For the Joy of Reading: An Elegy for Easterly

One thing is clear – Petina Gappah has no concern for the feelings of the government in Zimbabwe. She is particularly scathing of one old man, who she portrays as petulant, arrogant, domineering, bombastic, and descending into probable senility. Nor is she much kinder about his younger self, and this is bound to get her into trouble because the man is, of course, Robert Mugabe.

A damning indictment is presented through thirteen short stories, exploring the way in which people cope with the difficulties of their lives, in a period ranging from the late 1960s to the present.

I have never been to Zimbabwe so I cannot verify the accuracy with which they present the lives of ordinary people. For an indication of that kind of accuracy, you would need to look to someone like Tawona Sithole or Tendai Huchu.

I can only say that these stories have the ring of truth to them. They are about people who are resilient, who can be cynical, especially about government. They are about people who can cope, or rather who can find ways of coping. They are about people bickering, gossiping, arguing, pulling together, surviving. They are stories about the human condition.

But they are also very specifically stories about the human condition in Zimbabwe, and in the Zimbabwean Diaspora. They are stories about the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people during the war of liberation. They are stories about people living in a country where the inflation rate is around 250%. They are stories about a country wracked with HIV and AIDs. They are stories about things going wrong. And they are stories about people dying and surviving.

They are stories about how we live and what we do to each other.   And that is what makes them universal in scope.

 

Petina Gappah is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in an event titled “Writing to Survive” on Wednesday 26th August 2015.

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For the Joy of Reading: Death is a Welcome Guest

Louise Welsh is a stunning writer. The first of her books that I read was “Tamburlaine the Great”.I admit that it was the cover picture of Anthony Sher in the title role of the Royal Shakespeare Company production that first drew my attention. And that was to my advantage because it introduced me to some enjoyable books.

“Death is a Welcome Guest” is the second book in “The Plague Times Trilogy”.     The first book is “A Lovely Way to Burn” but you do not have to have read it to enjoy this tale.

The premise is the same as that of Terry Nation’s cult TV series of the 1970s “Survivors”.   A plague, which people call “the sweats” has wiped out a huge proportion of the population.   At first, the authorities do not take it seriously and by the time they do, it is far too late.   Louise Welsh makes the point, in passing, that there was probably nothing that the authorities could have done anyway.   Except, perhaps, not to experiment with chemical and germ warfare, but the blame is never laid there, because there is no indication of what caused “the sweats”.   The story examines how individuals deal, or fail to deal, with an overwhelming catastrophe.

Magnus, somewhat the worse for drink, intervenes when he sees a man assaulting a woman, gets himself arrested and ends up in Pentonville in the sex offenders wing.   The the plague strikes, followed by a prison breakout.   What follows is a descent into chaos, as society disintegrates.   Magnus tries to make his way to orkney to find his family, and becomes involved in a small community trying to rebuild their lives.   People, however, are disappearing and then bodies are found.   Magnus and his new companions have to find out what is happening, and try to stop it.

Louise Welsh writes with convincing detail, and the world that she creates is an utterly believable world of horror.   This is a book that will leave you uneasy, and waiting for the final book in the trilogy so that you can know what happens, and how people will survive.

For the Joy of Reading: The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician

Tendai Huchu is a young Zimbabwean writer, living in Edinburgh, whose first book “The Hairdresser of Harare” convinced me that he is someone to follow.   It was written with such verve that you were carried along in the maelstrom of the story, taking you places that you may not wish to go.

“The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician”, on the other hand, seems to be a collection of three disparate stories held together by a location, Edinburgh, and some mutual friends.   It is not.   The concluding chapter strikes you like a thunderbolt, giving a fear-inducing indication of what it can be like to be a member of the Zimbabwean diaspora.   So I will say no more about the brilliance with which the story is constructed.

The story revolves around three Zimbabweans, two black and one white living in Edinburgh, whose lives intersect, in ways which they had not planned and in ways that they do not necessarily want to happen.

The Maestro is white, and is living in Edinburgh because he does not feel any connection with his country.   He is working as a shelf packer in a supermarket (shades of Samuel Best) and the only solace he has in his life is books (shades of Andrew Raymond Drennan).   The Maestro has clearly been psychologically disturbed by his experiences as a white man in Rhodesia, and you probably will not find him easy to sympathise with.   But Tendai Huchu’s skill in writing is such that you probably will, against all your instincts to the contrary.

The Magistrate was a man of some influence in Zimbabwe being exactly that – a Magistrate.   He fell foul, in some way, of the authorities and had to leave the country with his family.   His wife is now working as a nurse, and his daughter is exploring adolescence in ways that horrify him.   His own job, working nights in a care home, is not fulfilling, and he fills his time with Leopold Bloom-like wanderings of Edinburgh’s streets.

The Mathematician is a young man, brimming with the confidence of a devil-may-care, certain that his academic future will be bright, and enjoying the pleasures that come with his youth and his virility.

None of them think that their lives will be affected by the other two, and all of then are wrong.   Tendai Huchu uses his eye for the significant detail, his undoubted descriptive power and his storytelling talent to weave a tale that will leave shocked, but more deeply understanding the problems of a diaspora community.

