For the Joy of Reading: Fault Lines

Doug Johnstone requires you to believe two improbable things at the start of this book.   First, that a volcanic island has erupted in the Firth of Forth, turning Edinburgh into an earthquake zone.   And secondly, that Louise, a geologist going into labour at the time of the eruption, decides to call her daughter Surtsey.   This is the volcanic island that emerged to the south of Iceland during such an eruption in, if I remember correctly, the 1960s.   Personally, I find the former more likely than the latter, but then people from Edinburgh are capable of anything.

Surtsey is the central character of this story.   It begins with a murder on the said volcanic island, which is called The Inch, from the Gaelic, Inish, which means island.   The one thing that we know is that it is not Tom Lawrie, one of Surtsey’s two lovers, because he is the corpse.   We also know that Surtsey was going to meet him on the Inch, for a romantic tryst, and that when she finds the corpse she rows away as fast as she can.   That happens in the first five to ten pages.   The question is, who did it?   And why?

One other person can be ruled out, and that is Louise because she is terminally ill in a hospice overlooking the Firth.   But otherwise, there are plenty of suspects.   Is it Alice, Tom’s vengeful wife?   Is it Halima, who likes getting Surtsey doped to the eyeballs?   Is it Iona, Surtsey’s sister, who is not coping with Louise’s illness?   Is it Brendan, Surtsey’s other lover?  Is it Donna, the old school friend?   Is it Bastian, the leader of the New Age protesters, who want the Inch left in peace?   At one point, I thought it might even be either Yates or Flanagan, the Rebus-like policemen, but lacking his vivacity and charm.   This should give you a clue about how difficult it is to work out whodidit?   I did, but it took me quite some time.

There is also a logic to the way that the story progresses.   From the discovery of Tom’s corpse, being devoured by seagulls and crows, and Surtsey running away, the possible options for her become more and more limited.   She has fled from a crime scene.   There are questions that run through her head.   When will the body be discovered?   Was she seen on the Inch?   Can she cover her tracks?   And, of course, who killed him?   This is not the usual progression in a detective story.   We know that she has something to hide, and we know what it is.   But this is not a detective story: it is a thriller.   There are certainly are thrills – plenty of them.    Doug Johnstone knows how to keep you on tenterhooks.

But enough of the story line.   You will need to read the book to find out what happens.   I am not going to tell you.   What I will tell you is that Doug Johnstone writes very much in the tradition of Raymond Carver.   To describe the writing style as short and pithy does not do these sentences the justice that they deserve.   They are sharp and to the point.   There is not a word wasted.   There is no fat in them to be trimmed away.   Yet, they manage to be elegant, conveying precisely the trajectory of the story.

One final thing: I got this book at the launch event last night in Edinburgh and I finished it over breakfast this morning.   I did get some sleep last night, but it was not enough.   I blame you, Doug Johnstone.


For the Joy of Reading: For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian published this book in German in 1934, and it has only now been translated into English.   It is a salutary read.   You have to remind yourself that he could not have known what was going to happen.   He may have had a premonition, he may have feared it, as many of the characters in this book live in fear, but he could not have known that the Holocaust would happen.   This is a book about Jewish life in Romania in the 1920s.   It certainly gives the lie to the idea that there was no co-operation with the Holocaust by the inhabitants of countries invaded by the Nazis.   The antisemitism is visceral,   It is violent and brutal.   People are assaulted on the streets because they are Jewish.   People are denied education because they are Jewish.   People are injured and killed because they are Jewish.   There is no question about it.   Jewish people were not safe in Romania in the 1920s.

The question posed by this book is simple: what to do?   Some people fight back.   There are riots, especially at the University.   But that is not the solution.   Some people, within the community, argue for the Zionist position.   Some of them argue that the Jews must return to Eretz Israel because it is only in a homeland for the Jews that they can be safe.   Some people set out on heroic journeys to get there.   Interestingly, very little is made of the argument that this is the land granted by God to “Abraham and his seed for ever”.   The argument is much more practical – this is a place in which Jews can be safe.

