This 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?
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.
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?
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.
This novel by Andre Brink is the ultimate crossing borders story, telling, as it does, the journey of an upstanding member of the Afrikaans community in South Africa to an activist on behalf of down trodden blacks. The fact that his transformation is accidental makes the story more gripping. Ben Du Toit is a pillar of the community. He is a teacher and church deacon and the sort of person young people turn to for help because they see him as wise and steady.
When a black man known to Ben comes to him for help he finds himself drawn into protests against a system he always thought was fair. The son was beaten by police and Ben is encouraged to help get justice. Yet the law exists for the white man and Ben starts to see how everything is stacked against the blacks. His conscience does not allow him to stay quiet but, in raising questions, he feels the force of displeasure by the regime’s security services. Family, his career as a teacher and his standing in the community are all threatened. The novel shows Ben Du Toit as a man of courage but the cost is high.
I saw the film version many years before reading the book so the images in my head were set by the movie version. The book is more detailed and nuanced, though, so that some of the twists are unexpected and the characters do not always act as I expected. Overall, the book was the more satisfying experience.
Andre Brink, himself, was an activist using the Afrikaans language to raise questions about the apartheid regime. His work was banned many times. It may be a ‘white’ book about race issues but the power comes from the fact that, like his protagonist, Brink would not stay quiet about injustice.
‘A Dry White Season’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book has become the latest one that keeps invading my thoughts, earning it a place in my hinterland. The novel by Stevan Alcock is an excellent evocation of a time, but not a place, that I remember well. The setting is Leeds in the late 70s when the city and part of the region was tense because of a killer who attacked women, some of whom were sex workers. The ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, as he was labelled by the media dominated news for much of the period. This was national news so think what it must have been like for the people who lived in the Yorkshire city of Leeds.
Stevan Alcock uses the time and place well to tell his story of a young man, Rick, who works for the Corona soft drinks company. I remember when they had deliveries just like the milk deliveries of old. He is the junior partner to Eric who uses his round for quick visits to friendly women, some of whom earn their money by selling their bodies. Rick, though, is gay and not at all ashamed of the fact. This is no angst filled story of coming out. Rick is well aware of his sexuality and sees no need to change it. This doesn’t make him open about it though and he negotiates the Leeds scene in a way that does not bring attention to himself.
Rick seeks out the gay support group and finds friendly bars to drink in, all the while keeping his life private from both his work mates and his family. There are secrets enough to go around in any case among his wider family of mum, sister, step-dad and grandma. As the story progresses, parts of the family history come to light and Rick tries to make sense of where he fits in. All the while, the Ripper is at work. Reading this book reminded me that it was a five year period before he was caught. Looking back, it is compressed as one news story when in fact it dominated headlines over a long time.
The 70s was a time of casual as well as overt racism. The National Front enters this story and is accepted as part of the background scene. There is also the misogyny that was prevalent. Rick negotiates this as he finds a way of fitting in as a young gay man.
Some secrets are not so much secrets as the unspoken. As he grows up, or hero realises this and learns who he can and can’t trust. The ending of the story is a beginning of sorts; maybe there is space for a sequel or maybe Rick’s future is the one the reader would hope for him.
‘Blood Relatives’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Here is a moment from 2016 that should not be forgotten. It should stand as a reminder of how low we can sink in British politics. The UKIP poster showing non- white faces coming to Britain as a ‘flood’ was unveiled with a week to go in the EU referendum. That such a hateful and hate filled poster should even have been considered is a sign of the illness in our democracy.
Gary Younge, the Guardian journalist I admire, spoke of 2016 as the year that vulgarity, divisiveness and exclusion won. It should also be the point from which the recovery takes place. Surely, we cannot sink lower in our public discourse. So, for me, the unveiling of the poster should never be forgotten and should be the call to arms.
Fortunately, the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell is on hand with the perfect visual riposte to such events. I salute Gary Younge and I salute Steve Bell and I hope 2017 shows the better side of Britain.
I am a huge fan of this Australian novel which has influences from Mark Twain and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. There are references to both in the book since the main character, Charlie Bucktin, is a book loving boy. I used to love reading when I was young and finding stories where the characters got lost in books made me feel less odd. It is still the case that I love coming across stories where the protagonist shares my interests.
Charlie is aware that his preference for reading marks him out as different and his best friend, the Vietnamese Jeffrey, is a fellow outsider. This is the 60s and the Vietnam War has aroused strong feelings in the community; Australia was a participant alongside USA even though Britain was not! Even more of an outsider, though, is Jasper Jones the mixed race boy who is shunned by the people of the town because of his family history.
When a serious incident takes place, Jasper is convinced he will be the scapegoat and he seeks the help of Charlie since he reads books and thinks things through. Charlie is surprised at the approach but decides to help. This involves him in both keeping and discovering secrets. Small towns are full of under the surface feelings and the novel cleverly shows how prejudice blinds people to the truth. Themes of identity, race, community and fitting in are all covered by the excellent Craig Silvey.
I think this novel has the best description of a cricket game that I have ever read and the banter between Charlie and his friend Jeffrey is priceless. There are many comedy moments but they serve to make the hostility of some of the other actions more shocking. The links with Mark Twain and with Harper Lee’s novel are deliberate and they enhance the status of this book.
‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?