Category Archives: Politics

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 11

“The story of Antigone re-written for the twenty-first century”, this is part of the blurb that accompanies the new novel by Kamila Shamsie. Anyone familiar with Antigone may wonder whether one single, notable and noble act replicated in the narrative of Home Fire, it quite sufficient to say that this is Antigone re-worked.

Antigone demonstrates a wilful disregard for the wishes of King Creon of Thebes in demanding a decent burial for her brother, Polynices, after both her brothers have been killed fighting about which of them should be on the Theban throne. Creon, who takes the throne after the death of these two, decrees that there should be no mourning for Polynices, or burial, on pain of death. Of Eteocles there is no mention!

KamilaKamila Shamsie‘s book has much more to it than this single demonstration of rebellion. The novel is divided into five parts, the first deals with the meeting between Isma, elder sister of the twins Anneka and Parvaiz, and Eamonn the only son of Karamat Lone, a British MP; the second part is Eamonn’s story and how he gets involved with Aneeka, or her with him; the third is the story of Parvaiz; the fourth is Aneeka’s story and the final part is Karamat’s take on the whole situation.

This is the experience of British Muslims living today in a Britain of jihadi terrorism, suspicion, rejection and distrust; it is also the life of a close-knit family who have endured terrible, frightening and fracturing experiences and it is also the story of the lies and misrepresentations that recruiters to The Caliphate use to persuade young people to join the jihad and go to Syria to fight or work or marry into The State and at the same time, it is also the story of how the police, the politicians and indeed the families try to prevent this happening.

In this novel, all these factors clash around the lives of these young people. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz have no parents, their father was being taken to Guantanamo from Bagram, but died suddenly before he was put on the plane; their mother diminished by this event keeled over dead while at work; Isma becomes de facto mother to the twins and they live with a neighbour in Preston Road, Wembley, Aunty Naseem.

At the beginning of the novel, Isma has won a scholarship to an American university and she is in the airport being interrogated.  Her passport, ticket and boarding pass taken, her bags searched and her plane taking off without her – but her visa and everything is in order.  So finally, having caused her to miss her plane, the authorities come back and breezily tell her that it all checks out and she is free to go – knowing all the time that the boarding pass which they return to her is useless. This may not be typical for every British Muslim from Pakistan leaving this country, but it does happen to a few (and worse).

It is, in many ways, the tone of the whole book: how white British people, especially those in authority, treat people who are different. Karamat Lone, also a Muslim as it happens, voices these positions in his capacity as an MP, sometimes saying that if “they” want to be British they must give up all their foreign practices and ideologies and worse yet, saying about the family that Eamonn has become involved with:

“I know their names. Where they come from. Who they were before they went. There’s only one Preston Road. It’s the last place in England I’d expect to find that kind of thing happening. But that one [Parvaiz], he had exceptional circumstances. Terrorism as family trade. Illustrative of how much you need to do to root out this kind of thing. I mean, literally, grab by the very roots and pull. Pull the children out of those environments before they’re old enough for the poison to seep in.”

Karamat’s intransigence leads inevitably onwards to the final denouement. His misplaced condemnation of his son’s character, his chronic misjudgement of Parvaiz and of his twin sister, Aneeka, and everything about who they really are leads back to his expressed belief in the roots of terrorism. Even when confronted with an alternative narrative, Karamat refuses to move to defuse an appalling situation.

This ought to be deeply moving, but somehow didn’t quite manage it. Shocking certainly, and in places disagreeable to read but it never engaged me emotionally. Which is not quite to say that it was not worth reading, but compared, say, to Jean Anouilh‘s Antigone or The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney it does not hit the mark. I am not sure why.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 9

I think that while authors like Mike McCormack are still writing it is safe to say that the novel is not dead. That said, Solar Bones, his latest title is quite some read.

Solar BonesFirst of all, the book has no dust jacket, and seen in a pile from the angle of the cut page, it could be mistaken for a prayer book, as the pages are gilded. Then on opening the book, the reader becomes quickly aware that there are no full-stops, not just on page one but throughout the whole book even to the end.

