Book reviews – two works of autobiography: Rebecca Front – “Curious” and Guvna B – “Unspoken” #LeaveNothingUnspoken #NetGalley

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Two works of autobiography today as I couldn’t find an awful lot to say about one of them. I’m not entirely sure why I put Rebecca Front’s “Curious: True Stories and Everyday Absurdities” on my wishlist, as I don’t really know her work too well and haven’t been massively curious about her life. But I did and a kind friend bought it for me for Christmas 2019 (it’s my last book on the main TBR acquired in 2019 – hooray – though I have a couple of older Angela Thirkells to pick up) having seen it on my wishlist. It’s competently written, a mixture of general essays and think-pieces (on being on hold on the phone, etc.) and light items of memoir. She is honest about her anxiety and panic attacks, which is where the true value of the pieces probably lie, giving very good descriptions and explaining why some things can upset her but then be copable with on certain occasions, which is not something I’ve seen in such pieces before. There’s also a sad pet incident which I could have done without, to illustrate something about being grown up.

Guvna B – “Unspoken”

(18 December 2020)

As any long-term readers of this blog will know, I enjoy regularly reading about people’s lives who are different to me, and seeing different experiences, attitudes and families. This book is by a young, Black, male rapper who grew up on an East London council estate – but the piece of his life I had the most trouble relating to was his status as a man of faith. In fact he’s a “clean” or Christian rapper – I’d previously only come across positive but not explicitly Christian rap music, although I’d noted Stormzy’s use of the hymn/gospel song in his “Blinded by your Grace”. I hadn’t realised about this aspect of the book before starting it, so was a little blind-sided by it (this is obviously my problem, not the book’s!).

Growing up on a council estate, the author was conditioned into ways of toxic masculinity through peer pressure and lack of role models within the home for dealing with that. His parents were working too hard and too concerned with instilling values of hard work into their sons to talk to them about emotions and mental health, and the kids out on the street, emotionally stunted themselves, saw any tears or show of emotion as a weakness. This comes out in Guvna B mainly as an inability to process his grief when his father suddenly dies, and in fact the main part of the book is about grief rather than other aspects of toxic masculinity, although he does talk about knife crime and social issues as well.

What he did have was his strict parents keeping him inside and out of trouble, a youth club and youth worker to support him and his faith in God, growing from being taken to church but then accepted by him in his teens, which all work to sustain him. Later, he has two close friends and a wife who are emotionally literate and force him to face up to what he’s missed out on and to work on that aspect. He does constantly reiterate how lucky this makes him, and he also notes at one point that it’s not entirely necessary to have a faith in God as long as you have something to believe in – your family, your work, your football team – although I’m not sure he really believes that. He does not, however, proselytise.

He talks honestly about his inability to cope when his father dies and his monolithic silence and refusal to ask for help – or cry – before that. He is very honest about how going to counselling made him feel and these aspects could be very useful for people to read. He’s big on authenticity and sharing your feelings and feels a deep responsibility to young people, setting up various charity initiatives and podcasts, etc. The worry I have is that, as someone who states he doesn’t read much and can only manage an 88-page book on grief, will his stated audience of the young, disenfranchised Black male work through these 288 pages? Maybe it will be best marketed and shared through a campaign of personal appearances (in whatever form) because he has got a lot of good, positive and practical stuff to say, and it would be a shame to see this book bought but not read.

“Unspoken” was published on 16 March 2021, and thank you to HarperCollins for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill” @Dewithon21

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I always manage to do either Reading Ireland Month or Reading Wales Month each year, and it was the turn of Wales this time around! Dewithon is run by the lovely blogger Book Jotter and the project page for this year’s is here. I will admit now that I bought quite a worthy book on the pandemic in Wales, from an indie publisher, to read as well as this one, then when I had a look at it, it was less heart-warming tales of community and more blow-by-blow political history and figures. So I sent that to a Welsh friend who I knew would appreciate it, and concentrated on reading this one, recommended back last summer by my friend Liz.

Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill”

(28 July 2020)

Mike and his partner Peredur met an older couple, Reg and George, and immediately got on famously with them, becoming bonded and close, especially Peredur and Reg. Having witnessed Reg and George’s civil partnership in the small town of Machynlleth, as the two older men became frail, they ended up living in the cottage they’d moved into and run as a guest house a few decades earlier. This book is the story of that friendship, of the farmhouse and of the nature and town around them.

The book has an interesting structure: in four parts, after the prologue, in each we get an element, a season, a direction and a person. So it starts with chapters called Air, Spring, East and Reg and follows that pattern, the seasons mainly being about Mike and Peredur’s first and subsequent seasons in the cottage. It’s a structure that does work well, revisiting, weaving around, sometimes taking in more detail, sometimes skipping over.

The countryside theme is interesting, and apart from Derek Jarman I’m not sure I’ve read any LGBTQ narratives set firmly there. As he says early on,

If the countryside appears at all in gay histories, it is usually only as a place to escape from, and as swiftly as possible. For many of us, this is a pattern that never fitted … (p. 5)

Although from near Birmingham, Mike yearns to move to Wales and just does it – much like Reg and George did, from Bournemouth, and with warnings no doubt for both. He finds local farmer’s son Peredur, who has always loved the farmhouse from nearby, and is assumed easily into his family. For Reg and George, they lived for 18 years in an illegal relationship, going right through to legitimation in a civil partnership.

It’s a moving book: the younger men certainly absorb the older men’s possessions and soon cast off a friend who advises them to clear out the traces. They worry they’re indistinguishable “to some of the local ladies of a certain age, the ones who squeeze your thigh after a large gin and tell you how much they ‘love the gays'” (p. 113) but you can tell they love the continuity and settling in to the house.

It’s not all jolly ladies and farm families. There’s a strong strand through the book about power and sex, and the abuse of power to get sex, most notably in George, but also in Mike’s past and done to and by him. There’s also nature red in tooth and claw, and although no domestic pets are lost horribly, there are a few squeamy bits and one picture I’m glad is not in colour.

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley are mentioned late in the book, with mention of Martin Amis’ famous discussion of them losing a pork pie, consumed by the wreck of their kitchen, when talking about slightly shambolic houses. He also said, “They want rain, gloom, isolation, silence” (p. 335) which rings a bell with Mike, even though he seems to suffer SAD and be glad of the clear winter light.

There are loads of photographs through the book, old ones of Reg and George, newer and arty ones, which really bring it to life. It’s in a nice decent-sized font, too. A lovely book soaked in Welsh and Wales, and a great one to read for Dewithon.

Book review – Elisabeth de Waal – “Milton Place” @PersephoneBooks

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I’m still just about reading books acquired in 2019 but this was a glorious Christmas present and well worth the wait. It was one of Persephone’s 2019 offering; they have also published another by this author, both found in archives and never before published. This book has a new Preface by Victor de Waal (Elisabeth’s son) and an Afterword by Peter Stansky: both concentrate on the author’s life and the circumstances by which her novel manuscripts ended up in a US archive, and don’t give much discussion of the text, but both areas are highly interesting.

Elisabeth de Waal – “Milton Place”

(25 December 2019 – from Ali)

An absorbing and very readable novel, set in those interesting years just after the Second World War when people were adjusting to life again – and places were, too, as the house that’s the location for the novel was comandeered during the war, as so many were.

An Austrian woman, Anita, writes to an old friend from her mother’s address book when she badly needs to escape from her horrendous memories of the war and get some rest and quiet. Mr Barlow, who receives the letter, was terribly in love with Anita’s mother, having only seen her twice while himself engaged; he settled for the loveless marriage that ensued but constantly harks back to that time. Now a reminder of it is here, and he becomes very accustomed to her being around, the old ghost fading. I was a little bit confused why people just ‘accepted’ Anita as ‘a foreigner’ rather than a very recent enemy: maybe they think she’s a refugee, which she is in parts, and there’s certainly a good dollop of xenophobia of the general kind washing around.

