Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne, offers the varied voices of second generation, working class immigrants during a few days of enhanced racial tension in our capital city. An angry young ‘black boy’, calling himself ‘the hand of Allah’, has murdered a soldier on a street in daylight and then publicly desecrated the body. Far right troublemakers intent on blaming all people of colour for the country’s ills react by inciting further hate filled violence. This then spills into the streets of an enclave of north west London.

Around the tower blocks of a Neasdon housing estate a group of teenage friends, raised under a mix of creeds, are seeking ways to carve a future for themselves. Life in the mixed community is hard with options further limited by family circumstances. The boys come together to play football, chat about girls and listen to music. They rarely talk about the detail of what is going on inside their homes and heads.

Selvon lives with his mother and ailing father off the estate. He is accepted as he regularly hangs out there with his friends. Focused on his training – regular runs and visits to the gym – he is biding his time before escaping to university. His father, Nelson, came to London from the Caribbean in the late 1950s. Nelson taught his son to be disciplined, to focus on self-direction and not get swayed by the wrong crowd.

Ardan lives with his mother, Caroline, who was sent to London by her family in Belfast when she was seventeen. Ardan focuses on his music, Grime, recording creations but keeping them to himself. Caroline fights her own demons, drowning them in drink.

Yusof also lives with his mother but their family is more recently troubled. His father was Imam at the local mosque before he died in a car accident. His brother, Irfan, has since brought shame down on the family. The new Imam has radical ideas and was granted power over the boys by their grieving mother. This Imam and his ardent followers, including former schoolboy bullies, are determined to rein Yusof and Irfan in.

The story is written over just a few days and focuses on the male population. I found the supporting roles granted the women unsatisfactory – where was their strength of character and influence? Given the power of the narrative this remains a minor irritation.

The young residents of the multicultural area are portrayed going about their lives. These are shadowed by circumstances not of their making – they deal as best they can with the world they have been given. When hate filled actions encroach there is fear and anger, a powerlessness in the face of demands from a fracturing community often at odds with personal desires.

The writing adopts a local vernacular that took some time to engage with. It is not difficult to read but I am still unsure what some phrases mean – how does one ‘Kiss my teeth’? Selvon has a sexual encounter with a girl he meets on the estate which was unpleasant to read. What comes across though are lives that are beyond my experience. The portrayal appears searingly authentic.

Having recently read The Study Circle I could empathise to a degree with the Muslim strand of the story. Caroline’s background was familiar. In offering three young friends, raised in the same place but by parents from differing backgrounds, the challenges of lazy attitudes to skin colour and poverty can be explored and contrasted. We need more voices like this in our literature if we are to to better understand the weight of limitations imposed on those raised in such communities. There may be a few who get away but what of those who remain?

This is a dark tale posing questions not easily answered but which, for the good of all, need to be more widely considered. A well structured and captivating read.

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Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink

Book Review: Takeaway

“they reckon about a hundred people in London account for something like fifty percent of all the ambulance callouts. It’s like they want a gold membership card, or a special closeness with their god, the fear of death.”

Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard, offers an uncompromising look at the realities facing an NHS ambulance driver in contemporary London. The honesty is shocking in places so used have we become to expressing thoughts in language deemed acceptable by those who have made it their business to police such things. The tales told are refreshingly devoid of standard public censorship. Although at times derogatory it is to expectations and behaviours rather than people.

Written in the voice of an experienced ambulance driver, part of a team that has established an inner detector honing in on who may actually benefit from hospital treatment, the anecdotes recounted bring to light how often ambulance callouts are unnecessary. Prospective patients are drunk, on drugs, suffering indigestion or simply seeking attention. Families do not wish to deal with difficult or messy relatives. They want the problem of responsibility to be taken away. When a true emergency happens – a heart attack, attempted suicide or road traffic accident – sometimes the kinder action is to accept the inevitable. Those looking on increasingly expect a miracle, as seen on TV.

“we’re judged on how many of those dead people we can bring back to life. Most of those dead people are dead for a reason. Forty years of smoking, drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. […] Only five percent of people come back when we do CPR and the rest of it. Out of that, how many of them actually have a quality of life? A tiny amount. […] The natural way of dying is the heart stops beating, oxygen stops going to the brain, the brain cuts out. As you’re going through that dying process, your head is most likely producing some psychedlic, drug, and you imagine you see a tunnel of light or the gates of heaven. Imagine you’re going through that relatively blissful drug experience, and some [f- c-] starts trying to reverse it […] your relatively pleasant death is turned into this brutal forty-minute procedure […] I feel sorry for the people for whom it’s their last experience on this planet.”