So with no stops and no chapters and virtually no breaks in the prose, except for spacings, what exactly is this? A train of thought or stream-of-consciousness? Is it spooling backwards even though we are reading it forwards?page

The big question though is what is the relationship between the situation we find on page one to the events we experience in the last seven and a half pages. Is there a caesura somewhere that brings us into the present, and if so where?

These questions are important, but not killing. This is an extraordinarily rich, complex and wide reaching river of words describing the marriage and family life of one, Marcus Conway, civil engineer and father to Agnes and Darragh, husband to Mairead; the thoughts and ramblings of this one man, Marcus from the ringing of the Angelus bell at midday on 2nd November, to the pips signalling the one o’clock news on 21st March. That is to say, the thoughts range over this man’s childhood, various national events and some personal ones that eventually converge in the sickness of Mairead who is a victim of a Clostridium poisoning which takes down over six hundred inhabitants, and probably more, in an un-named Irish city, when the water supply is contaminated with human waste.

Meanwhile, we come back again and again to this same kitchen table with Marcus sitting at it, thinking and feeling a slow, unidentified dread.

The novel is full of humour, Darragh is quite the joker although we only meet him on Skype as he is currently the other side of the world; Marcus himself is not without a sense of the absurd, but also a sense of his own worth, which comes out in one train of thought about some work he is meant to be signing off, and cannot because the work is sub-standard: his civil duty and a quiet life for the politicos involved being at odds with one another.

I have never come across a novel quite like this one. It is not, even by a stretch of imagination comparable to Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s experiences cover a single day and 260,000 words but it is clever and challenging in exactly the same way, and leaves you thinking about it for hours after.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 7

Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.

RoyThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.

Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.

Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra.  Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.

Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.

For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.

The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.

Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.

At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:

“How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.


By slowly becoming everything.”

The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.


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Chinese take-away

I read recently, two extraordinary books about China. One by the Chinese equivalent of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, unpublishable in his own country, Yan Lianke. Based in Beijing, many of his most controversial writings are banned in China. Four Books is among the banned novels. The other book is by the writer and journalist, Rob Schmitz, who has lived and worked in China for many years and is now based in Shanghai, his book is called Street of Eternal Happiness.

Four Books [for which I have no image because I left it on Orkney for others to read] is a strangely constructed novel, purporting to be sections from writings of various hands, collected and collated into a single bundle of papers. Set at the heart of the Cultural Revolution, several different people – one or two of whom are the authors possibly – are in the distant countryside “farming” and “smelting”. This disparate group are led by ‘The Child’, an androgynous youth who appears to be in charge and to whom all the others kowtow. The others include ‘The Scholar’, ‘The Intellectual’ and other similarly labelled characters, all of whom have been deemed to need re-education. The somewhat barren area they are congregated in is called the Re-Ed District and seems to have numerous separate and competing sections.

The competition element is crucial. The leaders, The Child and his/her ilk go to the next up in the hierarchy and report progress in their “village”. How many bushels of rice they can grow in such and such an area of ground, or how much iron they can smelt…the results are obvious. By exaggerating their yield they are forced to give more and more of their produce to those higher up in towns and cities; those actually producing the goods eventually starve.

Escape is virtually impossible, and hideously punished if caught. Information from outside the immediate compound is scarce and unreliable. Informing on your colleagues, however, is plentiful and a reliable source of “rewards”, generally extra food rations and thereby diminished in reliability.

The discovery of iron rich soil in the bank of the river led to mass smelting, and all metals were demanded to be smelted thus, leaving the compound short of tools and vessels for cooking and eating, and again competition meant a huge over-estimate of supply. Whole areas were de-forested to supply the fuel for the smelting, leaving nothing for shelter, building or fuel for cooking.

