For the joy of reading: The Librarian of Auschwitz

This is not an easy book to read.   This is hardly surprising because it is about Auschwitz.   It is about one small act of resistance against the SS which was organised by a 15-year old girl, Dita Kraus, who lived to tell the tale.   There was a library in Auschwitz.   It consisted of eight books, some of them badly damaged, that was hidden under the floorboards of the school hut.   There were also living books, people who remembered stories and told them to the children.   The books that were hidden under the floorboards were not necessarily the most useful for children – an atlas, a Russian grammar, Freud, The Good Soldier Swejk and the Count of Monte Cristo in French.   But the living books were gold dust.   They were the tales that people remembered and were able to pass on.

I can already hear your question.   What was the point?   They were all going to die.   The point was to live in the moment.   To give the children something to look forward to – a story, a book in their hands, something to do.   The point was to give them lessons, to tell them something about the world.   And it was important because some of them, if not many, were going to return to that world.

The story is told as a novel because that allows Antonio Iturbe, the author, more freedom to interpret what happened especially when no record has survived.   Even the names used are not the real ones, except where it is historically necessary.   There is no point in using different names for Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele or Elizabeth Volkenrath.   Iturbe does not make any attempt to disguise them.  

One of the characters that he does not disguise is Fredy Hirsch who ran the school in which the library, at his instruction, was hidden.   Fredy is presented as an ardent Zionist which he was.   We hear that he told the children about how important it was that they should settle in Palestine.   We do not hear of anyone arguing against him, although there were thousands of anti-Zionists in Auschwitz at any given time.   But this is a novel.   It concentrates upon the school and the library, and especially upon the experience of Dita Adler (really Dita Kraus) who was full of admiration for Fredy and upon her release from Bergen-Belsen she found her way to Israel where she settled.

There are issues about how Zionism was perceived in the Jewish community of this time which are dealt with in “For Two Thousand Years”, a contemporary novel, by Sebastian Mihail.   This is not raised in this book, which could be perceived as a weakness.   But the book reflects the experience of Dita Adler, and that is what is important.

We should not be distracted from the horror of the Holocaust because we know about what has happened since.   Obviously, it does matter.   But it is not the subject of this book.   This book is about the years of unimaginable horror committed by humans against other humans during the Second World War.   We have failed to make sure that it does not happen again because it has – in Cambodia, in Rwanda, at Srebenica in what was Yugoslavia.   It has not happened on the industrial scale that took place at Auschwitz, and for that we can be grateful.

As I said, this is a difficult book to read.   But if it makes you think about the world in which we live, the barbarity of which we are capable and the need to be vigilant against racism and the attempts to justify racism, then it has succeeded in its purpose.


For the joy of reading: Milkman

This book is about how a whole community can become paranoid.   The city is not named.   Only one of the characters is named and that is only after she is dead and cannot come to any further harm.   Every single character is given a description like “Third brother-in-law” so that only those who are familiar with the people can know who is being talked about.   This is a community at war.   The divide is religious, political, historical and drenched in blood.   There is an occupying power.   There are two states, contesting for the loyalty of the inhabitants.   Although officially there is no war, there is a low-intensity guerrilla war being waged on the streets.   Nothing is said, but the reader can be in no doubt that the country is Northern Ireland and that the city is Belfast.

Paranoia is one of the main themes of the book.   The heroine is being sexually harassed by the Milkman, a leading para-military and assumes, probably correctly, that everyone close to her will be under threat if she does not submit.   The most under threat is the narrator’s maybe-boyfriend, who may be murdered simply to get him out of the way.   The Milkman does not have to do this himself.   All he has to do is indicate to the Renouncers that maybe-boyfriend is an informer, and that will do the trick.   Maybe-boyfriend has also made the mistake of acquiring an iconic car part which was made “over the water”.   It is so obvious that this book is about Northern Ireland.

