Archive for category USA
I don’t want to do that whole ‘as a parent’ thing. It’s offensive to all the people who aren’t parents but who do give a damn (most people, I’d like to think, though it’s harder to believe that some days than others) to suggest that if you’ve never given birth or fathered a child you could contemplate cruelty against the most vulnerable people, the people we are all, parents or otherwise, programmed to protect, with equanimity, the people who are our collective future.
It’s the 80th anniversary this year of the Kindertransport, when parents in fear of the future sent their children off into what they could not know would be a safer future, into the arms of strangers. Most of those children never saw their parents again. That window of opportunity was open so briefly – from the point where enough people realised the danger to the point when the borders slammed shut – and those who missed it, in many cases, were murdered. The children were undoubtedly saved, but they were not unmarked by that early separation (even those who were reunited with their parents post-war found themselves and their parents irrevocably changed by what had happened in those years).
I wrote about the Kindertransport in a previous Refugee Week blog. I’ve returned again and again to the vulnerability of children and to our shared responsibility to protect them.
Children are resilient, they’re tougher than you’d think, as all parents remind themselves on a regular basis. But how do those early experiences, that exposure to death and danger and horror, affect them as they grow? We can draw upon the stories of an earlier generation of children whose parents entrusted them to strangers, to be transported across Europe and to be taken into the homes of other strangers, to be kept safe, in the hope of a reunion that for many was never to happen. We know of the confusion that many of them felt, about their past, their identity (not all Jewish children were fostered in Jewish homes); and of the trauma of separation from parents and family, and in so many cases, of the discovery post-war that parents and family had been swallowed up in the barbarity and were lost to them for ever.
No one claims an exact equivalence between the circumstances in Nazi Europe and those we face now. But equally no one would doubt that in desperate circumstances children are the most vulnerable, least able to defend themselves, most open to abuse.
It is often asked, below the line, what kind of parents would abandon their children to such a fate. Firstly, it is a huge assumption that these children have been abandoned. Many will be orphaned. Many will have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight. And some parents, faced with the desperate choice to save some but not all of the family will have chosen to send their children on to at least the chance of safety, as those parents did 80 years ago.
It’s also often claimed that the children are a sort of Trojan horse – if we allow our hearts to soften and give them sanctuary here, their parents and older siblings will then emerge from the shadows and demand to join them. Or that they are not in fact minors, just young-looking adults. It takes a particularly determined brand of cynicism to look at these children in such need and see only threat and deceit.
Most of us will see instead both vulnerability and potential. If we take them in we can both protect them from the dangers they currently face, and allow them to fulfil the potential they have, to contribute to the country and the community that gives them sanctuary.
And today, how can we even talk about the children of the Kindertransport, the children crossing the Med in flight from war and terror, without talking about the children whose parents have tried to cross the border in hope of a better future and who are now caged, terrified, comfortless?
Don’t tell me those parents are ‘illegals’, lawbreakers. Lawbreakers can be dealt with humanely. Children are not lawbreakers. And no human being is an alien, an illegal. It’s not so many steps from that approach to the approach that condemned Native American children, Tutsi children, Jewish children to death because of their heritage. And the rhetoric from the White House takes us ever closer. Animals. Vermin. Infestation. We have to call this out, all of us. And especially when brutal policies are justified by quoting the Bible.
I know these children are unlikely to meet the legal definition of refugees. But how we treat the most vulnerable surely must define our values as a society. There is another, better America. There are other, better ways of dealing with migration and asylum. We have to find them.
To quote Sir Nicholas Winton, who himself was responsible for saving around 700 children from Nazi Europe, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.
With the resources we have, collectively, it’s not impossible. It can’t be.
As disconsolate as I was at the end of 2016 (and I was, deeply so), 2017 has managed, in some respects, to shock and depress me beyond expectations.
Shocked and depressed by the sight of giant swastika banners, and the sound of anti-semitic chants, on the streets of an American city, and the inability of the leader of the USA to unequivocally condemn fascist violence. Since Charlottesville, of course, that has been compounded by that leader acting as a publicist for the vile Britain First in their attempts to spread fear and hatred.
I know, of course, that fascism never went away, that there have always been cliques and cadres of unapologetic Nazis, but they used to deny what they were, to hide from publicity, not to court it. They used to put on their uniforms and get out their flags in private, amongst those of a like mind, not to parade them on the streets.
Not only are Nazis now out and proud, but the very notion of truth seems to be up for grabs. If you are caught out in an untruth, you simply claim it as an alternative fact.
