Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Darling Oliver And The Artful Bastard Of Zim……..What I Thought Of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

………..In the great timeline of gangs or urchins – running the line between charming and menacing, I think it starts for me with Dodger and the lads, and their mild corruption of Oliver. From there, my time line of gangs and urchins passes through the Double Deckers,  Ralph, Jack and Piggy in Lord of the Flies, Danny, Smiffy and Plug in The Bash Street Kids, Chas McGill and his mates in Robert Westall’s “The Machine Gunners” and the menacing Wormsley Common Gang in Graham Green’s short story “The Destructors”.

One Of These Gangs Closely Resembles Gangs I Was In As A Kid - Clue Is Teeth!
The Bash Street Kids / Lord Of The Flies / The Machine Gunners / Oliver and Dodger! – One Of These Gangs Closely Resembles Gangs I Was In As A Kid – Clue Is In The Ears!!!!!!

But not since Oliver and Dodger have I been as enticed and intrigued by a gang of kids as I was by No Violet Bulawayo’s cast of Zimbabwean street urchins! Darling, Bastard, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho and Stina are as good as anything conjured up by Dickens, Golding or Greene in my view! In fact, there’s a wonderfully Dickensian feel to the whole book – it’s subject matter could have been a bit too traumatic, a bit too raw, a bit too “down” in the hands of someone with less skill. It could have been a modern day “Bleak House” – and in some senses it is a pretty bleak story in two pretty bleak settings (Zimbabwe followed by the US). But in fact it’s a wonderful book that pulls your emotions every which way, saved from being overly bleak by a cast of unforgettable characters and infused with  a sharply observed humour, some of it very dark, from the first page to the last.

NoViolet Bulawayo - probably the best author's name in the world!
NoViolet Bulawayo – probably the best author’s name in the world!

It tells the story of ten year old Darling, the narrator, and her friends on the streets of their Zimbabwean shanty town, the ironically named Paradise. It follows their lives, which are in many ways  about as far removed as you can get from the apparently privileged, safe and  structured lives that kids in the West enjoy. This is their life after school, not as in something which happens at the end of the school day but as in something which happened after the opportunity to go to school disappears from their lives, thanks to Mugabe’s idea of independence. They roam around, chat, and steal guavas to slate their hunger (regardless of the later consequences for their bowel movements!) They get up to mischief, they run riot, though never really in a way that’s harmful, and they play games that are influenced by their perception of the world beyond Zimbabwe, including “Find Bin Laden” and the “Country Game”. The Country Game is their version of a sort of Last Man Standing and it’s got resonance for both the first part of the book and the second part. For the country the kids most want to be is the USA and the countries they most want to avoid are those in Africa, which have little chance of winning the game – and at the top of the list of these weak countries is their own Zimbabwe.

Yet, even though their lives are so different from the lives of kids in the UK or the US, in another sense there’s such similarities. They experience the same confusing feelings that growing up brings, they still have confused perceptions of adults and adulthood, and they have that healthy mix of curiosity, disregard and disrespect that characterises pre-adolescents and teenagers here. On my way to work in the morning there are always groups of teenage kids on their way to school and regardless of the school they attend they have one thing in common – they are frequently laughing out loud – and the adults around them seem to be looking at them thinking “What the hell are they laughing at?”. It encapsulates that gap between childhood and adulthood for me and it is a bit like that for Darling and her friends. So the lives of Darling and her friends on the streets of Zimbabwe are a series of adventures, relationships, struggles, tensions, imaginings and frustrations. That’s one of the joys of this first part of the story – this is a story of kids growing up and in some senses it could be anywhere. There’s the pent-up aggression in Bastard where we get a glimpse of the man he might become in the boy before us on the page, the detached mirth and sheer irreverence of Godknows and the passive accepting of fate in the pregnant, child rape-victim, Chipo.

