1990, I’m expecting my first child. After a straightforward pregnancy, we’re now getting slightly anxious that the baby is overdue and no signs that he/she is going to make an appearance without intervention. I’ve got a NCT birth plan and everything, but once the process of induction is underway that goes out of the window. I work my way up through the hierarchy of pain control, barely bothering with the gas and air, quite enjoying the pethidine until it ceases to really touch the edges of the pain. Epidural now, that does the trick. Blissful moments of peace. But still no baby, so we’re now looking at a Caesarean, and I’m conscious but pain-free as they lift him out of my belly.
Pain and exhaustion and bliss all at once. A few weeks later, at home with our son, and he’s crying all the time. Really, all the time. Nothing seems to make it better. I don’t know whether there’s something wrong, or I’m doing it wrong, but then at the 8 week check-up at the GPs, we find out that he’s lost weight. The baby books are full of reassurances that you shouldn’t panic if your baby hasn’t gained as much as the charts say, but none of them tell us that we shouldn’t panic if he has lost weight. Next day I’m at the maternity hospital for a post-C-section checkup and hand the baby to a nurse whilst they examine me. My consultant sees him and tells us to go to the Children’s Hospital A&E. Now. Don’t go home first. We head straight there and the baby and I don’t leave for a fortnight.
The consultant is baffled, but we’re taken care of and I’m looked after when I go down with a tummy bug a few hours after we’re admitted. And soon they’ve got the baby on medication and he’s starting to recover – turns out his adrenal gland either never kicked in when he was born, or stopped working, and so those hormones need to be replaced artificially. He also has to have a minor op to correct vesicoureteric reflux which is causing recurrent UTIs (one of which may have triggered the adrenal shutdown).
Once he’s settled on the meds he’s a different baby. We have a regime of medication, and an emergency kit to inject him if he has an accident or something that might provoke another shutdown, given that his meds are just keeping him at normal hormonal balance, not fight or flight levels (we never used it). He’s got regular outpatients appointments to check on his progress, and when he’s eighteen months old he goes back into hospital and is taken off the meds to see how he responds. Amazingly, his adrenal gland kicks straight in, and whilst no one can fully explain what went wrong and then what went right, he’s now a healthy small person, albeit with one kidney that’s just at the lowest level of functionality. The hospital keeps on monitoring him for several years, and whilst we continue to be anxious for a while, gradually we learn not to be. We are, as he is, incredibly and for ever grateful for the NHS staff who spotted that there was a problem and then put in place all the resources to solve it.
That is the most dramatic #NHS70 story we’ve got. But our reliance on the system has continued. It saw us through the birth of our daughter, a problematic delivery after which I needed a blood transfusion (which, ironically, is the reason both why I so much wanted to donate blood myself, and why I can’t). Between the four of us we’ve sampled pretty much all of the various outpatient clinics at the Children’s/Royal Hallamshire/Northern General. Appendicitis, type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertrophic cardiac myopathy, hypersomnia, depression, and all the usual ear/chest infections, minor injuries, plus breast screening, smear tests, bowel cancer screening, blood tests, diabetic check-ups, retinal neuropathy screening… We’ve had help from a panoply of GPs, practice nurses, consultants, registrars, hospital nurses, physiotherapists, healthcare assistants, surgeons and counsellors.
We’ve got so many reasons to be grateful – we know that the system is over-stretched, we know that there’s a problem where medical treatment and social care intersect (or should), and of course not all consultants, nurses, GPs, healthcare assistants or therapists are as helpful, as good at listening, as each other.
But whilst it’s under-resourced, and whilst the quality of treatment will vary from area to area, from person to person, and from medical condition to medical condition, some things are constant.
We’ve had our share of worry – from the paralysing terror of losing a baby to the niggling anxiety that this lump or that twinge might presage something serious. But we’ve never had to worry about whether or not we could afford to get that niggle checked out. We’ve never had the fear that the cost of treatment would drive us into debt. We’ve always known that it’s there for us.