This paranoia, this avoiding of names, this use of soubriquets is not something that is familiar to a British audience.   It is not something that we have had to deal with.   We have not lived with a low-intensity war taking place on our door steps day in, day out, year after year.   That war sometimes spilled over onto our streets, but not very often.   We have not had to worry about who could overhear our conversations since the “careless talk costs lives” campaign in the Second World War.   That is the subtext of this book throughout.

This is a story about how ordinary people learn to adapt and survive in the most difficult of circumstances.   It is a story about prejudice and conflict.   It is a story about a traumatised community.   It is an insight into what can be at stake when polarised communities will not consider the option for peace and reconciliation.   It shows how easy it is to take the wrong turning and follow the path to hell.

For the joy of reading: Selected Poems, by Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke is someone to be treasured.   Her poems evoke a Welshness that will be understood by everyone.   They are like the smell of Teisen Lap (a very sugary fruit cake) drifting from the oven as it bakes.   They are full of the hiraeth, a longing for a place to which you cannot return, that Housman speaks about in “A Shropshire Lad” or that Burns evokes in “My heart’s in the Hielans”    [It has always struck me that when Housman wrote of “blue remembered hills” and of a country to which he could not return – his childhood – he was writing about hiraeth.   Unfortunately, the English language does not have a word to match the concept].

There are Welsh words scattered throughout these poems, but they are always translated in a footnote, which means that the reader does not lose the meaning and the impact of the language is not lessened.   For me though it was the reference to the places that struck home.   The poem about the Honddu valley (pronounced Hon-thee) was particularly enthralling because it is well-known to me.   If you have read Owen Sheers “Resistance” it will be familiar to you as the setting of his story.   Some of you will know about Llanthony as the place where Eric Gill set up his artists’ colony.   Some of you will have seen Capel-y-Ffin towering over the Hay Book Festival.

There poems about the lambs born in the spring.   There are poems about the legends of Wales.   There are poems about music and the playing of the organ.   There are poems about fruit.   There are poems about wildlife.   There are poems about grandparents, and the Welsh words used for them.    There are poems about train journeys and the landscape.   There are poems about every aspect of what it means to be Welsh.

These poems exude the landscape, the culture, the food and, even though it is hardly used at all, the language – All the things that make Wales a different country from its larger neighbour.   They are a window into the Welsh soul.   That is exactly the reason why Gillian Clarke was chosen to be the Poet Laureate of Wales.

All I can say to Gillian Clarke is thank you very much.   Diolch yn fawr.

For the joy of reading: Conviction

Denise Mina is a consummate storyteller.   Absolutely mesmerising.   Those of you who have read her books already know this.   If you haven’t, then give your self a treat and start with this one, Conviction.

This story begins with a really bad day for Anna.   Hamish, her partner, leaves her taking their two daughters with him as he elopes with Estelle, her best friend.   And then things get worse.   Fin, Estelle’s partner, turns up on her doorstep and he and Anna are photographed by a nosey neighbour who posts the picture onto Instagram and other social media outlets.   This would not matter if Fin was not a world-famous anorexic musician and if Anna did not have a dark secret that she wants to keep that way.

As if that is not complicated enough, the tale of Leon Parker and his two children, who died in a mysterious yachting accident off the Ile de Re, is enfolded into Anna’s story as she had met Leon at the Skibo Castle, where she was working as a chambermaid.   The only other thing that you need to know about the plot is that Leon subsequently marries Gretchen Teigler, a Californian millionaire and was married to Gretchen when he died.   Gretchen does not like her business or her personal life being subject to any sort of scrutiny whatsoever.   Anna, for reasons that are too complicated to explain and which would give too much of the plot away, decides to investigate the deaths of Leon Parker and his children.   This earns her the wrath of Gretchen Teigler, whom she had already crossed in spectacular fashion before she met Hamish.

Out of these strands, Denise Mina weaves a tale that I was simply not able to put down.   The plot takes you from Glasgow to Fort William to north of Inverness, and then to the Ile de Re, Venice and on to Lyon and Paris.   There is also an absolutely terrifying train journey on the way from Venice to Milan, in the best tradition of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”.   In this journey, we will meet a heroin addict, an avuncular butler, a personal assistant who makes the Spanish Inquisition look harmless, several assassins and a baker devoted to her dying partner.

