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 documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It 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?
I want to pay tribute to the cartoonist Steve Bell whose work in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper keeps me sane in these uncertain times. He always seems to express a sense of fun and a glimmer of hope while skewering the self- righteous. Never has he been more needed than during this UK election period, an election that was unnecessary in any case and was little more than a vanity project for the current Prime Minister. When we wake up tomorrow, there might be good news. However, Steve Bell will have something to say/write/draw that will speak for many of us.
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.
The news today of the death of John Noakes was so sad to hear as he was such a big part of my childhood. With Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton he was what made Blue Peter great. I know that his time on the programme coincided with my childhood, and that each generation probably has its own special presenters, but he joined in the 60s when I started watching and left after I had grown away from children’s television so he was always there.
John, Val and Pete were the line- up for my generation. Lesley Judd and Simon Groom came after I moved on and presented with John Noakes and I vaguely remember Christopher Trace who, with Valerie Singleton, presented in the early 60s when he joined the programme but it was the three of them who formed a background to my London early years.
I am a great fan of the novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah so this new story is very welcome. Once again, he writes of dislocation through living in another country yet unable to leave the old country behind. In this case, the story of Salim starts with the unravelling of his parents’ marriage for reasons that remain unclear until the end of the book. It is clear to Salim, though, that everyone else seems to know more than they are telling him.
His life is Zanzibar becomes one of trying to work out the reason his parents live apart, his father in depressed circumstances. The presence of an Uncle, brother to his mother, offers a solution: the young man can live with Uncle Amir in London where he lives well with his own family in Holland Park in London; the diplomatic service offer good homes to their people. So, once again, Salim finds himself adrift but this time in a foreign country. He comes close to the parental secret on one occasion but otherwise continues semi- detached from the family. When he takes a decision about his own future that annoys Amir, he leaves for a less well off part of London and a more independent stage of his life, one that eventually takes him to Brighton before returning to London.
Wherever he lives, though, Zanzibar is present. He has contact with his mother but does not build the bridges he thinks he should, especially when she marries again and has a daughter.
Salim finds love but, once more, does not fit in. It takes a family death to bring the resolution he needs. He travels back to his home for rituals and for home truths.
One of the decisions he made for himself back in Holland Park was to abandon Business Studies for Literature, a decision that was to stand him in good stead when his family secret resembles a plot from a Shakespearian play. The book must be read to discover which one. Salim is a character I wanted to follow. I wanted it to turn out well for him. He deserved it. ‘Gravel Heart’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?