Robert Spencer, a leading American Islamophobe who was banned from entering the UK in 2013 for his anti-Muslim history, posted on his website Jihad Watch that doubts about the veracity of the retweeted videos were beside the point. “The real question is not whether this or that video is accurate, but whether there is a problem with jihad terror and Islamic supremacism in Britain and elsewhere.”
“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “‘That is what the president is talking about, that is what the president is focused on dealing with, those real threats and those are real no matter how you look at it. His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”
We were warned about this. Warned a long time ago.
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958)
Orwell, in his reflections on the Spanish Civil War, described his fear at the feeling that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’.
Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs. (George Orwell – ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, 1942)
Just over a year ago I was musing about Godwin’s law.
We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust. We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.
And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.
But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.
What strikes me now, reading those words, is that we’re no longer just hearing echoes. Fascist rhetoric is being normalised. It’s perceived as being endorsed, even, when the President of the US refers to far-right protestors as ‘very fine people’, or retweets Britain First’s vile anti-Muslim videos. The wretched Farage is endorsing ‘concerns’ about the Jews, with a smooth segue from ‘the Israeli lobby’ to the ‘six million Jewish people living in America’, and the suggestion of disproportionate influence. Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Whether it’s a real document, the threat is real…
I’ve just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s remarkable 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
As many have pointed out over the years, it’s not the greatest work of literature. And, of course, it’s not actually supernaturally prescient – Buzz Windrip resembles Trump in some ways, but there are many more differences. We are not now in the 1930s. Because we know what happened then, and what happened after, we cannot walk blindly into the kind of totalitarianism that Windrip delivers so easily, with so little resistance. We know – a diminishing few of us from first-hand experience, and many more from having read and learned from history – and we cannot unknow.
We can’t afford to be complacent though – few of us would have expected that we would be where we are today, that we would see and hear this normalisation of fascism. We have to draw upon what we know about what happened then, to ensure that it really, really can’t happen here, and now.
One criticism of Lewis’s novel which jars with me, however, is the notion that Doremus Jessup, its hero, is hard to root for.
Jessup, as his name suggests, was a deliberate throwback to the 19th century. He thinks and talks in very flowery stream-of-consciousness prose, stuffed with references to writers and concepts long forgotten. …. While Orwell’s hero Winston Smith attempts his doomed act of thoughtcrime rebellion against Big Brother from the very first page, Jessup takes an age to really stand up to his dictator. …
Doremus Jessup’s one act of rebellion, months after the dictatorship has been established, is to write a fiery front-page editorial. He is jailed for this, but they let him out when he promises to help his successor write pro-Windrip articles. Some hero.
By the end of the book, Jessup is an agent of the resistance based in Canada; his job is to skip across the border and stir up rebellion. But to achieve this, he spreads propaganda himself, telling each man the rumors he needs to hear.
This kind of behavior doesn’t make for a likable character. Indeed, Jessup’s constant wittering about his self-doubt and compromises make it surprisingly hard to root for him even when he’s in a concentration camp, being forced to drink castor oil and taking 20 lashes. (Whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston is tortured, we’re right there on the table with him.)
Clearly I am invested in Doremus Jessup because I found myself getting rather cross about this, on his behalf. The comparison with 1984 is, I think, largely spurious. We are from the start of that novel in the dystopian future where Big Brother reigns supreme. In It Can’t Happen Here we are in a modern democracy, where Buzz Windrip seems at first to be a hopeless candidate, a joke. Where the idea that a President might set up and mobilise a private army to root out dissidents, and set up concentration camps where those dissidents can be tortured and murdered, seems so improbable that no one is prepared for it.
Doremus isn’t an action hero. Perhaps that’s why I root for him, contrary to the Dystopia Project’s somewhat simplistic view. He’s not the guy you want by your side if it comes to a scrap. But he uses the things he is good at in the service of the Resistance, and uses the opportunity of continuing to work at the newspaper offices to establish an underground newspaper and distribute it through clandestine channels. He is caught with the text of an editorial exposing murders committed by one of Windrip’s Military Judges, and is brutally punished.
I was reminded of Francois Mauriac, the great French novelist, and member of the French Resistance during the Occupation. He wasn’t an obvious candidate for the resistance movement – he was naturally conservative, and indeed he initially supported Petain’s Vichy government. But Mauriac was someone who listened, always, to his conscience, and when the Vichy government began implementing anti-Semitic legislation, his conscience told him he had to act.
