Ward Moore: Bring the Jubilee

August 8, 2020

613q34K95KL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_     Here is a curiosity, written in the year I was born, and which I have just read for the fourth time: a counter-factual, or alternative history, in which the Confederacy wins the Battle of Gettysburg and thus the American Civil War, which becomes the War of Southron Independence.

The novel tells the tale of a strange, rootless and wandering character, Hodge Backmaker, who lives in the backward and rundown northern part of the continent, seventy years after the end of the War. One of the best things about this novel is the sense of atmosphere: the economic and social decay and depression is sketched out initially and never stops being gradually fleshed out into a very convincing picture, and because the Confederacy is both wealthy and remote, we learn relatively little of life there. The northern states operate a system of indentured labour, where the poor basically sell themselves into serfdom in order to survive.

The alternative history genre is a curious one, and one that has attracted me because of the ‘what if’ question, which, in many ways links to the broader genre of utopias: would our world be a better place if x had happened instead of y? And there is an interesting proto-utopian element in this story, a commune of scientists, researchers and intellectuals who escape the grimness of life in the north in their settlement at Haggershaven, and to which our hero eventually finds his way by a long and circuitous route, as a serious academic historian of the era of the Civil War.

What is also intriguing about the novel is the wealth of interesting and eccentric characters and the philosophical conversations they have. The plot itself, and its development, is so very unusual and unexpected that it hooks and grips, even though it’s not particularly action-packed, suspenseful or exciting. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve fairly quickly forgotten all about the book except for a memory that it’s really good and I’ll read it again one day.

The denouement isn’t particularly original, either, depending as it does on the now-famous, so-called ‘butterfly paradox’ in time-travel tales, but again, it’s very skilfully done as our hero historian travels back to see how, exactly, the South came to win at Gettysburg.

It’s a minor classic of its type and well worth your attention.


Harry Harrison: A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

August 2, 2020

91ZDD32iqlL._AC_UL320_     I’m not sure what made me return to this slim novel that I last read 27 years ago. I have a fascination with the genre called alternative history and recently picked several out from my shelves to come back to. Here, the American colonies’ revolt against Great Britain failed and George Washington was executed as a traitor; one of his descendants is an engineer involved in a project to build a tunnel to carry trains under the Atlantic in a world that has atomic power but no internal combustion engine…

We are in 1973, and trains can only manage 150mph. Britain leads the world in technology, including nuclear-powered trains. It seems almost quaint, in our current post-industrial wasteland, that a writer in 1972 could have pictured our country like this in the future, such was the promise of those long-gone days when we had developed the TSR2 and also Concorde…

It’s almost possible to see where the steampunk vision of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s amazing The Difference Engine (a far, far better novel set in an alternative Victorian era) came from, in this science-focused tale, with its Boy’s Own Paper-style heroes and the rivalry between the American engineer Washington and the British Brunel as they strive to build the tunnel and Washington strives also to win Brunel’s daughter.

It’s poor stuff, I’m afraid, almost embarrassing. The characters are thin, cardboard cutouts reminiscent of the worst SF from the early days. Plot drives everything, along with pseudo-science, and there’s precious little plot to engage the reader, with almost no suspense, tension or uncertainty; technology overcomes everything without much effort and the evil saboteurs – French? German? no, merely a blackmailed capitalist – easily thwarted. And Washington is knighted for his successes and gets the girl, and surprise, surprise, the American colonies are granted their independence when Washington asks the Queen… Gordon Bennett!!


Urszula Muskus: The Long Bridge

July 20, 2020

51zCItVj88L._AC_UY218_     The generation of Polish exiles from after the Second World War has virtually died off now, the people and their sad stories largely forgotten. I’m only aware of it because of my origins, and there is no way to sensitively phrase the idea that my father had an ‘easier’ time than many of his fellow-countryfolk – only two years in a Stalinist concentration camp, hundreds of miles of trekking, avoiding starvation and disease eventually to reach Britain via Persia and South Africa. Then never going home or seeing his parents again… Some of his comrades did return after the war, lured by homesickness and propaganda. They disappeared.

Too few of the Poles who suffered when their country was wiped from the map in September 1939 after a secret agreement by two international thugs (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) have consigned their stories to print so that the memories of those days and their aftermath may be preserved. I have slowly amassed a small collection of these over the years, and Urszula Muskus’ story is one of the more remarkable of these.

