This is a novel that was written in the wake of the murder of Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier, in Woolwich. The fact that this murder is the lynchpin of the story is enough in itself to make this novel controversial. That it is written from the point of view of the minorities in our community turns this novel into dynamite. That it sees this murder in the context of the Windrush, the Notting Hill Race Riots of the early 1960s and everything that our minority communities, including the Irish, have had to endure since then makes it extraordinarily brave. The story is told from the point of view of a number of characters who are named in the headings: Selvon, Caroline, Ardan, Yusuf, Nelson and Irfan. Slowly, we learn how they are related to each other and how they relate to each other. They all live in a grim, dysfunctional estate in north-west London. Caroline and Nelson are of an older generation. Caroline comes from Belfast as is the daughter of a militant Republican family. Nelson comes from Montserrat in the Caribbean, settles first in Notting Hill and is terrified by the violence that erupts around him. Selvon, Ardan, Yusuf and Irfan are of the younger generation. Yusuf and Irfan are brothers, the son of the local Imam. Selvon is Nelson’s son and Ardan is Caroline’s. They are brought together because they live on the same estate and they are brought together because of the violence that engulfs London following the murder. Gunaratne gives us a picture of a city that is out of control. It is frightening. It is terrifying. These four young men cannot control the situation around them. They are tossed about like leaves in a high wind. This is a view of London that will make you uncomfortable, especially if you can recognise the locations in which it is set. I did not live in this area, nor work there, but I recognise the street names and the landmarks. That is one of the things about this novel that scares. There is one thing that you will have to get used to. This story is written in the patois of the streets. If it was not, it would have no credibility. You just need to immerse yourself in it. The language will become understandable. Some words, like “ennit” are obvious. It will take you some time to translate others. That will make reading this book a challenge. But if you do not, you will not understand the nastiness latent in our society, and you will certainly not be able to develop any methods of dealing with it. This is essential reading for survival in modern Britain.

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For the Joy of Reading: Pere Goriot

Pere Goriot is one of the masterpieces of European literature.   It is about an old man, Pere Goriot, and his two selfish daughters, Anastasie and Delphine.   Both has used his fortune as a springboard to marry into the aristocracy and milch him dry in the process.   The story is seen through the eyes of Rastignac, a young student, who forms an attachment with Delphine.   That is all that I am going to tell you about the plot, because you should read the book for yourselves.

There are, however, some things that are noticeable.   None of the female characters are particularly likeable, and the pursuit of money seems to be a great part of their motivation.   That is certainly the case with Anastasie and Delphine and to a lesser extent, in that she has fewer opportunities, of Madame Vauquer, who owns the boarding house where Goriot and Rastignac live.   It has to be said that the men are not particularly likeable either, although the reader does feel sympathy for Goriot and Rastignac.   This reflects Balzac’s view of Parisian society post-Waterloo.   To say that Balzac was not enamoured of it does not really indicate the sheer scale of his dislike.

Another interesting character is Vautrin, another lodger at Madame Vauquer’s house.   He is undoubtedly a villain, and has a habit of taking handsome young men as his protégé and, indeed, was prepared to go to prison so that one of his proteges could escape such a fate.   Balzac does not use the word homosexual but it is the clear inference from the storyline.   Such things, of course, could only be hinted at in a nineteenth century novel, and only obliquely at that, because the novel-buying public would have been appalled, and it would have been a scandal.   It is interesting to see how things have changed since Balzac was writing.

I am not going to say anything more.   Balzac does not need me to promote him.   If you have not read this novel, then you should.   It is as simple as that.

For the Joy of Reading: Vanished Kingdoms

Norman Davies has produced a book that forces us to think about how we think about history.   It is lived forwards.   We can make guesses about what is going to happen, we can surmise, we can predict, but we do not know.   When we study history, however, we look backwards at things that have already happened and we try to make sense of them.   Our first mistake is to assume that was has happened was inevitable, and this is not the case.   It is possible that William the Conqueror could have lost the Battle of Hastings.   What we know is that he did not.   That is the case with all historical events, and that is the argument that Davies sets out in this book.

It was not inevitable that any of the kingdoms mentioned in this book had to vanish.   The fact is that they did.   All the kingdoms that Davies mentions are European, and many of them are from eastern Europe.   This is because Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of eastern Europe, as is evidenced by his other publications.   It would be perfectly possible to write this kind of book about the pre-Columbian kingdoms of the Americas or the pre-colonial kingdoms of Africa or anywhere else that you care to mention.   Davies wrote this book about the vanished kingdoms of Europe because that is the area where he has detailed knowledge.

