Posts Tagged Charles Dickens
*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books. I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly. Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.
Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am. So I’ve devised a plan. I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore. I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today. Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics. Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.
A Childhood with my Head in a Book
How to Be a Girl
The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl. It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me. I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf. You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches. I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).
I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.) Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins. Just).
And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.
L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
Travellers in Time
I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past. And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present. Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge, and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge. My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.
In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up). I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons. And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.
I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different. It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions. It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.
Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe
Thresholds to Other Worlds
And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible. Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas. I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism. But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.
Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling. Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously, Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon. Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.
One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.
Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies. Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well. Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.
C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob. Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question. Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.
J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper. Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me. Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world. And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III. I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive. I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II). All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess
Displaced and Endangered
Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.
The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies. It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure. The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother. The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences. An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans). It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats. Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).
All of these books pull their punches to some extent. They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide. And they are right, in my view, to hold back. What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.
Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers
There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary. Here, the extraordinary is very small. So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes, it can live alongside us but without us knowing. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with. What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this. The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.
Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose
Myths & Legends
As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals. Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends. He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur, which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.
Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset
Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi. The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given. My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives). From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids). These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…
H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids
Reading the Detectives
As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading. I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited. Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit. And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.
Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison
If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt. I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.
Adult Life with my Head in a Book
I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction. Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13
For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists. If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it. Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.
I’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel. No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too. Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings. And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.
L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants
Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald. Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…). Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).
Half of a Yellow Sun
This is a brilliant, powerful novel. For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war. Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.
The Womens Room
Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits. It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one. I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more. But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends. French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing. The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t. And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.
Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t. But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes. The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels, and what I watched on TV and at the cinema. They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years. If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know. I still believe in humanity, despite everything.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there. Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966. Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened. But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything. Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities. It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.
The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945
My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary. But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers. She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear. When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her. The simple questions – why did they have to hide? why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary. My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…
Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews. This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour. But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)
I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV. Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal. As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42). It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.
I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson. But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least. I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.
Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land. It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers. Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.
I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes). David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.
All the President’s Men
This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government. The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things… This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story. There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).
So, that’s my ten books… Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me. I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?
We don’t know how many. We don’t know who. We don’t know why.
In this vacuum of information, anger is building.
Some of this anger will be misdirected, as people lash out in their pain and grief. That’s inevitable. Since the early hours of Wednesday morning, those living near Grenfell Tower, those who escaped from it, those who have friends and family unaccounted for, will not have slept, will have been obsessively checking phones and ringing hospitals and begging for answers, at the same time as they figure out how to cope without their most basic possessions, how to deal with the practicalities of life in this new chaos. Under that intolerable pressure, those we have heard speak have shown remarkable dignity and calm.
That may not hold. Even if the bigger questions cannot be answered immediately, there needs to be a more coordinated, coherent response to the desperate need to know the fate of those still unaccounted for, and to the practical questions about rehousing and resources for those left homeless. And even if those are the most urgent questions, the community needs to be convinced that the bigger questions – what caused the fire? why did it spread so quickly? why was the material used for the cladding in the recent refurb of a standard that is currently banned in the US and Germany because of its flammability? – will be answered without obfuscation.
Answers need to come, and come swiftly. And with them, practical help. Voluntary generosity has been overwhelming, and almost unmanageable – it must now be matched by an ‘official’ response. That official response must be generous, if it is to defuse the tension, the gut feeling that had the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower been white, been wealthy, the building would have been designed to be safe, and any refurbishments would have made it even safer.
We have in the last few weeks alone logged so many unnecessary deaths. The murders of (mainly) young people attending Ariane Grande’s concert in Manchester, and (mainly) young people in Borough Market and on London Bridge. And now unknown numbers of all ages, dead because a fire that started accidentally (as far as we know) spread with unimaginable speed through a high rise block of flats.
What those of us who have tried to honour the dead by recording their names and something of their story quickly discovered was that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. The three names that have officially been released from Grenfell Tower confirm that.
Khadija Saye was 24. A remarkable artist, her work is currently exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. Her death has been confirmed; her mother is missing, presumed dead.
Mohammed Alhajali was 23, and had been living on the 14th floor with his brother Omar. He came to the UK in 2014 and was studying civil engineering. Syria Solidarity Campaign said: “[He] undertook a dangerous journey to flee war and death in Syria, only to meet it here in the UK, in his own home.” The brothers had been due to join the Syria Solidarity Campaign on Saturday to take part in The Great Get Together, celebrating the life of murdered MP Jo Cox and marking Refugee Week.
