All posts by davidkenvyn

For the Joy of Reading: That Was a Shiver

This is a difficult book.   By that, I do not mean that it is not worthwhile.   That is precisely what it is: worthwhile.   It is simply that James Kelman demands that you should stop and think about what he has written.   This is a book about the confusion of human life.   For instance, at the moment I know precisely what I mean by that last sentence.   You, however, will probably think that I mean something else.   And a third-party reading it will probably have another, completely separate idea of what “the confusion of human life” actually means.   That is at the heart of these stories: the “noise” between what we think we have said and what other people think we have said.   In these stories, that is especially the case between men and women.

These are also stories about what it is to be a man.   The title story “That was a Shiver” sets this out for us in a bleak manner.   Robert and Tracy, a Glasgow couple, are going out shopping in the Barras, the covered market, on a Sunday.   They are not young any more, but they certainly are not old and decrepit.   They go their separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch.   We follow Robert.   He is quite comfortable, mooching around.   Then you learn things about him.   He does not like carrying bags in case he has to use his fists.   He was in the army, where he became a champion boxer.   Then he was in prison.   He thinks of himself as a hard man, but realises he is not as hard as he was.   He is fearful of young men because he is not as hard as he was.   But he is defiant.   He is willing to take on all comers.   He may not be as articulate as a Shakespearean tragic hero, but the meaning of what he is saying cannot be doubted.   He is belligerent.   He swears a lot.   He is in your face.

It should be said at this point that if you are uncomfortable with the use of “bad” language, then this is not the book for you.   Robert talks in the language of ordinary working men in Glasgow.   If you do not like it, then this is definitely not the book for you.

When I say that you cannot mistake his meaning, I mean that you cannot mistake the aggression.   He is an alpha male facing down younger rivals.   He is nostalgic for his younger self, and recognises that he is not the man that he was when he was younger.   He is uncertain.   To me, his aggression is a cover for his fear, but it might be that this behaviour has become engrained in him.   It may be that he behaves like this because it is a survival strategy learned over the years.   It may be both.   Who knows?   Certainly not me.

These stories have a theme of a man dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties of life.   They deal with male insecurities whether they are about sex, status, strength, money – a man’s place in the world.   They are about the nature of manhood.   They are brilliant.   You should read them.



For the Joy of Reading: Dare Not Linger

This is the long-awaited second volume of the autobiography of Nelson Mandela.   It has been put together from what he had written before his death, and from his notes.   It has been edited with great skill, devotion and commitment by Mandla Langa, the author of “Lost Colours of the Chameleon” and a number of other books.   Here, I have to confess that Mandla Langa has been my friend for more than thirty years, since he came into exile in the UK following the Soweto Uprising of 1976.   During that time, Mandla took a leading role in the cultural activities of the ANC, and I was one of the chair-people of the London Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.   The first time that I met Nelson Mandela was, with Mandla and others, at Madame Toussaud’s in London when his waxwork was being unveiled.   So that is my colours nailed to the mast.   As someone who was closely involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and in some of the events described in the book, I cannot be described as a neutral observer.

This book approaches those events of the 1994 first democratic elections in South Africa and the first few years of the transition process from the perspective of Nelson Mandela.   That is what makes the book fascinating.   Nowadays, people regard it as some kind of miracle that Mandela was able, during his Presidency, to end the years of conflict in South Africa.   It was not.   It was the result of very hard work and of a deep political understanding of what needed to be done.   It was Nelson Mandela who did that.    This book is an analysis of that process, of the threats, the dangers, the angers and resentments that had to be negotiated so that South Africa did not descend into civil war.   It describes, from the inside, what was a remarkable achievement.   But it was not a miracle.   It did not come out of the blue.   It came about because Nelson Mandela understood what had to be done, and then found ways of achieving it.

The first threat came from those who did not want to participate in the election or who were pretending that they did not wish to participate in order to gain an electoral advantage.   The threats came from the extreme white right wing and from Chief Mangosuthu (known as Gatsha) Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party.   Neither threat was negligible – they could have led to civil war.   It needed Nelson Mandela to exercise a great deal of skill and patience to neutralise them.

It was Mandela who steered South Africa through the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (AWB) attack on the negotiators at the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the massacres at Bisho and Boipatong, the assassination of Chris Hani, the AWB attack on Bophuthatswana and a host of other events.   It was Mandela who persuaded General Constand Viljoen of the Freedom Front that his organisation should register to take part in the election.   It was Mandela who contacted Buthelezi and, despite opposition from recalcitrant in the ANC, such as Harry Gwala, set about asking the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the elections.   At many times, and especially following the murder of Chris Hani, South Africa was on the brink of a civil war.   It was Mandela who avoided all these disasters.   It was his leadership that made the difference.   To find out how, you must read the book.