It’s original core principles were:
- that it meet the needs of everyone
- that it be free at the point of delivery
- that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay
Those principles have been expanded upon over the last seventy years, as society has changed, and as our understanding of what ‘the needs of everyone’ might entail has deepened. But fundamentally, what we as a family have called upon when we needed it is the NHS as Nye Bevan envisaged it. It’s met our needs. It’s been free at the point of delivery. And it has never, ever, given a damn about our ability to pay.
To those across the pond who talk of NHS death panels whilst so many of their citizens avoid seeking medical help for fear of the medical bills – check your facts, and check your privilege. If your citizens really understood what we have here, they would want it for themselves, and they would be willing to pay for it through taxation, if they knew that they would never again have to fear the cost of treatment.
To those closer to home who want the service to die the death of a thousand cuts, to point to its deficiencies as evidence that it doesn’t work, to privatise it bit by bit until those core principles no longer mean a damn thing – know this, we will fight you every step of the way. We have something precious and we won’t let you take it away.
To the NHS, and all who work within it, thank you, we love you. And Happy Birthday.
Posted in Refugees on June 30, 2018
Refugee Week 2018 may be over, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to forget about them. They’re still on the move, trying to find a place of safety, trying to find a way of building a new life. And they have been doing so for generations. This is kind of a postscript to my week’s worth of Refugee Week blog posts.
Many of those posts take a broader view, looking at the history of refugees in a particular part of the world, or a particular period of history. But sometimes the most powerful way to understand is to focus on one person. An ordinary person who, because of the time and place of their birth, became part of extraordinary events. Thank you to Marek Szablewski, who presented this account of his mother’s life at the 2018 24 Hour Inspire, and kindly agreed to let me post it here.
Barbara was born in Warsaw on 2 April 1932, daughter of Zofia and Jan Czerniajew (himself a refugee to Poland from the Ukraine after the civil war which came after the revolution).
Just before the Second World War, Barbara’s parents rented an apartment on the outskirts of Warsaw in Wrzosów, and next to it they began building a house which was left uncompleted due to the outbreak of war. Barbara, together with her mother and brother, were evacuated to Warsaw.
At the end of the battle in 1939, they returned to Wrzosów where Barbara started primary school in Łomianki. During the German occupation, when Barbara played in the forest, she was witness to executions of fellow Poles by the Gestapo.
In 1944 she was deported to Germany with her mother and brother. She was forced to work in a factory peeling onions in Reichenbach in Southern Silesia. She lived through the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
In the spring of that year she survived the long march to the west. At the beginning of May she was liberated by the Russian Army near Karlsbad, from where she escaped to the American Zone 200 miles through the hills on foot. She reached a Displaced Persons camp in Hof in Bavaria, under the care of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). She recommenced her education, and joined the girl scouts, making a lifelong pledge to God, her Country and helping others. The family was moved from camp to camp, she attended high school in the Wildflecken UNRRA camp until 1948-9 when she came to England.
Her father located the family through the Red Cross, and they settled in Leominster, working on a farm and then in the Polish camp and hospital at Iscoyd Park near Whitchurch.
After high school she completed Teacher Training at Edghill College in Omskirk.
Her first job was in High Wycombe at a girls school, followed by Sheffield where she met and married Witold Szablewski in 1956.
She worked in Woodthorpe School until the birth of her son Marek in 1963, and in Carfield Junior School. After gaining a diploma at Sheffield University in ‘Education of children with learning difficulties’ in 1974, she worked in Chantrey and Oakes Park schools. For 12 years she was the head teacher of the Polish Saturday School in Sheffield and was awarded the Silver Cross of Merit for Educational Work in the Polish Community in 1998 by the Polish Ministry of Education.
Barbara worked with Polish Cubs and Brownies locally, and on leadership teams for camps in Penrhos, north Wales and Fenton in Lincolnshire.
