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
I have long been a fan of David Wynne’s work as a sculptor. There are so many London landmarks improved by the siting of one of his sculptures. Other places, too, have benefited from his talent, including Newcastle, but it is London I know best and it was here that I first put the name of the artist to the work I most admired: Boy with a Dolphin.
This book, which takes its title from his most famous work, is actually a review of his career. Published before his death in 2014, the book includes photographs of him working as well as of the final pieces in situ. There are still places I need to go to see his sculpture and some are in the hands of private collectors or private companies so will possibly be beyond sight unless there is a retrospective at a major gallery.
The best aspect of the book is the insight into the creative process. There are quotes from interviews with Wynne himself as well as excerpts from newspapers and magazines. David Wynne was friends with people in high places and many of his commissions came from someone who knew someone. As an essentially self- taught artist, though, the fact that so many pieces are on public display is the best outcome for me.
This book with its extensive illustrations is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The death this week of Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, marks another part of my childhood passing away. I loved the books about the bear from Peru who comes to London, where I lived as a boy, as a refugee and who learns how to fit in with the British. The first book was published in 1958 and I read many of them in the 60s. Yet, it was an animated version broadcast by the BBC in the 70s that seared an image of the bear in my mind. With the late great Michael Hordern as the voice of Paddington, the series of short programmes was the definitive interpretation of the stories.
The greatest animation of all time must surely be ‘Paddington Bear Goes to the Movies’ when the young bear performed a version of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Sublime! Thank you Michael Bond.
Paddington swaps Marmalade for Marmite.EMBARGOED TO 0001 THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 13, 2007. Undated Handout of Paddington Bear who swaps his trademark marmalade for a pot of Marmite in a new campaign launched today. Issue date: Wednesday September 12, 2007. He appears in a new TV commercial to publicise the savoury spread following a deal between food giant Unilever, which owns the Marmite brand, and owners of the Paddington copyright. See PA story: CONSUMER Paddington. Photo credit should read: Ben Phillips/PA Wire URN:5129193
Reading about the recent death of Adam West who played the Batman of my childhood made me reflect on the fact that the images of our formative years remain with us, despite later re-boots. Therefore, whenever anyone mentions Batman it is the image of the television series from the mid- 60s that comes to mind.
I was of an age that took these things very seriously so I did not, at the time, recognise any of the features that were later described as ‘camp’. I did not realise that the series was from another country, they spoke English after all. To me, it was all worth my attention and belief. I identified more with Robin than Batman, possibly because he was younger and I was a child.
I gave all the later films a miss. I grew away from Batman and superheroes generally but the truth is that the mid-60s television version remained with me and, when I heard the sad news about Adam West, there were all the images and references from childhood just waiting to return. Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin were all there (but in black and white- this was British television, 60s style!)
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?
This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain. It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.
Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London. In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble. They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow. They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.
Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era. Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing. She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.
Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders. The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family. As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children. Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.
Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book. Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace. Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame. 1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?