Book review – Angela Thirkell – “Peace Breaks Out” and 20 Books of Summer round-up

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And I’ve reached the end of my 20 Books of Summer project!

I bought this book in August 2020 when it was published, to complete my set of Thirkells up to the end of the Second World War.

And in general I’ve very much enjoyed doing my 20 books of summer. During the June-August period I’ve actually read 43 books, but I have got 20 books off my TBR, which is always the plan with this project. This year, I went a bit different and, instead of just picking the 20 oldest books on my TBR, selected two months of diverse reading then one of Viragoes and the like. This worked well, although I did give myself a lot of non-fiction to read in the first two months and ended up swapping out two of those books for Virago novels Don’t fear – I will get those read and reviewed soon! Click on the link to find links to all my reviews for 20 Books of Summer and thank you to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting as always!

How have you got on if you’re doing 10/15/20 Books of Summer/Winter?

Angela Thirkell – “Peace Breaks Out”

(20 August 2020)

It did not pay, the Admiral said, to ask people politely if you wanted anything done. The Adamses gave their orders and took it for granted that they would be obeyed; just as he, the Admiral, had done in his flagship. Why had the leadership passed from the Admiral and his like? (p. 179)

Even more than the last one, this book is full of tired people and bad cakes, powdered milk and restrictions and rumours. The old guard is being threatened even more by newcomers, never more than when the post-war election happens and two familiar characters are pitted against one another.

We start off with the book centring around Mr Scatcherd the artist with a capital A and his neighbours, the Hallidays, George and Sylvia being the young people of the house, both on leave from their wartime jobs. Soon, with much pleasure, we re-acquaint ourselves with Anne Fielding, who we met in the last book, and her introduction to Sylvia and then the glamorous (or bitchy, ageing and balding playboy) David Leslie and the charming Leslie family, Miss Bunting’s favourite pupil but souring a little as he ages. Martin Leslie and his sister are enjoying farming and many of the young women in the book are aiming for non-traditional careers, which is nice to see. Will Anne have her head turned or will her solid friendship with Robin Dale sustain her?

Even though a Very Bad Word appears in the book (though used positively, hm …) the value again lies in the portrayal of a tired and battered populace almost regretfully accepting the changes of peacetime, trying to keep certain family rituals going, finding cars and petrol to get to visit their friends, doing OK if they live in the country and grow vegetables. Certain almost feudal systems are still going, and there’s still a distinction between Barchester and The County, but incursions are coming, women are wearing trousers and, in a rather wonderful long passage, we see that housewives are very worn down indeed.

A good end to the series for me, although Thirkell kept writing books in the series, and I’m glad it finished off my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

This was Book 20 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 7 in AV/AA.

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “Miss Bunting”

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Ploughing on through my 20 Books of Summer project now, and getting through towards the end of the war in my Thirkells. Of course this then also comes under All Virago/All August territory so I feel like I’m doing terribly well! I’m part-way through “Peace Breaks Out” alongside my delicious pile of review books for Shiny New Books and am fairly sure I will finish my 20, read and reviewed and tidy, by the end of the month.

I received this book as part of my LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa group gift from Cate in 2018 and have been saving it since then to read it in the right order (my Pile of such books will be disappearing soon!).

How are you getting on if you’re doing 10/15/20 Books of Summer/Winter?

Angela Thirkell – “Miss Bunting”

(25 December 2018 – from Cate)

It did not pay, the Admiral said, to ask people politely if you wanted anything done. The Adamses gave their orders and took it for granted that they would be obeyed; just as he, the Admiral, had done in his flagship. Why had the leadership passed from the Admiral and his like? (p. 179)

This was quite an elegaic book in a way, the war is winding on, people are tired, the cakes are getting worse and everyone’s managing with too few servants. There’s also woven throughout this novel the clash between the old values of The County, the old guard, a sort of benevolent feudalism and definite care for the proprieties, and the new world of industry and commerce, represented by factory owner Sam Adam and his slightl-less-gauche-now daughter, Heather (we met them in the last book). Sam has the old guard on his board of directors but then has got onto the magistrate’s bench and pops up in the Archaeological Society and other local organisations, determined to work his way into The County but not sure of the niceties. I don’t think Thirkell is completely against his kind, though, as she shows Sam and Heather being softened by their encounters with her more favoured characters, and Sam does acts of genuine kindness.