The flaw in the argument is exposed by the Marxist Jewish characters in the book.   Although the Jewish settlers call themselves Palestinians that is the on thing that they are not.   There is already a settled Palestinian population and they have to be dispossessed.   The other terms used in the book by the Zionist characters, the Marxist characters argue, are far more accurate – “settlers” and “colonists”.

These arguments are put forcibly in the book, without any conclusion.    There is nothing to say who is right or wrong.    Of course, these arguments are very relevant today.   70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, we have not found a solution to them, a compromise with which people can live peacefully.   This is essential to the survival of the State of Israel and to meeting the aspirations of the Palestinian people.   People involved in the Peace Process should read this book.   This lack of a conclusion is part of what makes this book a fascinating record of its time.

The other thing that is fascinating is that the antisemites are not necessarily shown as villains.   In the course of the book, one of them becomes a friend of the narrator and cannot see that there is anything wrong, or anything to ashamed about, in boasting that he led some of the rioters who made particularly vicious attacks upon individual Jews.   The narrator, of course, is shocked but does not end the friendship.   Although they are thugs, the anti-semites are not dismissed out of hand.   Some of them are depicted as intelligent people – even leading academics.

There is also an interesting description of the development of the Romanian oil industry in which the narrator and his antisemitic friend play a not insignificant role.   The destruction of the ancient plum orchards symbolises the ending of a way of life.   This is not to be irrelevant for the central question of the book, which is this: How are the Jews going to survive.

We, of course, know the answer.   Those who went to Israel survived, but stored up trouble for the future and brought about a conflict which has not yet been resolved.   Those who remained, for the most part, did not survive.   The author did survive only to be killed in a motoring accident at the end of the war.   Mihail Sebastian has left us a searing account of European antisemitism, giving us a lesson that we must not forget.

For the Joy of Reading: A Whole Life

Never believe that any life is so ordinary that it is just boring.   This is the proof that this is not the case.   Nothing much happens in the life of Andreas Egger apart from an avalanche, a war, building cable cars and meeting tourists, but that is not to say that it is boring, inconsequential.   It is, in many ways, an uneventful life but that does not make it ordinary.   Robert Seethaler demonstrates this quite conclusively in this novella.   It is, I suppose, a brief life.   Seethaler does not make the mistake of calling it that.

So what is it that makes this book a joy to read?   It is certainly not that it is thrilling.   It is not the life of someone who made an impact in the world.   It is the story of someone who did not achieve a great deal, of someone who passed through the world leaving hardly a mark upon it.   In other words, it is the story of the vast majority of us.   We make a difference in small ways, in ways that are not remarkable, in ways that do not have much of an impact on history.   It is a simple story, simply told.

When I say simply told, that does not do justice to the writing.   This i an extraordinarily beautiful story, and the translator, Charlotte Collins, has done a remarkable job.   Every phrase, every sentence counts.   They tell the story of a life beset by hardship, patience and endurance, a life of love, compassion and simplicity.   It is a wonderful book.   It is a book that people should read – as simple and compelling as that.   You should read it.

Denis Goldberg: Rivonia Trialist and anti-apartheid campaigner: an 85th birthday tribute

Denis Goldberg will be 85 on 11th April 2018.   He was born in his beloved Cape Town in 1933.    His grandparents had fled to London to avoid the Tsarist pogroms, and his parents emigrated from there to South Africa.   He is therefore a first generation South African.   He was brought up in a remarkable household where people of all races were welcome.

He trained as an engineer and soon became politically active, campaigning for the liberation of the South African people.   He was an Executive member of the Congress of Democrats, which was a white organisation allied to the African National Congress and part of the Congress Alliance.   It was not legal under South African law for people of all races to be members of the same political organisation, although organisations representing the different races could work together for the same objective.   He also joined the illegal South African Communist Party.

