Category Archives: Blogs

Notre Dame, and Our People

I’m going to be controversial here.

I have not been moved – to the same extent as ‘everyone else’ – over the fire at Notre Dame.

Yes, it is sad, and bad. But it didn’t kill lots of human beings. It wasn’t the empty home of people who have now been made homeless.

I’ve not visited, but on exchanging Notre Dame in my mind for some building I do know and love, I don’t seem to feel much worse.

The Guardian had several bad and sad articles the day after the fire. I actually felt worse about the microplastics, also on the front page, that we eat and inhale all over the world.

But what made me almost cry were pages 18 and 19, about the Windrush citizens, as exemplified by Winston Robinson, former ambulance driver. Things are really no better for most of these people, and certainly not for Winston.

I feel ashamed, even though it wasn’t my doing. And I’m deeply upset that this ‘civilised’ nation can do a thing like this, and on such a scale, and so knowingly, in full view of the whole country, if not the whole world.

I’m sorry.

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Remembering Amritsar

Ten – or a hundred – years on and it’s not as if the world has suddenly got a lot better. On Saturday it was 100 years since the massacre at Amritsar. Ten years ago I read Bali Rai’s historical novel City of Ghosts and was shocked. Because I didn’t know nearly enough about this. I blame my non-UK background, but of course, lots of people here don’t know much either. There was an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day. Seemingly British people don’t realise that what happened that day in 1919 didn’t endear them to the Indian population. Or that they haven’t forgotten.

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

Below is my review from 2009:

Did you know about all the Indian soldiers fighting for England in World War I? I didn’t, other than knowing that soldiers did come from other countries to fight. The sheer number is horrifying. It’s one thing – just about – to send ‘your own’ to die for your country. To send Indian soldiers to their deaths because you have a quarrel with your German neighbour is awful beyond belief.

This novel has a number of sub-plots, which together build a picture of India in the years before 1920. There is Bissen, the soldier who fought in France. There are Gurdial and Jeevan, two teenagers from the local orphanage in Amritsar.

We learn of what happened to Bissen in Europe, and how it affects his life in India after the war. He is an older and wiser influence on the two boys. Gurdial is in love, and Jeevan picks the wrong friends.

And then we have the time and place; Amritsar in 1919. You can tell it’s not all going to end well.

Bali has written a very Indian story from almost a century ago. You can smell the place, and you can see all the colours. You can taste the food, and you can almost feel what happened on that fateful day in April in Amritsar. There is a ghostly element, which although impossible to explain, fits in perfectly with the plot.

It’s very romantic, and it’s very sad and very violent.

It’s a story that needed telling.

It’s a story you need to read.

Tweet tweet

It’s just as well I get emails to prod me into looking at Twitter. Not that one can’t live without Twitter, but sometimes it’s fun. I don’t look often, though.

Discovered this at the weekend:

Tweet

Interesting in its own right, I was interested, and surprised, to see that Sara Paretsky follows Son. On Twitter; not in some stalky way. I was even more surprised to see I don’t follow Sara. I should, and now I do. But I suppose while there are obvious people to follow, you can’t really sit down with a complete Twitter once-and-for-all shopping list.

Some of the responses to Son’s question were more serious than mine. As the mother lite I only managed a Ziva David quote, although I think it’s quite as likely to be the correct answer as any of the others.

Or you could argue that the Scandi lit scene is rather limited… 🙃

One day is here

Don’t know whether I mentioned the trip we made last month? Doesn’t matter. Long train journey; out one day, home again the next. I used up – almost –  my whole quota of good reliable looking children’s books. I needed three, one out, one back, and one in reserve. The books I had with me were good, and I was pleased with my selection.

Then came two more trips, one just finished and one soon to happen. I had to select reading material for them together, to make sure they were evenly balanced, and so I didn’t accidentally pick all the best books for one, leaving nothing sensible for the other. Same principle of three books per journey.

Trouble was, there were not many children’s books left in the to be read pile. At least not enough to fit in with my needs. There are some hardbacks, but they are too big to hold, and weigh a little too much. Others are short, and would be over too quickly.

So I actually went into the twilight zone. I have a bookcase where I put the ones which have had to drop off the to be read pile due to space and time issues, but that I still believe will be really good to read. One day.

In the end I had two well matched piles, each containing two adult crime novels and one children’s book. That’s not how I like things to be, but frankly, the children’s books coming in are not long journey material. OK, travelling in Britain I could obviously buy a replacement at some point, but not perhaps when I needed it.

And, erm, I even managed to colour coordinate one pile. It was a sort of orangey tinge, until I swapped one book for Death in Berlin, which was rather faded and grey. Not to mention dry. Pages 24 and 25 sailed away on the plane, and I had to anchor them with my foot until I could rescue them.

From the other pile I decided against another ancient copy of a book with print that was far too small for [my] comfort. That’s another thing about old, sometimes used, books. They don’t age well. It can be content, or it can be physical, with dry spines and faded covers where you can barely see what the book is. The tiny print is presumably one reason so many books back then were around 200 pages.

And who knows, before I get on the next train, there could have been a mass arrival of perfect travel companions. Some books are really good, beginning when I get to the station and ending as the train and I are almost at our destination.

Death in Berlin

M M Kaye wrote six ‘Death in …’ novels, each featuring a lovely young heroine meeting crime in a thriller setting, somewhere exotic. And also meeting love in the shape of dashing and mysterious man.

