In the Same Storm: UK asylum seekers in the Covid-19 crisis

The threat from Covid-19 is not just the threat of serious illness and death. It is the threat of loss of livelihood, of loss of freedom of movement, of loss of educational opportunities. It may be the threat of being locked down with someone who abuses or exploits you or your children. It may be that you can’t get the food you need, or medical treatment, or advice and support.

People seeking asylum forced to share beds with strangers in ...
https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/people-seeking-asylum-forced-to-share-beds-with-strangers-in-coronavirus-emergency/

Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK face all of these threats, and more. The Refugee Council’s open letter calls upon the government to address three key issues:

Increase asylum support by £20 per week to bring it in line with Universal Credit. This increase is vital for people seeking asylum trying to look after themselves and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

Make it possible for people to claim asylum without having to travel. Currently people seeking asylum are still being required to travel in order to make a claim, in direct contradiction to the Government’s own travel restrictions and rules on social distancing.

Give all people seeking asylum accommodation suitable for social distancing and self-isolation. No-one should be made to share a room, but sadly this is the reality for some people in the asylum system and this is not acceptable.  

https://act.refugeecouncil.org.uk/campaign/call-home-secretary-priti-patel-protect-people-seeking-asylum-during-pandemic
https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/latest/news/our-key-policy-calls-to-the-home-office-in-response-to-covid-19/

People on asylum support are provided with just over £5 per day to cover their essential living needs.   Those who were already struggling are now finding it harder still – they are issued with prepaid cards that are only uploaded with credit weekly, and can only be used in certain shops. In addition, the need for mobile phone credit/data is much greater when face to face appointments are not available. Those who are in receipt of Universal Credit have seen their allowance increased by £20 a week for the next year. Those seeking asylum were getting far less than UC claimants anyway, and have now been told that their support rates will increase by 26p per day, less than 1/10th of the UC uplift. No one is suggesting that the UC claimant is being showered with largesse, far from it. But asylum seekers are, in this as in so many other respects, the worst off amongst the worst off.

Currently, to make a claim for asylum once you are in the UK, you must attend an Asylum Intake Unit. There are currently seven of these around the country (previously there was just one, in Croydon). But even with these new regional units, most people will have to use public transport to get there, exposing them to infection on what may be long and complex journeys. And many asylum seekers have health problems, arising from the situations that caused them to flee in the first place, the conditions in refugee camps or the exigencies of the journey here, and then poverty and poor quality accommodation on top of that.

The quality of accommodation for asylum seekers already raises serious public health concerns. Arrangements such as bedroom sharing between unrelated adults, communal eating facilities and crowded social spaces make social distancing difficult, and self-isolation almost impossible. Concerns have also been raised about the provision of sufficient hygiene and sanitation products in both Initial Accommodation centers and hotel provision.

In addition to the above, many of the drop-in facilities, the conversation classes, the informal support provision, have had to close. Support organisations are struggling to maintain effective contact with their clients – this is not just about the digital and technological aspects of communication, there are also frequently language barriers.

The closure of drop-in centres means isolated people become even more lonely, while others are at risk because they no longer have access to the services they rely on such as showers or washing facilities.

A third of the organisations we spoke to were still offering some kind of face-to-face support, delivering food parcels, making cash payments and continuing with casework for more vulnerable people.

https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/the-5-biggest-challenges-covid-19-poses-to-supporting-refugees-and-people-seeking-asylum/

The threat of disease will not stop refugees from leaving home, not when those homes are still being bombed or attacked by terrorists, not when they face persecution because of their faith or their political convictions, or their sexual orientation, not when the alternative is starvation. That they survive the terrors of the journey only to face destitution here is bitter enough. But they find themselves facing a new threat, one to which their poverty and lack of choice leaves them especially exposed.

We are all in the same storm, facing the same perils. But whilst many of us are in robust crafts, some are in leaking dinghies. Some are drowning.

United Kingdom. Afghan refugee poet wins scholarship at London university
https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/stories/2020/3/5e7a4d774/charity-sector-scrambles-to-shield-refugees-as-uk-covid-19-crisis-deepens.html
Changes to the asylum and immigration process due to Covid-19 ...
https://righttoremain.org.uk/changes-to-the-asylum-process-due-to-covid-19/

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Migration Matters Festival

… goes virtual!

Sheffield was the UK’s first City of Sanctuary and it is a city that is made vibrant by its diversity and interconnecting cultures. This year’s 5 day festival seeks to celebrate this history and culture with a vibrant and inclusive series of events.

Opening on the 15th June,  Migration Matters Festival will run alongside the annual Refugee Week celebrated across the UK and together with national partners deliver an online and digital programme which will bring people together across the world

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Instead of hosting events across the city centre and community hubs, the venues will be online platforms like zoom, Vimeo, Facebook, Instagram and Migration Matters’ own website hub. For the full programme, see Festival 2020 on the website.

As ever there’s a rich and soulful programme that brings the diverse and global mix of Sheffield’s communities together with artists from all over the world in a celebration of food, culture and performance.

To support our 2020 Online Festival progamme check out the donation page here. All proceeds will support the ongoing work of the festival and also be split with two incredible charities, South Yorkshire Refugee Law & Justice and Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield.

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Refugee Week 2020

Migrants from the Moria camp on Lesbos arrive at the port of Piraeus, Athens on 4 May. The Greek government has promised to transfer 2,000 asylum seekers to the mainland. Photograph: Miloš Bičanski/Getty Images

A year on from Refugee Week 2019 and our world is unrecognisable. We’ve become accustomed to doing the Corona swerve to ensure a 2m distance between us and others, on the pavement or in the supermarket. Many of us wear face masks, either because it’s required by our governments or because we feel they will protect us or (more realistically) others from us. We’ve all seen the photographs of landmarks around the world, usually teeming with people but now still and empty. Our own streets have been quieter, our air clearer. We become accustomed to hearing the daily death toll, to clapping for the people who are risking their lives to keep us safe, fed and protected.

We’ve adjusted to change that would have seemed unimaginable this time last year, and to tragedy that we could not have envisaged, whether or not it has come close to us and the people we love.

In this new world we have felt at times that we are ‘all in the same boat’, wherever and whoever we are. But it’s truer to say that whilst we are all in the same storm, some of us are in sturdier crafts than others. Those who had safe homes, a robust health service, family support and secure income when the storm hit can hunker down and get through it. Those who have nothing, nowhere and no one will perish. Of course, the former group may perish too, if they become seriously ill, they may fall into one of the risk groups (based on age, gender, ethnicity and underlying health conditions). But many in the second group will fall into the risk categories too, and so are still more likely to die. We say that the virus does not discriminate, and of course it doesn’t, in the sense of actively choosing who to infect. But its effects, and the severity of the effects, are inevitably worse in those who are already vulnerable, and those who have the least control over their circumstances.