He too was a pretty weedy chap, but he wrote, and contributed to the production of clandestine texts such as Le Cahier noir (written under the pseudonym Forez, in 1943), which was a passionate condemnation of the Vichy regime and of collaboration with the Nazis and an equally passionate statement of hope, and of faith in humanity, of the ideals of justice and liberty.
Mauriac was lucky, he managed to escape arrest by keeping on the move, but he knew what he was risking, and that he would have been unlikely to survive arrest, torture and a concentration camp. People like Mauriac, like Doremus, are as much heroes as those who take up arms.
I’m an utter physical coward. When I ask myself, as I have done so often when reading about the Nazi Occupation of France, what I would have done, I know I wouldn’t have been fighting in a partisan unit, blowing up railway lines or assassinating German officers in the Metro. But equally I believe I would not have been just keeping my head down and shutting up, and I know, absolutely without doubt that there are circumstances in which I would instinctively do the right thing even if it was dangerous, and absolutely without doubt that I would not betray or denounce. I like to think that I’d be with Mauriac and Jessup, writing the truth, getting it out there. That’s where our hopes must lie. That in Trump’s America and in Brexit Britain, in the European nations now flirting with fascism and infected with xenophobia, there will always be Mauriacs, always be Jessups, who just can’t sit still and do nothing.
We’re not facing those kind of decisions now, not yet at any rate. But smaller decisions may confront us at any time, even here, in a country where racist bigots have been emboldened by the decision to leave the EU and by the horrors inflicted by IS and their affiliates, to express their hatred in ways that we haven’t heard or seen for decades.
It can happen here. It’s on us to make sure it doesn’t.
So Doremus rode out, saluted by the meadow larks, and onward all day, to a hidden cabin in the Northern Woods, where quiet men awaited news of freedom.
And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for Doremus Jessup can never die.
(Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here)
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Meridian Books, 1958
Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, 1935, Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2017
George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, in George Orwell: Essays, Penguin Books, 2000
Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. This is the penultimate instalment of my reading diary, with the final one to follow on 24 September. I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.
Rules? To summarise:
- No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
- Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
- Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
- I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author. That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge. So, sixty books, by sixty writers.
11 September. Day 43 Finished Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. Brilliant, fascinating, moving. The narrative was labyrinthine, moving around from Before (before her father was arrested) to After (what happened to the rest of the family after his arrest) but only towards the final pages coming to that terrible truth at the heart of it all – what happened to him and ultimately how and why he died. Extraordinary.
On to Livi Michael’s Succession. I have read most of her adult novels (Inheritance, All the Dark Air, Their Angel Reach) and read to my daughter at least one of her stories about an intrepid and resourceful hamster called Frank. This one is historical fiction, the first in a trilogy set during the Wars of the Roses.
As a child and a teenager I devoured historical novels. Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Leon Garfield – each of them in my memory evokes a particular period of history. Later on I read Margaret Irwin, Edith Sitwell’s books on Elizabeth I (Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive), and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak no Treason.
This last is particularly relevant to the Livi Michael trilogy, and I’m quite excited about reawakening my earlier fascination with this period of history, and rediscovering a writer who I know through novels with a very contemporary setting.
I’m also about to start on Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. From fictionalised real history to an ‘alternative’ history, in which Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 and Lindbergh becomes President. Intriguingly, it’s an alternative personal history too – the history of the Roth family had events turned out in this way. I think my first encounter with alternative history was in Joan Aiken’s terrific, gothic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, set in the reign of James III, when a channel tunnel has been built, via which wolves have migrated into Britain in large numbers. Probably the majority of works in this genre, however, have taken World War II as their setting, positing some crucial moment at which everything changed, allowing a Nazi victory in Europe (and beyond). The more one knows of the ‘real’ history, the more fascinating (and potentially contentious) this is.
Also on my reading pile (though probably not as part of this project) is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, and positing the rise of a far-right demagogue to the Presidency… That title was echoed in a film I dimly recall watching, and being horribly chilled by, It Happened Here, subtitled ‘the story of Hitler’s England’.
The Plot… will also, as it happens, be my first Roth.
Caitlin Moran’s piece ‘Reading is Fierce‘ seems especially pertinent in light of this project.* I allowed myself an unseemly moment of hubris when she mentioned the ‘challenge’ of reading fifty-nine books in five months as a judge on the Baileys Prize (ha! Try sixty books in under three months, you lightweight!). But then, there’s this.
And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation. That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure. Their heads are on fire. Their hearts are flooding. With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia, or Jamaica Inn, or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them – hiding under the bedclothes, sitting on a bus.
