Category Archives: Reading

Bookword walks in Orkney

My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life. 

So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.

By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.

And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.

So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown 

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.

The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.

The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp

Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.

And Sarah writes:

One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.

So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word.  I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long. 

In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.

Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.

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Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

I picked Jamaica Inn for my contribution to the #1936 club because I had a copy sitting on my shelves, and I had forgotten my first reading of it, which may have been about 50 years ago. I have been critical of Daphne du Maurier, specifically of Rebecca, but also of The House on the StrandJamaica Inn was her fourth novel, published before those two and in it I found a writer who can write a good old fashioned suspense story, with some romance. Wuthering Heights lite anyone?

Jamaica Inn

We are in Cornwall in the far south west of Britain in the 1820s. 

The heroine Mary Yellan is as she should be: youngish, but not so young as to be foolish; independent, but not by choice as she had promised her widowed and dying mother to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn; pretty, but not so attractive that all the men will do anything for her; and with spirit to stand up to people, but a soft heart as well. The story begins as she makes her way from the peaceful town of her childhood, Helston, to the wilderness of Bodmin moor. It is night and the coachman is reluctant to set her down at this infamous hostelry.

The villain is Joss Merlyn and as villainous as a reader could wish. He is the landlord of Jamaica Inn. He drinks, he is a bully, he is violent and we know at once that he is up to no good. 

He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees and large fists like hams.  (20)

He married Mary’s aunt Patience and has reduced her to a frightened dependence. It is not long before Mary discovers that he is the leader of a band of ruffians and cutthroats who are engaged in smuggling. Jamaica Inn is the perfect isolated place to store the contraband. Later when he is drunk he tells Mary that he and his band are also wreckers They deliberately lure ships onto the rocks to steal their cargo, killing any witnesses.

The hero Jem Merlyn is as he should be despite being the younger brother of the landlord: independent, a little wild but not with malice; handsome but in a rural and rugged way; with a reckless and adventurous outlook, and some mystery about him.

Daphne du Maurier tells a good story, full bloodied, daring heroine, ghastly baddies and set in a dramatic landscape that adds to the suspense. The story is set up well. We join Mary at the end of her coach journey in the late evening, the last passenger. She must be set down at Jamaica Inn despite the coachman’s reluctance, for respectable folk no longer go to the inn. Darkness continues to be the background for much of the action, in the inn, on the seashore and on the moor. This darkness is contrasted with the peaceful, bright little town of Helston where Mary was brought up, and the jollity of the Christmas fair at Launceston, where Mary and Jem spend a happy Christmas Eve. 

In the darkness sounds play a crucial role in the story: the sounds of horses, carts and men carrying heavy goods into Jamaica Inn rouse Mary to first notice the wrong-doing. Horse hooves on the roads announce the arrival in the scene of a new character. There is a clock that ticks, but one night it has stopped. There is rain and hail against the windows, and wind around the house. And when Mary is taken one night by the gang and left unconscious in a carriage on a narrow path, she wakes to hear the sea. 

There could be no stillness where the sea broke upon the rock-bound shore. She heard it again now, and continually; a murmur and a sigh as the spent water gave itself to the strand and withdrew reluctantly, and then a pause as the sea gathered itself for a renewal of effort – a momentary fragment in time – and then once more the thunder and the crash of the fulfilment, the roar of the surf upon shingle and the screaming scatter of stones as they followed the drag of the sea. (162)

What follows is a terrible scene as a ship is lured to the beach and the gang go wild with violence and greed.

So Mary’s task is to bring her uncle and his gang to justice and to rescue poor Patience. It’s hard to achieve for he has the physical advantage and on their return from the wrecking he makes a prison of Jamaica Inn, locking Mary in her room. It soon emerges that there is another person that has been directing Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. He is not prepared to be caught and goes to desperate ends to evade justice. The final climax takes place at Roughtor high on Bodmin moor.

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907, Daphne du Maurier lived until 1989. Her most famous book was Rebecca, but she wrote 17 novels in all and many other plays, pieces of journalism, essays. She lived for much of her adult life in Cornwall which features in many of her novels. 

As with some of her other novels, Alfred Hitchcock made a film of Jamaica Inn in 1939 with many changes to the story. Daphne du Maurier was not pleased with it. Nor was Hitchcock. There was also a serial by the BBC in 2014 and ITV adapted it for television in 1983.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1936. I read the Penguin edition of 1962. 268pp

Related posts

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The #1936 Club led by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy‘s Bookish Ramblings

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I love our reading group for two main reasons: I get to talk with others about my favourite subject and we read books I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Sometimes our choices are disappointing, but much more often the choices are very rewarding. This was the case with Lost Children Archive, which we read in March.