Of the third confirmed fatality, what can we say? He was five years old. Isaac Shawo has been described by his mother as a “beautiful boy”. He was a pupil at Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School and lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower with his parents and three year old brother Luca, all of whom have survived. He gazes out from this photograph, and one can read so many possibilities into that gaze. Possibilities that will never be realised.
Only three stories so far. There will be so many more. Their deaths are as arbitrary as those of the Manchester and London terrorist murders, even if no individual or group is as directly culpable. They should not have died, they need not have died.
We have to change, we cannot continue to value property over humanity, to dismiss ‘health and safety’ which has saved the lives of so many as ‘red tape’, to denigrate the poor, the unemployed, benefit claimants and asylum seekers as scroungers and skivers. We have to change.
David Lammy MP: “For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built… and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it’s about.
You can’t contract out everything to the private sector; the private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done.
You know… are there fire extinguishers? Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? Where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built.
But these buildings aren’t …. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way, or you absolutely refurbish them to the best quality that we can do.”
Jackie Long: “Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the life of people who cannot afford to buy their own property; to live in some of the nicer bits of Britain?”
David Lammy MP: “This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable. My friend who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young, black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power, or locus, or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life. She’d done amazing things: gone to university, the best in her life. But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of a building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. Breaks my heart.
Lammy refers here to Dickens. A tale of two cities, a tale of two tower blocks. Different worlds, existing cheek by jowl, not recognising or understanding each other. In Kensington, some of the wealthiest people in our land live alongside some of the most deprived. The top quarter earn at least £41 per hour, three and a half times the level of the lowest quarter at £12 per hour or less. Within the smallest borough in London, and the second smallest in England, we can see starkly and uncompromisingly the divisions in our society.
These words are from perhaps Dickens’ finest novel, Bleak House, as he marks the death of a nobody, a boy called Jo.
Is there any light a comin?”
“It is coming fast, Jo.”
Fast. The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.
“Jo, my poor fellow!”
“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a gropin — a gropin — let me catch hold of your hand.”
“Jo, can you say what I say?”
“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”
“Our Father! — Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”
“WHICH ART IN HEAVEN.”
“Art in Heaven — is the light a comin, sir?”
“It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!”
“Hallowed be — thy—”
The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
I do not pray. At times like this I almost wish I could. But my faith is not in any god but in humanity. In the kindness of strangers, the coming together of communities in a crisis, the refusal to tolerate those who want to use such a crisis to disseminate hatred and suspicion. I don’t pray, but I hope, I hang on to my hope. And my heart hurts for the people of Grenfell Tower.
…. and nowhere more so than in the haunting (in so many ways) French drama The Returned which recently left viewers on tenterhooks (or alternatively furious and vowing never to darken its doors again) with a final episode that left more questions than answers, and a long wait for series 2.
The dead return, apparently unchanged (at least initially), and unaware of their deadness. Camille walks through her front door as if nothing untoward had happened (she’d died in a coach accident a couple of years previously), demanding food and complaining bitterly that her room has been rearranged. There’s no overt horror in her re-appearance, which allows a much more subtle take on its effects upon her family. The pattern is repeated elsewhere as the newly undead attempt to find their old lives and slip back into them, only to be confronted by the fact that other lives have moved on in the meantime.
Where do these revenants fit in, in the literature and mythology of the undead? They are not ghosts, which tend to be seen only fitfully and not by all, and to have no physical substance – Camille and her fellow returners are absolutely here, physically, ravenously hungry and startlingly randy too. Ghosts often have a purpose too – like Banquo they are here to shake their gory locks at those responsible for their untimely demise, or to seek a way of resolving their unfinished business in this world – but if these have a purpose it’s not clear what it might be – at least not yet. They are not zombies, whose physical substance has been reactivated without the personality, the mind, the soul (if you will) that previously accompanied it – an ex-person, reduced to a body and a hunger – these returners know who they were, who they loved, and have the full range of human thought and emotion.
Dramatically, there is much that recalls those stories of individuals believed to be dead, and reappearing unexpectedly to cause consternation and conflict as they try to reclaim their lives (Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Martin Guerre, Rebecca West‘s Return of the Soldier). However, Rebecca West’s returning soldier and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are not instantly recognisable as the people they once were. Chabert, who has clawed his way out of a mound of corpses, looks like what his former wife would wish to believe he was, a madman and an imposter. Those who made their way home across Europe, as he did, over a century later, were often changed beyond recognition too, their health (mental and physical) permanently damaged, skeletal and haunted both by what they had witnessed and by their own survival. The return of the deportees was a ‘retour a la vie’, and some at least, with care and medical treatment, did begin again to resemble their previous selves. Like Dickens’ Dr Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after years of incarceration, and gradually establishing a fragile hold on life again.
