This novel by Naomi Alderman is one to set the mind racing. It was such a good conceit that I had to keep reading as I could not see how it could be concluded in a satisfactory way. The fact that the ending worked so well shows what an amazing novelist Naomi Alderman is.
In a world where it is girls rather than boys who have the power, the relationships and attitudes of the genders is explored through several key characters from different parts of the world whose lives intersect. It starts with teenage girls who discover an ability to transmit a sort of electric current through their finger tips. As the young women reach an age when they are finding a place in the world, it becomes an interesting idea that these girls flex their metaphorical and literal muscles. Some are kind and some are not.
What works best of all in this novel is that we are not immersed in an alternative reality but see the awakening of something new. Therefore, it is not a case of genders having switched places but rather a genuine power- play between males and females, with the females seeming to come out on top. In the small details is a larger picture revealed: boys educated in single sex schools for their own safety; some boys dressing as
Naomi Alderman encourages us to reflect on the imbalance of power between men and women but also explores deeper themes of morality of those who hold power, whatever their gender. The resulting novel takes us through several years of shifting ground until we reach a point where it is clear that boys and men will grow up as the weaker sex; the character of Tunde perfectly illustrates the change for young men who thought their world of entitlement was a birth right.
‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman 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!
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 poem by Brian Patten back in the 60s is just one reason why I hold him in high esteem. His poem was a response to the awful, racist election in Smethwick in 1964 and the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration. The fact that this was a white man writing shows that allies are to be found everywhere. I like the poem but I love the fact that Brian Patten wrote it.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song)
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once
Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.
I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.
The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.
Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
And may all your citizens be white.
Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.
This 1998 novel by Wayne Johnston is an epic exploration of the life of Joe Smallwood, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland who steered his country into confederation with Canada in the 40s. The story is told from his point of view and shows how he rose from difficult beginnings to a position where he could ‘do something great’. He is an outsider for most of his life so strives to make his mark and gain recognition and validation.
He crosses paths with Sheilagh Fielding at the private school from which he is unjustly expelled. Her career as a journalist means she is both ally and combatant in his life. In the novel she provides us with the external view of a complicated man.
In many ways, Smallwood and Newfoundland are similar. Both feel inferior to others and long to be accepted. The campaign to join Canada is a difficult one for many people but Smallwood sees this as Newfoundland’s opportunity to make a mark in the world. Fielding is an acerbic character providing the reader with the antidote to Smallwood’s determination and optimism. Her waspish contributions to journalism punctuate the book.
It is a long book that maintains interest over its 500 pages by always exploring the humanity behind the historical decisions. ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This short book by Antonia Fraser is worth reading as an evocation of a specific time and place. Historian and writer Fraser travelled with her partner, the playwright Harold Pinter, to Israel in 1978. He was Jewish and she was not; she refers to the differing perspectives in her diary.
These are not anonymous travellers observing quietly in a strange country. It isn’t the type of travel book that shows the exotic. They have connections and know many of the great and the good of the country; at one point they dine with Shimon Peres, leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister and President. The PM at the time was Begin, a controversial figure as far as Harold Pinter was concerned.
They visit the sites many tourists take in but this trip has access to many other areas. It is the actual diary Antonia Fraser kept while travelling, discovered recently by the author. It reads with the immediacy of a journal. These are not the carefully sculpted sentences of her historical works. It is worth reading for the sense of a journey taken and the growing relationship between two people.
I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history. Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.
I read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain. In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians. Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies. His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post. This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum! Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up. Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him. Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.
This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there. Her time here is more dramatic. She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer. Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.
Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer. She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain. What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views. The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.
Re-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues. Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.
Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians. Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in. I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.
‘Tales from Two Cities’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?