Book review – V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”


I’ve done it! I’ve read all except two of the books I laid out to read at the start of Novellas in November (the Querying With Nuance one and the Maya Angelou) and I added one extra from my NetGalley books. The Mrs Oliphant came in at two books and so somehow (I’ve just re-counted) I’ve got to 16 novellas read in the month!

I bought this book in Oxfam Books in September this year. It’s one of the old Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series with the angular fish on it and I have to admit that I’ve got a hankering to collect them now …

V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”

(08 September 2021)

One of the miracles of life in Miguel Street was that no one starved. If you sit down at a table with pencil and paper and try to work it out, you will find it impossible. But I lived in Miguel Street, and can assure you that no one starved. Perhaps they did go hungry, but you never heard about it. (p. 86)

This 1959 novel (in the Introduction, Laban Erapu makes it clear that it should be considered a novel, or a novelised memoir, rather than a book of short stories or connected sketches, and there are repeated notes that pull each character’s chapter together, such as their fate being noticed in the papers) is set in Trinidad around World War Two, in a poor street that might even look like a slum to a passer-by, where the houses and their inhabitants are bound together by their physical place and their place in life. Any attempt to make a better living or make something of yourself will fail and bring you back down to the level, whether that’s trying to pass exams to study medicine or running a brothel or taxi service while the Americans are on the island. Tinkering with cars that aren’t wrong in the first place is the way the narrator’s uncle tries to improve his life, equally hopelessly. But within their station, the inhabitants are happy (as long as they don’t get mixed up with dodgy women or violent men), sitting chatting about cricket and gossiping about the neighbours.

The narrator goes from boy to man during the book, and by the end he’s seen his main adult friend, Hat, go through something of a journey and is preparing to go on his own journey, as Naipaul of course also did. The book reminded me very much of C.L.R. James’ “Minty Alley“, also of course set in a bustling but poor street in Trinidad, but a decade or so earlier, with the same striving for betterment and the same downfall coming in when you get involved in romantic relationships. They’re both lively and fun but with moments of wrenching sadness, found here in the loss of a daughter or the deflation of a man who thinks he’s funny until he’s openly mocked by the whole street. In this first novel of Naipaul, we see the character tropes, even some of the characters (the Mystic Masseur makes a brief appearance) in a quick and engaging read that guarantees engagement and enjoyment.

I never knew a man who enjoyed life as much as Hat did. He did nothing new of spectacular – in fact, he did practically the same things every day – but he always enjoyed what he did. And every now and then he managed to give a fantastic twist to some very ordinary thing. (p. 156)

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 21/85 – 64 to go! It was Book 16 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”


Still managing just to hold onto my schedule, I have two books in this picture left to finish (I’ve started “Miguel Street” and I’ve managed to get nicely ahead of my TBR challenge plan. I do need to say however about this book that I was very wrong when I used to say, airily, “Oh, I don’t read books about Africa”. Oh dear. This usually meant Africa south of the countries along the northern edge, and didn’t include the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And over the years, I did read a few books set all or partly in Africa (“Americanah” for instance. This was mainly down, to be fair to me, to my perception of the habit of publishers to share in my market mainly books that featured bloody and violent conflict (similarly to the idea that there must be Icelandic books published that are not noir, but not that many reach us). However much I know we must not look away from bloody and violent conflict, especially that caused essentially by colonialism, I also have issues with reading and watching violent content. However, I was OK reading about Partition in India, just about. And I think I did have a sea-change and change of heart after reading “Roots” with its horrific scenes. And then, of course, it turns out that books about Africa are not all about bloody and violent conflict anyway (thanks, unconscious bias and stereotyping) and I really should have read this amazing 1970s classic earlier. Anyway, confession over, I bought this book in July this year in my Book Token Splurge, having seen Emecheta’s work featured on a TV programme about African writers a few months previously.

Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

(01 July 2021)

They were kind, those women in the ward. For the first few days, when Adah was deciding whether it was worth struggling to hold on to this life, those women kept showing her many things. They seemed to be telling her to look around her, that there were still many beautiful things to be seen which she had not seen, that there were still several joys to be experienced which she had not yet experienced, that she was still young, that her whole life was still ahead of her. (p. 115)

This 1974 novel is of course as brutal and psychologically horrific as any narrative of war in its way. But it’s also powerful, enchanting and very readable. Adah, a Nigerian Igbo woman, having had a tricky start in life, getting herself as educated as she could do through various means and wanting to become a librarian, marries young and manages to use the family dynamics of her in-laws to ensure that when her husband, Francis, travels to London to “study”, she accompanies him. Francis is a terrible waster, refusing to work or even study properly, quick to strike out physically or verbally and messing around with other women (this is staged as a practice to relieve her when she’s had one of their many children). She has to use all her wits and guile to get a job, get housing – it’s set in the 1960s and racial prejudice is still rife, so she’s refused housing when people find out she’s Black, and with two, then three, then four children – and work out how to operate in this strange, unemotional land, where you certainly don’t make up a stompy revenge song and dance if someone annoys you. Things get worse when she tries to access contraception so she can stop popping out a baby a year, and finds she has to have Francis’ signature to get it.

She inhabits twin worlds of slightly shady boarding houses and the lovely atmosphere of public libraries, where her colleagues are kind and supportive, and bring a light into her difficult world – there’s a particularly lovely part near the end where a Canadian colleague orders books by Black writers through the library system then the workers share them around and discuss them. She encounters White women who have married or had children with Black men and sees her husband’s pull towards White women, too, but shows sympathy for everyone who is just trying to get by. It’s a heartbreaking book but with enough points of light from kind people, from the fellow-patients in the maternity ward to their GP, to relieve the reader as well as Adah, and moments of reflection and beauty in the scraps of nature Adah finds in London.

I loved the clear, almost naive but penetrating and intelligent writing style (it reminded me a bit of my great favourite author R. K. Narayan) and indeed she talks about this near the end of the book when Adah is considering becoming a writer.

Yes, it was the English language she was going to use. But she could not write those big, long, twisting words. Well, she might not be able to do those long, difficult words, but she was going to do her own phrases her own way. Adah’s phrases, that was what they were gong to be. (p. 177)

Unfortunate in her choice of husband, desperate to escape after he makes a big attempt on her identity and half-kills her, beaten down psychologically in London to be made to feel she’s a second-class citizen (at best), she retains her hope and spirit, determined she will be proud to be Black and inculcate that in her children. I loved this book and will be acquiring and reading the rest of her works, and soon.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 20/85 – 65 to go! It was Book 14 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Sven Lindqvist – “Terra Nullius”


Oh dear – at almost the last hurdle, I’ve fallen behind my plan! We both had our booster Covid vaccinations yesterday at our GP surgery, and although we’ve not been too bad and it was worth it, of course, we did have some side effects that led to me sleeping in and drifting around rather than keeping focused on reviewing this book this morning and finishing reading two more to review tomorrow! Anyway, this is my second book read for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. I bought it from Oxfam Books in September, spotting it was about Australia and immediately putting it in the pile to buy. So this one comes in for NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge as well as AusReading Month!

Sven Lindqvist, translated by Sarah Death – “Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land”

(8 September 2021)

If one of us can, everyone can. On that basis, it turns out that whole villages can produce superb works of art which win them acclaim from teh world and raise them out of misery and dependence. (p. 202)

So I need to mention first of all that this is an outsider’s reading of an outsider’s translated book about their experience travelling in Australia and learning of the country’s history, particularly around its interactions with the original Aboriginal peoples*. In the early 2000s, Lindqvist paid a long visit to Australia from his native Sweden, researching the history of the places he visited and seeking out sites relating to the many atrocities he discovered had been meted out to the Aboriginal peoples who already lived there. The title and subtitle are ironic: it was because the British settlers who went there and claimed the land stated that it was no one’s land that they were able to claim it, when, of course, it was land inhabited for centuries [edit: as Bill reminds me, millennia] by people to whom it was hospitable, fruitful, sustainable and religiously significant.

Lindqvist details horrendous event after horrendous event, from people being turned off their land to forced migrations (It “doesn’t matter” because they’re “nomads”; never mind the significance a certain land has to a group), being studied to back up spurious psychological theories, being moved out of the way for nuclear testing even after a test ban treaty had been signed, having mixed-heritage children forcibly removed from them to be taken away and “saved”, and being plied with alcohol then slammed for using it. He draws an interesting parallel with the treatment of more recent immigrants to Australia than the British; refugees being herded into camps and kept in inhumane conditions.