For the Joy of Reading: Shop Front

Have you ever come across the writing of Samuel Best? Can you find him in your local bookshop, or in your local library. Well, if you live in Falkirk I am sure that you can, because he is a local lad. But if you live elsewhere, I am not so sure, and that is a loss to the reading community.   I would like to think that he is stocked in bookshops across Scotland, and that every library in Scotland has a copy of “Shop Front” but I am not sure about that.

If I was still working in libraries, I would have invited Samuel Best by now to talk to one of our reading groups.   And I would have put “Shop Front” on a Scotland-wide reading promotion.   As I no longer have this option, I am bringing him to your attention in this way.

So why should you be reading Samuel Best?   Because he is a young man who addresses the issues confronting young men today in a clear and concise manner through the medium of telling a really good story.

There are some who would argue that the experience of being a young man in Scotland is different to elsewhere, and that has some truth to it. But testosterone is testosterone the world over. Samuel Best speaks as much to, and about, young men in Umlazi, or Kolkata or the Bronx as he does to young men in Falkirk. And that really is the point of this book.

Ben Hamilton has just graduated from university with a degree but with no job, and with no prospect of getting one.   So he moves back to live with his parents in Linlithgow, and to tide himself over, he gets a job in a supermarket.    It is here that he makes friends with some of his fellow workers and together, through some flirting, they find themselves deeply embroiled in gang warfare.

This is the same kind of territory as explored by Sifiso Mzobe in Young Blood about gangs in Umlazi, South Africa, or by Bernard Mac Laverty in some of his short stories about Belfast.   But Samuel Best brings his own unique voice to this kind of storytelling, partly by setting the story in a small town in the Central Belt of Scotland, and mostly through the spareness and sensitivity of his writing.

In many ways, Ben Hamilton is the honorary grandson of Holden Caulfield, but slightly older, more sympathetic and less exasperating.

For the Joy of Reading: The Limits of the World

One of the great advantages of living in Scotland is that there is a vibrant community of authors, and you can have the pleasure of reading them and meeting them at various events. Unfortunately, they have difficulty in breaking into the wider UK reading community because of their location.

This is not a problem that is limited to Scotland. It is something that every author who is not part of the London Literary Scene has to contend with. And you can even live in London, in places like Newham or Kilburn, and it can be very difficult to break into that scene.

In Scotland, the problem of getting noticed is slightly different because a community of librarians, trained by OpeningtheBook, have been working for more than a decade now, to bring Scottish and other authors to the attention of the Scottish reading public. I was one of the first batch of trainees and, now that I am retired, I have to seek other ways of bringing authors and books to the attention of the reading public.

I was prompted to write this blog because I have come across a wonderful book called “The Limits of the World” by Andrew Raymond Drennan, and I know that it is not receiving the attention that it deserves.   It is not the first book that the author has written, but it is the first of his books that I have read, and I now know that I must make sure that I read the other titles that he has written.

The story is set in North Korea and has been researched in great detail to make sure that the tale is believable.   But because it is a story about the human condition, and how we deal with oppression of any kind, written with extraordinary compassion, it is universal in its scope.

It is the story of Han, an apparatchik rising through the ranks of the party, who has been appointed to a sensitive propaganda position in Pyongyang.   It is also the story of how his life is affected by his love for books, which he has to obtain illegally and then keep hidden for fear of arrest.   It is also the story of how Han’s life is changed by meeting Mae, a cellist who lives in his building, and Ben and Hal, two foreign journalists.   To tell any more of the plot would spoil your pleasure in reading the book.

What I will tell you is that Andrew Raymond Drennan is an extraordinary writer, and that this book is something that you should go out of your way to read.   I will also tell you that it has echoes of both “1984” and “Cry, the Beloved Country” but these are echoes that you must find for yourself.   As someone who was involved in the struggle against apartheid, I can assure you that Drennan has the fear and paranoia factor right.   His use of his imagination in this respect is quite extraordinary.

As I said at the start, one of the joys of living in Scotland is that you get to meet these authors.   Andrew Raymond Drennan is appearing at the “Unbound” session on 26th August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.    The event is free, so if you have the opportunity to be there, you should.

 

Nelson Mandela International Day, Glasgow 2015

Mandela and Brian Filling (2nd photo), 9th October 1993 Mandela at City Chambers, Glasgow, 9th October 1993 Mandela in George Square, 9th October 1003 Mandela, Mara Louw and Brian Filling, 9th October 1993 Mandela, saluting the crowd, George Square, 9th October 199318th July, which is Nelson Mandela International Day, has become special in Glasgow. His birthday was designated by the United Nations in 2009 as a day to celebrate his dedication to public service, giving 67 years of his life to that cause. The United Nations asked people to dedicate 67 minutes of the day to volunteering in their communities, as a tribute to the man.

