70 years ago today, on the 27th of January 1945, Russian troops first entered Auschwitz concentration camp and the world at large started to understand the full scale of the horror of the Holocaust. Anatoly Shapiro, the Red Army Commander in charge of those troops who liberated that concentration camp simply said, “I saw the faces of those people we liberated.,..,,they went through hell.”
In the late 1970’s as a very young student, I visited Auschwitz while on a wonderful adventurous tour of countries behind what was then ‘The Iron Curtain’. But for all my joy and excitement as a young guy visiting East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, nothing has remained as firmly fixed in my memory as that visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau. Even now, 35 years later, I still find it impossible to describe how it felt. But I remember the huge glass partitions running the length of each hut, stacked floor to ceiling with spectacles in one hut, suitcases in another, toys in yet another. I remember going into a small museum-cum-cinema at Auschwitz and watching a Polish language documentary about the liberation of the camp – there wasn’t an English subtitled version so we went to watch it subtitled in French. When the images appeared, we realised it didn’t matter what the subtitle language was, for the images were beyond the reach of any words. Perhaps most chilling of all in my memory is the women’s camp at Birkenau nearby. Back then Auschwitz was in a sense maintained, and organised, as a memorial and a reminder for future generations. Birkenau on the other hand had been left to the mercy of the elements and time….broken windows, crumbling brickwork, waist high grass, doors missing or splayed on one hinge and that huge gaping entrance through double gates where a rail track had once been. And while I don’t think it was intended, the effect was much more sinister and chilling – if Auschwitz horrified and appalled the rational part of the brain, then Birkenau gave you the involuntary reaction – it literally made your skin bristle with fear and dread. The experience left an indelible impression on me.
I watched a news item last night about the few remaining survivors visiting Auschwitz as part of events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Ten years ago there were 1500 survivors. Now as they grow ever older, there are less than 300. There was the tragic yet uplifting reunion of 4 of the survivors in the photograph below who’d all been children at the time.
But it also made me realise how important Holocaust Memorial Day is, for as those survivor numbers grow smaller and smaller each year, the world will need to try much harder to remember what was done at Auschwitz and the other camps, in part remembering those who were let down by humanity to become its victims and in part as a reminder that we must not let this happen to any group of people ever again.
And of course books have such a crucial role to play in reminding us, and educating us, about the Holocaust. I know I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, be they works of fiction, biography, or historical study. In their own ways they’ve all had an effect on me at the time of reading them but one books stands apart. So as I’ve done before on my blog, I want to single out Primo Levi’s ‘If This Is A Man!‘ – if ever a book deserves the accolade of ‘life-changing’ then it’s this one for me. If you’ve not read it I urge you to do so. It’s a book as much about the capacity to survive as it is about the capacity to destroy and a book as much about our humanity as it about our inhumanity. I’ve read so many books in my life that I think are enlightening, entertaining and rewarding but ‘If This Is A Man’ is the only book I’ve ever read that I would absolutely label ‘indispensable’.
If you are interested in finding out more about If This Is A Man you should read Claire’s review at Word by Word or Howard Jacobson’s re-read review at The Guardian from 2013.
…………There’s a so-called award in Scotland for the most dismal town called the ‘Plook on a Plinth’ ( a ‘Plook’ is the delightful colloquial term we Scots give to a pimple!). The nominees for this award for the most
dismal, awful town in Scotland for 2014 pitted my home town of Greenock against Aberdeen. Which is the home town of that aforementioned ‘Ryan’s daughter’! For in this case it is Iris Ryan’s daughter, Janie, the central character in the wonderful Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma!!! So in some senses I was maybe destined to get on with this book for our home towns have much in common. But my praise for this wonderful novel is based on much more than just the affinity Janie Ryan and I both have with crap Scottish towns!
Janie Ryan is the next desendent in a line of Aberdonian fish wives, women who live on the sharpest edge of poverty……….. with the sharpest of tongues and the sharpest of attitudes to match. The story follows her from her birth to adolescence, through a succession of fresh starts, shitty houses and even shittier ‘new Dad’s’. Janie makes just about as inauspicious start to life as anybody can, with early flirtations with care and women’s refuges, and from that desperate start, things don’t get any better. Their early life is dominated by the spectre of Tony Hogan, an all-too-familiar blend of criminal ambitions and almost psychotic domestic violence. So begins the Ryan families ‘tour’ of the best that the North, South, East and West of the UK have to offer in the way of sink-housing-estates in dead-end towns, ranging from Aberdeen to Canterbury, Great Yarmouth to Coatbridge. And in each one its a succession of benefits offices, Social Security BandB’s, and diets shaped by corner shops and frozen food.