Enough about the plot.   Why should you read this book?   Once started, I could not put it down.   It is like being confronted by the Ancient Mariner.   You simply cannot turn away.   You may think that you have arrived at a good place to stop, but then you just turn the page and carry on reading.   Denise Mina has a way with words that keeps you hooked to the storyline.   I could not put this book down.

It is not just that you want to know what happens next to Anna and Fin as they flee from the wrath to come.   You care about them deeply.   You hope that both of them will be able to confront their demons and will be able to get on with their lives.   You may even hope, if you are truly a romantic, that they will become an item.   There is, of course, no guarantee of that, if only because there is no guarantee that both of them will be alive at the end of the story.   You will have to read the book to find out.

This is a thriller.   The adrenalin pumps.   The heart beats a lot faster.   It may even stop for a milli-second as you absorb one of the many shocks.   You will emerge, as Coleridge put it, “a wiser and a sadder man”.

For the joy of reading: Natives

This is very much a meditation on what it was like to grow up Black in inner London during the rule of Margaret Thatcher.   It is also very much a discussion of racism, class and the decline of the Anglo-Saxon Empire.   I use that term, although Akala does not, to encompass both British and US imperialism.   It is not an attempt to let the Scots, Irish and Welsh who participated in the imperialist project off the hook.

I approach this book from the perspective of a white man who has just turned 70 and who has spent the last 50 or so years of his life deeply involved in the anti-racist struggle and, especially, the Anti-Apartheid Movement   I did not grow up black in Thatcher’s Britain.   I grew up white and Welsh In north-east London during the 1950s.   The racism was pervasive.   The milkman’s horse, being black, was called “nigger”.   The term “Yid” was in common currency.   And yet, when Dr Chaudhuri died, the streets of Barkingside were lined by thousands of people wishing to pay their tribute as his coffin passed.   This was probably because there was no significant Indian community in the area at the time.   Yet, it is part of the contradiction that Akala discusses at some length in this book.   British society is infinitely adaptable on the one hand, and on the other it is profoundly racist.   It does seem that the areas of the country that are the most racist are also the areas that are thoroughly white, although I do not have any empirical evidence on which to base such a statement.

Each chapter of this book has something to say about the racism that exists in our country and in the USA, and also in the Caribbean, South Africa and elsewhere.   Akala is well aware that the lightness of his skin means that he will be treated better in some countries, like Jamaica, Brazil and apartheid South Africa, than in others where he is racialised as Black.   The chapter on his realisation that his mother is white is one that is especially moving.   He leads us through his childhood, the confrontations with teachers who did not think that he should be so intelligent because of the colour of his skin.   There is one astonishing chapter about a teacher who claimed that the Ku Klux Klan “stopped crime by killing black people”.   This was the point at which my mind boggled.   There is really no answer to such stupidity.   It is not even worth attempting an answer because any answer my gives credence to the intellectual aridity, the sheer unadulterated prejudice, of such a premise in the first place.   I asked myself “how could an educated person even think this, and then I remembered that it was Thatcher’s Britain and many people thought like this.   In fact, it was the kind of thinking that the Prime Minister, with her “swamping” remark in a TV interview actually encouraged.   It is the kind of thinking that Donald Trump and the alt. right are encouraging now.

The chapter headed “Police, Peers and Teenage Years” had a special resonance for me.   I, of course as I am a white man, have never been stopped and searched by the police.   I was, on one occasion, heading back home after having spoken at an anti-apartheid meeting in South London.   I was waiting at a bus stop and a young black man was also waiting there.   It was about 10.00pm.   Suddenly, a police car screamed up and three or four officers poured out.   One of them shouted something like “What are you doing here?”   In my astonishment, I blurted out “We are waiting for the bus.   What do you think we are doing?”   This took the officers by surprise.   They obviously assumed that we knew each other.   One of them said “Let’s go” and they poured back into their car and drove off.   The bus came and I never saw that young man again.   If I had not been there, I am sure that the young man may have been searched and maybe arrested.   I mention this tale to illustrate Akala’s point that it was quite normal for young black men to be stopped and searched by the police.