The ‘stay at home, stay safe’ message must sound bitter to so many, whose homes were not safe, whose journey from home was to protect themselves and their children from danger.

How do you socially isolate in an overcrowded refugee camp? How do you protect yourself if you are in a detention centre, awaiting deportation? How do you escape the horrors of war, terrorist attacks, desperate poverty and starvation, when even the most porous borders, even the most welcoming countries, are closed? And, if your instinct is to flee a place of danger, how do you ensure you don’t take the plague with you?

This Refugee Week I will try to gather some stories about how refugees and asylum seekers worldwide are living through these perilous plague times. Because there are still wars, there is still famine, there are still terrorist attacks, there are still regimes that oppress on the basis of ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation and political views. There are still refugees.

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Some Fantastic Place #2

Eight years ago, I wrote about my Mum, on the anniversary of her death. It was the most personal thing I’d posted on this blog, which I’d only started a few months earlier – and whilst many of my posts since have been heartfelt, they haven’t, for the most part, been about me and my family. Earlier this year, though, I wrote about my youngest brother, on what would have been his 58th birthday. And now I feel compelled to write again to mark the 25th anniversary of Mum’s death.

What I’ve learned is that one doesn’t ‘get over it’. Loss changes us. The raw, wrenching pain of grief eases, with time, though it can still catch us unawares. But we adapt to a world without that person in it, to a world where we can no longer see, hear, hold that person. It takes time. Lissa Evans’ lovely novel, Spencer’s List, talks about how grief moves into a different phase one year and a day after the death. That until that point, every day one thinks, ‘this time last year’, and recalls a world in which that person is there, in which one can reach out and speak to them, hear their voice, hold their hand. And one year and one day later, ‘this time last year’ recalls a world that they have already left. It doesn’t mean it gets easier – that realisation in itself is painful – but it is different. And it goes on becoming different, as we are different, each time we lose someone close.

As life goes on, we accumulate losses. We lose not only grandparents, but parents, siblings, partners, friends, even children. Each loss brings back every other loss. No wonder that as we get older, our tears flow more freely.

I still think of my mum so often. I ask myself what she would do, what she would say. And when I feel sad or lost, the thought that comes to me, even now, at 62 years old, is that I want my mum. I want her embrace, her unconditional love, her tenderness, her understanding. I know my brothers and sister, and sisters in law, feel the same. Not only that, but each year when I mark her loss with a post on Facebook I hear from other people who miss her too, people whose lives she had touched, people who turned to her in times of trouble and found understanding.

I’m always shocked to realise how few photographs I have of her. In those I have, she’s often looking down, at a small child at her side, or a baby in her arms. She never liked being photographed, that was the thing, and when forced to face the camera she tended to look a bit awkward, or anxious, her smile not the one we knew, the one that warmed us.

I wish she was here. But she was spared so much – the gradual decline into dependency that might have been her lot had the cancer not taken her at 65, and above all the loss of her youngest son. For the first time, when I knew my kid brother was terminally ill, I was thankful that she wasn’t still here to endure that pain.

She was intuitive and empathetic. Good luck ever trying to kid her that you were OK if you weren’t. She knew – even over the phone. And her emotional energies were channeled into sensing what others needed, not just her family but anyone she met.

She constantly questioned herself, and fell short of her own standards, whilst somehow setting an example for us that we can hardly hope to meet. (I remember her berating herself mercilessly because she had in a careless moment bought a tin of South African peaches during the apartheid era.) Her goodness was rooted in integrity and empathy, qualities she had in abundance. The latter prevented the former from becoming harsh and judgmental, the former prevented the latter from becoming mere sentimentality.

It was so quick, so brutally quick, just weeks from the diagnosis. But slow is brutal too, with cancer, and either way, at the end, as a wise man said, it’s always sudden. I remember this day 25 years ago, the unreality of it, as we came back from the hospital to the house where her absence was so tangible and incomprehensible. I remember the unfinished knitting (a child’s jumper) that came back from the hospital, the book that I’d lent her with a bookmark still halfway through. Powerful symbols of a life cut short far, far too soon. Those memories can still break me.

But most of all I remember her love. Love that nurtured and protected us, that showed us how to be loving and generous in our turn.

‘Her love was life and happiness and in her steps I trace
The way to live a better life
In some fantastic place’

Some Fantastic Place lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing

Cecily Hallett, 8 January 1930-29 May 1995.
I miss her. Always will.

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Ten Albums, Take 2

I’ve done this ten album challenge thing before – in fact, about two years ago, in those dim and distant days before the plague came. The Facebook challenges are proliferating now, whilst we’re in lock down. I knew last time that I could have easily chosen an entirely different ten, equally compelling, equally influential, equally part of me, so this time round I did so. Thus, no Kirsty, no Bowie, no Crimson… But as I said last time:

Ten albums, from the thousands that have found their way on to our record player/CD player/cassette deck over the years.  They’re weighted towards the 1970s, which I guess is inevitable.  My teenage years, when my musical tastes were forming, freeing themselves both from parental influence and from the tribalism of my peers, trying things out and finding out what moved my feet, my hips, my mind and my heart.  That process has never stopped, but it was at its most intense then.   I carry with me the earliest music I heard – a kind of mash-up of the Goldberg Variations with E T Mensah & The Tempos, probably – and there was a gradual immersion in the world of pop and rock when we returned home from West Africa in the late 60s.  All of those sounds are still part of my listening world, and I’ve added music from all around the world, and ‘classical’ music that my parents weren’t into (late 20th century stuff, and opera), and jazz and, well, a bit of everything really.   And there’s a world of music out there that I don’t know, and that I might love if I get the chance to listen.  So ten albums is daft and arbitrary but if you made it 100 albums it still wouldn’t be adequate.

I followed the rules on Facebook, posting just the album cover, without explanation. But here, I make the rules. So this is my ten album list, take 2, with a bit of a blather about the why, when and wherefore.

Bach – Goldberg Variations (harpischord). This is one of the earliest albums I remember hearing, whilst I was growing up in West Africa. I used to dance around the living room to it, so long as no one was watching. Years later, when we bought our own copy, selecting the Glenn Gould version(s), I wondered why it didn’t sound more familiar and it took me an embarrassingly long while to realise that the version I’d heard so many times as a child was played on harpsichord, not piano. Which version it was I cannot now tell. In my memory, the cover was green and gold. I don’t claim any kind of synaesthesia but I still hear Bach as green and gold (and Mozart as blue and silver).

So I don’t know who was playing the harpsichord on that album, but this Leonhardt chap is a possible contender – there are recordings from the late ’50s by him, and I imagine we took the record out with us to Ghana in 1960. I love this piece on piano too, obviously, but the harpsichord Goldberg is the piece that inspired my lifelong love of Bach and my lifelong exploration of classical music.