The kingdoms that he has chosen are Tolosa, Alt Clud, Burgundia, Aragon, Litva, Byzantion, Borussia, Sabaudia, Galicia, Etruria, Rosenau, Tsernagora, Rusyn, Eire and the CCCP.   Two of these are, in my view, cheating.   Rosenau is the name of a palace and the CCCP was never a kingdom.   If the names, however, are modernised it becomes possible to identify where these places are in modern Europe.   They are Toulouse, Dumbarton, Burgundy, Aragon, Lithuania, Istanbul, Prussia, Savoy, Galicia, Tuscany, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Montevideo, Ruthenia, Ireland and the Soviet Union.

Be honest.   Did you know that there were Welsh speaking kingdoms in Southern Scotland and that Edinburgh is an Anglicised version of the Fortress in the Gorse Bushes (Dineiddyn)?   All you have to do is look at Castle Rock and there are still gorse bushes in abundance.   Did you know that there was a Habsburg Kingdom of Galicia annexed from the lands of Poland-Lithuania by the Empress Maria Theresa and her son, the Emperor Joseph?   Did you know that the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united under the same dynasty?

Indeed, the whole Habsburg conglomerate of lands came about because of the untimely deaths of members of various royal families, leaving the Emperor Charles V and his brother the Emperor Ferdinand I as heirs to much of Europe.   If Elizabeth I had had children, James VI of Scotland would not have become James I of England.   It was the chance of royal marriages, and royal deaths, that united Spanish Galicia with Leon and Leon with Castile and Castile with Aragon.   It was equal luck that had united Aragon previously with Catalonia, and then with the Balearics.

Tolosa would have survived if the war against Clovis, King of the Franks, had been won.   That is true of many of the kingdoms that Davies discusses.   If they had not lost battles and wars, the history of Europe would have been different.   The point that Davies is making is that all states, all nations are human constructs and that, like humans, they are mortal.   Many civilisations have outlived the states from which they originated.   The Roman empire has gone.   T’ang China is no more.   The Achaemenid Great Kings of Persia have been replaced by the ayatollahs of modern Iran.   There is no Aztec Empire, no Inca Empire, no Spanish Empire.   The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which came into place in 1801 no longer exists.   It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.   Given what is happening with Brexit, who knows how long that will last?

That is the point.   There is no state, no nation that is immortal.   It is an important argument, a salutary lesson, and it is one that we all need to consider.   This is a very long book, but well worth reading.

For the Joy of Reading: Under Our Skins

This is both a disturbing and a life-affirming book. It begins with the murder of Neil Aggett, a white doctor and trade unionist, by the apartheid security police. There is no other way to describe what happened. Neil Aggett was beaten and beaten badly and was found one morning hanging in his cell. And then it switches to the story of a typical white family in South Africa, not particularly radical, who, by force of circumstances, find themselves in conflict with the apartheid state.
The story then turns to that of an ordinary white South African family, living a comfortable life in the white suburbs. Except that they are different. The father believes in being polite to black people. He is a rising executive in Eskom, the South African electricity supplier, and he has a vision of electricity transforming lives and therefore the country. The wife is very loyal, supporting her husband in his job, and getting involved in charitable work, which eventually leads to her visiting the townships. But the defining experience is that of the son, the author of this book, who is growing up throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s and who is afraid of being conscripted into the army. As he grows older, he becomes more and more determined not to go into the army. This leads to family confrontations, with his parents hoping that he will see the error of his ways. His sister is supportive of him, but is not under direct threat of conscription herself, because she is a woman.
The background to all this is the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and other political organisations, the arrest of Mandela followed by the Rivonia Trial and the crackdown by the South African security apparatus. It does not work. White teenagers have to be conscripted because troops are needed to fight a war on “the borders”. Then, of course, the children of Soweto rose in rebellion on 16th June 1976, and South Africa was not at peace again until the overthrow of apartheid, when the first democratic elections took place on 27th April 1994.
This is the story of how one white family was traumatised by apartheid. It is the story of how a son became involved in white student politics, which led to him knowing of people like Barbara Hogan, Neil Aggett, Auret van Heerden and Liz Floyd, who were detained by the security police and tortured. It is the story of a mother who set up an old people’s home in Alexandra township. It is the story of a daughter who left the country because she could no longer live there, and it is the story of a father who planned to bring electricity to the townships, bringing himself to the attention of the security police.
It is a story in which black people are marginal, but that was typical of white South Africa under apartheid. This book is a true reflection of that society.
There are errors. I doubt that Frelimo, the liberation movement for Mozambique, ever planted landmines in the Caprivi Strip in modern Namibia. Mozambique borders the Indian Ocean and the Caprivi Strip is 900 kilometres away in a country that borders the Atlantic Ocean. It was Sidney Kentridge, not Stanley, who represented the Biko family at Steve Biko’s inquest. That error is only made once, but it is jarring. The Woods family did not fly to Luanda in Angola from Lesotho, they flew to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. I know this because I have held the book signed by Kenneth Kaunda given to Donald Woods at a reception in State House in Lusaka. It is now one of the prize possessions of the Donald Woods Foundation Library in Hobeni, Eastern Cape, South Africa, which I catalogued in 2014.
These are irritating because I cannot imagine that they were mistakes made by the author. But they do not detract from what the book has to tell us about apartheid South Africa. If you want to understand the mentality of white South Africans under apartheid, this is a book to read.