He does also celebrate the cleverness of some Aboriginal peoples in their manipulation of their coverage and discussion, and also some sympathetic Europeans who try to help and/or make amends. And later in the book he very much celebrates the way Aboriginal peoples artists, especially women, have flourished and taken their place in worldwide art markets, celebrating also their very different attitude towards artistic talent and individual exceptionalism, and the way that recent radio and television media have helped to preserve and spread cultural artifacts such as sand pictures and songs. He also celebrates the recent movements around Indigenous peoples across the whole world joining together for conferences, solidarity and campaigning.

There is travelogue in here, places stayed and people met, and some good geology. A chronology in the back of the book sets the events in order and lists which chapters they fall in, as the chapters are not in strict chronological order themselves as he travels around, delving into history. Of course a pretty hard book to read, Lindqvist shares his horror without going over the top, I felt and does bring out positives where he can. The emotional impact taught me a lot more about what I sort of half-knew intellectually, and I’m glad I read the book.

* I sought support from Brona on how to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia and she pointed me to some resources to help me decide. I have used Aboriginal people because Lindqvist travels around the whole country and discusses a wide range of different peoples, but no Torres Strait Islanders, as far as I was aware.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 19/85 – 66 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and AusReading Month! Interestingly, for AusReading Month, I’ve managed to read one book by Australians set in Iceland and one book by a Swede set in Australia!

Book reviews – Robin DiAngelo – “White Fragility” and Layla F. Saad – “Me and White Supremacy”


Still zipping through the Novellas in November, with “White Fragility” the oldest on my TBR (so part of that challenge, too). I’ve spent more than 28 days getting through “Me and White Supremacy” but have finally finished that, too, so it seemed apt for it to share this review. I had saved both to read after I’d read up on some direct experiences of Global Majority People in the UK, but actually should probably have read them earlier in the process, however I did of course learn something new from each of them.

Robin DiAngelo – “White Fragility”

(18 June 2020)

There’s been quite a lot of negative commentary on this one as being one of the big Black Lives Matter Booklists titles but having been written by a White woman. I do understand that this means BLM-related monies have gone away from Black folk, however I would hope that people didn’t only buy this book, but bought others by a range of people (as I did and continue to do). And as regards DiAngelo’s validity in writing this book, she makes the point that White people will take some of the hard talking she does from a White person whereas they might not from someone of a different colour (that’s obviously not a good thing, but she does have a point). She can also use “we” and share the issues she’s had and mistakes she’s made (which she does), therefore setting an example for good practice and allyship. She does share that she’s centring White people while doing this and agrees it’s a dilemma: she is obviously showing up, doing the work and thinking hard.

After introductory chapters explaining how White people are socialised to think in certain ways, to not see their own race (and to claim not to see others) and within an environment of White privilege, she takes on the issue of White fragility, the fact that White people feel it’s worse to be accused of racism than to be racist, the fact that White people think of “Being a racist” as being a bad person who does overt racist acts, rather than being someone who is part of the status quo and works to maintain it, and pushes away criticism, acknowledgement of Black pain and racism etc. with tactics including defeat, aggression and tears.

She then looks at how we can work against this, patterning concrete ways we can acknowledge and accept being called out and ways we can make amends for errors and poor behaviour. All through the book she uses real examples from her teaching work on race issues and from her own life, and this makes things very understandable and clear. She shares how people can reframe things, for example changing “I’m Italian American and Italians were disctriminated against previously” to thinking about how Italian Americans have since become considered as “White” (on this, I did not know that people of different ethnicities, including Japanese and Armenian people, had to petition the American courts to be considered as “White” and thus able to vote, before universal sufferage in the 1960s. There’s always something to learn, even when you’ve read widely), or changing “there’s no racism now” narratives about Black people breaking into White spaces, e.g. in baseball, to “X was the first Black person to be allowed to compete in the league”.

She is pretty hard-hitting: this is not an easy read and does not let people off the hook. Especially important was the effect that White tears, especially White women’s tears, can have on Black people around them who are used to these tears giving rise to extremely serious and horrific consequences for Black people (this is quite US-based but I’m sure it’s not a non-issue in other countries). Strategies for reframing narratives and reactions and working together were useful. There’s a list for further reading at the back and I was pleased to see I have or have read the UK-centric ones. I think this book still has strong value.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 18/85 – 67 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and it was also Book 13 in my Novellas in November reads.

Layla F. Saad – “Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”

(15 June 2020)

This was another one that I’d waited to read until I’d caught up on some memoir and analysis around the UK in particular. And again, that was a mistake, as quite a bit of what I read here, when I got started in late September, was stuff I’d read up on already. However, it’s always good to triangulate information and there was a lot of very good information, presented well, in this book.