Ella Fitzgerald – The Cole Porter Songbook

Two birds with one stone here. Ella’s voice is sublime, and pairing her with Porter’s exquisitely crafted, delicious songs is perfection. And there’s the rub – I’ve had to defend Ella many times against the charge that, compared to Billie Holiday in particular, she’s just too perfect. Billie’s voice tells of betrayals and loss, a hard life, lived hard. And it’s wonderful, heartbreaking and vital. But the rich warmth of Ella’s voice is vital too. This is a 2 CD set, and is packed with fabulous songs. So in Love, Night and Day, Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye, I Get a Kick… And so many more. She lets the lyrics, those clever, subtle and often surprisingly rude, lyrics, work their own magic.

I’ve no idea when I first heard Ella, or Cole Porter, for that matter. I first heard some of Porter’s songs in the AIDS benefit project, Red Hot + Blue, which came out in 1990 – a very mixed bag, some of the artists very much of their time (The Thompson Twins, Jody Watley, Lisa Stansfield) but also Kirsty MacColl, Salif Keita, Neneh Cherry, k d lang… Other songs were already familiar, probably thanks to Sinatra. But if I had to pick one singer for Porter’s songs it would be Ella. She’s also done brilliant compilations of other great songwriters – Gershwin, Berlin, Kern. I don’t like all of her material, and whilst I admire her scat singing I don’t really enjoy it. Give her a tune though, and some genius lyrics, and she’s unbeatable.

Jimi Hendrix – Axis: Bold as Love

I have no idea why Jimi didn’t make it to Ten Albums, Take One. It’s almost as if he’s too obvious, has been too ubiquitous in my musical life, to be simply a name on a list. But there was a time before Jimi. I remember hearing on the news of his death in 1970 – I recall the crass, borderline racist dismissal of a ‘wild man of rock’ – and I know my brother had some of his albums, but it wasn’t until my musical life converged with my husband’s that I really started listening.

Axis: Bold as Love isn’t perfect. EXP is gimmicky and irritating, Wait till Tomorrow is enjoyable enough musically but the words are incredibly clunky and, yes, irritating. But when you’ve got Spanish Castle Magic, If Six was Nine, Castles Made of Sand, Bold as Love and Little Wing, you can forgive a couple of duff tracks.

There can’t be much Hendrix material I haven’t heard. Audience tapes of obscure gigs, demos and out takes and jams. Somewhere out there some collector is sitting on a recording I haven’t heard, another alternative version or another obscure gig, that might see the light one day. But meantime there’s a rich variety and abundance of material, given how short a time he had in the light. And I think it was with Axis: Bold as Love, that I properly fell for Jimi.

Jackson Five – Greatest Hits

Some might demur at the inclusion of Greatest Hits compilations in this account of the albums that influenced me. But (a) I make the rules, and (b) sometimes a well-chosen compilation is the way in to an artist’s work, a starting point. And when it comes to Motown, some of the actual albums contained a fair bit of ordinary, by the numbers material or ill-judged cover versions, whereas the Chartbusters collections and individual hits collections were all fab, no filler.

Motown was the soundtrack of my teens. I loved other stuff too, and Bowie was the most significant single artist, but those Motown songs, they still fill me with joy when I hear them now, just as they did back then. I loved the heartbreaky ones, obviously, the burning, yearning ones. But the Jackson Five produced some of the most purely joyous songs of their or any other time. ABC and I Want You Back are exhilarating, bewitching slices of pop/soul which sound as fresh now as they did back then. The interweaving of the voices – a Motown trademark of course, and with its roots in gospel – is uplifting and gives me goosebumps as only vocal harmonies can do.

I lent this album to a girl in our village, along with Michael Jackson’s debut solo album, Got to be There, and she moved away without giving them back. Not that I bear a grudge. OK, I did revile her name for many years but I’m over it now. Especially now we have another copy of the Greatest Hits.

Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis/The Lark Ascending/Fantasia on Greensleeves

My mum loved VW. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know these pieces in particular, and I learned to love the music for myself. The two Fantasias fed into my growing interest in early music, as well as leading me to other VW compositions.

Somehow (and this may be linked to my mum too) VW evokes for me as no other composer does the English landscapes that I love best, the coastlines of Cornwall and North Yorkshire, the mountains of the Lake District, the hills of Derbyshire.

After my mum died, the Tallis became in my mind so powerfully associated with her, and my grief at losing her, that to this day (and she died 25 years ago this year) I cannot hear it without weeping. And less than three months ago, we buried my kid brother, and it was The Lark Ascending that played as we followed his coffin out of the church and to the graveside. I doubt I will ever hear that piece again without weeping either. But I will keep on listening to these pieces, because however much they remind me of loss, they also lift my heart up, let it soar with the lark.

King Sunny Ade – Juju Music

My first Ten Albums selection included the wonderful Osibisa, who brought back to me the sounds of highlife music that I’d heard in Ghana as a child. I’ve been exploring African music ever since, from all over the continent, but with a particular love of West African music.

Nigerian King Sunny Ade started off in highlife (which is Ghanaian in origin but which spread to Ghana’s neighbours over the course of the 20th century, and particularly in the era of independence). The music evolved and ‘juju music‘ drew on a wide range of influences (including funk and reggae), whilst retaining its Yoruban flavour.

This 1982 album was his major label debut but Ade had been releasing records for almost two decades by then. It’s one of the first big successes of what is often called (somewhat problematically) ‘world music’, and led to so many other great African musicians (Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita, the Bhundhu Boys, Ali Farka Toure and Ade’s compatriot Fela Kute, the king of Afrobeat) getting airplay and record sales worldwide. And it is gloriously infectious and rhythmically compelling and joyous.

Bela Bartok – 2nd Violin Concerto

Mrs Bolland was the Deputy Head at Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ Grammar School and taught general Music classes, not to O or A level students but as part of a wider education, throughout my schooldays there. At some point, I think in the lower 6th form, she played us some really quite challenging music from the twentieth century – Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, something by Roberto Gerhard which I cannot recall… and this. From the moment I heard the opening pizzicato notes and the soaring violin, I was entranced.

This was written in the late ’30s, when Bartok was deeply troubled by what was happening in Europe (he left his native Hungary in 1940 and never made it back home again – he died in 1945). As with so much of the very best music, there is darkness and light here, sorrow and hope. Hearing this gave me confidence to explore other ‘difficult’ twentieth-century music, a quest that has continued ever since. I owe Mrs Bolland a debt of thanks.

David Munrow – The Six Wives of Henry VIII

I loved the 1970 TV series, absolutely loved it. I went to some exhibition somewhere that had the costumes on display. I bought various tie-in publications to the series. I read everything I could about the Tudors (and have continued to do so over the years since).