The ambulance teams have regulars – patients with complex issues that cannot be sorted by a visit to A&E. The drivers must also circumvent a bureaucracy that values public perception, targets and adherence to listed procedures over what may be of longer term benefit to the patient. There are run-ins with the police, with violent criminals, and with privileged office workers on a night out who require protection from the effects of their own idiocy.

When an ambulance is called – say to pick up an elderly person who has fallen over because carers are not allowed to lift people, or because a woman is suffering vaginal bleeding (monthly?) – that vehicle becomes, for a time, unavailable. This is rarely a concern as callouts missed are unlikely to be time critical. Knowing this the drivers are not always rushing to get back to work.

Although trying to act in a calm and professional manner drivers are human and can become enraged by the way they and the services they offer are treated, especially when they decline to comply with self-entitled expectations and problem shifting.

Written as a series of short and fascinating examples of cases, this book provides mordant entertainment through attitudes and reactions to incidents. It is also food for thought about how each reader would wish to be treated should they one day require an ambulance team’s skills and services.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Morbid Books.

Book Review: The Bespokist Society

The Bespokist Society: Guide to… London is a carefully curated guide to the dreamiest, most hipster, creative places to go in our historic yet vibrant capital city. It embraces the artisan, the carefully sourced, the importance of experiencing. It includes interviews and features that bring to the fore the values of the team behind this pocket sized cornucopia of well hidden delights. As co-author Nastya Petrov advises in her introduction,

“if you’re bored of London, you just need to spend more money”

The guide is handily divided into sections highlighting the best places to be found in Central, East, West, North and South London. Here I provide just a a soupçon, a flavour of those that the authors have deemed worthy of the attention of discerning readers. I pluck these tiny tasters from the BS pages.

For those wishing to cleanse their inner bodies, Fecal Matters has branches in Soho, Marylebone and Notting Hill. These fancy ‘bottom parlours’ offer a choice of bowel-stimulating music followed by judgement free, refreshingly honest fecal analysis. Afterwards clients are sure to step out with a spring in their step.

Why not work out by joining former child cyclist Ed Whitworth’s continuous cycling jamboree? Simply download the app, day or night, to discover where to join the pack.

For innovative culture, The Coventry Theatre is hosting See It, Say It, Sorted – The Musical. As with all the best creative dramas inspired by government messages, the results are both informative and hugely entertaining.

Nastya interviews Roland Kim who wishes to cause a little disruption to the traditional dining experience at his V-Gastro on Liverpool Street. Roland challenges critics to find any other top restaurant that can boast zero food wastage. Who needs to actually eat?

Over in Knightsbridge is the minimalist gallery of internationally renowned painter and plasterer Nina Saviceu, who is also a vociferous advocate of left-handed rights.

In South Kensington, luxury hoteliers Ritz-Carlton have teamed up with Armani and Greggs to provide a unique, collaborative hotel experience. Amidst the opulent surroundings, piping hot platters of warm bakes and pasties are available day or night.

Visitors to the city may wish to join the Icelandic community in Hangar Lane as they celebrate the local courgette harvest with a wild festival of juicing.

Sours and Sweets in Brixton offer a bewildering selection of international bitters, including a range matured in casks crafted from ancient Californian Redwood trees. The sharp tongued service at this venue is refreshingly contemptuous.

The Old Penge Picture House provide imbibers with a bargain basement all-Scottish wine list, ideal for a boozy night out.

Celebrities love London where they can pretend to be normal people. As Max Fairbrother said of his latest trip to the city from his home in LA,

“Throughout my visit, they kept up this incredible show of not noticing me”

My favourite interview was with Thomas Sahko, human historian and urban wordsmith. When asked what he loved most about London he eloquently replied

“Every morning, I sip a ruby grapefruit juice on my balcony while looking out over the Stanmore skyline. I think to myself that under these leaden clouds, nine million souls are bobbing about on an ocean of uncertainty, yet each one is holding onto his own individual truths like a life raft. That thought gives me the strength to get through my day.”

He goes on to advise a first time visitor to seek out an old man and demand that he tells you his story.

The pages of this little guide are packed with ideas to facilitate days of dining, culture and vivid new experiences. It *may* be a parody but as Londoners will know, there exist actual venues that could be slipped in seamlessly.

Witty and entertaining – the perfect gift for your basic hipster.

My copy of this book was generously provided by fellow book blogger Paul Cheney, who writes as Halfman, Halfbook.  

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – An Overview

I spent last weekend in London, driving from my home in Wiltshire through Friday afternoon rush hour traffic to Hammersmith where I stayed for two nights with my daughter. From there we travelled across the city to attend the Greenwich Book Festival being held at the Old Royal Naval College on the banks of the Thames. This glorious venue is just one of the aspects of a friendly and vibrant festival that makes it so special.