But of course, for all the innocence in Darling’s story on the surface, it isn’t a straightforward, this-could-be-anywhere coming-of-age drama – how could it be – for this is Zimbabwe. It’s a place in the grip of tyranny, aching for change, abandoned to the mercy of Mugabe’s henchman and even more dangerous uncontrolled hordes hell-bent on revenge, a place that screams “Madness!”. And it’s all shot through with the sinister menace of Mugabe himself. There is this tension and undercurrent of evil, of almost unimaginable cruelty that unfolds as Darling narrates the story of her family and of the wider group of villagers – it’s a harrowing tale. But it’s so brilliantly done that it never feels like heavy-handed tub-thumping politicising or obvious moralising. As you read it you don’t just feel indignant about how these people are treated, for indignation isn’t enough. It’s a story that quite literally twists your gut in places – at times I could hardly bare to read the words on the page. I had that knot in my stomach and my teeth on edge – if there is such a thing as the literary equivalent of a fork being scraped excruciatingly across the surface of a plate, then this is it!

The second half of the story follows Darling to the US – to live with her Aunt Fostalina and the detached, rootless African immigrant communities of “Destroyed, Michigan”, as she had so quaintly described it when she dreamt of what life there would be like. And of course, like so much of life, the reality of America never comes close to matching that perfect America of David Beckham and Obama and guaranteed riches that Darling had imagined. This is perhaps the more shocking half of the book in some ways. Darling adapts to life in America because that’s what kids do – but she still sees through it, and underneath the veneer to the grim lives the African communities lead. As she adapts to America she drifts from Zimbabwe, and from her mother and from Bastard, Chipo, Godknows and the others she has left behind. But in her heart, Zimbabwe is still there. This bit of the book really chimed with me. As a part of the perpetual Scottish diaspora, I thought NoViolet Bulawayo got this absolutely right – no matter how poor your origins, no matter how long you’ve been away, and no matter how much you adapt to where you go, it’s still home and it’s pull on you never ceases. Perhaps the second half of the book is the most illuminating for it lays bare what life in the West is really like. It might not have the stalking menace of Mugabe’s madmen, it might not be in the grip of an amoral, psychotic despot like Mugabe, but it’s still fraught with danger, riven with inequalities and perhaps as guilty as Mugabe is of dressing up what it offers as something much better than it really is. If you called it “Paradise” too, it’d be no less an ironic name than it is for the shanty town of Darling’s family.

We Need New Names is a wonderful read. It will move you, amuse you, anger you, sadden you, confuse you and tease you in equal measure from the first page to the last. This is a story and a cast of characters that, once you’ve read about them, you won’t forget in a hurry. It didn’t win the Booker Prize, though for me it’s certainly as good as the two other Booker shortlist books I’ve read, Colm Toibin’s ‘Testament of Mary’ and Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale For The Time Being’. But don’t let the fact that it didn’t win put you off this book if you are in any way tempted to read it – for it’s fabulous. And if you love Dickens, and are drawn to the way within his pages he speaks for those who most need someone to speak on their behalf, then I’d be confident that you’ll find that “We Need New Names” is a bloody masterpiece!

Below is a short Guardian video in which Lisa Allardice argues that this book should win the Booker (it didn’t but she still does a much better job of reviewing it than I ever could!)

Monday Morning Blog World Tour Sponsored By My iTunes Shuffle……….May 14th 2012

………..I’d originally planned to do this on Sunday mornings – alas following a great wedding we went to in Manchester at the weekend the alcohol flow of the Saturday meant that my Sunday started seriously under the affluence of said incohol and therefore all I wanted yesterday morning was Nurofen and darkness.

However, having come back last night, I’m now fully recovered and so this week, for this week only(unless alcohol gets in the way again, which is very likely) , my easy Sunday morning is actually a Monday!

So this morning with my partner at work and my daughter at school,  it’s again a perfect time to visit the innumerable good blogs out there, most of which are about books, with the odd “mmmmmmmmmmmm I wonder what that’s like?” thrown in for good measure.

