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?
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?
If I had a list of favourite books, this one would have to be on it. I don’t, I have a hinterland instead so there is room for this wonderful story of the lives of four people, all desperate in their own way, as they cross in Sheffield in Yorkshire.
There is a central story of the four people, three men and a woman, trying to survive in difficult circumstances in a city that is sometimes unwelcoming. The novel is broken up with extended back story chapters showing the paths that led each character to their current situation. In unveiling the story, Sunjeev Sahota, shows us how interdependent our lives are but also how easy it is to ignore those at the bottom of the pile.
Tochi, Randeep and Avtar live together with other migrant workers in a squat in Sheffield. Each has come to Britain from India. Randeep has an arranged marriage with a British Asian woman and Avtar has a student visa. They are both Sikhs and are connected through the sister of one who is the girlfriend of the other. Tochi is from the very bottom of the pile in India since he is an ‘untouchable’. His story is the most tragic, something that must be kept in mind when he often seems to be the least sympathetic of characters in the book. The everyday injustices are seen in the small moments and in the way these men treat each other. At the edge of their lives is Narindar, a young woman from a reasonably prosperous family who wants to live out the teachings of her Sikh religion by doing good. Her chosen path is her way of living out her faith but when this conflicts with family honour there is heartache and anxiety.
This excellent novel shows an aspect of British life that is most often only revealed through the shrill headlines of the tabloid press. Sunjeev Sahota shows us what might lie behind the accusatory headlines of illegal immigrant and sham marriages. At first sight, the title seems to refer to the fact that the men have run away to England. By the end of the book, I wondered whether the ‘runaway’ was the aspiration to get them out of the hell they were in.
This book is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Having read Ben Judah’s excellent book on Russia under Putin, I was keen to read his insights into London in the twenty- first century. As a Londoner, I am a keen Londonophile even though, like all enthusiasts, my affection is kept intact by no longer having to live there!
This is first class reportage of life in the capital as experienced by those on the fringes, politically and economically rather than geographically. Apparently, over 40% of the population of London was born elsewhere in the world. Yet London remains a magnet and the route to the city is well worn by those with great hopes.
Ben Judah states that he needs to see things for himself. He distrusts statistics. So, in this book, he beds out for the night with rough sleepers near Hyde Park and meets people in diverse situations across the capital. One of the most interesting interviewees was a policeman, offering his views from one side of the law. His insights are made more interesting by the fact that he is Nigerian.
It becomes clear that there is a congregating of ethnic groups in particular corners, a fact that is articulated by many of the subjects interviewed here. Sometimes this is for safety and companionship and other times it is the economics that keeps people in their place.
Judah does not often pass judgement on what he sees; he communicates his findings which are all based on what he encountered by crossing London. At times, things seem grim yet this is still a city that welcomes people. London is continually renewed by the injection of differing cultures. The views of the migrants on the British are illuminating.
The interviews are thorough and Judah’s gift is to let people speak for themselves. The stories they tell show that there are many Londons; some are places worth visiting and others you might wish to avoid.
I enjoy reading about history but especially the less well known aspects of key events from the past. I thought I knew a lot about evacuees from London; my father was one, evacuated to Kent for the duration of the so- called phoney war and back in time for the Blitz! This history by Susan Soyinka is fascinating and uncovered areas I had not previously considered and revealed new facts. For example, there was highly efficient planning by the government for the evacuation of children from the larger cities but next to know co-ordination of their return. As a consequence, the authorities were unable to say with any certainty where children were.
The story told here is a specific one, though: Jewish children from the East End of London were evacuated with their school to Mousehole, beyond Penzance in Cornwall. The cultural change experienced by both locals and evacuees is related in an oral history that reveals the best of humanity as well as the resilience of people in times of war.
Many of the children from the Jews Free School were the ones who were not in the first wave of evacuation to Cambridgeshire. As bombs fell more often on London, they were sent away by their parents and Cornwall was the designated receiving area.
The memories are well handled by Susan Soyinka who is clear when inconsistencies arise or where memories conflict with the records. In part, the author shows us how she went about researching this history as she discusses her methods as well as her findings.
There are some remarkable insights into how the Jewish religious practices were kept alive in an area far from a synagogue and the story of the refugee children from Europe who, speaking no English, were also evacuated. Their suspicions of trains and train journeys were understandable.
‘East End to Land’s End’ is a fascinating book. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As a fan of David Hare’s work, I was pleased to see this 2016 film. He wrote the screenplay based on the real events surrounding the legal action taken by Holocaust denier David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. Lipstadt had named Irving as a holocaust denier in her book and, as a result, he sued her in the UK courts. The location is important since in British libel cases, the burden of proof is with the accuser. Lipstadt, an American academic, therefore had to fight the case in Britain or choose not to do so.
The story is a compelling one; it was by no means clear that Irving would lose since he made the case that he genuinely held the views he did and the other side had to prove that he lied.
The cast is a strong one: Rachel Weisz played Lipstadt; Andrew Scott played Anthony Julius, her solicitor; Tom Wilkinson played the defending barrister; and Timothy Spall played Irving.
We follow the case through the eyes of Deborah Lipstadt who is initially disbelieving at the steps she has to take to defend her honour as an historian. She does not always like the advice given to her by her legal team. In one poignant scene, she is horrified that her barrister, on a visit to Auschwitz, treats it like any crime scene and displays little emotion. At one point, she is invited to a dinner party where some prominent members of the British Jewish community urge her to settle out of court. Their fear that Irving might win was their motivating factor.
Having successfully portrayed Lipstadt as being on the back foot, the film shows the legal team in action as it dismantles the case of the Holocaust denier. It is a film about justice and standing up for the right things when the easier option might be to walk away.
‘Denial’, directed by Mick Jackson and written by David Hare, is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is a poem from my youth, read to us as very young children by a teacher in our 1960s classroom. I recall the collection of AA Milne poems ‘When We Were Very Young’ with a blue border in the hands of my teacher as she read to us.
Lines and Squares
Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, “Bears,
Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”
And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
And it’s ever so jolly to call out, “Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!”
A A Milne