For the Love of Reading: Nina X

The name Shamima Begum inevitably springs to mind.   This story about a young woman emerging from a political grouping – in this case Maoist – who ordinary people would consider mad is the central point of this book.   The fact that the group is political, not religious, is not relevant.   Nor is it relevant that it is a leftist group.   It could be any group that sees itself as having the only solution to the world’s problems, and which is not prepared to listen to the opposing arguments.   It could be any group that seeks to dominate every deal of its members’ lives.   When it is religious, we call it a cult.   When it is political, it is still a cult even though we do not use that word.  

In the case of Nina X, who upbringing is a project to create the perfect human, untrammelled by capitalist thought.   This is possibly drawn from Ewan Morrison’s own experience of such organisations although I very much hope that most of it is a product of his fertile imagination.   What Ewan Morrison shows us is a whole series of damaged individuals with Nina X at the centre of the tale.

We do not know what caused Chen, Jeni, Ruth, Uma and the rest of the commune to become damaged, but we are shown how Nina X is damaged in great detail.   She becomes a project for the others, to be brought in the “perfect” condition of not having a mother and a father, but being the child of everyone in the commune.   This could be the concept that “every child is my child” and that all adults have a duty to assist in the upbringing of the children in their community.   That, however, is not what happens.   Nina X is the result of an attempt to do away with the concept of the family, and to replace it with the commune.   Within all this are the concepts of self-criticism and of physical punishment for transgressions, and the punishment is inflicted by the rest of the community, including the children.

The significant point is that you are not allowed to criticise the central ideology of the group.   The only criticism that is allowed is of your own failure to abide by the theory.   You are never allowed to think that if the theory does not work, there may be something wrong with the theory.   Ewan Morrison illustrates this point by a slight digression, discussing the campaign in 1950s China to eliminate birds.   So many birds were killed by enthusiastic children that there was not a large enough bird population to eat insects, and a plague of Biblical proportions descended on China destroying the crops, resulting in millions dying in the subsequent famine.   The birds had been identified as pests causing pollution and disease.   What had not been thought through was the consequence of their destruction.   And no-one dared to tell Chairman Mao that he was wrong.

The other part of this tale is that of the various people trying to deal with Nina’s case once she escapes from the commune.   These are people who are simply drowning in the responsibilities that have been thrust upon them, without the necessary resources to deal with what is expected of them.

At the centre of everything is a bewildered woman, struggling with her life and trying to come to terms with her situation.   This is not easy because of the damage that has been done to her.   Ewan Morrison gives no real suggestion that she is going to recover and that everything will be all right in the end.   Probably because he does not believe that it will.

This is a portrait of a young woman who has been damaged by the ideologues around her.   That is why it is a relevant tale at the moment.   That is why it must be read.

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For the joy of reading: From a Low and Quiet Sea

Three men, Farouk, Lampy and John, find that their lives are tied together across continents and time.   It is not a link that you will expect and when it comes together, you will probably be taken by surprise.

Farouk is without a doubt the most sympathetic character.   He is a doctor in Syria, and he and his family find themselves threatened by the encroaching war.   Farouk decides that he, his wife and daughter must flee the country.   So, he makes contact with a gang of people smugglers.   He is uncomfortable about this, but he feels that he has no choice if he and his family are to survive.   This is the story of his escape journey.

Then we meet Lampy.   He is a young Irish man with, effectively, no prospects, except this that he can make for himself.   As he grew up, he had very little in the way of support.   His father was missing from his life.   His mother had to earn a living, enough money for herself and her son and his grandfather, Pop, took his daughter and her son into his home but could offer very little else.

John is not sympathetic at all.   He tries to gain our sympathy by presenting himself as a victim, but he is not.   He is the archetypal unreliable narrator because he is so untrustworthy.   He tells us that his elder brother, Edward, who dies of a heart complaint as a teenager was the apple of his father’s eye.   Edward was everything that a father or a brother could want.   He was clever, athletic and kind.   All the family adored him.   John’s sister, on the other hand, was spiteful and cruel.   All this could be true, but it sounds like an excuse for John turning out as he did.    John is a corporate thief, using bullying and corruption to attain his ends, which is an increase in his own wealth and power.   He is an adulterer.   He hires strong-arm men to bring the recalcitrant to heel.   There is nothing that is likeable about John at all.

And yet, these three who have nothing in common come together in an event that is truly touching.   All three suffer a tragedy of some kind.   All three are in some way victims.   All three take decisions that effect the lives of the people around them.   All three have to live with the consequences of those decisions.

This is a very sad but human tale, and it is one which we should all try to understand.

