Scenes from Early Life

One of the signs that a book has gone deep is the subsequent research or reading I do. This novel by Philip Hensher made me look into the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh.  It is an event I knew little about even though I did know that the country emerged from what was East Pakistan and I had a vague memory of reading about the dominance of Pakistan, or West Pakistan, over the eastern part of the split country.

The novel tells the early life story of Hensher’s husband who is from Bangladesh.  I was not struck by the early part of the book and felt as I often do when reading autobiographies that early chapters have to be waded through to get to the interesting parts.  Yet, once into the book I was captivated.  There is a large cast of characters since our hero Saadi was born into a large family of aunts and uncles.

It is the determination of a people to keep alive their culture and language that is the most effective aspect of the book. Bengali speakers are subject to humiliations and fear for their lives when Urdu speaking rulers try to force their culture on the east in an attempt to unify a country.

The family is upper middle class with plenty of servants but fear is distributed evenly in this era.  Saadi’s grandfather hides his Bengali books and music in a room behind a door that is plastered over, such is the fear of discovery.  As a baby, Saadi is passed from aunt to aunt and fed whatever he needs to ensure he does not cry out during the hours of curfew; who needs attention from soldiers patrolling the street?

The book passes back and forth in time. It starts when the war is over with a young Saadi playing in the street.  When a neighbourhood boy tries to play with him it is the adults who step in.  They know which family he comes from and what they did in the war.  So, when we step back to a younger Saadi and a time of greater fear we see why the scars still exist years later.

The book works well as fiction even if it edges up against biography of the author’s husband.  It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?


The Brothers Size

I should have known when I booked my ticket and saw only single seats left that this was a play that would be well regarded.  Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, now more fanmous as the writer of the film ‘Moonlight’, has constructed a work of art that explores the tensions of brotherhood and the difficulty of maintaining a straight path through life when there are others to set you off course.

The names of the characters took a while to seep through my British brain but, once there, they added to the poetry.  Oshoosi Size lives with his older brother Ogun who has taken him in after his return from prison.  Older brother would rather younger had nothing to do with Elegba, friend and former cell mate of Oshoosi.  Yet we all need friends and there is the other sort of brotherhood to be thought about.

The three characters dance around each other, sometimes literally, as they learn to get along and they vie for the loyalty they feel they are owed.  The sense of the poetic is here all the time but so, too, is the sense of the dramatic even to the point where some of the stage directions are spoken out loud by the characters; I found this affected at first until it became affecting and then I loved it.

The pressures on young black men is a central theme.  Trying to earn a living, never mind respect, is hard work.  As the three actors move around the circle chalked on the stage in an opening act, the feeling that things will not end well grows.  Bijan Sheibani directed the play with Jonathan Ajayi, Sope Dirisu and Anthony Welsh as the three actors.  Manuel Pinheiro provided the music from the side of the stage.

Remembering the Man

I think I have covered the story of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo story from every angle having read the book, watched the film and read the play script (oh, so not very angle as I have not seen the play performed).  All three took the title, ‘Holding the Man’ but this moving documentary, with a slightly different title, is worth watching for the additional voices of their friends who retell their story with such love and care.

The other works (play, book, film) show what a loving relationship the two men had from school onwards.  The pain of their separation was also evident but less clear was the fact that they were part of a supportive group of friends who not only accepted them but did not think to question why the two of them were together.  The unconditional nature of this friendship complemented the story of Tim and John’s love.

The virus that killed John was just one of the battles faced by the two men.  They also fought homophobia and bigotry during their sixteen years together.  At one time they were forbidden to see each other by parents anxious to ignore a sexuality they did not understand or like.

Film makers Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe have made a film that tells this story using old photographs and film footage.  Tim Conigrave recorded his experiences for an AIDS education project and good use is made of it here.

