Book review – Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Places”

6 Comments

Time for another of my 20 Books of Summer and I’m feeling like I’m making some progress now I’m on Book 10!

I bought this book in July 2020 from Oxfam Books – I blogged about a lot of incomings including this here. Funny story: This was when things opened up a bit more in England, and after my friend Trudie had said she had been in a few charity shops on the high street and they were all pretty safe, with hand sanitiser and screens, and feeling bereft of my usual pastime of cruising all the many shops nearby, I decided to venture to Oxfam Books, as I know I can always find something there. I chose two other books and I wasn’t sure about this one. But wait – what should I do with it, having taken it off the shelf – having touched it?? I had heard that Waterstones had a trolley for such eventualities – no such thing here. So, readers, I bought it.

Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Place: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain”

( 2020)

These are the stopping places, these fringes and in-between places. they are the places that nobody lives except Travellers – or nobody but those who share ancient connections with them: gamekeepers and poachers, scrap-metal men, horse-women, rangers and shepherds. They are the old nomad’s haunts of the island. Many are smashed and build over; some – magically – are more or less just as they were in centuries long past. (p. 25)

Le Bas has always felt slightly on the edge of things – a (the term is his) fully Gypsy upbringing, living on a yard with his artist parents, but with mixed heritage somewhere in living memory and being blond and blue-eyed, not looking like a classic member of his community, and often challenged for that, before and during the writing of this book. He’d taken himself off to university, too, and was in the academic sociology and Gypsy Studies community as well as his own one, a travelling man with a footwell full of books. Increasingly pulled in one direction and the other, he decided to do a tour of the “Stopping Places” – traditional points where travelling Gypsies would pull in for a night or two to a long season, some to do with fairs and celebrations, some commemorations, many just a good place to stop by the road.

Having been through long journeys in East Sussex to sell flowers at one particular pitch, he starts off with his family’s stopping places, and it’s here that he finds the most emotional connection. But as he picks up information on others, movingly from a woman at a big conference who shyly produces a list she’s written out for him, and travels from Kent to Cornwall, North Wales to Skye; he gets used to living in his Transit van, sometimes with his wife, Candis, sometimes alone, and, somewhere in the middle of his journey, moves it over from utilitarian to aesthetic, borrowing some richly decorated textiles from his mum’s collection to make it into a colourful and exciting interior.

There’s a lot of fascinating detail in the book, from an exploration of the tight and strong codes of hygiene and cleanliness (for example never using the same equipment to wash yourself and your washing up, not one known to most campers, I understand) to the similar codes of deference and hierarchy used when meeting strangers. There is also lots on the international community of Travellers / Gypsies and the differences between groups originating from different countries. Somehow, I had never grasped there were actual Travellers in the US, while I knew there were pleny of nomads as such. One thing that wasn’t really explained was what “New Travellers” are – they were mentioned a few times but not explained, and I understand who the hippies are who have eschewed permanent homes for life on the road, but not this other group.

I loved how the book was both a sociological analysis and a good piece of travel and nature writing but also the narrative of a man growing into his identity, embracing life on the move and getting used to it, getting more chilled when he’s seen as “other”. The balance was really well done. Descriptions of encounters with other people were immediate and direct and the codes needed to keep on the right side of the menace and violence that sometimes threatened were put across clearly.

In a good Book Serendipity Moment, Django Reinhardt popped up in this book and Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek”, on the same day!

This is Book 10 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – David Olusoga – “Black and British”

12 Comments

I’m feeling like I’m struggling with my 20 Books of Summer project at the moment – this is Book 9 and I’m currently half-way through Book 10 but I should be further along than that. I was also disappointed not to get more reads of the Stormzy book I read and reviewed last, which I thought was smashing. But there we go – maybe people are catching up and haven’t got to it yet, as I’m a little lagging with my blog reading.

Anyway, I bought this book back in June 2020 and blogged about it here – this is the third book I’ve finished from that batch of buys, and I am looking forward to picking off other books soon (I have also had epic BookPost recently but I’ll tell you about that next weekend).

David Olusoga – “Black and British: A Forgotten Story”

(18 June 2020)

Black British history can be read in the crumbling stones of the forty slave fortresses that are peppered along the coast of West Africa and in the old plantations and former slave markets of the lost British empire of North America. Its imprint can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is intertwined with the cultural and economic histories of the nation. (p. xxi)

I bought this book because we’d watched and loved Olusoga’s TV programme of the same name: this is not exactly the book of the TV programme, missing some things but able to add a lot more detail. The thing I did love about the programme was when he was able to pull together descendants of the Black Britons he found and gather them for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating that person’s role and life. That aspect of the series is just mentioned in the Acknowledgements, and while there are a lot of images in the book, the plaques are not included, which is a shame. The gathering of descendants, where they could be found, also gave an immediate human interest whereas this is very much more a work of academic history.