For starters, it’s a woman’s story and there are fewer of these, and in many ways women, with their children, had a harder time than their menfolk who were mostly soldiers and in some vague and notional way treated as POWs by Stalin’s henchmen, or else were intellectuals and so quickly murdered. Most of the ordinary footsoldiers eventually found their way to Britain, then to battle at Monte Cassino, Normandy or Arnhem. Mothers, wives and children seem to have been dispersed much more widely across the vastnesses of the Soviet Union; their journeys to some kind of freedom were so much longer and more difficult; I am still discovering new routes that they took… And being civilians, as well as technically Soviet citizens, made their lives harder.

Urszula Muskus was carted off into imprisonment with her family; although she did not find out until much later, her husband was shot soon after because he had been involved in Poland’s war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Briefly she was involved with the formation of General Anders’ army in 1942 before being spirited away by the secret police and sentenced to ten years hard labour for ‘espionage’. Having served out her sentence she was then sent into internal exile until an eventual amnesty allowed her to leave…sixteen years of her life taken away, her children growing up away from her.

What impresses most is the measured, factual tone of her narrative, and her innate good will: nothing seems to throw her, although of course the account is written with many years of hindsight and reflection. She retains her sensitivity to the beauties of nature – and there are many in the depths of Kazakhstan, where she spent most of her time – despite the privations, clearly seeking and managing to derive spiritual comfort and support from them. Through a litany of personal tragedies – separation from her husband and children being only the beginning – her strength of character comes across very powerfully, as does the utter inhumanity and perversion of Stalin’s gulag system. And there are many kind and like-minded people of all nationalities she encounters, sharing her life with briefly until they are separated again at the whim of the authorities. In her summative comments and reflections on her experiences in the closing chapters there is no bitterness at what she has had to endure; life goes on in a new place, and she is at last reunited with her children who have long been in England.

One of the reasons so many of these stories have vanished into history is the understandable unwillingness of so many to recall and recount what they went through: my father let small details and general facts be known, but little more. What he and his Polish comrades used to talk about among themselves in Polish I never knew, and he wouldn’t say. But I think it’s really important that these stories not be forgotten, and books like this preserve them.


Learnt in lockdown

July 15, 2020

I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year at the start of lockdown (no surprise there!) and thought I’d keep my own journal of this year’s experiences; that resolution lasted a few days, as there was so little to record. All the days were the same, melting into an endless fudge of time, so that frequently I cannot recall what day of the week it is, and end up at the end of a month wondering where the hell it went. However, after several months of nowhere near as much reading as I thought I might be doing, I have found myself taking stock with a longer-term perspective:

I miss: grandchildren very much, all the people I used to meet in my language classes (Zoom is there but no substitute for real interaction and company), my weekly yoga session – I’m getting stiffer – and the spiritual support of my local Quaker meeting (again Zoom to the rescue but see immediately above).

News: early on one of my daughters told me that now was the opportunity to get back in touch with all those people I’d lost contact with over the years. An excellent idea, as when you reach my age you’ve certainly managed to be out of touch with quite a few people, and the initial enthusiasm affected those I got in touch with, so we have made up some lost time. However, things are now quietening down again.

Stuck: initially to within a mile radius of our house, latterly we have been allowed exercise further afield, and this has compelled me to discover the walking possibilities near to where I live, which I have neglected for years in favour of further afield. But – first world problems, I know – I have sorely missed my travels overseas, my spring walking in the lovely Ardennes, and constantly making plans for my next adventure. As a solo traveller and walker it’s even harder: to perhaps fall ill a thousand miles and a couple of days’ drive away from home is not something to risk lightly. This has, for me, been the most frustrating part of the whole COVID experience.

People: I have been much heartened by the kindness of neighbours and their concern for whether we are OK – clearly we count as “elderly” – there are WhatsApp groups I can be in touch with and numerous leaflets have also offered help. I have also seen thoughtlessness, by those who ignore the concept of safe distancing when I’m out and about taking exercise, particularly some joggers and cyclists who are so wrapped up in their own little world that they don’t see others…

Shopping: I have explored new ways of getting those things we need, as well as new ways of doing without: lots of money has been saved as the realisation that I have enough has anchored itself even more firmly. And once I had sourced a home delivery of decent whisky, that was it!