One of the things I loved most about this novel is the way poverty and the bloody hard life Janie and her family lead is almost a character in itself. It just pervades every bit of the novel, and it’s done without a hint of cliche or sentimentality – and as result it’s quite stark and very real but it doesn’t drag the novel down either – it’s certainly distressing to read but it doesn’t mean the novel turns into some grim-fest! Equally though, you can’t read this and not think about what it is actually like to be living in this kind of poverty, when the highlight for kids like Janie comes in the shape of pathetically ordinary treats like an ice-cream, or in the joy she finds in local libraries. And it’s not any different for her mother for hers is a world where you live on bread, margarine and tins of creamed rice all the way from Thursday to Monday waiting for the next weekly pittance of a dole cheque to turn up.
It’s also a novel that treads that fine balance between describing how desperate their lives are at times and giving out some hope for a better life for Janie – all without decending into the realms of schmaltz! Janie, her mother and her sister are such strong and believable characters you can’t help but root for them, overlook their faults, forgive them every time they fuck things up themselves and admire their ability to somehow get back up every time they are knocked down – and sometimes that’s literally by a nutter like Tony Hogan. So some of it is very uncomfortable, for these families don’t measure their luck in terms of whether or not there’s domestic violence but in terms of where it sits between the odd slap and grievous bodily harm. They live in worlds strewn with dog shit, used needles, loan sharks and handouts.
So it’s awful to read but for all the poverty, grime, violence and despair, it’s also incredibly uplifting in places for it’s as much a novel about family love and family loyalty. Those family bonds definitely waiver and at times they get stretched to breaking point but they never actually break. There’s a fierce determination to these characters, and though they are the first to recognise and brutally confront the flaws in one another, they are also the first to defend and support one another.
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream isn’t a novel to read if you are offended by the odd swear word here and there – from the first sentence it’s there in what might be appropriately termed ‘shitloads!’ But I think it works and it fits so it never felt like it was done for effect. Of course that might be something else I have in common with Janie Ryan for I once heard someone describe Glaswegians as people who could deliver a meaningful sentence of 10 words even when nine of the 10 words is ‘fuck!”. While I can see how it might put some people off, rather than be shocking, I thought it was the dialogue that made this book so brilliantly realistic to me.
Overall I loved this book – absolutely f…ing loved it! In fact I loved it so much, as soon as I finished reading it I went off and got the audiobook and entertained myself all over again as I walked the dog, listening again to the life story of Janie Ryan. And I discovered the audiobook is just as raw, just as gripping and just as fantastic to listen to as the book is to read.
So even if you’ve never been to Aberdeen or Coatbridge or Greenock, I’d thoroughly recommend you try ‘Tony Hogan’. It will give you a view about life in a place that might be in line for a ‘Plook On A Plinth!” and introduce you to women who will make you smile, cry and cringe all at the same time. I’ve frequently heard the joke that the only good thing to come out of Scotland is the M74 motorway to England – Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is a novel that shows just what a pile of shite that theory is!
Kerry Hudson’s “Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma” was published by Chatto and Windus and I bought my copy. The subsequent audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jane McFarlane and was produced by Random House Audiobooks.
To put not too fine a point on it, it’s a book that’s won an absolute shitload of awards and well deserved it is too! Among it’s accolades were a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award, the Green Carnation Prize and the Saltire Scottish First Book Of The Year Award. If you’re interested in finding out more about Kerry Hudson, she tweets a lot (often about food and recently storms in Buenos Aires!) and you can follow her @KerrysWindow – she also has her own site here which is well worth a look.
If you want to read other reviews of Tony Hogan they are plentiful – but as I’m a biased Jock, you might get a more impartial opinion, as well as a better class of review, at What Hannah Read and at UtterBiblio
Book Rating Out of 10! (You Can Find Info On My Rating Scale Here)
……..(Why Did The Romanian Stop Reading for the night????……To give his Bucharest! Old joke but a classic! Just occasionally I chunter on about something other than books…..here goes……!)