Mr Barlow has two dreadful daughters, one bossy and one clingy – and of course they don’t like the idea of this woman of their age hanging around and inveigling her way into their father’s life, especially at a time when bossy Emily is plotting to winkle him out of the country house and into a nice, modern flat, pensioning off his trusty old retainers as she goes. There is a beloved grandson, too, who comes to visit, a product of the ‘generation gap’ straining to escape his father but dreading National Service. Anita fascinates both men, but without really meaning to – all she does is be kind to them and the shut-up old house, but that’s all anyone seems to need.

But the real joy in this book isn’t in the plot, however well-done that is. It’s in the quiet and deep observation of the house, the garden and their inhabitants. There are moments of drama, and a few of farce, tension and a love story, but the main love story is that of a man for his garden, I think, and the joy of the plot is actually found again in the quiet but precise observation – the nuances of an unpleasant and strained atmosphere at the tea table; the contrast between Emily’s inability to notice nature and Anita’s quiet glory in it. The human relationships are finely drawn in their shifts and contrasts, and incidental characters like the essentially kind Mrs Peacock beautifully observed. 

Several (many?) of Persephone’s books centre around what happens to the big houses when society has changed and they are too much to keep up. This adds much to this group and is a satisfying read.

(Here is Ali’s review – did we buy it for each other? I can’t remember now!)

Book review – Joe Moran – “On Roads” #amreading #bookblogger

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One from the backlist here and one of the last remaining books on the TBR acquired in 2019 – this time from the lovely Kaggsy of the Bookish Ramblings, a great enabler of my reading habit, who thought, rightly, of course, that I would enjoy it. You can read her review here.

Joe Moran – “On Roads: A Secret History”

(19 December 2019)

A history of Britain’s roads from the first motorway onwards, and concentrating really on motorways and A-roads, this is far from the dry tome you might imagine and packs an awful lot into its 259 pages of fairly small print. It’s mainly sociology and anthropology, with a bit of political history thrown in, and very authoritative, with a good chunk of notes at the back and an extensive bibliography.

Big chapters cover aspects like road manners through the ages (it does delve back into the dawn of the age of cars at times), speed, travelodges and service stations and anti-road protests. I found familiar points of interest even as a non-driver and light road-user: Spaghetti Junction, the Westway (I have read a really good book on the Westway several times!), the Welsh Language Society’s lobbying for bilingual road signs, road sign font battles, Matthew’s employer (who turned out to develop the first sat nav) and the Rebecca Riots, all things which pop up from time to time in what I’m reading and thinking about.

There’s a lot to learn, too: why gulls end up in the Midlands (mistaking roads for rivers and flying up them), how exactly Mills & Boon books and others are recycled into road-beds (I somehow imagined them just being laid down as they are!) and the fact that the first primary non-motorway signs were piloted in the nearby suburb of Hall Green!

Moran delves deep into his subject, sharing enthusiasm and knowledge. Some of the chapters were more enticing than others; I loved the one on protests, where he cleverly draws together the idea that the protests themselves were made up of a real mix of aristos, middle-class conservatives and societal outcasts. He makes the point in the conclusion that not everyone hates roads, and brings us back to the microcosm of road history found in his local area of Derbyshire.


I seem to have been reading quite varied fare this month. I am on Hyphens and Hashtags at the moment, a history of the symbols on the typewriter keyboard, which I’m reviewing for Shiny New Books, and just starting Mike Parker’s “On the Red Hill”, the story of a house, the two male couples who live in it over the years and a Welsh village, which I’m reading for Reading Wales Month. What are you reading at the moment?