I was most interested in the chapter on Mandela and Castro, partly because of Akala’s argument and partly because this was at the heart of my own political life.   Akala starts his analysis with the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in southern Angola, in 1987-1988.  

I think we need to go back to 1975 when Angola won its independence by defeating the Portuguese fascist government and apartheid South Africa invaded to prevent the installation of a government sympathetic to the liberation of Namibia and South Africa.   The South African army drove north and were only halted by the arrival of Cuban troops to assist the newly-independent government of Angola.   The South African army retreated by organised constant attacks on Angola from its base in apartheid occupied Namibia.

The Reagan and Thatcher governments developed the policy objective of pressurising the Angolan government into asking the Cuban armed forces to leave Angola.   In 1986, an international non-governmental conference on Namibia was held in Brussels.   I was one of the delegates.   Inevitably, a motion was put forward calling for the Cubans to withdraw from Angola and to be replaced by “an acceptable international force” as a prelude to talks on Namibian independence.   I asked if the implication of this motion was that the Cubans were not an acceptable international force.   This killed the motion stone dead.

Obviously, I am not saying that, but for my intervention, the Cubans would not have been in Angola when the South African apartheid army launched its attack on Cuito Cuanavale in 1987.  I think it helped.   What is important is that Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” did not work, that the South African army was defeated at Cuito Cuanavale and that talks for the independence of Namibia (which took place in 1990) started in circumstances that were not favourable to the apartheid state.   This achievement was recognised at Mandela’s inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994 when the second longest cheer was for Fidel Castro.

Akala asks why Mandela is loved by whites and Castro is hated by conservatives.   Mandela embarked on a policy of reconciliation.   This was out of generosity of spirit, a realisation of the concept of “ubuntu” which translates roughly as “I am who I am because of other people”.   I think that it was more than that.   Mandela was aware that die-hard white South Africans had to be persuaded not to drown South Africa in a bloodbath, which was a real threat.   He was also aware that the IMF and the World Bank had to be wooed into not pulling the plug on the South African economy, which was at the point of bankruptcy because of the sums that had been committed to the defence of apartheid.   So, he gave what could have been an Oscar-winning performance as the conciliator, the genial elder statesman.

In anti-apartheid circles there had been long discussions about what would happen when the struggle for national liberation had been won in Southern Africa.   That was a slow process that began with Angola and Mozambique (1975), Zimbabwe (1980), Namibia (1990) and South Africa (1994).   Some of us argued that this was a two-stage process with stage one as national liberation and stage two as economic empowerment for the majority.   This is essentially Akala’s argument, and it is right.   Economic power had remained for the overwhelmingly most part in the hands of the white population in South Africa.   That is the legacy that Cyril Ramaphosa has to deal with.

Why is Castro hated.   Well, he has been the bogeyman of white, conservative US politicians since he overthrew the Baptista regime in Cuba in the late 1950s.   The fact that he transformed education and healthcare in Cuba to make his country one of the best providers in the world is not something that they are interested in.   The fact that he closed down Havana as a holiday ground for the Mafia has no interest for them.   Castro is hated because he challenged the very basis of their politics.   Akala makes this point very forcefully.

This is an inspirational book.   It challenges all the ideas at the basis of white supremacy.   Donald Trump will not want to read this book.   That is the very reason why you should.

For the Joy of Reading: Fallen Angel

Well, I didn’t expect that ending and neither will you.   It really did come as a surprise even though, when I think about it, there are hints throughout the story.