That’s the bad bit. But this is still an amazing book. Olusoga is able to stretch out and back and really go into history and contemporary sources. As such, he still talks about the Black Romans up at Hadrian’s Wall and John Blanke, the 16th century royal trumpeter, but he spends most of the book describing in great detail Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade, and how being Black and British could very well involve being a freed slave placed in a village in Sierra Leone to get on with your life (he was very good here on how this project formed the start of the great African land-grab for Britain).

He does of course also cover the Black Georgians, often brought over as almost pets or slaves but then sometimes living independently, and Queen Victoria’s god-daughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The Black soldiers who fought for the Empire and/or Britain in the two world wars and the Windrush generation are also covered. He also has room to acknowledge the work and books that came before this book and caught his own historical imagination as a younger man. But slavery is the main focus of the book, and a forensic examination of how slavery ended.

We find the use of new techniques which piece together historical and genetic records, and interesting assertions, for example about the huge similarities between eighteenth and twenty-first century Britain. He’s good on how abolitionism became a cause that many women espoused – and were permitted to espouse – and their strong role in the movement (although Black campaigners of the time have been whitewashed out of history). The ebb and flow of numbers of Black people living in the UK (reaching its low just before the First World War) is examined carefully and interestingly, with personal details and stories provided if they can be. There is a fascinating section of the reception of Black GIs during the Second World War. When he gets into the 1980s he has to move away from historical assertions, as they have just not been made yet, and rely on his own feelings of being under siege, but things gradually improving, with the introduction of Black History Month helping (hopefully) all parts of the population learn about people’s heritage here.

The book ends with a call for more history to be uncovered and the explanation, which I’ve seen elsewhere, that the Black population of Britain is now of a majority African origin rather than from the Caribbean, with note needing to be taken of these citizens’ stories. This book does take a bit of work and I am glad I had swathes of time to read it during my week off the week before last, but it rewards the effort.

Olusoga’s Preface ends with a positive assertion:

… it is written in the firm belief that Britain is a nation capable of confronting all aspects of its past and becoming a better nation for doing so. (p. xxii)

I hope this is true: this book, and those which have subsequently built on his work and taken it forward will get into the hands of the right people, help to explain the long and varied history of Black and other global majority peoples in Britain and help to build tolerance and respect.

This is Book 9 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Stormzy with Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

9 Comments

We’re carrying on with 20 Books of Summer after a brief pause to review NetGalley books, and this is Book 8 in the project. I have already finished reading Book 9 and am part-way through Book 10 so I MIGHT do it still (I have two full-length and two short books from my July plans still to read, then eight novels for August). I bought this book in August 2020 and blogged about it here – I am pleased to say I read its companion “Slay in Your Lane” in October 2020 as it was the predecessor to “Loud Black Girls” which I had just won from NetGalley.

Stormzy, edited and co-written by Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

What’s more, he was one of us. From the ends, Thornton Heath. Every success of his felt like a victory for all of us. (p. 4)

Stormzy is a grime music star, rapper and entrepreneur (he has his own record label, company and imprint within Penguin Books, on which this book has come out) who grew up on a council estate in Croydon, South London. He’s a committed Christian who loves his mum, has high standards and will only accept the best from those around him: but he certainly appears to be a firm support to those who give their best. He also gives people opportunities: his co-writer, Jude Yawson, had not written a book before, but in my opinion he has put together a very good book.

Yawson explains early on that he conducted interviews with the main players – musicians, his manager, producers, PR people, brand people – and then decided to include the transcribed interviews pretty much as they came out (he doesn’t: I’m a professional transcriber and I know what these would have sounded like. He does an excellent job of editing them so they’re readable, fresh and interesting, but also clear and understandable). He doesn’t sound in his introduction too certain of this as a method, so in the unlikely event that he reads this: yes, it’s a great method and it’s done really well. I’d say this is as good as the seminal book on Madness I worked on and read earlier this year.