For the joy of reading: the valley at the centre of the world

There is, of course, no such place.   The Valley at the Centre of the World is defined by whoever thinks it is.   In this case, it is David who defines his home valley, which he has not left, as the centre of the world.   And for him, it is.   Some people, like Alice and Sandy, have moved to the valley.   Others, like David’s daughters, Emma and Kate, have moved away.   Some, like Ina, have moved to the other side of the world and others have only gone to Lerwick.   It does not alter the fact that the valley is the centre of David’s world.

The important thing for us to realise is that anywhere and everywhere is the centre of the world for those who live there.   Nowhere is remote from the places near it.   This is one of the central messages of the book, but it is not the only message.   All of us are important to the people who know us and the places where we live.   All of us have been created through the places where we have lived and all of us have changed those places in some way.   All of us are important.

This is shown most clearly in the relationship between Maggie and Alice.   Maggie is dead.   They had been neighbours but hardly knew each other.   Alice came to Shetland because she was grieving the loss of her husband.   Alice is a writer who could no longer write the kinds of books that had made her successful.   She is trying to write a book about the Valley and she wants Maggie to be central to the story.   But although Alice has the letters from Ina, Maggie’s sister who has moved to New Zealand, and she has Maggie’s journals, Alice cannot piece the woman together.   And yet, Maggie is important to the story because she was at the heart of the Valley.

Then there is Liz and her son Sandy who have a complicated relationship because she abandoned him when he was seven and then breezed back into his life some twenty years later, moving into his home, because her boyfriend has thrown her out.   Ryan and Jo have moved into the Valley for cheap accommodation while they rent out their place in Lerwick at a profit.   Emma, Sandy’s partner and the daughter of David and Mary, has moved away and yet remains in touch.

For David and Mary, the Valley is the centre of their world.   David has lived there all his life and Mary has been there for the thirty years and more of her marriage.   It is everything to them.   It is their home.   It is their livelihood.   It is where they have brought up their children.   It is David’s inheritance from his parents and grandparents.   It is everything he has ever known or has wanted to know.  

This is a story about the centrality of location to our lives, about how where we were born and brought up, where we live, shapes us and creates our inheritance.   It is a story about why we are the people that we are.   It is a story about what becomes the centre of our world and why that is important.

For the Joy of Reading: For the Good Times

There is a problem at the heart of this book.   The central characters are members of an active branch of the Provisional IRA (the Provos) in Belfast during the 1970s and 1980s.   This is going to alienate a lot of people from the story that is being told, and that means that they will fail to learn the central message, which is that, if people feel that they are oppressed they will fight against it.   If y6ou imagine that the characters are fighting the Nazis in occupied Europe then this ceases to be a problem.   It is the fact that they are fighting the British army in Northern Ireland that is the problem.   It is not even that David Keenan portrays them as sympathetic that is the difficulty, it is that he portrays them as human.

Another reason why people will not like the book is that the characters are foul-mouthed in the extreme.   This, of course, is the language of the street in Belfast and elsewhere, but I have no doubt that some people will be upset by the words used.   So, basically, if you are offended by the heroes being members of the Provos and the use of bad language simply do not even consider reading this book.

If, on the other hand, you are prepared to have your prejudices challenged and to rethink your beliefs then this is a must-read book.   This is especially the case as some Brexiteers are prepared to plunge the people of Northern Ireland back into the morass from which they emerged with the Good Friday Agreement.   Sammy, Tommy, Kathy and the others are not actually bad people.   They have been trapped in the history of their communities and they have become murderers, prostitutes or simply insane because they cannot find a way out.   The story is being told by Sammy and it recounts a dreadful tale of conflict and murder.   There are reasons to doubt Sammy’s sanity because of his hallucinations.   If they are that because it is very difficult to tell.  

There are some things that are just bizarre.   People have an obsession with Perry Como.   There is no doubt that he had a beautiful voice but this is the 1970s.   Then you realise that Sammy and his friends would have grown up at the end of the 1950s, and that is why they are so dismissive of hippies and punks.   They are the previous generation, who tore up the seats in a Belfast cinema when Bill Haley was playing there.

This is not an easy book to read, but I think it is a necessary read.   Any book that helps us to understand “the Troubles” in Ireland can only be helpful at this time.   This is that book, and we need it badly.

for the joy of reading: the mystery of the raddlesham mumps

Crispin de Quincy de Faversham-Clumps is the kind of child who, in an earlier age, like Lord Lundy would have been told to “Go out and govern New South Wales”.   In all probability he pulls his teddy bear by the leg down the stairs, bump, bump, bump, just like Christopher Robin.   The ghosts in his family make those in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore” look positively normal.   The story begins with young Crispin, at the age of seven, inheriting the Lordship of the Raddlesham Mumps from his suddenly deceased parents.   The Raddlesham Mumps are cursed and this is the story of how the curse came into place as told in part by Kenilworth, the ancient and cadaverous family butler.