And then there was the music. David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood founded the Early Music Consort in the late 1960s, and Munrow was in demand for soundtracking historical dramas with authentic music played on period instruments. He worked on The Six Wives, and its movie version, and on Elizabeth R. Listening to Vaughan Williams had prepared me for listening to Tudor music, and these pieces captivated me. At around the same time as I listened to this I acquired another album, presented as an Elizabethan Top Twenty. In fact, the ‘Elizabethan’ tag is a bit spurious as several pieces either pre- or post-date that era and although the performers were totally respectable there was the suggestion that the music was being just a little bit popped up to please audiences who wouldn’t normally go for this stuff . The Munrow set is more rigorously selected in terms of chronology, and because the performance of the music had to match the set, the costumes, all the period detail.

I recall being very shocked and upset to learn of Munrow’s suicide in 1976. But his legacy is remarkable – one can these days hear a fabulous range of early music on period or modern instruments in concert halls, on record and on the radio.


Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

We have Linda Buckley to thank for our introduction to Miles. To be honest, I didn’t really get Bitches Brew then, and if I had to recommend an entry point to Miles’ oeuvre, I don’t think it would be this (probs Kind of Blue, as predictable as that might seem). But I knew I was in the presence of musical greatness. We were into jazz rock at the time – Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Billy Cobham – and our way into jazz was through the jazz elements of that fusion. These days we listen to as much jazz as anything else. Miles played with anyone who was anyone, and his music changed dramatically over the years. So listening to all eras of Miles is a fantastic way to get into so many other artists, and to remain open to different strands of jazz, and to new bands and performers.

Radio 3 at the weekends gives us the chance to hear contemporary jazz on J to Z, which has introduced us to artists such as Dinosaur Junior, Tigran Hamasyan, Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, Alina Bzhezhinska, Yazz Abmed, Kokoroko, Kamasi Washington… but also on Jazz Record Requests to hear the all-time greats. Now, I am not so fond of the trad stuff that a fair number of JRR aficionados seem to love. But there’s always something for us too – Coltrane, Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Haden, and, of course, Miles.


Simon and Garfunkel – Greatest Hits

I think this is the first album I bought. Or maybe the first one I bought from a record shop (my prized copy of Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3, on a remarkably solid slab of only slightly scratchy vinyl, was purchased at a knockdown price from a girl in my class). Bridge over Troubled Water was a huge chart hit, and my introduction to a world of wonderful songs.

The charts in 1970 were rich with hymn-like songs solemnly marking the passing of the 60s – not least the Beatles’ Let It Be – but Bridge Over Troubled Water was the blockbuster take: five minutes of booming, Phil Spector-inspired white gospel with a choirboy vocal and a simple, universal message beneath the sturm und drang. AP

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/27/the-100-greatest-uk-no-1s

Just on this compilation, there’s For Emily, The Boxer, The Sound of Silence, I am a Rock, Scarborough Fair, America and of course BOTW.

Since then, I’ve listened to all the albums, and lots of much earlier S&G material, much of which is simply brilliant, and simply beautiful. And of course Paul Simon’s solo career (both alongside S&G and after the duo split), includes many, many gems: 1965’s A Church is Burning, Mother and Child Reunion, the Graceland album.

If I were to do this challenge again, next year, next month, tomorrow, I could find without great difficulty another ten albums that have influenced me significantly. Music has always been hugely important to me, and I’ve been listening for a very long time, to music from all eras, all genres, all continents. I have no truck with the ‘it’s all a bit shite nowadays’ school of thought – each era of music has had its share of tedious, derivative, witless and yet bizarrely successful material. Nor do I have any time for the wholesale dismissal of particular genres – I may not listen to a huge amount of country & western, for example, but I like quite a lot of it a lot (ditto rap). And in particular I’d hate to only listen to the music that is made here and in the USA, not when there are such extraordinary sounds emerging from so many other countries and cultures. The ten albums above have each led me in a particular musical direction, and for that – for these pieces of music and the artists who created them, for all the music I heard as a result and the joy it brought me – I am eternally grateful.

Postscript – Six Years of Singles

For a few years, it was the singles chart that dominated my musical life. Every Sunday we listened in, took notes, and voted, to come up with our own version of the chart. And every week we watched Top of the Pops (if the BBC changed which night that was on, I had to re-arrange my piano lessons to avoid a clash. No wonder my piano teacher/future mother in law did not try very hard to persuade me not to give up). That period, roughly between our return to the UK and my attempt to rapidly absorb and understand pop culture, and the point when music got a bit more ‘serious’ and album-focused was, say, 1968-1973. When I look back at the charts in those years there is an awful lot of absolute, utter, unadulterated tripe (some of which I remember with appalling clarity). But there are also some glorious slices of pop, and some formative moments.

1968 was the year I saw the Stones do Jumping Jack Flash on TOTP, the lighting making them look terribly sinister, and Arthur Brown doing Fire, wearing a hat that was actually on fire (no health & safety in them days). I think my mum was seriously shocked, and must have wondered whether her children should be exposed to this kind of thing. She didn’t ban it though, thankfully. I was shocked too, but in a good way. In total contrast, there was the sweet innocence of Mary Hopkin’s adaptation of an old Ukrainian folk tune, which both I and my mum could enjoy.

1969 introduced me to reggae via Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites. This was essential to my assimilation into school life. Music was very tribal and I never did get the hang of which group I might affiliate myself with most comfortably. I loved the music of both groups, was hopeless at conforming to dress codes or other social mores. But I did genuinely love ska, reggae, Motown and soul. Also this year, Jackson 5’s I Want you Back (see above), and Marvin Gaye’s version of Grapevine. And Tull’s Living in the Past, to nod to the other tribe.

1970 – Hendrix’s posthumous hit, Voodoo Child: Slight Return, probably the first Hendrix I heard (see above). And the first single I bought, Matthew’s Southern Comfort’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. That’s pretty cool as a first single, given how much I love Joni. Also one of the greatest singles ever, Freda Payne’s Band of Gold, which seemed to be always on the loudspeakers at the City Ground, and at Nottingham’s Goose Fair as we spun round on the waltzers.

Written by Motown brains trust Holland-Dozier-Holland, Band of Gold sees Payne sitting in a lonely bedroom, her wedding night gone disastrously unconsummated after some kind of freak-out by the groom. Although the exact details are tactfully veiled by Payne, it’s an unforgettably specific scenario, its horror hammered into your mind with that unyielding snare rhythm and told via a wondrous vocal line. BBT

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/27/the-100-greatest-uk-no-1s

1971 and more reggae – Dave and Ansell Collins’ Double Barrel. My love of the A side, which sounded just as amazing when I reheard it a couple of years back, was only slightly dented by the B side being a bit of a rip-off.

If you wanted evidence of how far out, how unbound by the usual rules reggae was, you could find it at the top of the charts in early 1971: a piano line taken – sampled if you like – from Ramsey Lewis; a vocalist who largely grunted and bellowed incomprehensibly in the style of a Jamaican deejay: “I am the magnificent W-O-O-O!” It still sounds fantastic. AP

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/27/the-100-greatest-uk-no-1s

Also, one of Diana Ross’s most gorgeous heartbreak songs, I’m Still Waiting. And while I never entirely loved T Rex, Jeepster was delicious.