I usually like to listen to music while I’m reading or writing but on Sunday mornings (or Monday this week), I listen with my headphones to my iTunes library and I let my iTunes shuffle do the choosing for me.

As I read and wrote this morning, my iTunes shuffle served up the following musical breakfast (or perhaps dogs dinner as my family might call it!). If you read this I hope you find something you like or perhaps a prompt to dust off the cobwebs from some corner of your own music that you’ve not visited in a while!

The Music

1.On The Wing by Owl City (I love this album but I can only play it when I’m alone otherwise it gets shouted down as irritating electro-pop by my family – but if you like jolly, happy, tingly pop with the vocals oft-fed though vocoders then you might like this – reading that description back makes me think it might be a niche market!)

2. Satisfied by Hal (again all lovely harmonies and twanging country pedal guitars – some of the chorus sounds like lush West Coast US Beach Boys stuff before going into a kind of cacophony at the end – I love this album and the lyrics on this are good. I think they went into a bit of a fallow period after this album but I’m pretty sure Hal have made a follow-up lately and it got a decent review through Q – of course I may have imagined that last bit!)

3. Jocasta by Noah And The Whale (My family really dislike NATW – they call it music to get depressed to – but this is more upbeat – ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!)

4. In My Room by The Last Shadow Puppets (Least favourite track on the album – sorry Alex/Miles but this isn’t doing it for me – heave ho!)

5. Hurry Up And Wait (Live) by Stereophonics (Now this will do – although live I thought they were a bit flat – mind you it was in the bloody cavernous Millenium Stadium in Cardiff I saw them – think it needed a bigger and more outgoing personality than Kelly Jones to fill that great chasm)

6. Nothing In My Way by Keane (From the Iron Sea which I think is a bit underrated – think they have new album out today and it’s on the list!)

7. You’ll Never Walk Alone by Frank Sinatra (My partner and daughter are lifetime fully paid-up members of the Liverpool FC Club so they would have this! – as a Man U fan this is NOT FOR ME IN CAPITAL LETTERS! Heave ho!)

8. House Where We All Live by The Veils – (I got this years ago as a present through a friends recommendation. I’d never heard of the Veils at that point but I love this – very Gallic shrug and a bit of a ‘torch’ song!)

9. Birds Flew Backwards by Doves (Doves are one of my favourite bands but this is from Kingdom of Rust which is their most disappointing album for me – however good old iTunes has at least picked out one of the tracks on it that I really like!)

10. Sean by The Proclaimers (The lads from Leith!!!!! I love The Proclaimers. Went to see them in the tent at one of festivals few years ago – place was rammed full of sweaty exiled Jocks all screaming out every word – they are right up there for me with Sir Alex Ferguson, Glenmorangie, Irn Bru, Scottish Pies and Ian Rankin as truly great things to come out of Scotland!)

11. I Saw The Dead by Villagers (Great song, great singer, great band. Saw them support Elbow last year and thought they were fantastic)

12. Try And Love Again by The Eagles (What’s not to love about the Eagles! So it ages me! So I’m old – who cares!)

13. One Light In A Dark Valley by Harry Chapin (It comes from the wonderful Dance Band On The Titanic. I think he’s so under-rated – this is a blast from my hairy, hippy student days!)

14. Sonnet by The Verve (Another song I love musically and lyrically. Heard Richard Ashcroft being interviewed about Urban Hymns on Steve Lamacq’s show a couple of weeks ago – he sounded really proud of this song and the whole album and so he should be – great stuff!)

15. She Speaks by Paul Weller (I’ve gotten more and more into Paul Weller as the years go by – I tend to prefer the more recent stuff like this from the ‘Wake Up The Nation’ album. Mind you I still love singing along with Walls Come Tumbling Down or Headstart For Happiness as well!)

