Letters from Baghdad

I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film.  Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East.  In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.

The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen.  That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected.  Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.

The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one.  Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War.  Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed.  In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’.  She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives.  She was not really accepted in either group.

The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out.  It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman.  ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?





Days Without End

BlogDaysWithoutEndThis 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?

The Descent of Man

BlogGraysonPerryBookGrayson Perry is always worth listening to.  I loved his television series about identity and the exhibitions that have emerged.  I also enjoyed his Reith lectures so I was keen to read about his views on modern masculinity.  This book sets out his perspective on male behaviour.  The list of negative factors is high and I can see some of these traits in myself but the answers are more elusive.  The book is still enjoyable, though, even with some contradictory features:  at one point he praises National Service as a rite of passage for young men while also decrying the violence that seems to be latent in all males.  He sees gender equality as a good thing but National Service targeted only young men.

The illustrations are amusing, as you would expect and I was struck by the fact that one double page spread was more eloquent than the narrative on the pages that led up to it.

Obviously, he has a certain outsider perspective since he dresses as a young girl as part of his persona.  He does not use this as a special platform from which to view manhood, rather he is clear about the masculine traits he sees in himself.  However, as a transvestite he has developed an ability to observe men from a different angle.

The status quo for males is not healthy for men or women and this is an attempt to draw attention to it.  I read it because Grayson Perry always has something worthwhile to say.  At the end, I should have been more satisfied with clearer points for action.  After all, recognising the need to win or to dominate every situation is only recognising the problem, not solving it.


Monsoon Wedding

This 2001 film directed by Mira Nair has settled in my hinterland.  It tells the story of a family as it prepares for a large wedding with the father Lalit at the centre trying to keep everyone happy.  His daughter Aditi is to marry a man selected by the family and the wedding must be expensive to show how much she is valued.  Relatives will arrive from around the world to participate. These include Lalit’s brother- in -law, Tej.  He has an important place in the family because of help he gave when the family was penniless.  He is an honoured guest.

The extended family includes Aditi’s cousin Ria, taken in by Lalit when her father died. Her desire to study abroad looks promising when Tej offers to pay for her but there is trouble when Ria, who stays clear of Tej, sees him flirting with a ten-year old relative.  This brings back memories of when she was young and the wedding is put under threat when she makes an accusation against the wealthy visitor.

The film shows Lalit trying to keep his family together despite all the issues emerging.  His son has planned a dance with a cousin and wants to perform at the wedding but he is concerned that the boy is effeminate and such a public display will shame them all.  This is the least of his worries, though, and the central dilemma is whether Lalit will protect his niece and risk a break with an important and wealthy relative.

The setting of New Dehli and the fact that this is an Indian family is less significant than the fact that this is a family and the emotional baggage arrives with all the guests and members of the extended family.  There are cultural specifics but the story is universal.

‘Monsoon Wedding’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?





Boy in a Tutu

blogspiestutuAs it is World Book Day, here is a book I love.  ‘Boy in a Tutu’ by Kate Scott is a sequel to her novel ‘Boy in Tights’.  The adventure continues for Joe (or Josephine) as he is now styled since going into hiding.  The concept of parents who are spies is an outlandish one but it is full of comedy and this book’s audience of children will love it.

Joe must continue to pretend to be a girl as his new identity and to keep him safe from the enemy who want to track down his parents.  In this book, Joe is coming to terms with the idea of spy parents and can even see some benefits; ballet is not one of them, though, and he is, once again, put into a difficult situation when he is sent to ballet lessons with his friend.

Being in disguise allows him to see what is hidden to others and there is a story spine running through the book of adults up to no good.  Joe has to be a convincing girl to pass unnoticed at the local sports centre where an exhibition of World Cup memorabilia is vulnerable to thieves.

As well as being a comedy, this story highlights the border children cross when they understand what life is like for others.  For Joe, being Josephine reveals a lot about the way girls are treated.

‘Spies in Disguise: Boy in a Tutu’ is a lot of fun.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


The Alteration

blogalterationThis novel by Kingsley Amis is one I read in my teenage years and loved.  Set in an alternative Britain where the Reformation has not taken place, it shows the difference this would have made to the life of the country through the story of one boy, chorister Hubert Anvil.  He sings with the voice of an angel and to ensure his voice is preserved for the glory of God, he must go through a small operation.  What is clear from early in the novel is that Hubert himself will have no choice in the matter, himself.  This is a society dominated by the church from Rome and to please the church is both a desire and a practical move of self-preservation for his family.  Unfortunately, something quiet important to Hubert has to be sacrificed!

There are many subtle changes to history to make his world work and Amis is skillful at maintaining a sense of integrity for the context of his story.  Any friction between England and the Catholic Church has been ironed out of history: Henry the Eighth’s elder brother did not die so there was no divorce from Catherine of Aragon; the current Pope is an Englishman; there are no religious differences between England and other parts of Great Britain.

As with all novels, the effect of systems and regimes on people is best illustrated by showing the effect on one person.  Hubert is surrounded by those who think he is privileged to be considered for the ‘operation’; members of his family will be able to bask in the reflected glory.  There are others, though, who want to help him so he goes on the run.  This aspect of the novel is well handled; the tension is built through a ten-year old boy’s escape through England.  He meets Jewish people who live lives as second class citizens, Native Americans who are also lower caste in their own land, schemers and then, eventually, makes it to his brother on the Edgware Road in London.  His brother aims to smuggle him on to an airship to escape to the New World, away from the clutches of Rome.

The ending comes as a surprise but one that fits exactly with this world created by Amis.  ‘The Alteration’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

Moments to Remember in 2016

This has not been my favourite year!  Politically, I have been very depressed by what has happened and by who has triumphed.  However, there were bright spots and the Olympics were a large part of what made me proud to be British in 2016.


Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won Gold at the Rio Olympics. Their event was the synchronised 3m diving.  This was Britain’s first diving Gold so was an amazing achievement.  I watched it all with a growing sense of excitement when it seemed that the pair would actually win despite the best efforts of the Chinese and the Americans.

When they won, of course, they were delighted and their hug showed the level of excitement. What a shame then that Britain’s Daily Mail, the house journal of the small-minded, could not help but make a point about the fact that this was two men hugging! Good for Mears and Laugher who showed that you can hug your friend and colleague even if you are a man!