‘Remembering the Man’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Still Walking

This 2008 film by Japanese director Kore-eda is a study of a family that is fractured by the loss of the favoured son.  The effect on the other son and daughter as they live up to parental expectations.  The film takes us through 24 hours of a visit by the other son and his family to the family home so that they can pay their respects at the grave of the dead son.  The fact that his wife has a young boy from her previous marriage adds an extra dimension in terms of who has a place within the family.

The father and mother of the dead son have daily arguments and the daughter’s husband and children add energy to the household that would be missing otherwise, even if the mother does express relief when they have left for home.  The step-son is a calmer prospect and observes everything with a reserve that earns him the nickname ‘the unsmiling prince’.

It is a hot summer day when they gather and the walk to the grave through the heat suggests this is a ritual that must be observed.  The dead son is a presence in the film.  The father, a retired doctor adjusting to a post work state, cannot see why anyone would have any profession outside medicine.  His surviving son has work problems of his own but cannot seek advice from his father who he believes does not understand him.

Throughout the film, the characters navigate their way past the difficult and the unspoken.  It is the strength of the film that we move towards the end without any of these problems solved.

Black Butler: the film

Next in my exploration of the world of ‘Black Butler’ was the live action film version released in 2014.  There are differences from the manga but the parallel world (part Victorian or Edwardian) is still here and the central characters of butler and his master are in place.  Yet, the biggest surprise was that the master was not Ciel Phantomhive but Earl Kiyohara Genpu and, wait for it, he was a she!

The master served by the butler is a girl at the start of the film and, like the manga, she is involved in fighting the underworld but, once rescued from the hands of villains in the film’s opening scene, she appears as a boy.  For the rest of the film s/he is the master served by the butler.  Central to this film is the need to revenge the death of his/her parents and discover which forces are behind attempts to destroy him/her.

The action sequences are good showing the super human skill of the butler as he deals with all comers.  The master- servant relationship also works well as the power play between the two provides hints that this story is not yet over.  Hiro Mizushima plays Sebastian and Ayame Gouriki plays his master.

I haven’t reached the purist stage yet so the departure from the story line of the manga did not worry me.

Black Butler

I promised myself not to get involved in another manga series and yet here I am at the start of a trek through ‘Black Butler’ by Yana Toboso.  Of course, I could step off the track before the end or even refuse to take the next step but, having read the first volume, it seems I am hooked!

As ever with my hinterland, I was on the search for something else when I came across the character of Ciel Phantomhive and this led to the discovery that there is a ‘Black Butler’ manga, musical, film and anime.

This first manga introduces us to Ciel Phantomhive and his butler who has extraordinary gifts when serving his master.  Ciel is orphaned so is head of the Phantomhive family even though he is only thirteen years old.  He runs the company but also has a crime fighting role in the London underworld as the Queen’s Guardian.  This alternative universe appears Victorian and is intriguing because it is set in London but is Japanese in origin.

Sebastian Michaelis is the butler of the title.  He serves and protects his young master using skills that seem beyond the ordinary.   There is a household of servants supporting him but it is Sebastian who anticipates and serves his master’s every wish.  The young Phantomhive is enigmatic himself.  There are references to his parents’ death and strange circumstances that led to his position at the head of a crime fighting initiative.  The set up is enough to keep me going.  I am ready to move on to volume two!

Fenner Brockway

In London so I crossed to the Holborn area on my way to the British Museum because I wanted to seek out the statue of Fenner Brockway.  It was created by Ian Walters and unveiled by Michael Foot in 1985 when the subject was still alive; he died in 1988 at the age of 99.

Throughout his life he campaigned for race equality, peace and anti-colonialism.  He was a conscientious objector in the First World War but later thought that taking up arms might be necessary.  His change of mind was influenced by the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

He served as a Labour MP twice but with a twenty year gap between his two periods in the House of Commons.  He lost his seat in 1964 which was surprising as it was a year of a Labour victory but he was considered to be a supporter of immigration to his constituency.  He later served in the House of Lords and he continued to be a campaigner until his death.