This is a tale of Gothic horror to be relished.   Crispin’s ancestors meet untimely, unlikely and positively unnatural deaths, until he is the last of the line.   The fate of the Faversham-Clumps, and of the crumbling house of Raddlesham Mumps lies in his hands, providing he can survive the murderous enemies of his family, plotting his own demise.

The question is this: does our plucky young hero survive?   That is why you have to read the book – to find out.

For the Joy of Reading: Redemption Ground

This is a simply brilliant collection of essays.  Of course, if you are a racist, misogynist you will be mortally offended that a black woman can be so perceptive, so coherent, so humane.   If you are a racist misogynist, that is your problem, not mine, and certainly not Lorna Goodison’s problem.   Lorna Goodison grew up black and female in Jamaica.   I grew up white and male in the UK.   It is salutary for me to learn of the abuse which was a normal part of her life.   Some of it was blatant.   Some of it was subtle, echoing the view of Lord Macaulay that a good European Library was worth more than the collected literature of Africa and Asia.   He probably did not even know about the libraries of Timbuktu, Lalibela, Samarkand and elsewhere.   He dismissed the Shahnameh, the Mahabharata and the whole of Chinese literature.

There are things in Lorna Goodison’s experience that I have never had to go through.   I have never been abused by a London taxi driver because of the colour of my skim, because I am white.   I was once subjected to a tirade about “them coming over here and not learning our language.”   So, I asked if he spoke Welsh.  I then pointed out that his ancestors had come over here and had not bothered to learn to speak the native language.   His answer was that his ancestors were not foreigners.   I pointed out that was exactly what they were.   He, of course, would not accept this.

That is the problem with racism.   It is simply not susceptible to argument.   These are the kinds of issues that Lorna Goodison deals with in this book.   She writes about being black in a world dominated by whiteness.   She writes about writing in Caribbean English when it is not respected as a form of the language.   She writes about the way in which Caribbean poets and others have had to struggle to be accepted in the English-speaking world.   She writes about the way in which English is being internationalised and enriched by a host of writers from across the world.

The last chapter is about the people she has met and the people she wants to meet.   I am lucky because I have met many of the same people, especially the South Africans.   That, however, misses the point.   The people that we need to meet are those who, in whatever way, are making a difference in the world.   That is what Lorna Goodison is doing in this book.

Read it, and you will be changed for the better.   You will become more human.   It is that kind of book.

For the Joy of Reading: The Border.

The history of British-Irish relations is a history of a disaster, that began when Diarmuid MacMurrough, the King of Leinster, invited the Anglo-Norman Lord, Richard FitzGilbert, known as Strongbow, the Earl of Pembroke to restore him to his throne.   In 1170, Strongbow invaded Ireland and captured Dublin.   This alarmed Henry II, who was only too well aware that his great-grandfather, William I, had invaded England and had made himself more powerful than his suzerain, the King of France.   The fact that Strongbow had married Eva, the daughter of Diarmuid MacMurrough only added to his concern.   So, Henry II gathered an army, went to Ireland and proclaimed himself the Lord of the whole country.  

From there it went from bad to worse with the English Kings and especially one Queen, Elizabeth I, asserting control over the whole country.   The centre of resistance was Ulster, under the leadership of the O’Neill Earls of Tyrone.   James VI and I then took the momentous decision of planting Protestant settler as a colony in Ulster from both Scotland, in the main, and England.   The Scots were Presbyterian and the English from the Church of England.   The rest of Irish history hinges on this colonisation.   Northern Ireland, in effect, is James VI and I’s colony.   The process began with the expulsion of Catholic tenants from their farms, and they in turn rose in rebellion in 1641, massacring Protestants when they could.   An English army under Cromwell invaded and massacred Catholics in its turn.   Thus, centuries of conflict began that resulted in an independent Ireland and a self-governing Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.   This is where Ferriter picks up the story.

A border had to be created.   It was not obvious where the border was going to be, so the county boundaries imposed by James VI and I in the seventeenth century were chosen.   This border has been described as porous.   It consists of streams and tracks from one part of a farm to another part of the same farm, and similar things.   It is a border without natural barriers, and that is the heart of the problem.   As soon as it came into existence smuggling became a common practice.   Why, for instance, would a farmer pay import duties to move a flock of sheep from one field to another, on the same side of the border, just because the track to be used crossed that border?   This kind of thing, of course, was ignored but smuggling became common because goods on one side of the border were cheaper than on the other side.   People became adept at finding routes across the border that avoided the border posts, and this became a crucial security matter when trouble broke out, which it did immediately.