The book was published in 2018 and obviously Stormzy has done a lot since then. But it’s a great record of his early times and the way he gathered his crew of associates around him. After a list of contributors, we go from Preparation to Work, then Execution and Ambition. There’s a lot about the way things were built carefully on knowledge and hard work which might surprise people, and a lot of hauling themselves out of poverty and risky situations to flourish and be creative. There’s much satisfying detail about how playlists work in radio stations, how songs are put together and production work, and all the work behind this well-oiled machine. The aforementioned method of using the transcriptions almost “raw” means the voices are well-distinguished and lively, and it works really well as a chorus of voices, with Yawson providing links and summaries and Stormzy voicing his own experiences and his appreciation of those around him.

Mental health issues come into the book. Although Stormzy explains he had his mum and his faith to bring him through, and a self-belief that stood out from an early age, he also explains he had trouble coping when writing his first album, although he also castigates the NME for making him the literal poster-boy for depression in musicians, using his image without his permission. I also loved his take on social media:

There are some things you’re not meant to know. You’re not meant to know what some random person thinks about what you’re wearing. This is why we have little white lies. This is why we have social niceties. We can’t really handle the truth. (p. 193)

But of course he’s forced to hear all sorts of random people’s “truth” all the time and that must get very tiring.

A fascinating documentary of the start of something huge; a loyal team and a leader who appreciates them. I don’t think you have to be into grime music or rapping to enjoy this book: it works as a portrait of people doing their best in often challenging circumstances, too.

This is Book 8 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Johny Pitts – “Afropean”

19 Comments

It’s time to review Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer project. I am a bit behind but I have a week off this week and now I’ve got my annual blood test out of the way, and presumably while the hedge man is here later in the week, I should have lots of lovely time for reading. I bought this one off my wish list on a bit of a whim (the full story is here) and I’ve been looking forward to getting to read it. It’s one of those lovely Penguins with the orange and white striped spine, too, with a great cover picture taken by the author, who is a photographer as well as a writer. .

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Johny Pitts – “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe”

(02 July 2020)

in contemporary Europe it seemed to me that black people were either presented as uber-stylized retro hipster dandies in thick-rimmed glasses and a bit of kente cloth, or dangerous hooded ghetto-yoot. (p. 6)

Pitts grew up in a working-class, multicultural area of Sheffield and, bruised by an encounter with London life, he gathers his savings, moves back into his mum’s for a bit and prepares to go on a trip to see whether he can find brotherhood and a sense of belonging in the “Afropean” communities across Europe. This descriptor was only relatively recently coined, and at first he thinks he’s going to be visiting an elite group of musicians and artists who exist in glorious idiosyncracy as part of society but also apart from it; crucially people who have an identity as a European of African heritage rather than an immigrant. However, he soon realises that the people he really needs to talk to are the invisible, the indigent, the undocumented, the people who, as with GMP people in the UK, are “here because you were there” (i.e. they are people from former colonies who have come to the “mother country” through having citizenship and a connection, or have been called to come to fill a labour gap) but are not permitted to feel part of the majority populus. He has an epiphany when visiting the “Jungle” in Calais, being called to write about the people there by an inhabitant.

The author makes a conscious choice to avoid the academic in his work (although it’s rigorously footnoted and referenced). Unlike more privileged travel writers, he goes out with his own budget and wanting to make a book, not a publisher’s budget with a book deal set up (and the way this gets published is a lovely two-fingered salute to old-school-tie networks: he meets Caryl Phillips, whose “European Tribes” (which I now yearn to re-read) he is inspired by, and through him makes a train of connections that leads to publication with Penguin.

I read a lot of valuable academic research and sociological theory, but all too often this was gathering dust in universities, or preaching to the converted, written or cited more often by wealthy, educated white scholars than the people being written about and couched in a stand-offish, academic vernacular. Formal education is often driven by someone else’s knowledge: who authorized it and shaped its rhetoric? Whose knowledge is it? Who has access to it? What about black Europe beyond the desk of a theorist, found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the street up? (p. 5)

He’s careful to name what he doesn’t cover (the role of churches and Islam in supporting Black culture in Europe) and names his privilege in terms of being able to walk out of the “Jungle” (but still have to prove his identity to police) and bring able to wander freely late at night in sketchy places, unlike his female friends. He mentions how glad he is that there’s “a new zeitgeist of intersectional black thought that is often led by feminism and queerness” (p. 132(He’s frustrated that there are areas he isn’t able to get to and encourages readers to submit their experiences to his website, Afropeans.com (there’s some great stuff on there). He covers France (Paris and the South), Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Portugal and I have to say I’d have liked to see more than the small amount he writes about Spain, as I’ve always been concerned about the numbers of African people selling in markets in mainland and particularly Canary Islands Spain and would have liked to know more about them.