Of course, Mandela did not achieve any of this on his own.   There were many people who assisted him.   There were many more who were persuaded by him.   There were some, like Robert Van Tonder and Boere Weerstand Beweging, who refused to be persuaded but they were few and far between.   Fortunately, Mandela was able to neutralise them, but not enough to prevent them killing people with the bombs that they exploded during the election campaigning and on the election days themselves.   Of course, it was a collective effort but it was Mandela who provided the leadership.    That is now generally acknowledged.   That is part of the story of this book.

Nor did the danger pass with the election.    I distinctly remember standing there in South Africa House in London on 10th May 1994, wondering whether the South African Air Force would strafe the guests at the Presidential inauguration.   That this did not happen was partly because my imagination was over-active but also partly because Mandela had convinced the generals to give the new South Africa a chance to survive.    There was a huge effort that had to be put into nation-building, and this is what Mandela made the theme of his Presidency.   He made huge efforts at nation-building, in creating a constitution, in establishing the role of Parliament, in establishing the role of the traditional leaders in a democracy, and in transforming the state.

These are the themes of the chapters that take up the tale following Mandela’s swearing-in as President.   Most important, however, was the theme of reconciliation.   Mandela however was careful not to let people off the hook.   He was the driving force behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   He made it necessary for apartheid officials to state clearly what they had done before they could be granted amnesty.   It was difficult.   There were people who refused to apply to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they knew that any evidence against them had been destroyed.    There were people who did not believe in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they wanted the perpetrators to be prosecuted and go to prison.   Mandela recognised that this was not going to happen because the burden of proof was on the prosecution.   He sought a way in which the relatives of victims could find out what happened to their loved ones.   It proved to be cathartic.   There were some, like Craig Williamson, who were not penitent, but the recognition of the grief of so many did help the healing process, or, at least, that is the argument that Mandela would have put forward.

The last chapter is about Mandela on the African and the World Stage.   Mandela served as an honest broker for his continent.   He was able to help resolve the difficulties in countries such as Rwanda and Zaire.   He was able to resolve issues like the prosecution in relation to the Lockerbie bombing.   He was feted throughout the world.   My particular memory was of Mandela’s State Visit to London in 1996, where he not only spoke to both Houses of Parliament but visited the black community in Brixton.

This book is about the contribution that Mandela made during his Presidency to the healing of the wounds caused by apartheid.   It is a book about the contribution of one man.   He was not a saint.   He made mistakes, which are discussed in this book and which he himself recognised.   It is an important book because it discusses how an icon dealt with the issues in front of him.   It discusses how he became an icon.   It is a clear assessment, based on the writings of the man himself, about the contribution that he made.

For that reason it is astonishing, and that is why you should read it.


For the Joy of Reading: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Where to begin?   This is, I suppose, a story about survival, except of course in the long term we do not survive.   Anjun does survive.   S/he is a Hijra and the Hijra life is all about survival.   Dr. Azad Bhartiya does survive and he is a hunger striker.   Khadija does survive and she is a guerrilla fighter.   Tilo survives and becomes a teacher.   But so many do not survive.   Miss Jebeen the first does not survive and neither do her parents.   They are killed.   Amrik Singh does not survive, and nor does his wife or his three sons.   He kills his family and then commits suicide.   Some die of natural causes.   Some are murdered.   That is the nature of war.

And this story is about a war: the war in Kashmir.   It is a dreadful war.   It has been fought, on and off, since the partition of the Indian sub-continent seventy years ago.   Arundhati Roy, however, is quite specific.   This is not just about the war in Kashmir.   It is about the war, as she describes it, of the rich on the poor.   It is about Union Carbide and the disaster at Bhopal.   It is about the mining companies driving indigenous people out of the forests.   It is a war about the confrontations between ideologies and religions.

It is hardly surprising that an environmental campaigner of more than twenty years would take such a view.   Nor is it surprising that an anti-apartheid campaigner, as I am, would not be disturbed by it.   It is a view, however, that many people will be uncomfortable with, and will find upsetting if not downright objectionable.   It is something that the reader has to deal with if that person is going to enjoy this book.

Another factor that a reader from the western world may find difficult is that this is a book that is firmly embedded in Indian culture.   And I mean, very specifically, not the culture of the Indian takeaway, but the culture of India.   The opening chapters of this story are set in the Hijra community.   Hijra are transvestites, transgender and even hermaphrodites.   They do not really fit any understanding that westerners would have of such words.   Their presence at weddings for instance is thought to be a blessing.   This is not something that we in the West can really understand.