It’s a bit hard to review this without looking resistant to my own complicity in institutionalised racism, however I think there were some facets which just didn’t fit with my nationality in general and personality in particular. Basically, it works through facets of racism exhibited and inherent in White people, starting with (very useful) definitions of White supremacy, White privilege, etc., and moving on to anti-Blackness, stereotyping and cultural appropriation, allyship, and power, relationships and commitments. Each week has a theme, each day has questions, and you work through day by day, on your own or in a group (there are set guidelines for how groups operate; I did this on my own, but chatting through it with some very useful friends (esp Linda: thank you!)) and note down your answers in a notebook. I did this carefully but didn’t do it every day once a day for a month, as you’re supposed to.

The issue I had was that I really just do not do some of the things in the questions, ever, to anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted anyone down, and I really don’t believe I’ve ever tone policed someone apart from asking another White person not to shout at me during an argument, certainly not if they are just expressing themselves or their feelings. So those sections were hard to fill in, especially when it went on to say that if you’d said no to those questions you were deceiving yourself. I do think this might be a cultural issue, the UK is enmired in racism but we practise it more subtly than in other places, more insidiously. And of course I accept that I’ve benefitted from White privilege and indulged in apathy and silence, which are more matched to my more reticent personality, if that makes sense. As in the first book, the real-life examples of how these aspects play out are very useful indeed, and there’s a full reading list at the end after a good list of tips for how to do the work and continue to do it. I have made my commitments to myself and will continue to review those.

I’d recommend this book to people who want to think about how racism works in themselves and in society, but if you’re in the UK, I’d also recommend reading other books that are more UK-centric to understand how things play out here.

This one isn’t from the TBR project as it was off the shelf and being read when I set that up, but it does fall under Nonfiction November!

Book reviews – two short guides to London


I’m quite enjoying looking at my Novellas in November picture and seeing how many I’ve picked off already! I might not get to the Maya Angelou (but that’s not hard to reshelve if I don’t read it, a powerful reason to read all the others so I don’t have to fit them back in date of acquisition order!) but I’ve added yesterday’s Dyslexia book, I’ve just finished “White Fragility” at the time of writing this, and then only have three left to go! I’ve chosen to review these two books about London sights together as they fit together and I’m running out of days for reviews. I heartily recommend both of them, and can’t wait to get down to London again and do some touring around and photographing with Emma! I bought both of these books in this summer’s Christmas/Birthday book token splurge.

Joshua Abbot – “A Guide to Modernism in Metroland”

(24 June 2021)

This attractive small book (though the print, I will say, is very small) takes as its locations the outlying areas of London and the Home Counties known as Metroland from the expansion of the Metropolitan Underground line. The design of Tube stations themselves, municipal buildings, blocks of flats and private homes often (in decreasing amounts as you go down that list) adopted the Modernist / Moderne / International style – think round stairwells, blocks of windows with metal frames and white concrete. This was not always hugely popular, and certainly homes were built of brick and rendered rather than made of concrete, and quite a lot of the buildings faded away over the years, but there are certainly enough to make a book out of, from austere brick churches to Egyptian-style cinemas to cantilevered sports stadium terraces and the odd sparkling white block of a house.

Taking buildings in the style up to the modern day, the book is arranged by London borough, then county, with a map at the start of each section with the places marked, then a postcode for each building and a photograph for many of them. There’s a good book list in the back and an index. The book was published on the Unbound site, and I would definitely have contributed to the funding if I’d been on there when it was started! The author, Joshua Abbott, runs guided tours of modernist buildings, one of which Emma has been on, and recommends. His website is here.

Avril Nanton and Jody Burton – “Black London: History, Art & Culture in Over 120 Places”

(31 August 2021)

Before we get to the guide and sights, we find an introduction setting the book out as “a historical guide to black global history in London, as well as a compendium of information about things to see,” a history of the HMT Windrush (even though this is clearly not only a post-Windrush book), a note on the different London plaque schemes, an excellent and detailed timeline and a list of Black events in London. At the back is a good resource list, split into websites, fiction and non-fiction for adults and young people.

This excellent book covers the whole of London, split into Central & East, North, West, South and South-East, with a map and legend for each section, and has such a huge range of things to learn about and look at, from Cleopatra’s Needle to places commemorating the Black Lives Matter movement, recently installed plaques and statues and those that have been there longer, and street art by amazing artists (including one from Birmingham, Carleen de Sözer).

