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?
This documentary film is an essential meditation on matters of race and identity. Effectively using archive footage from James Baldwin’s appearances on television and in front of the Cambridge Union, the film covers the writer’s thoughts on civil rights and the treatment of black people by the powerful (mostly white) population. Footage of events from more recent times is also used, making the all- too- depressing point that the same issues exist today.
Baldwin knew three prominent figures of the civil rights movement in the United States of America: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X. All three were murdered and the toll on the spirit of Baldwin is clear from the words spoken here. Samuel L Jackson speaks lines from Baldwin’s writings, including a manuscript that was unfinished at the time of his death.
The footage of the family of Medgar Evers at his funeral is heartbreaking to watch.
James Baldwin fought battles on many fronts in his life. The thing which is most impressive to me is his consistency of message. Throughout it all, his sense of injustice has been clearly and calmly articulated.
The documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and was nominated for an academy award in America.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ 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.
In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
This documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?