Category Archives: History

Hostages to Fortune

I keep going on about refugees and immigrants, don’t I? But there’s just something about the situation Sadie and Kevin find themselves in. In Joan Lingard’s fifth and last book about our Belfast lovers, the pair have some bad luck, and they still seem to have to be the ones to settle for the bare minimum.

They need to move on again, and ever the optimist, Sadie keeps moving them into every nice little cottage they come across, except it’s not that easy. There is baby Brendan, who is nearly one, there is the dog, and before long, Kevin’s younger sister Clodagh turns up. And she is trouble in a way that their brother Gerald never was.

Giving up new friends again, and looking for their fortune somewhere new again, the two nevertheless stay cheerful, and do their best. Even with Clodagh they manage to be mature, most of the time, in a way that makes you forget they are still only around twenty.

But there are good people around, at least in Joan’s books, and with more hard work and new friendships it seems as if they will weather this storm as well. Kevin goes to see his mother in Tyrone, and realises that he was lucky to escape when he did, even if it is a hard life.

It’s amazing how different Northern Ireland seems, from 1970s England and Wales, but also then as compared to now. It’s almost as ‘far away’ as the places today’s newcomers have left behind.

I wonder what Kevin and Sadie are up to today?

Gifted

We never did find Joey after the Grandmother died.

I know the Bible mentions that it’s bad form to covet that which belongs to others, but I always wanted Joey, from the moment I saw him. He was the saddest, loveliest little china dog you could imagine, and he’d been the Grandmother’s since she was about six. She went on holiday as a child and fell in love with him in Woolworths.

I accepted that he wasn’t mine, but thought that maybe I could inherit Joey at some point. Except, as I said, he seems to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Maybe he broke, and perhaps she didn’t mention it to us.

There is another sad dog in my life. One with no name [that I can remember] and with only one ear. But the remaining ear is a rather long and floppy one. I look at him every now and then, wondering if I really need keep him, more than forty years from when a grateful university friend gave him to me, in return for lecture notes.

Dog

Recently I came to the conclusion that I will still remember her, even if I don’t hang on to the sad dog. And remembering the friend, whom I’ve not seen all these years, is what matters. Just like the [now] slightly chipped bowl I was given as a leaving present at work, almost as long ago, is not needed in itself. It’s the memory of being given it, and of the givers, that I need to hang on to.

I thought these deep thoughts as we trudged round an antiques centre yesterday, looking for gifts that Daughter could buy for important people in her life. Yes, by all means consider what they would appreciate, and what they are like as people, but you can never predict what they will cart around with them for the next forty years.

Hence, do think a bit, but not too much. They could hate it on sight, or they might love it forever.

Still haven’t made up my mind about the dog.

(I’m worried he’ll look even sadder if I do the unthinkable.)

A Proper Place

We are currently thinking about and talking about refugees and immigrants more than we have for a long time, which means that the story belonging to Joan Lingard’s Sadie and Kevin feels more pertinent than ever. But rather as with the Jewish refugees in the 1930s, so it has become with the Irish who came thirty or forty years later. They are considered mainstream, in light of our most recent immigrants or asylum seekers.

They are, aren’t they? It can’t be just me? And if people have mostly got used to and accepted these older arrivals, then it is fair to assume that we will one day feel like this about whoever we worry about today; be they Syrians or Afghans, or even these ridiculous EU citizens from the Netherlands or Spain who were under the impression they belonged.

At least Kevin and Sadie were allowed to come and live in England. They were poor and not always accepted, and they had to make do with the worst accommodation and look grateful, while working hard to get somewhere. The scenario is one we’ve seen countless times. What I find fascinating is how hard Kevin works at whatever jobs he can find, while Sadie does the wifely tasks expected of females back then, and equally hard. They are no lazy layabouts.

In the fourth book, A Proper Place, they have left London and are living in Liverpool with their baby son. Sadie is learning that she can get to know people and make friends in every new place she comes to. She needs friends, and people to chat to.

Family is at the heart of everything here too. Sadie’s mother comes to visit, and no sooner have they survived this ordeal but Kevin’s ‘bad’ brother Gerald turns up. I was all set to see him on the IRA front line, but there are surprises everywhere.

Needing to look for a new job, Kevin moves the little family to a farm in Cheshire, and after initial teething problems, they are happy there. Sadie continues to learn to get on with just about everybody she meets, both through her friendliness and her hard work for what matters to her.

Behind their successes lie normal problems such as married life, belonging to two opposing religions, being hard up and always being the newcomers. Gerald and the rest of the McCoy clan in Tyrone don’t exactly help smooth things.

You have to love these two for how they cope. Wonderfully inspirational!

Beyond the Wall

Most of the major newspapers have been reviewing Tanya Landman’s new novel, Beyond the Wall, in the last few days, so why should Bookwitch do any different?