This novel already had a good reputation, and the topic of refugees, refugee children and their treatment is sadly and persistently in the news, both in the UK and in the US. This book was longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019 and it confronts the events at the US southern border head on. Not only is it topical but this is an innovative and imaginative novel that deserves attention.

Lost Children Archive

The main narrative of the novel is a road trip taken by two adults and their two children from New York to the southwestern states. The adults have left  careers in sound recordings to pursue their own interests: the husband is looking for the echoes of the Apache Indian tribes. The mother is drawn into a search for the stories of children who cross the border separating Mexico and the US. She had met Manuela at the school gates and heard that she is expecting her children, two girls, to arrive at any moment. 

As they drive, they witness the economic decline of many places: abandoned gas stations, ruined motels, the empty highway. Sadness pervades this trip because it is clear to the mother, the narrator of most of the book, that she and her husband will part when they reach their destination, wherever it is. 

As they travel, we are drawn into other texts, about sound recording, about the first nations, and the Elegies of Lost Children. These elegies are created by the author, but reference many other writers: Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Galway Kinnell.

There is other documentary material provided in the text, not least the Migrant Mortality Reports, photographs and the boy’s Polaroids. The importance of documenting, recording, creating these archives runs through this novel. What does it mean to be American? The indigenous population was all but wiped out, and deprived of land and other rights; the migrants from the south have the ambition to be American; the family who make the road trip find themselves adrift in their own country.

The climax is narrated by the boy and meshes with the stories in the Elegies and Manuela’s daughters who have their mother’s phone number stitched into their clothing. 

An innovative and imaginative novel

I have already mentioned some of this novel’s originality: the use of texts from elsewhere, and other documentary materials. Some readers may be reminded of WG Sebald’s use of photographs. Here, too, they are not of good quality, but they still add something to the narrative, to the documentation of the story.

I am reminded of Sebald’s description of Theresienstadt concentration camp In Austerlitz. The effect of Sebald’s description, written over many pages in one sentence, as here in Lost Children’s Archive, is to force you to stay with the prose. You can’t look away. You have to bear witness to the experiences of the children. 

She gives none of the family a name. This anonymity brings you closer to their relationships. And Valeria Luiselli writes the most stunning descriptions of the landscapes through which the family travel and search.

The effect of all of these devices is to draw together a dramatic story with both individual human relevance and immediacy, with a damning indictment of how children are treated in our world, especially when they are unwanted migrants.

Valeria Luiselli herself is originally from Mexico, but the migrant story is not hers, although she had served as a court translator for South American children seeking asylum in the US. She has written other novels, Faces in the CrowdThe Story of my Teeth, as well as collections of essays. but this is her first book in English.

Our small zoom meeting of the reading group agreed that this is an intense, relevant and strong novel.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli published in 2019. I read the paperback version from 4th Estate. 385pp. Longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019. 

Another post about books on refugee

Well-founded fear: a Themed Post about Refugees (from March 2021)

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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Is there a new genre of fiction? Or is it just a new take on an old theme in which a spirited older woman outwits jobsworths and solves mysteries that have escaped the usual investigations. Often the older women live in care homes or retirement accommodation. And they do their sleuthing in the company of others.

The Thursday Murder Club is a good addition to this genre if it exists. It is written with very little condescension (only occasionally referring to old people as pensioners). The older characters are not technophobes, full of nostalgia or the butt of the author’s jokes. The two key women in this novel are alert, healthy, imaginative, resourceful and above all experienced.

This is the 52nd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

The Thursday Murder Club

Richard Osman enjoys the characters he has created and he indulges his creativity in a very convoluted plot, which requires a fair amount of ingenuity and many deaths to resolve. He relishes the activities in the Coopers Chase retirement community, all their clubs, (car parking management, stamp collecting, book group etc) healthy activities (swimming pool, bowls, Pilates, gym), rivalries and friendships. One of the clubs has been formed by Elizabeth and Penny. Penny is a retired Inspector from the local Kent Constabulary but now lost to dementia, and Elizabeth and the two men in the club, a retired psychiatrist and trade unionist, recruit Joyce to join them.

