For the Joy of Reading: Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks

When Magi Gibson brings out a new poetry collection, there is only one sensible thing to do.: read it.   She chooses her words with a precision that skewers her meaning to the page.   How can you not love a poet who describes the effect of university on a Scottish working class girl by starting in broads Scots and then, through a seamless acquisition of words, transferring to Oxford English?   How can you not love a poet who uses words like hirplin, glaikit and thrapple in the same poem as words like caraway, porcelain and Earl Grey?   How can you not love a poet who describes the transition of using words from chippie to chip shop?   And yes, you may need a good dictionary to understand some of the Scots, but what does that matter?   Just listen to the beauty of the words themselves, and enjoy the flow of the language as if it is a stream bubbling down the mountainside.   Because that is what it is like.

There are words in this collection which may cause offence.   Certainly, if I quoted them, Internet “acceptable” words policies would go into meltdown and I would not be able to post this review on certain sites.   They may well cause offence to some women because the only acceptable word to be used for female genitalia is “v****a” which is how it is spelt in the opening poem before the use of something much more basic.   The poem however is trying to make a very serious point about the use of language and why poetry audiences in particular should not be in the least bit squeamish.

What truly delights about these poems is their humanity.   Magi Gibson confronts relationships and goes straight to the heart of the matter.    Anyone who has been bereaved will recognise the feelings expressed in Golden Daffodils.   Anyone who watched will recognise the beauty in Mother and Child.   Anyone who has thought about the lives of their parents will Miners’ Daughters or Visiting Arran with My Mother.   Anyone who has lived next door to someone will empathise with My Neighbour.   Anyone who has been in a relationship will understand Song of the Anglerfish.   And so it goes on.   Magi Gibson is someone who understands people, who knows how to describe their feelings and who does not flinch from doing so.

This is truly a remarkable set of poems, and none is more remarkable than Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks.   Why did Velda Grieve, a forceful woman if ever there was one, agree to wash her husband’s socks when she was in Cornwall and he was in Scotland?   Because she knew that he would forget, because she knew he would not do it, because she loved him.   Magi Gibson makes this plausible, believable, understandable.   She sees a truth in this simple seemingly inexplicable act.

Magi Gibson is a remarkable poet.   These are remarkable poems.   You should read them.

For the Joy of Reading: This is Memorial Device

My first shock came in the second paragraph.   “This isn’t Manchester or London or fucking Chingford.   This is Airdrie.”   For those of us who lived near Chingford in the 1980s, the idea of it as a cultural centre is astonishing.   Chingford was consigned to the outer darkness.   It was a place of wailing and the gnashing of teeth.   Its sole contribution to culture was the election of Norman Tebbit as its MP, and that tells you everything that you need to know.   How the hell did Chingford get included in this sentence?   I mean, people knew that Chingford was there, but that was no reason to visit it.   Chingfordians used to flee to Romford or Ilford on a Saturday night for their entertainment.   Now, of course, it is probable that someone who lived in Airdrie did not know this.    But even so, this beggars belief.

And the second shock was that I was reading a book about the punk scene in Airdrie in the 1980s when I know nothing about it.   I was not brought up in Airdrie, and by the 1980s I was too old to be involved in the “scene” let alone punk music.   The third shock is that I am actually enjoying it.   This is a bit like the shock I had when reading Alan Bissett’s “Boyracers” which I was instructed to read as part of a library reader development course.   I enjoyed the energy of the writing, and that is the same with “This is Memorial Device”.    The writing is extraordinarily energetic, and will take you along like a wave cresting onto a beach.   Just like “Boyracers”.   That really is a commendation.

This is the story of Lucas Black, as remembered by his friends and acquaintances in Airdrie, and of the music scene in the 1980s in that Lanarkshire town.   It is fair to say that the narrators are unreliable, some of them because they were stoned, some because it is now a long time ago and their memories are fading.   The focus for their memories, no matter how faulty, is the music of Lucas Black, who is a sort of savant.   He certainly has a profound effect upon all the narrators in various ways.