Politics: I have always been pretty cynical here, but it has become even clearer over the last few months that there are some countries that seem to care about the welfare of their citizens and act accordingly, and others that don’t give the proverbial. When we are talking about about risks of life and death for many people, the sense of individual powerlessness grows very strong. Here in England, the wealthy and powerful are once again saying very clearly that they can and will do what they like, and the rest of us can fend for ourselves (polite version there!).

Planet: the news about the dire state of the planet and its future has grown ever worse over the lockdown months: vast mounts more plastic being used and thrown away in the name of being cleaner and safer, greater use of cars because public transport isn’t safe. What on earth are we going to do?

Gratitude: for being healthy and safe thus far, and more than anything for being able to be just that little bit further distanced from the world, and therefore perhaps safer, because we are retired. On the other hand, as we are frequently reminded, being older isn’t such a good thing here…

I wish you safety and sanity, dear reader.


Geraldine Schwarz: Those Who Forget

July 15, 2020

61udheakoXL._AC_UY218_    71n8k53ll6L._AC_UY218_     I read this book in French, having come across it on a French website, and found myself cynically thinking, ‘here’s another really important book that will never make it into English’. But I’m pleased to admit I’m wrong as it’s due to be published here in September, as the illustration shows.

Géraldine Schwarz is of French and German parentage, and she explores and documents the amnesia that overtook entire nations after the Second World War: the French blotted out the shame of their collaboration with the Germans and their eager assistance with the deportation of the Jews, pretending that their Resistance was far greater than it actually had been. Germans, only too glad to have the war finally over, ‘forgot’ how they had almost all aided and abetted the Nazis’ insane and evil plans by remaining silent, becoming what Schwarz calls ‘Mitläufer’ – those who go along with… Her origins allow her to anchor a good deal of her investigations in her own family’s history on both sides, and much of what she explains illuminated for me things I had been vaguely aware of in my younger years.

Nazi leaders were judged and condemned at Nuremberg, but collective guilt and fellow-travelling was swept under the carpet of ignorance: Hitler and his top henchmen could thus be seen as a ‘criminal gang’ who had managed to ‘take over’ Germany, and lesser fry could be exculpated. Of all the Allies, the Americans were the most vigorous in their pursuit of war crimes but ultimately they all allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the scope of the task of de-Nazification and overtaken by the needs of the Cold War. Because their own situation was so dire in the immediate post-War years, it was harder for ordinary Germans to feel any guilt about what they had allowed to happen to Jews. It was shocking to learn of the wholesale whitewashing of everyone’s Nazi past – including the Wehrmacht and many of its military ‘heroes’ – under the Adenauer government, and the acceptance of all this by the Western Allies.

Coming to terms with the evil had to be done if a healthier society was to develop, and the way this happened in Germany was most interesting. Ordinary Germans had to have known and been implicated in what happened to Jews if only because there were many public auctions of Jewish property after the owners had fled abroad or been deported, and the origins of the goods were obvious, auctions often taking place in the recently vacated apartments themselves.

French anti-semitism was cultural rather than racial, the anti-semitism that had resulted in the scandalous Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century; there was also the more silent anti-semitism of the US and Britain who did not use the knowledge they had of the ongoing extermination programme to make any effort to disrupt or halt it. It’s also important to note that there are no recorded instances of Germans being executed for refusing to carry out orders connected with the extermination programme: they may have been demoted, received a military punishment, had promotions blocked, but that was as far as it went.

The breadth and scope of the book impresses as Schwarz shows how German attitudes were shaped and developed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the coming to maturity of a new generation of citizens: it was these generations who had grown up after the war who started asking the necessary questions of and about their forebears. Schwarz is very good on how subsequent generations challenged the willed amnesia, and revealed the truth and reality of Nazi times in the country. According to Schwarz it was the fact that the challenge of facing the past, and changing attitudes came from within German society and not from without, that ultimately made it so powerful and effective. She also addresses the issue of relativism, in comparison with Stalin’s crimes, a favourite trope of apologists for German warcrimes and Holocaust deniers. It took the French even longer to come to terms with their shameful Vichy past but eventually they did. Schwarz’ dual nationality allows both trenchant analysis and also sensitivity to the human factor in people’s actions and denials, without excusing any of this.

