This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain. It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.
Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London. In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble. They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow. They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.
Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era. Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing. She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.
Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders. The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family. As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children. Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.
Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book. Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace. Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame. 1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I watched the first series (programmes 1-6) many years ago when it was broadcast on BBC television and then caught up with the rest of the others (programmes 7- 14) on DVD. It made me realise how little I knew about Civil Rights struggle in the USA. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were well known to this British school boy but this documentary series showed that the movement was wider, deeper and full of more pain and suffering.
Julian Bond narrates the series. I came to love and respect his voice as he calmly detailed the battles fought for dignity by African-Americans throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I had no idea that he, himself, played a major part in the campaigns for equality.
The first series covered the period 1954- 1965. This was a period of great change but also great resistance by majority populations that felt threatened by any improvement to the living conditions of black people. The second series took the story on to 1985 and covered key issues and events such as Muhammad Ali’s fight for recognition, the Black Panther movement and the election of Harold Washington as the Mayor of Chicago.
Like all documentary series that make use of talking heads this has the poignancy of hearing from the people involved but what places this particular series in the highest echelons of the form is the use of ‘ordinary’ people who were involved.
Since November 8th, I have felt somewhat conflicted about the USA. As a British person I am aware that it isn’t my country but it is a country that has always fascinated me and its history in particular has inspired me. On November 9th I wanted to turn my back on it and all its works. Yet, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ reminds me that there are Americans who serve to inspire.
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!
This book is the third part of the ‘Surya Trilogy’ by Jamila Gavin. Set in India in 1951 the family of Govind and Jhoti and their son and daughter, Marvinder and Jaspal, are reunited following the separations we witnessed in the previous two books. Yet they remain separated from each other since they each try to make a life in a newly independent country. Govind retreats into a traditional role as he tried to reform a family he abandoned when he left for England. Marvinder struggles to accept a dutiful role as daughter but cannot forget the relative freedom she enjoyed in post war London and, in particular, she cannot forget one boy who was so welcoming to her back then.
Jaspal, always the one most affected by the upheaval of partition, finds an identity in his religion. What marked him out as different in London becomes his point of honour to the extent of rejecting his childhood Muslim friend.
In many ways, this book brings the threads of the earlier books together even though it does not resolve all the issues of the characters and we are left unclear about what future there is for the brother and sister in the new India. We have only glimpses of the British characters who played a prominent part in the previous novels but one of the minor characters from the earlier books is instrumental in bringing the trilogy to a close.
‘The Track of the Wind’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This television series from Germany is a fascinating insight into the world of East Germany. I watched a version with an English translation of the commentary as my German is not good enough to follow completely in the original language.
The series was made up of seven films each covering an aspect of daily life in the DDR. The sub-title, ‘A History of the Other Germany’, suggests that West Germany was better known to us in the west and life behind the Iron Curtain was, for me, something of a mystery.
The films were made in 1993 when the people most affected by the regime were able to talk. What struck me was the mixture of the historic and the mundane. Daily life is daily life wherever you live, regardless of political regime. Some complaints were about the restrictions of living in the country but others were about the loss of things since the unification of Germany. Of most importance, though, were the voices of people who felt the full force of the state. Some actively sought to be provocative but there were also the people who did not understand why they had fallen out of favour.
As the series progressed, I got the sense that any country which is so scared of its own people that it had to suppress any dissent does not deserve to survive. This point was most clear in the episode which explored artistic expression in the DDR. I also gained a clear idea that the country was not as independent as it pretended; the power from the Soviet Union acted as big brother on the playground. When fortunes changed there, the writing was on the wall for East Germany.
History is told by the victors but this series is worth seeing because it does not take a simplistic approach to the subject; many voices are heard and no easy answers are given. The final moments of the last episode prove these points. Figures, famous and not, provide a one sentence answer to the question of what the DDR meant to them. It was a powerful ending to a fascinating series.
Now here was a dilemma: to read or not to read the discovered book by Harper Lee. I was happier when I knew it was an earlier draft of what was to become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The idea of a sequel was not one I welcomed.
I read and heard a lot of the coverage when the book was published last year, most of it about Atticus and his views on race and how this showed a completely different person to the one I knew and loved from the famous book. I was also sad to learn that Jem had died an untimely death. Since I saw the story more through his eyes than Scout’s, this was, to me, an omission I felt all the way through.
However, I was more impressed than I thought I would be. I was waiting for the moments when Jean Louise, as Scout now commonly calls herself, comes face to face with Atticus’s views on race and was impressed by her reaction. I would say her response was the one I wanted from her and I followed her through the next stage of the book completely on her side. When other members of the family intervened to make the peace I was less impressed with her response and, ultimately, with the message of the book.
It is an argument that has continued through the ages: do you accommodate people whose views you find offensive or do you cut yourself off from them. Obviously, when the people you wish to disassociate from are your family members it becomes harder but the essential argument remains the same. By looking at the simmering tensions in the 50s South through the relationship of father and daughter, Harper Lee has attempted to show how one person might react.
Recent events in the UK (no- platforming, universities as safe spaces) have led me to reassess my own views on what to do when you meet distasteful views; free speech must be protected. Yet, I am also reminded of the people who spent years campaigning against apartheid by refusing to engage with the regime. In the end I decided Jean Louise should have packed her bags, I wanted her to and wished her well on her journey away from her hometown. The ending is not the one I wanted.
Fortunately, in this book we have the flashbacks to the childhood times and adventures that were identified by Harper Lee’s editor as the true source of wisdom in her writing. By making her rewrite this book we had the classic.