You wouldn’t think your average Glaswegian mother could compete with the genius and intellect of Stephen Hawking! But they could in one crucial area – while Stephen Hawking is still looking for The Theory of Everything, your average Glaswegian mother HAS ALREADY GOT a theory for everything!!!!! And in my family, the theory is that everything leads to jaundice! My mother had a long list of theories about things that would induce jaundice, including going outside with wet hair would definitely give you jaundice!!!!!!! And what’s worse, Glaswegian mothers expound these theories like ‘wet hair and jaundice’ with such certainty and confidence that other mothers believe them!!!!!!! And then repeat them to their kids!!!!!! Before you know it, there’s a whole neighbourhood of kids TERRIFIED of getting their hair wet!!!!
So with a tentative fear I might have the causal link between wet hair and a yellow tinge to my skin and eyes confirmed (years of brainwashing about jaundice doesn’t dissolve easily!), we went to watch The Theory Of Everything at the cinema last week. Not only is it a truly fantastic film there’s not a hint of drivel about jaundice anywhere!
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few weeks you’ll know everything about it. So I wI’ll spare you the details! But for any ex-rock dweller who happens on this post, it tells the love story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, from their first meeting as Cambridge students up to what’s pretty much the present day. It’s written from Jane Hawking’s perspective, based on her autobiography ‘Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen’. I’ve not read it but I definitely will now because………………….
The Theory Of Everything is magnificent….wonderful…..You name a superlative and it deserves it!!! Eddie Redmayne as Stephen is simply mesmerising and if anything, Felicity Jones as his wife Jane is even better! The story is fascinating and heart-breaking and uplifting all at the same time!
I know nothing about cinema so not only is there no point in me pretending I know anything about acting as an art, I won’t pontificate about locations, or lighting, or sound either. Instead I will simply say it looks great, it sounds great and it is……great! On top of the great story and performances I’d also give a special mention to the music. It’s not often I even notice a film score but I thought the music was just beautiful in places.
I absolutely loved The Theory Of Everything and so did my partner, so much so that on leaving the cinema she and another woman were having a debate about which of them had cried more!!!! I urge you, implore you, beseech you to go see it. You won’t be disappointed……… though you may well go through at least one box of tissues………. so go prepared because popcorn is useless for drying your eyes!!!!!
The Theory Of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, with David Thewlis ( fab!), Emily Watson and the brilliant Maxine Peake among others. It is directed by James Marsh and according to Wikipedia that fantastic music is by Johann Johannsson. It is on general release across the UK at the moment so if you are even the tiniest bit tempted, go see it!
……………………Four nights a week millions of us in the UK sit down to watch the TV soap opera detailing the lives, loves and discovering-that-the-woman-you-thought-was-your-sister-is-actually-your-mother-making-the-creep-who’s-just-attacked-your-wife-your-brother revelations that make up the London kitchen-sink drama that is EastEnders. My family are among those millions……and it’s awful, mostly sounding like it’s been scripted by cut and pasing a years worth of tabloid headlines and then getting it polished up by a committee at the end of a night out doing the legendary Circle Line Pub Crawl (i.e. seriously pissed up!)
As they watched, I was reading a stylish, engaging London kitchen-sink drama, and who is better qualified to write that than Peter Ackroyd, author of among other innumerable things, biographies of The Thames and also of London itself! And he puts those qualifications to great use, for Three Brothers is a cracking book!
Born a year apart on the exactly the same day and time in May, the brothers Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway begin life in the humble surroundings of 1950’s Camden Town. Their father is a disappointed and soon to be disillusioned man of literary ambition and their mother mysteriously disappears when the boys are young. So they essentially bring up themselves and each other, shaped in part by their personalities, in part by the streets that surround them and in part by their respective roles within the family.
The story follows their lives in alternating chapters as they grow up and grow increasingly apart. Harry moves into the world of journalism, Daniel into Cambridge academia and Sam drifts onto the streets of London. Their life stories are driven by their very different characters, Harry’s naked ambition, Daniel’s inverted snobbery and Sam’s introversion, which on the one hand drives them down very separate roads from a relatively young age and yet their lives are still interwoven, as if the unseen hand of fate is continually threading their lives together. This weaving their fates together could have been trite and tenuous, but it isn’t. Peter Ackroyd connects up their lives in ways that the characters themselves rarely see, but for the reader, it’s done just often enough, and in just the right places, for it to be a very clever, and very effective plot device.