That’s my life she’s writing about, my life with my head in a book, from a four-year-old just graduating from Janet & John to real stories (never ‘just a story’, stories matter, stories can make you fly), to a sixty-year-old powering through novels and memoirs and poems for some daft challenge, reading on buses, in waiting rooms, last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Singing that ‘unseen, life-changing duet’ with each writer I encounter. Glorious.
Oh, and I can’t ever ever read Moran’s piece ‘To Teenage Girls on the Edge’ without having quite a big cry. It’s everything I wanted to, tried to, meant to say to my own teenage girl when she was in that place, but said so much better than I ever could.
Ooh, this Livi Michael is good.
12 September. Day 44
A difficult day but in what free time there was, I progressed mightily with Succession. Once one has got one’s head round the Dukes of This and Earls of That (another disadvantage with a Kindle, BTW – Livi Michael kindly provides a cast list at the front of the book, but it’s far more faff to refer to it in an electronic book than in a real one) the narrative is compelling, the characters fascinating (especially the two Margarets) and the writing beautiful.
I’ve always taken the view that any hierarchy of literary merit must ignore the notion of ‘genre fiction’. There’s good writing, and there’s bad. There are literary prize winners that are unreadable, ‘classics’ that are turgid and dull, and crime or horror or historical novels that are written with such power and depth that they stay in the mind and the heart long after the last page is turned. Of course many novels refuse to be categorised, but there are fine writers who are not only unashamed to be part of a genre, but also exploit and transcend the constraints of that genre. Historical fiction as a genre includes plenty of dross, some of which I read (and quickly tired of) in my teens – but there’s plenty of excellent writing too, and this is a great example.
13 September. Day 45 – Finished Succession. Obviously given my self-imposed rule about not reading more than one book by the same writer, I can’t go straight on to the next title in the trilogy, but I will look forward to it immensely once this challenge is complete. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, those of major players in the events and those of very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us.
The Plot against America is splendid. And chilling. Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We’ve seen that very recently on the streets of the USA.
On now to another writer who I’ve loved for many years, and who very sadly died only a few months ago, far far too young, Helen Dunmore. It’s another historical novel, but much more recent history. The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege, set in Leningrad after the Second World War, and I’m looking forward to it, and glad that there are still a few of her novels – and all of her poetry – for me to enjoy.
14 September. Day 46 – The Betrayal takes us into the world of Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship, where everyone has learned to speak quietly because there’s always someone listening, where everyone lives in fear of a denunciation or just of coming to the notice of the powers that be, for good or bad reasons. It reminds me in that respect of another recent read, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter which evokes this atmosphere very powerfully.
15 September. Day 47 – Finished The Betrayal. Brilliant, beautiful and sad. It really does evoke that world where ‘they’ can do whatever they want, regardless of truth, regardless of sense, regardless even of self-interest, and you – the ordinary citizen, even the Party official, should the wind change direction – can do nothing to prevent it. The central characters (who carry over from The Siege) are (as one of the reviews pointed out) perhaps unrealistically beyond reproach. However, they are vividly and sympathetically drawn, and what Dunmore shows is how their integrity, their courage, their dignity is of so little use to them in the face of paranoid tyranny. It shows also how hope survives, just. They told themselves after the siege was over that things would get better. And despite the betrayal of that hope, there is still a glimmer at the end of the novel.
Next up, from Stalin’s USSR to present-day Turkey, for Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.
Also finished The Plot against America. A couple of the reviews give a spoiler-free flavour of the book:
I called the book ‘astonishing’, but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history – it is presented too plausibly for that – or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What’s astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can’t see what’s happening to it, that isn’t shaken enough. ‘They live in a dream,’ Philip’s father says, ‘and we live in a nightmare.’ (Michael Wood, London Review of Books)
Roth … dramatizes two vast and contradictory principles simultaneously: on the one hand, the susceptibility of American individualism to the cult of celebrity, and of American faith in democracy to a tyranny of the majority, leading to a particular vulnerability to unscrupulous politicians who win widespread popular support and gain a grip on the three branches of government; and, on the other, the distinctively American sense of freedom, stiffening the will to resist such political depravities, a will that’s integral to the country’s values, heritage, and history. The novel’s great tragic power lies precisely in the clash between the two. (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)
The New Yorker piece, notably, is recent (February 2017, whilst the book was actually published in 2004). It valiantly avoids spelling out the all-too-evident contemporary parallels (particularly given that the current incumbent of the White House drew explicitly on America First rhetoric in his campaign and in his inaugural speech).