Elizabeth has had some kind of highly skilled career in an unspecified and secret organisation. She is whip smart, a lateral thinker and she possesses many connections from her former life, which become very useful when the club and the police (and the plot) hit a difficulty, you know, identifying the age of bones they find, or looking at CCTV to find someone. Joyce, who is a fairly new resident, introduces us to Elizabeth.

Well, let’s start with Elizabeth, shall we? And see where that gets us?
I knew who she was of course, everybody here knows Elizabeth. She has one of the three bed flats in Larkin Court. It’s the one on the corner with the decking? Also, I was once on a quiz team with Stephen, who, for a number of reasons, is Elizabeth’s third husband. (3)

Joyce keeps a diary, which forms part of the novel. She was a nurse and as a widow is rather lonely and would like male company.  She is happy to join the club, finding it all rather exciting. Her function is to ask all the questions that need to be answered on behalf of the reader. Her pursuit of Bernard, another resident of Coopers Chase is not pathetic as some writers would be tempted to frame it. In fact there are few unpleasant or pathetic characters in this novel. Those that are tend to die.

Elizabeth interrupts their investigation into an old case of Penny’s when the man who built Coopers Chase is murdered after a public argument with his partner, who own the company that manages it. No-one seems to be sorry for Tony Curran. Suspicion falls on Ian Ventham, his partner until he dies in the car park while a protest is going on about his plans to dig up the graveyard. Other people become involved: a nun, a past-it boxer, a priest, a flower seller, a widower, a vet and the police. And so it goes on. There are several more suspicious deaths to be solved before the Thursday Murder Club can feel their job is done.

I read this book when I was stuck inside with a broken ankle during Lockdown3. It was ideal reading material for my situation. As he says, it’s his first and, so far, his best book. Thanks to  Jane for the loan of her copy.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, published in 2020 by Penguin/Viking. 244pp

Other books in this genre of transgressing older women

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg 

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Dicken Hughes. He was tall, like my grandfather, but taller and thinner. And we knew he liked children. His wife Frances was nice, but she does not shine in my memory. Dicken, however, is a beacon. He knew about children. He knew that my brother and I loved to climb up him, the first step his bony knee, then his waist and then – hup – standing on his shoulders, seeing the world from even higher up than he did. 

My memory of Dicken was of a tall man, bearded perhaps, wearing tweeds perhaps and irresistible in his ability to connect to children. He had had five of his own. He knew that children are hardy, imaginative, fun to be with and are capable of being deadly.

A writing exercise about a visit to my home reminded me of the man, and then of his novel, published in 1929, of children on a pirate ship in the Caribbean. A High Wind in Jamaica is still an impressive novel after 92 years. 

A High Wind in Jamaica

The five Thornton children live with their parents in Jamaica in the 1860s. It is a time of chaos on the island, with the end of slavery and the demise of the plantations. The land is lush and old houses are being reclaimed by the vegetation, the abandoned machinery falling apart. There is an earthquake. A hurricane destroys their house and the parents decide that the children must return to England, along with two neighbouring children. They put them on the Clorinda for passage to England.

Not long after they have returned home to pack up what is left of their lives in Jamaica the parents receive information about their children. After a long and detailed account of being ambushed by a pirate ship the captain of the Clorinda gets around to explaining what happened to the children.

The children had taken refuge in the deck-house and had been up to now free from harm, except for a cuff or two and the Degrading Sights they must have witnessed, but no sooner was the specie some five thousand pounds in all mostly my private property and most of our cargo (chiefly rum sugar coffee and arrowroot) removed to the schooner than her captain, in sheer infamous wantonness, had them all brought out from their refuge your own little ones and the two Fernandez children who were also on board and murdered them every one. (44)

Captain Marpole’s account is very melodramatic, not very grammatical and concerned to reassure them that ‘there was no time for what you might fear to have occurred’. The reader is initially alarmed, but it is soon revealed that through a series of accidents the children had sailed away with the pirates, without the knowledge of Captain Marpole or the pirates.

When the children are discovered the pirates put in to a hidden port in Cuba to try to sell their booty and to find someone to look after the children. They fail in both endeavours and a fatal accident means that the pirates must leave again with the children.

The next few months the schooner is at sea and the children and crew learn to get along. The eldest Thornton girl, Emily, becomes the focus of the novel as she tries to understand herself and the captain. She is about 10 years old, inventive and imaginative. We come to know all the children and Captain Jonsen and his close friendship with Otto, the mate. 

