This children’s novel by Jill Paton Walsh from 1988 is a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be dislocated as a child. James is new to the Fens, having moved with his parents because of their jobs. He finds himself as the outsider in a village where the children divide themselves neatly into ‘estate’ and ‘village’. As he belongs to neither group, James feels even more alone. It is a good job, then, that the old man next door is so interesting.
Mr Samson, the ‘gaffer’ of the title, is a widower who befriends the young boy providing him with someone to talk to. Such inter-generational friendships may now be threatened but in times past the wisdom of an older person could be passed on. Jill Paton Walsh captures well this friendship across the age gap.
James gets thrown together with Angey, another school outsider. The situation doesn’t help his case for being accepted but, when he goes on a mission for the gaffer, she is a useful ally.
Things come to a head when the gang mentality threatens James and Angey and he finds himself trying to help an ailing Mr Samson while standing up to bullies.
The novel explores themes of belonging, bullying, age and facing death all within a story of a boy in a village in the East of England. The book won the prestigious Smarties Prize and should, by now, qualify for classic status. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film with the title ‘Apres le Sud’ in the original French is an interesting study of four people each facing a personal crisis. The setting is the South of France in what seems to be a heatwave. Directed by Jean- Jacques Jauffret, the 2011 film plays with time so that when things unfold we pass moments that we have already witnessed. What makes it all the more interesting is the way the characters cross paths with each other as their personal stories unfold.
Amelie is a young woman with a holiday job at the supermarket. She urgently needs to speak to her boyfriend, Luigi, but tracking him down is hard and when he appears, she cannot be released from her work. He has his own issues as his father is harsh with him and he wants to return to his mother in Italy. He is unaware that the news Amelie has for him could change his decision about leaving.
Amelie’s mother has her own concerns and leaves for another city telling her daughter she is visiting a relative overnight. Instead, she goes to a clinic that could help with her weight problem. Georges is the fourth character we follow. He is a retired man who relies on public transport to go to the local supermarket. Quite lonely, but not without reason, he listens to classical music and fights off the irritation of teenagers playing football against his garage door.
As you would expect on such a hot day, everyone moves slowly and the camera lingers over small details so that there is a documentary feel at times.
When the paths cross in a final tragic scene, earlier scenes fall into place and the layers built up by the director come together. It is an accomplished film. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved this novel by Francis Spufford. I knew of the author because of his non- fiction work, especially ‘The Boy That Books Built’. I was not sure what to expect from his first work of fiction but I was bowled over by the balance of fun and seriousness. The book had a lot of exposure on publication and it has done well on the literary prize front but, best of all, it was a book that made me smile… many times.
A young man from London called Mr Smith arrives in the New York of 1746 with a letter or a ‘bill of exchange’ entitling him to a large sum of money. There are 60 days for the Manhattan bank to honour the bill, written by a banking house in London. The owners of the bank are suspicious and demand assurances before they will pay out, especially as the young man in front of them does not fit their idea of what a rich young nobleman should look like.
The story follows the ups and downs of Mr Smith as he waits for the 60 days to pass and for the assurances the bank seeks to arrive from London. In the manner of an 18th Century novel the young man goes through many adventures, telling us many things about the society of New York at that time. Slavery, sexuality, politics and class prejudices are all themes explored by following the immigrant from London make his way on Manhattan island. The title refers to the location of the banking house in New York.
The best thing about the book is that the author keeps us guessing, right up to the end. We are not privy to the reasons for Mr Smith’s arrival or answers to the question of what he will do with the money when, or if, it is granted. There are clues, I realised once I had finished, but the impetus to keep reading is strong. The ‘answer’ when it comes is both serious and satisfying and places the comedy in sharp relief.
‘Golden Hill’ 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?
I avoid sentimental books and films at all costs and I have to say I thought this film might fall into that category telling, as it does, the story of a young man from difficult circumstances who finds glory in a talent competition. Hany Abu-Assad’s film ‘The Idol’ won me over, though, and at the end, when I saw real news footage that I remember seeing on Channel 4 News in Britain, I knew this was a film for my hinterland.