And it’s all encompassed by the almost sinister and very harsh character of London itself. But it’s less about the city as a place in this book and more about the characters it attracts. It’s a city of risk, of top dogs, underdogs, chancers, winners, losers, bullies and victims. There’s an unsavoury underbelly of racism……. corruption……. racketeering……. prostitution……. you name it, if it’s unpleasant, the London of ‘Three Brothers’ has someone doing it! And those ‘someone’s’ are a collection of great, but dark and unsavoury characters, such as Asher Ruppta the corrupt slum landlord, and Sir Martin Flaxman a newspaper proprietor vile enough to make you cringe ( though perhaps that’s par for the newspaper proprietor course!!)
The only negative for me was that much as I loved the narrative and the characters, at times I found the style of the novel slightly cold. In those biographies of the Thames and of the City, Peter Ackroyd’s style of mixing an almost forensic, scientific approach to facts, with prose which was descriptive and imaginative really brought the river, and the streets to life. Yet in Three Brothers, that same style at times seemed to have the opposite effect, and for me it lacked a little bit of feeling and emotion and occasionally it drained the book of a sense of the feeling behind the menace or the helplessness or the despair. But it’s a relatively minor quibble, for the narrative fairly sweeps you along and for all the unpleasant characters and odd characteristics of the Hanway brothers, I was still riveted by the story of their lives.
Throughout the book there’s an air of loneliness and detachment. Even in the midst of a crowded city like London, the book creates a rather sad, lost in a sea of faces feeling for each of the Three Brothers. It’s that as much as anything that gives it such a gritty realistic feel, and combined with the fact that the story of each brothers life is rich and varied enough to keep you engrossed from start to finish, overall it makes ‘Three Brothers’ a terrific novel.
And while it might be damning it with the faintest of praise, Peter Ackroyd delivers a story here that the scriptwriters of East Enders can only dream of! If only my family were watching stuff as good as this it would be a much better use of their four hours a week!
Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Three Brothers’ was published by Vintage and my copy was bought with my own cash!
I can’t remember where I originally read about Three Brothers and then added it to my list of books to try, but on looking again now I think it was prompted by either this review at A Life In Books or from reading Alan Massie’s review in The Scotsman. Either way, if you are interested to find out more about Three Brothers, I’d recommend both reviews.
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)
……………I read a phrase in a book once which went something like
“From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand……..from the inside looking out it’s hard to explain”
It’s a challenge taken on, and mastered by Colm Toibin’s new novel ‘Nora Webster’, as it takes us into the head and heart of a woman looking out at her family, her life and her world.
Nora Webster is in her mid forties and is living in Enniscorthy in County Wexford in Ireland. It’s the late 1960’s and Ireland is on the cusp of the political change and strife which will shape it for years to come. But Nora’s change is a much more deeply personal one – recently widowed she has to come to terms with her grief, the growing up of her two young sons, Donal and Connor, and her two older daughters, the expectations of her neighbours and her extended family about “the widow’s role”, the need to earn money to keep her and her children, and the constant memories of her husband Maurice, who’s died at fairly young age of TB.
In terms of a plot there’s not much to it in a sense – the most exciting, edgy things which happen in it are Nora joining the union and her giving a “piece of her mind’ to the woman who terrorises the female office staff in the place where Nora works. But there’s no big bang plot here. The growing problems in Northern Ireland are there as part of the story – but they are in the background, on TV, in the conversations, or in her daughters emerging political and social views. But they are not central to the story which is instead very much focused on the minutiae of Nora’s life and her thoughts – she gets her hair dyed…….she joins a choir……..she goes into Dublin to shop. But it works because it’s beautifully written and it’s kept realistic and simple.
But that doesn’t mean it meanders. Nora is struggling to come to terms with Maurice’s death, fighting for control of her reactions and other people’s reactions to her as ‘newly widowed’. She’s having to juggle that effort to keep going with trying to manage the impact on her family, especially on her two young sons, one of whom has begun to wet the bed and the other has developed a stammer. And yet, even in these struggles, there is a gentle, almost lilting, dreamy quality to the writing that makes you want to cheer every step forward Nora makes, forgive every mistake she makes. She’s a character who brought out the alpha-male in me – she’s like a mid-twentieth century Tess of the D’Urbervilles!
