Book Review: Soul of the Border

Soul of the Border, by Matteo Righetto (translated by Howard Curtis), is set in the remote and diminished village of Nevada near the alpine border between Italy and Austria. Here the De Boer family have lived for generations, eking out a living growing tobacco on the steep valley terraces. By the end of the nineteenth century the border has been moved, the land changing from Austrian to Italian rule. The high quality tobacco grown in the area is strictly monitored and purchased by the monopolistic Royal Tobacco Company.

Augusto de Boer is married to Agnese. They have three children: Jole, Antonio and Sergio. Each must work relentlessly to grow the crop that keeps them from starvation. The threat of famine and illness have driven many in the region to abandon their land and seek fortunes elsewhere.

To make life a little easier for his family Augusto has found ways to hide and process small quantities of their crop. Following the main harvest he will traverse the mountains and cross the dangerous border to reach the mining towns in Austria. Here he trades his smuggled tobacco for minerals that the exploited miners sneak out from below ground in their bodies. He brings home the valuable silver and copper that he may trade them for food and livestock. It is a dangerous business as customs officials roam the border lands intent on punishing those they regard as robbing The Crown and their wealthy acolytes.

When Jole turns fifteen Augusto decides that she will accompany him on his dangerous journey that someone else may learn the route through the mountains. Several years later, when he has not returned home from a smuggling trip, she sets out with tobacco to make a trade and find out what happened to her beloved if taciturn father. What she learns on this journey will change her forever.

The book is written in three parts. The first sets the scene and explains how the family lives. The second and longest part covers the journey Jole makes, the dangers encountered and the people she meets. The final section details her attempt to return. The perils encountered at home and away are both natural and man made.

The plot progression is, at times, slow with unremitting dangers described in detail, only some of which are actually encountered. There are depictions of the poverty experienced by those whose harsh and poorly rewarded work ensures the wealthy continue to live in comfort. Balancing this bleak outlook is the beauty of the mountains and their natural inhabitants, although these can, at any moment, become life threatening.

In many ways this is a timeless tale of mass exploitation to generate wealth for elites. By establishing and then strictly enforcing borders and laws, to remove hope of improvement for workers, there will naturally be those who turn to subversion. Augusto and then Jole force themselves to face fear and danger for the love of their family. The risks they take may feel worthwhile but ultimately the personal cost is high.

The writing is well structured with keen portrayals of time and place. The premise of the tale may not not be original but it is vividly told.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.


Book Review: A Cage of Shadows

A Cage of Shadows, by Archie Hill, is an autobiographical account of the author’s troubled early life. He was raised in the Black Country during the depression of the 1930s, the eldest but one of eleven children. His father was an abusive alcoholic which exacerbated the family’s poverty. Archie nursed a rage against his home circumstances that moulded what he became. He had mentors in his father’s friends who taught him how to poach and steal food from farms and local woodlands. His admiration for these men, and the hatred of his father, never waned.

I rarely read autobiographies having been turned off the genre by numerous self-aggrandising celebrity memoirs, the proliferation of misery memoirs that followed the publication of Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), and the questioning of the veracity of these and the likes of A Million Little Pieces (James Frey) and Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson). A Cage of Shadows was first published in 1973 so predates these works. It was also the subject of controversy when Archie’s mother successfully sued for libel resulting in a rewrite that removed most of the sections where she is mentioned. The version I review here is a reprint of the original, described now as a classic, which was critically acclaimed when first released.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the story, what is portrayed is a life of bitter hardship that was endured by too many. With jobs hard to come by – three men ready to take any vacancy – worker safety and renumeration were pitifully scarce. Archie had part-time work in an iron foundry while still at school and describes the conditions that damaged the employees’ health. Throughout his childhood he dreamed of escape.

The hand to mouth existence – where Tally Men and Means Test Men wielded their small power like little dictators – was relieved by drink and savage entertainments. There were illegal cock fights, rat killing contests, and bets taken on bare knuckle fighting between the men. The vernacular comes across as authentic although some of the terms would now be deemed offensive. The camaradarie perhaps explains why some look back on such difficult times with a degree of affection.

