In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
This novel by Stephen Kelman is told in the engaging voice of Harrison, a boy from Ghana, in London to start a new life with his mother and sister (another sister and his father are still in Africa but hoping to come to Britain). The world as seen by an eleven year old in a new country is fascinating, especially as he tries to negotiate social conventions and the pecking order of school boys.
This is London, though, where knife crime is a big problem; already a teenage boy has been killed and Harri sees himself as the detective who can solve the crime. This makes him watchful and alert to those around him. His older sister’s choice of friends is not wise and this brings her and Harri closer to some unsavoury characters.
The world of children trying to be both tougher than they should be and more worldly wise is effectively evoked. Harri’s voice carries us through the story, observing the world and making sense of it. His optimism is infectious, especially his hope that his younger sister and father will soon arrive and they will all be united. This is the background for a further, dramatic event that non-plussed me and left me feeling sad about all the Harris in the world.
I am a great fan of the novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah so this new story is very welcome. Once again, he writes of dislocation through living in another country yet unable to leave the old country behind. In this case, the story of Salim starts with the unravelling of his parents’ marriage for reasons that remain unclear until the end of the book. It is clear to Salim, though, that everyone else seems to know more than they are telling him.
His life is Zanzibar becomes one of trying to work out the reason his parents live apart, his father in depressed circumstances. The presence of an Uncle, brother to his mother, offers a solution: the young man can live with Uncle Amir in London where he lives well with his own family in Holland Park in London; the diplomatic service offer good homes to their people. So, once again, Salim finds himself adrift but this time in a foreign country. He comes close to the parental secret on one occasion but otherwise continues semi- detached from the family. When he takes a decision about his own future that annoys Amir, he leaves for a less well off part of London and a more independent stage of his life, one that eventually takes him to Brighton before returning to London.
Wherever he lives, though, Zanzibar is present. He has contact with his mother but does not build the bridges he thinks he should, especially when she marries again and has a daughter.
Salim finds love but, once more, does not fit in. It takes a family death to bring the resolution he needs. He travels back to his home for rituals and for home truths.
One of the decisions he made for himself back in Holland Park was to abandon Business Studies for Literature, a decision that was to stand him in good stead when his family secret resembles a plot from a Shakespearian play. The book must be read to discover which one. Salim is a character I wanted to follow. I wanted it to turn out well for him. He deserved it. ‘Gravel Heart’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I first read Nigel Barley’s account of his early anthropology field work in the 80s, not long after it was published in paperback. I read it again recently; my new regime of picking books by random cards threw up ‘re-read a book from the shelf’ and this was the one I chose.
The strangest thing was that I remembered it as a very funny book but, on this re-reading, I could not find the comedy at all. It was still a worthwhile reading since most of the substance I had completely forgotten.
Nigel Barley entered field work among the Dowayo people of Cameroon in Africa. The book shows the reality of life in the field and the extent to which the very cultural differences being studied can, themselves, cause problems with conducting the research. He spent a year among the people learning about their culture, something which was built around the concept of becoming a man through circumcision. He also shows how hard it is to complete a study without affecting the community by his very presence. He writes well on the contradictions of ‘them watching me while me watching them’!
I was amused at the way Barley decided on the Duwayo people for his study. It owed more to the idea that other parts of the world were ‘already taken’ or tied up in war or strife. His ‘choice’ was a good one, though, since the differences were suitably remarkable from the tonal language to the extreme style of circumcision. His study of the people is less frustrating that his dealing with the state bureaucracy; he needs to stay on the right side of the law to obtain the permits and visas necessary to stay. After 18 months, leaving is also a bureaucratic process!
I was glad to re-read the book and was amazed that I remembered so little of the detail, remembering instead the theme and tone of the book. It made me wonder how many other books on my shelf would also stand a second go at reading them.
This book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book! The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850. Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height. Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth. Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.
I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.
Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question. It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent. Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety. The text is as illuminating as the pictures.
My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture. Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit. It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.
‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ 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!
This book by Elizabeth Laird may be aimed at children but it is worth adults picking it up to gain a fictional insight into a piece of British Empire history. The Prince of the title is Alamayu, the son of the King of Abyssinia, who relates his story from the closed world of Rugby School in England where he is educated at the instruction of Queen Victoria. How he comes to be there is told through his memories of his earlier life when his father led his nation and was a leader as strong as a lion.
The British Empire came to Abyssinia and, by the end of an efficient military campaign, the King is dead and his son is on his way to Britain.
Alamayu wants to be a worthy son in memory of his father but the Empire educates its sons in a particular way and throughout the book there are episodes where he discovers what it means to be a man.
The book is based on true events but, by fictionalising it, we gain a view of the Empire from an outsider. The attitudes of some of his fellow pupils to a boy from Africa are illuminating, as is the treatment of him by royalty. The culture shock Alamayu experiences is greater than that of an African in England.
‘The Prince Who Walked With Lions’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?