Taken from Wikipedia:

The Old Royal Naval College is a World Heritage Site managed by a registered charity to “look after these magnificent buildings and their grounds for the benefit of the nation”. The buildings were originally constructed to serve as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, which was designed by Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712. The hospital closed in 1869. Between 1873 and 1998 it was the Royal Navel College.

Originally the site of Bella Court, built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, it was rebuilt by Henry VII and was thenceforth more commonly known as Greenwich Palace. As such, it was the birthplace of Tudor monarchs Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was demolished in 1694.

Since 1998 the site has had new life breathed into it through a mix of new uses and activities and a revival of the historic old site under the management and control of the Greenwich Foundation. The buildings are Grade I listed. In 1999 some parts of Queen Mary and King William, and the whole of Queen Anne and the Dreadnought Building were leased for 150 years by the University of Greenwich. In 2000 Trinity College of Music leased the major part of King Charles. This created a unique new educational and cultural mix.

As well as being of historic interest I include these details as the University of Greenwich supports the book festival. The ambience of the site is enhanced by the wonderful music that drifts across the lawns from the Trinity Conservatoire.

Such aspects are in addition to the location across the Thames from the Isle of Dogs, and the imposing presence of the Cutty Sark on the western edge. When booking the events I planned to attend over the weekend I made sure to allow plenty of time to explore and enjoy these features. That the weather was kind throughout was an added bonus.

I will be writing in more detail about each event attended but post this as an overview and introduction. Book Festivals vary is scope and cost. I believe that Greenwich offers an excellent experience as well as being good value.

There were numerous free workshops and creative outlets provided for children of all ages, from very young to young adult. As well as favourite characters and authors there was storytelling and a variety of shows. Interest in art, theatre, dance and music were catered for. Hands on advice was provided on drawing for graphic novels including comics and Manga. Exclusively for the adults, author interviews and discussion panels represented a range of literary output including commercial, history, genre-defying, experimental and poetry. Ticketed events typically cost around £6 per person. If purchased early it was possible to buy an all events pass.

One of the more expensive events was the Festival Party on the Friday evening. I was pleased to discover that the bar provided here did not take advantage of its captive audience and was reasonably priced. Such details matter in an attendees overall impression and willingness to return.

Mobile food and drink vehicles, including a tea room in a double-decked bus, were parked up alongside the main venue lawn on the Saturday. I learned that, due to its heritage value, bunting on the building had been banned. Children climbing up onto the window ledges caused some consternation but they were undoubtedly having fun.

Helpful volunteers provided directions to events. The pop up bookshop was run by the local Waterstones and stocked books written by participating authors who remained on hand for signing. It was an open and friendly festival with authors, publishers and organisers wandering freely rather than hiding out in the Green Room.

My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the festival and found much to discuss afterwards from the panels attended. The best recommendation we can give is that we hope to return.

For those interested in future festivals you may follow updates on social media:

Twitter: @GreBookFest 
Instagram: greenwichbookfestival
Facebook: Greenwich Book Festival  

Book Review: Spanish Crossings

Spanish Crossings, by John Simmons, is set mainly in London in the years around the Second World War. Its protagonist is an unassuming young woman, Lorna Starling, who has left behind her quiet upbringing in Kent to live independently in the city. She is well respected by her colleagues at the lawyers office where she works. In her free time she is an active supporter of socialist causes.

After a short prologue the story opens in the spring of 1937 when Lorna attends a meeting at the home of Diana Seymour. Diana’s wealth and connections intimidate the young secretary but she soon finds herself trying to emulate the older woman’s confidence and style. At the meeting Lorna encounters Harry James who is recently returned from Spain where he had fought Franco’s forces with the International Brigade. After a night of passion he returns to this battlefield leaving Lorna bereft at the loss of her first, brief love.

Wishing to do her bit for the cause, Lorna has signed up to ‘adopt’ a child refugee, one of four thousand shipped from Spain by the Basque Children’s Committee. At Diana’s behest, the firm Lorna works for are to provide the committee with legal services pro bono and Lorna will be their representative at meetings. Diana and Lorna visit the camp where the children are being processed before being dispersed to colonies around the country. Lorna is introduced to the child she will ‘adopt’, a fifteen year old boy named Pepe whose age and grasp of the English language has made him something of a leader amongst the children.

Pepe is moved to a house in London where Lorna visits him regularly. With Franco gaining control in Spain, and the prospect of war with Germany increasing, the boy grows restless. Lorna understands Pepe’s discontent but cautions him to remain within the law that he may avoid being sent back to a Spain that is now killing its dissidents with impunity.

