Category Archives: History

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 4

There are a great many novels dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad and to mention only a few: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sacred Hunger and The Last Runaway barely covers the ground. Some of them deal with the subject in a slightly glossed over fashion and others go deep into the fleshiness of it.

Underground RailwayThe latest in this long line, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, spares the reader nothing. The story of Cora begins in the forests of Africa with her grandmother Ajarry, at the time a small child. Eventually Ajarry arrives on the Randall estate, and at some point in the dreadful progression, this estate switches to cotton.

Cotton demands many hands, you only have to read Gone with the Wind to know that, planting is the first hazard; weevils, drought, lightning strikes are next, but then there is the picking. For picking you needs many and nimble fingers and the negro slave was the answer.

The Randall estate eventually passes to the two sons, one takes the Southern plantation and the other the Northern. Ajarry has passed on long since, and Mabel, her daughter, has by now had a daughter of her own, Cora.

At the beginning of the novel, not the backstory, Mabel is a hunted runaway and Cora a young, abandoned child. We are spared nothing, not the labour, not the beatings, not the rapes and not the fear. The pages are saturated in it.

This novel has, not surprisingly, already won one book award, The National Book Award Winner 2016 (of America). Endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey this climbed the America charts and has now climbed the British lists.

This is Cora’s story, possibly a unique account, but more probably one that would have been familiar to many African slaves. It is a tale of courage, indomitability, fear, joy and survival against the weight of white suppression. It is not a book to enjoy, but one to learn from and consider. unsworthAnd like Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger, it makes very clear the relationship between Britain’s prosperity and slavery. It was not only the traders in human misery who were implicated – but each and every person who took a mouthful of sugar, drank rum or wore fine cotton.

Its position on the shortlist is a likely outcome.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 1

Since this year I have been re-reading classics, I am woefully behind in modern fiction and as a consequence have only read one title on the longlist 2017, the Sebastian BarryDays Without End, about which I posted earlier under the title “America on my mind” on 30th November 2016.barry

Once again, with America and the Civil War still on my mind, I have now read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (what already?! the list was only published on Thursday.  I read fast and remember, so get used to it).

The Bardo is an equivalent to limbo, or possibly Purgatory, but in the Tibetan philosophy of the dead.

LincolnThis astonishing, Gothic and convoluted novel is as experimental as almost anything I have ever read. Created, chapter by chapter of snippets of “real” life writings, presumably some of them actual, we learn that President and Mrs Lincoln held an elaborate and elegant party at The White House, while the Civil War was raging elsewhere and, more importantly for this book, their son William Wallace was mortally ill upstairs.

Willie dies, and we switch to the Gothic spirit-life of the residents of the Washington Cemetery where Willie was temporarily laid in a borrowed mausoleum as described in a contemporary memoir.

Nothing could have been more peaceful or more beautiful than the situation of this tomb and it was completely undiscoverable to the casual cemetery visitor, being the very last tomb on the left at the extreme far reaches of the grounds, at the top of an almost perpendicular hillside that descended to Rock Creek below. The rapid water made a pleasant rushing sound and the forest trees stood up bare and strong against the sky.

In “Twenty Days”, by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B.Kunhardt Jr.

Here we meet, and discover the spirits of three remarkable men: Roger Bevins iii, whose life became so fraught with sexual and emotional disappointment that he slashed his wrists, and then regretted it, too late. Hans Vollmans, a printer with a much younger wife,  who dies in an accident at work and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who has seemingly died from natural causes at a reasonable old age.

Willie’s spirit arrives in his “sick-box” and these three are puzzling over why such a young soul should still linger, as other babies and young people have experienced the translation by the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” within hours or even days. But Willie stays.

Then to all of them an amazing event – the President comes to his son’s grave, opens his “sick-box” and holds the child in his arms, nothing like this has ever happened before and it causes consternation, excitement and memory.

To continue would be a spoiler.

Suffice to say, the switch between the grieving father, as reported by historical documents, and the Gothic spirit-life of the cemetery is brilliant. George Saunders has seized upon a titbit of history and woven around it a fantastical, mind-bending tale, full of sound and fury. Full, also, of love, sympathy, grief, loss and a great deal else. The lives of the residents of the graveyard, grotesques and humans alike, is imagined in generous and lively detail and the portrait of the grief-stricken father, weighted alike with a burden few can imagine, who have not themselves lost a son or a daughter; and who at the same time is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands of other sons and daughters, and whose side in the conflict is not going well; and for the survival of a nation, is insightful and moving.

The historical context alone would make this an interesting book, but it is more, much more and I enjoyed it hugely.

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Summer Reading

Ah, the hot weather arrives and with it dreams of beaches, holidays and leisure. Leave the cares and concerns of work and bury yourself in some escapist literature.