I left London in 2005 and it’s striking to see how much work has been done since then by boroughs and organisations (including the BBC History Project featured in David Olusoga’s “Black and British” series and the Nubian Jak Community Trust). It also reminds us of writers, bookshop owners, activists and artists who came before the current generations, so important to remember (although dispiriting that so many fights have to go on and on. This book has certainly made me want to return to New Cross Gate to see the New Cross Fire memorial and the murals celebrating the Battle of Lewisham in New Cross and of Bob Marley in Brockley. A wonderful resource that has so much to offer, with enough history and information to be informative but not overwhelming.

These were TBR Challenge 2021-22 Books 16-17/85 – 68 to go! I read them for Nonfiction November and they were also Books 11 and 12 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Kelli Sandman-Hurley – “The Adult Side of Dyslexia”


I was attracted to request this NetGalley book because I’d just been thinking and writing about my editing clients with dyslexia, who are one group of writers who often use speech-to-text software (I wrote about this on my professional blog here), and also one of the books I’d been reading about race issues had mentioned how Black children are less likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia and more likely to be diagnosed with behavioural issues. I liked seeing the darker skin of the woman on the cover, allowing her to be one of many ethnicities rather than just a “standard” White. It is published this month, so I aimed to read it anyway, popping it into my NonFiction November challenge, but then when I started powering through the percentages on my Kindle I checked and realised it was also a Novella in November candidate!

Kelli Sandman-Hurley – “The Adult Side of Dyslexia”

(29 September 2021)

This short book has all it needs to pack a punch, give people visibility and recognition and put forward good solid action points for the future. Sandman-Hurley did a qualitative study, interviewing around 50 adults with dyslexia about their experiences in education and their lives and opinions now.

She recruited a wide range of respondents of all races and social classes, and reports their words directly in most of the text, drawing comparisons and making careful use of “most”, “many” and “some” as she goes (she’s also careful to ask them how they wish to be referred to, as dyslexics or people with dyslexia, and is careful to honour all their different experiences, although I did note she only seems to refer to people’s race when they were not White*; she does talk about particularly inequitable treatment given to Black and Latinx students in schools).

The stories are of course sad and painful, but she’s quick to draw lessons from them about advocacy, self-advocacy, teacher education and the importance of adult dyslexics providing role models and advocates for younger people coming along. She even includes call-out quotes that summarise the page they’re on (I’m not sure what this looks like in the print book; it showed up as paragraphs in bold in the middle of the pages on the Kindle ARC), presumably to allow a more smooth read for people with dyslexia accessing the book.

There’s a resource list in the back that includes books, websites and podcasts, including non-US ones. Sandman-Hurley is an adult literacy teacher and researcher and has written other books around dyslexia and this is an excellent, although based in the US school system, resource.

* Edited to add: in fairness to the author, I received this gracious reaction to my review from her via (public) Twitter: “Thank you for the review. I appreciate the point that I only referred to race when it wasn’t white. That was certainly an unconscious issue that I will address as I go forward.”

“The Adult Side of Dyslexia” was published on 18 November 2021. Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers for making it available on NetGalley in return for an honest review.

I read this for Nonfiction November and it was also Book 10 in my Novellas in November reads

Book review – Stephen Pennell – “King City: Adventures into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Culture”


This book just fell into Novellas in November at 189 pages of text (it’s a B size paperback, so quite a lot of text) and it just fell into my TBR Challenge as it arrived on the same day as the Dave Grohl book that started off the challenge. It’s one of the books I’ve subscribed to via Unbound – always exciting, as you never quite know when the book is going to come to fruition – though this time officially published by The History Press.

Stephen Pennell – “King City: Adventures into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Scene”

(05 October 2021 – Unbound) I couldn’t resist a book about my home city and music, even if my gig-going has dried up a bit recently and seems to be composed solely of seeing Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and members of The Mens’ side-projects. I was hoping this would give me some impetus to try some new local bands once the pandemic is properly over, and I did indeed get some ideas.