I was not aware of the deliberate obfuscation by Austrians of their Nazi past, enthusiasm and collaboration; it took far longer for them even to admit that they had been Nazis, sheltering as they did behind the idea that they had been occupied by, rather than welcomed the Nazis. The situation, although a little more complex, was similar in Italy, where there are even now extreme right-wing and openly fascist groups and parties in power. Schwarz’ concluding analysis is right up-to-date and a serious warning to us all, with the growth in power and influence of the far right across the entire EU. Truly, we are living in dangerous times, and in danger of forgetting the past.


Maryanne Wolf: Proust and the Squid

July 2, 2020

91T9T2C1FjL._AC_UY218_     Something prompted me to return to this fascinating book on what happens to the brain when we learn to read, or indeed, if for various reasons we have difficulties with the process, such as dyslexia. It probably never occurs to us that, although we are born with brains wired for us eventually to develop speech, this is not true of reading or writing, processes that every human needs to learn from scratch. The open architecture of the brain allowed the possibility of humans developing writing and reading…

And then we must take into account the transformative power of these last two achievements on humans and their societies, compared with those which are only oral.

Wolf explains pretty clearly – to this lay and unscientific reader – the astonishing complexity of the processes which take place in the human brain, first in the process of learning to read, and then, when we are readers, in the processing of the texts we read.

Initially, humans developed representative and repeatable signs which could be learned, and eventually derived more sophisticated alphabets where the complete array of sounds could be mapped onto signs or letters. It was fascinating to discover that the human brain functions differently if it has to process ideograms in languages like Chines or letters in languages like ours. Equally, the regularity of an alphabet in the way it maps sounds to writing can lead to earlier fluency in reading: English orthography does not help us here!

There are more interesting historical and philosophical questions for us to reflect on, too: did the alphabet, leading to reading and writing, liberate humans from the hard work involved in sustaining an oral tradition (remembering everything and ensuring it was all passed down accurately through the generations), and thereby allow more complex thought? It may be that writing changed the way we think…

Apparently Socrates was very wary of reading and the written word, feeling that it was dead (thoughts and ideas frozen by being committed to paper), inflexible (once written down it is canonised, in a way) and that it destroys memory (look, for instance, at how little we expect school students to memorise texts such as poems nowadays). And, ironically, Socrates’ thoughts only survive for us now over two millennia later because Plato wrote them down…

Wolf is also very interesting on problems with reading – those often grouped together conveniently under the general heading ‘dyslexia’ – again seeking to explain what happens differently, often much more slowly, in the brains of those faced with such difficulties. It becomes very technical, although to realise that there are differences in how dyslexia affects people according to their language I found very interesting, and I also realised how helpful some of this material would have been early on in my career as a teacher.

There are implications in all of this for our future, which Wolf does not neglect: what changes may be being wrought in the human brain at this very moment with the move from printed to digital text, and the different ways that text can now be used and consumed? She contrasts immediacy with critical effort, and I think that this is an important area for further reflection and consideration; there is a certain kind of ease in the use of digital text which makes me ‘uneasy’. I can recall being unnerved when students used to say to me – of an older generation used to remembering and recalling things at will – “Oh, I don’t need to learn/ know that, because I can look it up…” Where might that lead our species, eventually?


On world-beating…

June 24, 2020

Warning: politics ahead

We’ve had a lot of talk here lately of all the ‘world-beating’ things we’re allegedly doing as a nation, and although pretty much all of the talk is palpable nonsense (I eschew stronger language in my blog) it has set me thinking about why, as a nation, we are so blindly stuck in our glorious past. I do not claim to write as a historian…

We were once the mightiest empire of its time on the face of the globe, a power, it seems, largely based on our naval might, temporary technological superiority due to the country being the cradle of the industrial revolution, and our subjugation of nations into colonies which we could then pillage at will. There were other naval-based empires run from small-sized countries at the time – Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands once colonised and exploited sizeable areas of the globe, too. They gave up their empires and their pretensions, too, once the wheels of history moved on. We haven’t…

If we want to talk about empires today, then the picture is rather different. Three are based in large nation-states with enormous military might: the USA, Russia and China. There is a fourth pretender solely on the economic front: the EU. These modern-day empires have size and consequently economies of scale, plus a vast hinterland to consume production on their side; they do not possess colonies as did empires in the past, for this is economically inefficient; they certainly exploit client-states. And they do not enjoy the enormous technological advantages that the empires of the past had over the rest of the world, which is now far more inter-connected. And then there is Japan, an outlier, another small island-nation, and economic powerhouse of production – how unlike our own island…