The climax comes when the pirates board another ship. There is little of value on board except fresh supplies of rum and some circus animals. While the crew is distracted by the animals (a lion and a tiger) the captain of the captured ship who is bound up on board the pirate ship is stabbed to death. Now Captain Jonsen knows that he and his crew are in serious trouble. If caught they will be tried for murder. And still there is the problem of the children on board.

He manages to offload the children onto a steamer bound for England. The other passengers, and people in London, including their parents, assume that the children suffered badly at the hands of the pirates. Emily is a key witness in the crime, but she is hardly able to articulate what happened. The truth might have saved the captain and his crew. Emily goes back to learning to be a nice young lady.

An awfully big adventure?

On the surface this looks like an adventure novel. Its original title was An Innocent Voyage. It was made into a full colour movie in 1965 with Anthony Quinn (who else) as the captain and James Coburn as the mate. But this is not a swashbuckling adventure. 

The novel challenges sentimental notions about children. These children live in the moment, adapt quickly to life on board and to difficult events, and do not mourn the absence of their parents or their home in Jamaica. When shocking events occur, they are silent on the subject. While they are to an extent wild – we have seen them swimming naked before they leave for England – they can be quite prudish. Rachel had been shocked when the captain referred to her drawers. It is the worst they can say of Captain Jonsen.

Through the narrative runs the vexed problem of sexuality and children. There is a moment when Captain Jonsen approaches Emily and she bites his wrist to prevent whatever was to happen next. This moment interrupts, but does not destroy their relationship. And Margaret deliberately leaves the children to sleep with Otto. The children do not know what to make of her and when she returns to them, they do not speak of it.

In an adventurous world, all comes good in the end, the bad guys are dispensed with and the heroes find happiness. That is not the world of A High Wind in Jamaica, which is chaotic, as it had been on Jamaica when they left it. It is not clear that the pirates are baddies. Furthermore children do not understand England when they arrive there, not even the courtroom in which the pirates’ trial takes place. 

And the murder of the Dutch captain is brutal, desperate and entirely believable. The reactions of the two children who witnessed it are incomprehensible to the adults, both refuse to talk about it.

There is a great deal of humour in this book, and especially in the observations of the behaviour of the children, their interactions with the crew and life on board. The description by a recent publisher sums up the novel.

A tale of seduction and betrayal, of accommodation and manipulation, of weird humor and unforeseen violence, this classic of twentieth-century literature is above all an extraordinary reckoning with the secret reasons and otherworldly realities of childhood. (from NYRB blurb.)

First edition cover of A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes was first published in 1929. I read the  Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1971. 192pp

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There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

Are some people not interesting enough to write about? Perhaps in the 1940s working people were not thought to have interesting lives. Certainly many of the best known wartime novels concern people of the middle class: Mrs Minever and Mollie Panter-Downes for example. Inez Holden took a more democratic view, and her short novels, Night Shift (1941) and There’s No Story There (1944), are a direct challenge to that attitude. There’s No Story There is set in a huge munitions factory, somewhere in the north. It focuses on the people, the 30,000 people who work in Statevale. 

The focus is not so much on a story but on the individuals who live and work in Statevale. There is a murder and an industrial accident, a visit by a famous person, a snowstorm, a short reunion of a couple divided by the war and there is the relentless and very dangerous work. 

There’s No Story There was first published in 1944 and has been reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. My thanks to Handheld Press for my copy. 

There’s No Story There

The novel begins with a new shift arriving at the factory. Some workers live or are billeted locally, most live in the hostels provided. They arrive in buses and must prepare thoroughly for work by going through a series of checks and clothing changes.

The cloud of humanity approached the first factory gates and broke up into individuals. (3)

We start then with individuals. And to make the point that we are not looking at an amorphous crowd, Inez Holden, continues

They walked in single file. People from the Potteries, volunteers of the first war year; new conscripts, old and young; housewives from the villages; women from the towns; from Scotland and Ireland; men just discharged from the Army and invalids of long-time unemployment; ex-miners, greengrocers, builders, bakers, men from the south, from the north, middle-aged men wounded in the last war, young men soon to be called up and old casual labourers. The sons of preachers; the daughters of dockers, the children of crofters. (3) 

And she begins to name some of them: Old Charlie, Gluckstein, Jameson, Julian, Linnet, Geoffrey Doran and so on.