It’s a novel which I found captivating, because the characters seem to be so real and alive. It’s also a novel that will no doubt resonate for many readers because it’s so sharply observed I think anyone would find references to their own childhood, family or home. I loved the speech patterns and rhythms in the dialogue, for it reminded me of my Gran….I grew up in a world awash with phrases like those in the book – full of “Och, now Nora!” and “Well!!!!! You should see that Peggy Gibney!”. It also perfectly captures the feel of community, good and bad, in a place like Enniscorthy – it’s rich in memories, a place where everyone knows (or at least thinks they know) everybody else and their business, and it’s a place where everybody has opinions about everything!
I’ve read a few of Colm Toibin’s novels and always enjoyed them. In some ways Nora Webster reminded me of Eilis Lacey in his novel Brooklyn in the way that both women have an underlying steel about them which belies the perceptions others have of them. There was also the obvious connections with his last novel ‘The Testament of Mary’ (which I LOVED!) not just in the fact that both characters were coming to terms with grief but also in the fact that they were having to adjust as much to the feelings of others as to themselves. And while I’m hardly qualified to make the judgement, he seems to me to be brilliant at capturing the heart and mind of a woman and I haven’t read any male author do it better than he does with Nora Webster.
In an age when much of our popular culture seems obsessed with histrionics and exaggerated expressions of emotion, this is a book that makes you realise there is every bit as much, if not more real drama, in everyday life itself. Nora Webster is a beautifully written, but nevertheless very ordinary story, about a very ordinary woman – and that’s what makes it, and her, so extraordinary. For my first book of 2015, it absolutely got my year off to a wonderful, magical start!
“Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin was published by Viking. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.
At the same time I also listened to an unabridged audiobook version of the novel which was produced by Penguin. It is magnificently narrated by the actress Fiona Shaw……
…….and her wonderful voicing of the characters added something extra special to this very special story. Again I bought that audiobook version from Audible.
Colm Toibin is of course a literary heavyweight these days so there are reviews in the press in abundance. However if you are interested in reading a bit more about the book, I’d recommend a few blogs instead of the broadsheets. There are again a lot of blog reviews of the book to choose from but I’d recommend those at Hair Past A Freckle (surely one of the best blog names ever!), Plastic Rosaries, and at Lady Fancifull
The novel had been some years in the writing, in some ways reflecting Toibin’s own mother’s life after the death of his father. Here he is being interviewed about the background to the novel in a video at The Guardian
In 2012, when I decided to introduce my own literature prize, little did I imagine just how universally ignored and overlooked it would become among book readers and authors alike – there’s no debate that both groups couldn’t care less what I choose – though you could debate which of the groups cares less!!!!! But what the hell – I still enjoy looking back and deciding what to choose as my book of the year, as I know many other bloggers do too!
For this year I set up my own rating scale and it’s certainly helped me decide, though as I read it back now I think I might have been a bit harsh in scoring some of the books I’ve read and bit generous in scoring others! (In other words sorry to Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman as in hindsight I think you might have been a ten!). In 2012, I found it difficult to choose between Madeleine Miller’s “The Song Of Achilles” and Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child”. But to a fanfare of trumpets and excitement I chose Ms Ivey to come and collect her free coffee on the worlds coldest station concourse! Alas she never showed! In 2013 it was easier as Richard Ford’s “Canada” was far and away better than anything else I read! Alas he didn’t show up either! Undettered however I’m holding another prize ceremony next week for my book of the year 2014!
During this year, I’ve read eight books that were all in my opinion the literary equivalent of the dog’s kahunas, each one scoring ten!!!!!
But to borrow from Orwell’s 1984 “All tens are equal to ten, but some tens that equal ten are more equal ten than others”!!!!!! So much as I absolutely loved every one of them, the ‘tens’ that were slightly less equal to ten than the others, but still thoroughly deserving their place on my list of my books of this year were:-
And so, as in 2012, this leaves me with two books that absolutely captivated, delighted and wowed me in 2014 above all others. But I can’t have joint winners as I can’t afford TWO coffees at Victoria ( yes I know there’s more chance of flairs and 1970’s mullet hairstyles making a comeback than of BOTH authors turning up to collect their prize – but you never know – and anyway as the proud owner of a 1970’s hairstyle AND flairs, if I had a choice I’d pick them making a comeback over the authors turning up!)