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Searching for Caleb” #AnneTyler2021

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We’re on to the second book for March in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and yet another one I didn’t remember. I have a different copy to the one in my picture here, as that one was a) falling apart and b) a gift from someone no longer in my life, who noted it was quite hard to find – Vintage reissued it in 2016 and I picked up a copy to replace my old one. My original copy was bought for me and read in December 1998.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Searching for Caleb”

(03 March 2021)

 

“Our family is very close knit, a fine family, we have always stuck together, but I don’t know, periodically some … explorer sets out on his own.” (p. 15)

I’m really starting to see variations on a theme here: primarily the big family with its own special “ways” and suppression of any kind of discord, disagreement or shock. Here we have the Pecks, four generations of them, looking at their ageing and the ageing of the top figure on the family tree. Different from usual is that they all seem to live in houses on one plot of land. It’s the usual stuff: things happen and no one talks about them (this gives one of the major plot points, too) and anyone who leaves the family is never mentioned again. In this one, we are accompanying the people who have escaped the family – Duncan, his wife, and her grandfather, also the paterfamilias. And we also have Caleb who, in a book set in the 1970s, left the family in 1912.

Daniel’s hobby is searching for Caleb, following up leads and going to visit people with the only person who seems to understand, Justine. She’s a fortune-teller (though the back of the book says she can’t remember the past and I don’t see where that comes in in the book!) and has adapted to tagging along with Duncan as he grows bored of his job and goes on to the next one and the next, “using up” his relatives and their social capital as he goes. Justine and Duncan’s daughter, Meg, has reverted back to Peck type and only longs to be settled – however, in an interesting twist, we witness just what she ends up settling for.

This is a complex book in terms of structure, starting off as a family saga then darting around quite a lot, especially when we find out what happened to Caleb. There’s an incidental character who drops in now and then and might be pivotal or might not. And will the Peck way of doing things finally claim Justine and Duncan when they run out of options? I did guess what solution might work for them, but it was satisfying to see it happen.

I loved the subtle ageing and shifts of the family, the bachelor brothers’ sudden shift to a joke present after years of dullness and Justine’s own sudden breakout from her patterns. Characters turn out to be central who were pushed off to the side and there’s a commentary from the Black servant (there are two instances of difficult language around race but in the thought processes of characters from long ago when the terms would have been used; the Black characters are fully formed and respected as usual).

There’s a sadness about the buttoned-up conformity of the family members which suggests the other theme I am finding in Tyler: it’s best to be your own self and not try to change to match others. This is expressed poignantly by Daniel near the end of the book:

“In my childhood I was trained to hold things in, you see. But I thought I was holding them until a certain time. I assumed that someday, somewhere, I would again be given the opportunity to spend all that saved-up feeling. When will that be?”

Nobody answered. (p. 346)

An uneven, interesting structure, a mystery that’s solved satisfactorily and independent characters who refuse to conform made this a more upbeat read than the previous one. Oh, and the cat’s OK.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Kwana Jackson – “Real Men Knit”

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A book that was recommended to me by the Canadian knitting/running blogger A Petite Slice of Life. I’m not quite sure why I like books set in knitting shops so much since I am completely unable to knit (and have tried all the ways of learning: just cannot do it), but I do, so I fancied reading this one. It was indeed a fun read, with some important things to say about community and masculinity, too.

Kwana Jackson – “Real Men Knit”

(05 July 2020 – ebook)

Jesse and his three “brothers” (two of whom share a mother) were adopted by the redoubtable Mama Joy as boys – as well as running her knitting shop and community hub in Harlem, she changed their lives around and now all except Jesse are successful in their fields. She has also provided a haven for Kerry, who has now finally got her degree and a part time job she hopes to turn full time in a children’s centre.