There is a great deal in this book about the Mughal and pre-Mughal cultures of India, about Urdu poetry and about the stories of India.   [The Urdu poetry thankfully is translated].

So why would you read this book?   Because it is a beautiful story, told with a great deal of passion.   Because you will like the characters, or most of them anyway, and you will want to know how their stories unfold.   Because the writing is skilful, and the use of English is extraordinary.   Because you will learn something about the world.

I am not going to say that this is an easy book to read.   But I would say that it is one that you should read and enjoy.

For the Joy of Reading: The Man Who Died

I couldn’t put this book down.   It was compulsive reading.   From the moment that Jaakko Kaunismaa discovers that he has been poisoned, I wanted to know who the murderer was and why the crime had been committed.   There are plenty of obvious choices.    There are plenty of possibilities.   His Wife?   Her lover?   One of his colleagues?   One of his business rivals?   It is probably easier to identify the characters who could not have done it, like his Japanese customers, but even they could have paid someone to do the deed.

This is a classic whodunnit?   There is one difference.   Because the poison is slow acting, the victim can investigate his own murder.   Jaakko, of course, has no idea about how to do this, and leaves a trail of destruction behind him   There are red herrings galore (or should that be red mushrooms?   Jaakko is an exporter of mushrooms to the Japanese market.   Jaakko makes discoveries about the people around him, which may or may not be relevant to his murder.

He becomes obsessed with saving his business from whoever it is that has murdered him, whatever their reason is for doing this.   To say very much more would be to hint at who the perpetrator is, and that would spoil the fun of reading the book.   As the story progresses, some of the possibilities will be eliminated, but the complexities of the possibilities will increase.

This is a well-written, witty, perceptive story about how we respond to impossible circumstances.   The one thing that is certain from the beginning to the end of this book is that Jaakko has been murdered.

Read this book.   I think you will enjoy it.

Steve Biko: In Memoriam

Steve Biko was brutally murdered by the apartheid security police forty years ago today.   I would like to consider the kind of legacy that he has left us.   I am starting this from an unusual perspective.   I am a white, male, non-South African anti-apartheid campaigner.   As I said, an unusual perspective and I will undoubtedly get some things wrong.   Steve Biko would be 70 years old, if he was still alive.   But he is not, and we cannot be sure how he would think about things at such an age.

Biko taught us one thing: that everyone is entitled to both dignity and respect.   It does not matter what is the colour of our skin, our gender, our language, our sexuality.   These are things over which we have no control.   These are the very things that define us, and make us who we are, but they do not make us better than anyone else.   I, of course, can say such things because I have the privilege of being an English-speaking white male, and I have not suffered the kind of discrimination that was inflicted on black people in apartheid South Africa.

The point about apartheid was that it discriminated against people because of the colour of their skin, because of their ethnicity.   It deliberately denigrated and degraded them.   It set out to make then “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in their own country.   It saw no value in them because they were black.   It kept them in poverty.

That is where I think Steve Biko would take issue with the state of the world.   There are far too many people living in deep poverty, and it is unnecessary.   We have the resources in this world to make sure that people do not have to be malnourished, they do not have to be homeless, they do not have to be inadequately clothed, they do not have to be deprived of education, and they do not have to put up with a lack of health care.   We live in a world where we have the resources to ensure that people do not have to suffer from any of these things.

In Biko’s South Africa, there is still poverty.   I write as someone who lived in the Eastern Cape for five months in 2014.   Great strides have been made but there is still so much more work that needs to be done.    There is now a vaccination programme to deal with preventable diseases such as diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio which is being rolled out even in the poorest of the rural areas.      There is schooling even though some of the schools lack the basic resources that we would expect, such as books and proper toilets.   There is still so much to be done.

It is not for me to comment on the politics of South Africa.   That is for the people of the country to do themselves.   That was the point of campaigning against apartheid.   It was to secure democracy in the country which means that the South African people are entitled to make their own mistakes.   One thing that can be said about South Africa over the last few months and years is that political discussion is vibrant, and that people do not hold back in expressing their views.

What is unacceptable is for Bell Pottinger, a British PR company, to take millions of rand and to run a campaign that quite deliberately stirred up racial hatred in the company, in order to protect the wealth of their clients.   Bell Pottinger’s reputation and profitability have been damaged by this scandalous episode, hopefully beyond recovery.

