Tales from Two Cities

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.

BlogDervlaMurphyI 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.

BlogTalesTwoCitiesRe-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?

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I Am Not Your Negro

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.BlogIamNotYourNegro

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?

The Ballad of East and West

This is a poem associated for ever with the classroom where I encountered it.  Like many poems fed to my teenage brain, it was only later that the point behind the poem made any sense to me.  The first two lines were the only ones I held on to so it was good to discover it again in later life and realise that the third and fourth lines of the opening stanza were the most important.

The Ballad of East and West

0h, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border side,
And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride.
He has lifted her out of the stable-door between the dawn and day
And turned the calkins upon her feet, and ridden her far away.

Then up and spoke the Colonel’s son that led a troop of the Guides
Is there never a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides? “
Then up and spoke Mohammed Khan, the son of the Ressaldar:
“If ye know the track of the morning-mist, ye know where his pickets are.
“At dusk he harries the Abazai – at dawn he is into Bonair,
“But he must go by Fort Bukloh to his own place to fare.
“So if ye gallop to Fort Bukloh as fast as a bird can fly,
“By the favour of God ye may cut him off ere he win to the Tongue of Jagai.
“But if he be past the Tongue of Jagai, right swiftly turn ye then,
“For the length and the breadth of that grisly plain is sown with Kamal’s men.
“There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
“And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree.
The Colonel’s son to the Fort has won, they bid him stay to eat 
Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.
He’s up and away from Fort Bukloh as fast as he can fly,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare in the gut of the Tongue of Jagai,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare with Kamal upon her back,
And when he could spy the white of her eye, he made the Pistol crack.
He has fired once, he has fired twice, but the whistling ball went wide.
Ye shoot like a soldier,” Kamal said. ” Show now if ye can ride! 
It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.
There was rock to the left and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And thrice he heard a breech-bolt snick tho’ never a man was seen.

They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn.
The dun he fell at a water-course – in a woeful heap fell he,
And Kamal. has turned the red mare back, and pulled the rider free. 
He has knocked the pistol out of his hand – small room was there to strive,
‘Twas only by favour of mine,” quoth he, ” ye rode so long alive:
“There was not a rock for twenty mile, there was not a clump of tree,
“But covered a man of my own men with his rifle cocked on his knee.
“If I had raised my bridle-hand, as I have held it low, 
“The little jackals that flee so fast were feasting all in a row.
“If I had bowed my head on my breast, as I have held it high,
“The kite that whistles above us now were gorged till she could not fly.”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “Do good to bird and beast,
“But count who come for the broken meats before thou makest a feast.
“If there should follow a thousand swords to carry my bones away.
“Belike the price of a jackal’s meal were more than a thief could pay.
“They will feed their horse on the standing crop, their men on the garnered grain.
“The thatch of the byres will serve their fires when all the cattle are slain.
“But if thou thinkest the price be fair – thy brethren wait to sup,
“The hound is kin to the jackal-spawn – howl, dog, and call them up! 
“And if thou thinkest the price be high, in steer and gear and stack,
“Give me my father’s mare again, and I’ll fight my own way back! “

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and grey wolf meet.
“May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
“What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: ” I hold by the blood of my clan: 
Take up the mare for my father’s gift – by God, she has carried a man!” 
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast; 
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, ” but she loveth the younger best.
“So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
“My ‘broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrup twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew, and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he. ” Will ye take the mate from a friend? “
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
“Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!” 
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest.
“Now here is thy master,” Kamal said, “who leads a troop of the Guides,
“And thou must ride at his left side as shield on shoulder rides.
“Till Death or I cut loose the tie, at camp and board and bed,
“Thy life is his – thy fate it is to guard him with thy head. 
“So, thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,
“And thou must harry thy father’s hold for the peace of the Border-line.
“And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power 
“Belike they will raise thee to Ressaldar when I am hanged in Peshawur! “

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault.
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.

The Colonel’s son he rides the mare and Kamal’s boy the dun, 
And two have come back to Fort Bukloh where there went forth but one. 
And when they drew to the Quarter-Guard, full twenty swords flew clear
There was not a man but carried his feud with the blood of the mountaineer.
Ha’ done! ha’ done! ” said the Colonel’s son. ” Put up the steel at your sides!
Last night ye had struck at a Border thief – to-night ‘t is a man of the Guides! “

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling

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Burmese Days

This novel by George Orwell dates back to the 30s when Burma was part of British India and the British Empire.  John Flory is the central character, a man formed by his role in the Raj but detached from the colonial society he is semi-detached from.  The club plays an important role since it is where the British gather to be apart from the ‘natives’ they despise.  Flory finds himself out of sympathy with the prevailing mood; he actually maintains a friendship with a local doctor.

The novel is based on George Orwell’s experiences of Burma from the 1920s.  When published the Empire was still intact even if it was nearing its end and there were many who saw this as ‘letting the side down’.

Flory finds himself isolated over the issue of whether or not locals should be allowed membership of the club.  He has the doctor in mind as the best person to be the first new member, a view not shared by the others who see this as a lowering of standards.

When the orphaned niece of a fellow club member arrives in Burma, Flory is forced to confront the perception others have of him.  As he tries to gain her attention, he has to assess the importance to him of his place among the Europeans.

Themes of racism, imperialism, identity and Empire are all covered in a novel that, considered in the context of its time, is a brave one.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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Any Known Blood

BlogAnyKnownBloodThis novel by Lawrence Hill made for fascinating reading.  A novel, it follows the story of Langston Cane as he researches his family background in preparation for a novel.  This metacognition is heightened by the fact that each of the (male) relatives he follows are also called Langston Cane.

‘Our’ Langston is number five and working for a government minister when the book opens but a misdemeanour with a speech he prepares for his boss finds him out of work. As his wife has also left him, he is without a purpose until family history sends him from Toronto to Baltimore and his aunt who is estranged from her brother.  She has information about her father and grandfather and Langston uses this to piece together a story of race and civil rights across the generations.

Both world wars feature as does the underground railway to Canada used by slaves escaping the USA.  The civil rights movement and interracial marriage are here, too.   An African illegally resident is a key character while historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass pop up.

What makes the book work as more than a fictionalised family history is the story of Cane trying to navigate the present while looking into the past.  Lawrence Hill avoids giving us a chronological version of the past Cane’s revealing bits of the past out of sequence before providing ‘chunks’ of the story of previous Langston Canes.

‘Any Known Blood’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

The Man Who Knew Infinity

This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past.  In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.

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Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India.  He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics.  His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public.  This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.

The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world.  Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain.  Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.

There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war.  Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).

Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story!  It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it.  It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle.  For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.

Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel.  This film is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Fruitvale Station

This film is important because it dramatises a real incident involving the shooting of a young black man on New Year’s Eve, 2009.  The film follows Oscar through his final day and ends with his death at the hands of police officers at Fruitvale Station on the Bay Area Rapid Transport System in Oakland, California, USA.  Michael B Jordan plays Oscar.

We know from the beginning that this day will not end well but this adds to the poignancy of the earlier interactions.  As the day progresses, we learn that his life has not been trouble-free;  a spell in prison is shown in flashback to illustrate his relationship with his mother and family;  he has lost his job in a supermarket because of poor time keeping; he has been involved in drugs.  The image the film portrays, though, is of a young man trying to rebuild a life and take responsibility for his daughter and wife.

In any case, regardless of circumstances here was a person who was shot by a police officer.  The officer was white and the victim was black. It happens far too often.  This film makes sure we do not forget the person behind the victim. It is an important film.

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