Island Man

This poem by Grace Nichols is evocative of that state in early morning when, still comforted by dreams before reality invades, we do not have to face the harshness of daily life.  Here we have a man displaced and dreaming of home.  The memories may be distorted and there is no indication of the reasons for his move to London- the need for work, maybe.  However, home is often idealised when we are away and Grace Nichols captures this so well.

Island Man

Morning
and island man wakes upBlogGNichols
to the sound of blue surf
in his head
the steady breaking and wombing

wild seabirds
and fishermen pushing out to sea
the sun surfacing defiantly
from the east
of his small emerald island
he always comes back groggily groggily

Comes back to sands
of a grey metallic soar
to surge of wheels
to dull North Circular roar

muffling muffling
his crumpled pillow waves
island man heaves himself

Another London day

Grace Nichols

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

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Stuck Rubber Baby

This graphic novel from 1995 tackles head on the subjects of civil rights and gay rights in the 1960s.    Created by Howard Cruse, it draws on his experience of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama.  It is a work of fiction, though, in which the main protagonist is a young white man called Toland Polk.  His awareness of race issues and civil rights grows at the same time as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality.

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The world was changing in the 60s and this novel reflects the complexity of that time with people’s willingness to abandon long held views of white superiority tested by the attacks on black people around them. One of the reasons I love this book is because it celebrates the diversity of the human experience.  Plus, it sticks up for important principles such as equality and justice.

Toland’s sister and her husband are important in his life, not just because they take him in when his parents are killed, because they stand for the traditional values and firm beliefs that he comes to reject.  While his sister shows more human compassion, her husband’s views on black people and homosexuals are firm and unbending.  Sammy Noone, a sailor home from the sea and openly gay, opens Toland’s eyes to another way of life but it isn’t one he is prepared to be open about just yet.

This is a complex graphic novel with dense pages full of activity.  As Howard Cruse explained in an interview he gave, he wanted the complexity of a life over a year to be shown.  It isn’t something you can summarise in a sentence.

‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ is an important book.  It reminds us that many of our rights and freedoms in the western world were not easily won and should not be given up without a struggle.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Jerusalem

This graphic novel tells the story of the birth of the State of Israel through a family divided against itself.  The subtitle is ‘A Family Portrait’ and it is through the branches of one family that we see the different paths that history could have taken.  It was created by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi.

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At the centre of ‘Jerusalem’ is Motti, a young boy who tries to understand what is going on around him and make sense of the tensions between the adults of his family.    He is good friends with his cousin Jonathan but it soon becomes clear that there has been a rift between their fathers, brothers who refuse to communicate.  While Jonathan lies in relative wealth, Motti and his family are on the bread line. Worse, Motti’s father is indebted to Jonathan’s. It is obvious that this situation will drive a wedge between the two boys but how is left for a devastating conclusion.

The story opens in 1946 at the end of the British Mandate and carries on through to the Arab- Israeli war of 1948.  Each of Motti’s brothers find a different path through these troubled times: Avraham is a war hero who puts his energies into the Communist cause; David, helps Jews to enter Palestine; Ezra resorts to terrorism.  His mother is cold and his father defeated by life.

As the State of Israel comes into being, the consequences of the choices made by each, are felt by the brothers.  There seem to be few winners here and when, finally, Motti decides which side he is on, the denouement is both tragic and recognisable.

‘Jerusalem’ by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

My Promised Land

Ari Shavit is an Israeli writer.  This book is a history of Israel told through key moments and key people from 1897 to the present day.  As a columnist for Israeli publications, he describes himself as left wing.  The secular left wing was responsible in large part for the movement to create a State of Israel so it is worth reading this book to assess what has become of the dream of the state builders.

Each chapter takes an important moment in the history of the country, going back to a time before the modern Israel was established.  His first chapter, for instance, covers the 1897 journey of Rt. Hon Henry Bentwich, his British great- grandfather who led a group of Zionists to assess Palestine as a potential Jewish homeland.  Subsequent chapters take equally important moments to explore different angles and answer the question, ‘how did we get to here?’.

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Of most interest to me was the chapter about the idealistic young Kibbutz builders.  I was struck, too, by the size of the enterprise of creating a Jewish homeland when you consider the numbers of immigrants that arrived in a short period.  Yet, there are chapters about the removal of Palestinians from their homes and the creation of a nuclear project to provide Israel with a sense of security.  There is an exploration of the failure of the peace movement.  Idealism and disappointment are never far away from each other in this story.

Through it all, Shavit considers all shades of opinion.  It is clear that a left- right split does not come close to explaining the complexity of the issues.  He writes about the indignity of the expulsions of 1948 to create a Jewish homeland but he also writes about the desire for stability for a nation that he believes deserves to exist.  History is personal; in this book, his ancestors, his own experiences and his children all feature.

This is an important book.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Burnt Shadows

This novel starts in a prison cell where a young man waits, naked, to be shipped off to Guantanamo Bay.  It then immediately switches to Nagasaki in 1945 on the eve of the dropping of the second nuclear bomb.  It is a sign of the virtuosity of author Kamila Shamsie that she manages to create a narrative where all the points between these two events are joined and the question posed in the opening pages can be answered: ‘How did it come to this?’

In developing her story we cover much ground: cultural differences; relationships across cultures and races; biracial children; loyalty; empire and  belonging.

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The characters in this novel are Japanese, German, American, British, Indian and Pakistani.  Some change countries through design and some by accident.  Some have unwavering loyalty to the country of their birth, even if they no longer live there, and some look beyond the nation-state for the cause they will invest in.

The focus shifts to different generations as the decades pass but the whole story is principally about two families whose lives cross in the years after the 1945 bomb on Nagasaki.  It is a sign of the skill of the writer that none of the meetings over the years between characters seems contrived.

Hiroko Tanaka, a young Japanese woman, is the spine of the story but my favourite character is her son, Raza.  He is the son of a Japanese mother and Indian father but born in Pakistan after partition with a German middle name.  He carries the cultural crossroads inside him and I spent the whole book hoping the journey would not lead to him being the one standing naked in the cell, that we met at the start of the book.

Nothing’s Changed

This poem by the South African poet Tatamkhula Afrika is a powerful response to the crushing disappointment that is his post Apartheid country.  It isn’t signs now that keep the blacks out but powerful economic factors.  There is still a form of segregation operating that means the whites have a sparkling new restaurant while the working men’s café still serves the blacks.  Afrika, an ANC activist in his day, shows that some struggles still exist.

Nothing’s Changed

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust
bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans, 

trodden on, crunch

in tall, purple-flowering,
amiable weeds.

District Six.
No board says it is:
but my feet know, a
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
BlogTatamkhulu_Afrika to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table’s top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.

I back from the
glass,
boy again,
leaving small mean
O
of small mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing’s changed.

Tatamkhula Afrika

‘Nothing’s Changed’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Camp Coffee Labels

My paternal grandmother was a fan of Camp Coffee, the distinctive alternative to the real thing.  For many of my childhood years I was confused about why coffee tasted so different when my grandmother made it.  Only later did I realise that she was serving a drink made of caffeine free coffee essence, sugar, and chicory essence; not so  much like the real thing then!

I have avoided it for years but, when reminiscing recently, a friend told me that the label design had changed to be ‘politically correct’.  Please note that this was his term, not mine!  I do not use it since I only ever read or hear it when it is being employed to knock down some supposed liberal initiative.  Users of the phrase deploy it to show that their traditional views are being attacked by the intolerant when, often, it is only remembering to show respect for difference that is being asked for.  It is also hard to know what the critics think their so-called political correctness does, other than it goes mad.

However, I was interested in the Camp Coffee label affair!

This is the one I remember from my grandmother’s house.

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The product was made in Scotland so the use of a Gordon Highlander is appropriate.  Production started in the 1870s, the British Empire was at its height, so the idea of a Sikh servant serving the coffee would also be appropriate.  This is the sort of thing that used to happen in the days of empire.

Note the label currently being used.

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The Gordon Highlander and the Sikh soldier are still present, but now they sit together enjoying the refreshing coffee substitute drink in harmony.  According to my friend, and endorsed by the views of our glorious right wing newspaper, ‘The Daily Mail’, this is ‘political correctness gone mad’.

What seemed odd to me was that the company decided to make the specific change that it did.  The idea that the soldier and his servant would have sat together at the height of the Empire is a nonsense.  The original design may show aspects of our history that we now find uncomfortable but that should not mean that we pretend that, actually, we treated the Indian population as equals.  It is insulting to everyone.

Surely, the picture either needs to stay as it was (as in ‘this is what we used to be like’) or it needs to show a modern Scot sitting down with a modern Indian (as in ‘this is what we do now’).  I cannot see the benefit of trying to pretend the past was more genteel than it was.  It isn’t ‘political correctness’ but sentimentalising the past that we need to worry about.

This happens in many modern films and television depictions of the past where it is (usually) the sympathetic characters that get to portray current, more tolerant attitudes to women, people of colour, gay people etc. as if they held these views back then.  It might make our modern viewing more comfortable but a more realistic portrayal would show the attitudes of the time!

We have moved on.  Britain is a more tolerant and accepting society than it once was but, if we try to provide a soft focus to the past, we will forget where we came from.  At that would be bad for all of us.

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