After retiring, she interpreted for the NHS and Sheffield council, helping many new Poles to settle and make friends. She found time for all of this, despite looking after her mother for many years, and then for the last three years, her husband Witold who was seriously ill following a stroke.
She fell ill only 4 weeks after the death of her husband in February of 2008 and died in April 2008.
Barbara Szablewski’s journey involved many dangers, many traumatic experiences. It ended in safety and stability. She raised a family, she contributed to her community, she worked to help other people, from her own community and beyond it. Refugees want to contribute – Barbara was given the chance to do so and took it. If we don’t give today’s refugees the same chances, we all lose out.
(first published for Refugee Week 2016)
What is it they want, all these people?
What do we want? What do we hope for, for ourselves and for our children? We may hope for prosperity, for a nicer house in a nicer part of town, a better job, for our kids to be successful as well as happy. But if what we have was taken from us, what then?
We’d want to be safe. If our home, our street, our place of work, the school our children go to, the hospital they were born in and where we go if we’re sick, are bombsites and warzones, we’ll take our chances to go somewhere that perhaps just might be safe.
We’d want to be safe from violence and the constant threat of violence because we believe in the wrong god or in no god, because we love the wrong people, because we support the wrong political movement, because we are the wrong race. We’d want to be safe from rape and the constant threat of rape, from abuse, from mutilation in the name of tradition. We’d want to be safe from the constant threat of starvation and disease, the desperate quest for enough food to just stay alive, the desperate quest for help when we or our children are sick.
But we’d want more than that.
We’d want to have a place where we can shut our door and hang up our hat, and sleep without fear, and be with the people we love. We’d want the chance to work, to use our skills to earn enough to provide for ourselves and the people we love, to prepare healthy meals, to buy new shoes for the children as they grow, to be warm enough in winter. We’d want the chance to learn new languages and new skills, and we’d want our children to go to school and learn all that they need to make their way in the world, and to make friends and play.
We’d want to become part of a community. Paying our way, making a contribution, chatting to our neighbours, free of the threat that there will be a knock on the door early one morning and we’ll be sent away, back where we came from, or just away, to anywhere that’s not here.
And with all of that we’d want not to be told in the headlines of the newspapers that we’re a threat, that we’re terrorists, that we’re spongers, that we’re liars, that we’re cowards. We’d want not to see in the eyes of the people we meet that they wonder whether that’s true.
We’d want to be welcome.
Playing today: England (already covered: Colombia, Poland, Japan, Senegal, Panama)
Home. The country where I was born and have lived most of my life. I love so many things about this place – its hills and woodland and coastline, its musicians and writers and artists. I love the NHS which has seen me and my family through so much. I love its diversity – the culture formed through the influx of so many different peoples (invaders, migrants, refugees) and so much richer for it. I’ll be rooting, of course, for its football team.
But there’s the rub. My relationship with the England national team is tainted by so many disappointments, that can feel like betrayals. And that mirrors how I feel about my homeland too. When other nations treat refugees like dirt, I can feel righteous anger and solidarity and a sense of shared responsibility, but not quite the same degree of disappointment, not quite that same sense of betrayal, not quite shame.
I so want to not feel that shame. But with Windrush and Brexit and the ‘hostile environment’, with the rhetoric of ‘citizens of nowhere’, I can’t avoid it.
But as always, there are so many people who not only care, but are working incredibly hard to challenge the misinformation, defend those who are being treated so shamefully, campaign for changes to the law.
One of those organisations is Refugee Action. They support refugees, to put it simply. They stand up for asylum seekers. They’ve campaigned about how failed asylum seekers are left in destitution, about how people within the system are denied the opportunity to volunteer, about the rule that if people wanted to make a fresh asylum claim, they would have to do so in person in Liverpool, no matter where they lived and with no help for those who couldn’t afford the journey. And so much more. And they work with individuals too, providing advice and support, and guidance through the labyrinth of the asylum system.