The other main characters are Robin Dale, son of the elderly rector, invalided out of the war and running a boys’ school locally while his old boss at the big school wants him back, Jane Gresham, living with her father and her delightful if slightly Tony Morland-ish son, Frank, unclear as to whether her husband Francis, lost in the Far East, is alive or dead and not knowing how she feels about either, and Anne Fielding, recovering invalid, who is in the village to pick up her education with the renowned Miss Bunting, who has appeared here and there before, Bunny’s last project, and a satisfying one at that, before she lapses into happy retirement.

So there’s a sadness through the book – Robin’s lost a foot and feels lost himself, Jane doesn’t know how she feels but has a weight pressing on her constantly and Miss Bunting looks back at so many pupils in so many theatres of war, and her dream of laying down her life to protect theirs is incredibly poignant. There’s plenty of comedy and set-pieces from the side-characters and of course a Mixo-Lydian refugee for the author to sneer at (although this one holds her own and is accomplished and resilient) but that’s the over-riding feel of the book, with some gentle romance woven in.

There are the usual references back to Trollope and side-references keeping us up to date with characters from other books – I was sad to only have tiny glimpses of the Beltons from the last book, though. And although Mr Middleton and Mr Tebben’s one-upmanship in boringness at the Archaeological is a bit more tedious than it should be, a random mention of the former’s trip to Iceland and his “great walk over the country of Njal and Gunnar of Lithend” (p. 243) [there’s now a petrol station at HliĆ°arendi and I’ve had a slice of pizza there] was cheering.

This was Book 19 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 6 in AV/AA

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

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Well, I think I might just finish my 20 Books of Summer project now, as I’m onto my final trio of Angela Thirkells, getting me to peace at the end of the Second World War and the point Virago have (I think) reached in their reissue programme. I had actually read this one already a few years ago (happily, all the detail seems to have drifted out of my head) but wanted to get the full experience of reading them all in order. It of course also falls into All Virago/All August territory so I feel like I’m doing terribly well! And I’m already part-way through “Miss Bunting so fingers crossed I can get them all read AND reviewed by the end of the month …

Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

(07 October 2017 – from Ali)

‘I think,’ said Mrs Perry’s sister-in law, ‘ you ought not to try any more of those London refugee people, Maud. You remember there was that woman who put us all in a book, though I must say i didn’t think the likenesses were very good.’ (p. 84)

Miss Sparling is a woman of middle years who has been lodging with the unwelcoming headmistress of Barsetshire school as she tries to run the evacuated Hosier’s School for young ladies in difficult circumstances. Then Harefield, a lovely country house, comes free, the Beltons who own it conveniently move into a house in the village and the school moves in. Although the daughter of the house, Elsa, feels the move very keenly, Miss Sparling is an attractive addition to the local social life, quite turning the heads of the vicar and the local academic, especially when they find out she’s both the granddaughter of a fellow scholar and a scholar in her own right.

The Beltons remain in village life, cared for and respected, their three children flitting back and forth from their war work and causing lots of drama, amusement and very poignant moments. The current leaseholder of their house becomes a friend and the war grinds on, we get news of other characters from other novels as we go along of course and as with all the war novels, this was originally published during the war, so there’s not a sense of victory brewing even if some events are mentioned. Details of wartime life, like how people got and gave each other provisions and queued for rations, are poignantly and carefully done.