This is Memorial Device tells the tale of how Lucas Black influences everyone around him in some way, but it is much more than that.   It celebrates the joy that music can bring into people’s lives.   It celebrates the sheer indomitability of the human spirit.   It celebrates friendship.   It celebrates the culture of ordinary people living ordinary lives.   It celebrates how ordinary people create the extraordinary, and transform their lives for the sheer joy of it.   And just in case you haven’t realised it, I should say that David Keenan tells a good story.

Also when both Andrew O’Hagan and Alan Warner tell you that this is a book that you should read, as they do in the blurbs on the cover, you can make a pretty good guess that this is a book you should read.   And, no, I am not going to tell you what the title means.   You will have to read the book to find out.

For the Joy of Reading: Ragdoll

Daniel Cole has the kind of imagination that you would not want to meet on a dark night. Or indeed, in the bright morning sunshine.   The first thing that happens is that a serial killer is acquitted, and violently assaulted by Wolf, the police officer leading the investigation. Then the serial killer murders again, and is caught red-handed, literally red-handed.   Next, six people are murdered and parts of their dismembered bodies are sewn together to make a monstrous rag doll of a corpse.   And the police officer, who committed the assault, having been sent to an asylum, is re-instated and becomes the leading officer in the Ragdoll case.

Now you may question whether any of this is plausible, for the very good reason that it isn’t.   But then neither is The Hound of the Baskervilles nor The Speckled Band.   And I have always thought that Miss Marple would have been charged with wasting police time.   As for the Jack Reacher stories.   Well.I think I have proved my point.   The question with a thriller of this kind is not its accuracy, but whether or not it is able to hook the reader on the story.   I think it does.   I found it enthralling.    I had to remind myself to stop reading so that I could eat.   Sleep did not happen until I had finished.

I am not sure that I actually liked the characters, but I did want to find out what happened to them.   They did demand the reader’s sympathy because of their fallibility.   [This is one of the plausibility issues – would a police unit by staffed by so many unhinged people – but Cole makes you believe it for the sake of the story.]   And, much more important, I wanted to find out who had committed the murders, and why they had done it.   The answer was not one that I actually expected, but that was part of the pleasure of reading this story.   Daniel Cole kept keep me on tenterhooks, because I was not sure what would happen next.

One major thing to point out is this – if you have a weak stomach, this is not the book for you.   There are a number of scenes that will make the weak-stomached rush to the bathroom to vomit.   The descriptions are graphic, not to mention inventive and thoroughly nauseating.   You really do not want to meet this imagination on a dark night. Trust me on this.

That, however, is the attraction of reading this book.   This is Daniel Cole’s imagination.   It did not happen.   You are safe, and you can cosy up under your duvet, scaring yourself witless for the sheer fun of it.

For the Joy of Reading: Akram’s War

It is a very brave author who makes the central character of his book a Jihadist suicide-bomber.   But that is exactly what Nadim Safdar does.   This is a very careful examination of , someone’s state of mind, of the factors that prepare someone for such a fateful, fatal decision.

Considering that we know, from the very start of the book, exactly what Akram plans to do, Nadim Safdar has created a sympathetic and believable figure which is a considerable achievement.   We also come to like Grace and Adrian, because of their flaws, because they are not perfect, because, like Akram, their lives have been difficult and fraught with mental and physical pain.   There are other characters who are much more difficult to like.   Mustafa hovers on the brink of likeability but, to my mind, does not manage to cross the line.   Bobby and Azra are just plain reprehensible, as is Adrian’s father, Chav, a skinhead and a racist who terrorizes his local community.

Nadim Safdar does not offer any excuses for his characters, but he does take the trouble to explain them and that may help us to understand the country in which we live.   One of the underlying themes of the book is the racism that is endemic in the host community.   Safdar shows us a  white community that has been written off, that has no hope, who cannot aspire to improving their lives and whose dignity is dependent upon treating others as inferior to themselves.   This has the inevitable effect of making the persecuted community seek ways to defend themselves, falling back on the values of their religion, which become distorted in this process of self-assertion.

Safdar does not present the Pakistani community as blameless.   He puts the term gora which is pejorative into the mouths of his characters to describe the white English majority, as he uses the term Paki in the mouths of his white characters.   Do not expect this to be a comfortable read, because it is not.   That is the whole point.   It is a story that is very much written to explain its time, and it succeeds in that purpose.