It was through his political activities that he met Esme Bodenstein, whom he married and by whom he had two children, Hilary and David.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the subsequent banning of the ANC and other political organisations, Denis became involved in Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC.   Denis was approached because, as a qualified engineer, he had the necessary skills for the prosecution of the armed struggle.   The commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was Nelson Mandela.   It was not long before Denis found himself involved in the command structures of MK in Cape Province, working with people like Looksmart Ngudle and Percy Mda.   Looksmart Ngudle was the first person to die in detention at the hands of the apartheid security police.

On 16th December 1962, MK struck.   There were bomb explosions throughout the country, targeting the symbols of apartheid.   Electricity pylons were blown up.   Johannesburg and Durban both were blacked out.   Nelson Mandela gave a clandestine interview to Robin Day of the BBC, setting out the plans of Umkhonto we Sizwe.   The armed struggle had been launched.

Denis and his mother had both been arrested following the imposition of a State of Emergency following the Sharpeville Massacre.   They spent four months in prison.   On his release, Denis was dismissed from his job as an engineer with South African Railways because of his political activism.   In 1963, Denis was served with a stringent banning order, confining him to a particular magisterial district of Cape Town and limiting the number of people that he could meet at any one time.   Denis, of course, worked his way round this banning order and continued with his political work,   He took part, as an instructor, in an MK training camp at Camps Bay, near Cape Town.   He also went to a meeting of MK at the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg.   It was here that he was arrested with all the MK High Command, except Nelson Mandela who was already in prison.

Esme was detained and held in solitary confinement under the 90 Day Detention Law.   Upon her release she went into exile, taking Hilary and David with her, and came to London where she set up home.   Denis managed to escape his captors, very briefly, but he was re-arrested.   He became one of the accused in the Rivonia Trial alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.

The Rivonia Trial was one of the seminal events in the struggle for the freedom of South Africa and, indeed, in the worldwide struggle against racism.   It was the trial at which Nelson Mandela made his famous statement from the dock.   The accused were charged with sabotage, which meant that they were facing the death penalty.   That is why Nelson Mandela ended his statement with the words “I am prepared to die”.   The world was electrified.   This was the year in which Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech.   To have two such powerful statements of anti-racism made so close to each other changed the whole dynamic of the struggle.

The trial lasted from June 1963 to October 1964 in the Pretoria Supreme Court.   Denis Goldberg was Accused No 3.   The charges were laid under the Sabotage Act and the Suppression of Communism Act.  The accused were charged with “campaigning to overthrow the Government by violent revolution and for assisting an armed invasion of the country by foreign troops”.   The charge sheet contained 193 acts of sabotage allegedly carried out by MK, and by persons recruited by the accused in their capacity as members of the MK High Command.

All of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.   Denis called out to his mother “Life!   Life is wonderful!”   The others were sent to Robben Island, but Denis was white and there was apartheid in the prisons, so as a white political prisoner Denis was sent to Pretoria Prison.   Denis was imprisoned for 22 years, and was the first of the Rivonia Trialists to be released.

The prison years were long and hard.   Denis had to fight for the right to study and to read newspapers.   Denis nursed Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner lawyer who had defended the Rivonia trialists and who was also involved in MK and the South African Communist Party, through his terminal illness.   Denis assisted Tim Jenkin, Steven Lee and Alex Moumbaris in their escape from the prison.   After 22 years, he was offered his freedom by President Botha, and he accepted.

Denis came to London where he re-joined Esme and his family.    Denis and Esme rebuilt their family life together.   Denis resumed his work for the ANC, setting up ANC Merchandising.   He also spoke at countless meetings on behalf of the ANC, involved himself in the work of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and spoke at the United Nations.   US organisations awarded him the Albert Luthuli Peace Prize in recognition of his work in the struggle against apartheid.   Denis served as an inspiration to the thousands of Anti-Apartheid Movement activists that he met, and was a constant source of knowledge and wisdom about the struggle in South Africa.   There were so many ways in which he helped to develop the international campaign against apartheid that it is impossible to list them all.

