This book by Tony Peake is short but it contains a big story in the limited number of pages. It is a story of awakening in 60s South Africa. Young Paul is different from his contemporaries in many ways, not least because his parents came to the country to avoid a grim post war Britain. Here, they hoped to build a life for themselves among the white population whose attitudes are alien and sometimes hostile.
Paul has to board during the week and is desperate to belong. He is included in a select group of pupils by a teacher who aims to broaden the minds of his charges by getting them to discuss the news. Of more worth to the young Paul is the attention from popular boy Andre Du Toit. The gang that gather around this boy vie for preferment. Du Toit encourages them by keeping a pecking order and regularly demoting boys so that their loyalty is always to them and not each other.
Paul watches as his parents also try to belong and the attention of Du Toit’s father. What starts as acceptance turns into something else when the questions about the regime threaten to spoil a useful friendship.
The story is told in flashback so we have an adult Paul driving in modern day South Africa in search of a person who may have been more influential than he realised when he was a boy. This person stands as a role model for the adult Paul and represents the moral code that was missing in apartheid South Africa. The crossing of boundaries involves the race issue as well as class and nationality and, finally, sexuality.
‘North Facing’ by Tony Peake is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have been exploring the excellent BFI archive recently and came across two documentaries about race relations in Britain. The first, from the 60s, was part of the ITV current affairs series ‘This Week’ and the second from the ITV current affairs series, ‘World in Action’. I may well have seen the second of these programmes, called ‘Black to Front’ since I was a keen watcher of ‘World in Action’ in the 70s as well as an awakening political activist.
‘Black to Front’ covered the by-election in Lambeth Central in 1978 when the threat of the racist National Front was all too real. The far right party had gone through a period of rising support, especially in parliamentary by-elections, often defeating the, then, third-party the Liberals into fourth place. This particular by-election was important as Brixton, with its increasing black population, was part of the constituency.
In Leeds in 1965, the late great Desmond Wilcox interviewed families for a documentary called ‘The Negro Next Door’. The attitudes of the white residents seem somewhat shocking today but Wilcox was a brilliant journalist and his questions kept gently probing the preconceptions.
Despite being a decade apart, both documentaries took one street to act as a microcosm of the whole nation. In both programmes, neighbours were brought together to discuss the issues. This was more awkward and revealing in the 1965 documentary since the attitudes had yet to soften or get hidden behind a veneer of politeness.
The BFI archive is fascinating with many programmes available free of charge. It acts as a fascinating resource for seeing how the country has changed (or not) and how social attitudes build national character. I like going through programmes from my younger years even if I missed them at the time. Watching the world as it once was, from traffic to fashion, is a way of revisiting my childhood and teenage years.
These documentaries from the BFI archive are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am late to the Paul Scott ‘Raj Quartet’ party! I remember the fuss around the television series in the 80s, the first time I heard about the series of novels, but I didn’t read them back then. It has taken many years to get around to starting them and over fifty years since the first novel was published. I am glad I did!
The novel is about the dying days of the British Empire rule of India and centres on Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer as he once styled himself) a young Indian, brought up in England and sounding more English than the English, and Daphne Manners, a young British woman serving in India since the war back home took the lives of her immediate family. Their growing relationship causes many other people to notice, on both sides of the racial divide. There are other characters who exemplify the strict British code of living apart from the Indian people and Indians who are suspicious of anyone who gets close to the British. Then there is Miss Crane, deemed eccentric because of her willingness to treat Indians as people, and Ronald Merrick, the Chief of Police who believes that liberal attitudes will be the undoing of the Empire.
Told in a form of research gathered into a case of an attack on Daphne Manners and the aftermath, we have diary extracts, letters and interviews. There is an exploration of the back story of key characters, especially Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners and over the course of the novel we piece together the story of the attack. The book works well because it maintains interest in the central drama despite revealing this information on the first page.
The British rule in India in the early 40s was one of expectation that the people of India would support the war effort; why would they not be loyal to the throne in the time of need? Not every Indian understands why a war involving the British should involve them and the Japanese threat is less of a threat to fellow Asians.
With themes of identity, race and Empire, this book remains essential reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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?
The 50th anniversary of the ‘The Mersey Sound’ collection sent me back to my copy and to this poem of Adrian Henri’s which I particularly like.
Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands
Love is fish and chips on winter nights
Love is blankets full of strange delights
Love is when you don’t put out the light
Love is the presents in Christmas shops
Love is when you’re feeling Top of the Pops
Love is what happens when the music stops
Love is white panties lying all forlorn
Love is pink nightdresses still slightly warm
Love is when you have to leave at dawn
Love is you and love is me
Love is prison and love is free
Love’s what’s there when you are away from me
This is a book that I picked up because of its cover. The story takes place over two countries and several decades, focusing on the inter- relation of two families, one Indian and one British as various members meet and depart over the years.
There is a central act that affects them all but the nature of the incident is not revealed until the end. However, the sense that we are heading towards this one essential event pervades the book. Amitav Ghosh keeps the reader with him since we want to know what glue kept these families together but why is there a gulf between them (to mix the metaphors!).
The novel is in two parts: Going Away and Coming Home. The narrator starts as a young boy in Calcutta trying to work out the adults around him. He hero worships Tridib, his worldly uncle, who seems to negotiate the world with ease. Tridib has lived in London as well as India and it is here that the link with the British family, the Prices, is established. The son of the family is in love with Ila, the narrator’s cousin, and the daughter is in love with Tridib.
We know from early on that May, the daughter, is not ‘with’ Tridib even though she travelled to India and then Bangladesh to be near him. The reason why becomes clear and the meetings of the narrator with May in London in the 60s become meaningful when the gaps in the families’ histories are filled.
What could be a complex novel is skilfully handled by Ghosh. The narrator’s feelings for and about the members of both families change over time and, just as in most families, the narrative is never straight forward. In the end, though, the adult narrator comes to an accommodation with his younger self and realises that family secrets are rarely helpful or healthy.
‘The Shadow Lines’ by Amitav Ghosh is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Penguin poetry collection called ‘The Mersey Sound’ was published 50 years ago this year. That is staggering news since the poetry of all three is alive and relevant right now. Although it first appeared in 1967, I became aware of it in the 70s when I reached my teens and turned away from the poetry of school and towards poetry I found for myself. Obviously, I thought I was something of a pioneer when I discovered this volume and was nonplussed when an English teacher knew more about it than I did! He didn’t bring these poems to class.
I first heard Roger McGough live and in person in Oxford when I was a student and I have heard him in several other places since. It may be true that poetry is like rock n roll since I have found myself in the audience just hoping he will read my favourites. He has packed many venues. When I last heard him, the audience in Bath was terrific. But that first time, back in Oxford, there were only a few of us. I know tickets have to be sold, but this was the reading I remember most fondly.
I heard Brian Patten many years later in Bath at the literature festival. He, too, was fantastic and I would love to hear him again.
I also have a story about Adrian Henri! He gave a reading at the festival in Bath and I had a ticket. But I was ill! I decided to give the evening a miss with the thought that I could always hear him some other time. Oh, the ifs of history.
‘The Mersey Sound’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?