Nelson Mandela International Day is special in Glasgow because of the long connection that the city has had with the man. In 1981, Glasgow was the first city in the world to make Nelson Mandela a Freeman of the City. And this was when he was still in prison. The Lord Provost of Glasgow organised a petition of 5,000 mayors throughout the world to the United Nations calling for the release of Mandela. Glasgow renamed the street in which the apartheid consulate was based Nelson Mandela Place. The consulate refused to use the name and eventually had to close – the only apartheid diplomatic building in the whole world to do so. In 1988, the Nelson Mandela Freedom March set off from Glasgow to London. And, of course, in 1993 Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedoms of nine cities and boroughs in the UK. George Square was crammed with people, and when Marah Louw sang, Nelson Mandela got up and danced with her, in a magical moment that no-one who was there will ever forget.

As in every year since its inauguration, people in Glasgow rose magnificently to the task of doing something special on Nelson Mandela International Day. ACTSA scotland decided that they would send a container of 50,000 children’s books from City Chambers, George Square, Glasgow on the day. This, of course, meant that the books had to be donated, collected, sorted and packed before they could be loaded onto the container. Collection points were set up in the Mitchell Library, and 5 other libraries in Glasgow. The STUC acted as a collection point. Episcopal Churches (that is, the Anglican Communion) in the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway collected books, and got them to one of the collection points. By the time that the day came, volunteers had packed the books into thousands of boxes, ready to be loaded onto the container. The basement of Hillhead Library was the storage point.

At 10.00am on 18th July, the volunteers assembled in the car park of Hillhead Library. Some of us went down to the basement and started loading the boxes onto trolleys to be taken to the bottom of the stairs. From there, a human chain moved the books, like pass the parcel, up the stairs, across the car park and onto the container. John Nelson, our organiser, was interviewed by STV. The basement was emptied, the container filled and it set off for George Square for the official send off.

In George Square, Obed Mlaba, the South African High Commissioner sent the container on its way to the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. We then went into City Chambers to hear speeches from Glasgow City Council, the STUC, the High Commissioner and South Africa’s Honorary Consul in Scotland. The music was supplied by Charlie and the Batchelors Jazz Band. Magnus Walker, a young Glaswegian baritone, ended the event by singing the South African National Anthem.

2018 will be the centenary of Mandela’s birth. Perhaps we should all start thinking about how we are going to celebrate.

Peter Brayshaw. Obituary.

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Peter Brayshaw (right) with Suresh Kamath at Gerard Omasta-Milsom at the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of freedom in South Africa, at BAFTA in London in 2014.

I first met Peter Brayshaw in 1968 at the London School of Economics.   It was at the Freshers’ Fair.   Peter was staffing the stall of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I was making an application for membership of the student group.   In those days, Peter’s commitment to internationalism concentrated on two causes – the liberation of Southern Africa and the liberation of Ireland.   He was often seen at demonstrations carrying the Starry Plough banner of James Connolly and the Irish Volunteers, and he had no embarrassment about telling policemen of the significance of this banner, which probably got him a Special Branch file.

After college, Peter ended up in Angola in the mid-1970s, where he worked with Michael Wolfers and Jane Wilford (then Bergerol), and where he met his lifelong partner, Tracy Warnes.   On returning to the UK, he became involved in the Angola Solidarity Committee and then the Mozambique Angola Committee.   I was involved with both these organisations.   Peter played a crucial role in helping people in the Anti-Apartheid Movement to understand the important role of Angola in the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.   When the apartheid army invaded Angola in 1975, and in the subsequent years of devastation that they caused through their surrogate, UNITA, Peter and Tracy were tireless in their campaigning on this issue.   The Mozambique Angola Committee and the London Anti-Apartheid Committee, of which I was the chair, worked closely with each other to ensure that the issues raised by the apartheid army’s invasion of Angola were not allowed to drop off the political agenda in the UK.

Peter had also become actively involved in the Labour Party, becoming a councillor in Camden, where he worked with Tony Dykes and Nirmal Roy, ensuring a home for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in what became Mandela Street in Camden, and in giving support to both the African National Congress and to SWAPO of Namibia.   Peter became involved in Local Authorities Against Apartheid, working with Councillor Mike Pye (Sheffield), Provost Michael Kelly (Glasgow) and many others to secure an alliance of local authorities in the UK prepared to take action against apartheid, which played an important role in international solidarity.

When the end of apartheid came, it was because people like Peter, thousands upon thousands of them, had committed themselves to the struggle for international solidarity.   Peter was one of those who played a crucial role in organising such international support.

Peter then became involved in Action for Southern Africa, serving as a member of the executive and then as vice-chair.   In 2004, he helped the South African High Commission to organise the tenth anniversary of freedom celebrations in London, which included a huge conference at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, attended by thousands of delegates from across the EU, and where the evening concert included performances by Jonas Gwangwa, Julian Bahula and Hugh Masekela.

In his role as Vice-Chair of ACTSA, Peter provided an experienced, calm and sensible voice in all our deliberations, ensuring that we kept “our eyes on the prize”.   Peter has made a huge contribution over the 45 years that I have known him to the liberation of Southern Africa.

Go well, Peter, a hero of our heroes.   Hamba Kahle, Peter.   Iqawe e iqawe, hamba kahle.