In The Returned, Camille’s father says to his estranged wife Claire that ‘you prayed for this’ – it’s an accusation rather than a statement, even though in his own way he too had sought a continuing connection with the daughter he’d lost. That reminded me of the episode of Buffy (‘Forever’, Season 5), where Dawn attempts to use witchcraft to bring back her mother, realising as she hears the footsteps approach the door that what has come back will not be the person she is grieving for. She breaks the spell, just in time. This thread is picked up in the following season as Buffy herself crosses back over that threshold between death and life, and feels that she isn’t quite as she was, that she has ‘come back wrong’.
Stephen King explored this too, in Pet Sematary, where the knowledge that one could bring back the deceased is too powerful for the protagonist to resist, even having tested the water, as it were, with a cat (who most decidedly isn’t the creature it was before)
and in the madness of terrible loss and grief does not turn back as Dawn did from bringing back his lost son. The returned in King’s narrative look and sound almost like themselves. Almost. They know stuff though, that they should not know, and they are malign, clearly demonic. Some of The Returned’s revenants seem to know stuff in the same way and to be able to use their knowledge to challenge or goad the living. But whether they are on the side of the angels I would not want to say. Ask me in a year or so, when I’ve seen Season 2.
The Returned‘s revenants were not (despite Claire’s prayers) brought back by the living, they appear to have simply returned. But throughout literature the appearance of the dead amongst the living has always been associated with a threat – with the terror or destruction of the living, or with the exposure of past crimes and injustices. Or, at the very least, the confrontation of the living with the trauma of death, in the person of those who have inhabited the liminal space between death and life. Thus neither the unexpectedly alive nor the undead can simply be reintegrated into society, even if the living can accept them. They haunt us, and are themselves haunted,
What these various narratives address is the sense of unfinished business that is inevitably part of bereavement, and the notion that death is a threshold that might, just, be permeable. There’s a moment in an otherwise entirely negligible children’s film, Caspar the Friendly Ghost (yes, I know, bear with me) where the dead mother entreats her husband and daughter: ‘I know you have been searching for me, but there’s something you must understand. You and Kat loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business, please don’t let me be yours.’ That one line justifies the existence of the film, for me. Because so many of these narratives are really about how impossible it is for the living to deal with death.
Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)
So the unfinished business is not theirs, but ours. And they come back, in dreams, but we know that their presence is not quite right, that time is out of joint if they are here. I’ve dreamed so often that my mother is alive. But never without that sense of unease, which could not be further from the feeling that I associate with her, of warmth and comfort and of being loved. She has gone, and we haven’t got over it, and we won’t, but we know it is real.
Still, that boundary, that threshold, is always disturbingly present, just on the edge of our field of vision, and so we will continue to be fascinated by the notion that sometimes they do come back, and how that might be, even if it is and will always be the stuff of nightmares.
Related articles (beware spoilers)
- The Returned (2004) (rantbit.wordpress.com)
- some further thoughts on Colonel Chabert here: https://cathannabel.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/sebald-and-balzac-quests-and-connections/
Gerry’s blog, That’s How the Light Gets In, marks the vindication of the Hillsborough victims, survivors and families with Dickensian reflections on injustice. RIP the 96, and massive respect to the campaigners.
I’m currently reading The Old Curiosity Shop and, in one of those curious coincidences without which Dickens’ plots would have ground to a halt, I read the following passage shortly after hearing news that the Hillsborough families are one step closer to justice:
Let moralists and philosophers say what they may, it is very questionable whether a guilty man would have felt half as much misery that night, as Kit did, being innocent. The world, being in the constant commission of vast quantities of injustice, is a little too apt to comfort itself with the idea that if the victim of its falsehood and malice have a clear conscience, he cannot fail to be sustained under his trials, and somehow or other to come right at last; ‘in which case,’ say they who have hunted him down, ‘—though we certainly don’t expect it—nobody will be better pleased than we.’ Whereas…
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As a Sheffielder, albeit having blown in a mere 37 years ago, I’d be expected to take a dim view of Manchester. It’s the wrong side of the Pennines, for a start. It feels like a huge sprawling metropolis, whilst Sheffield, big city that it is, feels still like a city centre surrounded by villages. Here, one can look out over fields and moors, but be 20 minutes from not only shops but wonderful cultural opportunities – the Crucible theatre, the Showroom cinema, Music in the Round. And it really does rain a lot over there. I commuted to Manchester in the early 1980s, and going through the Chinley tunnel always felt like leaving one country and emerging in another, emerging in a different climate, a different season.