The timeline moves to 1943. Lorna has taken an active role during the war years, volunteering as a watcher for the ARP. She lives behind boarded up windows but appears largely content with her solitary existence. Her chief regret is that the life she had dreamed she could have had with Harry was taken from her. All this changes when Pepe reappears, declaring his love. Despite recognising their significant differences in core values, Lorna is tempted by the prospects this offers. She encourages Pepe to sign up to fight, thereby gaining his British citizenship.

By 1947 Lorna is settled in a comfortable council flat, raising a child but feeling frustrated at the limitations this has placed on her developing career. Although pleased by the social progress being made by the Labour Party she no longer feels that she is contributing as she once did. Her fear is that she will become like her parents who she has long regarded as insipid in their desire for quiet compliance with societal expectations. She contacts an old lover, risking the life she has built for reasons hard to justify. The guilt this elicits drives her to comply with a plan that she appears blind to.

Much of the book is written in measured yet evocative prose. It offers a picture of the difficulties faced by a young woman raised to be reticent yet determined to break away from such restrictions and stand up for herself. As she ages she changes, and she resents that this is happening. Her desire to be more like the self she aspires to plays out in the final section of the book where the pace changes to one of increasing tension.

I wondered at the continued obsession with Harry James who Lorna was with for just one night. Perhaps it is another case of curated memory, a comfort blanket she carried. Later in the book Lorna makes a return visit to Highgate where “She had enjoyed living […] ten years earlier”. She nurtures this thought, apparently forgetting that she had left because the flat she now views with nostalgia had become tarnished. It was earlier described as “not home, it was simply where she lived”.

There are a great many subjects explored within the pages of this book, many only briefly touched upon but nevertheless impacting Lorna’s life and those who influenced her. The Spanish Civil War is not a conflict I know much about so this added interest. The reactions within government to the child refugees is depressingly familiar.

I enjoyed the understated strength of the author’s writing which I first came across in his previous novel, Leaves. His characters are rounded, relatable yet never sepia tinted. Their imperfections enable a greater understanding of the scars created when life is lived.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.

Book Review: Mother of Darkness

Mother of Darkness, by Venetia Welby, tells the story of a drug addict and his descent into psychosis. The protagonist, Matty Corani, is born into material privilege and emotional distress. His mother died giving birth to him, an event his father, Daniel, struggled to cope with. Daniel worked for the Foreign Office, accepting postings around the world. Sent to boarding school aged seven, Matty nurses a jealousy of his younger brother, Ben, who he believes his father favoured. Under the influence of alcohol, Daniel had spoken cruelly of Matty’s failures. Matty believes his father blamed him for his mother’s death.

The story opens in Soho where Matty is living in a bedsit having sold the luxury family flat near Marble Arch. His current lifestyle revolves around drugs supplied by a man he regards as his best friend, Fix. Reeling from the loss of his girlfriend, Tera, Matty picks up girls for sex and then sends them away. Meanwhile Ben is in a coma following a car crash. Matty has little sympathy, believing his brother took Tera from him. Ben’s current hospital care is eating into the inheritance Matty considers should rightfully be his.

Aware that Matty is struggling, his stepmother, Katya, persuades him to see a psychotherapist, Dr Sykes. There is mention of an upcoming court case, another part of his life Matty takes drugs to forget. Dr Sykes suggests Matty write down his life story for them to discuss, an attempt to face his personal demons. While not believing she can help him, Matty finds this task constructive. He starts describing himself as a writer, the pages he produces the basis of a book.

The story unfolds from these various strands. There are descriptions of Matty’s days and nights – the gatherings in pubs and at people’s homes where copious amounts of drugs, supplied by Fix, are ingested. Alongside these are the emails Matty sends to Dr Sykes which enable the reader to better understand his backstory. Case notes are included giving Dr Sykes’ opinions on the rambling, often incoherent story she is being sent.

Matty has always been solitary, inventing characters inside his head in an attempt to navigate a world filled with what he considers to be serial rejections by those he has loved. Under the influence of the drugs he takes these manifest and mix with the stories from the philosophers he studied while at university. As his delusions become his reality, Matty’s ability to function is slowly derailed.

Although Katya and Dr Sykes are trying to help neither are aware of just how twisted Matty’s thinking has become. When even Fix starts to pull away the stage is set for crisis, just as the reader gains an understanding of the extent of Matty’s past actions. The denouement is shocking, somehow suitably deranged.

The author succeeds in garnering a degree of sympathy for what is an unlikable protagonist thereby building interest in how he arrived in this situation. When the truth is revealed it is recognisably a tragedy, for just about everyone involved. There is no attempt to moralise although it is a stark warning against degeneracy. There is much to ponder around whether Matty’s descent could have been prevented.

The variety of styles of writing are not always easy to follow but my interest was retained and I had not guessed the pivotal twist in the tale. A reminder that drug addicts have histories even if their behaviours border on the contemptible. This was a sobering, engaging read.

Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books.