For the Joy of Reading: The Mabinogion

Why am I reviewing a book that was first written down over a thousand years ago, and the stories contained in it are much older than that. It is the source of the Arthurian Romances of European literature. It has inspired authors from Chretien de Troyes and Thomas Malory, through to “The Idylls of the King” by Alfred Lord Tennyson and modern authors such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and JRR Tolkien. It is poetic and lyrical, full of adventures, of monsters, witches and necromancers, heroes and villains, and all that you would expect in stories that are a metaphor for life and death.
It was first translated from the Welsh by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century, and various translations have been available ever since. This is the Oxford World Classics translation by Sioned Davies and, as far as I can tell, it is excellent.
There is one point that I have to make. You do not have to be able to pronounce the title, the names or the place-names mentioned in this book. I can hear Cymricists throughout the world howling in displeasure at this assertion. But you are reading this book, not reciting it and so the correct pronunciation does not matter. Yes, you will lose some of the beauty of the language, but what does it matter if you cannot pronounce Bendigaidfran (Bend-ee-guide-vran)? There will be one area of enormous difficulty – the name list in Culhwch and Olwen, but you could even ski that as, if you are not a Welsh speaker, you have very little hope of achieving the correct sonorous pronunciation.
So, what are these stories about? They are the tales of heroes. There is the story of the meeting of Pwyll with the King of the Otherworld, and how this leads to his meeting and marriage to Rhiannon and the birth of their son, Pryderi. There is the story of Bendigaidfran’s invasion and return from Ireland, and of how his head comes to be buried in London for the protection of the Island of the Mighty (Ynys Prydein). There is the story of the enchantment of Pryderi and his mother, Rhiannon, and how they are released. There is the story of how Gwydion gains a wife, Blodeuedd, for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, despite the curse of Gwydion’s sister, Aranrhod, which results in the tragedy that is the basis of Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”. And so, it goes on with the seven subsequent stories, which are about Arthur, his knights and his court.
These are magnificent stories and this is a very readable translation. The fact that they were originally written in one of the less well-known European languages is no reason to deprive yourself of the richness of these stories. Wallow in them and enjoy them.