There are plenty of funny little mentions of authors (as above) and references back to Trollope’s Barsetshire characters, which always makes me smile. Yes, there is mention of how a woman ought to have a beating (said by her mother to her husband) which always makes me wince, but that’s what you get with Thirkell, along with the casual racism about mid-Europeans and the snobbery. It’s always a balance but I think as long as you don’t think these things are actually acceptable, it’s OK to read these tranch of the books in particular for their portrayal of the wartime experience.

My previous review of this book is here.

This was Book 18 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 5 in AV/AA

Book review – D.E. Stevenson – “Music in the Hills” and “Winter and Rough Weather”

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Steaming through my 20 Books of Summer project now, these are book 16 and 17 on the list, with just three Angela Thirkell novels to go (and although they look slender, they have densely packed print and are decent, satisfying novels). They also count for All Virago (and publishers doing similar things republishing women authors) / All August. As they’re the sequels to Stevenson’s “Vittoria Cottage“, but set in the same place with much the same characters, I thought I’d review them together.

My best friend Emma (of the readalongs fame) gave me these two for Christmas 2020, and they’re published by Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. This just shows that sending out review copies engenders sales, by the way, both from hopefully people reading that first review and then from me putting these two on my wish list!

D. E. Stevenson – “Music in the Hills”

(25 December 2020 – from Emma)

Jock Johnstone was fortunate but his circumstances were not entirely due to luck, for although he had inherited good property he had improved it by his own efforts. (p. 1)

We open this fine novel, whose central tenet is basically the above: the value of hard work and making something of what you’ve been given, meeting Jock and Mamie Johnstone, who live at the Scottish lowlands farmhouse in Mureth and are preparing for their nephew, James to visit for a good, long stay. James has been in Malaya and needs a rest; he’s also interested in taking up farming, and as Jock and Mamie sadly have no children, he’ll fill a role in their lives as they teach him their ways. But first, Mamie gets to know their new shepherd, Dan, and gets a few surprises.

In an interesting contrast to a lot of books where we find a woman hesitating between different suitors, here it’s James, running away from London heartbreak, who attracts the attention of different young women. This is woven naturally into the portrait of the farm and its inhabitants and the town and its additional friends, and a bit of a mystery involving the new shepherd and some sheep missing from the farm. There’s worry about the new owner of the adjoining farm, fancy folk (no, he’s not Jewish, he’s “Assyrian” (slight cringe, but there we have it) who have bought it on a whim, stripped away the trees and done up the house in an unfitting modern style (more of them in the second book).

Mamie is a lovely character and obviously her author adores her – she’s simple but can be forthright when she wants to be – and she pretty well saves one character’s sanity by speaking out smartly to her social superior. I loved her, too. And she’s a great confidante when James’ lost love explains to her:

It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t. I explained that to James and he understood. He’s very understanding. You see, if I married James he would want all of me – it would be no good if he couldn’t – and I couldn’t give him all of me. (p. 185)

Shades of the last book there and Dorothy Whipple’s struggles to be a writer and a married woman! And in fact in the lovely little interview with Stevenson reproduced in the back of this book, she shares her own struggles:

Occasionally when my patience begins to wear thin I hang a notice upon the door, a notice which says ‘WRITING’ in large letters, but even this does not bring me absolute peace. (p. 217)

A lovely satisfying book, most of the plot brought together by the end but not all of it. For instance, Mamie’s slightly odd housekeeper Lizzie and her two unruly children are still there, husbandless and fatherless and seemingly not caring …

D. E. Stevenson – “Winter and Rough Weather”

(25 December 2020 – from Emma)

She was alone in the house. She had never been alone in a house before. No, never thought [she] looking back down the years. She had been alone in a flat […] but that had been different for there were people all around, moving about and breathing and there was the sound of people in the street. Here there was nobody, nobody moving or breathing or making a sound. The only sound was the sound of the wind … (p. 44)

In this installment (which has a map in the front: hooray), James has made his match, and comes back from honeymoon to settle down in the farm across the river from Mureth where we spent most of the time in the last book. This is a lovely house which has been done up and furnished with a fortuitous cook by Mamie, but it is terribly isolated, with an awful road down to the town and no way across the ford between the two farmsteads when the river rises. Will James’ new wife settle to these ways?