In 1972, my French penfriend came to stay, and there was a bit of a cultural exchange as regards music. However, I think we won. Claude Francois and Michel Sardou couldn’t really compete with Alice (School’s Out) and Hawkwind (Silver Machine), T Rex (Children of the Revolution) and Deep Purple (Child in Time). There was also the uplifting loveliness of Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now.

1973 gave us Bowie’s Life on Mars – obviously not the start of my love affair with Bowie’s music, which really began when I heard Suffragette City on the juke box in the Cellar Bar, but a high, high point. Also this year, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, a song that breaks my heart (when he sings, ‘You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good’, oh lord). It’s a song about heroin, except that of course it isn’t, it’s a song about the fragility, the transience, the illusory nature of happiness. And then there’s the O’Jays’ Love Train, just to show that although my listening had shifted in a heavier direction, my love for soul had not (and never has since) faded.

After this period, we were less diligent in following the charts, and many of the albums we listened to in later years either didn’t yield singles, or those singles didn’t trouble the charts at all. And gradually we lost touch. The singles charts don’t mean today what they did back in the early ’70s, when one really could not face school on a Monday or the morning after TOTP unless one had listened/watched, and had an (acceptable) opinion on it all. But the art of the single – of packing a tune (with middle eight and memorable chorus), with lyrics that one could sing along to – into 2-3 minutes, with a B side that might even turn out to eclipse the actual hit – is, when it works, an extraordinary form of magic.

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Bitter Victory

Somehow the impending anniversary of VE Day had not impinged on my consciousness. I didn’t get the memo about the Mayday bank holiday being shifted to Friday so we could commemorate the end of WWII in Europe.

And I’m deeply uneasy about it. We’re in the midst of a crisis which, as we are reminded daily, is the toughest thing we’ve had to face since the last war. And it’s by no means over. We are assured that the infection has ‘passed the peak’ but people are still dying and the dying will continue for some time yet. Street parties – even physically distanced ones – surely aren’t quite capturing the mood. And the more cynical amongst us may suspect that this anniversary is giving government an opportunity for distraction – remind us of our finest hour, whilst offering us only spin and tweaked stats and pieties in place of decisive, timely and compassionate action.

And there’s more to my unease. Are we marking the defeat of a genocidal fascist dictatorship which had brought about the deaths of millions, not just soldiers, or civilian casualties of bombing, but people targeted for death because they were Jewish, Communist, Roma, homosexual, disabled? Are we marking the fact that in the wake of this horror, Europe forged a peace and a unity that has held ever since?

Or are we celebrating because ‘we’ defeated ‘them’? Because Churchill was the Boris of his day, facing down an enemy with British pluck and bulldog spirit? Just to illustrate my concerns:

What did the end of that war really mean for us here in Britain, and for our neighbours in Europe? Primarily, I would guess, for the British, it was relief. Relief that they no longer had to listen for the sirens, or listen for when the V1 engines cut out. Relief that nights in shelters or underground stations, waiting for the All Clear, were at an end. The prospect of life returning to some semblance of normality, or to what we would now call a ‘new normal’. The prospect of the return of the people they loved who had been serving in Europe, and the relief those people were no longer in daily peril.

But even then, it was tempered with the reality of loss. The gaps on the streets where houses used to stand, where families had lived. The people who would never come home, or who came home unutterably changed and damaged.

And the new normal had to accommodate – not right away, but soon – the full knowledge of what had happened ‘over there’. For those who’d arrived in the UK as refugees, there was the terrible wait for knowledge – and then the terrible weight of knowledge. Some returned to their families, if not to home, unutterably changed and damaged, and those to whom they returned had to wrestle not only with grief but the guilt that they had been spared, and the impossibility of truly understanding.

Across Europe, if not here, people had been starving – not just in the camps but in bombed-out cities, occupied territories. People now were sick, not just in the camps but across the continent, because of malnutrition and the breakdown of infrastructure in cities, towns and villages that had become rubble.

The thing is, VE Day didn’t mean it was all over (and not just because a brutal war continued in the Pacific, for another three months). For many it was never over. They may not have talked about it, often or at all, but it stayed with them. The survivors of the camps, the soldiers who liberated the camps, those who survived but saw more cruelty and destruction than their souls could bear. It may seem as if the war is being invoked all the time, especially at present, but rarely by those who really remember it, who were actually there.

I can’t mark VE Day with little flags and Vera Lynn and Keep Calm and Carry On. I mark this 75th anniversary by remembering the cost, remembering the loss and the pain and the destruction. And by remembering how Europe rebuilt and repaired, not only buildings and roads and ports, but alliances and communities and trust. I will think of victory in Europe, and the victory of Europe as an ideal of peaceful cooperation. Any VE day celebration that does not celebrate Europe is a sham, a fantasy of Little England, standing alone (apart from the Polish airmen, and the troops from across the Empire, and the Yanks, and the Red Army and the Free French and…), a myth that we use to bolster our sense of exceptionalism and our perverse decision to actually stand alone now.

Of course people celebrated 75 years ago. In that giddy moment of relief and release, they sang and danced and drank and kissed unsuitable strangers. It wasn’t all partying. There was joy, and pride in the courage and fortitude of soldiers and resistance fighters who had dared so much and won. There was hope that now things would be better. But as Frank Capra says in It’s a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, on VE Day they ‘wept, and prayed’.

75 years on, we can recapture neither the giddy relief nor the raw sorrow. We have a different perspective, inevitably. We know so much that they didn’t, about what happened during the war, and what came after. Our commemoration must be honest and clear-sighted, not sentimental.

The hope that VE Day brought was not just the hope of being reunited with loved ones. It was the hope of lasting peace, the hope that with peace would come the chance to build a better, fairer society. That hope led to the European Community, to legislation to protect individuals and communities against prejudice and discrimination, to the UN and its role in establishing and protecting human rights worldwide. As imperfect as those protections are, they emerged directly from the victory we are commemorating tomorrow.

Here, it led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. If we really understand what VE Day meant, perhaps this anniversary will help us to see how a better, fairer society could emerge once we’re all able to emerge from our quarantine. Perhaps.

With respect and gratitude to all of those who fought and died to defeat Nazism, with deep sorrow to all of those engulfed by the barbarity, those who were murdered, those who survived, those who lost so much.

Let us commemorate, by all means. But most of all, let us learn. Because if we do not learn from this bitter victory, night might fall again.

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Why we clap

Tonight, as we have done every Thursday night since this crisis began, we will open the bedroom window wide at 8.00 pm and lean out, clapping, and rattling a tambourine. Our neighbours come to their windows, or to the tops of their drives, some banging pots and pans or ringing bells. From the other side of the house we can hear the same sounds from across the valley. As we clap, we wave to each other, we remind ourselves and each other that we’re a community, that we need each other.