Pennell has written these pieces for local newspapers and music sites/papers, and they’re all competently done and well-written. He does revisit the same performers and bands quite a few times, all locals such as Lady Sanity and The Clause, with regular trips to see Paul Weller (he’s a mod, though he’s wider in his music tastes than that would suggest), but it’s fresh and enthusiastic writing and, being in a smallish scene, he knows the musicians and gets access to do interviews with them, too. There’s amusement, too, with his regular sideways glancing descriptions of the area of the city he comes from (there’s also an unreconstructed element to him: this is a working man who’s steeped in the working class of the city: he calls his wife “Wifey” and he has to Google neurodiversity, but he doesn’t display any prejudice and is happy with all slices of the city’s population so that’s a very minor point.

Of course, being Birmingham, everything’s down to earth, from Tommy Iommi’s solution to cutting off the tips of his fingers just before going full-time with Black Sabbath in the introduction that runs through Birmingham’s musical history, to the performers who happily hang around after their gigs to chat to fans. I also loved how Pennell displayed the Brummie trait of comparing everywhere else we go to our home city (I was caught telling my husband how like Birmingham Monpellier was once, fairly spuriously), so he’s not impressed by a bicycle taxi driver’s stats on Hyde Park, knowing we have the largest urban park in Europe (Sutton Park, where I recently almost broke my hand during a race), and managing to extend this to New York.

Most of the pieces were written before the pandemic but it does intervene near the end, shutting down gigs, then making gigs weird when they do come back, and almost felling one of the major figures in the Birmingham music scene. Perhaps one to dip into rather than read cover to cover in one go (my fault) and a good snapshot of venues and performers, with some nostalgia for older, lost venues, too. I’m not sure how much anyone outside Birmingham will get out of it, though decent music writing is decent music writing wherever it’s based, but there’s a good slice of backers in the list at the end, and there are over a million of us here, so I hope it does well.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 16/85 – 69 to go – it’s a Novella in November (number 9) and it’s one of my Nonfiction November reads.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger than Fiction


It’s the fourth (and extra!) week of of Nonfiction November and it’s time for a new challenge to me: Stranger than Fiction.

Week 4: (November 22-26) – Stranger Than Fiction with Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

I’m selecting two books I’ve read very recently (in fact the last two books I’ve reviewed) for this weekly prompt, and in fact I read one of them to the exclusion of all else (sorry, Novellas in November) to make sure I could fit it in! I hope that’s not cheating, but maybe I read very believeable books usually …

The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes” by Zoe Playdon discusses something that should and could never have happened in English and Scottish law: the absolute silencing, super-injunction before there were super-injunctions created suppression of a court case which still managed to act as a precedent in law to protect inheritance laws and keep the hegemony of the Establishment intact, and destroyed the ability of trans people to have any kind of equal opportunity or fair treatment in law or employment. Absolutely shocking, and very well drawn in this book that deserves a wide audience.

On a lighter but still not quite believable note, what Nimsdai Purja describes in “Beyond Possible” just shouldn’t have been possible – scaling the world’s fourteen highest mountains in a matter of months rather than years, but also ending up directing traffic on Everest, dangling off a rope tied to a helicopter to rescue a fellow climber in trouble and saving lives while breaking records.

This has been a fun one to do, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s entries for this prompt!

Book review – Nimsdai Purja – “Beyond Possible”


I picked this book from my TBR shelf partly because it’s a non-fiction book and I could include it in my Nonfiction November challenge and more because it fits in with the weekly challenge prompt (which I will answer today or tomorrow, depending on my by now fairly horrendous reviewing schedule).

Nimsdai Purja – “Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks – My Life in the Death Zone”

(24 November 2020)

The climbing community might have misjudged my determination to pull off the impossible in a big way, but at the same time, I understood the surreal mood. Kim Chang-ho had taken nearly eight years to achieve the same feat, so to put my million into sea level terms, it was as if I’d announced my aim to break Eliud Kipchoge’s 2018 marathon world record of two hours, one minute and thirty-nine seconds. But rather than knocking a second or two off an already incredible time, I’d promised to smash all 26.2 miles in around ten minutes. (p. 120)

I’ve always loved reading classic mountaineering and other adventure books, even though I’m fairly feeble myself and not a fan of trying to climb anything. Here, in a modern version, the Nepalese climber, Nimsdai Purja, who wrote this book with the help of my transcription client Matt Allen, sets out to achieve something “impossible” – climbing all fourteen over-8,000m mountain peaks in Nepal, Tibet, Pakistan and China in less than the previous record of seven years and several months. A lot less.