There’s a view that northern cities are much of a muchness, a view that those of us who live in them would dispute vigorously. When the narrator of Passing Time, Jacques Revel, says that ‘Bleston is not unique of its kind, that Manchester or Leeds, Newcastle or Sheffield, or Liverpool… would have had a similar effect on me’, I’ve always felt inclined to argue that had the author come to OUR University instead of Manchester’s, he would have found digs in Crookes, where the air would not have choked him, from where escape would have been easy, out on Manchester Road, or up towards Redmires, or down to Rivelin, and from where he would have been able to see the lights of the city, the kind of bird’s eye view that Revel could only approximate when he spread his map of the city out and ‘surveyed its whole extent at a glance, like some hovering bird about to pounce’ (p. 41).
Bleston is undoubtedly inspired by Manchester (Butor said as much), and draws on Manchester’s iconic status as the archetypal city of industry and of the worst aspects of industrial life. His descriptions echo those of Alexis de Tocqueville, 200 years earlier, who described the ‘damp, dark labyrinth’, the ‘half-daylight’, and the sun seen through the pall of black smoke as a disc without rays. Part of the reason for Manchester’s status as ‘shock city’ of the Victorian era is that its growth was unplanned, ‘an incoherent environment shaped hastily to exceed earthly standards … it inspired wonder and dread in equal measure’ (Crinson, Fabrications) – see this upcoming conference, noted on the Occursus blog. Eric Hazan has described three models for the growth of cities: an onion adding outer layers as it expands (Paris), mathematical grids (New York), and bacteria in a petri dish. Butor uses an even less appealing metaphor when Revel, armed with his map, sees himself as a scientist studying ‘this huge cancerous growth’ (p. 42).
W G Sebald, arriving ten years after Butor, was struck by many of the same features that Butor, Engels, de Tocqueville, and so many others, have described. In The Emigrants, he describes how Max Ferber, approaching Manchester from the moors in 1945, ‘had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him’ (Emigrants, p. 168), of the ‘solid mass of utter blackness’ of the city centre, the chimneys towering above the flat maze of housing. Sebald’s narrative charts the decline of industrial Manchester, from the constantly belching chimneys of 1945 to the decay and neglect of 1990/91.
The geography of Sebald’s Manchester is that of the real city, whereas Butor’s Bleston is a transformed Manchester, a composite , as Dickens’ Coketown, ‘where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in’, was an amalgam of Manchester, Oldham and Preston. Thus the frontispiece map would not serve a visitor as a guide, despite the claims of some commentators, though it borrows features from the real city. Both Butor and Sebald draw attention to the distinctive star shape of Strangeways Prison – a design common to many late 19th century prisons, including Paris’s la Petite Roquette – and Butor’s city is very much a carceral space. Revel tries to get out into countryside, fails, and never tries again – when he asks a pub landlord how he might get there, he’s referred to ‘some nice parks’, and to the wastelands between the towns; his colleague Jenkins has never left at all.
As Revel finally leaves, in the moment of his deliverance, he addresses the city for the last time: ‘as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned’ (p. 288), and Sebald’s ‘Mancunian Cantical’ ends with ‘Flutes of death for Bleston’. Both Butor and Sebald found that Manchester triggered associations and memories which inspired their writing. If one considers some of the repeated motifs that both writers use – ash, fog, darkness, shadows, silence, fires and wasteland – it’s hard to escape the notion that for both those associations and memories were rooted in wartime Europe, the Europe that Max Ferber had escaped with his life.
For all matters Sebaldian, Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog is essential
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London : John Calder, 1965)
Mark Crinson, ‘Towards the Beautiful City’, Fabrications: New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (Manchester: UMiM Publishing, 2002)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
Eric Hazan, L’Invention de Paris: il n’y a pas de pas perdus (Paris: Seuil, 2002)
J B Howitt, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottingham French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
Musée Carnavalet, L’impossible photographie: prisons parisiennes 1851-2010 (Paris: Paris Musées, 2010)
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (Paris: Gallimard, 1958)