It’s coming up to that time of year again: Bradford Literature Festival will be starting in a week. Which means ten days of authors (500 of the clever little chaps and chapesses), events (400, because authors are pretty social and like to do events in little groups sometimes) and books (don’t ask – not every event or author has a book which we can get hold of and some have multiples: let’s just say the stock deliveries will be vast and we will all be putting our manual handling training to good use). Exhausting but so much fun! Of course part of the fun is reading some of the books beforehand and getting to try lots of new and new to me writers. It is a great festival because the audience and authors are hugely diverse – it covers politics, religion, race and sport as well as a wide range of fiction and children’s events. This year we are being treated to everything from 1970’s rock-chick Suzi Quatro to David Starkey talking about Henry VIII. Like I said, diverse…Of course the demographic I form part of – white, middle-aged, female – is represented but I wanted to read about the experience of people who are ‘not-me’. Akala’s book, on race and class, seemed to fit the bill.
Akala is a musician and poet who has won MOBO awards and founded the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. He was born in the 1980s into a world where casual (and institutional) racism was common – bananas thrown at black footballers, the National Front had just spawned the BNP, and the British Nationality Act 1981 decreed that people from our former colonies, including the Windrush generation, became Commonwealth citizens rather than British subjects. While my white contemporaries were singing about Feeding the World Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned in a South Africa built on apartheid and parts of Britain experienced riots in predominantly black areas – life was not as fair as it seemed to me. In this book Akala talks about what life was like growing up in multicultural Camden in a single-parent family – the good as well as the bad. He witnessed violence and prejudice but was also supported by the wider Afro-Carribean community. He was an intelligent, enquiring child (a fact which often seemed to disturb some teachers – which was, oddly, the part which I found the most upsetting) and is now an intelligent writer. This is not just an account of Akala’s own life but also that of that wider community – the history of British Imperialism, the Commonwealth and worldwide racial issues – and it doesn’t just look at attitudes to race. Akala is mixed race – his mother is Scottish – and is now part of the middle classes but he had a working class upbringing. His assertion seems to be that while there is some sense of ‘otherness’ about people of different races racism is not innate. But this otherness is often used by those in positions of power (either real or assumed) to focus the fears of those who have no power.
This book is a powerfully argued plea for a fairer world. One where nobody is judged by the circumstances of their birth – either by class, race, religion or skin colour – and everyone has a chance to realise their potential. I was, once again, reminded of the privileges I enjoy but was never made to feel that I didn’t have the right to make the most of them. What I was left with was a desire to work with and for those who are less fortunate and the reminder that what that work should involve isn’t my decision to make. Now I’m just looking forward to finding out which events at the Literature Festival I will be doing bookstalls for – Akala’s is one I’d be very keen to be able to attend…
I tend not to discuss my political beliefs (such as they are). If you were to ask me, outside the polling station, how I’d voted I’d probably say ‘in a secret ballot’. Aside from anything else I reckon it frustrates the trolls. Although I suppose anyone looking at my Facebook feed, the kind of posts I like and the comments I make would be fairly sure that I am unlikely to vote for Messrs Farage, Gove or Trump (were I entitled to). I’m not suggesting my way is better – I love the fact that so many of my friends are so politically engaged, particularly the younger ones – but it is the one I feel comfortable with. Of course, some people’s entire raison d’être is political and they still manage to be funny in almost everything they do – those are some serious skills, in my opinion…
John O’Farrell is one of those who are funny and also serious about their politics. Reading him means that you can laugh along with political figures (rather than just at them, which is the more usual but meaner way) but also get insights into how government actually works. This book is a follow on to an earlier book in which O’Farrell pondered on the fact that his first 20 years as a Labour supporter seemed to coincide with their two decades outside the corridors of power. He never actually claimed that the Thatcher years were all his fault but, well, surely it could be more than just a coincidence? In this book he discovers that being in opposition is often easier than being the people in charge and not just for politicians. As well as national and local politics we also get the story of O’Farrell’s involvement with local schools as he campaigns for a much-needed new secondary school and then finds himself a key member of the board of governors. The book covers Labour’s years in power, the Gulf War, Blair’s fall from popularity, Brown’s brief time as PM and then the resurgence of the Tories in 2010. And then, of course, the series of elections which have enlivened our lives in the past few years. Or at least given satirists plenty of material.