Archie did eventually get out but it was not the escape of his dreams. He enjoyed a stint working the canals, briefly falling in love, before signing up for military service with the RAF. From here he joined the police but was by now struggling with alcoholism. He did time in prison, in mental asylums, and ended up a ragged vagrant in London’s underbelly.

Archie’s account of each of these experiences is told with unsentimental candour and a degree of self-reflection. Of his poaching he notes that wild animal killing was deemed acceptable by those in authority if done as a sport but not to feed starving families. The antics may rightly be frowned upon but this is life lived on a hard edge. Many of his problems may have been self-inflicted but when Archie fell he could find no safety net.

The writing is assured offering a window into a life that reminds readers of the truth behind what some still refer to as ‘the good old days’. It is intriguing for the insights given, the imaginative reuse and recycling, the petty thievery that enabled survival. Poignant in places and sometimes brutal but with certain attitudes that remain all too familiar. This is an account steeped in history worthy of contemporary reflection.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: Dark River Melody


Dark River Melody, by MD Murphy, is a novel that brings

“the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Georgian London to the page”

It offers

“a palpable sense of the capital in all its terrible glory, its poetic squalor.”

The story encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time.

The tale opens with the return to London of Tom Gobey who has been in prison in Botany Bay for the past seven years. His crime was to write a pamphlet criticising the church, government and King. Having served his time he now desires nothing more than to be reunited with his sweetheart, Eileen Dineen, an Irish beauty and fellow republican.

From the moment Tom steps off the boat he encounters trouble. He challenges a slave trader who will remember his face. He finds himself being pursued by an unknown assailant intent on his demise. Add to this his repeated encounters with wandering press gangs and he frequently finds himself on the run.

He comes across an old friend, Johnny Steadman, slumped in a pillory for singing a rebel song in a tavern whilst drunk. Johnny offers Tom shelter but informs him that Eileen is now living with an aristocrat. Tom determines to find her anyway, to discover if she still harbours feelings for him. He is unaware that it is her new man, the aristocrat Saffronetti, who has instructed his henchman, Mr Sticks, to do away with Tom in an attempt to force Eileen to give him the attention he craves.

Mr Sticks is one of the most vile characters that I have ever come across in literature:

“his heart felt black – black and hard as obsidian – and all its rhythms were driven by hate.”

The descriptions of his smell, habits and his treatment of others are vivid and stomach churning. He is an impressively gross creation, terrifying in his apparent unassailabilty and horrible in every imaginable meaning of the word.

This whole tale is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets. The extremes of wealth, privilege and power highlight the injustices of the time. Some things, unfortunately, have not changed.

The book beats with a pulse that is London with the river flowing through its heart. As Tom seeks out his beloved and struggles to escape his various assailants we meet those who, despite their own suffering, are still able to show compassion. When Tom encounters a dark skinned slave they find they have much in common besides their current predicament:

“Both had been rocked on the ocean, sent to lands afar. Both had incessantly dreamed of their native land.”

I did not like some of the coincidences used to progress the plot: Eileen being in the carriage Tom happened to jumped on, the house he rolled into while trying to make his way to the bone setter turning out to be Safronetti’s. However, it is the use of language that is the story’s strength. There is a terrible beauty to the prose, a dark melody that permeates each page.

I loved this book quite simply for the pleasure of reading it. It breathed life. Whatever the oppression and squalor described there remained hope.

Reading this book was like listening to beautiful, haunting music. The sounds will linger in memory long after the last note has been sung.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cutting Edge Press.

We reap what we sow


Small boy is no longer smaller than me, wears the same size of trousers as his dad, and objects to being called small boy. He rightly points out that I am now the most vertically challenged member of our household. It feels strange to notice the practical changes in these not quite adult children of mine. They look cramped when sat in a row on the back seat of my car; we no longer shop in the children’s sections of stores; laundry loads fill up due to  the size of garments as much as the number of items to be washed.

Some of the changes make life easier. My daughter is currently on a week of work experience and can catch a train to and from her destination, coping with the required transfer in the city with ease. She plans on going camping at the weekend and will make her own way home, hopefully by begging a lift off a friend but, if not, then by public transport. Next week she has her first driving lesson, another milestone on her road to independence.