After an introduction and sociological exploration of working-class Sheffield, explaining Pitts’ roots and experience (like Akala and Guvna B, he credits his escape from a path he could have gone down to his circumstances, in this case a strong and stable home, his mum supported by her White working-class family, his dad an African American entertainer who gave him some different life experiences), we’re off round Europe, experiencing immigrants and second- and third-generation citizens, the undocumented and the documented, those living in precarity and secure middle-class folk. There are some very striking examples and he brings himself into the picture but not excessively, giving voice to his subjects (and subtly indicating their accents, which is incredibly well done). He makes it very clear how cultures that don’t even use words for racism (social issues anyone?) are systematically racist and he honours different kinds of activism while noting the flaws that some of it has.

I stuck millions of post-it note tabs into this book but if I used them all, this review would be as long as the actual book! Suffice it to say, he makes visible the invisible world of the network of people who make Europe work; he takes himself off to estates and banlieux and tries to talk deeply to people. I learned about histories and legacies of colonialism I didn’t know about (I had no idea about the Dutch in Suriname, for example, though I was more up on French colonialism) in this very human and warm, though at times provocative (he shares an interesting perspective that maybe Trump and Brexit are better for immigrant communities because “their position is clearer” and the blatant racism makes a space come available for people to politicise and organise).

And just to make it clear: this is no po-faced polemic. It’s incredibly engaging and readable, and I kept wanting to read just one more section. Published in 2019, I’m not sure I’ve seen it on too many of the “Black Lives Matter” lists: it deserves to be known and read.

This was book number 7 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice”

13 Comments

It’s the sixth book in my 20BooksofSummer! I’m still reading “Black and British” but it’s a big one and also not always happy reading or easy to hold, so it doesn’t come to meal times with me. This one came to me in July 2020 as part of the rest of my book token splurge for last year (it got complicated) and I note that it arrived along with “Brit(ish)”, which I will be reading this month, and “Trans Britain” and “Mother Country” which I have actually read already!

So I’m only a little behind where I hoped to be now. I have a NetGalley June read to review on Thursday and am currently reading my first Anne Tyler for the month alongside “Black and British”. Not sure what’s next!

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice: A Memoir”

(20 July 2020)

So, what prompted me to write this book? Well, there are girls out there who are quiet, just like I used to be. Who are allowing their lives to be steered in the hope that one day they might find their happy and, with that, their voice. Who are growing up being told ‘it’s not appropriate’, ‘no you can’t’, ‘it’s not the done thing’. With this book I want to show that, actually, who cares if it’s not appropriate, you can and it is the done thing! (p. xii)

Somehow between reading that this book didn’t include anything about Bake Off (and it really doesn’t: the only mentions are when her husband encourages her to go for the show and a bit about Tamal, who she made friends with) and reading it, I’d got it into my head that it wasn’t even a memoir, but some kind of self-help book. But it is a very open and honest memoir, organised into chapters around the roles Nadiya has had in her life: daughter, sister, granddaughter, daughter-in-law, mother, wife, earner, username and finally woman. So it’s basically a chronological journey through her life, taking on each role and concentrating on the people who are close to her in that role.

Is is very unguarded, “unflinchingly honest” as it says in the blurbs in the front. It’s certainly that. There’s lots on the feelings she has about her family and the difficulties she experienced being a daughter-in-law, though she’s always respectful of all her family members and careful not to offend.

I was a bit surprised that, although she mentions her panic disorder a few times and especially around not having told her husband about it before they married, it’s not a strong theme in the book and there’s not much about how she’s overcome it (or, if she hasn’t, how it’s impacted her life). It’s obviously her book to write as she wishes, but I would have liked to see more of that.

She includes a recipe at the end of each chapter and these are nicely inclusive – of a sweet treat called Handesh that has been the undoing of many a daughter-in-law, she says, “So for anyone getting married, vying to impress, these are for you. They are for you if you want to show up your very Bengali mother. They are also for you if you like fried sweet stuff with a cup of tea” (p. 166). On this note, she doesn’t talk a lot about her experiences of racism but they are there, in the cultural disconnects when to her having five siblings is not much, but shocks when she is talking to White people, etc., and we read with dismay her experience being told to do an essay for English about a character in a book she identifies with when she can’t find one that matches her (presumably why she’s written several books for adults and children).

Other than that, it’s frank, frequently funny, open about where she regrets things in her life, fiercely loving of her family and a memorable read. I was surprised about how open and often angry she is (good for her) and there’s a really shockingly visceral scene of an attempted and nearly achieved sexual attack in the final chapter which did actually genuinely shock me.