And every Friday morning I see grumpy posts on Twitter, pointing out that if we vote or ever have voted Tory, we’ve no business clapping for carers. Pointing out that those carers need PPE and testing and decent salaries more than they need our applause. Really? We had no idea! We thought that clapping would solve everything!

Of course I can see where this cynicism comes from. I’m not an automatic joiner-in. When I see Tory politicians who not so long back brayed their delight at having blocked a payrise for nurses, and who support an immigration policy that defines most of our carers as low-skilled workers who would not be eligible to come here under the points-based system, joining in the applause, I share that cynicism.

When I hear that we are enjoined to clap for Boris, or sing to congratulate him on the birth of his umpteenth child, I’m having no truck with that. Nor even to sing birthday greetings to the redoubtable Captain Tom. I am cross when the BBC News claims that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge ‘led’ the applause. Not my applause, they didn’t. I can be as grumpy as the next person, in other words.

This whole thing wasn’t started by politicians or royals. It was an idea mooted on social media, inspired by the video clips we were all seeing from Italy and elsewhere, of spontaneous rounds of applause for health workers, and displays of solidarity within communities. I wasn’t sure it would take off here – we are British, after all – but it has, and I’m glad.

Because if we want, not to go back to how things were, but to learn from this crisis, to learn who we really need, and how we can support those most valuable members of society, not just in times of crisis but at all times, we need to keep making a noise.

We’re making a noise about all of those people who are risking their lives, who are keeping us safe, who are taking care of us, because we want to ensure that when the crisis is past they don’t just disappear back into the shadows. We’re making a noise about carers because we want to ensure that when the crisis is past, their value is not forgotten.

I don’t even really care whether those who clap now have voted Tory in the past. I care that their values may be shifting, may have shifted, and that even Tories may think twice about disparaging or dismissing those who are our heroes now. I don’t care if they haven’t been angry in the past, as long as they understand a bit more of the anger now, as we see the impact of underfunding of the health service, inadequate staffing levels and failures of planning.

I care that now, as so many of our priorities and values have been overturned, we are sharing both the gratitude and the sense that those priorities and values were wrong before, and must change permanently.

Polly Toynbee’s response to the clap refuseniks chimes with my own:

So when next week’s clap for the NHS comes, join in out of gratitude but also out of anger – anger at how depleted the nursing workforce has become and how badly the successive Conservative governments have treated the profession.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/24/year-nurse-tories-10-years-bad-care-nhs-crisis

I’m reminded too of how, when there have been major terrorist attacks, many attempts to assert solidarity with victims, to emphasise our shared humanity in the face of hatred have been derided as clichéd and simplistic.

As Stig Abell says:

At moments of crisis and trauma, the use of comprehensible and familiar phrasing is itself a sign of something important: it is a bid for connection. Cliché demonstrates community, our intention to understand one another.  It does not matter that “standing in solidarity” has no practical import, or that prayers may be just so much shouting into a void.  … Clichés are good things when pressed into the service of communication in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and the traumatic. They often reveal the good intentions we share, and they are more valuable than ever.

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/cliche-terror-attacks/

Kenan Malik makes some powerful points too, about the use of the word ‘hero’. If that normalises the deaths of NHS staff and other carers in some way, suggests that, like soldiers in wartime, they signed up to put their lives in danger, it’s dangerous. They didn’t. Pharmacists and health-care assistants and midwives and GPs, paramedics, nurses and consultants, signed up to help people, to save lives (directly or indirectly), but there was no reason they would have thought the job could kill them. Of course that makes it all the more remarkable that they’re doing what they’re doing, with or without the necessary level of PPE. When we applaud them we recognise that they weren’t given a choice (or only the choice between risking their life and walking away from patients in need of help).

Few of them would want to be described as heroes. Most would see themselves as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Many might suggest that most people in their place would do what they are doing. And they may be right in that. What they show is that heroism is a very human attribute. It is expressed not in having an incomparable character or possessing  superhuman abilities but in being human to the utmost.  Heroism in everyday life is, from this perspective, an expression of our humanness. It has become fashionable to denigrate humans as selfish or callous or egotistical. Many are. But many more are dedicated and compassionate and kind. Humans are far better than we often give ourselves credit for. In celebrating the endeavours of nurses and care workers and bus drivers and cleaners and volunteers, and the myriad others working to pull us through these surreal times, we should not forget that many are forced to be heroic, through a lack of resources or poor conditions.

https://kenanmalik.com/2020/04/26/heroism-and-the-quality-of-being-human/

And, as Rachel Clarke@doctor_oxford, said on Twitter,

We’re not soldiers. We didn’t sign up to die for a cause. We don’t want red arrows, medals, jingoism or war rhetoric. We want masks, gloves, gowns & visors. Could you actually focus your minds on that, please?

We can agree, passionately, with that. But the Thursday night clapping is not an expensive PR stunt. It’s ordinary people – people who don’t have the resources or the clout to get carers what they need, to change government priorities or policies. We’re telling the carers – and it’s a broad definition, not just the ones who save lives in the ICU – that they are cared about, and the government that we care about them, and that we expect our government to translate that into the action that’s needed to keep them safe, so they can keep us safe.

We clap for all of these people (and those whose deaths have not yet been recorded). And we clap for our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues on the front line. We can’t stop now. And when this crisis is no longer a crisis, we mustn’t stop making a noise.

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Us Four

There’s only 4 years and 8 months between the eldest (me) and the youngest of us four. I can’t really remember the arrival of Two and Three. Two arrived when I was only 15 months old, and Three 15 months after him. There was a slight pause then, during which we relocated to West Africa from our home in Kent.

Four was born in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1962. A newly (1957) independent nation. It’s part of our heritage. We cheer on the Black Stars whenever they are in international competition, holding that loyalty alongside our support for the England national team and Nottingham Forest. We all know our day names, the names all children in that part of Ghana are given, to indicate the day of the week on which they were born. I’m Abena, Two and Four are Kwame, and Three is Akua.

I can’t claim to remember that much about Four’s arrival. I know from my father’s memoirs that the trip to the maternity hospital in Kumasi was somewhat eventful:

We very nearly didn’t make it to the hospital. The President was visiting Kumasi on that day and all roads were closed, with police and soldiers restraining the roadside crowds. We had to drive seven miles to the hospital and, at first, were refused permission to drive along the route that the President would shortly take. Later, a senior policeman responded to our pleas and we were allowed to drive along, a mile or two ahead of the procession, waving back to the crowds in royal fashion.

I do recall that on being introduced to Four, I didn’t think much to him. He was bright red in the face, and wrinkly. Thankfully, he became more appealing very soon, and grew on me.

Over the years, we four pursued our own paths to career and marriage and children and so on. At various points we were divided by considerable distances (Three in Bermuda, Two in Northern Ireland). And so the times when we could all be together became fewer.