Reading this book I was impressed by O’Farrell’s commitment to his political party and to his community (partly in a self-interested way – his kids needed a school to go to which didn’t involve crossing half of London) and his ability to make me laugh. The biggest lesson I’m going to take away though is, probably, the one that he learned himself: the difference between his teen/twenties and his more mature years is his acceptance of the need for compromise. Compromise, in politics as in life in general, is not a sign of weakness but of maturity. It may be the best way forward for us all.
We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.
Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.
This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.
If I knew how to do those meme things there would be a picture here of a world-weary chap and the text saying ‘I don’t always act like a completist…but when I do it will involve Alice in Wonderland’. Feel free to do the technical stuff for me – or just imagine the image like I do – but be assured the words would be approximately 99.9% true. I do have a pretty extensive ‘Alice’ collection: different editions of the books (I’m especially interested in how illustrators interpret the story), biographies, critical works, foreign language editions and books written in an ‘Alice’ style. So far I’ve found lots of sci-fi versions, racy short stories and even an explanation of quantum physics – politics was only a matter of time…
Alice in Brexitland is a really good pastiche of Lewis Carroll’s writing style – both in the humour, the political commentary (check out Martin Gardiner’s Annotated Alice if you don’t think Carroll did politics) and in its poetry. Most of today’s best known (if not loved) political figures are featured and the Brexit plot is slotted ingeniously into the original. There are slightly more bottom-based gags than Carroll used but, to be fair, he didn’t have a politician with a name for passing wind to contend with… I’m not usually a fan of topical humour books – I like my funnies to have some staying power – but this one tickled me and has earned its place on my bookshelves for more than just its Alice credentials.
Talking of Alice credentials the beautiful new edition of Alice in Penguin’s new V&A Collector’s Edition is almost perfect. The cover design is based on a William Morris print and has a rather fetching White Rabbit (and Dormouse) illustration by Liz Catchpole. I stroked it for quite a while (humming happily) too, because the cloth cover feels great too, before opening it up to have little read. And that was my only problem – the illustrations available to Penguin are not from the original plates (many of which are still owned by Macmillan, Carroll’s original publisher) so they are a little less crisp and detailed. This is a lovely little book but to make it even better maybe Penguin could let Liz Catchpole do all the illustrations in the text as well as on the cover?
I started with African literature many years ago. In Sixth Form I was studying for an International Baccalaureate rather than A Levels and our English Literature course focussed on world literature (in translation) so I was studying Dostoevsky, Moliere and Achebe when I was 16. (I also studied World History rather than British – French Revolution, Unification of Italy and the Causes, Practices and Effects of War rather than dates of Corn Laws and Prime Ministers. I know nothing about Gladstone but remember the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. Ho hum). Anyway, my enjoyment of literature from around the globe continued at University – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dante and Monkey by Wu Ch’êng-ên – and is still with me today. You’ll know my love of quirky Scandinavian stories, Korean animal fables and philosophical French romances but my fascination with fiction from African writers also continues.
My latest is Taduno’s Song by Nigerian author Odafe Atogun and my first thought was that he, like me, may have read Marquez at a formative age. Taduno, in exile from Nigeria, receives a letter from his girlfriend which encourages him to return home. There are hints of oppression and the knowledge that Lela loves and misses him and, curiously, the fact that the letter reaches him with just his name, Taduno, in an unspecified foreign country. Add this to the fact that when Taduno returns to Lagos he finds that although the government is still afraid of him as a charismatic singer opposed to their regime no-one can recall his name or what he looks like. Only his voice would have reminded them but the brutal beating which led him to flee Nigeria three months earlier has destroyed that. So far my initial thoughts were that this was a take on magical realism but then the story also took up so many of the political undertones which are also typical of Marquez. The magic and the dark political times continue as Taduno tries to rediscover his voice and rescue Lela from prison.