They move through the inspection gate, leave their possessions in the contraband hut, change their clothes in the shifting house, and emerge wearing a white suit with a white conical hat and white soft sneaker shoes. After a cup of tea in the canteen they apply protective white cream and powder to their faces. They emerge like figures in a sci-fi movie into the Danger Area, set out like a town, with street signs, a train and bus service and very few people visible, for the workshops are submerged.

Having left the ordinary trappings of human appearance behind them, the reader enters this alien world alongside the workers as they begin their shifts. For example Julian began the war in a ship, but it was torpedoed and he now suffers from mutism. But his inner voice is never quiet, ‘speaking in silence’, as he carefully moves materials between the sheds. Linnet is thinking about her husband Willie, who is due some leave. Others are planning for the King’s visit. At the end of the shift some workers go to the pub, others return to their quarters and entertain themselves, play chess or cards, or write letters.

One night it begins to snow and the shift up at the factory is snowed in. People take on new roles, providing tea, shifting snow from the railway, organising entertainment. Being snowed in provided one of the few moments when the workers openly talk about what the factory is producing.

‘It was funny to-night in the canteen when Maggie and Miss Robinson were serving tea together.  […] Funny wasn’t it , all those people singing and working together – the Blue shift and the White, Labour Officers, operatives, canteen workers and all. They were all laughing and seemed happy. Funny when you think what we are all here for, and how we’re only making things to kill people. It don’t seem right do it?’ (139)

More stories are told: we learn how the boiler man lost his hand; of the paranoia Gluckstein has of discrimination against Jews; of the disappointing visit by Linnet’s husband, a stranger for the war has taken the couple in such different directions; of the secret held close by the self-important security chief, which is known by everyone; the abuse of power by the gate policeman and the accident that kills one of the workers.

Holden is challenging the idea that the working people have nothing interesting about them. On the contrary they are individuals, willing, resourceful and exploited. The title appears on the final page. A former journalist is asked why she doesn’t write about Statevale. ‘There’s no story there,’ she replies. We, who have read thirteen chapters, know otherwise.

What makes this novel so successful is Inez Holden’s powers of observation, her ability to write believable dialogue and her ability to use all the senses in describing Statevale. 

I really enjoyed this volume. Although there is no strong narrative, there is plenty to consider, and there is a bonus of three short stories included in this volume. The longest, Musical Chairman, makes the point that real life can be more absorbing than the movies. 

The introduction by Lucy Scholes is very helpful in placing Inez Holden in the context of the literary world of 1920-50. More detail, especially of Inez Holden’s life and milieu can be found in a Paris Review article, also written by Lucy Scholes. 

Night Shift was reviewed on this blog along with two other books about the Second World War, in November 2019.

There’s No Story There: wartime writing, 1944-45 by Inez Holden, first published in 1944 and reissued byHandheld Press in March 2021. 231pp

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Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

This collection of short stories was a Christmas present from a sister. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know it,’ she said when I thanked her. ‘I know you like short stories.’ She’s right I do. And I like these ones very much. Wendy Erskine has been widely acclaimed for these stories and has published others. They have a particular poignancy and darkness to them. We are warned that all is unlikely to be happy in these stories, for Sweet Home was the name of the plantation in Beloved by Toni Morrison. 

Sweet Home

The ten short stories are all set in and around Belfast. This is the Belfast of the present day, not of the Troubles. These are stories of ordinary people, leading unremarkable lives, although often full or disappointment, loss and failure. The narration is in a down-to-earth, matter of fact tone that suits each story well.

Take, for example, the title story. It begins with the building of a community centre, but moves into the life of its architect and her husband. They seem to live controlled lives, few excitements. They hardly seem to be a couple. They are childless, but it is revealed that they lost a child at six years. A local couple work for them in the garden and in the house, and it appears that the architect’s husband is trying to appropriate their child. It does not end well.

Take, for another example, the story called Arab States: Mind and Narrative. A middle-aged woman, disappointed in her life, begins to obsess about a man she rejected at college. He is now something of a media pundit on the Middle East and has written a book, which gives its own title to the story. She decides to attend an event on the mainland at which he is due to speak. She mismanages the trip. It does not end well.  

Or, for a truly shocking example, Lady and Dog. This story features a teacher who does not want to change her ways. Olga behaves with passive aggression and this is gratingly revealed at the start of the story. She is delaying her meeting with her headteacher by sharpening pencils. Ms Druggan wants to sort a few things out, especially related to Olga’s use of the computer. This is how their meeting ends.