We had our differences too, of course. Whilst I am the only heathen amongst us, Four was the only one to take a more conservative line politically. The former never became a source of tension, even if we don’t understand each others’ perspectives fully. The latter was, from time to time, thanks to the three more left-wing siblings’ tendency to express our views vigorously and not always sensitively on social media. We got past all of those things.

And we could always all agree on Nottingham Forest, having collectively nailed our colours to that particular mast back when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Before the glory days, and through the peaks and (mainly) troughs that followed.

Most of all, whenever one of us was having a tough time, the others rallied round. Whatever the circumstances, we knew we could count on that.

In July 2018, things got really, really tough. Four was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Chemo could buy him extra time and so he started on a punishing regime of first one type of chemo and then when that stopped working, another more experimental treatment.

Inevitably, time ran out. The second chemo stopped working, and the cancer was off the leash. Even so, until the last couple of weeks, one would not have guessed to see him how ill he was. But things moved terrifyingly fast, and it was clear that he would not see much of 2020.

Very early on 2 February, Four left us. Peacefully, at home, with his wife and his sons and daughter in law around him, with the music he’d chosen playing.

And so we are three. And it feels so wrong. It feels … kind of lopsided. We no longer balance. The perfect pattern of Girl, Boy, Girl, Boy doesn’t work. And, as Two put it:

‘THE LAST SHALL SHALL BE FIRST.
Early this morning, the last to arrive was the first of us siblings to leave. It feels all wrong and it’s deeply sad. The only consolation is that he did not linger in pain and discomfort.

We buried him on 17 February. He’d planned the service, and it was led by someone who loved him as a brother, with readings from Two, a close friend, and his daughter in law, and prayers from his cousin. We were all there, friends and family, old school-friends, recent colleagues, people from his church, neighbours. The love and respect were palpable.

And if he had to go so soon, I have thought in the last few weeks that I was grateful that we had the chance to say our goodbyes together, and to hold each other tight, literally. A few weeks more and the virus would have taken that from us. Small mercies. But it has taken the chance for us to spend time with each other, and with Four’s wife and sons, for whom the daily pain of loss is so cruel and unrelenting, just when we’d have wanted to be able to be close and supportive. We’ve got social media – and are very grateful for that – but of course it’s not the same.

Us Three will always, in our hearts, be Us Four. Always. Today he would have turned 58. Would have, should have. We hold him in our hearts, as we do the family he loved so much.

Greg Hallett, 24 March 1962-2 February 2020. Love you, our kid, always have, always will.

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Books for the Plague Times

We’re all experiencing varying degrees of anxiety just now, depending upon our own age and health, or that of the people we love, the people on whom we rely, or who rely on us. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re bombarded with information from sources of unknown reliability, and drip-fed information from our government.

What we do know is that all of us are already affected, our lives have already changed. We’re taking precautions that would have seemed silly a couple of weeks ago, and the things we were talking about so intently a couple of weeks ago (Brexit, the football results, holiday plans) are no longer occupying our minds. We’re scared, we’re frustrated, we are in limbo, we are at a loss.

If we find ourselves spending more time at home, as a precaution or through illness, we’ll need more books. Never mind the bog rolls, load up your Kindle or your bookshelves, because whatever the crisis, books are vital. They keep open a window on to the world, they connect us with other places, other times, other people. They inform, challenge, console, inspire, and distract.

This reading list for plague times will focus on consolation, inspiration and distraction. Sifting through my bookshelves I realise how dark much of my reading matter is. Given current world events, and recent personal loss, I feel a hankering for books that can lift me out of the darkness. So I am sharing some of these with you, in case they can lift you too.

I’m not promising that some of these won’t make you cry, if you’re prone to it. I’m not promising that no one dies, or gets diagnosed with a serious illness. I am confident they will leave you feeling cheerier than when you began, or at least having had a break from the grim.

Biography/Autobiography

  • Clive James – Unreliable Memoirs. When this first came out, I was working in a bookshop. During the lulls between customers, I started reading it, but had to stop because it made me laugh so much, so uncontrollably. NSFW, to be sure.
  • Keith Richard – Life. I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
  • Giles Smith – Lost in Music. John Peel said of this book that ‘if you have ever watched a band play or bought a pop record – if you even know someone who has bought one – you should read this book’. 
  • Patti Smith – Just Kids/M Train. I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders. Her warmth and humour permeates every page.

Reading the Detectives

OK, by definition, crime fiction deals in death, often rather nasty death. But in these, what stays with you after reading is not the cruelty or the gore, but the characters, the wit, the dialogue, the humour.

  • Ben Aaronovich – the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight.
  • Dorothy L Sayers (and the Jill Paton Walsh posthumous titles) – Peter Wimsey series. I can re-read the Wimseys any number of times, because the writing, and esp. the dialogue is so glorious. Paton Walsh’s follow-up novels are pitch perfect, so if you want to renew your acquaintance with Peter, Harriet, Bunter and the Dowager Duchess, you’re in luck.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes. More great writing and dry humour, so even when you know from the start how it’s all going to pan out, you can enjoy the ride.
  • Elly Griffiths – Ruth Galloway series. Lots of Gothic darkness in the plots but Ruth is drawn with such warmth and humour that we feel we know her as a personal friend and would happily spend a few hours down the pub with her when this crisis is over.
  • Lynne Shepherd – Murder at Mansfield Park. Lynne specialises in literary mysteries. They’re pretty dark, but this one is a deliciously subversive take on the Austen.
  • Alexander McCall Smith – No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Love the setting, love the premise, love Mma Precious Ramotswe.

Historical Fiction

The further back the better, frankly. One can lose oneself amongst the Plantaganets or the Tudors – not that there are no echoes of our own times (the occasional plague, for example…) but they’re not overwhelming. I haven’t listed the obvious title, the new Hilary Mantel, which is brilliant (I’m halfway through) because you all know about it anyway and are either reading it or about to read it.

  • Livi Michael – Wars of the Roses trilogy. Michael tells the story through a number of different voices, of major players and 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. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
  • Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason. This was a swooningly romantic take on the story of Richard III which I adored as a teenager, but it stands up to a re-read by a more cynical adult. Skillfully as well as passionately written. A cut above the Jean Plaidys (which I devoured at the time, but suspect would find less sustaining now).
  • Anya Seton – Katherine. As above. I read lots of others by her but this was my favourite. I also loved Dragonwyck (pure Gothickry), and for a couple of slices of US history, The Winthrop Woman and My Theodosia.