My middle son appears desperate to shake off the perceived maternal interference in his life. He is happy to debate and discuss, but has no patience with any attempts to coerce his behaviour. I am having to learn to treat my children as I would any other adult, even if they are still some years away from earning that nomenclature.

I remember so clearly being my children’s ages and feeling the frustration that financial dependence creates. I try hard to balance offering security and guidance with enough freedom to allow them to become what they are capable of achieving. I know that I have it so much easier than many at my stage in life. My kids are not rebels, merely growing up and away from the apron strings that have tied them to me for so long.

I have a great deal of respect for today’s young people. They face a level of uncertainty and financial difficulty that the elders in their lives avoided yet were complicit in creating, even if only by default. The National Health Service is being dismantled, the welfare state capped, and pursuing further education now leads to massive debt unless the bank of mum and dad can pick up the bill; an option available only to the truly wealthy. If the economy does not change radically and soon then it is hard to see how my children will ever become home owners, something that I expected to achieve as soon as I entered the permanent workforce. With more and more companies looking to employ freelancers or zero hour contract workers, there is little guarantee of permanence in the decreasing number of decent jobs available in this country.

When others around my age or older complain about today’s young people I question if they have taken the time to get to know any. It often seems to me that it is the young people who are asking the pertinent questions and looking below the surface of issues, rather than merely believing the propaganda churned out by our so called leaders. Many of my peers appear blinkered by prejudice, convinced of their own rightness, no longer capable of unbiased critical thinking. They see things only from their personal vantage point, showing little interest in subsequent effects.

When I look at the people around me I find that I support dropping the voting age to sixteen. Young people are being shafted in favour of pandering to a growing elderly population with a strong sense of self entitlement. The spanner in the works is, of course, that so many young people see no point in voting. The political parties have become one, homogeneous mass of apparently untrustworthy self promoters, out to further their own interests above all else. As the elderly often appear to vote from habit the politicians can get away with a great deal so long as certain headline benefits are retained. It is no wonder that voter apathy is increasing.

Young people may not yet have the life experience to know how to present their case in an appealing manner, but perhaps we as a country need to be shaken up with a bit of straight talking. The elderly are not supported with the money that they have paid into the system over the years but by the money that is currently being generated or borrowed. With the wealthy elite doing all that they can to squirrel away their resources beyond the reach of government and country, difficult decisions must be made. I do not expect to have a financial cushion when I am old.

The world is changing. So many rail loudly against the effect rather than looking at the cause. My media feed is full of calls to sign petitions for change, yet still we are offered no real choice in elections. It is all short term thinking: my health needs, my pension, my comfort and security. Perhaps if we invested in our young people rather than ourselves then they could find a way to turn the country’s finances around and thereby look after us all.

I wish that I could offer my children a better adult world. Perhaps we need to sink more deeply into the mire that we have created, to affect the lifestyles of a broader spectrum of the population, before change will happen. Looking at the way young people are being made to bear the brunt of the current mess I will not feel justified in asking them to support me when I am old. Of course, I hope that my own children will be able and willing to look out for me, but the message they are being given by so many is that they must take care of themselves without the state support that their elders have enjoyed. If that is the message that we are giving them then we should be willing to bear the consequences when state support is withdrawn from all.

Putting Iain Duncan Smith on benefits

There has been much comment in the British media this week about the Conservative politician Iain Duncan Smith (also referred to as IDS). He is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and claimed, on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that, despite earning a reported salary of £134,565 per year from his role in government (£2,587 a week), he could live on £53 per week if he had to. This low figure represented an amount that a market trader named David Bennett believed he would have to live on once the tax and benefit changes being discussed came into effect. An online petition was promptly started urging IDS to try living for a year on £53 per week. So far, it has attracted more than 350,000 signatures.

Both IDS and David Bennett have since been subjected to personal and often vitriolic examination as their brief encounter on the radio show has been discussed and dissected. The speed with which the petition has attracted signatures has undoubtedly been impressive but is, as IDS put it the following day, nothing more than a stunt. Even without his government salary, IDS is a very wealthy man. A temporary curtailing of his lifestyle is unlikely to change his self confidence, aspiration or overall circumstances; it would merely prolong the publicity surrounding a probably foolish, throwaway remark and thereby encourage the detractors of both the wealthy and the benefit claimants to dig deeper for more personal examples and details with which to stoke the public fires of hate.