I am not going to go into great detail about the plot, because that would spoil the development of the story.   It is enough to say that every single character in this book is broken in some way, and not necessarily just metaphorically.   It is a story that deals with the physical and psychological damage that has been done to people over the last thirty or so years.   I do not even recall Margaret Thatcher being mentioned in the story, but her legacy looms large over the communities that Safdar describes.   All the major characters in this story belong to the underclass.   This is a lament for the way in which people have been written off, and for how they turn to extremism in their despair.

Safdar presents us with a picture of the world in which we live, the world that produced Brexit and Trump, and Jihadism.   It is not an easy read.

Ahmed Kathrada

Ahmed Kathrada was a giant.    His contribution to the international struggle against racism has been matched by very few people.   He and his fellow Rivonia trialists were an inspiration to millions of people across the whole world and across generations, inspiring us to “take up the spear” and to fight against racism wherever we found it.   Especially, he was one of the people who inspired the world to take up the struggle against apartheid, that crime against humanity,, for a period of some forty years.   That was an astonishing achievement when you consider that he spent 26 of those years incommunicado in an apartheid prison.

Kathrada’s picture, with those of the other Rivonia trialists, appeared on posters, on placards and banners throughout the world.   Wherever there was opposition to apartheid, Ahmed Kathrada’s picture was in evidence and was an inspiration to millions as they did what they could to bring down the apartheid regime through sanctions.   And it should never be forgotten that international solidarity was the fourth pillar in the struggle against apartheid, the others being mass action, making South African ungovernable and the armed struggle.

So what was it about Ahmed Kathrada that inspired so many of us to become involved in the international struggle against apartheid.   First, he was not one to shrink from a political struggle because it was difficult and would involve great sacrifice on his part.   He took the very simple stance that racism and its offshoot, apartheid, was wrong and that it had to be opposed.   He was not like the many who kept their heads down and hoped that apartheid would go away.   He was involved, from the very beginning, in organising the mass action that was needed to challenge apartheid laws.   Within his own Indian community he was one of the organisers of the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s.   LIke so many others, including Nelson Mandela, he was arrested and faced prison for his opposition to apartheid laws.   From the very beginning, he was in the forefront of the struggle.

His involvement in the planning and organisation of the Congress of the People, that seminal event in the liberation struggle, was acknowledged by the apartheid state when he was arrested along with 155 others and charged with treason.   The Treason Trial attracted international opprobrium and the 156 trialists became heroes of the liberation struggle.   The trial lasted for four years, and Kathrada was one of those still on trial when the Treason Trial collapsed in ignominy.   The year was 1960.    It was the year of the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations (which meant that it was treasonable to be a member), and the ferocious clampdown by the apartheid state.

Kathrada was not one of those who surrendered.   He did not accept that opposition to apartheid was no longer possible.   He recognised that such opposition would now be illegal and therefore had to be conducted underground.   He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) which became the armed wing of the now illegal ANC.   He became a member of the Regional Command, helping to plan and organise the attacks on power stations and other symbols of apartheid power.   The launch of these attacks on 16th December 1961 was a huge, direct challenge to the power of the apartheid state as Johannesburg and Durban were plunged into darkness.   They attracted international attention with Robin Day, of the BBC, interviewing Nelson Mandela.    They were reported across the world.

The apartheid state responded by introducing the 90 Days Law allowing detention without trial and, following the Sharpeville Massacre, had already arrested hundreds of people.   There was no question that South Africa was in crisis.   In the UK, the newly formed Anti-Apartheid Movement called its first demonstration in Trafalgar Square, directly outside the South African High Commission.   Then came a disaster.   The whole of the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg, and were brought to trial with the already arrested Nelson Mandela. Ahmed Kathrada was one of the Rivonia trialists.

They were charged under the Sabotage Act, facing the death penalty.   The prosecutor was Percy Yutar and the judge was Quartus De Wet.   The trialists took the decision that the defence had to be a political one, even though this risked their lives.   Nelson Mandela made the speech from the dock that has achieved legendary status.   He represented the position taken by all the trialists, refusing to beg for their lives but stating quite clearly that, if necessary, they were prepared to die.

