Burmese Days

This novel by George Orwell dates back to the 30s when Burma was part of British India and the British Empire.  John Flory is the central character, a man formed by his role in the Raj but detached from the colonial society he is semi-detached from.  The club plays an important role since it is where the British gather to be apart from the ‘natives’ they despise.  Flory finds himself out of sympathy with the prevailing mood; he actually maintains a friendship with a local doctor.

The novel is based on George Orwell’s experiences of Burma from the 1920s.  When published the Empire was still intact even if it was nearing its end and there were many who saw this as ‘letting the side down’.

Flory finds himself isolated over the issue of whether or not locals should be allowed membership of the club.  He has the doctor in mind as the best person to be the first new member, a view not shared by the others who see this as a lowering of standards.

When the orphaned niece of a fellow club member arrives in Burma, Flory is forced to confront the perception others have of him.  As he tries to gain her attention, he has to assess the importance to him of his place among the Europeans.

Themes of racism, imperialism, identity and Empire are all covered in a novel that, considered in the context of its time, is a brave one.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?





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,BlogAuden34
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.

Certainty, fidelity
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

The Good Children

Roopa Farooki’s novel is an amazing story of sibling love told across many generations and continents.  The mother is central to the novel but she is not the social centre of her family since she is the centre of her own world and sees her children only as far as they interest her or are useful.  The sons are sent away to medical schools in USA and England and the daughters have lives planned to enhance the way the world views their mother.  Around this woman, her two boys and two girls provide the heart that warms the novel.

When first sent away, neither Sulaman nor Jakie know how they will cope apart and both know that this is part of their mother’s plan.  Yet they build lives in their new countries and we follow their fortunes over several decades.  Jakie meets Frank and they become lovers, not easy to be gay or brown in a London of the time.  Sully in the States has less of his brother’s charm and is less sure of himself.  He finds love with a fellow researcher but her Indian- German background means she will never be accepted by his mother.

BlogGood Children

The girls have different fates with Mae the only one to stay in Pakistan.  Her life starts in the conventional marriage but she breaks free. Lana gravitates to her brother in England where her place as the caring sibling finds a purpose.

I loved this book, the sections about Frank and Jakie most of all.  Their relationship against the odds was the most affecting part for me.

The mother is always present but the book shows how the children have grown without, or despite, her.  In the final scenes they are back together again in Lahore gathered for an important family occasion.

‘The Good Children’ by Roopa Farooki is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Hana’s Suitcase

The true story of Hana’s suitcase is a remarkable one and one that is well told in this moving account by Karen Levine.  It BlogHanaSuitcasebookcrosses three continents to trace the story of a young girl, her brother and the suitcase. The reason the suitcase was needed was the most poignant thing of all because Hana was a young Jewish girl in 30s Europe caught up in the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.

The reason we know about Hana’s story is down to a Japanese woman Fumiko Ishioka and her small museum in Tokyo.  The Tokyo Holocaust Resource Centre was established to ensure generations of young people know about and learn the lessons of the destruction caused by he hatred of difference.  She visited Auschwitz as part of her work and asked for the loan of items to exhibit back in Tokyo. She particularly wanted a child’s she and a suitcase because of their symbolic value.

Hana’s suitcase was loaned in 2000 and put on display. It had a name, date of birth and the German word for orphan ‘Wisenkind’ written on it in large writing.  Several young volunteers at the museum became interested in the person behind the name and the quest to find Hana began.

The book relates the search for the young Czech girl, or at least information about her fate. They hoped to find her alive and well but the journey took Fumiko Ishioka back to Europe where she discovered that Hana was one of the millions killed by the Nazi German regime. She had been killed in the gas chambers hours after arriving at Auschwitz in 1944.  The search also turned up the information that her brother, George, had survived the camp and had moved to Canada after the war.  A third continent became part of the story.BlogHanaSuitcase

This book was written by Karen Levine who was also a producer on a film made about a suitcase that acted as both a symbol of events that should never be forgotten and the powerful reminder of the determination of some people to keep the memories alive.

‘Hana’s Suitcase’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

As I Walked Out One Evening

This poem by Auden dates from the 30s.  Love is where it falls.  Auden knew this.

As I Walked Out One EveningBlogAuden45

As I walked out one evening,
   Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
   Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
   I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
   ‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
   Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
   And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
   Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
   Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
   For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
   And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
   Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
   Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
   And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
   Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
   And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
   The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
   A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
   And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
   And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
   The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
   And the deep river ran on.

W H Auden

In Europe

Geert Mak is a journalist from the Netherlands whose travels in 1999 sent him across the continent to tell the story of the Twentieth Century from the significant places and landmarks.  As well as being an inspired idea, the book is well written by a journalist and historian whose observations are revealing and enlightening.  He moves from the major names to the unknown and from one end of the continent to another.


Since my history at school was based almost entirely on Britain (and the rest of the world only got a look in if there was a connection to Britain and the Empire) the Euro- centric approach of the book was refreshing.  This is a travel book as well as a history; Mak writes about the details of his travels to far flung places and shows us the effect of being in the actual place where history was made. He also uses historical sources, such as newspaper reports, to show how events may be viewed differently after the passage of time.

He stayed in the hotel in Bavaria, Germany where the SA were murdered in the night of the long knives.  Chernobyl, Dresden, Srebrenica, Verdun, Vichy, Amsterdam, Auschwitz, Guernica and Gdansk all appear along with places I had hardly heard of.  The mark of history is on many of these names, to say them aloud is to bring the image of one part of history to life.  In some cases, the towns, villages or cities must resent this association of their home with a part of history they would rather forget.  It must be easier to be a tourist destination for better reasons.

The chapters are reasonably short and I read one a day over several months.  It was the best way to read this book, as if I was reading his newspaper column on a daily basis.  Geert Mak has written a masterpiece that will be read for many years as a definitive history of the continent in the 20th century.

‘In Europe’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Pa Negre

This Spanish film tells the story of the fall out from the Civil War and the effects on one family. We see the world through the eyes of Androu, much loved son of a leftist activist and a put upon mother.  When the war puts this family on the losing side, the parents separate.  His father flees to France and his mother works all hours at the factory to make ends meet. Androu is left in the care of his grandmother and aunt but he is aware of the unfinished sentences and the secrets that circulate around him.


He is intrigued by a young man at the local sanatorium who appears unworldly, especially when Androu is forbidden by him to touch him or come closer.  While the youth talks about release from the world, to a young Androu this means freedom from his current situation.

As the story progresses we learn that the activities of his father may not have been as benign as he was led to believe and unguarded comments from widows in the village suggest that his father has much of which to be ashamed.  Androu is offered into the guardianship of a local worthy whose fortunes rose as the civil war concluded.  Her wish for a son can be met and his wish for an education can be provided.  As he finds out more about his own family, his sense of loyalty shifts.


There is one scene, of a violent act, that shows how a young gay man is dealt with by the men of the village when his sexuality is discovered.  Many disappeared in the Spanish Civil War and this film shows that the scars were deep.

‘Pa Negre’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?