We spend more time with the doctor and his sister, both happily settled in the town and attractive, gentle characters (Nan has already acquitted herself well at horrible Nestor’s horrible party in the last book). Our heroine gets to know more characters than these, different ones from in the last book with some overlaps, and we do catch up with other residents’ stories, too. She takes a shine to Lizzie’s son and helps him grow into a talent he displays, and there’s a lot of great detail about how this is done, something I always love in a book.

When the winter comes and all the houses are snowed in, there’s drama and intrigue and some mysteries, which are happily solved in this lovely small community. Mamie is still beloved by the author, quiet and reticent as ever, hiding her knowledge of the Classics in general murmured comments.

A lovely pair of books to sink into, ones I will reread and which are perfect comfort and escape reading, with beautiful scenery and lovely characters. I’m so glad they’ve been republished and are now easily available!

These are Book 16 and 17 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Books 3 and 4 in AV/AA

Book review – Dorothy Whipple – “Random Commentary”

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I’m getting on nicely with my 20 Books of Summer now, with this charming little volume representing Book 15 and I’ll probably be on my second D.E. Stevenson by the time I publish this review. This counts for All Virago (and other publishers reclaiming lost women writers) as published by the lovely Persephone Books.

Ali of Heaven-Ali fame gave me this book for my birthday this year (I met up with her a bit late, or did she even have it sent to me? That’s lost in the mists of time already! I wonder if I bought it for her birthday or Christmas).

Dorothy Whipple – “Random Commentary”

(28 January 2021 – from Ali)

On Thursday I was a writer being interviewed by a publisher, a creature soaring to the seventh heaven. Today I am to be found doing fires, boiling a chicken and sweeping the front steps. But I am so happy I don’t care what I do. (p. 11)

As the Publisher’s Note that introduces this volume explains, the beloved author Dorothy Whipple (all of whose novels republished by Persephone I own – use the search function to find my reviews) compiled this book in 1965, picking out what she thought readers would like to know about her writing life. So we have notes about writing and publishing all the novels up to “They were Sisters” as well as one volume of memoir and on the reaction to these books, and dealings with her publishers, plus snippets on her short story writing and publication (goodness, she could bang out a short story in no time!) and then bits about her family, her life with her husband, their dogs and their beloved country cottage.

As the Publisher’s Note also makes clear, this is a facsimile edition, and what Whipple didn’t do was really divide it up at all or date her entries. So you kind of get a new day / topic per paragraph, with some notable dates like the first day of the year (but which year?) or the end of WW2, but otherwise feeling a bit jumbled and hard to find a place to stop for a bit. However, the text itself is charming and enlightening, really spelling out the realities of a woman writer’s life, when, as she mentions often, if there are hostessing or other house duties to be done, the notebook is closed and the novel in progress put aside:

If I were a man, i should be able to shut myself up in a study with never a thought but for writing, but as i am a woman anybody, anything, can interrupt me – without even a faint apology. (p. 120)

I loved the little details of where she got her ideas, characters and settings – she’s not averse to peering through an open curtain to see the inhabitants inside, for example, especially young married couples. There are other little details about her books which she adds with hindsight, for example when Cape turn down “High Wages”, she can add that the book went into ten editions and was still selling well 30 years later – delicious!

I also love the little glimpses of other beloved writers. Winifred Holtby reviews “They Knew Mr Knight” but seems not to have finished reading the serialisation in Good Housekeeping as she misses an important point. And she’s as thrilled as I was to find that, to find that E.M. Delafield (“so much admired by me” (p. 117)) mentions “The Priory” in her “The Provincial Lady in Wartime”. Finally, Noel Streatfeild rather confusingly invites her to visit a Home for Blitzed babies. She also meets and is friends with various male writers, but these were the details I cherished.