So, therein lies the problem, now that it’s the 21st century. On rereading Mary Stewart’s romance set in Vienna last year, I found it had grown old gracefully. Her heroines were usually a little more mature [than barely out of their teens] and her men not too frightfully macho. They had good conversation, and who cares if they were all rather unfashionable [by today’s standards] and belonging to the more entitled social classes?

Not me. Not then, and not now.

But this one by M M Kaye, the Death in Berlin one, was every bit as bleak as I recalled. Possibly because a cold and wet March in 1953 in a divided Berlin, with lots of ruins still, can never be as charming as a sunny romance in Africa or India. And I do remember being disappointed in the hero. He’d almost have been all right – at least now when I’m older and wiser – and then she had to go and compare him to Alec Guinness!

M M Kaye, Death in Berlin

And the class thing; it’s really not working. They are so frightfully British and superior in war torn Germany. Fine, you can hate the life as the wife of a British army officer, the moving round the world, and all that. But it’s not attractive voicing such hatred of foreigners. Fine, you want your heroine to do well. But in this case her man has a job. He doesn’t have to tell his new love that she needn’t worry, because he does have a private income as well. And his attitude towards this beautiful young female would be highly inappropriate today.

The crime, though, is pretty satisfying, and I couldn’t remember who did it. Quite a good thrilling end.

And as I mentioned yesterday, I liked the Berlin connection, even if it wasn’t exactly Zanzibar. It was clear that M M Kaye had lived there herself, at that time. I was amused to see that even back then there was a noticeable difference between British workmen and German ones. Seems that foreigners are good for some things, then.

Deer Dale

And to think I was childishly pleased to see the three deer from the tram near Edinburgh Airport on Friday morning. I should have realised.

There was a stag party on my plane. Stephen was getting married. I’ve no idea who Stephen was, but I shocked Daughter by mentioning the best man by name. Dale. ‘How do you know?’ she wailed. Well, it was on his t-shirt, wasn’t it? If I met any of these stags on their own, I’m sure I’d find them as charming as, well, as anyone I meet. But together they were a noisy lot, rather drunk, and needed to go to the toilet very frequently. (I usually reserve that last activity for myself.)

We had a pleasant couple of days in the German capital, Daughter and I. Well, there was the nightly serenading outside our window I suppose; first from the karaoke, and later the happy groups of people ‘just passing by.’ Like the group of English people singing [surprisingly well] at four am. The acoustics were great down there, between the tall buildings. Made the singing really stand out.

I found myself lying in bed, wondering if that was what winning the war had been about. Making travelling to stag weekends in Berlin affordable, or enabling nightly singing in Berlin streets. And what effect will Brexit have on this wine, women and song stuff?

After mentioning M M Kaye’s Death in Berlin on Friday, I decided to reread the book. I always thought it was her weakest romantic whodunnit, and that opinion still stands. It was interesting to read from the purely Berlin point of view, though. Saturday morning found us standing more or less where the heroine was, in the Soviet part of the park, watching that woman behave suspiciously with that man. The fictional characters. Not us. That was quite fun.

We had drinking problems, too. As in how to get proper tea, with milk. After a highly unusual tea and cake session where we discovered – not surprisingly – that green tea with hot milk just doesn’t cut it, we tried to work out how to ask for black tea, as opposed to green, which is then to be made not black by the addition of milk, preferably cold. In German.

On a Sunday, when you don’t get ‘any’ open shops, you still find plenty of shops open, selling alcohol, juice, fizzy drinks, chocolate, postcards, etc. Just not milk. But it is perfectly possible to drink that black tea black. Not as nice, but perfectly possible.

A half marathon on the Sunday sent us to the zoo. When it looked like most of our potential routes anywhere would be blocked by runners, we walked the five minutes to the zoo and spent the morning looking at sad elephants and sad chimpanzees. And a panda.

Also antelopes and the head of a polar bear.

When it was time for your Witch to fly home again, by plane rather than broom, she discovered that the stags seemed to have survived the weekend and were ready to fly home with her, nicely lubricated. I recognised Dale, even without his t-shirt (=he was wearing something else), and the cute stag who actually had hair, unlike most of today’s young men, and who looked exactly as I have imagined Mary Hoffman’s Lucien, from City of Masks.

But I’d rather have flown home without them.

Berlin

Does it make you proud?

In my early teens I could manage quite passable volley ball serves. This may surprise you. As it still does me.

I was bad at PE, at most sport, and had very poor ball game skills. But I was able to give that volley ball quite a whack and send it where it was useful. I couldn’t then play the game. At all. But if they were awake, my team mates should be able to make some sensible volley ball moves from those serves.

It was the usual set-up, so when the teams were picked, I was chosen last. It was fine. I knew that was going to happen. But for some reason, I always ended up in the the less pleasant team. I remember this because those serves were quite good. But no one was pleased, nor did they ever say ‘well done.’

No, that task befell the opposing team. After enough powerful serves from me, which were not in their best interests, they called out ‘well done!’ Meaning it the nice way, not sarcastically, or anything. And after all these years, when I think of these girls, it’s the way they behaved in PE that comes back to me.

Although I am sure that my team mates grew up to be kind and pleasant people. Too.

The reason for this ancient sports report is that history repeats itself. Some people who should have shown pride over and been pleased about something, at least to the degree that they could have uttered some polite, if not heartfelt, praise for someone being successful at something. But they didn’t.

The people who showed pleasure were almost perfect strangers at the bus stop. They positively beamed with happiness on hearing the good news.

It’s not my story to tell, which is why I’m being cryptic. But it’s more of a disgrace than my volley ball team forgetting their manners. Or their kindness.