Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir was a brilliant evocation of his childhood as well as an exploration of what it is like to have a past truth revealed. In this case, the discovery of his father’s mental illness and the impact this must have had on his mother. Dealing with the past as an adult threw up for him his feelings about what he might have known but did not confront. It was a terrific exploration of how families cope and how they create their own histories. It was a wonderful book so no surprise that BBC television made a film version.
Sacha Darwan plays the adult Sathnam Sanghera as he heads back home from his high powered job on a national newspaper in London. His family in Wolverhampton have a life that seems alien to him now, especially as he has a girlfriend in London who is neither Punjabi nor Sikh. He has yet to reveal this truth since it would break with family tradition. On the other hand, his parents have a secret from him, one that is revealed when he helps them with packing. The medication for his father is to control his schizophrenia. The shock for the adult Sathnam is that he never knew this central aspect of his family’s story. He was equally unaware that his sister seems to exhibit the same symptoms as his father.
This is a story of uncovering the past and coming to terms with it. The film shows the younger Sathnam as a shadow figure looking on as his adult self walks the old streets of his childhood city. Coming to terms with the past also involves coming to terms with the present: there is a partner, who as white British, may not be accepted in his family; the time has come to find out.
The book was excellent and the film lives up to the calibre of the written word even if the story has to be pared down for the benefit of the screen. In telling the central story much of his school life is jettisoned here. Yet it is a film with heart and one that does justice to Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir.
In Winchester so I had to walk down through the city to the statue of King Alfred which I first saw on a boyhood visit. It is reassuring to see him still in place. The King of Wessex was a fifth son so was never expected to rule the kingdom; he became an active student instead and devoted his time to learning. He earned the title ‘great’ because he had a unique combination of statesmanship, scholarship and military skill.
The statue looking up the main street of the city shows him holding his sword in a gesture of victory or authority or both. He stands at 17 feet from the plinth so is an imposing figure. The artist Hamo Thorneycroft was a member of the Royal Academy. His statue of Alfred was erected in 1899 to mark a thousand years since his death.
Despite being clean shaven in most other depictions of Alfred, including coinage from his reign, this sculpture has him with a full beard; the type of beard those late Victorians thought befitted a King!
In Winchester for the first time in years, so off to see the Elizabeth Frink sculpture of ‘Horse and Rider’ erected in 1975 at the top of the High Street. It is a companion piece to the one of the same title in Mayfair, London installed a year earlier. The man is naked and sits on the horse with no saddle or bridle.
This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture. The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago. This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.
The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.
The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants. Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life. The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.
At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!
The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Manchester so off to find the sculpture called ‘Casuals’. It is on the canal side on land that used to be industrial when the Manchester Ship Canal was at its height. Designed by the artist Broadbent, it is a representation of the union cards dock workers needed to be able to gain employment. The conditions were harsh, though, and the men were not guaranteed work. They needed to line up every day to see if they would be taken on. The casual nature of this employment made it very difficult for people to know if they could support their families. It also led to conflict when the same group of men were competing for the places on a job.
Names and photographs of some of the workers are included in the artwork which now sits on the walkway along the canal near to the regenerated Salford Quays.
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.