Now Mama Joy has passed away and three of the sons want to sell up and move on, especially when they find out there are debts and worries. But Jesse wants to keep the shop going and prove he can actually come good for once, even when he feels like running away as usual. While this is a light read and a romance, he really does face up to things, even resorting to go on an apology mission to all his exes – who then all turn up at the shop relaunch! Kerry’s a good character who won’t take crap from the boys she’s grown up with, but as she works closely with Jesse on the shop, the old crush she’s always had starts to well up again. She goes for what she wants, though, and good for her.

The book is named after the Instagram account Kerry sets up, busily and cheerfully objectifying the City worker, dancer, fireman and womaniser against a background of wools. And yes, all the guys knit and are seen knitting, and share with local children how it’s taught them calm and persistence and how to concentrate.

The side characters are great, from Kerry’s feisty workmate Val to their dreadful culturally appropriating colleague and the group of rather alarming older ladies who always met at the shop for a knit and natter and don’t see why they should stop now. Older guys are shown supporting younger kids, which is nice, and the diversity of the brothers’ heritage is celebrated and occasional microaggressions pointed out carefully but not in a laboured way.

This is a slow burn with a lot of description of thought processes, but I ultimately enjoyed this fun and diverse read.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Celestial Navigation” #AnneTyler2021

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I am going to be honest here and admit I’m slightly freaked out by the fact that I do not remember ANYTHING about these books before or as I read them, although I have read them all at least once before. When I look on my spreadsheet of my reading diaries in order, I can look at books around the Tylers and recall at least something about them. With these, nothing at all, it’s as if I’m coming to them new. That’s not going to stop me, of course, but it is odd. I wonder when I’ll get to another one (I did sort of recall “A Slipping-Down Life“) that I remember properly.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Celestial Navigation”

(10 October 1999)

“He’s not himself at all today,” Mr Somerset told me.

People say that about Jeremy quite often, but what they mean is that he is not like other people. He is always himself. (p. 10)

We are properly and permanently in Baltimore now, in a terraced house that’s shabby as only Anne Tyler houses can be, and in fact a rooming house for a succession of temporary and more permanent residents. Something shocking has happened and two middle-aged sisters, told in bleak detail, return to the family home and their younger brother as their mother has died. Will Jeremy ever leave the house (at all?) and what will happen to him now he hasn’t got Mother to look after him? Will the new tenant, Mary, and her daughter effect any change?

You can see immediately this is a step forward technically for Tyler. There are shifting narrative viewpoints, and while this happened in “The Clock Winder” to an extent, this is more formalised here. Like that novel, it jumps forward a few months or years at a time, allowing for a longer narrative. And the first-person narration by the characters is new and self-assured.

The portrayal of Jeremy, from both internal and external perspectives, is masterful as a portrait of someone with perhaps a neurological or psychological issue of some kind (he definitely has social anxiety and panic attacks) as he zooms into a detail then zones out again at just the wrong moment for whoever is trying to engage with him. It’s also a good portrayal of the artistic process – or an artistic process – again from both the inside and the outside. 

In some respect the story fills in the gap of what happened in “The Clock Winder” when a capable, strong woman encounters an insular, rigid and limited man, although once again a gap of a few years loses the detail, tantalisingly. While Jeremy always seems to, passively, develop the resources and support he needs, Mary is forced to diminish herself to fit in, but can she ever make herself small enough? I admire her resourcefulness and her resolve to not jump from man to man, and although she makes a fatal error, I am starting to see that that allows her to be herself in her life – “you be you” – which in fact seems to be what everyone in the book ends up doing. Jeremy tries to be brave and go outside more, yet does that ultimately achieve anything? Is it better just to be as you are? I just don’t know!

And on that note, Miss Vinton seems the most content character, living alone effectively, knowing she’s lost out on various things but cherishing her youthful dream of sitting reading a book along in her room. And who is the strongest character in the book? Not the person we were told at the beginning.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I loved the detail and descriptions, but it’s ultimately a bit depressing, isn’t it? Or is that a product of the times in which I’m reading it? What did you think? 