And escape is the operative word where Tom Hawkins is concerned. His author, Antonia Hodgson knows how to wrap a rattling good tale around the fragments of history. In Tom’s day, we are in Georgian England. In his first adventure The Devil in Marshalsea, we meet Tom, a newly arrived inmate of the infamous debtors’ prison and in the same breath we meet many more characters that will haunt the pages of two other novels: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins and A Death at Fountains Abbey.
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Building a veritable ladder of escapades, in which Tom has  some very narrow escapes, Ms Hodgson selects her mise en scene from a few real characters, found in archives of contemporary letters and diaries and cunningly weaves a web of part truth and part fantasy, always at the end of the book, explaining who is who. Which of the characters is based on fact, gleaned say from a letter or diary, or from a bill of sale or from the domestic accounts of a genuine household or indeed, from the royal household, for even Queen Caroline makes a regular appearance, often the instigator of the latest scrape – it was well known that she was much given to intrigue and mischief.

The real characters may never have encountered Tom Hawkins (for he is fiction), but they might well have been a part of the adventure that he has in each of the books. The locations and the national events that shape his story are grounded in fact, it is the detail of the adventure that departs from history.

Another series that might equally engage you is that of Westerman and Crowther, these two characters meet in unfortunate circumstances when a body is found in woods on Harriet Westerman’s estate and she calls upon the help of a local anatomist, eccentric and reclusive, but known for his forensic skills: Gabriel Crowther is an unwilling but invaluable assistant in the first of many adventures from the pen of Imogen Robertson (can one still say “from the pen of”?).

Never mind, these are also skilfully set in an England very different from our own. Some time between 1750 and 1783, mayhem, murder and conspiracies seem to lurk behind every move that Westerman makes, either in her country estate or in London. This is still Georgian England, but spanning the reigns of both George II and George III, European courts were filled with intrigue and suspicion; life in England was is a state of flux; France was teetering upon the advent of a national catastrophe.

There are five books so far in this series. Beginning with Instruments of Darkness and ending, at present with Circle of Shadows the reader is drawn inexorably through the twists and turns of each investigation, once again at the end of each novel Ms Robertson gives us the actual events or ideas that she has used to people her story.Imogen 1.jpg

The historical background lies lightly upon these stories, but the locations once again bring us to the very mud, ugliness and extravagance of Georgian society: while the privileged and wealthy dance away the night, the less fortunate struggle for survival.

And soon it will be time to read the Man Booker Longlist…

 

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Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.

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America on my mind

No, this is not a “dump Trump” polemic (for a change). I am concerned with two remarkable novels about America before and during and after the Civil War, that is between 1861 to 1870. These will be followed by another book about America which lies at the top of my TBR pile – Darktown by Thomas Mullen, set in Atlanta in 1948 – watch this space.

barryRead in order of chronology, Sebastian Barry‘s new novel – Days Without End follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one, Thomas McNulty. It is a given that SB mines his own family history, not always as popular with said family as with his readers, and this is another fictionalised account of a distant relative.

Thomas leaves Sligo for Canada after his mother and sister have died in the potato famine; he knows what hunger is and escapes. Canada spits him out and he signs up with a friend, John Cole for the US military.

If you know your history, this will remind you that it is at the time of the “Indian Wars”. Thomas and John are both drafted into battalions hiking out towards California on the Oregon trail. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, there are graphic descriptions of killing, brutality and inter-race misunderstandings. Thomas and John do what they are told, without liking it one bit.

But the tale has a twist in it, and they end up with responsibility for a young Indian girl from the Oglala Sioux tribe.

So this is also a book about love, between two men and between these two men and the young girl, aged about ten. They leave the army and head off towards a peaceful future, but then the Civil War starts and they need to sign up again…

The second book has many attributes that echo Days Without End. News of the World follows the fortunes of one Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who after the Civil War, but while the country is still unstable not to say frankly lawless, goes around the States giving public readings from newspapers.jiles

Bearing in mind that many people were illiterate, these were popular events and Captain Kidd made himself a living from it. But in Wichita Falls, he is called upon to take a young German-born child, also about ten, back to her relatives in Castroville. A tremendous distance, pretty much the length of Texas.

Paulette Jiles has presented us with a densely packed novel of exceptional interest, daring and emotion. Beautifully crafted and written, Captain Kidd and the young girl whom he calls Johanna, travel in a second hand buggy through plains and mountains, along and across flooded rivers braving Indians, cowboys, and plain evil-minded pimps.

This too, is by way of a love story. Johanna is an Indian-captive child, she has witnessed appalling horrors.  The Captain is old enough to be her grandfather but he grows to respect and admire her, and she grows to love him. Their adventures bring them even closer together, but he knows, even if he cannot get her to understand, that his mission accomplished will sever their connection.

The inevitable tension in this arrangement, and the growing bond between the two is exquisitely written.

If you read this and enjoyed them, you might also like The Son by Phillip Meyer [Not the Booker – a motley collection posted 4th September 2013]scan0003

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60th London Film Festival – 11

Two very contrasting films today, both in their own way documentary, just with very different methods and messages.

Daughters of the Dust is a fictionalised portrait of a group of slave descendants, now freed and making their way north to Nova Scotia; they have one last family gathering, with photographs and a re-telling of their history and then a group of them leave in a boat.