16 September. Day 48 – Started two new books. Three Daughters of Eve has already captivated me. Its protagonist, Peri, is engaging and fascinating. We meet her first in the present day, a woman in middle age, attempting to hang on to her self-confidence in the face of an eye-rolling teenage daughter. Yes, I think we can identify… But the narrative gets very dark, very quickly. The setting is not familiar to me – of course I know a little of Turkey’s history and recent events, but not enough, and I look forward to deepening my understanding.
The second new one is The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley. That’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for ages, and I’m still not 100% convinced it’s ideal bedtime reading, so if it gives me nightmares I might have to swap. So far, so undefinably creepy. We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. Not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from Stephen King who is the master of unease (he also does full-on gross-out grue, of course, but it’s the unease, the uncanny, the sense of a place being just a bit wrong, that I think he does best).
17 September. Day 49 – Finished Three Daughters of Eve. Whilst it’s not short on action, it is preoccupied with questions of spirituality and faith (not only religious conviction but feminism), exploring them through Peri’s ill-matched parents, and through her encounters as a student at Oxford, where she becomes one of the eponymous ‘three daughters’. Peri is introspective and constantly questioning – she characterises herself as ‘confused’ because she cannot resolve the contradictions she has either inherited or acquired. Shafak weaves the philosophical debates into personal and political crises as she moves between the different time frames – the present day, unfolding almost real time at a posh Istanbul dinner party, childhood, and student days. Fascinating.
Treating myself to the new Lesley Glaister, The Squeeze. Another writer who I’ve enjoyed enormously over the years (along with Livi Michael, Glaister was involved with the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, during the period when I worked there).
18 September. Day 50 – Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets.
Glaister’s territory is suburban Gothic, but unlike Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood, she’s not interested in folkloric excursions into fairy tale forests or the thornier thickets of feminist irony. Her stories, couched in humour and social observation, are firmly rooted in the domestic and mundane. Babies are dropped on floors, young women locked in attics and fathers murdered in their beds, but they are usually polishing off a Pot Noodle in between last breaths.
This novel is no exception. It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman. But connect they do.
Excellent as always, and makes me want to revisit her earlier novels.
Off to Ghana now, where I spent some of my childhood. Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. So this one ticks two boxes, one for genre and one for setting.
And it’s a delight. The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.
19 September. Day 51 – Finished The Loney. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative:
“you knew something had happened, but quite what it was or why, you weren’t entirely sure.”
Hurley suspends the story in a limbo between the supernatural and the merely strange: it is not clear whether the fantastic has occurred, or whether characters are mad, or which of these would be worse.
Now reading The Silent Wife, by A S A Harrison. This is a psychological thriller, and it’s both Harrison’s debut and her final novel as she died before completing her second. It was greeted by the inevitable, tiresome cries of ‘this year’s Gone Girl/Girl on the Train‘ – I enjoyed both of those enormously but it’s irritating that we need to pigeonhole everything so that Amazon can tell us that, if we liked x, we will like y. Not necessarily so. Anyway, so far it has drawn me in very neatly, so that although I don’t exactly like either of the main characters, I do very much want to know how (as we’re told from the start will happen) Jodi becomes a killer.
Also reading Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints. The origins of this collection of short dialogues are interesting, as all of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book. Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’
20 September. Day 52 – Finished The Silent Wife. I didn’t end up liking either Joni or Todd any more by the end of the book than I had at the beginning but contrary to popular wisdom that isn’t essential (did anyone like either of the protagonists in Gone Girl? Really?), though I was certainly rooting for her rather than him. Unlike Gone Girl, this isn’t a narrative that depends upon twists – rather it builds its characters and its plot little by little, and whilst both narrators are unreliable, they’re only unreliable in the way that anyone is in recounting their own life. It’s a very clever, subtle portrayal – we see, little by little, below the beautifully arranged surface of their lives, see the fault lines in their relationship, and in their own pasts, fault lines which open up and engulf them. Susan Harrison only ventured into fiction in her 60s. She died of cancer, aged 65, just before her debut novel was published.
Just started another debut novel, Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage. Published in 1985, it’s set in the late 50s, and tells the story of one family who made the journey from the West Indies to the UK in the hope of a better life. It’s similar territory to that explored by Andrea Levy in Small Island, published twenty years later, though her immigrants arrived here in the immediate postwar period, rather than the late 50s.