So the SECOND BEST book I read this year was the beautiful and really thought provoking ‘With A Zero At Its Heart’ by Charles Lambert. I just adored everything about this book – the layout, the typeface, the cover, the language…..I even liked the sheer physical feel of it in my hand. It’s a stunning book. I can’t praise it higher than to say that it was so good, it really did run my book of the year pretty close!
However for me the standout read of the year was the sheer joy of a book that is The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. I can’t really remember ever being so engrossed in a set of characters as I was by Bird, Snow Falls and Crow in this novel about the warring Huron and Iroqouis tribes in 17th century Canada, with the interference of French Jesuits thrown in. As I neared the end of it I was reading it on a train to work. I missed my stop at Sutton, got off at Epsom and changed trains to come back again. Getting even more engrossed I missed my stop at Sutton again, this time getting off at Hackbridge to get another train back to work! But it was worth it. I would have gone up and down that railway line all day if I could just have had this book to keep me company!
So those are my best reads of 2014. Read any of them? If you have let me know what you think. And if you haven’t, then I’d recommend any one of them, but above all I’d recommend The Orenda – if you are even in the tiniest bit tempted, give in because it will enthrall and astound you!
My prize ceremony will take place on the concourse of Victoria Station at around 7:30 am on Monday January 5th. I mention that not only in passing but as transport advice for my fellow commuters – if you normally use the station to commute I suggest you leave extra time for your journey in anticipation of the large crowd that will no doubt show up!
Mr Boyden………..see you there! I’m looking forward to it!
Not for the first time I went into the Waterstones in Sutton near my office on Friday. And it wasn’t the first time I’ve followed behind someone else into that Waterstones branch for it’s always busy. But IT WAS the first time I’ve ever gone into Waterstones behind a pigeon!!!!!! For there at my feet, waddling in through the open door, was a pigeon – and it didn’t stop there. It then did a couple of circuits of the tables where most of the promotion books are displayed! It obviously didn’t see anything it fancied so it just waddled back out the bookshop again! But it did get me wondering what it might have been looking for! So here’s my thoughts on the pigeon-bookworm’s possible books to buy list!
The Pidge-on The River Kwai! By Pierre Boulle
The Coo-coo Calling by Robert Galbraith!
The (Pigeon) Drop by Dennis Lehane
Evangelista’s Fan-tail by Rose Tremain
A Little Of What You (Pigeon) Fancy by HE Bates
At Home-Ing Thrush Green by Miss Read
The Leopard – A Harry Pigeon-Hole Thriller by Jo Nesbo
The Thirty-Nine Steps by Pi-John Buchan!
The Dove-Inci-Cote by Dan Brown
The (Pigeon) Carrier by Sophie Hannah
The Wings Of The Dove by Henry James
The Art Of Pigeon Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein
…………………………………………..Among the various events to mark the centenary of World War One, there are a new series of War Poems on display across London Underground. The selected poems include work by three British poets, Ivor Gurney, Siegfried Sassoon and one of my favourite poets Edward Thomas, alongside works by Guillaume Appollinaire, Georg Trakl and Guiseppe Ungaretti. Excerpts from poetry on our underground trains is nothing new but there are some variations this time from the usual approach. The excerpts from Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire are in their original language with an English translation alongside, and as well as being displayed on Tube trains they are now being displayed in stations and on overground trains. The excerpts from the six selected poems are all on the theme of reconciliation and brotherhood.
As I commute into and across London, I like to look out for the works. Strangely I’ve only come across the poems of Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire but I guess as I mainly use the Central, District, Northern and Victoria lines, the work of the British poets must be elsewhere in the network. It’s surprising I haven’t come across the others though given I’m here EVERY day and given the fact that London Underground produced around 500 posters of each poem! Of the three I have seen, I found the excerpt from Ungaretti’s poem ‘Brothers’ particularly moving. In a few lines it creates such a feel of tension and fear, and it conveys the precariousness of life for soldiers at the front line.
