Tag Archives: Kit de Waal

Child refugees and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I offer you child refugees to think about for Refugee Week(18th– 24thJune 2018). I start with a children’s book: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was first published in 1956, written in his summer holidays by a school teacher in Sussex. It is set in Europe, mostly after the end of the Second World War, when millions were displaced, trying to find a place to live or to return home. The characters are based on real people, who travel through a real landscape. The reader, young and old, understands that the war created a terrible situation for the Balicki family from Poland, and they were fortunate to survive and be reunited.

The Quest of The Silver Sword

I read this children’s book very soon after it was published. It made a lasting impression on me, and I gladly reread it for this post 60 years later. The story follows a family who were separated in Warsaw during the war by the Nazis. The father, a school teacher, was arrested for a small act of disrespect to Hitler, but escaped from the prison camp; the mother was sent as slave labour to Germany, and the three children survived in the cellars and forests of Warsaw until the end of the war. When the city was liberated by the Red Army, the three children made their way from Warsaw to Switzerland, along with another stray child and his animals (at times he has a chicken, dog and chimpanzee from Berlin Zoo). This was the time – after the war – when chaos and devastation was everywhere in Europe and millions of displaced people were trying to get somewhere else. War is terrible and destructive and creates refugees of people of all ages.

The family and Jan are connected by the sword of the title, a paperknife, originally given to Mrs Balicki by her husband. The older daughter, Ruth, a teenager, leads the children. She is a natural teacher, a resourceful problem-solver and able to take command and care of the younger ones. Edek has TB, and for a while had also served as slave labour, but at the end of the war was liberated to a prison camp. Bronia is the youngest and then there is Jan, the wild boy whose fate is tied up with theirs and the silver sword.

This 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 all reunited in Switzerland.

At the time of its publication it was, apparently, suggested that children should not be exposed to the distress in the story. Perhaps the adults had not yet recovered from their distress from the war that had ended only 10 years earlier. Despite this it was soon adapted for a BBC TV series in 1957 and later also for the radio and there have been stage versions too. Puffin Books, the children’s section of Penguin Books, republished it in paperback in 1960. It has remained popular with children.

Child refugees

Ian Serraillier makes much of the sympathy that young people easily evoke, encouraging people to share meagre supplies, or to bend a rule or two, even to provide life-saving footwear, canoes and accommodation. Child refugees should be a phrase we never read. But in Refugee Week we must not ignore them.

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee was drowned aged 3 on 2ndSeptember 2015. You will remember him and the picture of him washed up on a Turkish beach. Like many thousands of refugees, displaced by war, he drowned crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Greece. The situation briefly became clear – everyone agreed that something had to be done. But it wasn’t and refugees, including children, continue to make the dangerous crossing, to drown, or to find no welcome in Europe, or to face the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

Did You See Me? is a short story of 329 words by Kit de Waal. It is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, ‘the boy on the shore’. You can find it in a recently published anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers: A Country to Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu.

Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ (43)

Every refugee is an Alan Kurdi, or a child of the Balicki family. You and I and children we know have escaped this fate only by the accident of our births.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960. The edition I read was from Red Fox and includes an afterword by the author’s daughter. 192pp

A Country to Call Home, an anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers edited by Lucy Popescu, published by Unbound in 2018. 241pp

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The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Not having read My Name is Leon, I had no idea what to expect from The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal. I chose it because I had read nothing on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 long list and I recognised the author’s name. Indeed I have supported her Unbound project for an anthology of working class writers.

We follow the main character Mona in three timeframes. Mona is a child living by the sea on the west coast of Ireland, then a young woman in Birmingham married to the man she loves, pregnant with their first child, and finally nearing her 60thbirthday living alone in a seaside town in the south of England. We learn that her life has been punctured by loss, most poignantly of her child, but also of her husband William, on the night of the Birmingham pub bomb.

The Trick to Time

Given that the reader must follow Mona in three timeframes it is helpful that her father gave her some sound advice about time early on. They are on the beach and he is trying to persuade Mona to spend more time with her mother before she dies.

One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

He stands up, brushes the sand from his trousers, and Mona jumps on his back for the ride home. He lollops over the dunes with her hands round his neck and her chest against his ribs.

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. (21)

In this novel the characters relate to time depending on where they are in life. The young woman who helps Mona in her shop has all the time in the world. Mona is approaching 60 and feels that time is no longer on her side so she must change things for the better before drifting further.

Birdie, a cousin of her mother’s, was in love with Mona’s father, and waited for him until Mona left for Birmingham. Time was cruel to her, taking the love of her life within the year.

Val was a student nurse who attended to Mona when her daughter was still born. It was Val who found the body and brought it to Mona to hold while the hospital was in uproar from the bombing. These hours with her daughter, Beatrice, allows Mona to grieve. Every year she visits Val and her daughter’s grave, marking the years since Beatrice was lost.

Time and loss are explored with great poignancy. Mona’s love of her husband William hangs over the decades of Mona’s life that follow his loss. Love is a great healer, but it is not omnipotent.

The characters are sustained by strong communal bonds throughout. The Irish have their family connections. After the dreadful night of the IRA bomb, Mona is cared for by William’s aunts and when she looses William as well she returns to her childhood home to the care of her cousin Bridie.

In Birmingham the Irish community is strongly connected, but this leads to bad feelings after the bomb attack. In her English seaside town Mona is loosely connected to her neighbours and to those whose work supports her doll business. Some connections endure for years, like Birdie’s for Mona’s father, or the affection between Val and Mona.

To help people with the loss of their child, Mona uses an imaginative technique, getting the parents to articulate the life that might have been, recreating the time that the child would have lived. In the end she receives comfort for her own losses in this way.

It is a moving and engaging novel.

Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal was born in 1960 and brought up in the Irish community of Birmingham, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Caribbean father. Kit de Waal is her pen name. Her previous novel, My Name is Leonwas well received, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, and the Desmond Elliot Prize and winning the Kerry group Irish novel of the Year Award in 2017.

She has established a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London, to support writers from disadvantaged background. Another project is a collection of working class writing with Unbound, which she has edited, is called Common People: an anthology of working class writers.  It is due to be published in 2018. I am proud to have supported this initiative.

In April, The Trick to Timewas reviewed on Heavenali’s blog.

The Trick to Time was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal, published in 2018 by Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books). 262pp

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