I enjoyed this book and I think it would be a great way to sneak some powerful reading for the girls and women she aims it to help, as the attractive cover and book description don’t prepare you for the honesty and sharing within.

This was book number 6 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Juno Dawson – “Gender Games”

7 Comments

For my fifth of my 20BooksofSummer I made a small substitution, staying on-list but promoting this one over “Black and British” because it’s also Pride Month, so I wanted to get this one reviewed by the end of the month. This is another book I bought with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 (and although you could castigate me for not having read the BLM and gender related books I bought them, I also haven’t read the horse book I bought then; it’s how my habit of buying too many books and my habit of reading them in acquisition order make things fall!).

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Juno Dawson – “The Gender Games: The Problem with Men and Women From Someone Who Has Been Both”

(18 June 2020)

Gender and I were always heading for a showdown. It was only a matter of time, and it’s a battle not yet won. (p. 4)

Much like Akala’s book, this views a particular topic, in this case gender, through the means and lens of a narration of the author’s life and personal experiences. Like with Akala, we find polemic, humour and careful referencing, frustration at the past and present and hopes for the future, but here, rather than race and class, we’re examining gender.

Juno is a person who is in the process of going through gender transition during the writing of the book, becoming the woman she always believed and wished she was.* She’s very honest and open about her previous identity as a gay man, forcing herself to adopt stereotypes more and more, ending up a gym bunny with a big beard, absolutely shocked to the core when she realises after talking to a friend that not all gay men have wished from childhood that they were born female. Once this has hit home, she realises she can’t not go down the transition path – and while we do then get a lot of intimate detail about that, not everything, not stuff about operations, etc – because that is personal and I really admire Dawson for drawing the line there.

[*I understand from reading “Trans Britain” that not every person with gender dysphoria has a narrative that goes right back to childhood, and that cisgender people, let alone clinicians, should stop looking for that when establishing whether to ‘accept’ a trans person’s identity. However, Dawson did identify this way; but she is at pains to remind us that everyone’s journey is different and also that trendy or ‘sudden onset’ trans identity is a description invented by broadly anti-trans groups, but people can discover who they are at any age or life stage.]

So after a memorable scene where Dawson comes out for the second time to her mum, and a useful chapter separating out sex and gender (there is a further glossary in the back, too), we follow her life through from early childhood to the time of writing, examining various other topics around gender as we go, whether that’s rape culture, toxic masculinity, sex and relationship education, gendering of toys, perceptions of motherhood and childless women, the sad divisions between some feminists and trans activitists, privilege … It all flows very well and is clearly the production of someone who knows how to write and organise material, but also knows how to confide and be revealing while maintaining boundaries.

Dawson is nicely careful about who she is speaking for. She knows she has had male privilege (though as a small, slight, gay man, not the full male privilege a straight or more imposing man would have) but uses that to interrogate the messages she was given and the female-orientated messages she could avoid. She make it plain she is wary of putting words into the mouths of trans people of colour or trans people with disabilities and mentions intersectionality and its special issues often. She’s so careful about the words she uses and I (as a cishet white woman) definitely don’t feel I’m being ‘mansplained’ to, as some people have accused her of doing (for a start, she’s a woman).

Anyone who thinks that transitioning is a choice or trend should be very aware of how gruelling it is and I don’t think anyone would stick it out for more than a week unless they absolutely had to. (p. 227)

This is very clear and something that probably needs to be spoken. Whether or not people go down the route of chemical or surgical procedures, and certainly for those people born before puberty blockers were able to help people who needed to transition not go through two separate puberties, it’s a hard path to walk that it’s unlikely anyone would walk if they didn’t absolutely need to. Those of us not on that path are exhorted to be kind and be supportive, to act as much as we can, to fight on women and minority groups’ behalf in the call to action at the end of the book (there’s also a great call to not assume that more ‘masculine’ women or more ‘feminine’ men are unhappy with their gender and want to change it; to just let people BE, which is refreshing).

An insightful, occasionally a bit rude, very open and honest read which has huge value.

This was book number 5 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Akala – “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire”

17 Comments

My fourth 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity with this bright and provocative take on British culture, race and politics. I bought this with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 and rather aptly, today and yesterday I placed my orders for this year’s Book Token Splurge (the reason I do this mid-year is because I happily receive a lot of book tokens at Christmas and birthday but then also a lot of books. By June, the TBR should have calmed down a bit from then, and there is room for some newcomers! I look forward to reporting the results of this year’s Splurge soon.