With the wisdom of hindsight, the results were entirely predictable. Intellectuals, writers, teachers, accountants and the like were not, and never would be, good farmers. The boastful claims for dubious rewards made by the “leaders” to leaders above them and on up and up the chain, meant that more and more got syphoned to the cities and factories and less and less was available to those in the countryside and a mass starvation followed, partly through a lack of foodstuffs and partly the wherewithal to cook it. They were reduced to eating grass and roots, and then…broke the final taboo.

Read, in translation, this was a very moving and articulate account of the whole process, written as from those undergoing the rigours.

ChinaThe other book, Street of Eternal Happiness, is not entirely different. Rob Schmitz lives in a fairly modern high-rise that looks down on the street and at the back looks over a strangely under-developed area surrounded by a high wall.

As journalist, and a man with an appetite for discovery, Rob begins to talk to (and interview) the local inhabitants of the street. The flower seller who has left the countryside, brought up two sons and now has the problem of their education to deal with; the sandwich bar owner, who makes money producing accordions and whose bar is a side-line; the family who live behind the wall in one dilapidated house surrounded by desolation and a bundle of letters that lead him back in time to a situation similar to the ones described in Four Books.

Many of these city dwellers are not more than one generation away from the scars and wounds of the Cultural Revolution.

This is a dedicated, fascinating, funny and sometimes appalling story of the lives lived in a single street in one of the most diverse and interesting cities. The city’s own history, going right back to the arrival of Europeans, is marked out in the city plan and the waves of fortune and misfortune still appear in the very fabric of the buildings and in the tales of the people Rob speaks to about where they have come from. He clearly has an natural and rare aptitude for drawing out people’s innermost thoughts and feelings, aspirations and desperations.

For anyone visiting, this is a must read; for anyone with no intention of visiting, this is a must read because it is a window on China, a small window with wide implications for the world.

Is the Great Leap Forward, so violently promoted by Chairman Mao, going to prove more of a long jump which is just about to land?

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Independent Bookshop Week

Today and for the next seven days, 24th June to 1st July 2017, if you do anything at all you should go and buy a book from an independent bookshop. My favourite in London is in Primrose Hill and is called Primrose Hill Bookshop, unsurprisingly! PHB shop

Here you will meet Marek and Jessica and an assistant, all three are conversant with the books they sell, either Marek or Jessica will have read all the books, so they can give you informed opinion and choice, if you are hesitating.

I might never have bought The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins, had it not been recommended. PHB4
This is a fairly short novel about a tobacconist shop in Vienna in the 1930s. A young boy from the countryside is sent by his mother to help out in the shop; the owner is very strange but kind and one of their regular customers is Sigmund Freud; this novel is about the strange and disturbing times in Vienna, and the relationship between the boy, the owner of the shop and Sigmund Freud. But also, is a very delightful, sometimes sad and sometimes heart warming, coming-of-age story. Robert’s previous novel A Whole Life was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

[Should you wish to learn more about this interesting and diverse prize you should follow A Little Blog of Books, one of the best book blogs that there are.]

Downstairs there is a remarkable selection of second hand books, mostly in excellent condition, many are nearly new.

There are also events, some at lunch time, some arranged through Eventbrite and are always interesting or intriguing. Take for example, an interesting and lively evening at the Union Chapel to hear Yanis Varoufakis speak about his new book Adults in the Room about which I cannot speak highly enough. .PHB3
Anyone at all who thinks Brexit will come out all right on the night needs to read this.

Particularly David “bra-size” Davis, who needs to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, because without it he will be “walking naked into the conference chamber” to use Teresa May’s illimitable description of Jeremy Corbyn.

Primrose Hill Books sell many top popular titles with signed copies, if you are quick and other less well know authors are promoted on a blackboard outside the shop.

Practically all the books that I have written about over the years have come from them; and even though I now live in South London I still use them as my main source of literature and non fiction. I email orders regularly, they store them until I can get over to the shop and even send them to me, or as a rare privilege Marek will drive over with a box. But that may not be a universal offer, so do not assume that you will get a delivery on one order. I ordered Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler, one time winner of the Pulitzer prize, an intriguing love story set in Vietnam, PHB5
where the river of the title gets its scent from the blossoms falling on the surface. It is a book about personal relationships and how the experience of war and its personal aftermath can reverberate down through several generations.