Contemporary Fiction

  • Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…
  • Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Well, reading anything by Atkinson is a joy. Life after Life is one of my favourite books ever but I find it emotionally overwhelming so it’s not a recommendation for now (especially since it has a lot about the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic…) This, her debut, is delicious black comedy.
  • Anne Tyler – Saint Maybe. Oh, look, just read anything by Anne Tyler. This was my introduction to her work, but I could just as easily suggest Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist...
  • Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You/Notes on an Exhibition. The most recent Gale, and the first thing I read by him. They don’t shy away from tragedy but the warmth and generosity of the writing always leaves one with a sense of joy and hope. Take Nothing with You talks about music so vividly that somehow I felt I could hear every note as I read.
  • Roddy Doyle – Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Van, The Snapper). Also, check out his Two Pints (and its sequel, Two More Pints). 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.’ Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).  

Classics Revisited

There’s a particular comfort to be found in re-reading. You can look forward to favourite bits, brace yourself in advance for the bit that always makes you cry. You don’t have to worry about the plot, because you already know how it all turns out, so you can just savour the pleasures of the writing, the characters, the descriptions, the dialogue. In this category I would put my favourites of the great nineteenth-century novelists: Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, the Brontes. A lot of people rate Trollope but I could never quite take to him. And Hardy is a bit bleak for these times.

From the early part of the twentieth century, I’d go for:

  • Dodie Smith – 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 (I’m now old enough to be her nan).
  • Arnold Bennett – Clayhanger series. A recent discovery (is it a trilogy or a quartet?) I’ve read the first two in either event, and Hilda Lessways is a fantastic character, she blazes off the page.
  • John Galsworthy – Forsyte Saga. Family sagas are grand for times when the future is so imponderable, giving one a reassuring sense of continuity. I watched the original dramatisation in the late 60s, with Susan Hampshire & Eric Porter, the one that caused a bit of a kerfuffle because churches found their pews a bit under-occupied on Sunday nights, due to a clash with the BBC1 repeat showing, and some even changed the time of Evensong so their parishioners would not have to face this dilemma. Try telling your kids about the days when most tellies couldn’t get BBC2 and if you missed a programme it stayed missed…
  • Daphne du Maurier – impossible to pick just one. But if some are over-familiar, browse through her back catalogue, and try The Glassblowers, The House on the Strand, The Parasites – all much less well known but thoroughly good reads.
  • Revisiting one’s childhood reading is often another source of consolation (depending, I suppose, on one’s childhood). I wrote quite a bit about the most significant books of a childhood spent with my head in books in an earlier blog.

Of course, some may interpret ‘books for the plague times’ entirely differently, and I could easily construct an alternative list composed of books about plagues, and other varieties of apocalypse. However, just now there’s quite enough scary in the rolling Coronavirus updates that I don’t need any more. Books to console, inspire and distract, that’s my prescription.

You’ll have your own. And other people have been sharing their lists on social media, which is wonderful. Writer Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) has compiled hers (there’s a degree of overlap but lots of titles that are new to me and so lots of riches to explore:

These lists are as individual as their compilers. What brings me joy might leave you cold, and vice versa. But I love sharing the books I love. And if you’re reminded to track down something you read ages ago, or encouraged to read an author you haven’t tried before, I’ll be very happy.

Stay connected. Hang on to your hat, hang on to your hope. Be safe, be well, be kind.

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Choices and Chances: International Women’s Day, 2020

#IWD2020 #EachforEqual

An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.

A number of things I’ve read or watched just recently have made me ponder the importance of choice in relation to equality. How women across the centuries have been deprived of real choices – and still are.

Re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, in prep for the third volume of her Cromwell trilogy, I thought about the two queens, Katherine and Anne. Powerful women, women with influence, women with resources. And yet – their power, their influence, their resources were entirely dependent upon men: fathers, husbands and, in a different sense, sons. Their fortunes changed on the whim of a man, and there was nothing they could do about it: rejected, humiliated, and in Anne’s case, killed.

Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and the women portrayed in Celine Sciamma’s wonderful new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Héloise is wealthy and privileged. But she has only two choices – the convent or a socially and economically useful marriage. Her elder sister had taken her own life rather than face the latter, and so Héloise must leave the convent and be marketed to potential suitors. There’s a lot to say about this film, about how it doesn’t just subvert the male gaze, it totally obliterates it. We see the women (and there are only a few men on screen, all briefly, all unnamed) through women’s eyes. Heloise seeing herself in the portraits that Marianne paints of her. Marianne’s self-portrait. Marianne surreptitiously glancing at Héloise as she must try to fix her features in mind, in order to paint her without asking her to pose. The two gazing at each other as they realise their mutual desire. Marianne turning, at Heloise’s request, for one last look as she must say goodbye. This is a film I will want to watch and re-watch. (And I was kind of chuffed to read that Sciamma is a huge fan of Wonder Woman – an actual auteur who doesn’t despise it as a superhero blockbuster but recognises its real power and importance.)

Arnold Bennett’s Hilda Lessways is the subject of volume 2 of his Clayhanger trilogy, written in the early years of the twentieth century but set in the 1880s. What’s remarkable is the way in which we are, throughout the novel, in Hilda’s thoughts, seeing everything through her eyes, knowing only what she knows, as she rages against the restrictions of her life, struggles to understand her own emotions, to understand what choices she has, and to face the implications of the choices she has made. She is independent in spirit, she makes her own living for a while (the only female shorthand writer in the Five Towns), but she’s trapped nonetheless. It’s a vivid and moving portrait.

The young woman at the heart of Celine Sciamma’s 2015 film, Girlhood (Bande de filles) rages too. Marieme hasn’t got good enough grades to get to high school so the only option is college for vocational studies. That would mean leaving home though, which her controlling older brother would be unlikely to permit, and which would leave her younger sisters vulnerable. Her attempt to escape her brother’s control simply put her in the power of another man, and her boyfriend offers only a different kind of trap – marriage and babies.

The power in this film lies in its contrasts. We first meet Marieme as she plays American football, an Amazon, powerful in her armour. The girls head for home, all talking at once, laughing and loud and proud. But as they approach home, we see the young men waiting for them, sentinels, and the girls fall silent. We see Marieme taking on the maternal role with her younger sisters, we see her cowed by her brother’s bullying, we see her talking to a young man, all lowered eyes and fleeting glances. Girls together can be joyous (dancing to Rihanna, in shoplifted dresses, looking glamorous just for themselves rather than for a man, high on cheap booze and weed) or threatening (showdowns, mainly verbal but spilling into violence) with other groups of girls, extorting money with threats. These shifts are jarring, troubling. They show us what these young women could be (for good or ill), and what stops them from being what they could be.

So my 2020 heroes are Celine Scammia and Adele Haenel (for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and for protest at the Césars), Greta Gerwig for making a book that I’ve read dozens of times fresh and powerful.

Elizabeth Warren for persisting. The Doctor, Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

And those we’ve lost: Rosalind Walter (Rosie the Riveter), Heather Couper (probably the first female scientist of whom I was aware), Kathryn Cartwright (blogger, ambassador for the Anthony Nolan Trust), Katherine Johnson (NASA mathematician).

And two young women who could change the world, and who clearly terrify those who really don’t want it to change…

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