16. Green Gloves by The National. (The National are one of those bands who always seem to get great reviews but a slightly underwhelming response from music fans in the UK. Which is a shame if you ask me. I think they write great songs and this is one!)

17. Jack, You Dead by Joe Jackson (I bought this in the 80’s. Most of my mates at the time thought I’d finally lost the plot – but for a small group of us, the songs from Jumpin Jive became theme tunes to our drunken evenings, of which we had many! God knows how many times I’ve stumbled the streets of Glasgow bawling out “What’s The Use Of Getting Sober If You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again”!)

18. A Scanner Darkly by Primal Scream (Another of my favourite bands but I’m not blind to their inconsistency – occasionally they throw up a stinker – this is one of them!)

19. Cool Cool River by Paul Simon (Lovely rhythms on this as there is on everything on Rhythm Of The Saints – I’d get up and dance but my knees have gone – fortunately!)

And to finish…..

20. Jumpin Jive by Joe Jackson (My iTunes obviously realised how much I loved “Jack You Dead!” so it’s come back to Jumpin Jive album for the title track! It’s great and allows me to sing one of my favourite lyrics of all time ” the jim-jam-jump is the jumpin jive, makes you nine foot tall when you’re four foot five!” – if only it could for a short-arse like me!)

Blog Stuff

This morning I found a reference to a bookmark listing 50 books to read before you die on the Reading Matters blog. I’d already gone through the tome 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which a friend bought for me last year, to see how many I had read!!! So, anal-retentive that I am, I went through the 50 books listed on the book mark to see how many I had read (I’d read 33 of them) and as I read the list, which was supposed to be a mix of classics by great writers, I was surprised to read that things like Mark Haddon’s “Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime” and Phillip Pulman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy had been included. They wouldn’t have struck me as classics in the same vein as some of the others (The Bible, Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, works by Shakespeare and by Chaucer and a fair smattering of Austen’s and Bronte’s and Dickens etc). However even though I didn’t really get their fit to classics, I’d read them so happily included them in my tally of 33! 33 out of 50 – satisfied smirks all round then!!!!

The Good, The Fads and The Ugley – (The Essex Version)……………….

……….. Although Scotland will always be “home” to me, I’ve lived in Essex now for longer than I ever actually lived in Scotland, and so I think of it very much as my adopted home – and a place I love. For a few years my family lived in the Wirral while I lived here because of work and commuted up and down the M1 and the M6 every weekend – I’d say the Wirral has a much better reputation than Essex and we loved it, but we don’t love Essex any less now that we’re back!

I know it’s a got reputation for being a bit of a laughing-stock from things like “Essex girl” jokes and then the current TV series “The Only Way Is Essex” but there’s much more to it than wannabes, fake tan, hair extensions and the sharpest accent this side of the Black Hills of Dakota! (And anyway I like the Essex accent!). It’s a beautiful county, it’s got some great places to visit and the people who live here are (mostly!), warm and generous and often very witty! But sometimes I know it doesn’t help itself either and it kind of plays up to that image.

The Good

As this is a blog mainly about books and music I’ll start there. Glossing smoothly over Olly Murs (my daugher likes him and went to see him in concert – I despair!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), Essex has given the world of music Damon Albarn of Blur, Depeche Mode, and the wonderful, magnificent Bard of Barking himself, Billy Bragg (below is a very early and very young video of billy Bragg on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing the Milkman of Human Kindness, which is one of my favourite Billy Bragg songs). As well as Ruth Rendell having been born here (and I always liked Inspector Wexford books) – there are also a couple of books I love that are set here. Dickens “Barnaby Rudge” was a book I read before I ever came to Essex (maybe even before I’d ever heard of Essex!) and is one of my favourite Dickens novels, and the whole story sets off with a tale told round the fire at an inn in Chigwell in Essex. But a book I really loved and which is set in Essex is Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. The story is a real tear-jerker – it’s meant to be – but that didn’t diminish it in my eyes. It’s a lovely but desperately sad tale of the friendship between an artist and a young girl nursing an injured snow goose back to health as the rumble of the Second World War looms ever louder and ever closer on the horizon. It’s set on the Essex marshlands and though it’s a rather bleak, wild setting, it suits the story perfectly.  I still have to this day my old battered and oft-read copy with Jenny Agutter on the cover! (If I’m honest I think I bought this second-hand in around 1973 and Jenny Agutter on the cover certainly influenced my purchase!). So it’s one of what I call my “Old Campaigners”, books I’ve had with me virtually all my life and it’s link to Essex means it’s a bit of an extra-special Old Campaigner!