This latest, political storm in a teacup has reminded me of the 1995 song Common People by the band Pulp. The song was written by Jarvis Cocker who described a fad for class tourism as a sort of ‘patronising social voyeurism’. If IDS were to take up the challenge he would know that, at any time, he could bail out.

‘But still you’ll never get it right
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.’

IDS may not call his Dad but, if reports are to be believed, he could certainly call his wealthy wife.

The Champagne Socialists love to draw attention to the wealth of those in government. If they believe that Members of Parliament’s salaries and benefits should be cut then perhaps they should campaign for that and accept the consequences. It requires a great deal of time (campaigning) and money (publicity) to become a Member of Parliament so those who also need to hold down a regular job are at a disadvantage already. Whatever his detractors may think of IDS, at least he has some previous experience of working outside of parliament which is more than can be said for many of the current crop of career politicians from all sides. IDS was voted in by his constituents; it should be their choice whether he stays or goes.

The tax and benefits system in Britain is convoluted and complex. The impact of change is always going to be hard to understand allowing clever critics to come up with individual examples of the apparently undeserving beneficiaries or the cruelly ignored and abandoned. We are regularly subjected to stories of large families from foreign climes living in luxurious properties at tax payers expense; of large families who can buy a huge new television, take a holiday abroad and still have money left over each week to go drinking with friends; of families who have never worked because there is no need when their benefits are so generous.

Then there will be the stories of the disabled and maimed or those with serious mental health issues who have had benefits removed but have no hope of being offered any sort of job; of those who hold down a low paid job topped up with benefits so mean that, however carefully they budget, a requirement for new shoes for their child or a repair to the car needed to travel between school and work can mean that there is no money for food or heating. We are led to believe that children starve and old people freeze purely because the benefits system is so stingy.

I do not doubt that these individuals exist but are they representative of a wider population? It can be very hard to know the scale of the issues being dramatised in sound bites and vitriol. Public perception can be moulded and existing prejudices fed by the extremists on both sides as they whip up hate and judgement. It seems that no economic policy change can be implemented without an outcry from at least one side of the political spectrum.

Most people recognise that the way the economy is currently being run needs to change, but it seems that nobody wishes to suffer those changes; they always want someone else to pay. The wealthy are criticised for making money and the poor for claiming it unearned. The needy are not given as much support as they require while others who already have plenty claim benefits because they can. As attempts are made to address apparent loopholes and waste, the critics will find those who are being unfairly made to suffer. Those who shout the loudest drown out the voices of reason as the politicians chase the elusive, vote winning policy that always seems to dance just beyond their grasp as public opinion is shifted and manipulated by the media and those who seek power and influence.

I do not believe that answers will be found while reason is ignored. More people need to listen and try to understand rather than just react. Alternatives need to be discussed and sometimes hard policies applied. A solution that does not sound immediately fair or right can still benefit those who need help the most.

As an example, critics of universal credit cite the unfairness of giving benefits to the wealthy as a reason not to introduce a system that would free up so much money in savings by removing the bureaucracy of establishing entitlement that the needy would receive more than they can currently claim. What are they trying to achieve if not to help those in need? A stronger argument against, in my view, would be that government cannot be trusted to use the money saved as promised rather than on an alternative pet project. Vast sums are already being poured into so many dubious schemes that benefit only a few. If these pots of money could be used instead to directly help the less influential but poorer members of society then there would not be the need for so many controversial changes to wealth redistribution.

Asking a particular politician to do without the luxury lifestyle he is used to for a limited period is not going to improve the lives of those already living in poverty. The speed with which the petition calling for him to do so gained support shows that many people are angry with how the country is being run. We have a number of opportunities to vote for representatives in this year’s council elections, next year’s European Parliament election and the following year’s General election. Perhaps if we can find some people who agree with our views to stand in these we might have a chance of influencing the changes needed. The main political parties have skewed the way the voting system works to their advantage so a lot of people will need to act if change is to happen. It will be interesting to see how engaged the majority of the population become when they are asked to risk the unknown or accept the status quo.

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician...