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?
The poem by Auden about the work (and supposed attitude) of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man given the task of dividing India into two new countries, seems somewhat harsh in light of the history books that suggest that he was a man brought low by the task and the repercussions. He famously refused his fee.
I am unclear about the date this poem was written so cannot tell what the prevailing mood was about the man and his task.
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
W H Auden
Every once in a while I stumble across something golden while searching for something else. Having thought the radio dramatisation of Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ was fantastic, I was pleased to discover this BBC Leeds radio play by Nick Ahad. Ordinarily, I would have no reason to listen to a Leeds radio station since I do not live anywhere near but I was searching for information about the partition of India at the end of British rule and came across this production by accident.
The play is a joint project with the West Yorkshire Playhouse where it was staged following the radio broadcast.
‘Partition’ tells the story of the past by focusing on the present day relationship between a couple about to get married. He is a Sikh and she is a Muslim. Their families have been invited to the wedding but her mother and his grandfather will not attend. We may be in present day Leeds but history is not in the past for the generation that experienced the partition of India.
The play takes us on the wedding day to the ceremony where officials are used to dealing with unusual experiences, except for the registrar, this is her very first time officiating at a wedding and the non- arrival of witnesses is going to be a problem. Both bride and groom- to- be are relying on their respective family members coming; witnesses from the street would be needed if they don’t turn up. The play shows us what obstacles would need to be overcome to face a marriage across the divide.
‘Partition’ by Nick Ahad is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic. Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.
The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special. The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.
The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one. Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents. It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man. His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.
There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel. The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off. However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.
Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part. As Saleem grows up, so does India.
‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw this film by director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert at the Bath Film Festival. It is based on the book ‘Colour Bar’ by Susan Williams and tells the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams who met in post war London and fell in love. The film centres on their love for each other and the difficulties this caused, not only because he was black and she was white in a society that was shocked by any mixing between races but also because he was heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and whoever became his wife became Queen.
It is the love story that is most affecting and cinema always does a good job of showing the detail of the period. London in the 40s looked a bit grim but Bechuanaland looked amazing in ways that I could not picture for myself when reading Susan Williams’s book.
David Oyelowo played Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike played Ruth Williams and made me believe they would have moved heaven and earth to be together. When everything was stacked against them, they continued in their quest to be married and take their place in Africa. This would be enough of a challenge without the forces of the British Empire working against them. As the film shows, the need to keep mineral rich South Africa sweet was the major reason the Labour government would not help the couple. I was pleased to see a young Tony Benn and an older Fenner Brockway portrayed as principled politicians eager to help the cause.
The couple were pawns in a political game, not helped that Churchill did not keep his promise when he returned to government. Yet, they won through and went on to lead Botswana to independence and Seretse Khama assumed the presidency by democratic election. Jack Davenport had the difficult job of playing a stiff servant of Empire but did it well, just stopping short of villain status. The despicable role of the Church of England in their story was missed and it the agony of their years apart, when Seretse returned to London to negotiate his way to the throne, were conflated into a few scenes.
However, this film was a triumph of storytelling of a period of our history that needs to be discussed rather than ignored. It would be good to think that such a circumstance would be greeted differently now, in modern Britain. Who knows!
The second novel in Jamila Gavin’s ‘The Wheel of Surya’ trilogy is fascinating since most of the action takes place in post war London where Sikh children Marvinder and Jaspal have found their father but discovered that he is not the worthy man they thought he was.
The novel shows different cultures and different lives as they weave in and out of the events leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan. It also shows the effect of the war on people and places. The London where Jaspal runs with his gang is war damaged and reduced to rubble. The kindly doctor befriended by Marvinder, attracted to the playing of his violin, has lost his family in the holocaust. Both brother and sister miss their father, in prison for his wrong doing, but unsure of the fate of their mother back in India.
Throughout the story, we see the effect of a different culture on the children. For Jaspal, his inner rage surfaces as a need to fight but Marvinder finds solace in music, especially the violin. Both are shaped by Britain at the same time as being identified as foreign because of their religion and appearance. It is a book about being torn between two worlds.
Characters from the first book in the trilogy return and scenes set in India make us hope, like Marvinder and Jaspal, that the mother is still alive.
‘The Eye of the Horse’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?