The Fads!

On Wednesday night I watched “The Apprentice” with my family, who love the programme. The task for both groups was essentially to buy rubbish from a warehouse, sell it on at a profit and then re-invest the takings in more rubbish! When both teams were required to find a location to sell this stuff they chose Essex! One team bowled up in Romford and the other split their selling between Ilford and Pitsea, which is part of Basildon. (and was where Essex Council housed me when I first came to live and be a teacher in Essex –  and I know the perceptions and reputations and all the jokes about Basildon, but I kind of liked it – note “kind of” though!). Anyway as if Essex didn’t have enough of a reputation for all things “fake” (hair, nails, eyelashes and more!), what did they find was their best seller – cheap fake tan! The lot selling in Romford had sold out by mid-morning and people were queueing and waiting for them to re-stock! And what other delights were they palming off onto the good people of Ilford, Romford and Basildon?! Mainly, a little toy cockroach thing that scurried about, some mops, and hair clippers which didn’t go that well when marketed as beard trimmers so they changed their marketing to trimmers to keep bikini lines neat or something! It was funny but kind of sad at the same time.

However that was topped off as a statement on all-things-Essex, when I drove back round the M25 yesterday morning from the school run. Now my fellow school run participants in Essex seem to favour the 4×4 – there are hundreds of them here – and it seems to me that the Range Rover, particularly in black, is the car of choice of the more well-off school runners! Most of these have personalised registration plates – which I’m not knocking, because I can’t, because we do too! But this morning, between the A12 and the M11 junctions,  I was passed by a Black Range Rover with the best registration in Essex – “ESS 3X”.  I laughed out loud and I sort of admired whoever it is. After all my ideal reg is “C 54 COT” which might not make that much sense till you realise it can be re-cast as “CS A Scot!” Anyway a quick trawl of t’Internet tells me that this reg was actually bought for over £6500 by someone in Chelmsford in 2010. And what’s more the story goes that the buyer was prepared to go as high as £20 000 to secure this “heart on the sleeve (bumper”) statement about their love for their home county. Mind you it’s easy to do it with a car reg plate if your home county is Essex – not so easy if your home county was say Clackmannanshire!

So fake tans and the ultimate Essex number plate take care of the fads!

The Ugley.

Ugley is a village near here – we drive through it on the way to Saffron Walden. It’s just one of those place names that inevitably stick in your head – like “Crawfordjohn” in the Borders which I pass on the M74 on my way home to Glasgow, or Crianlarich which seems to be in every conceivable direction around Loch Lomond – it kind of feels like all roads lead to Crianlarich and so you expect something pretty spectacular when you get there (prepare for slight disappointment!). Anyway Ugley ought not to fit somehow with the “beautiful people” image of Essex in one sense but I think it does – it says that it’s a place where anybody can fit in – even Glaswegians! and says much about the rich history of Essex as Ugley was apparently first recorded as Uggele in 1041 and as Ugghelea in the Domesday Book. It’s got a beautiful church, where the vicar blogs as The Ugley Vicar . Now admit it, that’s confident and witty, which is something I think the people of Essex and Glasgow have got in common – everybody else might laugh a bit at our expense but we hold the upper hand because we know how to laugh at ourselves! That’s my theory anyway and I’m sticking to it!