Our Man in the Middle East

Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned.  His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to.  He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.

This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East.  I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me.  He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.

The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things?  Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out.  There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though.  He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.

‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Paddington Bear

The death this week of Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, marks another part of my childhood passing away.  I loved the books about the bear from Peru who comes to London, where I lived as a boy, as a refugee and who learns how to fit in with the British. The first book was published in 1958 and I read many of them in the 60s.  Yet, it was an animated version broadcast by the BBC in the 70s that seared an image of the bear in my mind.  With the late great Michael Hordern as the voice of Paddington, the series of short programmes was the definitive interpretation of the stories.

The greatest animation of all time must surely be ‘Paddington Bear Goes to the Movies’ when the young bear performed a version of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Sublime!  Thank you Michael Bond.

Gaffer Samson’s Luck

This children’s novel by Jill Paton Walsh from 1988 is a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be dislocated as a child.  James is new to the Fens, having moved with his parents because of their jobs.  He finds himself as the outsider in a village where the children divide themselves neatly into ‘estate’ and ‘village’.  As he belongs to neither group, James feels even more alone.  It is a good job, then, that the old man next door is so interesting.

Mr Samson, the ‘gaffer’ of the title, is a widower who befriends the young boy providing him with someone to talk to.  Such inter-generational friendships may now be threatened but in times past the wisdom of an older person could be passed on.  Jill Paton Walsh captures well this friendship across the age gap.

James gets thrown together with Angey, another school outsider.  The situation doesn’t help his case for being accepted but, when he goes on a mission for the gaffer, she is a useful ally.

Things come to a head when the gang mentality threatens James and Angey and he finds himself trying to help an ailing Mr Samson while standing up to bullies.

The novel explores themes of belonging, bullying, age and facing death all within a story of a boy in a village in the East of England.  The book won the prestigious Smarties Prize and should, by now, qualify for classic status.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Meeting Point

This poem by Louis MacNeice is worth returning to.  I love the way the first line is also used as the final line for each stanza.  The poem reminds us that life is made up of moments, some of which seem to make time irrelevant.

Meeting Point

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

Louis MacNeice

BlogLouisMacNeice

I Must Belong Somewhere

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?

BlogIMustBelongSomewhereUsing 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?

 

The Exile

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.

BlogTheExileThis 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?

Undressing Israel

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?

BlogUndressingIsrael

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.