Michael Crummey’s novel of nineteenth century Newfoundland is another epic worth reading. John Peyton and his father live off the land and sea in a country where the native people, the Beothuk, have been driven away. The story centres on an unsettling incident where two Beothuk men are killed by a group that includes the Peytons. The fall out from this incident and how it affects both men is the central drama of the book.
The settlers see the land as theirs without any thought to who might have lived there before them. One of the settlers is called Reilly who has himself been displaced since he is an Irishman who lived in London before being exiled to Newfoundland. He is married to a Mi’kmaq woman so seems to have an affinity with First Nation people yet he is implicated in dark goings on with the Beothuk. Then there is Cassie, a woman employed by the older Peyton as housekeeper. John Peyton’s passion for her grows but he is inarticulate when faced with his belief that she is his father’s lover.
Themes of belonging, family, identity and inheritance run through the novel. The idea of settlers as pioneers making their way in a new world are challenged when the consequences of their actions on the existing inhabitants are considered.
‘River Thieves’ by Michael Crummey is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 novel by Wayne Johnston is an epic exploration of the life of Joe Smallwood, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland who steered his country into confederation with Canada in the 40s. The story is told from his point of view and shows how he rose from difficult beginnings to a position where he could ‘do something great’. He is an outsider for most of his life so strives to make his mark and gain recognition and validation.
He crosses paths with Sheilagh Fielding at the private school from which he is unjustly expelled. Her career as a journalist means she is both ally and combatant in his life. In the novel she provides us with the external view of a complicated man.
In many ways, Smallwood and Newfoundland are similar. Both feel inferior to others and long to be accepted. The campaign to join Canada is a difficult one for many people but Smallwood sees this as Newfoundland’s opportunity to make a mark in the world. Fielding is an acerbic character providing the reader with the antidote to Smallwood’s determination and optimism. Her waspish contributions to journalism punctuate the book.
It is a long book that maintains interest over its 500 pages by always exploring the humanity behind the historical decisions. ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is an interesting book even if it wasn’t the book I thought it would be! Peter Mayne moved to Morocco in the early 50s to write a novel. Instead of the fiction work he imagined, his time in the country resulted in this journal of his year in Marrakesh.
Having lived in Pakistan, Mayne knew something of the Muslim way of life but the year spent in Morocco proved to be eye-opening for many reasons. He was determined not to be seen as a tourist, to live in the old city even though this meant giving up the modern comforts, and to forge friendships with the local people.
The resulting journal is a record of his daily efforts to fit in. His accommodation changes several times and much of the book is taken up with efforts to secure a roof over his head on reasonable terms. He also talks about his relationships with locals who have different expectations about trade and financial understandings.
The time he writes about has passed and with it many of the attitudes expressed here by ‘westerners’ and the Moroccans. I expected a book where the author led us through the sites and gave us local flavour. He does the latter but only in as much as it relates to the business of buying, eating, seeking accommodation. There is little of Mayne himself revealed in this book. We do not find out much about him. I was keen to know how he could afford a year without income from any work. There is no hinterland of interest or experience. What we have instead is a picture of a city in a country before it went through great changes- Morocco became independent in 1956. He captures life in one place at one time and does it well. ‘A Year in Marrakesh’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This short book by Antonia Fraser is worth reading as an evocation of a specific time and place. Historian and writer Fraser travelled with her partner, the playwright Harold Pinter, to Israel in 1978. He was Jewish and she was not; she refers to the differing perspectives in her diary.
These are not anonymous travellers observing quietly in a strange country. It isn’t the type of travel book that shows the exotic. They have connections and know many of the great and the good of the country; at one point they dine with Shimon Peres, leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister and President. The PM at the time was Begin, a controversial figure as far as Harold Pinter was concerned.
They visit the sites many tourists take in but this trip has access to many other areas. It is the actual diary Antonia Fraser kept while travelling, discovered recently by the author. It reads with the immediacy of a journal. These are not the carefully sculpted sentences of her historical works. It is worth reading for the sense of a journey taken and the growing relationship between two people.
This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship. He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade. Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem. What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war. What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.
The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative. We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances? Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor. They should not meet except in battle but they do.
Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides. With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam. The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.
I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history. Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.
I read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain. In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians. Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies. His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post. This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum! Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up. Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him. Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.
This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there. Her time here is more dramatic. She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer. Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.
Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer. She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain. What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views. The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.
Re-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues. Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.
Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians. Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in. I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.
‘Tales from Two Cities’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am a fan of Andrew Graham- Dixon’s television appearances so when the opportunity to hear him speak at a Literature event came up last year I went. His subject was Caravaggio and his paintings. He was fascinating so I was keen to read the book behind the talk.
‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’ is a comprehensive biography, impressive because so many parts of the artist’s life are still a mystery and are likely to remain that way. What makes this book worth reading, though, are the descriptions of the paintings and the explanation of the context in which they were created.
I found myself at the end of a very large room when I heard the author speak. The slides of the paintings were too far away from me to appreciate and I found myself listening rather than looking. It worked for me. In the case of the book, there are photographs of the paintings but they are quite small. I found myself looking up the picture on-line and reading in front of the computer! Andrew Graham- Dixon is very good at drawing your attention to the detail or the item that would otherwise be missed.
The political and religious (pretty much the same thing in this place and time) are explained, especially when they show how creative Caravaggio in this period. Here was an artist who worked for the great and the good of the church and mixed with the poor and down trodden. He painted prostitutes and gay lovers into works of art that found their way to the houses of the rich or the chapels of the princes of the church and subsequently on to the great art collections of the world.
This is a book to take seriously and a book to take time over but it is worth is for the insights from an intellectual.