In the meantime, I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

Akala – “Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire”

(18 June 2020)

I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me. I did not know what race and class supposedly were but the world taught me very quickly, and the irrational manifestations of its privileges forced me to search for answers. I did not particularly want to spend a portion of a lifetime studying these issues, it was not among my ambitions as a child, but I was compelled upon this path very early. (p. 5)

As the quote from David Olusoga on the front of this book says, it’s “Part biography, part polemic”. Akala was born in the 1980s and grew up in Camden, London, with Scottish/English – Jamaican heritage and he talks about how this heritage places him in British society, about which parts of it he relates to, about the experiences he had and the choices he made growing up – not all good ones, and he holds his hands up to that – while relating all this to wider society and politics, both in the UK and globally. He’s confiding and provocative, talks about his mum and guns, and accurately predicts things that have happened since publishing the book (including the government seeking to divide and conquer by reporting on race when they should be thinking about class, as we’ve seen in the recent report about school achievement of “poorer White children”.

It’s not a solemn or dry tome: there are witty asides and it keeps moving, taking a conversational tone while being backed up with the references and statistics we all need when we’re reading bits out and people go, “But what about ….?” or we think that ourselves. He even puts in quotes from White people for those of us who crave those (I hope I’ve got past that sticking point but he makes a valid point in mentioning it; he also does it in an amusing fashion). He makes his privileges and advantages clear: having a mum who, although White, with all the difficulties that brought to their relationship, was radical and politically active and made it her mission to be educated about Black issues and history, and a pan-African Sunday school as well as a fierce older sister who mocked him out of rapping in an American accent when he was starting out in music.

As well as this biographical information and stories of how his identity and life experience was honed by coming up against a mainstream culture of police suspicion and racist teachers, Akala very much looks at wider cultures and societies. He shares the radical history of Haiti’s anti-slavery revolution and Cuba’s aid to South Africans trying to end Apartheid as well as a searing indictment of Britain’s seeming obsession with claiming William Wilberforce single-handedly ended slavery, and that we ended it out of some noble or caring motive. He’s also very clear about the intersection of race and class, and about how class in Britain conspires to divide and conquer and keep many people down.

The chapter about the relationship between American and British Black culture is fascinating, and I love that he takes a provocative pop at those Americans who have criticised Black British actors for coming over and taking all the jobs / Black British people for not being spirited enough (oh, Maya Angelou!) in addition to earlier interrogating White British love for Mandela / hate for Castro and his own feelings about Barack Obama (not a massive fan). He’s certainly not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Bringing things up to date by talking about the growth in West African as opposed to Caribbean originating Black populations in Britain and the changes in perception by the rest of the world, the book ends by a consideration of what would happen to a child born into matching circumstances to Akala’s but in 2018 not 1983. He is reluctant to see much positive there but does admit that movements happen and people have power, and ends up by exhorting his readers “to choose whether to act or do nothing” to help bring about the positive outcome he fears might not happen.

I value this book for its honesty and the information it provides which is definitely extra to the history I learned at school, and its insight into modern British (mostly urban) culture. I’m very much looking forward to reading Afua Hirsch’s “Brit(ish)” to read about a female experience contemporary to this male experience as several people have indicated to me this is a valuable pairing to read close to each other.

This was book number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

18 Comments

My third 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity (obviously a class-based exploration this time). I bought this in April 2020 and I can’t remember now if that was with my Book Token Splurge (must do this year’s) or just a random purchase (oh, look, I just wanted to read about some other lives than my own!) and it was an ideal candidate for this fun list of mine.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books! And can anyone recommend me some more working-class writers to read?

Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

(15 April 2020)

Even though I have lived away from home for a third of my life now, it continues to shape the way I think about the world outside it. (p. 53, Stuart Maconie quoting Lynsey Hanley’s “Estates”)

I had a good think about this and I do read some books by working-class writers or writers of working-class origin (Paul Magrs, Jo McMillan, Stuart Maconie, James Kelman, Magnus Mills, Ellen Wilkinson, Kathleen Dayus, those of the Angry Young Men who weren’t middle-class, and I have Anita Sethi’s memoir to read this month …) but not enough probably, and I do agree that their words and lives should be more represented in books – both. There’s in fact a compelling set of stats in the final essay in this book to prove how middle-class publishing and the books that are published are, becoming even more woeful when you look at any intersections at all with gender, race, sexuality or disability. So this 2019 book taking 34 working-class writers and showcasing their memoir writing (so their own-words work and their sharing of their lives) is an important one. Aaaand … it was published on Unbound, the crowd-funding subscription model publishers, making an ironic point if it wasn’t able to get published traditionally.