A writer’s diary is always a fun thing to read, and this is a lovely addition to the genre. And, naturally, it made me want to go back and re-read all the novels!

This is Book 15 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 2 in AV/AA

Book review – Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family: A Memoir”

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I feel like I might be getting there (finally!) with my 20 Books of Summer! This is Book 13, but I’ve already read Book 14 (reviewing on Thursday) and I’m over half-way through Book 15, with just five more novels to go. How are you getting on with yours?

This is one of the three books I bought in Oxfam Books in the Between Times in summer 2020 (one of the others being “The Stopping Places“, so I’m doing well with that set of books; I’ve also read three of the other four new ones in mentioned in that post).

Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family: A Memoir”

(22 July 2020 – Oxfam Books)

My youth would be like that, the slow decay of cherished myths – about politics and race, about love itself – until nothing was left but compost from which something authentic could finally begin to grow. (p. 22)

Your logical family is the group of people you gather around you when your birth family doesn’t match you in needs and expectations. Maupin grew up in a proper Old South environment, where his father, frequently referred to as “unreconstructed” held non-ironic opinions about the Civil War and people of colour, their military forebears were celebrated and only his mum and sister really understood him. So this memoir, which takes Maupin into his 30s but refers forward to his coming life and relationships, details how he found his true self and his logical family.

There’s lots of detail on who and what inspired the beloved “Tales of the City” series, and there’s a lovely cameo from Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in the original TV series and has remained a close friend. Indeed, Maupin has a knack for close friendships, and while there’s a touch of name-dropping here and there, he has a wide circle of friends who he’s kept for decades, only really lost through death (and the Aids epidemic is of course referenced here several times). With these friendships, he flashes forwards through time satisfyingly, and sometimes amusingly, to fill in details, so you don’t feel short-changed by the book finishing in his relative youth.

There’s a lot about Maupin’s service in Vietnam – not a natural serviceman by his own admission, he takes on a comms role in the Navy and volunteers for more direct work when he gets the chance. The stories of his comrades and superiors are told kindly and generously and it’s a very interesting aspect to the book. There’s a particularly moving moment when a young man he’d recommended for some medals turns up at a book signing to show him them in person; Maupin has changed in the intervening three decades but is still very moved.

Maupin is searingly honest about his former self, seeing much in his right-wing attempts to make his father love and accept him not to like and to be ashamed of. He seems particularly upset by the closed-off nature of his emotional life: “his heart was still closed to the possibility of real tenderness. The lid was locked down for fear of what might escape” (p. 69). But of course he does find love, and his real authentic self, and while he is constantly disappointed by his parents’ denial of him and support for right-wing projects and people, he gathers enough like-minded souls around him to be able to cope. He’s also then honest about mis-steps, for example with his character D’Orothea in “Tales of the City” whose lack of authenticity he’s called out on by a reader – “My Southern white-boy bones had been laid bare for all to see” (p. 206) – but he shares how he finds a solution to redress this, too.

A lovely, generous book it was a treat to read.

This is Book 13 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

I’ve got a few for Bookish Beck and her “Book serendipity” theme, when something crops up in two or more books read at the same time. Two of these relate to Maya Angelou’s “Singin’ & Swinging’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” but the first I came across was that Maupin’s English teacher also taught Anne Tyler, whose set of novels I’m of course reading at the moment! The two Angelou connections are, rather oddly, mention of the Seabees branch of the US Armed Services and the opera Porgy & Bess (Angelou performs in a touring production and mentions the street which Maupin lived on which they both say was the inspiration for the street in the book then opera).

Book review – Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next”

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Racing ahead to Book 12 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and it’s starting to feel like I might actually do it, especially as I was originally planning to get to Book 14 by the end of this month and then the last six are novels. Anyway, I was going to review this short book alongside Wednesday’s “Anti-Racist Ally“, having lazily thought they were on similar topics. But no – although they’re both about fighting racism, they take very, very different angles and approaches!