We all get excited by the many book prizes, my main focus being the Man Booker. But Jessica keeps me abreast of many of the others and not infrequently, I leave the bookshop with my order plus some recommendations by either Marek or Jessica.


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60th London Film Festival – 8

Marathon of a day today and the buses were all over the place; sat at one bus stop and no less that six buses, Route 29, came past in less than eight minutes, all but one terminating in Trafalgar Square, which was the next stop!

11-10-1-boundariesKicked off in the morning with a political/environmental satire, Boundaries, about a fictional island off the coast of Labrador. Three women, in quite different roles happen to meet during a session in which the island’s mining rights, its relationship with its larger neighbour Canada and its contract with an iron extraction company have ground to a halt. So one woman, played by  Emily VanCamp, is there as a mediator struggling with having to be away for long intense periods, leaving her young son with her ex-husband; Macha Grenon plays Danielle Richard, the Prime Minister of Besco, this independent island, she also struggles with work/life balance which she explains in the film as the tension between wanting to do good things for the country and for the future, her children’s future while finding that the job separates her from them and finally there is the idealistic young politician, part of the Canadian team, Félixe Nasser-Villeray played by Nathalie Doummar whose problems arise from the conflict between the reports and works that she has done, and supplied to the team only to have them ignored or misrepresented.

Each of these three strong women, passionate about their work but also about their lives are set against a male dominated, aggressive and bullying culture, needless to say the mediation fails and the island it set free to sort out its own goals and achievements.

This satirical look at the wheeling and dealing that is part and parcel of politics and big business today, focuses on the women but also shows the men as devious and arrogant – so it looks as though the environment is going to get trashed in the wake of big bucks with sweeteners of all sorts, not to mention a touch of blackmail – but Mrs Richards is made of sterner stuff…

The second film was precisely the opposite, from the Treasures of the Cinema listings we got a wonderfully re-mastered piece from 1957. Patrick McGoohan as a villain with a cast of young hopefuls that later hit the big screen – Sean Connery and David McCullum among others.

11-10-2-hell-driversThe premise of Hell Drivers was simple and male-dominated. A company of truckers moving gravel from one site to a building site elsewhere, are motivated by cash rewards for the most runs they can do in a day; vile shenanigans follow as the competition between the gang boss – Red (Patrick McGoohan) and Tom the new boy, played by Stanley Baker – hots up into a seriously dangerous game.

Considering the age of the film and the techniques and cameras available at the time, the breakneck runs between the depot and the site along narrow English lanes is little short of amazing. Every trick of camera work is in play here, to great effect as the view switches from inside the cab, to the view through the windscreen, the view in the wing mirror and the road ahead. A speed chase and race with heavy lorries; then it switches to the  view of the accelerator/brakes and clutch pedals and back to the speedometer. Hugely simplistic, the good guys and the bad guys and nothing much in grey or nuance, but what a film!

Finally tonight a documentary portrait of the Mozart of Chess – Magnus.  A young prodigy from Norway who from a very young age shows a natural aptitude for chess. The film follows the boy’s progress from national winner to world chess status over a period of three years, aged 19 to nearly 23 when he became the World Chess Champion in 2013, beating the current holder, Viswanathan Anand, in his home town Chennai.

11-10-3-magnusThis is the second documentary I have seen this Festival in which the whole film would have been considerably different had the outcome not been outstandingly successful (the first being The Eagle Huntress). Placed in the JOURNEY section, it is indeed a journey from triumph to triumph.

The need to know anything about chess is completely swept away by the quite sensitive and delicate filming of matches, though as it happens Magnus Carlsen plays chess at a quite prohibitive speed.

Competition chess is rather different from a friendly match down at the pub. There are timing rules, mind games and presumably money, though interestingly the sums that Magnus has won were never mentioned.

This is a great film, a beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of professional games playing. UK distribution is 25 November, just as Magnus undertakes his third defence of his title.

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