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Attila the Stockbroker – “Heart on my Sleeve: Collected Works 1980-2020” @atilatstokbroka #ReadIndies

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Around this time last year, we had a holiday in Spain (I know – thankfully, Gran Canaria, we ate outside when we ate out and hardly saw anyone; I sat next to a man with a dry cough on the plane home …) and Attila was playing in Stourbridge the day after we got back. So I didn’t go. And how I regret that, because that was the last time he did a live show for the foreseeable. Hard-drinking but not keen on the other stuff, his lungs were damaged by years playing in smoky clubs, and we need to keep him safe. This will keep the fans going for a bit.

I first saw Attila the ranting poet back in 1989 or so, as a student, and he and the band The Men They Couldn’t Hang helped continue the political education I’d had started for me by my wonderful leftist, grow-you-own, beer-making neighbour, Mary. For the last several years he’s been doing shows at the Kitchen Garden Cafe locally or at Katie Fitzgerald’s in Stourbridge which I’ve gone to – I even took Matthew along to the last one and he had fun singing along to a certain song. I’ve watched some of his live shows during lockdown, and now you can have your pick of his works at any time, as he’s put out on Cherry Red Books a new Collected Works, “Heart on my Sleeve”, which launched for pre-order yesterday and will come out officially on 05 April 2021 – I purchased it direct from his Bandcamp page and you can pre-order from all the usual outlets. The ideal companion to his very entertaining autobiography, “Arguments Yard“, I’d say there was something here for everyone (well, probably not rabid right-wing Thatcher fans or haters of Europe and multiculturalism).

Attila the Stockbroker – “Heart on my Sleeve: Collected Works 1980-2020”

(25 February 2021)

I love words and I love ’em in the red and raw

I like to use them in ways they’ve not been used before

Want you to laugh and want you to think as well-

Bollocks to TV – this is live, as live as hell!

(from “My Poetic Licence”, 2006, updated 2020 p. 332)

Being the collected works, we get rap lyrics, rants and song lyrics, as well as the poems, rearranged into themes with some new ones added and bang up to date (c.f. “Coro Nation” and “Take Courage”. Some have been updated or have taken various forms over the years and this is carefully noted.

All the fan favourites are here, from the affectionate “To my Wife Robina in Lockdown, 8th September 2020”, which I’ve only of course seen him do online, through older wonders like “Joseph Porter’s Sleeping Bag”, “A Hellish Encounter” (the Devil can’t cope when Mrs Thatcher arrives in Hell) and “My Poetic Licence”, which sets out his stall and usually features in live shows, and more recently enjoyed ones such as the excoriation of people’s addiction to being distracted by silly stories from the real things that are going on, “Prince Harry’s Knob” (his knob!).

The poems about family and funeral poems are wryly funny and poignant and demonstrate there is so much more to this excellent performer and writer than knob-jokes and swearing. And, as I am proud I haven’t, he has not moved to the centre politically as we’re supposed to do as we grow older, so “Never Forget” from the Orgreave anniversary event commemorates the miners’ strike beautifully.

Having the lyrics in means that some of the excellent Barnstormer early music band stuff is here (“Abiezar Coppe” being a favourite of many, celebrating one of the original Ranters) as well as the stuff he does with more modern instruments (I do love the early instrument stuff; always good to see a shawm in action).

I’ll share one full poem which encapsulates left-wing sensibilities and his new love for gardening, having seen the whole process of veg springing up in his lockdown garden in 2020 as he was at home all the time for once, not touring.

THE MARXIST TOMATO GROWER

He sits

and waits

for his world

to turn red.

He knows it will,

eventually,

but it’s taking

a hell of a long time.

(“The Marxist Tomato Grower”, p. 221)

Cherry Red have done a lovely job with the book, like his autobiography before this, and it’s great to see this out on an indie publisher with a great book and music publishing tradition.