The authors are half published, established writers and half new writers, some never before seen in print at all. And you know what, I kept flicking to the author biographies at the back and kept guessing wrongly! The work as a whole is lovely and coherent, with a great flow even though the individual pieces are quite short – linked themes like darts, pool and greyhound racing (all enjoyed by female writers) bob up and dip down again as you go. I loved that it was all memoir, as I am not always a fan of the short story: although some of these have a more fictionalised or shaped form (and of course all are shaped in some way), most of them are straightforward narratives of a time in someone’s life or their life path and reflections on their working-class status (or not, for some of them).

These are lives different to mine – not just in the people of different genders, sexualities or ethnicities, but in a profound lack of a confidence which I can see I gained through my middle-class privilege (I’m not very confident personally but I know I can walk into a room of whoever and be listened to, and I know I can up my middle-class signifiers and gain more credentials as a result, though I do try to use that, like my white privilege, for the common good).

It would be hard to draw out favourites in the collection. Loretta Rankinssoon offers a wonderful portrayal of tower-block life, seeing posh blocks go up around her council one, destroying their view, panicked by Grenfell, with little vignettes of encounters in the lift. Cathy Rentzenbrink points out how little darts there is in modern literature, only cropping up in Martin Amis (I wonder if I will find darts everywhere now in what I read. I suspect not) and draws a great parallel between the practice boards players use to make things harder in practice thus easier out in the world. She gets accused of being middle-class but remains out there, hoping she’ll win a prize: “People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books” (p. 81).

Riley Rockford’s “Domus Operandi” is one of the more experimental pieces, interspersing a middle/upper class dinner with memories of a working-class upbringing, both meeting in the ability to eat a globe artichoke, thank you very much. Louise Doughty, in “Any Relation” talks, too, about blending in at middle-class events but also realising she profited from a short window of opportunity where you could be socially mobile which has now closed on the next generation. Anita Sethi’s portrayal of her one, life-changing visit to the Lake District makes me even more keen to read her full memoir.

A valuable and worthwhile, amusing and entertaining, not at all worthy or dry book that deserves to be out there and to have the word spread about it. I hope more working-class writers are coming into the publishing world as a result.

This was book number 3 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind”

15 Comments

It’s 20BooksofSummer time at the moment and I’m thrilled to have finished my second book in my First Two Months of Diversity (a book set in Malawi, written by a Malawian author) – I’ve now started Book 3, Kit de Waal’s “Common People”, too. This was one of the last books I bought physically before the lockdown, on a trip round the local charity shops with a “charity shop voucher” from my friend Sian.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

(07 March 2020)

The chief sat on the sofa, dressed in a crisp shirt and nice trousers. Chiefs usually dressed like businesspeople, never in feathers and hides. That’s in the movies. (p. 26)

We have the story of William’s life through from his early childhood to his entry into and progress through full-time education (by no means a given at any age in his village in Malawi) and although there are very bad times, it’s a story of persistence, self-education and hope.

Growing up the only boy in a farming family, William is expected to help his father with the farm, and all the hard work that involves, growing tobacco as a cash crop and maize as a subsistence crop. His two best friends are his cousin, Geoffrey, and Gilbert, son of the local chief. These three boys help and sustain each other, and are still friends: he thanks them hugely in the acknowledgements and their work is very much a joint effort.

During and then after a long and horrendous famine, described in detail, with analysis of the deforestation and government policies which helped it to happen and didn’t help it to stop, William is excited about going to secondary school to learn about science. He’s already taking radios apart and mending them and trying to learn, but this will be the key to his future. Except there’s no money to pay the school fees. Saved by a library and a kindly librarian, William starts to teach himself about wind power, dynamos and electricity, and (this isn’t spoiler: there’s a picture on the front of the book) builds a windmill.

But it’s not easy. He has to read books in English, so has to learn English to do that. He has to scrabble around for materials, digging around in an old scrapyard for hours to find what he might need, and to work extra jobs to pay for a welder to help him make his machines (I love how the welder comes around to be a firm fan). Just when he’s getting somewhere (one bulb for a light in his room), another famine comes and some local people start accusing him of witchcraft. There’s also the classic narrative of everyone thinking he’s playing silly games, etc., until he demonstrates what he can do.

There’s heartache in the book: the bad times are told plainly and there’s a very sad bit about his dog (but it’s part of the narrative, not gratuitous). But it’s a generally positive book, full of the support of his friends – Gilbert has a bit of money so he buys William a spool of wire he needs – and of strangers who hear about him and bring him into the TED organisation. When he goes to TED, he makes sure he mentions all his fellow-Africans who are working on amazing projects:

The most amazing thing about TED wasn’t the Internet, the gadgets, or even the breakfast buffets with three kinds of meat, plus eggs and pastries and fruits that I dreamed about each night. It was the other Africans who stood onstage each day and shared their stories and vision of how to make our continent a better place for our people. (p. 253)

This is not a story of African pain, famine and aid: it’s a positive story about the power of education and a man with a blazing spirit who has gone so far from his village (but ensures that he supports those in it, still, sharing the water from his parents’ new well with everyone, for example. An inspiring read.

This was book number 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top”

14 Comments

At last I’ve got to the first book in my 20 Books of Summer 2021 pile – after having started two books right at the end of May that I had to finish and review (here and here) first. Oops! But I got to it in the end and actually raced through it, probably because I had nothing to do apart from some gardening on Saturday so I could sit and finish a big chunk of it. I have started “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, too, so feel I am making some progress. Hooray!

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having a good start to their pile, too!

Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top: My Story”

(07 April 2020)

Learning to hold a safe space for people to share with me while maintaining my well-being is a delicate dance. (p. 5)

Van Ness is one of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five (I’ve already read the memoirs by Tan France and Karamo Brown, Antoni’s is mainly a cook book and Bobby hasn’t done one!) and he offers a memoir that’s perhaps a little deeper and more troubled than the others (though Karamo also has his moments, I recall). Opening with a description of what it was like to be suddenly famous, and characteristically kindly pulling a hyperventilating fan back onto the pavement before styling a photo shoot with her, JVN is soon expressing his fear that, as someone with a big personality who likes to share his opinions on politics and society as well as hair straightening and beard care, “if you knew all of me, you wouldn’t love me anymore”.

He then proceeds to share all of him, from the young boy who practised endless skating and gymnastics routines alone at home, whose dad (who he graciously says has grown and learned a lot) got stressed when he tried on ball gowns, who was abused by an older boy and had to suffer through the ramifications of this in a small town, to the teenager who tried to get on the cheerleading team as the first male cheerleader, who was bullied and who ended up dropping out of university and taking on sex work to survive, to a nascent then successful hairdresser who had to escape some toxic environments.

Van Ness addresses the issue I’ve seen in relation to Black lives as well as LGBTQI+ lives that their description involves a lot of pain – he states that “Joy and pain often occur all together” so it’s not possible to separate them out. He does have a lot of joy and good relationships and hilarious moments (when his parents tell him they’re getting a a divorce and he immediately demands his mum’s ring springs to mind), as well as pain and bad ones, so it’s in general a positive book. He also shares a lot about self-care and being kind to yourself and others which is important and positive for everyone: in fact, he says,

I hope sharing my story encourages people to be more aware and compassionate on issues that may not directly affect them and spread that compassion to more people who need it. (p. 256)

He talks about traditional/toxic masculinity and its limitations – “Being strong and masculine has everything to do with having the courage and audacity to be different” (p. 108) as well as the limitations his mum was pushed into by her gender. And I loved the mention of original “Queer Eye” and how he told in his audition that it gave him a way to talk about his sexuality with his family. And of course at the end he hopes that we still do love him after he’s shared all that he’s shared (I think we do).

It’s all either written directly by JVN in his own words or perhaps dictated and transcribed (he’s not clear on the process and doesn’t talk about a co-writer but thanks people at his publisher), it very much reads in his own voice, and while I think I would have enjoyed the audio book, too, I know from listening to his podcast that he talks at top speed! Slang phrases and iconic phrases abound and it’s a quirky read from that perspective. There’s a great resource list at the back of the book that is targeting to UK, Australia and NZ and Indian organisations, presumably for the UK market.

This was number 1 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


The lovely blogger Bookish Beck has a Book Serendipity series she runs from time to time (the latest one is here) where she shares coincidences from books she is reading at the same time or close to one another. I’ve had a couple of these while I’ve been reading recently, including in this book, so here’s my little contribution:

  • In this book and Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons” (being reviewed next), a mother reads a leaflet / sees an Oprah segment on drug use in teens and extrapolates the worst in relation to her child.
  • “Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer” and “Breathing Lessons” both contain a character called Rona.

Older Entries