What regiment are you from
Word trembling in the night
A leaf just opening
In the racked air
Of man face to face
With his own
The War Poems on the Underground series is part of a long tradition of publishing poetry on the Tube, having started way back in 1986. The original idea was largely to bring it to a wider audience, celebrate great poetry and of course allow people to reflect on the poetry they had read. Whether it does or doesn’t achieve all these aims is I guess open to debate. I always look for it, and I do like to read it and reflect on what I’ve read for however long my journey lasts -and usually beyond. But I’m not sure how many of my fellow commuters take an interest in the poems – I like to think the vast majority at least notice them but I’m not so sure what proportion read them, consider them, or even enjoy them. But I always think it works on a similar principle to World Book Day – realistically not everyone who is given a book will actively engage with it, but even if only a tiny proportion do get into the book, or in this case, the poem, then I think it’s been worth it.
To accompany the six poems published on Tube trains, London Underground also published a larger booklet of war poetry which was distributed at stations. If you either don’t live in London or weren’t fortunate enough to pick one up you can still access the collection, which includes poems by Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Laurie Lee here. All of the poems in the larger collection have all been published on the Tube at some point in recent years, as the Tube usually publish at least one war poem each November as part of its ongoing commemoration.
The publication of the collection also marks the special connection of the Underground to the First World War. At the time the poems were announced and published in October of this year, London Undergrounds’ press release noted that in 1914-18 almost half of all the staff on the Underground enlisted and by the end of the war over 1000 of them had been killed. It’s again a chilling reminder of the devastating loss of life in the Great War.
So if you’re a London Underground user like me, have you spotted the poetry on our Tube trains and stations? And if you have, what did you think? ( And crucially where the hell are the poems by Sassoon, Gurney and Thomas?!) And if you’re not fortunate enough to have the daily joy of commuting into London(!) do they ever have public displays of poetry where you live?
………………………..Like the Cumbrian landscape in which it takes place, this is a book which overcomes its rather serious and bleak subject matter about a son’s last attempts to head off the full onset of his mother’s crippling dementia, with a narrative that rises way above any grim clouds and that inevitable fading of the light to become quite simply, a beautiful love story. There’s something very special, and very soothing about the way in which the book seems to summon up some of our darkest fears about growing old, lay them out starkly before us and then seems to say ‘don’t worry, – however difficult it might be, you’ll be with peopole who love you…..so it’ll be alright’.
John is a 71 year old, retired businessman making regular visits from his home in London to visit Mary, his mother, who is in a care home in Wigton in his native Cumbria. Despite his mothers increasing dementia and the distance, these visits become John’s lifeline to his mother and eventually to his own past. Mary’s recognition and awareness of John varies as the dementia takes hold and so after she calls out in distress one evening for her mother, Grace, John tries to help his mothers failing memory by reaching back to the past, recreating the story of her childhood and that of her mother Grace. His account of Mary and Grace’s history is lovingly reconstructed to try and engage Mary. But it’s almost entirely imagined, for alternating with the present day story of John and Mary, is Grace’s real story of the past, a woman who neither John nor Mary really knew. What unfolds is the heartbreaking contrast between the real and the imagined, for Mary was an illegitimate child born to Grace at a time when a single unmarried woman bringing up a child outside of marriage was simply unthinkable. Grace and Mary never have that mother-daughter relationship in the way John later describes it and yet the real and the imagined stories of Grace and Mary do have something in common – Grace’s love for her daughter which is unquenchable and unbreakable. The tragic difference is that in real life it was a love from afar, as a visiting family friend rather than the mother Grace longs to be at the time and which Mary craves decades later.
As John makes frequent trips to his mother’s bedside, the book unfolds John’s love for his mother as an only child, his reflections on his life now, in the past and to come, and the story he weaves as he tries to imagine what Grace and Mary’s relationship would have been. Grace’s story is of her own mother who she barely knew and her child, lost to the narrow moral values of the time in which she lived. As the book progresses John charts more and more of his mother’s illness, her surroundings and their history together. The present is there of course but it’s as much for it to be a trigger for a special memory or as a reference point to their past more than anything else – it’s noticeable that throughout the book you learn much about John’s thoughts and feelings about his past but his present and his immediate family are scarcely mentioned.