Book reviews – Chris McMillan – “The London Dream” and Pete Lindsay, Mark Bowden – “Pig Wrestling” #NetGalley #TheLondonDream

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Two books from NetGalley today – I do like my non-fiction reads from here even if I don’t keep up to date very well (I am making an effort to read the upcoming books I have in time for their publication while also chivvying away at the backlist, reading the oldest ones first where I can, unless I need to mix things up a bit, and I’m continuing to be very selective about what to request!

Chris McMillan – “The London Dream: Migration and the Mythology of the City”

(25 August 2020)

A fascinating and excellent book in which the author sets out to write “a bleak critique of working conditions in London” but finds that his interviewees are all unfailingly positive about their future in London, however bleak their conditions and immediate prospects. So he has to take another line, and ends up with a rather marvellous and statedly Marxist reading of modern London as a hub for and maintainer of capital.

Even when we think we’re being anti-consumer, green, ecological and sustainable, of course we are buying things, whether that’s reusable sponges or experiences in craft beer joints. It’s just a different kind of “cool capitalism” and all the new features of London (and other places, of course) rely on the old Marxist concept of the supply of workers being larger than the need, meaning that people can always be replaced by other people who will accept bad conditions and precarity while they try to gain a foothold in the city. So the Deliveroo rider who gives up because they don’t make enough money per delivery and never see their family might move on to something else but will be immediately replaced by probably a new migrant to the city (or someone moving “up” from an even more precarious position) and the company will never have to change its tactics.

London has creative hubs of course, with tech doing well but academia and the creative industries increasingly precarious for their workers, many of whom hold down second jobs in the gig economy. And while the adverts make it seem cool and flexible to be on a zero-hours contract, there are very few people who are able to use that successfully (I will admit here to having used a company that was a pioneer in zero-hours contracts and working-time-intiative dodging practices in order to earn enough during concentrated enough hours to get me through full-time Library School at the same time: I do appreciate though that this is NOT the experience of most!).

McMillan compares the London of today with the Victorian London that Marx and Engels studied, finding parallels in the dock workers queuing up waiting to be chosen to work each morning and the delivery drivers logging on for gigs. As a New Zealander by birth and Londoner by adoption, he is able to look at the city with that much more of an outsider’s eye, for example noticing “the British seem unable to fully acknowledge industrialised slavery” which of course the wealth of many of these exploiting companies was based on – nothing’s new in the world.

But his interviewees remain positive. They love London, they work hard and they feel they can progress, so there’s a stream of hope running through the book as a counterpoint to the Dickensian squalour. Very interesting and worthwhile read, and not a difficult or dry one. And he mentions and interviews his own transcriber, which made this transcriber smile!

Thank you to John Hunt Publishing for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Pete Lindsay & Mark Bowden – “Pig Wrestling”

(06 December 2018)

A decently done fable including a story within a story to use as a mnemonic for effecting change. The authors are well-renowned business and sports psychologists and claim that you can use the framework in the book for individual/personal as well as business/team change, to unstick problems that have got stuck, etc. The method is, without giving it all away, essentially around getting rid of preconceptions and reframing the question, and all but one of the examples are around business or a sports team, with one personal issue mentioned but not elaborated upon.

The people the Young Manager of the book is sent to chat with and learn from are varied in age and gender; I was just starting to huff a bit about racial homogeneity when I realised no one is described in enough detail for us to know their race or culture, so that was cleverly done. I feel this would be a good business tool to consider, but more in that area and team sports.

Thank you to Ebury Publishing for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review

Book review – Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows” #ReadIndies #LGBTHM21

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I read this book, published by the excellent crowdfunded publisher Unbound (I would have contributed to this one’s campaign had I know about it – from the batch I’m currently supporting I’m realising how long the lead-in times are so this one was in progress before I’d found the publisher) for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ and fortunately they have allowed a small overlap into March so everyone can fit in all their reviews! It also fit in with LGBTQIA+ History Month as I read most of it, all but the last two chapters, during that month. Out of these four books bought at the same time, I’ve read two, this one and “Mother Country”, so far.

Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows”

(20 July 2020)

A fascinating and deeply important book charting the history of trans people in the UK (taking in, by careful definition, transgender people, those who cross-dress and people who do not identify as gender binary, as these groups of people have been mixed up both inside and outside their respective movements, included and excluded one another and generally intertwined in their histories and organisations). All of the chapters are by people who are trans or non-binary (or all) or those who are closely involved with these communities and can offer a different and valuable viewpoint: the practitioner in a gender clinic, the parent of a trans child who helped found the Mermaids charity, the MP who campaigned for trans rights and was instrumental in getting laws changed. Most voices are from the communities themselves, however.

The book opens with a long set of introductions to the earlier histories of trans people, those who have already passed on but left some kind of record. Interesting issues of class come up here, with early upper class people perhaps better able to do what they needed to do and express themselves in their correct genders than the working class (I didn’t see anything about intersections with race in this book, which is quite clearly asking for a new book including that aspect). Then there are three sections, Survival, Activism and Growth, which chart the progression of trans and other communities from the early days of tracking down books or finding scraps of information in otherwise prurient and unpleasant media coverage (here I will acknowledge my cis-gender privilege of being able to talk about reading this book without having to worry about outing myself). In Activism people start to come together, showing the power of the Internet age, which has made the “sudden” flourishing and visibility of a group of people who have always been there possible as they were simply able to find each other; there is important charting of earlier collectives which relied on printed newsletters, phone calls and meetings. In Growth we learn about new initiatives to watch the media, change the law and embrace an increasing range of gender identities.

The set of essays is bookended by two stories of transition, Adrienne Nash’s early struggle to even communicate with a doctor contrasting with Stephanie Hirst’s seemingly smoother and better supported transition recently. A small group of activists, including Christine Burns, is credited with so much work early on, and we learn about gradual and hard work on the law, religion, personal identity, human rights and more. I hadn’t realised matters around marriage and birth certificates were quite so complicated, a horrible mess ensuing in the 60s with one divorce case which reversed in one stroke the ability to change a birth certificate, and even equal marriage didn’t seem to sort out the jumble of inequitable laws. There are interesting comments about the framework of laws being the impetus for societal change in favour of all protected groups of people and I do hope that is so, because 1 in 100 people are trans, which means we all must know a few trans folk (I certainly and happily do). I was struck by another statistic, that a third of people experience themselves as non-gender-binary in whatever form that takes, having never particularly felt massively woman-like myself, with a much smaller percentage expressing that identity.

The non-trans people in the book reminded me of the White people in “The Good Immigrant USA” taking it upon themselves as allies to explain, for example, the history of the Charing Cross Clinic, in Dr Stuart Lorimer’s case, or explaining their path from misapprehension to greater understanding in Dr Lynne Jones (ex-MP)’s case.  I was moved by the fact that Dr Lorimer is a friend of a friend and Dr Jones was my MP for some of the time that’s detailed in her chapter! Importantly, it did not feel that the trans narratives were being somehow legitimated or dominated by these few cis-gender narratives. Each one spoke to specific lived experience that I don’t think could have been covered by a trans writer on the topic. Dr Lorimer pops up later, and movingly, as one of the many examples of supportive people, helping Mark Rees (who bravely took his case to the European Court of Human Rights) to get his gender recognition certificate in later life.The book does not sweeten the pill of trolling, abuse, vile reporting and systematic exclusion from human rights, but the moments of joy and support are equally covered and important.

This is recommended reading, a great counter argument to narratives that have been damaging the cause of assigning equal rights and protection to trans and non-binary people. There is dissent within the movements covered and different opinions are expressed in the essays, but it’s a rich and important read that many could benefit from. I would be interested to read reviews by trans and non-binary people, or their thoughts on this book; please share if you have any links!

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