This is a fantastic book! It deals with the less common period of Roman Britain, as seen from the perspective of the slaves. Now, slaves are a bit of a speciality for Tanya, and this book does not disappoint. We’re on homeground, so to speak, and although it might seem to have been a long time ago, there’s a surprising number of situations for our heroes that could almost be today.

Tanya Landman, Beyond the Wall

Female slaves were often sexually abused by their masters, and it seems that many babies who were the result of this kind of behaviour, never had a chance of surviving, because they were not needed by the master. It is an absolute agony to think about.

Cassia is one such baby, with the difference that she’s permitted to live. In her mid teens she’s chosen to do for her master what her mother did before her, but somehow she escapes, with her master’s dogs giving chase and soon with a prize on her head.

She believes she must get to the north, past the wall, outside which people live free. And the person who ends up helping her is a young, good-looking Roman. She knows she should probably not trust Marcus, but she has no choice.

This could have been merely an exciting adventure story of how to escape an enraged slave owner, but it soon becomes so much more. You gasp as the tale takes – several – unexpected turns, and you fear for all your favourite characters. And you wonder if, or when, Marcus will show his true colours.

Beyond the Wall becomes a story about the Roman Empire, and not just a British runaway. It’s one of these all too rare unputdownable books.

The Beautiful Game

I remember the Liverpool fans returning home on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, travelling past where we used to live. Not that I was out there watching, but there was this horrible awareness of what had just happened.

Today it’s exactly 28 years since 96 people died at Hillsborough, and football crazy Alan Gibbons has written a book for Barrington Stoke about that day, as well as some other football disasters and soccer related incidents.

Alan Gibbons, The Beautiful Game

If this sounds dismal; it isn’t. Alan tells the short story of young [black] football fan Lennie who’s come to Manchester to see his beloved Liverpool play United, with his dad and grandad, when there is an altercation between the two teams’ fans, over Hillsborough and Munich.

Alan provides brief but full information about what happened, and why, as well as listing a few other football facts. He doesn’t mince words over the actions of the police or his hatred of The Sun newspaper.

Lennie learns that you must behave fairly and decently even if provoked, and why. His dad and grandad were at Hillsborough that day, and Lennie’s grandad has memories of what it was like to be black in Liverpool in the 1960s, when you couldn’t really go to soccer games.

Finally, Lennie is forced to come face-to-face with some real Man United fans, and discovers they are also people and perfectly normal. Sometimes even better at football…

(Illustrations by Chris Chalik)

Into Exile

Last we saw them, Kevin and Sadie were leaving Belfast in a hurry. In the third of Joan Lingard’s novels about the two teenagers from Northern Ireland, they are living in – relative – squalor in London. Married at Gretna Green, they are struggling to earn money, wanting to find somewhere better to live, but knowing this is all they can have for the moment. Both miss their tight-knit lives from their respective Belfast neighbourhoods.

But they discover that it is possible to make new friends and slowly life gets better, until a few new spanners are thrown into the works for them, in the shape of new workmates, girls down at the pub, an admirer for Sadie, and family troubles at home.

They know they want to be together, but it is so hard to keep going when life gets tough.

This is a beautiful time capsule, taking some of us back to the early 1970s, reminding us what things were like in those pre-historic days. And what this really is, is a typical tale of displaced people. It doesn’t matter which decade or where those people came from or why. There is always hardship, and suspicion from the locals, and even a lot of prejudice from the newcomers. I suspect this will never change.

Also, Sadie is very young – well, they both are – and impetuous, and it’s not easy not to spend too much money or not to want to go out and have fun. But Sadie happens to have a knack for making friends anywhere, which is a good thing, because you do need people when life is tough.

In Into Exile it seems as if most of their worries stem from the family back in Belfast, but they can’t go back. Or can they?

Sometimes all you need is a new colourful mug to cheer you up.

The Ravenmaster’s Boy

Mary Hoffman’s new novel The Ravenmaster’s Boy, out today, is such a perfect story that you barely notice you are reading. Starting with young Kit’s rescue from a plague cart in 1520s London, it’s all go and very enjoyable, too, despite it being about the imprisonment and execution of Anne Boleyn.

Mary Hoffman, The Ravenmaster's Boy

After Kit is discovered alive underneath his dead parents, he is adopted by the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London and brought up to work with the ravens, learning to talk to and understand these intelligent birds.

He is sixteen in 1536 when the Queen is brought to the Tower, alongside the group of men the King accuses of improper behaviour with her. Kit wants to help his Queen, and with the assistance of the ravens and two young girls also living at the Tower, he tries his very best.

We know he won’t succeed, of course. This is really very fascinating, and we meet the young Princess Elizabeth as well as Cromwell, and there is a glimpse or two of Henry VIII himself. London in the 16th century was a cruel place, but it was also small and personal on a scale hard to imagine today.

It is inspiring to learn more about a famous part of history, while also being treated to an exciting historical thriller. I sort of warmed to Cromwell, and I became surprisingly fond of the ravens, and their little bird friends all over London, who make such perfect spies.

Really lovely, if you can ignore the rolling heads.