One of their current campaigns is to change the system.
We believe a future is possible where those forced to flee the homes they loved receive compassion, a fair decision, essential support and help to rebuild their lives.
Our new report exposes the asylum process as one of long delays, poor decisions and a total lack of information. It is a system that disempowers, dehumanises and damages people.
If you believe that everyone who comes to Britain in search of safety should be treated with fairness and compassion, that they should be given sufficient support to make sure they don’t face homelessness and hunger, email your MP to #StandUpForAsylum and call for change now.
The report sets out how things could change for the better. How the asylum process could be fairer, and more compassionate.
An asylum system that might look something like this….
The Home Office gathers the right information from asylum applicants during interview, and uses this to make correct decisions the first time around.
The Home Office provides accurate and timely information to people seeking asylum.
The Government ensures a comprehensive and public review of current legal aid provision.
The Government achieves the targets it sets for the time taken to make decisions.
People seeking asylum, and their adult dependants, have the right to work after 6 months of having lodged an asylum claim or further submission, unconstrained by the shortage occupation list. They have access to education – including free ESOL classes – from application.
If people have to wait 12 months for a decision, they are granted Discretionary Leave to Remain.
The Home Office listens to people seeking asylum and acts upon their feedback.
The Home Office carries out regular audits of interview practice, which include consultations with people seeking asylum.
The information given during screening is not used in credibility assessments made further down the line, given that most people are unable to access any advice prior to screening interviews.
People are given adequate notice of their substantive interviews in order to allow them to prepare this with their legal representative.
There are safeguards to ensure that poor interpreting does not have a negative impact on a person’s asylum claim, including better training and quality control of interpreters.
All interviews (screening and substantive) are recorded by default, and shared with the applicant and their legal representative.
The Home Office ensures that people receive information about their rights as soon as they apply for asylum, including the point of claim leaflet in a language that they understand.
People are told of the importance of accessing legal advice at the beginning of the process.
Asylum support decisions are made as quickly as possible in order to ensure that people are able to access a solicitor as early as possible.
Nobody is forced to wait more than six months for a decision on their initial
Asylum support rates are at least 70% of mainstream benefits.
The report is a tough read. The voices of the asylum-seekers themselves tell how they’ve faced scepticism, carelessness, callous indifference and bureaucratic incompetence. And above all, how they’ve waited, waited in darkness. But surely it doesn’t have to be like that? Surely we’re better – kinder, fairer, more generous – than this?
Refugee Week is all about seeing those who seek asylum, wherever they come from and wherever they seek refuge, as people. People who are fundamentally just like us.
Those of us who were born British citizens and whose right to that citizenship has never been questioned, whose families go back for generations here, might find it hard to imagine that we might find ourselves one day hastily cramming a few possessions into a rucksack and taking to the roads, handing over all our funds for the sake of a precarious journey across the sea with no guarantee of a safe landing or a safe haven. But it could so easily have been us, not so very long ago – if Britain had fallen to the Nazis, we could have been faced with those choices, like so many of our fellow Europeans. It didn’t happen here, but it could have done, and we have no guarantees for the future.
Refugees over the centuries have contributed so much to our culture. Who knows what the latest arrivals might offer us, if we give them the chance?
So, come on England! Come on UK!
Playing today: Mexico, Germany (already covered: Belgium, South Korea, Tunisia, Sweden)
The bullet wound in Francis Gusman’s spine makes it hard for her to travel. When gangs shot at each other in her hometown of Yoro in Honduras in 2016, she was hit by a stray round and has been unable to walk since. But when gang members then murdered her sister this February, she decided she had to leave, however hard the journey.
She set off on the dangerous migrant trail north, along with her husband, 12-year-old son, and her sister’s orphaned 13-year-old daughter. After crossing the Mexican border, her husband and a friend had to carry her 36 miles along the road to this town of Tenosique in southeast Mexico. Here they have applied to Mexico for refugee status, arguing the gangsters who killed her sister could target her niece for being a potential witnesses or go after other family members….