Finished Two Pints. Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…). The two drinkers talk about all the things that two blokes in a pub might talk about. The missis, the kids, the football, politics, religion, sex – and they mark the passing of various notable people who’ve just died, in ways that manage to be funny, rude and sweary, and often very poignant. I’ve read lots of his more recent ‘obits’, and I particularly remember the Two Pints tribute to Bowie…
-I remember once, I was havin’ me breakfast. An’ I saw me da starin’ at me. So, I said, ‘Wha’?’ An’ he says, ‘Are yeh goin’ to work lookin’ like tha’?’ I still servin’ me time and, like, I was wearin’ me work clothes. An’ me overalls were in me bag. So I didn’t know what he was on abou’. ‘Get up an’ look at yourself in the fuckin’ mirror,’ he says. I was still wearin’ me Aladdin Sane paint. Across me face, like.
-You were ou’ the night before.
-Not really. Only down the road. Sittin’ on the wall beside the chipper, with the lads. Sneerin’ at the fuckin’ world. But that was what it was like. Bowie was our God.
Off to Italy now for a spot of crime and detection, with Inspector Montalbano. Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat will be my first Montalbano (and I haven’t seen the TV series either), so I’m looking forward to discovering another new crime writer.
21 September. Day 53 – Enjoying The Final Passage. I keep having to remind myself how young Leila is, when I get frustrated with her for getting entangled with Michael who is so so obviously a wrong ‘un, feckless, faithless and by and large useless. But she’s hardly more than a child herself, and girls and even grown women who should be old enough to know better do fall for feckless, faithless and useless men. I dare say the reverse is true but surely to a lesser extent – there’s a whole culture of women standing by their men, when the sensible thing would clearly be to kick him out or walk away. It’s rarely that simple and in many situations – particularly where there’s a child involved – neither of those options may seem possible. Of course the relationship between Leila and Michael is only one aspect of the novel – the passage from Jamaica to England is what drives it, and that’s powerfully done. The contrasts are both obvious – from heat and humidity that saps the energy to cold that gets into the bones – and less so. Even though they come from what we would see as poverty, the squalor of living conditions in London horrifies them, the dirt and the broken things that no-one bothers to mend. It’s a desperately sad account, and hard to see much hope for the future, given where the narrative leaves Leila, so profoundly alone in a strange land.
22 September. Day 54 – Montalbano is delightful. Despite the heinous nature of the crime being investigated, there’s a great deal of humour in the characterisation and the dialogue. But there’s another thread running through it, of political commentary:
How had Papa Dante put it?
Ah, servile Italy, you are sorrow’s hostel,
a ship without helmsman in terrible storms,
lady not of the provinces, but of a brothel!
Italy was still servile, obeying at least two masters, America and the Church, and the storms had become a daily occurrence, thanks to a helmsman whom she would have been better off without.
Montalbano cares about justice. And meantime he spends much of this particular novel stripped to his underwear in the office, with only a small hand-held fan to keep him cool as he navigates witness testimonies, police bureaucracy, corruption and protection rackets.
Two new books to start now: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Ali Smith’s Hotel World.
23 September. Day 55 – Neither O’Connor nor Smith is totally new to me. I’ve read A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Whole Story and other Stories – strangely both collections of short stories, which I tend not to favour. O’Connor is fascinating – Southern Gothic if one has to pigeonhole her, but she herself responded to those who called her writing cynical or brutal that:
The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. …When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
Smith’s short story collection was terrific, and I’ve wanted to read one of her novels for some time (especially since hearing and falling rather in love with her on Desert Island Discs a while back). And Hotel World is glorious. It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. She reminds me in a way of Jon McGregor, whose work I love. Note to self: read more Smith, and read McGregor’s latest, Reservoir 13.
24 September. Day 56 – Just finished Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow. I’ve taken my time over it – each poem needs to be savoured, not just consumed and then on to the next. There are some astonishing moments here:
then we rouse in it
a thing with breath to rage against dim,
to syncopate our undertones, rid the roomscape
of straight edge and flickered repeat.
Or this from ‘Last night’:
mist rolled in –
a settlement of pale net layered itself
on the hillside opposite, and sagged
into gardens and lanes, bleared terraces
of gable-ends, nestling in to stifle all
but its own rumour, letting only the pin-glow
of street and window lights poke through.
