The British Museum is something of a place of pilgrimage for me so I suppose it is fitting that, this time, my visit there was to see the exhibition ‘Living with Gods’, an exploration of how religious artefacts have helped mankind make sense of the spiritual.
As always with high profile exhibitions, the people turn out so a route around the treasures on show involves high levels of patience. This is made more important by the fact that so many of the artefacts were quite small and laid out on table top arrangements. There was an element of waiting before I could get close enough to read and see.
Yet, it was worth it. The curating of exhibitions is a skill denied me but I am always grateful to the experts who seem to know what to include, how to lay it out and in what order. Here the story of different societies and how they behave in terms of religion is set out. What is striking is that there is little time spent on what people believe; the exhibition concentrates instead on the items related to religious practice. Why worry what the motivation is, what do they do?
The British Museum is able to call upon its own collection for most of these treasures and they come from across the ages and across the world. My list of favourites includes the juggernaut from India, acquired in the eighteenth century. It is from south India where a tradition of taking deities for an outing allowed people to see them. The scale model of a real juggernaut is in the museum. I was also taken with the Tibetan Thangka, an illustration of the wheel of life used as both a teaching and a devotional tool. The Lion Man from the ice age suggests that belief is universal and a human condition. To people of faith, though, the central point must be WHAT you believe.
Kamila Shamsie is an amazing writer. I was blown away by ‘Burnt Shadows’ so was keen to read this novel, published this year. All the reviews refer to the story as a re-telling of Antigone and so it is but the contemporary setting works well and explores many of the dilemmas of young Muslims who seem to be judged in a way other sectors of our society are not. The unspoken expectation is that Muslims have to prove their loyalty on an almost daily basis. Step forward the newly promoted Muslim Home Secretary whose expedient pronouncements on how others should show their loyalty to the state serve his political ambitions more than they address the current tensions.
There are two families involved in this story: the Home Secretary and his privileged son; and the three children of a suspected terrorist, killed in action in some foreign land leaving them in London to move on and out of his shadow. The eldest child, Isma, is the sensible one, the studious one who has had to care for her twin siblings following the death of their mother and grandmother. The story starts with her and we start to piece together a story of brother and sisters from the Wembley area whose normality is striking.
In America where she is studying, Isma meets Eamonn (and deliberately not Ayman) the son of the Home Secretary. Drifting rather than working, he strikes up a friendship with her and through an offer to deliver a package ends up meeting the younger sister, Aneeka, back in London.
Aneeka is the most forceful of the characters and she sees in Eamonn an opportunity. Love gets in the way but the two develop a relationship that could make or break them.
Parvaiz is the brother who took a different path. His route to radicalisation is detailed in the chapters dedicated to his story but it is the impact he has on others that acts as the anchor of the book. All the other characters are ready to judge him for his actions but Aneeka, our Antigone figure, is the one who puts her views aside to do what she thinks is right.
This is a novel by a wonderful writer. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I studied this book by E.M. Forster for A Level. Exams, especially in literature, are designed to drain all interest from what might otherwise have been a good novel. So, my views on this book have always been clouded somewhat by the background knowledge that I spent hours trying to deconstruct the meaning rather than enjoy it.
Nearly forty years later and I think sufficient time has passed to read it again and this time as a reader rather than as a pupil. I was surprised by how much I appreciated the story, especially the way the narrative had been constructed. Another casualty of the ‘set book syndrome’ is that you end up moving backwards and forwards across the text to identify themes or gather quotes to support an essay statement. Quite soon, the idea that the book has an arc and that the deeper meaning is layered across the plot is lost.
I remember having a soft spot for both Aziz and Fielding as Forster himself must have done. The Indian doctor and the British headteacher have a friendship not reflected elsewhere in the society in which they lived. The visitors, Mrs Moore and Miss Quested, while central to the drama have an outsiders view of relations between the races in the Raj. Their connection to the ‘real’ India is one of observation of the exotic. Fielding’s answer that they should try seeing Indians if they want to see India is at the heart of Forster’s message.
I was glad to return to this novel so many years later. I sourced the version I used in a classroom in the 70s; I needed the same cover, size of book and feel of the pages. It worked for me.
‘A Passage to India’ by E. M. Forster is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am late to the Paul Scott ‘Raj Quartet’ party! I remember the fuss around the television series in the 80s, the first time I heard about the series of novels, but I didn’t read them back then. It has taken many years to get around to starting them and over fifty years since the first novel was published. I am glad I did!
The novel is about the dying days of the British Empire rule of India and centres on Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer as he once styled himself) a young Indian, brought up in England and sounding more English than the English, and Daphne Manners, a young British woman serving in India since the war back home took the lives of her immediate family. Their growing relationship causes many other people to notice, on both sides of the racial divide. There are other characters who exemplify the strict British code of living apart from the Indian people and Indians who are suspicious of anyone who gets close to the British. Then there is Miss Crane, deemed eccentric because of her willingness to treat Indians as people, and Ronald Merrick, the Chief of Police who believes that liberal attitudes will be the undoing of the Empire.
Told in a form of research gathered into a case of an attack on Daphne Manners and the aftermath, we have diary extracts, letters and interviews. There is an exploration of the back story of key characters, especially Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners and over the course of the novel we piece together the story of the attack. The book works well because it maintains interest in the central drama despite revealing this information on the first page.
The British rule in India in the early 40s was one of expectation that the people of India would support the war effort; why would they not be loyal to the throne in the time of need? Not every Indian understands why a war involving the British should involve them and the Japanese threat is less of a threat to fellow Asians.
With themes of identity, race and Empire, this book remains essential reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture. The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago. This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.
The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.
The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants. Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life. The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.
At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!
This is an interesting book even if it wasn’t the book I thought it would be! Peter Mayne moved to Morocco in the early 50s to write a novel. Instead of the fiction work he imagined, his time in the country resulted in this journal of his year in Marrakesh.
Having lived in Pakistan, Mayne knew something of the Muslim way of life but the year spent in Morocco proved to be eye-opening for many reasons. He was determined not to be seen as a tourist, to live in the old city even though this meant giving up the modern comforts, and to forge friendships with the local people.
The resulting journal is a record of his daily efforts to fit in. His accommodation changes several times and much of the book is taken up with efforts to secure a roof over his head on reasonable terms. He also talks about his relationships with locals who have different expectations about trade and financial understandings.
The time he writes about has passed and with it many of the attitudes expressed here by ‘westerners’ and the Moroccans. I expected a book where the author led us through the sites and gave us local flavour. He does the latter but only in as much as it relates to the business of buying, eating, seeking accommodation. There is little of Mayne himself revealed in this book. We do not find out much about him. I was keen to know how he could afford a year without income from any work. There is no hinterland of interest or experience. What we have instead is a picture of a city in a country before it went through great changes- Morocco became independent in 1956. He captures life in one place at one time and does it well. ‘A Year in Marrakesh’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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?