I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year. Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives. What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing. The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners. There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different. This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family: would they be welcome now? Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?
Using his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy. Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties. What does it mean to fit in?
Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys. Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War. With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps. Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents. Heinz’s story is one of becoming British. He stayed here and raised his family as British.
David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled. But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.
The book is an important one. The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride. This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.
‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Stephen Kelman is told in the engaging voice of Harrison, a boy from Ghana, in London to start a new life with his mother and sister (another sister and his father are still in Africa but hoping to come to Britain). The world as seen by an eleven year old in a new country is fascinating, especially as he tries to negotiate social conventions and the pecking order of school boys.
This is London, though, where knife crime is a big problem; already a teenage boy has been killed and Harri sees himself as the detective who can solve the crime. This makes him watchful and alert to those around him. His older sister’s choice of friends is not wise and this brings her and Harri closer to some unsavoury characters.
The world of children trying to be both tougher than they should be and more worldly wise is effectively evoked. Harri’s voice carries us through the story, observing the world and making sense of it. His optimism is infectious, especially his hope that his younger sister and father will soon arrive and they will all be united. This is the background for a further, dramatic event that non-plussed me and left me feeling sad about all the Harris in the world.
This wonderful documentary is both sweet and very sad. By contrasting normal life in Lampedusa, an island off Sicily in Italy, with the refugee crisis, director Gianfranco Rosi has made a film that shows the human aspects of newspaper headlines.
Two locals in particular dominate the film: a young boy through whose eyes we see ‘normal’ Lampedusan life; and a doctor who comes into contact with refugees because of his vocation.
What makes the film so powerful is the way it shows the details of island life and then the logistics of rescuing migrants; time is taken over both. As the film progresses, the two strands support each other to make a central point that this migrant crisis is taking place among us. People die trying to cross the Mediterranean. Apart from one small scene where the doctor talks about his work in relation to the migrants brought ashore from their un-seaworthy boat, the two worlds do not meet so we do not find out what local people think of the crisis. This is not the point, however, and it serves to remind us that our lives often continue oblivious to the pain of others.
This 1963 book by Anne Holm is a classic. It tells the story of a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp in an unnamed country, but probably in the East of Europe, and makes the journey towards Denmark and home.
The book has an enigmatic quality because there are many questions unanswered. We do not know which country he is in at the start of the book or why he is in a camp. It is not clear what a child of 12 is doing in the camp without parents or even why a guard helps him survive and then escape.
The journey takes the boy through Europe. He has been told to catch a boat from Salonika to Italy. He is heading for a country in the north that has a king. David has been cut off from normal life so does not know how to interact with people but, as he travels north, he meets people who teach him how to socialise.
There is an opportunity to live in a family when he saves the daughter from a fire in a shed but, after a time, the parents become unnerved by David’s worldly wise and woeful outlook, which seems out of step with his age.
This is a book about heading home and the ending reflects the hopeful aspect of the book. Yet the most important journey is the one David takes from being a damaged child to somebody who belongs in society.
‘I am David’ by Anne Holm is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
We live in an age when, more than ever, poets are needed. Langston Hughes got it right on many occasions, including in this poem which has returned to me in recent days.
Are not available
To the dreamers,
To the singers.
In some lands
And cold steel
But the dream
Will come back,
And the song
The poem was written in 1938. It 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.
This novel by Karen Campbell covers many of the themes I think are worth thinking about. The recent UK referendum reminded me of the book and the essential issues it covered. Set in Glasgow, Scotland (recently shown to be one of the more enlightened parts of the UK) it is the story of Deborah, a woman wanting to find a purpose in life after the death of her husband, and Abdi, a refugee trying to start a new life in a new country with his young daughter.
Deborah trains to be a mentor to new arrivals and Abdi is her first ‘case’. We follow them as they get to know each other and as they both negotiate their respective roles. The more they are together, the more they reveal their pasts and the paths that led them to the same city at the same time.
The novel does not flinch from the realities of working for refugee charities in a climate that is not always welcoming; the fate of a secondary character reminds us that asylum is not always easy to come by.
I enjoyed this novel immensely for the first two thirds but lost enthusiasm in the final section. The book headed towards a ‘happy’ ending and one that tied up loose ends. It may satisfy many people to end the novel in this way but it left me feeling that the realities faced by most refugees are harsher. In any case, bravo to Karen Campbell for writing a novel that tackled difficult questions in a humane way. Novels like this will be needed in this country in the years ahead as we ‘break away’ and show ourselves to be insular Brexiteers.