During the years Denis was in prison and then in exile, the situation in South Africa reached crisis point.   On 16th June 1976, the children of Soweto organised a demonstration against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools.   The apartheid police opened fire.   In the years that followed, thousands fled South Africa to join Umkhonto we Sizwe.   There was a popular uprising.   South Africa became ungovernable.   There was an increase in armed attacks by MK.   There was a storm of international protest.   The apartheid regime, facing bankruptcy, was forced to consider negotiations.   Secret discussions had been taking place with Nelson Mandela.   There were also discussions between key figures of the Afrikaner establishment in Dakar and in the UK.   There was no doubt that the end of apartheid was in sight.

First Govan Mbeki was released in 1987 and then all the other Rivonia trialists, except Nelson Mandela, at the end of 1989.   Then the ANC, SACP, MK and other organisations were unbanned.   Finally, on 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released.   The long process of negotiations was soon to begin.  It was to take something like 3 and half years, and 10,000 people were killed, including Chris Hani, the Secretary-General of the SACP.

The elections took place on 27th April 1994 and lasted until the end of the month.   When Nelson Mandela was installed as President at the Union Buildings on 10th May 1994, Denis was there as one of the guests of honour.

On his return to London, Denis set up Community HEART as a British charity working for the reconstruction of South Africa.   HEART stands for Health, Education and Reconstruction Training.   Denis became the Executive Director, throwing his energy into a host of projects to assist his country.   Since its inception in 1995, Community HEART has sent 3 million books to schools and libraries in South Africa, has supported the Rape Crisis Centre in Cape Town, the Ububele Psychotherapy Project in Johannesburg, HIV/Aids projects helping to raise awareness of the disease, community arts and housing projects.   For a small organisation, Community HEART has had a considerable impact and that is due, in part, to the energy and enthusiasm that Denis has put into the organisation.

After Esme died of cancer in 2000, Denis decided to return to South Africa.   The sudden death of his daughter Hilary, from a blood clot, in 2002 confirmed him in this decision.   He had just married Edelgard Nkobi, the German born widow of Zenzo Nkobi, the son of the ANC Treasurer-General, Thomas Nkobi.   It was through Edelgard that Denis made the connections to set up the German Community-HEART.   On his return to South Africa, Denis was appointed as a Special Adviser to Ronnie Kasrils, the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.   He held this post until he retired in 2004.   By then, Denis had moved to Hout Bay in Cape Town, and he became the Patron of the Kronendal Music Academy of Hout Bay.   Edelgard died of cancer at the end of 2006 and her funeral took place on 8th January 2007, the anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress.

When Denis returned to South Africa, Isobel McVicar was appointed as the Director of Community HEART.   The organisation has continued its vital life-enhancing, life-changing work for the people of South Africa.

Denis has continued to be active, touring both Germany and the UK, raising money for Community HEART.   It was on one of these trips that he was diagnosed with cancer.   He is now at home in South Africa receiving treatment.

Denis will soon be 85.   His legacy has been building  a new, free democratic South Africa.   So many people have benefitted from his contribution to the freedom of his country, and to his efforts at repairing the damage done by apartheid and colonialism.   He is truly a hero for his country and his times.

For the Joy of Reading: Norse Gods

What is it about the Norse Gods that make people want to read about them?   Neil Gaiman says that Marvel Comics are to blame.   This is certainly how he came to the stories, through Thor as the superhero.   I think it is slightly more complicated than this.  These are very human gods.   For a start, we know that they are not going to live forever.  they are going to die on the day of the great battle at Ragnarok, the end of the world as we know it.   They feast, the drink vast amounts of alcohol, they kill their enemies, they sleep around.   In other words, they are like our ruling classes, our history makers because we do not notice those who do not draw attention to themselves, who do not have adventures but who do the essential things like growing food and disposing of our excrement.   This, however, is not heroic and these gods certainly are.   They are also quite stupid.