So many things in this book are seemingly impossible feats: he saves lives and attempts to save others while out on the mountains doing his own challenges, he acclimatises more rapidly than other climbers and recovers amazingly quickly from work that floors others, he rescues a fellow climber in an operation that includes being helicoptered up to him, dangling off a rope underneath the helicopter, and he ends up directing climbers in a traffic jam on Everest when he’s supposed to be breaking a world record. Oh, and he breaks several world records while training for and accomplishing Bremont Project Possible (as part of the challenge, he takes his sponsor’s watch faces to each peak, then they can be sold as such).

Nims is a strange mixture of confidence and humility – he does it all for his community of Nepalese sherpas, unsung heroes of so many feted climbs by European and American mountaineers, and to raise awareness of climate change, and to show people you can do anything and inspire people, he loves his mum and dad and his siblings and wife, but also he refuses to show fear, takes command of situations, has to stop himself acting recklessly to prove a point and is an ex-Gurkha and Special Boat Services soldier.

The book does well to bring out any moments when he does waver, opening notably with a near-death experience in an avalanche and featuring his anger when no other climbers will help him try to rescue two lost men and wobbles and an inadvertent surf down an avalanche on his final mountain. The book is approachable for the non-mountaineering-expert; there are several footnotes which explain climbing techniques and other terms that come up, which is a good way of doing it. There are two sets of excellent colour plates and we get eight Lessons from the Death zone at the end (Matt Allen does a lot of books with typical “hard men” so this was not unexpected). A good read, exciting even if you followed Nims’ adventures and know what happened, and an inspirational message.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 15/85 – 70 to go – and it’s one of my Nonfiction November reads.

Book review – Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”


A review of a fascinating book I have read through NetGalley today (and of course also a NonFiction November read), this covers a shocking 1960s legal case that was hushed up and suppressed, even though it continued to affect English and Scottish law for the next few decades.

Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”

(14 October 2021 – NetGalley)

Zoe Playdon is Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London and co-founded the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity with Dr Lynne Jones MP (my old MP!) in 1994. She worked for 30 years on the front line in LGBTI human rights, including working with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC; it was during her working life that she came across the case but only in her retirement that she had the time to research and present it. The book hinges on the case of Ewan Forbes, a Scottish member of the aristocracy who was born female but identified as male, lived a happy outdoor life, got his birth certificate changed in the 1950s, as you could then, and married and was practising happily as a doctor when a series of deaths in the family with no adjustment of wills meant that his cousin suddenly challenged him for his titles and land on the basis of him not being born male.

This turns out to be all to do with primogeniture, the arrangement by which only males could inherit titles and land – seen to have been changed by the Queen regarding Royal Succession, where now the oldest child whoever they are inherits. But at the time, it put the wind up the Establishment, as it seemed to show that gender was mutable and there was no such thing as a clear man or woman. So the case was not only found in favour of Ewan, but on a very narrow basis, but was then suppressed by what we’d call now a super-injunction, having a knock-on effect on the April Ashley case and between them making it then illegal to change the gender on a birth certificate.

I’m not a legal expert, but English and other UK law is based on precedent, and that precedent is recorded publicly. Here, precedent was based on a suppressed, invisible case which Playdon had to get dug out of the archives by the highest legal authorities in England. She then studied the case and Forbes’ life and has in this book placed it within the context of 20th and 21st century trans people’s lives and liberties. As Forbes didn’t name himself a trans man (he left a memoir which had a narrative of always being male) and there are few records about him, Playdon did have to fill in a few gaps with “he must have felt this” and “he must have felt that” which left me a little uncomfortable. But her work setting this within the context of the way trans people had to conform to medical narratives, the way the medical establishment in the UK and US (here, pathologised in order for psychiatrists to make money back from medical insurance, among other motivations) and abominable treatment of trans people in the law and society is impeccable, even exhaustive, following it back to then and right up to date with the moves forward in legal protection and the backlash from some trans-exclusionary radical feminists.

I was aware of quite a lot of this history from other books on trans history I’ve read recently (although I was not aware that the notorious Charing Cross Hospital gender identity clinic gatekeeper, John Randell, was a secret and guilt-harrowed cross-dresser), but it’s a good thing to have these narratives presented with different perspectives and focuses. The book also reminds us that a narrative of pushing for accoutrements of their correct gender from a very early age and the obsession with trans people having operations to correct their bodies are constructs, not truths, created by a medical profession that sought to control and gatekeep, often very much not in the best interests of trans people themselves.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to read via NetGalley. “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes” was published on 11 November 2021. It’s formed part of my NonFiction November reading.

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