The film tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf from Gaza whose biggest asset is his singing voice. The first half of the film shows the Muhammed as a boy with his sister and friends. Their dream is to form a band and buy the musical instruments to make this happen. Various schemes go wrong but the determination of the children is clear to see. They find a niche when his voice is in big demand as a wedding singer. But, when his sister Nour becomes ill and needs a new kidney, we see the desperate situation of the population in Gaza. Muhammed is close to his sister and cannot contemplate life without her.
As we move into the second part of the film, Mohammed is now a young man driving a taxi to fund his university studies. His singing has not died away completely but there is less joy in it for him until he meets an old friend who used to have dialysis alongside his sister many years ago. She encourages him to sing for her and something in him awakens. An aborted attempt to sing by internet for a television show reminds us of the policies that keep many Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
The journey to ‘Arab Idol’ where the real Mohammed Assaf made his name begins with a need to get beyond his trapped location. Friends and family help and in a series of incidents which bring him good fortune he finds himself appearing on the programme. This is the only part of the film that seemed too good to be true but, by this stage, I was ready to accept that he needed the breaks.
The film ends with documentary footage from around the world as his story interested foreign news programmes. It is an inspiring story of a boy from Gaza who travels to Egypt to take part in a talent show on television and who wins. Scenes of joy around the Gaza strip and Palestine are shown from news footage; there is no need to recreate this part fo the story.
‘The Idol’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Saleem Haddad has taken its place in my hinterland. It is a fascinating insight into a young gay man trying to live in an unnamed Arab country without sacrificing his true identity. The country is in the aftermath of an Arab spring like revolution and Rasa, an educated young man, is pleased to be back there after studying in America. Yet, the revolution has not taken hold and the regime is oppressive in many ways.
We follow Rasa across one day as he remembers the events of the night before, carries out his duties as a translator for a western journalist and attends the wedding of the man who happens to be the love of his life. As he negotiates the day, we learn about his past; this includes his parents’ marriage, disrupted by his strong willed grandmother, and his time in America as a student at the time of 11th November 2001.
The day does not start well! The night before, he was seen in bed with Taymour, his lover, by his grandmother. Their secret is out and Rasa is unsure how his grandmother will react. She spied through his keyhole so he is unsure what she actually saw. On top of this it seems that Taymour is determined to get married as his family expect him to, and Rasa has been invited to the wedding.
The book explores themes of culture and identity and the extent to which secrets can destroy families. Rasa felt like an outsider in the USA but he remains on the outside in his own country, marooned partly by sexuality and partly by his politics.
The title for the book comes from the name of the nightclub where Rasa and his friends feel that they can be free of the constraints of their society. ‘Guapa’ by Saleem Haddad is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I love the films that take true events which are little known and turn them into stories which illustrate a larger theme. ‘Chariots of Fire’ is one such film. I saw it while a student in Oxford and, partly because of that time and place, it has fixed itself in my memory.
The tale of two runners who come from very different backgrounds to compete for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics is a compelling one, especially as it is the story of two outsiders who enter the heart of the British establishment. Eric Liddell is the Scottish son of missionaries who believes running is one way he can show his love of God. Harold Abrahams is an outsider because of his Jewish religion.
Both men are selected for the team, alongside members of the aristocracy and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. The team is the cream of the establishment’s sporting class and the film shows the difference between those born to rule and those who earn their place through effort and talent.
When Liddell and Abrahams run in the same race, Liddell wins causing much anguish to Abrahams. He takes on a coach, a move that offends some as beneath the dignity of a sporting gentleman. The true drama takes place in Paris, though, when the Olympics are staged. When Liddell learns that his race is to be held on a Sunday, he withdraws on faith grounds. Despite strong pressure from the Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales, he refuses to race and it looks as if he will forego the opportunity to win a medal. The day is saved, though, by Lord Lindsay who offers to stand aside so that Liddell can race on a Thursday in what would have been his heat.
It is well documented that both Liddell and Abrahams won gold medals but the manner of their winning makes a great film. Ian Charleston played Eric Liddell and Ben Cross played Harold Abrahams in a film written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson.
‘Chariots of Fire’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1566488a) Chariots Of Fire, Nigel Havers, Daniel Gerroll, Ian Charleson, Nick Farrell, Ben Cross Film and Television