Loki may be cunning, but he is not wise.   Thor may be strong but he is not intelligent.   Freya may be beautiful, but she is selfish.   And so it goes on from the least important to the most powerful gods, like Odin and Frig.   The point however is that this is a tragedy, because it ends in the downfall of the gods, and it is of cataclysmic proportions.   These are heroic figures in the terms of Greek tragedy.   It also helps that the stories are spellbinding and that Gaiman knows how to tell them.   [This, of course, is not a surprise].

But it is more than that.   These are stories that are deep from the consciousness of the far north of Europe.   It is possible to imagine them being told round the campfires as the ice retreated some 12,000 years ago.   These were people who lived with the knowledge that the ice could destroy them.   These were the people who lived through the long dark of the winter nights, trying to keep warm and fed.   These were the people who knew the importance and the threat of fire.   Their fears and their courage in the face of this environment are there in these stories.   It burns through them, and it has resonances in our lives.

But most of all it is Ragnarok, the battle between the Gods and their enemies, that we fear because we fear the destruction of our world.   This fear has penetrated to our culture that no longer believes in the Norse Gods, because it is there in the Book of Revelation – the battle between the Archangel Michael and the dragon, war in heaven, Armageddon, the end of the world.   The Norse myths speak to us of our fears, and that is why we still listen to these tales.   It is why they speak to us.

Neil Gaiman has done us the enormous favour of making them accessible to the next generation.

For the Joy of Reading: #Afterhours

Inua Ellams set himself a challenge.   He wanted to write a poem for the first 18 years of his life as a response to a poem that was published in the relevant year.   This book is what emerged from the project.   Ellams tells the reader how he selected the poems to which he would respond, in what the publisher describes as an anthology, a diary, a memoir and a collection of poems.    The results are certainly interesting.

Ellams is a Nigerian, who left his country with his parents and moved to London.   He then went to Dublin, and then back to London.   His family was also remarkable..   His father was Moslem and his mother, Christian, and he had a twin sister.   Anyone who knows about Nigeria will be aware that a marriage between a Moslem and a Christian would not be received well by either community.   Anyone who has read Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” will know that the birth if twins could signify that one of them was a spirit child.

Ellams wants his poetic responses to the chosen British poems to be firmly rooted in his Nigerian culture, which is vibrant and noisy and outgoing.   These are not words that you would necessarily connect with British culture, and so the response poems contrast quite strongly to the originals that have been chosen.   That is part of the joy of the book.   For instance, Jo Shapcott’s poem about sheep shearing is contrasted with the preparation of a ram being sacrificed for the Eid celebration.   These are both poems about strength, about manliness, but because of the nature of the event being described, they have a very different feel to them.   Another example is Robert Crawford’s “Transformer” which is about a railway travelling between Pictish stones.   The response is about a plane taking the author as a child from the land of Achebe away from Africa.   Each response poem is different from the original, but it is an appropriate response.   The hardest to read is the response to Pascale Petit’s “My Father’s Lungs” which is about the suicide of Ellams’ friend, Stephen.   It is still an appropriate response.

This is, in many ways, a strange book, but that very strangeness is one of its great attractions.   If you care about poetry, this is a book that you should read.

For the Joy of Reading: Inglorious Empire

The first thing to say is that this is not a history of the British Raj.   It is a book that arose from a debate at the Oxford Union.   It is a deconstruction of the arguments out forward that the British Empire was, in some way, good for the countries that were conquered.   That means that it is controversial, but it does not make it wrong.   It is obviously nonsense to argue that people are prepared for independence by robbing them of their independence, and when the arguments for the benefits of British rule are that stupid, it really is not necessary to refute them.

So let us look at the arguments, and see if we can test them.   This is what Tharoor sets out to do, and it is very instructive that the arguments advanced for the benefits of British colonialism do not generally hold up.

When Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the English East India Company (Scotland being a separate country at the time) it was not that she envisaged the creation of an Empire.   This would have been ridiculous.   Her contemporary, ruling most of the Indian sub-continent, was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.   He ruled one of the most populous and prosperous states in the world at that time.   The Mughal Empire was one of the great intellectual centres, and the Mughal army was formidable.   Elizabethan England, along with their Dutch allies, were involved in a long and debilitating war with the Spain of Philip III.   He, as King of Portugal, controlled the East Indies spice trade.   The Dutch East India Company had been making inroads into this monopoly, and Elizabeth wanted to secure her share of the profit at no cost to herself.   So she issued a royal charter and sent an ambassador to Akbar the Great.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was very little change.   The British, under Charles II, secured Bombay as the dowry for his Portuguese wife, and opened some trading posts in the South Indian states, independent of the Mughal Empire.   But very little changed until the enfeeblement of that Empire was demonstrated by the invasion of the Persian army under Nadir Shah, the storming of Delhi and the seizure of Mughal treasures, including the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.   Meanwhile, the French had arrived in Pondicherry and came into conflict with the British in South India, based at Madras (now Chennai).   The decisive moment came when the British East India Company and the French were allowed to recruit armies in the Indian sub-continent.

This is one of the areas where I would argue with Tharoor.    If the British had not colonised India it is likely that the French would have done so, and that would have altered the course of European history.   The riches of India would have poured into Versailles, not London.   It is probable that the French monarchy would not have been forced, because of bankruptcy, to reconvene the States-General and the French Revolution would not have happened.   The prospect of an India not subject to colonisation does not seem likely to me.   That however is a minor quibble because history deals with what happened, not the various possibilities that did not happen.

There are a number of factors that changed British attitudes to India.   Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the East India Company the control of Bengal.   With that came a rapacity that drained India of resources, in which Clive himself led the way.   The sudden access to wealth of the employees of the East India Company made them good marriage material, and so young women arrived by the boatload, in what became known as the “fishing fleet”, in search of suitable husbands.   This changed attitudes considerably.   Young men had, prior to this, formed liaisons and even married Indian women.   This stopped.

But how the Raj was created is not Tharoor’s subject.    His subject is how it behaved.   The argument of the apologists is that it gave India good government, democracy, peace and security, transportation, an international language and cricket.   Tharoor demolishes this.   It is no accident that the term that the British used for themselves in India, the “Sahib Log” was translated as “master race”.   Indians were denied access to the higher echelons of government and when they were employed, they were paid at a vastly inferior rate to the British counterparts.   As for democracy, this depends on how you define it but for most of the period that the British ruled India, the electorate in Britain was limited to men of a certain income.   The British also ensured that Indian industry was impoverished by exporting raw materials (jute, cotton etc.) from India to places like Manchester and Dundee, converting them into sacking, clothes and other goods, and then selling them back to India at vastly inflated prices.   This was why the railways were built, not to facilitate the transport of ordinary people.   Where the transport of people was concerned it was in moving people, mainly women, from the heat of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the cool of Simla in the summer months.   This is the society described by Rudyard Kipling in his “Plain Tales from the Hills”.   The British also exacerbated through their policy of “divide and rule” the religious differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems.   This was to have disastrous consequences during the Partition of 1947, because it made partition a certainty and left millions stranded on the wrong sides of the border in both the Punjab and Bengal.

As for giving India an international common language, this was because the colonial masters could not be bothered to learn the already existing languages of government in India.   They also wanted to impress upon Indians joining the governing classes the “superiority” of British culture.   [Tharoor does not say this, but when the English settled in what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries (Common Era), they called the natives Welsh, which means foreigners, in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.]   Their attitude to Indic languages was one of arrogance, dismissing the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Vedas as insignificant and primitive.

This argument is developed over the 249 pages of the book, and is backed up with extensive footnotes.   The basic attitude of the Raj can be summed up quite easily: We are white, and they are not.

This is not a book that will go down well with Brexiteers, with those nostalgic for the glories of Empire, with Daily Mail readers and others of that ilk.   If, however, you do not fit those categories, it is a book that will give you many a moment to pause and think.