Another thing, if you haven’t switched on your computer in two weeks, do you not feel you’ve missed a lot of communication?
Olga thinks. Not really, she says.
What do you mean not really?
This is a primary school with eight people working in eight rooms. It’s hardly a conglomerate. If anyone needs to speak to me, they know where to find me. And if I need to speak to someone the reverse holds true.
Olga picks up the handbag that has been resting at her feet.
Is that it? she says. (161)

Olga may be capable of sharpening pencils to avoid a meeting, but she is capable of much more instrumental, self-serving and shocking actions in pursuit of other projects outside the school.

These are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

While her tone is without fireworks, or drama, she is able to be very tender towards her subjects. We are not being asked to despise them. In the story of the widow who looks out at a family of Somalis who have moved in over the road, it is the dreadful son who is unfeeling and self-centred. He does not notice that she also misses his former partner and their son. The story is not about the strangeness of the newly arrived family. It is about Jean’s attention to them, rather than to her son.

Jean’s son Malcolm had decided to make one of his infrequent visits. He took the seat in front of the television and when he turned it on she heard him let out his usual sigh at the poor choice of channels. Jean was positioned at the end of the sofa because it gave the best view out of the window. 
Malcolm was telling her that he had a new boss. The boss had only been in the job a couple of weeks but Malcolm didn’t like him. Some of the others did, up to them, be he didn’t
Only a couple of weeks, Jean said. Still early days then really, isn’t it?
Early days and already not going well, Malcom said.  (35)

These are the opening four paragraphs of Inakeen. You already know everything about Malcolm and his lack of attention to his mother, her life, what she says and his responsibilities. 

In both these quotations you can see that an outstanding feature of her prose is the dialogue.

This is Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories. I will look out for the next one. Thank you Sal for the introduction.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published in 2018 by Picador, and now available in paperback. 218pp

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The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

In a recent post, Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry, I remarked about my interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. Growing up after the war we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had parents who were silent about their experiences. In addition, there are parallels between our situation in the Coronavirus pandemic and the war. I noted that the reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.

Here’s another novel of the Second World War, again featuring the Blitz and published in 1943 before the outcome of the war was clear. It has been republished by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. This novel was suggested to me by Susan Kavanagh when I said that was going to read more C20th fiction. Thank you for the recommendation.

The House Opposite

The title reflects the urban setting, a suburb of London, fictional Saffron Park. The story follows the two families who live in houses that face each other on the same street. Elizabeth Simpson lives with her parents, she is a young woman who works as a secretary to the boss of an import business based in Soho Square in central London. Her father is a solicitor who also volunteers as an air raid warden. 

Opposite them is the family of Owen Cathcart. He has just left school and is hoping to be called up to the RAF. His father does something dodgy with timber and furniture and his mother looks out for everyone in the street.

Everyone has a secret, and not revealing stuff to others was an important consideration in their small society. Elizabeth has been conducting an affair with her boss for three years. Her mother has taken to drink for she is very afraid of the bombing raids. Because of something he heard Elizabeth say, Owen is afraid he is gay. He hero-worships his cousin who is already in the RAF. His father is arrested and tried for profiteering and his mother is deeply ashamed when this gets into the newspapers. And everyone has to work together when the sirens go off. Owen and Elizabeth find themselves sharing the fire watch duty in the street, which brings them closer. 

The story follows the everyday lives of these people while destruction is all about them: shops, restaurants, cafés, and some homes disappear overnight. People go to work, to the cinema, visit friends and relations in the country and endure. Elizabeth’s lover turns out to be a weak man. When her mother gets drunk on rum they send her off to stay in the country with her sister. Owen grows up by noticing that other people have difficulties in their lives, for example, he sees that Elizabeth is not happy. He finds his own way passed the hero worship of his cousin. 

The bombing acts as an intensifier of their situations. People show small acts of kindness or courage or generosity to each other. They are loyal to their families and look out for them. They show courage against the background of danger. And they confront some truths about themselves and reflect on their experiences to learn from them. These are ordinary people who find ways to be their best selves. 

Barbara Noble

Born in 19017 in North London, Barbara Noble wrote six novels, of which this is the fourth. The next novel she wrote Doreen is about an evacuee torn between her mother and the family she stays is sent to live with. It has been republished by Persephone Books. As well as writing fiction Barbara Noble worked for twenty years for Twentieth Century Fox before taking over as editor for Doubleday publishing in 1953. She died in 2001.