Much to the surprise of the whole world, Quartus de Wet sentenced them to life imprisonment.   Kathrada was given the opportunity to appeal his sentence.   According to Joel Joffe, one of their legal representatives at the trial, Kathrada refused to do this.   The reason that Joffe gives in his book “The Rivonia Story” is that Kathrada did not think that there was any point in an appeal.   He preferred to take his chances on liberation when it came.   There was a real danger that if any appeal had gone forward, the appeal court might find the sentences to lenient, and impose the death penalty.   Kathrada refused to expose his comrades to this risk.   His integrity would not allow him to do it.   That is a measure of the greatness of the man.

So began the long period of imprisonment.   Kathrada, because he was Indian, was allowed more privileges than his African comrades.   He was supposed to have better food and was entitled to wear long trousers.   There followed a long period of struggle in which he refused these privileges until they were given to his comrades as well.   Kathrada was able to complete five degrees, including history and criminology, while he was in prison.   Slowly but surely the apartheid prison authorities were forced to concede that Kathrada and the other Rivonia trialists were human beings.

Worse still was to come for the apartheid authorities.   Following the Soweto uprising of 1976, where the children involved recognised that their leaders were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and the other Rivonia trialists, the apartheid government of PW Botha was forced into secret negotiations.   The example of the Rivonia trialists had galvanised the world.   The campaign for their release was growing.  Barclays Bank withdrew from South Africa.   Chase Manhattan Bank refused to roll over the apartheid debt.   The Commonwealth imposed sanctions despite Margaret Thatcher.   Sanctions were imposed by ordinary people in the UK.   Some 20,000,000 or more people were boycotting South African goods by the time of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988.   The demand for the release of Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists became unstoppable.

On 15 October 1989 Kathrada, along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu  were released from prison.   Govan Mbeki and Denis Goldberg had already been released.   Along with the Rivonia trialists Jeff Masemola, Billy Nair, Wilton Mkwayi and Oscar Mpetha were also released.   Of the Rivonia trialists only Nelson Mandela remained in prison, and the apartheid regime was preparing for his release and the unbanning of the ANC and other political organisations.   This was a victory for the dignity, courage and resolve of the Rivonia trialists, confronted as they were by an appalling and racist ideology, apartheid.

Nor did they fail us in the years to come.   They were old.   They had spent two and a half decades in prison.   They could have claimed that they were tired and rested on their laurels.   They did not do so.   They began that long and difficult process of negotiating the end of apartheid, which culminated on that glorious day, 27th April 1994, when the whole of South Africa went to vote in the first democratic elections held in that country.

Ahmed Kathrada was an MP in that new Parliament, that first democratically elected Parliament in South Africa.   He accepted a post as a Presidential advisor.   He was involved in the drafting of the new constitution.   He helped President Mandela to initiate the process of reconciliation.   When he finally retired from public office, he set up the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, with the express purpose of combatting racism.

Ahmed Kathrada was never a man to choose a quiet life before principle.   Nor did he ever avoid the battle so that he could be safe.   His whole life is a testimony to his morality.   He gave his whole life to the fight against apartheid, to the fight against racism and for the right of people to treated with dignity and honour.   This week we have buried a man whose whole life is a testimonial to what we should aspire to achieve.

Hamba Kahle, Comrade Kathy, Hamba Kahle.

For the Joy of Reading: Montpelier Parade

This is either the story of the sexual awakening of a heterosexual teenager, or the story of the sexual abuse of a teenage boy.   You will have to make that decision.   There is no doubt that he is willing, but there is a question about whether or not Vera should have taken advantage of his willingness in this way.   There is also a question about whether or not any harm is done.   Clearly, he cannot get pregnant so there is not the risk of becoming a teenage mother or having to face a termination.   Our society has less concern about psychological damage, even when it considers that such damage can be done.   And let us be honest, the usual response is that “he’s got lead in his pencil” or something similar to that.   You may or may not think that any damage has been done.

