The poetry collection I would save from the metaphorical burning house would be ‘Armada’ by Brian Patten. Each poem is a gem. This one, perhaps, the most moving of all.
You never went to a ball, ever.
In all your years sweeping kitchens
No fairy godmother appeared, never.
Poor, poor sweetheart,
This rough white cloth, fresh from the hospital laundry,
Is the only theatre- gown you’ve ever worn.
No make-up. Hair matted with sweat.
The drip beside your bed discontinued.
Life was never a fairy-tale.
In Manchester on Armistice Day so I went to the Imperial War Museum North in time for the eleven o’clock two minutes’ silence. I am a frequent visitor to the IWM in London but this was my first visit to this northern version. I was impressed. It was the right place to be to mark the eleven o’clock silence.
I spent the time beforehand looking at the exhibits which focused on the effects of war on the innocents who got caught up in conflict through no fault of their own. The exhibits of the Kindertransport were particularly moving but so too were the artefacts of evacuees and the stories of families torn apart by wars of one sort or another.
The Cold War exhibit just seemed to serve as a reminder that the actions of politicians at these times lead to untold misery for so many. The museum is careful to stick to facts and not apportion blame but the inclusion of a ‘room’ specifically on the impact of war on people other than the military is a wise move.
In one corner of the museum, a doorway of suitcases acted as the perfect reminder that war always leads to upheaval and, for many, the loss of home and security.
The Imperial War Museum North is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
On the South Downs, overlooking Brighton, is a monument to soldiers from India who died in the First World War. The Pavilion in Brighton town was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and the bodies of the dead Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on this spot. The Muslim soldiers were taken to Woking for burial.
The word ‘chattri’ means umbrella in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi. It stands here as a memorial to honour the fallen from India who died a long way from home. It was erected in 1921 and opened by the then Prince of Wales. There are three slabs where the cremations took place. These were below the monument itself and had wreaths of poppies when I visited.
As always when I see walls full of names, I tried to hang on to one that I could remember. Jai Singh was the name I picked out. Trying to keep one name in mind is a way of remembering this was a person; lists of names can be impersonal. One and a half million soldiers from India served in the forces of the Empire. About twelve thousand of the wounded were in hospital in sites around Brighton. Fifty three Hindus and Sikhs who died in Brighton were cremated here.
I was fortunate enough to hear Brian Patten at a poetry reading some years ago. I hear his voice (or what I recall of it) when I read this poem. I love it!
What do cats remember of days?
They remember the ways in from the cold,
The warmest spot, the place of food.
They remember the places of pain, their enemies,
the irritation of birds, the warm fumes of the soil,
the usefulness of dust.
They remember the creak of a bed, the sound
of their owner’s footsteps,
the taste of fish, the loveliness of cream.
Cats remember what is essential of days.
Letting all other memories go as of no worth
they sleep sounder than we,
whose hearts break remembering so many
I love this poem by Jackie Kay. What other reason is needed for posting?
The Living Photograph
My small grandmother is tall there,
straight-back, white broderie anglaise shirt,
pleated skirt, flat shoes, grey bun,
a kind, old smile round her eyes.
Her big hand holds mine,
white hand in black hand.
Her sharp blue eyes look her own death in the eye.
It was true after all; that look.
My tall grandmother became small.
Her back round and hunched.
Her soup forgot to boil.
She went to the awful place grandmothers go.
Somewhere unknown, unthinkable.
But there she is still,
in the photo with me at three,
the crinkled smile is still living, breathing.
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?
This autobiographical novel is from young French novelist Edouard Louis. It tells the hard hitting story of growing up as an outsider in poor circumstances in northern France. Young Edouard knows he is different; the signs are in the reactions to him from everyone else. Edouard is an effeminate ten year old boy when we first meet him. His persona annoys his peer group and worries his parents.
His childhood is a story of learning that survival will depend heavily on regulating how he comes across. What is surprising, and moving, is that the boy does not blame others for their reactions to him. He accepts as normal that his manner and his attitudes (and later his sexuality) place him very low on life’s hierarchy. At the top are the physically tough, his father and cousins among them. These are the men who dominate his village. Hard physical jobs just to survive turn out tough, physical men whose attitudes to, and treatment of, women are shocking. Their view of effeminate boys is equally as clear cut.
There is a sense of triumph to the book, if only because the relating of the childhood experiences suggest survival, if nothing else. Escape to the city must have provided the author with a second act where he was validated. How else would he have written a book that despite its grim subject is written with such beauty?
‘The End of Eddy’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?