It flattened valleys, lagged farm and woodland,
swallowed Dark Peak and Bradfield’s mound
into a sky white with it, tasted our tongues
as we talked of it, beaded our hair and lashes
Finished Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Billed as ‘A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption’, it’s also a comic novel, as O’Connor herself insisted, adding ‘and as such, very serious, for all comic novels must be about matters of life and death’ … It is certainly very dark comedy, violent and bizarre. I’m not sure that I would want to immerse myself too often in that world view but it’s brilliant, strange and fascinating.
Just starting two new books, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, a collection of pieces he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, described in a Guardian review as ‘a minor masterpiece of death and delusion in a Nordic land’. Hmmm, neither would seem to offer much prospect of cheeriness. Will have to ensure that my final tranche of reading includes some lighter fare.
My final reading challenge blog will probably appear a week today, to allow me to reflect on the project, and on what I’ve read (and to catch up on sleep/eating/other activities which may have to be postponed whilst I read the last few books…).
I can’t believe the end is quite so nigh. I read 15 books this fortnight, which would obviously be fine if I’d done that well in the previous few weeks, but I fell behind and haven’t fully caught up. My total now stands at 52, so in the next four days I need to read 8 books. Of course I can do that. No worries. Piece of cake.
* See also this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/02/mary-oliver-upstream-staying-alive-reading/ and this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/13/rebecca-solnit-faraway-nearby-reading-writing/)
If we needed a demonstration that the current President of the USA has no moral compass, it has been amply provided by his response to the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA. After initially offering a (typically incoherent) statement referring to an ‘egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides’, which was roundly condemned, he came back with something a little less equivocal:
To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
only to backtrack the following day:
You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. … Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists. … You had some bad people in that group, but you also had very fine people on both sides.
Some of those ‘very fine people’ can be seen on this report from Vice News:
The interviewees here are not random marchers but the organisers and instigators of the Unite the Right event. The purpose of the marches is explicit – to bring together the various white nationalist/white supremacist organisations who they say currently lack the cohesion and ‘camaraderie’ of the left, and to strengthen the movement to the point that they can clear the streets of the ‘degenerate filth’ which they identify primarily as Jews, blacks, Communists.
There is no real pretence here that they are not Nazis. If you want to claim that you are not a Nazi, you don’t (at least in public) use Nazi slogans such as ‘blood and soil’, you don’t use the Nazi salute, you don’t call your website The Daily Stormer, and you don’t march around with ginormous swastika flags.
It doesn’t neutralise any of this if some of the ‘antifa’ protestors were violent. It doesn’t create the kind of moral equivalence for which Trump seems to be arguing. Because the sole purpose of the events in Charlottesville were to propagate a Nazi ideology of racial superiority and hatred. As Simon Schama put it on Twitter, to attempt that equivalence is ‘like looking at Kristallnacht and blaming Jews and Brownshirts equally’.
This is open and clear and unequivocal, and the condemnation should have been unequivocal too. Trump is too much in hock to the far right to risk that. There were ‘Make America Great Again’ hats amongst the fascist flags and slogans. David Duke of the KKK objected even to Trump’s initial statement, saying that Trump should “take a good look in the mirror and remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists”. The Stormer editorial meanwhile interpreted it as tacit approval.
What has not yet been mentioned, of course, is the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32 year old legal assistant and civil rights activist.
She was mown down by a car deliberately driven at speed into groups of anti-fascist protestors. The organisers variously claimed that this was an accident, that the car was driven by an ‘antifa’, that it was self defence, and that the driver was nothing to do with them. None of these claims stand up and indeed once that was evident, a truer response emerged, one of jubilation.
This is racism.
This is domestic terrorism.
This is religious extremism.
This is bigotry.
It is blind hatred of the most vile kind.
It doesn’t represent America.
It doesn’t represent Jesus.
It doesn’t speak for the majority of white Americans.
It’s a cancerous, terrible, putrid sickness that represents the absolute worst of who we are.
Against the vicious, sickening rhetoric of these contemporary Nazis we have to set the courage of the small groups of young people at the Friday night torchlight march, surrounded but resolute, the unity of citizens of all faiths and none
and the vision of Heather Heyer, whose last online words should ring out across the world.
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
I didn’t plan to write about today’s events in the US. But I remembered that I had written something (pre-blog, via Facebook notes) on Obama’s inauguration, and on this blog in 2012 when he was re-elected. The contrast between what I felt then, and what I feel now, is almost too much to bear, too bitter. But to revisit my feelings then, is to assert that those values, those principles, those hopes which inspired me are still with me, unchanged, still strong if battered and bruised. I don’t know what lies ahead – I fear it. But the future isn’t written – it can be written, and we can be part of the writing. We have to believe that ‘the people have the power to redeem the work of fools‘.