South of the border there was an immediate, short and bloody civil war.   In the 1950s the IRA launched a low-intensity border war which was notable for its lack of success.   Meanwhile the Ulster Unionists were busy creating their own fiefdom within the United Kingdom, which was different from the start because it had its own Parliament, at Stormont, and its own Prime Minister.   As laws became liberalised within the UK, it became more different from the rest of the UK.   The introduction of the welfare state by the 1945 Labour Government intensified its differences from what had by then become the Republic of Ireland.   The Unionists also set about gerrymandering the electoral boundaries to ensure their continued domination of Northern Ireland, and denied the Catholic inhabitants their civil rights.   It was this spark that lit the fire.

In 1968, the Northern Ireland Civic Rights Association (NICRA) was formed under the leadership of Eamonn McCann, following the example set in the USA.   A march was organised that passed through a village called Burntollet.   It was there that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) “B” Specials ambushed the marchers and beat them to a bloody pulp.   It was shocking.   I joined the protest march in London.   It was not long afterwards that the Bogside went up in flames and Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) rose to prominence at the barricades fighting the RUC.   That was when the Wilson Government sent the troops in to restore order and the Northern Ireland Premier, Captain Terence O’Neill, who had let the situation get out of hand, resigned.   It felt like a revolutionary moment.   All of this happened because of the politics of Northern Ireland.   It was nothing to do with the border.  

The Provisional IRA (the Provos) soon found themselves in armed conflict with the British army on the streets of Belfast and Derry (or Londonderry of you were Protestant).   This led to arms smuggling across the border and the introduction of internment without trial by the Conservative Government of Edward Heath.   This led to protest demonstrations and, at one in Derry, the Paratroop Regiment opened fired and killed 13 people immediately.   (I believe that one died later).   The Saville Enquiry subsequently established that those killed were unarmed and completely innocent.   One solder has now been charged, and the case is going to court.   The result of Bloody Sunday was two decades of civil war, with the Provos on one side and the British army on the other.  

The Heath Government, to its credit, did try to find a solution involving the Irish Government, but this was scuppered by Unionist intransigence, led by the Rev Ian Paisley.   I had the misfortune to almost literally bump into him once when lobbying Parliament and he is the only person I have net who, I felt, exuded malevolence.   One of the great ironies of life is that in his old age he implemented a version of the Sunningdale Agreement that he so vociferously opposed in 1974.

Eventually, after two decades of violence, the Good Friday Agreement emerged, brokered by President Clinton and for two decades, until Brexit, the peace has held.   People were allowed freedom of movement across the border, both states were part of a common trading partnership, the EU, and there were well over 150,000 cross border pensions, not to mention other areas of co-operation, such as conservation policies, and tourism.

Ferriter’s point is that the border has been an embarrassment to both the UK and Irish governments since its inception.   The Conservative Party became committed to the border because it had encouraged Ulster Unionist irredentism from 1910 onwards, with its slogan “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” simply because it wanted to cause difficulties for the Liberal Government.   It then could not withdraw.   Subsequent generations lost all interest in Northern Ireland but were caught up in the rhetoric.   The introduction of the Welfare State made Northern Ireland a huge drain on the UK economy, costing £100,000s a year which only increased with “The Troubles”.   It is estimated that, if Northern Ireland joined the Republic, the living standard would drop by 15%.   But their parties are caught up in the rhetoric of “United Ireland”.  

Ferriter’s narrative shows, time and again, that politicians and governments on both sides of the border could not escape the historic rhetoric that some of them had helped to forge and which others inherited as “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons even unto the third and fourth generations.”

Then came Brexit and a border that had been porous to the point of invisibility for 20 years suddenly became an issue.   Quite clearly, if Britain was not a member of the EU and the Customs Union, there would have to be a border.   The problem is how to make this work.   The Irish Government want a fluid border and the Northern Irish Government agree with this, but they do not want to be on the Irish side of the customs border.   They are arguing that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently from any other part of the UK.   This is despite the fact that it has been since its inception.   The British Government is arguing that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK, but that the success of the peace process over the last 20 years must be protected.   Extreme right-wing Conservative MPs are saying that this must not be at the cost of a backstop being in place that would effectively allow the EU to interfere in the affairs of the UK.

Ferriter shows again and again that Conservative MPs are intensely ignorant, even arrogantly ignorant, about the implications of the border and its effective re-imposition on the people of Ireland both north and south of the border.

This is a story that has not come to an end as yet.   Indeed, it has just been extended to 30th June 2019.   It is also extremely depressing.