I am late to the Paul Scott ‘Raj Quartet’ party! I remember the fuss around the television series in the 80s, the first time I heard about the series of novels, but I didn’t read them back then. It has taken many years to get around to starting them and over fifty years since the first novel was published. I am glad I did!
The novel is about the dying days of the British Empire rule of India and centres on Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer as he once styled himself) a young Indian, brought up in England and sounding more English than the English, and Daphne Manners, a young British woman serving in India since the war back home took the lives of her immediate family. Their growing relationship causes many other people to notice, on both sides of the racial divide. There are other characters who exemplify the strict British code of living apart from the Indian people and Indians who are suspicious of anyone who gets close to the British. Then there is Miss Crane, deemed eccentric because of her willingness to treat Indians as people, and Ronald Merrick, the Chief of Police who believes that liberal attitudes will be the undoing of the Empire.
Told in a form of research gathered into a case of an attack on Daphne Manners and the aftermath, we have diary extracts, letters and interviews. There is an exploration of the back story of key characters, especially Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners and over the course of the novel we piece together the story of the attack. The book works well because it maintains interest in the central drama despite revealing this information on the first page.
The British rule in India in the early 40s was one of expectation that the people of India would support the war effort; why would they not be loyal to the throne in the time of need? Not every Indian understands why a war involving the British should involve them and the Japanese threat is less of a threat to fellow Asians.
With themes of identity, race and Empire, this book remains essential reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Manchester so I went to find the statue of Alan Turing which acts as a memorial to the great man who was instrumental in the Bletchley Park code breaking programme in the second world war and the development of computers. He worked at Manchester University after the war and it was while living in the city that he was arrested for gross indecency since he was homosexual at a time when it was against the law.
His statue is in Sackville Park near Canal Street, the centre of Manchester’s gay village. It is fitting that he is here. The artist Glyn Hughes shows him sitting on a bench in a slightly ill-fitting suit. He is eating an apple, a significant addition since he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide in 1954 just before his 42nd birthday. His conviction in 1952 resulted in chemical castration as an alternative to imprisonment.
So, here his memorial sits. It is possible to sit next to him, should you choose. It isn’t possible to undo the harm done by unjust laws. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued an apology on behalf of the British Government in 2009 for the way Alan Turing was treated. His conviction must have seemed harsh to a man who is credited for playing a significant part in the allied victory of World War Two.
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?
This is a book that I picked up because of its cover. The story takes place over two countries and several decades, focusing on the inter- relation of two families, one Indian and one British as various members meet and depart over the years.
There is a central act that affects them all but the nature of the incident is not revealed until the end. However, the sense that we are heading towards this one essential event pervades the book. Amitav Ghosh keeps the reader with him since we want to know what glue kept these families together but why is there a gulf between them (to mix the metaphors!).
The novel is in two parts: Going Away and Coming Home. The narrator starts as a young boy in Calcutta trying to work out the adults around him. He hero worships Tridib, his worldly uncle, who seems to negotiate the world with ease. Tridib has lived in London as well as India and it is here that the link with the British family, the Prices, is established. The son of the family is in love with Ila, the narrator’s cousin, and the daughter is in love with Tridib.
We know from early on that May, the daughter, is not ‘with’ Tridib even though she travelled to India and then Bangladesh to be near him. The reason why becomes clear and the meetings of the narrator with May in London in the 60s become meaningful when the gaps in the families’ histories are filled.
What could be a complex novel is skilfully handled by Ghosh. The narrator’s feelings for and about the members of both families change over time and, just as in most families, the narrative is never straight forward. In the end, though, the adult narrator comes to an accommodation with his younger self and realises that family secrets are rarely helpful or healthy.
‘The Shadow Lines’ by Amitav Ghosh is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This Dutch film by director Rudolph Van den Berg from 2012 tells the story of Walter Süskind a German Jew who helped Jewish children escape from the transports to concentration camps from Amsterdam.
The story shows how the organisation of the transports was facilitated by a Jewish Council. The German occupying army insisted that Jews were deported so lists were drawn up to make sure this happened. The Council had a large role to play in this and the film explores the conflict faced by Walter in aiding the operation. His German background helped him develop something of a friendship with the German officer overseeing the deportations.
His role as manager of the theatre was pivotal when the building became used as the mustering station for people preparing to leave. Over the road was a nursery that was used as a gathering point for the children. His access to both allowed him to manipulate the lists and keep the children off the transports to Westerbork.
As the film progresses, so does Walter’s understanding of the purpose of the transports and we see how he tries to reconcile his role in this with his Jewishness. Around him are characters who articulate the different viewpoints on how to handle their situation. With his own family under threat, the need to save children becomes his guiding principle.
The film ends with a note of optimism, not easy given that history tells us that all of his family died at the hands of the Nazis. There is a message at the end in support of the charity, War Child, in recognition that children are too often the victims of wars they did not cause.
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.
To 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.
I enjoy reading about history but especially the less well known aspects of key events from the past. I thought I knew a lot about evacuees from London; my father was one, evacuated to Kent for the duration of the so- called phoney war and back in time for the Blitz! This history by Susan Soyinka is fascinating and uncovered areas I had not previously considered and revealed new facts. For example, there was highly efficient planning by the government for the evacuation of children from the larger cities but next to know co-ordination of their return. As a consequence, the authorities were unable to say with any certainty where children were.
The story told here is a specific one, though: Jewish children from the East End of London were evacuated with their school to Mousehole, beyond Penzance in Cornwall. The cultural change experienced by both locals and evacuees is related in an oral history that reveals the best of humanity as well as the resilience of people in times of war.
Many of the children from the Jews Free School were the ones who were not in the first wave of evacuation to Cambridgeshire. As bombs fell more often on London, they were sent away by their parents and Cornwall was the designated receiving area.
The memories are well handled by Susan Soyinka who is clear when inconsistencies arise or where memories conflict with the records. In part, the author shows us how she went about researching this history as she discusses her methods as well as her findings.
There are some remarkable insights into how the Jewish religious practices were kept alive in an area far from a synagogue and the story of the refugee children from Europe who, speaking no English, were also evacuated. Their suspicions of trains and train journeys were understandable.
‘East End to Land’s End’ is a fascinating book. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?