So this is what I wrote on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I stand by it, every word.
I can’t recall any moment in my life when the sense of hope and of new possibilities has been so powerful. I know that President Obama will do some things that I will disagree with, and that I will regret some things that he is unable to do, but he is a man of integrity and intelligence, courage and vision, a man whose vision of the world is not bounded by his own state or nation but who understands the developing as well as the developed world’s needs. It’s been a long time coming, but this extraordinary moment is here now, and I know I will be weeping tomorrow as I did on election night, thinking of Dr King, and all of the other martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, thinking of all of those who’ve worked and argued and struggled to make this possible. Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that we ALL could fly. Mr Obama, Mr President, I wish you strength, and courage, and the audacity of that hope you’ve inspired.
And in November 2012, when Obama was elected as President for a second term, I wrote this.
That day I listened to the Flobots song celebrating Anne Braden, a white Southern woman who threw in her lot not with the people she’d grown up with, gone to school with, lived next door to, but with ‘the other America’.
Anne Braden tells how William L Patterson told her, in the early 60s, “You know, you do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.” He said, “There is another America.”
And I’m paraphrasing a little bit, he said, “It’s always been here. Ever since the first slave ship arrived, and before. The people who struggled against slavery, the people who rebeled against slavery. The white people who supported them. The people who all through Reconstruction struggled.” He came on down through history of the people who have struggled against injustice. The other America.
Today it feels as if that is lost. As if we have all lost.
John Pavlovitz nails it here:
Let the record show that I greatly lamented the day of his inauguration, and that I promised to join together with other good people to loudly resist and oppose every unscrupulous, dangerous, unjust and dishonest act this new Administration engages in.
History has been littered with horrible people who did terrible things with power, because too many good people remained silent. And since my fear is that we are surely entering one of those periods in our story, I wanted to make sure that I was recorded for posterity:
I do not believe this man’s actions are normal.
I do not believe he is emotionally stable.
I do not believe he cares about the full, beautiful diversity of America.
I do not believe he respects women.
I do not believe he is pro-life other than his own.
I do not believe the sick and the poor and the hurting matter to him in the slightest.
I do not believe he is a man of faith or integrity or nobility.
I do not believe his concern is for anything outside his reflection in the mirror.
I believe he is a danger to our children.
I believe he is a threat to our safety.
I believe he is careless with our people.
I believe he is reckless with his power.
I believe America will be less secure, less diverse, less compassionate, and less decent under his leadership.
So what words can I find today? I feel, as so many of us feel, disbelief, revulsion and fear. I hope I am wrong to feel this so strongly. Hope, such as it is, lies in not only the numbers but the calibre of the people who feel this way, the people who are moved to protest, to assert that we need bridges, not walls, to march, to boycott – and who will go on opposing the version of America that Trump asserts.
We need heroes
Don’t put your fist up
Fight with our hopes and our hearts and our hands
We’re the architects of our last stand
(Flobots, Fight with Tools)
I am bereft of words. I have not yet read the Rebecca Solnit book, but bought it a couple of days ago on Gerry’s recommendation. I think I will read that now, and take some time out from political analysis of what just happened. Think, understand, mourn – then organise.
So now we know what it felt like to be alive when Hitler came to power. That was my first reaction to hearing of Donald Trump’s devastating victory in the U.S. Presidential election. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Coming after the Brexit vote, Trump’s win induces feelings of total despair.
I am devastated. I no longer recognise my country. How could Trump’s message of hate, misogyny, and racism resonate with so many people? I am baffled, and saddened. I’m afraid for the future of our country, and for the future of my friends. Will my LGBTQ friends still be able to marry the people they love? Will my husband get laid off? Will my Muslim friends get deported? Will the economy collapse? What will happen to the environment?…
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I am deliberately leaving the commentary on the latest mass killings in the US to Americans – this was Kate Elmer’s response to the last but one massacre…
I miss the sense of space. The way you can drive for miles on straight roads where the only variation in the scenery is the swapping of cornfields for soybean fields. I miss the wide stretches of sky. I miss the energy of a young country exploring its cultural identity separate from her parent society. A country still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be when she grows up. I miss front porches and screen doors that slap you in the ass if you don’t get out quick enough. Also rootbeer.
Then something like Aurora, Colorado happens and that screen door smacks me in the face.
When my Yorkshire high school students learn I am American, one of the first questions they ask me is “Did you live in Florida?” followed…
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