For the Joy of Reading: Warrior Daughter

This book has been sitting in my “To Read” pile for some time and, I am ashamed to say, that it was the recent death of the author that prompted me to tread it. That is a shame because it is an excellent book.
It is about Skaaha, the Gaelic, possibly Pictish, woman warrior of Irish mythology. I should explain immediately that the spellings used by Janet Paisley are anglicised to help her readers to be able to pronounce the names and the Gaelic spelling, as written down by Irish monks a thousand years after the possible events is Sgathach or Scathach. Her sister’s name, Eefay is really spelled Aoife, and the same applies to many of the names of the other characters in the book. The only name that we know to be real is Cartimandua, but that is a Latinised version of a Celtic, possibly proto-Welsh, name. There is no evidence that Skaaha actually existed apart from the mythological poems of the Ulster Cycle But that is the case with all pre-Roman Celtic societies. Celtic society was not literate. It did not produce written records.
But this does not matter. This is not a history. It is a work of literary imagination, a story, a prose poem, an entertainment. It is something in which we know that the Celts excelled. Their enemies, the Romans, tell us this. Also, there is the evidence that two of the greatest Latin stylists, Virgil and Livy, came from Gallia Cisalpina, the Celtic lands along the Po Valley, south of the Alps. We do not necessarily have to believe everything that the Romans allege about Celtic drunkenness and licentiousness, as this was the Roman excuse for conquest, bringing “civilisation” to savages. It is, however, reasonable to assume that they had a totally different culture to that of the Romans.
This is the basis from which Janet Paisley starts. She creates a wholly believable culture in which women could be warriors or blacksmiths, in which they shared husbands, in which marriage was not for life, and in which women were held in high repute. We know this because Cartimandua was the Queen-Regnant of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman invasion, and Tacitus tell us that it was the public whipping of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and the rape of her daughters that led to the revolt that nearly drove the Romans from Britain. Although this is not a history, it does use what historical evidence is available to make sure that the story is believable.
And what a story it is. It is straightforward adventure thriller. Will Skaaha and Eefay survive the machinations of the villainous Queen Mara? Will the chief Druid, Suli, an old blind woman be able to guide Skaaha through the perils surrounding her? Will Skaaha sleep with Ruan the Druid or Fion the warrior? Or both? Will the enemy raids along the coast be successful? Or will Skaaha fight them off? It is an exciting tale, and you do care about what happens to the protagonists.
But it is also a tale about Celtic mythology, about the celebration of the great festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa (spelled Lunasa in the book) and Samhain (spelled Sowen). Of course, we have no idea how these festivals were celebrated. We can guess that Beltane was a fire festival because “tan” means fire in Welsh and we know the times of year at which they were celebrated. Indeed, we still celebrate May Day (Beltane), Lughnasa (Lammas), Samhain (Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (Winter Solstice) to this day. We do not know what happened even though the Romans tell us that they got drunk and had sex. Janet Paisley creates a believable spirituality for these festivals. That, in itself, is remarkable.
I do have some quibbles. In one scene, an eagle catches a rabbit in its claws. A hare would be plausible, but a rabbit in pre-Roman Britain is simply inaccurate. There are arguments about whether it was the Romans who introduced rabbits to Britain after the conquest of 43AD or the Normans after 1066, but it does not matter. There were no rabbits in Britain at the time that the story is set.
My other quibble is that Janet Paisley says, in the Author’s Note, at the end of the book that these islands were called Alba (Scotland) or Albion (England). She ignores the Welsh word Prydein completely although this is clearly the word from which the Romans derived the name of their province, Britannia. As a Welshman, I find it rather tiresome and annoying to be written out of our history, our shared history, in this way. There is clear evidence that Welsh was spoken in Scotland. Place names using the word Aber (confluence) give it away, as in Aberdeen, Aberfeldy, Aberlour and Abertay, give that away. So does the use of the word Strath for valley. The Welsh word is Ystrad, and refers to a wide valley.
None of this distracts from the sheer pleasure of reading this book, and that is exactly what you should do.

For the Joy of Reading: The Great Unfrocked

What is the point of this book? This was a question with which I struggled throughout the reading of it, only to discover at the end that the author had no solution himself. Clearly, Matthew Parris wanted to find out why the “Great British Public” rather enjoy scandals in which the religious establishment is embarrassed. The answer, of course, is exactly that. The religious establishment is embarrassed.
The problem is that some of the cases that he cites would be irrelevant to his argument, if he had one. IF he had confined himself to scandals in the Church of England, the established church, he may have been able to get close to the truth. Pope Joan, for instance, is irrelevant to his argument, mainly because there is no contemporary evidence, or near contemporary (that is within a few hundred years) evidence that she actually existed. Of course, Calvinist propagandists, like Filips Marnix van St. Aldegonde, had a field day with the need to inspect the Papal genitals to prevent the election of a woman, but this does not make any of it true. Matthew Parris, to his credit, says that.
What is not to his credit is the number of inaccuracies that have crept into the text. Charles II was not married to Queen Caroline. His wife was the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. James II of England was not overthrown by William II, who was killed in the New Forest in 1100AD. James II was replaced by his son-in-law and nephew, William III. There was no George IV in 1819, mainly because his father George III did not die until the following year. There is no Cathedral in Wales called Landaff. It is Llandaff, the monastic church of St. David, and the mis-spelling changes the meaning of the word, fortunately not to something rude. These are the mistakes that I spotted over 256 pages. This lackadaisical approach to factual accuracy makes it impossible to trust any fact in this book. This may not be the fault of the author, but a fault in the editorial process as typographical errors were not picked up at the proof-reading stage (if there was one).
My point, however, is that the book is untrustworthy gossip. Even the gossip is not that much fun. There comes a point when you lose interest in pone insignificant cleric after another (and I grant that there are some significant ones, like the occasional Bishop) falling a victim of scandal because they slept with someone (man, woman or child) that they should not have done. Moreover, the paedophilia, which is a hugely significant issue, is glossed over because it is not funny.
There are parts of the book which are enjoyable, replete with schadenfreude, but I was left wondering one simple question: why was this book written? I regret that my conclusion was this: it will sell.