Gusman’s story illustrates the brutality that is pushing many to leave the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and seek refuge in nearby countries, including Mexico and the United States. The number of asylum applications in Mexico has rocketed, from 2,000 in 2014 to more than 14,000 last year, with Honduras as the leading source of applicants, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
However, this surge comes as more Mexicans are themselves fleeing violence to seek refuge in the United States. In the first three months of 2018, the Northern Triangle nations and Mexico made up four of the six top source countries of applicants for U.S. asylum, government data shows.
“People are leaving because they are suffering from high levels of violence from gangs and other organized criminal groups. These gangs want to recruit minors, they carry out extortion, kidnapping, sexually abusing girls,” says Francesca Fontanini, spokesperson for the UNHCR in the Americas. “This flow of families from Central America will not stop because if the root causes are still there these people will keep coming to the U.S. or to other countries.”
The violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador continues to force thousands of people to head north in search of refuge, even as the Trump administration imposes cruel practices intended to deter them from seeking asylum. Last week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that people submitting claims related to domestic or gang violence will not qualify for asylum—a decision that effectively closes the door to many Central Americans fleeing for their lives. In recent weeks, authorities have stepped up criminal prosecutions of people attempting to cross the border, going so far as to forcibly separate children from their families. …
Initial talks between the US and Mexican governments in May considered the possibility of converting Mexico into a “safe third country”. This would force asylum seekers to apply in Mexico, preventing them from reaching the US to demand refuge.
More than 20,000 migrants or refugees are kidnapped in NTCA countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – every year, according official sources (CNDH). Sixty-eight per cent of the migrants and refugees interviewed by MSF in places along the transit route in Mexico had been exposed to violence. Nearly one-third of the women surveyed were sexually abused. Central American gangs are operating in the south of Mexico and are responsible of some of the attacks against migrants.
MSF medical data shows that a quarter of our medical consultations for migrants and refugees in Mexico are related to injuries from intentional violence. Ninety per cent of our mental health consultations are related to violence. Our patients are suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions, which have severe consequences on their ability to function. Women, children, and members of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer (LGBTQ) community are more vulnerable to certain types of violence and require specific protection measures that are not effectively in place in Mexico.
In 2015, when the current refugee crisis was at its most intense, Germany took the lead.
Berlin took the lead in efforts to resolve the European refugee crisis on Monday by declaring all Syrian asylum-seekers welcome to remain in Germany – no matter which EU country they had first entered.
Germany, which expects to take a staggering 800,000 migrants this year, became the first EU country to suspend a 1990 protocol which forces refugees to seek asylum in the first European country in which they set foot.
Germans gathered by the hundred at train stations on Sunday to welcome refugees arriving in their cities as if they were long-lost friends or returning war heroes.
An estimated 10,000 refugees were expected to arrive in Germany by train from Hungary and Austria on Sunday, and they were greeted with spontaneous rounds of applause and songs, as well as sweets, pastries and toys, on station platforms across the country. At Munich station, volunteers amassed a large stockpile of food. Helpers at the main train station in Frankfurt formed human chains to pass bags of food, clothing and toiletries to the exhausted arrivals, whom they welcomed with banners and balloons.
Three years on:
Today, four Syrian families have made their home in Wegscheid – including the Aljumaas. Mahmoud Aljumaa arrived in Germany in 2015; his two daughters and wife, Ghofran, a year later. The girls, 6 and 8, already speak perfect German, tinged with the local Bavarian accent.
The Aljumaas say they have been welcomed with open arms here, but the political debate over immigration and asylum has changed the tone, stoking fear and uncertainty. They have asylum statusfor now, but they fear that could change.
