I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year. Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives. What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing. The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners. There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different. This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family: would they be welcome now? Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?
Using his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy. Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties. What does it mean to fit in?
Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys. Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War. With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps. Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents. Heinz’s story is one of becoming British. He stayed here and raised his family as British.
David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled. But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.
The book is an important one. The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride. This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.
‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I first heard about the life of Duleep Singh in a television documentary a few years ago. I wanted to know more as this seemed to be another of those hidden stories about Empire which were best forgotten.
This novel by Navtej Sarna takes the historical facts but weaves a story told by the elderly Duleep Singh as he nears death and several of the figures he encountered in his life. The young Duleep Singh became the maharaja of the Punjab but was outmanoeuvered by the British. As a boy he was sent to Britain to be brought up as a young gentleman. Queen Victoria was fond of him and he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a deeply committed Christian who was delighted when his charge converted from Sikhism as a young man.
It is a story of power and manipulation. The young maharaja was separated from his mother at a young age to prevent son or parent from trying to regain the throne. While the British royal family included him, they did so on their terms; the British government was keen to ensure he could not return to India.
For much of his life he was content to live the life of a country gentleman. He had estates in Scotland and Suffolk. Later, after being reunited with his mother, he regained an interest in Sikhism and sought to return to India. The British Empire did not let anyone kick against it and the might of the state was used to ensure he did not reach his homeland. He turned instead to Russia in the hope that their enmity with Britain would lead to him regaining the Punjab. International politics being what they are, he was unsuccessful and he died in a mid-range Paris hotel.
The story is worth telling and the author leads us through quite complex history by providing us with the fictional thoughts of the dying man. The novel is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This slight film from Michael Lucas is an exploration of what it means to be gay in modern Israel. Despite being slightly arch in its central conceit that the audience will be shocked by the idea that Israel is a modern country, welcoming to gay people, there are some interesting moments and the people featured come across as well adjusted individuals.
The two men getting married, surrounded by their family, were my favourites but there was also the couple parenting two boys, an Arab- Israeli journalist, and a host of talking heads all explaining that it was a wonderful country in which to be gay. The film director Eytam Fox was interviewed and he is always worth listening to. Most attention is given to Tel Aviv and there are many questions left unanswered by this film such as what is it like to be gay in a rural community or far away from the vibrant party scene?
An openly gay MP hosted a Pride event in the parliament near the start of the film and talked about the progress already made but the steps still needed. The film provides an entirely positive look at gay life in Israel which is no bad thing when most films in this arena have issues to face.
This documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Reading about the recent death of Adam West who played the Batman of my childhood made me reflect on the fact that the images of our formative years remain with us, despite later re-boots. Therefore, whenever anyone mentions Batman it is the image of the television series from the mid- 60s that comes to mind.
I was of an age that took these things very seriously so I did not, at the time, recognise any of the features that were later described as ‘camp’. I did not realise that the series was from another country, they spoke English after all. To me, it was all worth my attention and belief. I identified more with Robin than Batman, possibly because he was younger and I was a child.
I gave all the later films a miss. I grew away from Batman and superheroes generally but the truth is that the mid-60s television version remained with me and, when I heard the sad news about Adam West, there were all the images and references from childhood just waiting to return. Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin were all there (but in black and white- this was British television, 60s style!)
This poem by Auden is potent because it has love at its core without explicitly stating that this love is of one man for another. Yet Auden was openly gay at a time when it was illegal and the poem resonates with the idea that love is where it falls.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
W H Auden
This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past. In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India. He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics. His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public. This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.
The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world. Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain. Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.
There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war. Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).
Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story! It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it. It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle. For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.
Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel. This film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?