In Winchester so I had to walk down through the city to the statue of King Alfred which I first saw on a boyhood visit. It is reassuring to see him still in place. The King of Wessex was a fifth son so was never expected to rule the kingdom; he became an active student instead and devoted his time to learning. He earned the title ‘great’ because he had a unique combination of statesmanship, scholarship and military skill.
The statue looking up the main street of the city shows him holding his sword in a gesture of victory or authority or both. He stands at 17 feet from the plinth so is an imposing figure. The artist Hamo Thorneycroft was a member of the Royal Academy. His statue of Alfred was erected in 1899 to mark a thousand years since his death.
Despite being clean shaven in most other depictions of Alfred, including coinage from his reign, this sculpture has him with a full beard; the type of beard those late Victorians thought befitted a King!
In Winchester for the first time in years, so off to see the Elizabeth Frink sculpture of ‘Horse and Rider’ erected in 1975 at the top of the High Street. It is a companion piece to the one of the same title in Mayfair, London installed a year earlier. The man is naked and sits on the horse with no saddle or bridle.
This novel by Naomi Alderman is one to set the mind racing. It was such a good conceit that I had to keep reading as I could not see how it could be concluded in a satisfactory way. The fact that the ending worked so well shows what an amazing novelist Naomi Alderman is.
In a world where it is girls rather than boys who have the power, the relationships and attitudes of the genders is explored through several key characters from different parts of the world whose lives intersect. It starts with teenage girls who discover an ability to transmit a sort of electric current through their finger tips. As the young women reach an age when they are finding a place in the world, it becomes an interesting idea that these girls flex their metaphorical and literal muscles. Some are kind and some are not.
What works best of all in this novel is that we are not immersed in an alternative reality but see the awakening of something new. Therefore, it is not a case of genders having switched places but rather a genuine power- play between males and females, with the females seeming to come out on top. In the small details is a larger picture revealed: boys educated in single sex schools for their own safety; some boys dressing as
Naomi Alderman encourages us to reflect on the imbalance of power between men and women but also explores deeper themes of morality of those who hold power, whatever their gender. The resulting novel takes us through several years of shifting ground until we reach a point where it is clear that boys and men will grow up as the weaker sex; the character of Tunde perfectly illustrates the change for young men who thought their world of entitlement was a birth right.
‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The poetry collection I would save from the metaphorical burning house would be ‘Armada’ by Brian Patten. Each poem is a gem. This one, perhaps, the most moving of all.
You never went to a ball, ever.
In all your years sweeping kitchens
No fairy godmother appeared, never.
Poor, poor sweetheart,
This rough white cloth, fresh from the hospital laundry,
Is the only theatre- gown you’ve ever worn.
No make-up. Hair matted with sweat.
The drip beside your bed discontinued.
Life was never a fairy-tale.
This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture. The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago. This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.
The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.
The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants. Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life. The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.
At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!
This 2016 film from Thomas Vinterberg, while not his best work, is interesting. The cast includes actors well-known internationally from other Danish films in an exploration of the conflicts of communal living and personal desires.
Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm play a married couple who inherit a large family house and decide to invite others to live there with them. The disparate group they put together form a sort of extended family in the best spirit of communal living. Their relationship fractures, though, when he has an affair with a student at the University where he lectures and, rather than keep it quiet, he confesses to his wife and they split… sort of, since neither moves out.
The spirit of inclusion engendered by the commune is now called upon to include his new partner and the communal members decide to invite her to live with them all. The effect on wife, husband and daughter may be obvious but the film shows the individuals dealing with the reality as it touches on their principles. Set in the 70s, the film is an interesting exploration of themes of peace and conflict.
The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?