Saigon Calling

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?BlogSaigonCalling

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Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze

In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries.  Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists.  I wonder what she got paid!

This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening.  Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part.  It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland.  There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.

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What were they like?

Here is another powerful poem that should be more widely known.  The layout is significant.  It has the appearance of a school comprehension exercise with questions that suggest that research is needed to get to the answers.  Americans knew little of the tradition or the history of a country on whose soil they fought a war.  The Vietnam War took many lives, more Vietnamese than Americans.

What Were They Like?

1. Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?

2. Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?

3. Were they inclined to quiet laughter?

4. Did they use bone and ivory,
and silver, for ornament?

5. Had they an epic poem?

6. Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

1. Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens the lanterns illumined pleasant ways.

2. Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,but after the children were killed, there were no more buds.

3. Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.

4. A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.

5. It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
And the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.

6. There is an echo yet
Of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

Denise Levertov 

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