So somewhere in all this is the inability of Britain’s people or its rulers fully to grasp how much the world has irreversibly moved on. We are a small island, a small nation, that is soon to be all on its own. We cannot easily emulate the successes of the two other ‘going-it-alone’ nations in Europe, Switzerland and Norway, because our population is so much larger than theirs. And yet, so many imagine that we can recapture those glory days of the past. Our military power is totally dependent on NATO, and so, indirectly, the USA. Our manufacturing base has been allowed to disappear, because not important. We can offer world-beating (perhaps) financial services, which are parasitical on other things and do not enrich the nation as a whole, but even that is uncertain.

I reach an understanding of where we are now, and I do not see why we cannot collectively accept it and act on it in a way that would benefit out 60 million people. We have glorious moments and shameful ones in our past; other nations have been rather better at acknowledging both strands of their histories. We didn’t defeat the Germans single-handedly in two world wars; we didn’t bring the benefits of civilisation and our way of life to millions in our colonies.

If we are to look forward, then we need to accept the limitations of being a Ruritanian monarchy with a system of government two centuries out of date and a system of class privileges far older than that. We need to realise that our future has been shaped by the USA, with whom – perhaps unfortunately – we share a similar language, and whose madhouse ideas therefore appear here rather too quickly for careful reflection and consideration. We need to give up our nuclear status, our world-power dreams and accept that we are a small and quite easily-ignored island off the coast of Europe, whose best prospects are likely to develop through close co-operation rather than rivalry with our neighbours. We need to give up on the idea of being ‘world-beating’ at anything, because it’s not very likely: co-operation is a much more likely guarantee of future success.

I’m not holding my breath…


Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice

June 24, 2020

4154mFOeD9L._AC_UY218_     Lockdown entertainment has been a little thin on the ground as far as we are concerned, and so we seized the opportunity to re-enjoy the famous BBC-TV production of Pride and Prejudice which was repeated over six weeks recently. It remains a superb adaptation of the novel which has stood the test of time, a tribute to the skills of Andrew Davies’ screenplay, and yet, it is just that – an adaptation – and it sent me back to re-read the novel itself, which I hadn’t done for quite a number of years, with a view both to evaluating Davies’ skill and detecting what he inevitably had to strip away to get Austen’s novel down to six fifty-minute episodes.

He retains as much of her dialogue as possible; this shows. And what we inevitably lose is Austen’s narrative style, in particular the difference between actual speech and Austen’s particular variety of reported speech, which at once feels like we’re inside the speaker’s mind or consciousness, but upon closer reflection makes us notice that Austen is actually commenting and shaping our response to the character and events. There are places where you have to recreate the dialogue yourself, to imagine actual words, from the slanted account Austen is actually giving of a conversation… this is very subtle and very clever, and easy to miss completely if you read too quickly, without reflecting.

Jane Austen was a good deal funnier than I remembered, and there was so much more depth and detail in the key conversations between Elizabeth and Jane, and between Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte Lucas. It became evident that the crucial development of Elizabeth, her coming slowly and maturely to greater self-knowledge and self-understanding cannot possibly be articulated on screen, and yet is perhaps the most important strand of the story. It is presented through her thoughts, whereas the similar growth in self-awareness of Darcy is revealed in dialogue, conversation between the two of them.

Then there is the difference between a novel, written to be read, consumed, enjoyed at one’s own pace, and a television adaptation, to be shown as a continuous episode (yes, I know you can pause and come back and rewind and all that stuff, but it isn’t the same!). There is a greater intensity of emotion and feeling which comes from reading the story, no matter how skilful an adaptation is for the small screen. You can pause and reflect, flip back to an earlier conversation, have a discussion with someone else about the situation…

I found myself looking out for and noticing small things as I read. There is the ‘will she get her man or not?’ which is paralleled in both Jane’s and Elizabeth’s stories, a trope which is brought to perfection in the later novel Persuasion. There is the cynical question, is it Darcy or Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with? This time, I felt convinced that it was Darcy at Pemberley, on his own home territory that she falls in love with. The place makes the man: Darcy is a fish out of water in other settings, along with other faults which Elizabeth clearly enumerates. Had she wanted to, surely Jane Austen could have had a character we liked less than Elizabeth fall in love with a place rather than a person, but it’s not what happens here… at least that’s my opinion this time around.