We are not told Sonny’s age.   All we know is that he is old enough to consider leaving school to start an apprenticeship, but that he is not old enough to go into a shop to buy a bottle of wine.   Vera does that for him.   So he may not be underage, but Vera is still considerably older than him, and whether or not she is exploiting him is an open question.   Vera has her own issues to consider, and is clearly facing up to her own situation with great difficulty.   When you find out her situation, you may or may not consider it to be an explanation of her behaviour.   You may or may not consider that it justifies what she does.

Karl Geary is too good a writer to force his moral judgements onto his readers.    He lets the issue arise through his characters, through Sonny’s mother who wonders why Vera is taking an interest in her son. through Sharon, supposedly Sonny’s girlfriend, who decides that he will come to nothing, through Vera herself, who thinks that Sonny will come to hate her.   And Sonny is no paragon of virtue.   He steals.   He fights.   He is essentially a working class boy, who sees no future for himself that he can deliver.   The key moment here is when he tells the school counsellor that he wants to be a painter and she assumes that he means a decorator, not an artist.   And when the word “artist” is raised in the conversation, he abandons all hope of ever becoming one.

This is essentially a sad tale, about the loss of aspiration and the hopelessness of life for so many people.   The writing is spare, beautiful, considered.   There is no careless choice of words.   Each sentence has been carefully constructed with poetic thought.   This story is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

You will have to decide what Geary is trying to tell you.   You will have to make your own judgements about both Sonny and Vera.   You will have to decide whether this is a book about sexual awakening, sexual abuse or possibly both.   This is a book that will make you think, and you will have to decide how to react.   You will even have to decide whether or not you should cast the first stone.

For the Joy of Reading: The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

How can you not love a book about a detective agency where one of the main characters is a baby elephant?   Such is the genius of Vaseem Khan that he can construct a story around such an improbable premise.   This is the second book in the Baby Ganesha Detective Agency series, and some of you will already have had the delight of meeting Inspector Chopra and his elephant, Ganesha.   So you can sit back and enjoy the ride.   For the rest of you, it is time to make friends with Inspector Chopra now.

There is a spectacular start to this crime novel.   The Koh-i-noor diamond which is on loan to a Museum in Mumbai is stolen from under the noses of the police and the security guards.   Unfortunately for the robbers, Inspector Ashwin Chopra (retd) is one of the people viewing the diamond when the theft takes place.   He is to be their nemesis and their downfall.   In this he is assisted by his associates in the Baby Ganesha Detective Agency, not the least of whom is Ganesha himself, an extraordinarily intelligent baby elephant.   Chopra inherited the elephant from his Uncle Bansi in the previous book in the series.

The theft of one of the Crown Jewels is a major cause of embarrassment, and the intervention of Inspector Chopra is not particularly welcomed.   He is persuaded to intervene by one of his ex-colleagues who has been arrested and is the major suspects.   This is the motor for the plot, but it is not the only plot.   The Baby Ganesha Detective Agency has a number of cases to deal with.   There is the theft of the statue of the founder from a prestigious Catholic school, run by the terrifying Father Lobo.   There is the disappearance of Irfan, a street urchin who tends Ganesha, and who is loved by the elephant, Inspector Chopra and his wife Poppy, and who has to be found and kept safe.

There are other characters who grab the imagination – Poorneem Devi, Chopra’s irascible mother-in-law and Chef Lucknowwallah, who produces the wonderful food at Chopra’s restaurant, are two of them, locked as they are in mortal combat over the running of the same restaurant.   Vaseem Khan uses vignettes to guide us through the life of the great city of Mumbai, home to 20,000,000 people.   There is Rangwalla, Chopra’s associate in the agency, who he rescues from poverty after Rangwalla is sacked from the police.

All of these people are deftly characterised.   Nor does Vaseem Khan forget the need to keep the story rolling on towards its conclusion.   The pace does not slacken, and the sub-plots are woven into the overall mystery of how the Koh-i-noor came to be stolen, who stole it and why it was stolen.   This is the heart of the book, and you will be kept guessing until the denouement.   Which is just what you would expect of a mystery.

I do not see how anyone will not be able to enjoy this book.