So, what is the story?   So, what is the story.   It centres around the Temple family, who are an outwardly successful couple.   There is Celia who was an actor in a cult TV sci-fi series.   Think Servalan in “Blake’s 7” and, if that means nothing to you, just think sexy villain in as little clothing as possible.   She is married to Max, a Professor of Psychology, who became a TV personality, through a TV clash with a conspiracy theorist that went viral.   By the time the story starts, he is dead.   Then there are the children.   Marion is married to Ken, a plumber, and has two children, Hugo and Lia.   Rory is involved with Svetlana, who is in hock to the Russian Mafia.   Sylvie is an unmarried teenage mother whose daughter Niamh is the lynchpin of the story.

When the story starts, the Temples are heading to Praia Mexilhoes, to their villa in the Algarve, to scatter Max’s ashes into the Atlantic.   It is the first time that they have been there in a long while, and all of them are going to have to come to terms with what happened on the night Niamh disappeared.

There is one other group of characters that you need to meet.   Vince and his family own the next-door villa and the two villas share a swimming pool.   So, the two families socialise.   On the same day that the Temples are leaving for Faro to scatter Max’s ashes, Vince and his new wife, Kirsten, are heading to their villa, with their new-born son, Arron, and Canadian au pair, Amanda.   Vince gets caught up in a business deal and fails to make the plane.   Vince’s first wife, Laurie, was an alcoholic lawyer, who secured a very good divorce settlement.   Laurie and Vince were there on the fatal night that Niamh went missing, but Laurie died before Max, so she is not there for the final confrontation.

The whole story is about this final confrontation and even fleetingly involves Christopher Brookmyre’s usual hero, Jack Parlabane.  

I have said enough about the plot.   Brookmyre will keep you on tenterhooks throughout the story.   To describe it as a page-turner gives no idea about how hooked you will be, and how much you will want to find out what happens next.   That will have your mind boggling as the twists and turns of the plot develop.   I guarantee that you will not be expecting that final twist in this corkscrew plot.   But once it happens everything falls into place.  

This is a master craftsman at work.   Just sit back, read, and let the story take hold of you.   You will not regret it.

for the joy of reading: underland

I have to be honest.   I bought this book because I was looking for something to read on a long train journey.   The cover illustration is of interlocking branches over a sunset.   Neither the title “Underland” nor the sub-title “A Deep Time Journey” gave any real indication of what the book was about.   And there was a tagline about entering the Underland through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.   Everything suggested that it was a fantasy novel, and that it would be a fun read on a very long train journey.

It is not a fantasy novel.   It is a book about the author descending into the depths of the earth in various parts of the northern hemisphere to find out what is under the ground on which we tread.   

It is a very long book.   I had one very simple problem with it.   I did not see the point.   This was partly because it was very difficult for me to see the connection between the various, different sections of the book, apart from the fact that each section dealt with something that is beneath our feet if we are standing in a particular part of the world.

One of the questions that this book raises is a simple one: Why do we go under the land?   What is our purpose?   This is why the book is a deep time journey because it goes back far beyond the historical record to our first emergence as what Desmond Morris, in a famous book, called “The Naked Ape”.   We went into caves for shelter from the weather and for protection from predators.   Then we began to bury our dead.   So, this book sets itself the task of exploring the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory and fact.

The author explores the Underland of Europe and Greenland, visiting caves in the Mendips, a mine in Boulby in Yorkshire, Epping Forest, the catacombs of Paris, an underground river in the Carso in Italy, the Slovenian Highlands, the Lofoten Islands in Norway, glaciers in Greenland and a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland.   Some of these underlands are natural, some of them are man-made.   All of them require the author to be shown around by people who are experts in that particular terrain.

It is difficult to see what the link between these places is, apart from the author’s obsession with going beneath the surface of the earth to find out what is underneath.   Perhaps that is the only link.   Perhaps I am missing something.

The book is well-written.   Each episode is described well.   Some of the stories make you wonder about the sanity of humans.   Why do people go into the catacombs of Paris (essentially sewers) so that they can party?   Why do people risk their lives to find out exactly where an underground river flows between its disappearance and re-emergence?   Why do people abseil into the cracks in glaciers?   The answer is, because they can.

But I am left with an essential question about this book.   Why was it written?   And I confess that I do not know the answer.