I bought this book on 1 April 2021, according to my note inside the front cover – I have a feeling I pre-ordered it when I spotted it. I loved Dabiri’s “Don’t Touch My Hair“, which used both her experience growing up in Ireland looking very different to her community and her academic research on African civilisations to interrogate black hair (her TV programme was also very good but quite different. Here, she puts her extensive academic and discursive skills to powerful effect..

Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition”

(01 April 2021)

We don’t all have to look the same to identify common interests and perhaps unexpected affinities, to cultivate kinships that cut across divisions intended to weaken us in order to better exploit us. (p. 146)

Emma Dabiri is not keen on the concept of allyship. I think she feels it demeans both the ally, who could be seen as performing empty gestures and being patronising at worst, and the person having allyship imposed upon them, being pitied and still thought of as somehow beneath the ally. She wants to dismantle the concept of race, only invented in the 1600s when it became useful to divide and conquer poor black and white folk, and, while she accepts that some forms of what gets called allyship, such as personally calling out racism when we witness or or in corporate life, lobbying against black income disparity, can be useful, and she also exhorts us to read novels by global majority people to understand rounded experiences that are different from our own, not just race-centred “‘anti racist books”, she is all about dismantling capitalism, too.

This book (or essay as it’s called on the back cover – it’s 150 pages) is densely argued and almost dizzying. She says near the end that she wants to have made the reader think, and she certainly does. Like other books that take a more homogeneous view of what ‘white’ people should be doing, she tackles terms – but through the lens of looking at how by making us fight over terms (although she does state she doesn’t like capitalising ‘black’ and ‘white’ and would rather put them in inverted commas to point out their invented nature; I am using the terms as she does here, out of respect and to offer an alternative) we are made to take our eye off the ball and prevented from joining together in real coalition.

She does the history thing, but in the context again of showing how ‘race’ is a created thing, used to divide people and subjugate those the ruling classes chose to subjugate. Then we’re into Marxism, anti-capitalism and a hefty dose of environmentalism. She’s scathing about social media and people acting performatively, but she acknowledges that there are people who have been defined as ‘white’ who do want to make change; she’s also against ‘white’ people being shamed into doing ‘nice’ things out of duty. She is strong on how white privilege means different things to different people, and that instead of concentrating on this we should be building coalition between disparate groups, like people did in the Black Panther etc. movement in the US, and fighting for equality which lifts everyone, having the most powerful effect on those who are kept furthest down, usually Global Majority People and people of the Global South, but improving conditions for everyone as it goes.

Comparing capitalist society to a slave ship, where the European slavers were on the top deck and the enslaved Africans crammed in below in terrible conditions, she asks if this is where we truly want to be, and if our only aim is to pull ourselves or others up into the air:

It is not enough to make exploitative systems more ‘inclusive’. Do we want to get on the top deck or do we want to destroy the goddam ship? (p. 73)

So as well as anti-capitalism in general, Dabiri encourages the reader to look into the Black Radical Tradition and knowledge and principles of historical African and Indigenous in general communities and civilisations, which might hold more of a key than European Enlightenment thought. Yes, I would have liked a reading list to handily pop up here.

Dabiri’s stated aim is to make us think, and she does that alright. But she does leave us hanging a bit, too. Near the end of the book, having decried the divisiveness of modern identity politics, she claims:

It is here that we are stuck. Frankly, there’s a huge gap in terms of what comes next. While we need to identify what to do, it’s important not to fixate on an endpoint or a final destination; such thinking is part of the problem. Rather we should try to understand our lives as a dynamic flowing of positions. (p. 141)

There is some mention of joining groups that are not identity politics based, like Extinction Rebellion, and she’s strong on how the concept of race has been continued to be used to keep people working against each other rather than for each other, but you’re left at the end, unless I really didn’t understand this book (which is entirely possible: she has an approachable and often very informal style but there’s a lot to chew over in this work), without really knowing what steps to take to do all this dismantling of capitalism and saving the world from our environmental damage. So perhaps it asks more questions than it answers, and I need to look for the answers elsewhere.

