I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year. Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives. What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing. The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners. There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different. This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family: would they be welcome now? Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?
Using his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy. Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties. What does it mean to fit in?
Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys. Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War. With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps. Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents. Heinz’s story is one of becoming British. He stayed here and raised his family as British.
David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled. But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.
The book is an important one. The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride. This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.
‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I first heard about the life of Duleep Singh in a television documentary a few years ago. I wanted to know more as this seemed to be another of those hidden stories about Empire which were best forgotten.
This novel by Navtej Sarna takes the historical facts but weaves a story told by the elderly Duleep Singh as he nears death and several of the figures he encountered in his life. The young Duleep Singh became the maharaja of the Punjab but was outmanoeuvered by the British. As a boy he was sent to Britain to be brought up as a young gentleman. Queen Victoria was fond of him and he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a deeply committed Christian who was delighted when his charge converted from Sikhism as a young man.
It is a story of power and manipulation. The young maharaja was separated from his mother at a young age to prevent son or parent from trying to regain the throne. While the British royal family included him, they did so on their terms; the British government was keen to ensure he could not return to India.
For much of his life he was content to live the life of a country gentleman. He had estates in Scotland and Suffolk. Later, after being reunited with his mother, he regained an interest in Sikhism and sought to return to India. The British Empire did not let anyone kick against it and the might of the state was used to ensure he did not reach his homeland. He turned instead to Russia in the hope that their enmity with Britain would lead to him regaining the Punjab. International politics being what they are, he was unsuccessful and he died in a mid-range Paris hotel.
The story is worth telling and the author leads us through quite complex history by providing us with the fictional thoughts of the dying man. The novel is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past. In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India. He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics. His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public. This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.
The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world. Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain. Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.
There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war. Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).
Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story! It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it. It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle. For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.
Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel. This film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book by Anne de Courcy is a study of the British in India through the particular prism of the women who travelled out to the Raj to marry. In some cases, the journey was made with the sole purpose of finding a husband.
The history of the Empire is well documented and what makes this book stand out is its focus on amazing women, many from the ruling classes, who supported husbands in their governing roles, often in trying circumstances; not all women lived in Government House!
The pressures on family life were seen most of all by the women. An example of the difficulties they faced is seen through the difficult decision needed when their children go back ‘home’ for school. Should they stay in England or leave them to return to husbands in India? In such ways did the British show their stiff upper lips!
For some women, the bachelors of India (mostly running the Indian Civil Service) were ideal since their working lives precluded marriage until they turned 30. The fleet also proved handy for families who decided their daughters were too plain or too clever or both.
The story of the British in India is an interesting one but has been well covered by other historians. This book works so well by exploring the history from a different angle but also because voices that might otherwise be forgotten are aired.
‘The Fishing Fleet’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This powerful novel by Sebastian Barry spoke to my heart, not only because it tells the story of two men in love with each other, an easy love that did not bring each other heartache or soul- searching, but because it was a story of making your way in the world with all its difficulties in such an unassuming way. It is also a novel of identity, national as well as personal since this is America in the middle of the nineteenth century and the states are anything but united and the tribes that predated the white settlers are suffering from the move west.
Thomas McNulty and John Cole are in love. He has arrived in America from Sligo, Ireland by way of Quebec and fits in as a soldier since that is a way of earning a living. His love, John Cole, is an American he meets under a bush. Together they travel and earn a loving, first as dancers, dressed in female attire, and then as soldiers. Throughout the story Thomas is fluid in the expression of his gender, something that has deeper importance as the book reaches the denouement. What never changes is their love for each other and their determination to stay together. This is something that is ‘understood’ by those around them if not always remarked on; it is never an issue. This is not a coming out novel with the requisite angst!
The novel takes us to the frontier where ‘Indians’ are being forced from the land. Whatever Thomas McNulty thinks of this, he does his duty and in doing so becomes a surrogate parent with John Cole for Winona. It is the power of the writing that makes you want the very best outcomes for these characters despite the harsh conditions and historical events that seem sure to tear them all apart.
This is a novel to care about and one that uses the singular voice of Thomas McNulty to speak up for people who we now call gay but who then were just people in love. ‘Days Without End’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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.
This documentary by film- maker Yariv Mozer is a sad portrait of the lives of three gay men adrift in Israel. The Palestinians are there because their lives are in danger if they stay at home. The danger comes, mostly, from their own families. In some cases the men came out to family members but it is also the case that exposure came from perceptions about their personalities or because they were caught with boyfriends.
There is a sadness to this story of men living under the radar in Tel Aviv, a city chosen because it is the most accepting of their lifestyles. Louie is an illegal, though, and he is regularly deported back to the border even though this places him in great danger each time. Fares enters the film when Louie is asked to help him. His family is actively searching for him, possibly to kill him, and it falls to other gay men to rescue him.
The third person in this film is Abdou, an out and proud Arab who believes his future lies in Europe where he may be better accepted. The gay rights group supporting the men believe this is the best route for young gay men who are not given permission to stay in Israel.
The film follows two of the three to Europe where they, individually, hope to build new lives but they can’t escape the idea that this is not the homeland they would have chosen. The rejection from their families still stings and probably always will. One of the saddest parts of the film was when Louie looked over the valley to his home village before departing for Europe. He dared not visit and he longed to return.
‘The Invisible Men’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?