Proposals are done privately in Austen’s novels: we don’t hear Bingley put the question, nor Darcy. The happy outcome is reported, obviously, but this will not do for television, so dialogue (and a kiss) has to be scripted, and this is where screen adaptations inevitably (but briefly) fall down for me.

A final note: I was much more aware, this time around, of Mrs Gardiner as the matchmaker though her conversations with Darcy when Elizabeth is not around – subtly done. And ironical, in that it’s Mrs Bennet’s sister who helps to bring about what she herself singularly fails to do, her daughter’s happiness. There’s always something new in a Jane Austen novel, even at the n-th reading!


Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: a tale for our times

June 18, 2020

81HNUy7Y7iL._AC_UY218_     I’ve read this – Eco’s second mediaeval masterpiece – several times, but for the first time in English, as when the novel was first published, the French translation came out a year before the English one. But I’ve wanted to read it in English for a long time, as Eco himself praised his translator William Weaver so highly. And it was very good, and also had me reflecting on my reading of French and my decreasing fluency with age in that language, for initially I found the English version of the novel much lighter, more flowing and easier to read…

What you have to wonder and marvel at is Eco’s total mastery of the mediaeval world, the confidence and knowledge which allows him to weave in every aspect of its ways of being and thinking into his novel… history, geography, theology, you name it, he can present it all from the mediaeval perspective.

From the outset, it’s a story about languages and understanding them, as Baudolino the hero has the ability quickly to learn and communicate in any dialect; given the travels and adventures he is to become involved in, this is a necessary. Along with this goes his ability to make things up, and for them then to become real and believed by many: this mediaeval trope has clearly reappeared in our less rational times…

As Constantinople burns and is looted once again, in the early thirteenth century, Baudolino rescues an official of that city and regales him with his life story, although we are constantly invited to be sceptical of this story-teller, who moves so seamlessly from fact to invention, from things that are to things that ought to be – and the thing is that, if something ought to be, then it surely is, somewhere, if only we knew where to find it. What you imagine as a possibility can become real just by fiat, by thinking of it; the borderline or demarcation is so much vaguer. This opens up a marvellous world of fantasy into which Eco weaves the mysterious death of the Emperor Frederick, and the quest for the (mythical?) Prester John, somewhere in the orient.

Having heard a rumour of this mysterious, very powerful Christian potentate somewhere in the East, Baudolino and friends make him real through writing letters from him to the Emperor, and convince themselves to go in search of him and present him with the holy Grail, a relic which they have ‘found’ – relics are manufactured to order in these times, six heads of John the Baptist in particular.

They encounter all sorts of weirdnesses – natural marvels and wondrous creatures – that were believed to exist in mediaeval times, such as those that adorn the frieze of the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi. The strange humanoid races that the travellers encounter as they approach the realm of Prester John are used to embody a huge range of Christian heresies, and open up an entire world of theological disputations such as were common in mediaeval times.

Again, Eco’s mediaevalism supports the nature of his story, which is not so much a novel with a plot and sharply defined characters (apart from the elusive eponymous hero) as a linear narrative in the style of the simpler and cruder mediaeval tale. As in mediaeval times, he does not shy away from copying others: thus there are links suggested between the Dalai Lama and the elusive Prester John, and at least one of the mysterious languages met in the orient is lifted from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s not for everyone and not an easy read, but if you’ve enjoyed The Name of the Rose, I highly recommend this as a marvellous yarn, full of surprises, knowledge and entertainment, and another example of Umberto Eco at his very best. And the exploration of truth, lies and make-believe is somehow alarmingly resonant today.


On racism, and fear of ‘the other’…

June 13, 2020

I have been aware of the anger in the US, and more widely, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, though I will admit that I have not been following all the events in close detail. However, as a white male, I have been made to think again about various issues. I’m old enough to remember the US riots of 1968, which are the nearest comparison I can come up with at the moment.

I could say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ But I’m not really a fit person to be a judge of that. I can say that in my teaching career I always sought to challenge what I perceived to be racist comments by any student or colleague, but I can’t say I challenged them all, because again, how can I judge clearly what constitutes a racist comment or statement?