This is Book 12 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally”

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Book 11 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and I’m celebrating Past Liz for her idea of slotting two short books in amongst the pile for this month (I’m putting my slow progress down to it all being made up of non-fiction, and reckon I’ll catch up with the novels I have for next month. I have almost finished “What White People Can Do Next” and then I’m on to “Brit(ish) so should end the month with one hanging over from this month, again. That’s fine!

I do not know when I bought this book! From its position on my TBR shelf, I’m guessing August 2020. Oops. I was going to review it alongside Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next” but having read most of that book, Dabiri takes exception to the use of the term ally and the concept of allyship, in her theoretically more deep and wide-ranging book (which has a different purpose, to be fair) so I’m splitting them up!

Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Action & Activism”

(August? 2020)

Read books about Black and brown people living, not just dying. Engage in content where they thrive, rather than just survive. Remembering the full and complex range of lives and emotions in marginalised people is humanising, and a lot of fun. (p. 119)

Williams is an Instagrammer and she takes that platform’s strong design and succinct messages through to her small-format book. Each left-hand page gives a question, heading or objection, with the answer or message kept to one side of the facing page. This means it’s easy to read, and easy to flick through to find the section you need.

Williams is pretty forthright and provocative – as she has every right to be. She decries speech rather than action and bandwagon-jumping. She says things which might make the reader uncomfortable – such as her assertion that we need to do uncomfortable things and put ourselves in uncomfortable situations in order to enact, rather than perform, allyship.

The book takes the traditional form of such pieces, providing terms and distinctions, then working through the idea that not being racist is the absolute baseline and not enough. Interestingly, she acknowledges her own change, both through the book when talking about how people can change, and in her discussion of the use of “womxn” which she used to use but not now it’s been adopted by people who want to deny the full womanhood of trans and non-binary women. I’ve seen this elsewhere, and it’s one example of the shifts in language we’re seeing at the moment. OK, Dabiri would say this doesn’t matter so much if it distracts from the need to dismantle capitalism, but we’ll go there another day (how one’s reading of one book affects one’s view of the last one!).

Williams moves on to talk about what racism is, addressing objections such as “I don’t see colour” and “I can’t be racist because my best friend / postman is Black”. She then looks at what true allyship is, and covers intersectionality well. She describes how racism evidences nowadays – less white sheets and more race pay gaps and institutional racism. This includes the use of Black people to provide emotional labour in rehashing their experiences of racism for a White audience. She has a UK and US perspective here which is useful, although acknowledges different issues are found in the two areas.

Then we get into the nuts and bolts of it – how to be an ally. Anxieties are covered first – including I don’t want to make it all about me and I can’t really do anything. I’ve certainly suffered from the latter one, as a lot of the books and resources I’ve found cover how to address inequalities in a workplace or community group, neither of which I’m really in. While then moving through from addressing issues within yourself, your close circles, your community, your workplace, institutions, brands and government, she has a theme that a) you have to make yourself uncomfortable sometimes and b) you use what platforms you’ve got. This inspired me personally to keep on reading and then writing about books centred on Black people’s experience on here, my platform, even though they often don’t get the engagement my other posts have (and even though I’ve always read and reviewed books by Global Majority Peoples; maybe just not so much non-fiction). She leaves room for celebrating and amplifying Black joy, asking White folk not to keep sharing images of pain and suffering that will re-traumatise our Black friends and contacts, something I don’t do a lot, and certainly not explicit images, but I have done to an extent. We always need to keep learning!

At the end of the book, we have a book list and I was pleased to see I have read six, have a further three to read, and don’t have six, some of which I’ve chosen not to read yet as they’re US centric and I’m working on learning about UK stuff first.

A worthwhile little book with some good ideas that don’t just revolve around the workplace.

This is Book 11 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

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

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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”

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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.

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