Steve Biko, I think, would be pointing out that this is a matter of respect.   People deserve to have the kinds of facilities that we in the UK take for granted.   They deserve to be listened to.   They deserve to have food on their tables, clothes on their backs, hot and cold running water, electricity, properly resourced schools for their children, libraries, drains and sewers, jobs, street lights,

For the Joy of Reading: Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLaverty is one of those authors who you can imagine holding an audience around the fire absolutely spellbound.   You can imagine him, in the Great Hall of Brian Boru or some other Irish King, plucking his harp and letting the story pour out of him.   I would certainly be one of those sitting there entranced.

This is the story of Gerry and Stella Gilmore, an aging couple on a midwinter break in Amsterdam from their home in Glasgow.   They have been married for a very long time and it is Stella who has decided that they need to have a little holiday in Amsterdam.    She has a reason for this which becomes clear at the start of the story.   She is interested in visiting the Begijnhof, a community of women withdrawn from the world, but not nuns, and in finding out about membership.

Gerry is unaware of this, but he has his own little secret or, at least, he thinks it is a secret.    It is his liking for the bottle.   Gerry, drunk and lost in the hotel corridor, is a comic tour de force.   This is the kind of little touch at which Bernard MacLaverty excels.   It is very funny and very human at the same time.   This is one of the moments when the reader warms to Gerry.   It is impossible not to like him.   He is a man who likes music, and who like his comforts, such as a dram of Jameson’s.   [Paddy does not get mentioned but then Gerry and Stella are from Belfast.   I am sure that Gerry would like Paddy too].

Stella is the more spiritual of the two, a devout Catholic, seeking the solace of her faith.   This is why she is interested in the Begijnhof, and has been researching it.   She remembers someone telling her about it, many years ago, and that memory has been haunting her.   For Stella, it holds out the possibility of a change in her life.

I have let slip here that Gerry and Stella fled to Glasgow from Belfast because of the troubles.   Understandably, they did not feel that Belfast in the 1970s was a safe place to bring up their son, which is why they moved to Glasgow.   The whole story is about uncovering the reason for their fear.   The whole story is about how they became the people that they are because of one event, one major traumatic event in the lives of two, until then, ordinary people.

I am in many ways chary of that phrase “ordinary people” because I do not think that Bernard MacLaverty considers anyone to be ordinary.   He sees what is unique in all of us, and that is what he brings to the fore in his storytelling.   That is why he is an absolute master at the art of storytelling.   That is why you must read this book.

For the Joy of Reading: Days Without End

I did not really expect Sebastian Barry to write a Cowboys and Indians novel, but that is what he has done.   But it is not that straightforward.   The cowboys are not real cowboys, driving a herd up from Texas or wherever to the railheads.   The story begins long before that era with people starving in Ireland and those who have the strength finding their way to the ships that lead them to the new world.   That is what happens to Thomas McNulty, the narrator of this story, and he ends up hiding from the rain under a bush in Missouri.   That is where he meets the love of his life, Handsome John Cole.

The second seminal event is the meeting with a Lakota warrior, Caught-his-Horse-First, and that in turn leads John and Thomas into the adoption of a Lakota girl, Winona.   [The Lakota are known to history as the Sioux, a name given to them by French-speaking trappers from Canada.   The name means cut-throat].   That is all the plot that you really need to know.

The story spans the Indian wars, the American Civil War, the death camp at Andersonville, the vicious racism of the post-bellum years in the Southern States, and it tells it all through the somewhat bewildered voice of Thomas McNulty.   The one constant is that Thomas loves John and Winona, the one as a husband and the other as a daughter.   They have to adopt many stratagems to survive as a family, one of which is Thomas, who is not very tall, disguises himself as a woman.

This is one thing that had never occurred to me.   Many of the dancing-girls in the saloons were boys.   There were so few women west of the Mississippi that the saloon owners had no choice but to employ pre-pubertal boys.   So, Marlene Dietrich’s song “Go, see what the boys in the backroom will have” in “Destry Rides Again” was not so far from the truth.

This is a truly entrancing story.   The language is extraordinary.   It has a beauty that will pierce your heart.   There are sentences of riveting power, my favourite being “The major’s as busy as Jesus at a wedding”.   Now you have to know this story, but if you do I guarantee that you will laugh.   It is that kind of book.   There are phrases and sentences that will take you by surprise, and make you laugh, although the story is tragic.

I cannot imagine that this story will find much favour in Trump’s America.  It is the story of the American Dream as nightmare.   It is not “Birth of a Nation” or “Gone with the Wind”.   It is much more like “Soldier Blue” or “Little Big Man” and these are films that very few people remember now.    It is a story of two genocidal events – the Irish Famine and the Indian Wars – and it tells of how three ordinary people coped.   Handsome John Cole, Winona and Thomas McNulty will remain in your memory for a very long time.