“I want to ask German politicians a question: Are we refugees or should we integrate? If we should integrate, that means that we would be like Germans after some time. It would mean we aren’t refugees,” said Mahmoud. “My daughters can’t read or write in Arabic. My older daughter is in the sixth grade and in Arabic she would be sent back to second grade. How could I send them back to Syria, send her back to the second grade? It would destroy her life.”
Their sense of uncertainty has only grown as they have seen fellow refugees from Afghanistan – a country they say cannot be deemed safe – increasingly facing deportation. …
Most everyone we spoke to in Bavaria seemed to agree on one point: From 2015 to now, this region has handled the refugee crisis and integration efforts well. Now they need a clear signal from German policymakers on whether refugees are really welcome to stay and become a part of German society.
The welcome offered to refugees in 2015 was particularly poignant in light of German history. During the Nazi era as anti-Jewish legislation and other repressive measures were introduced and tightened, there were many desperate to leave. People continued to try to find ways out of Germany and the occupied territories throughout the war years, at great risk to themselves and anyone who tried to help them.
One largely overlooked refugee story from that period, however, is the forced migration of ethnic Germans just at the end of the war from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
Historian R.M. Douglas has written one of the only English language books on the subject, has described it as “not merely the largest forced migration but probably the largest single movement of population in human history,” with between 12 and 14 million civilians to move in just a few years. Douglas wrote that this mass movement of peoples was accomplished “largely by state-sponsored violence and terror” – including murder, torture and rape. Hundreds of thousands of Germans ended up in internment camps, some of which had just shortly before been Nazi concentration camps.
Accounts from those who made the journeys are horrific. One woman wrote of spending days standing on a freight train traveling from what is now northeastern Poland. “Pregnant women who had given birth had frozen to the floor,” the account, later published in Der Spiegel, read. “The dead were thrown out of the windows.” …
In Germany, the expulsions are still remembered, even while Nazi atrocities are, too. “The Nazis’ crimes had been far worse,” Der Spiegel wrote in a lengthy article in 2011, “but the suffering of ethnic Germans was immense.” Perhaps that’s why the current refugee crisis, of a comparable scale to the German expulsions (almost 12 million people have been displaced in Syria alone), has found a relatively large amount of sympathy in Germany, a country that expects to receive 800,000 refugees this year. Even if many in the country are far too young to remember the German expulsions themselves, they may remember the damage wrought upon older family members. Much like these family members, modern-day refugees are having their fate decided for them by their nationality.
In 2016, researchers from the University of Sheffield went to Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan to work with the people who lived in the camps to help find innovative solutions to the practical problems they were facing. This was not about parachuting in experts to tell people what they should do. The people in the camp were the real experts, in terms of understanding what was needed, the resources they had at their disposal, and the constraints (the ban on creating any permanent structures, for example) on the solutions they implement.
This isn’t a one-way process. Because to solve the everyday problems in the camp they are working with, and not just for, the people in the camp.
Obviously not everyone living there has the kind of skills that can be pressed into service to help build the resources that the communities need, and not everyone is well and strong enough after the physical and mental traumas of flight to contribute in this way. But as a transit camp becomes a city the people living there can become again the people they were at home, can be part of the process of building and healing and problem-solving.
Innovative solutions to everyday problems are being developed, in collaboration with the people of Za’atari. Tony Ryan, the Director of the Centre, has been working with Helen Storey from the London College of Fashion, on resource use and repurposing in conflict zones, and on specific questions from the UNHCR about the design and manufacture of all kinds of things that we take for granted, like sanitary wear, make-up and bicycles. Resources are scarce in the camp, where 80,000 people share 6 sq km of space, and nothing is left to waste.
The team went back in 2018 to do some further work on these projects, and see the progress that had been made. Check out this presentation given by Professor Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, showing some of the work his team has been involved with in the camp: 24H2018 Zaatari, as well as the film below.
Make no mistake, the people who end up in these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine. But those I met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community. As hard as we must fight to live in a world where no one is forced to flee their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.
Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield.