This novel by Stephen Kelman is told in the engaging voice of Harrison, a boy from Ghana, in London to start a new life with his mother and sister (another sister and his father are still in Africa but hoping to come to Britain). The world as seen by an eleven year old in a new country is fascinating, especially as he tries to negotiate social conventions and the pecking order of school boys.
This is London, though, where knife crime is a big problem; already a teenage boy has been killed and Harri sees himself as the detective who can solve the crime. This makes him watchful and alert to those around him. His older sister’s choice of friends is not wise and this brings her and Harri closer to some unsavoury characters.
The world of children trying to be both tougher than they should be and more worldly wise is effectively evoked. Harri’s voice carries us through the story, observing the world and making sense of it. His optimism is infectious, especially his hope that his younger sister and father will soon arrive and they will all be united. This is the background for a further, dramatic event that non-plussed me and left me feeling sad about all the Harris in the world.
Here is a poem from Yeats to remind us all that we are getting older.
Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
W B Yeats
This poem is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The news today of the death of John Noakes was so sad to hear as he was such a big part of my childhood. With Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton he was what made Blue Peter great. I know that his time on the programme coincided with my childhood, and that each generation probably has its own special presenters, but he joined in the 60s when I started watching and left after I had grown away from children’s television so he was always there.
John, Val and Pete were the line- up for my generation. Lesley Judd and Simon Groom came after I moved on and presented with John Noakes and I vaguely remember Christopher Trace who, with Valerie Singleton, presented in the early 60s when he joined the programme but it was the three of them who formed a background to my London early years.
I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary by film- maker Yariv Mozer is a sad portrait of the lives of three gay men adrift in Israel. The Palestinians are there because their lives are in danger if they stay at home. The danger comes, mostly, from their own families. In some cases the men came out to family members but it is also the case that exposure came from perceptions about their personalities or because they were caught with boyfriends.
There is a sadness to this story of men living under the radar in Tel Aviv, a city chosen because it is the most accepting of their lifestyles. Louie is an illegal, though, and he is regularly deported back to the border even though this places him in great danger each time. Fares enters the film when Louie is asked to help him. His family is actively searching for him, possibly to kill him, and it falls to other gay men to rescue him.
The third person in this film is Abdou, an out and proud Arab who believes his future lies in Europe where he may be better accepted. The gay rights group supporting the men believe this is the best route for young gay men who are not given permission to stay in Israel.
The film follows two of the three to Europe where they, individually, hope to build new lives but they can’t escape the idea that this is not the homeland they would have chosen. The rejection from their families still stings and probably always will. One of the saddest parts of the film was when Louie looked over the valley to his home village before departing for Europe. He dared not visit and he longed to return.
‘The Invisible Men’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am a great fan of the novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah so this new story is very welcome. Once again, he writes of dislocation through living in another country yet unable to leave the old country behind. In this case, the story of Salim starts with the unravelling of his parents’ marriage for reasons that remain unclear until the end of the book. It is clear to Salim, though, that everyone else seems to know more than they are telling him.
His life is Zanzibar becomes one of trying to work out the reason his parents live apart, his father in depressed circumstances. The presence of an Uncle, brother to his mother, offers a solution: the young man can live with Uncle Amir in London where he lives well with his own family in Holland Park in London; the diplomatic service offer good homes to their people. So, once again, Salim finds himself adrift but this time in a foreign country. He comes close to the parental secret on one occasion but otherwise continues semi- detached from the family. When he takes a decision about his own future that annoys Amir, he leaves for a less well off part of London and a more independent stage of his life, one that eventually takes him to Brighton before returning to London.
Wherever he lives, though, Zanzibar is present. He has contact with his mother but does not build the bridges he thinks he should, especially when she marries again and has a daughter.
Salim finds love but, once more, does not fit in. It takes a family death to bring the resolution he needs. He travels back to his home for rituals and for home truths.
One of the decisions he made for himself back in Holland Park was to abandon Business Studies for Literature, a decision that was to stand him in good stead when his family secret resembles a plot from a Shakespearian play. The book must be read to discover which one. Salim is a character I wanted to follow. I wanted it to turn out well for him. He deserved it. ‘Gravel Heart’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have turned to Charles Causley’s poetry many times because he speaks to me and speaks for me. This poem has been in my head recently, having returned from wherever I store these things.
I am the Song
I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.