15-10-1-daughters-of-the-dustPlayed by actresses, this tells the story of three generations of Gullah women. It takes a fresh and rather different look at the experience of black women, as they remember and mythologise their arrival and departure from the sea islands off the coast of America.

Julie Dash clearly has a feminist agenda here, however this is not a polemical film. It states the case, the elderly great-grandmother explains what their lives were like, the growing, weaving and dying of the cotton, how their hands were permanently blue with the indigo dye; the hardships of feeding and survival and the ways in which they took care to remember their African background.

They serve a typical African American meal, a stew of fish and prawns with okra, plantain and sweetcorn. It is lush and colourful, although all but two of the women are dressed entirely in white.

Made in 1991, this film has been completely re-mastered with a refreshed sound track.

Following that was the animation of Raymond Briggs’ biographical book – Ethel and Ernest, which was the story of his own parents. How they met, married went through the war together, and lived. This animation is bewitching and captures all the beauty and detail of Briggs’ pictures.

15-10-2-ethel-ernestEthel and Ernest, the movie, keeps faithfully to the original with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the voiceovers as Mr and Mrs Briggs. The sound track is completely in keeping with the time of the film, immediately pre-and post-war Britain (including the voices of Chamberlain, Churchill and the first man on the moon). To animate such a story, and because it was so personal, to animate it with extraordinary accuracy took several hundred draughtsmen, some doing background and others doing the hand-painted character drawings, over 7000 of them.

I realise that animation is not for everyone, but this is such a beautiful story, ordinary people living an ordinary life with all its hopes and mysteries. Quite superb. We were privileged to have pretty much everyone in the audience with us, including Raymond Briggs himself, and I was able to thank him publicly for years of delight that he has given us and our children – the film was as good as any animation of his books, many now regular favourites like The Snowman.

It has UK release and venue and dates can be found on the website: http://www.ethelandernestthemovie.com

 

 

 

 

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60th London Film Festival – 6

Just a single film from the Treasures of Cinema DARE section – films that are in-your-face, up-front and arresting: films that take you out of your comfort zone.

9-10-1-junoon Billed as a re-mastered version of a well-known and highly respected film from India, made in 1979 by Shyam Benegal and produced by Shashi Kapoor, this film lived for many years in the garage of the house, after the Bengal Studios closed. Re-mastered from negative and sound tape by Shashi Kapoor’s son, it is probably the best film about the Indian mutiny of 1857 to come out of India, or indeed anywhere.

Using members of the Indian acting community as well as dragooning members of his own family, Shashi Kapoor (who plays Javed Khan) brings a vivid reality to this terrifying moment in the history of Indian independence from Britain.

Muslim Soldiers in the British Army mutinied against the use of the cartridges which were wrapped in oiled paper, which had to be ripped open with their teeth because the fat used to oil the paper was either from cows or pigs – both of which are haram (forbidden). This was followed by a mass rising, engineered over all of Indian by passing secret messages in chapattis (flat breads into the pockets of which messages could be inserted).

A brave Muslim, Lalal Ramjimal played by Kulbushan Kharbanda, hides three female members of a British family (Jennifer Kendal, Ismat Chughtai and Nafisa Ali) in his house, but an influential Pathan, Javed Khan has become obsessed by Ruth, the daughter (Nafisa Ali) and insists on moving them to his house.

The book from which this film is made is called The Flight of the Pigeons by Ruskin Bond, but this could easily also be called a cat among the pigeons, placing these three English women in his household causes endless conflict among the women already there. And eventually he submits to the advice of his ‘aunt’ to take them away to her estate.

The scenes indoors where much of the action is shown through layers of screens (made from rush and lowered to keep the house cool, and to shield the women of the household from any visiting males) adds another texture to the layers of relationships, the sadness and jealousy (understandable) of Javed’s beautiful wife, the sharp tongues of his sister and sister-in-law (also in the house because their husbands are fighting) and finally the more placating tones of his aunt.

Javed is determined to marry Ruth as his second wife, which as a Muslim is permitted, but Ruth’s mother and indeed the girl herself, still traumatised by the events of the early scenes which include a massacre in a church where the father is killed, are completely against the idea. The tension between these two, Ruth and Javed, a fascination and a repulsion which dominates all the action of the film is palpable and brilliantly played. Javed’s frustration at his bewitchment creates a coil of anguish within him which occasionally overwhelms him, and this is brilliantly portrayed.

The battle scenes, which are many and furious, during which two opposing sets of horsemen charge towards each other, bearing lances, guns and swords, followed by much fierce sword fighting on horseback, must have taken some skill to film quite apart from anything else, there was such a melee of horses hooves that filming soldiers falling off as they were ‘killed’ must have presented quite a challenge in terms of ‘health and safety’.

For the Caucasian English viewer this was an interesting film because, of course, all the ‘English’ characters were in fact played by Indians, except Jennifer Kendal who was Shashi Kapoor’s wife (and the sister of Felicity).

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