The cover of this book reminds me of Woody Guthrie and his ‘this machine kills fascists’ message which he placed on his guitar in 1941. I spent much of this book agonizing, along with Taduno, as he has to choose between his countrymen and the woman he loves.
The eighties are my era. The music, the movies, the tv, the fashion….well, maybe not the fashion. But a decade spent listening to Wham and The Cure and watching Saturday Superstore (I was studying for most of the decade) was a glorious thing. And until 1984 we even had some pretty good Doctor Whos. And then, of course, in 1982 the world was gifted with The Young Ones. As I said the 1980s – the decade that kept on giving…
Most of the cast of The Young Ones went on to become huge stars but, when it first aired, the best known of them was Alexei Sayle. Thatcher Stole My Trousers is the second volume of Sayle’s autobiography and in it he covers the period between leaving the family home in Liverpool and finding fame as the Bolowski family. It is mostly an anarchically humorous view of the dark days before alternative comedy – days when sexist and racist jokes were considered suitable for prime-time viewing – but it also contains some genuine political musings (about the young men from various middle-eastern countries he meets while at art college in London among other things). I was particularly struck by Molly, Sayle’s mother: a woman who found that the communist party didn’t ‘offer enough of an excuse for hysterical carryings-on’. Which sort of turns the 70s mother-in-law jokes on their head. By half way through the book I realised that Alexei was the moderate liberal one in his family!
My personal highlight of the book came at around 150 pages in when the ICL building in Putney got namechecked. Well, it was more of a character assassination than anything else, but still – this was a building I actually worked in at one point (in the actual 1980s…). Add to this the fact that my brother and Alexei Sayle are beginning to look more and more as if they are related and, it’s fair to say, it starts to look as though this book is truly part of my life story as well as the author’s.
Prejudice is a funny thing. We are all guilty though, of judging others, and often because they are not ‘just like us’. We can misjudge the young because we have forgotten what childhood was really like and we can underestimate those much older than ourselves because they have had experiences we have yet to have. And if we don’t listen to others – both the young and the old – we seem to risk never learning anything….
Harry Leslie Smith has had so much experience in his long life. He has lived in poverty – the kind of poverty that most of us can only imagine – and fought in defense of freedoms which we now take for granted. What he is not doing in this book is fitting in with our narrow view of how an older person should present themselves – he doesn’t view the past through rose-coloured spectacles, he is not someone who is afraid to be heard and his opinions and beliefs could be those of a person of any age. There is a telling episode when he returns to Halifax, where he spent part of his youth (I would hesitate to refer to it as a childhood), and is confronted with the kind of unthinking racism which many older people – who have to see the country of their own youth changed in ways they don’t necessarily understand – are prone to. But, because he is obviously someone who sees beneath the skin colour or birthplace of people to the humanity which we all share this is not Harry’s way. As he says ‘ many people who are younger than me presume that because of my age I have a default setting which makes me, among other things, a lover of dogs, suspicious of immigrants, wary of welfare benefit recipients and distrusting of those who possess piercings and/or multiple tattoos’. You do not need to read much of this book to work out that is not an accurate description at all.
Harry Smith is, despite the gaps in his early education, an intelligent and thoughtful man. He has made sure that he is well-informed about what it is like to live in Britain now for those of us who are not part of the ruling elite and, most noticeably, he is angry. He is angry because the world his generation fought for, politically, socially and militarily, seems to be drifting back towards the ‘bad old days’ he would rather not see again. The privations of the immediate aftermath of World War Two, following on as they did from the Depression years of the 1930s were meant to have become a thing of the past with the coming of the welfare state. Our modern politicians, from all political parties (no favouritism shown here!), are given fairly short shrift as are the banks, climate-change deniers and the press.
I can’t say that I agree with absolutely everything Harry Smith says. But that isn’t the point – I don’t think any of us would want to live in even a benignly totalitarian state. The overarching message which I have taken from this book is that we should never give up fighting for what we think is right – any age is too young to decide that prejudice and injustice are somebody else’s problem.