Melvyn Bragg has managed to take the fairly heavy storyline and turn it into something which has a continually light and gentle feel – almost tender. It’s a wonderful achievement when you think about the main character being a woman living out her final years in a care home, suffering the rapid onset of dementia. And of course, for me and no doubt for many others, that fear of dementia is an increasingly common and increasingly real fear too. But as dark and grim as the subject sometimes is, the book is anything but, because it’s just so beautifully balanced. So for example the awfulness of that dementia for Mary and John is balanced with the care in the home, the engagement of the care staff, and John’s patient recreation of the childhood Mary never actually had. Equally there’s a lovely balance between the story of Grace’s past and Mary’s present. For all that there is such tragedy and lost potential in Grace’s actual life story, with such a feel of ‘what might have been’, the sheer depth of the love between John and his mother in a sense actually makes up for it – as if ‘what might have been’ between Grace and Mary, is somehow compensated for in part by the ‘what it became’ between Mary and John.
It’s a book that has at its core that very unique relationship between a mother and her child. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong feel for that mother-child bond. Grace’s love for Mary is all-consuming and years later, John’s care of his mother is exactly the same. And yet it avoids becoming all a bit too ‘nice’ by giving the contrast of John’s relationships with his own family – they’re pretty much bit-part players throughout the novel. And as an almost two-fingered gesture to that monster dementia, it’s a novel which perversely seems to celebrate the power of simple everyday memories. I loved John’s recollections of his father, of their childhood home, of the way old photographs sparked reminiscing, of the way hearing snippets of music set John and Mary off remebering dancing, or singing much loved songs ( at one point John and Mary literally perform an all-action Hokey Cokey – and as ludicrous as it sounds it’s actually very moving!). So much of the book reminded me of the beautiful Elbow song ‘Scattered Black and Whites”.
In some ways Grace and Mary is about coming to terms with ageing, dying and our pasts. As I read it I kept thinking about Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – it’s as if the novel says that Dylan is partly right and we ought not to go too gently and meekly, but that he’s also partly wrong, for there’s no need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ either! Instead it seems to suggest we take up a position somewhere between the two!
And even though Grace and Mary is a very quiet, gentle read, it’s neither lightweight nor predictable. Far from it. It’s painful to read in some places for there’s a harsh, almost raw feel to the way that John reflects on his life now and as it was when he was a child, and of course if you do consider that spectre of dementia as I know I do, then it’s effect on Mary, and on her relationship with John and with everything else around her is both distressing and frightening. But ultimately it’s just so beautifully written. The characters are wonderfully drawn, engaging, interesting and real – and even their flaws have something gorgeously real-life about them. It’s also one of those rare books where the setting is almost a character in itself – Wigton might be dark, cold and bleak at times, but there’s a real sense of affection in the way Melvyn Bragg has also given beauty to both its scenery and its inhabitants – for this is a Northern England of big hearts and open arms.
I’ve long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg, ever since I stumbled across his novel Crystal Rooms many years ago. Now of course he’s a Lord, much heralded critic and broadcaster and what a work colleague once described for me as the most perfect combination of sex appeal and intellect. (………..I won’t comment on that beyond the fact that I didn’t share her opinion then and I don’t now – I think it’s me rather than Melvyn who is that perfect combination but that’s a debate for another day!) But setting all that to one side he is, amidst all his other talents, a great writer. At the time of publication for Grace and Mary some reviews compared it to Thomas Hardy – and its a comparison that for me Grace and Mary thoroughly deserves. I loved it so much that for me, this is the best Melvyn Bragg novel I’ve read….and a very last minute contender for the best book I’ve read in 2014!
My copy of ‘Grace and Mary’ by Melvyn Bragg was published by Sceptre in 2013. I bought it with my own hard-earned cash and well worth every penny it was too!
Surprisingly there aren’t a huge number of other blog reviews of Grace and Mary out there that I could find, but if you want to read what someone else thought of it, I liked this one at Dove Grey Reader.
After finishing the book I found out that Melvyn Bragg wrote the novel in the wake of his own mothers death from dementia. There’s an interesting article from May 2013 at Bryan Appleyard and an interview he did with the Guardian back in 2013
And if you don’t already know it, here’s a snippet of that Elbow track ‘Scattered Black and Whites’ in case you’re interested enough to give it a listen – you should – it’s wonderful!
Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)
…………. READING FICTION. READING POETRY. READING ROY OF THE ROVERS. EATING SCOTTISH MEAT PIES, QUOTING LINES FROM GREGORYS GIRL AND WORSHIPPING A MAN CALLED CANTONA – ALL WASHED DOWN WITH A SPLASH OF WORCESTER SAUCE. I CAME. I SAW. I CONCURRED.