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble was first published in 1943 and republished in the Furrowed Middlebrow series by Dean Street Press in 2019. 222 pp

Related Posts:

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (also published in the Furrowed Middlebrow series). A war memoir from 1939-41.

HeavenAli liked The House Opposite very much. She reviewed it on her blog in June last year. 

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Well-founded fear: a themed post about refugees

They are among the most vulnerable, feared and despised people on earth. There are about 26 million at the moment, of whom half are under 18. Last year the UK government granted asylum to 20,339 applicants (out of 35,099). You should know that Turkey supports 3.6 million refugees.

We hear of them crossing the Mediterranean in rubber boats, 16,724 in the first four months of 2020. At least 575 died. The English Channel has recently been in the news for attempts to enter the UK: 9500 in 2020 with at least 6 deaths and 3 missing.

A refugee is someone who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence, has been forced to flee their home country.

Every refugee has an individual story, a story of fear of persecution, of war or of violence. Each one has been forced to leave their home country. And yet the policy of our government is to treat them like criminals and to dissuade potential applicants through the creation of the hostile environment.

I am ashamed of our government. I am ashamed of those who treat refugees as undeserving. This post brings together some books that illuminate the reality of fleeing and trying to achieve legal status in a safe country (with links to posts on Bookword Blog).

For younger readers

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

A boy from mixed parentage Ethiopia/Eritrea comes to the UK with his father to escape persecution and war. His father leaves him in London and the Refugee Council steps in to help. At first he is in a children’s home, and later moves to foster care and attends an East London school. When his mother is killed in Africa his father comes to the UK, which sadly means that Alem must move out of foster care. Father and son are threatened with deportation. His schoolmates organise a campaign to oppose this and Alem sees that he must face his future, not alone, but with all the people who have rallied to help.

Written for older children, it touches every child’s fear of being abandoned. 

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (2001) Bloomsbury. 287pp

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Set in the chaos of massive movements of peoples at the end of the Second World War, the Balicki children from Poland must travel to find their parents. It is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are reunited with their parents in Switzerland.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960.

First-hand Accounts of Experiences

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

She left Iran in 1988 with her mother and younger brother. This is an account of how they arrived in Oklahoma, and how they each made a life for themselves. She also tells the stories of some more recent refugees and of their experiences. She raises many important and interesting questions about fitting in, and what the host country owes to the new arrivals, and the terrible toll of hostile environments in Europe. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via WikiCommons

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer

The German reporter, Wolfgang Bauer, experiences the terrors of the Mediterranean Sea crossings for himself. The reality of the risks, the process and the dangers of the voyage are explored, including the role of the ‘middlemen’ and their business structures. He also tells the stories of other migrants who make the journey, some successfully. 

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp. Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

As told to others

Some experiences of seeking asylum, or of meeting refugees, are so hard that they are best told by others. Refugee Tales have now issued three volumes of stories, which make it evident that the attempts to dissuade asylum seekers are contributing to their suffering, especially when it involves detention.

Refugee Tales 1, 2 and 3

Many people’s lives are blighted by the UK’s response to those who seek safety in Britain. There are the professionals and the enforcers, the victims and their friends, the volunteers, the health professionals etc etc. 

Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

The first volume was published in 2016. The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Groupwith stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (Afterword 143)

The first aim was successful, but unfortunately indefinite detention is still with us. 

The second volume was published in 2017. When I wrote about it, I focused on the abuse of Human Rights that is indefinite detention. Here’s the link

And in June 2020 I was moved to action by the third volume. I raised money for the group by walking across 25 bridges. In that post I recommended six things that could be done to support the cause.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published by Comma Press. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group .

The Lampedusa Cross, with permission from the British Museum.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

One of the accounts that stays with readers is this tale of ordinary Italians who came across the most awful scene while out sailing. The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what everyone would do. There are countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour towards the migrants as they land or are rescued from the sea around the islands of the Mediterranean.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

Fiction

One of the best ways to introduce people to experiences they do not meet in person is through fiction. Here are four novels that explore different aspects of refugees and their experiences in today’s world.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, (2017) translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky  

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2017)

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes (2016)

Other sites

Dina Nayeri wrote a piece about books on the refugee experience in the Guardian in September 2019. You can find it here.

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My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

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