This is London

BlogThisisLondonHaving 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.

Advertisements

The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain is one of my favourite authors.  Her work is always thought provoking and she writes with fidelity to her characters.  This novel has an air of sadness hanging over it as we trace the life of Gustav who grows up during the time of the Second World War but in neutral Switzerland where the war should not affect him.  The fact that his late father was a policeman who died when Gustav was still a child shows that neutrality does not mean free from harm.

BlogGustavSonataTo his mother, Gustav’s father was a hero and this is how his story is told but there is a darker secret that Gustav unravels later in life; a story of moral courage in times of difficulty.  His father helped Jewish refugees enter the country when the government had closed the door.  This act had implications for his livelihood and possibly his liberty but it is the mother and son who suffer.

When Gustav makes friends with the Jewish boy, Anton, who has ambitions to be a concert pianist, he enters a world with a mother and father who dote on their son.  That their family life is so different from his own leads to reflection on fate and fairness.  The friendship endures even though their lives take different paths.  While Gustav makes friends, his mother cannot build bridges with a Jewish family when Jewish people were significant in the fate of her husband.

The novel is about settling for things in life.  Gustav grows into adulthood, reasonably successful in his chosen career yet with a gap.   His friendship with Anton endures despite the latter’s departure for bigger cities and it is only towards the end that the gap for Gustav is filled in a way that is unexpected but completely appropriate.

There is a cast of characters around Gustav who represent the various reactions to life’s vicissitudes.  ‘The Gustav Sonata’ is ultimately a sweet novel if that word can be used without it seeming to dampen the praise.  Let me say that, at the end, I was so pleased the way it turned out for Gustav.

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?

 

Paddington Bear

The death this week of Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, marks another part of my childhood passing away.  I loved the books about the bear from Peru who comes to London, where I lived as a boy, as a refugee and who learns how to fit in with the British. The first book was published in 1958 and I read many of them in the 60s.  Yet, it was an animated version broadcast by the BBC in the 70s that seared an image of the bear in my mind.  With the late great Michael Hordern as the voice of Paddington, the series of short programmes was the definitive interpretation of the stories.

The greatest animation of all time must surely be ‘Paddington Bear Goes to the Movies’ when the young bear performed a version of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Sublime!  Thank you Michael Bond.

I Must Belong Somewhere

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?

BlogIMustBelongSomewhereUsing 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?

 

Pigeon English

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.

Fire at Sea

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.

BlogFireatSea2Two 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.

BlogFireatSea