When I start to think about racism, I find myself contemplating it as originating in the fear of what, or who is different in some way from ourselves, because we cannot understand or share their experience. When I travel, I feel more comfortable in lands where I am able to communicate with the people, even in a rudimentary way, and understand and be understood; I feel less secure if I cannot operate in the language. There are cultures that I experience as being so different from the one in which I grew up and have lived in, that, try as I might, I cannot really get beyond what feels like a very superficial knowledge and appreciation. China. India. Japan. For example. And at this point I have always felt that there are two possible reactions: I can fear and reject what I do not understand, or I can be curious and seek to know more. This latter is harder, and one does not always succeed. And I wonder what makes one person fear and then reject, and another curious, and seek to find out more…

I think that I provided places and times for the exploration and discussion of the subject of race at various points in my teaching. Racism in the context of the Nazi extermination of the Jews came up particularly through a novel called Friedrich, by Hans Peter Richter, which I always read with my year 8 classes. The story was more of a diary, year by year, of two boys growing up as neighbours and friends in a Germany which was gradually taken over by the Nazis, and how their stories and lives diverged. Particularly shocking to students was the final section, a historical chronology of all the steps taken by the Nazis against the Jewish population of the country. There was much discussion and much learning; the story was on a human scale, and ended with the boys at roughly the age the students themselves were.

But that text is a sideline, in terms of the issue I’m reflecting on here, which is racism towards people of colour, specifically in the US. Here, three books stand out for me: Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

81oPMLy71QL._AC_UY218_     To Kill A Mockingbird was a GCSE text much loved by teachers and students alike until Michael Gove in his wisdom decided that texts written by non-Brits didn’t count as suitable ‘English’ Literature. A more dim-witted, idiotic decision I cannot recall. I know that the novel is nowadays somewhat looked down upon for a rather patronising portrayal of a black man as victim. I feel that is a simplistic judgement, and one from an adult perspective, and reject it completely when considering the novel as a powerful text through which teenagers – the developing adults of the future – can be brought to explore and consider closely and carefully how racism is both ingrained and institutionalised, and how basically unfair and unjust it is: they are truly shocked by how the story develops, and its tragic outcome. And they also see young white children pushed to confront their own internalised racism. No, it’s not perfect but it is powerful and effective, and I don’t know of a better opening for such a thorny topic to be brought into the classroom.

511vJG6H5DL._AC_UY218_     Mark Twain’s two novels are rather different. Tom Sawyer is a story of nineteenth century boys’ fantasy fulfilment more than anything else: running away from home, skiving, pulling a fast one on teachers, seeing a murder and finding hidden treasure. But the ‘servant’ boy Jim is introduced: he doesn’t have that hard a life in a children’s storybook, but in the 1840s Missouri where the story is set, he’s obviously a slave, owned and exploited by white people. It’s in the next novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Jim comes into his own, for he becomes a runaway slave. That is a very serious matter, as is the fact that he’s aided and abetted by Huck, the town outcast who becomes his friend, and yet who, in the context of the times, wrestles with his conscience because he realises he’s committing a crime in helping Jim escape, thus ‘stealing’ another (white) man’s property. He also takes time to come to terms with the obvious fact that Jim is a human being on the same level as himself, rather than the inferior being and chattel that society considers him to be. Because Huck is a decent fellow, uncorrupted by ‘civilisation’, and in some ways a vision of the ideal American frontiersman, he does the ‘right thing’ and helps Jim escape from the slave states to freedom.

It’s a heartening tale, and one it’s today fashionable to dislike, condemn and even ban from schools and libraries, particularly in the US. It’s a book of its time – something we should not forget – and that means, among other things, that the infamous n-word is freely and liberally used. How on earth to deal with that in the classroom? In my experience, by full and frank discussion of that word, of offensive language and labels more generally, and what such language can do to people and ultimately lead to. Huck and Jim’s adventures together and their mental and moral struggles speak for themselves, and again open up a world of discussion, debate and awareness-raising, topics not to be shied away from in the classroom. In many ways, it is nowadays a very awkward and challenging read, as well as a very good story. My line always was, ‘if you can discuss it as sensibly and as maturely as you are able, then we will discuss it.’ And almost always, students rose to that challenge, and I respected them for that. I know I would say it, wouldn’t I, but in my experience literature provides many different openings for bringing the next generation of citizens to reflect on the world that they live in, as well as to appreciate the power of great literature.


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