Category Archives: History

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The other week I got so furious with everything to do with immigrants not being wanted, that I hunted out a book I’ve had lying around for about seven years and read it.

The book was Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which was first published twenty years ago, and tells the story of what it was like for her when she came to England in 1960 at the age of eleven.

Floella Benjamin, Coming to England

At first I was afraid it was going to turn out that Trinidad had been paradise and England was not, but their idyllic life in Trinidad turned sour when Floella’s parents had to leave four of their six children behind, as they didn’t have enough money for all at once. Life for those left behind quickly became hell, which presumably made the reality of England less bad, even if it was cold and grey and unwelcoming.

Through hard work and love they prospered and did well, and as we know, Floella has been very successful. But it wasn’t for England opening its arms and being friendly and giving things away freely, even then.

The facts of this book are more pertinent than ever. The style is rather wooden and boring, but that is outweighed by how important it is to read.


And then, I’d not had time to read the Guardian Weekend two weeks ago, so first picked it up a week late, to find Floella Benjamin the subject of their Q&A page. And the reason she was, was that the book has been republished again.

If that’s not witchy, I don’t know what is.

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.

The Borrowers

Let me bore you with some irrelevant facts.

Back in July 2000 I was standing in a Stockport bookshop. I can’t tell you which one, and by that I mean I can’t recall what name it was trading under at the time. It kept changing, as chains bought each other. It was the one near Sainsbury’s, and I was at the back of the shop, in the children’s books department. I know when, because I was there with my visitors from Sweden, who desperately needed new books. As you do.

They had a table featuring books from one publisher, with a two for one offer. I’m terribly ‘economical’, so felt this was a good offer and I should make the most of it. I seem to recall buying eight books, paying for four. Most of them I had no idea what they were, and simply picked the ones that looked the least bad.

I know. How very negative of me.

Mary Norton, The Borrowers

And one of the books was The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Being somewhat foreign, I’d never heard of either her or the book. But I did like it when I came to read it. I also realised that the story about these tiny people, living somewhere near you, is a bit of a classic.

The things you find out.

It’s been reissued again, and now comes as a lovely clothbound hardback, looking precisely as you’d expect an old classic to look like. It has the original Diana Stanley illustrations, and is simply an attractive little book. And this time I know about it, too.

Until We Win

Linda Newbery’s new book title for Barrington Stoke – Until We Win – takes on even more meaning than perhaps was intended when she wrote her short but engaging story about the suffragette movement. We keep being reminded of how important it is not to waste the vote, that so many women worked so hard to win for us.

Don’t be complacent and stay at home, in the belief that voting doesn’t matter. It does, and we are seeing the effects in spades these days.

Linda Newbery, Until We Win

Lizzy works in an office when she meets a couple of suffragettes and is taken on by their group. At last there is something vital that she can do! Lizzy marches and ends up in jail, where she goes on hunger strike.

At work Lizzy befriends another young girl, whose life also changes with the help of the older suffragettes. And in the midst of their campaign for votes, war breaks out and they have other work to do.

Linda’s story is fairly low key, but all the more powerful for it. We need fairness more than ever, and those who are looked down on must be given equality.

(Another gorgeous embroidered cover by Stewart Easton, in purple, white and green.)

Silver Stars

Absolutely splendid!

Not a word I normally use, but in this case I must. It’s a nod to one of the characters – a token semi-Brit amongst the GIs – in Michael Grant’s Silver Stars. This is his second book about these soldiers, in an almost true to history WWII. (I hesitate to use the word beginning with the letter a that I’d usually choose, as it has been abused recently.)

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

We return to where we left our friends in North Africa, where they are waiting to be sent on to somewhere else where their lives will be on the line. Again. They are young, but by now they are no longer green, and that makes a difference. Even the girls go out and get drunk and have bar fights.

Another thing I’d never considered, but which Michael points out, is that promotion has its negative sides. You need to lead, possibly send your friends into danger, and this is while you are still learning the ropes yourself. In war, promotion often comes because someone else went and got themselves killed.

Rio, Jenou and Frangie are fighting a more traditional kind of war, while Rainy has to live with the secrecy and dangers in military intelligence. Frangie must deal with the war as well as the prejudice against blacks. Rainy needs to tread carefully and not let the Germans discover she is Jewish. Rio wants to stay friends with Jenou, sort out her romantic problems and escape a rumour that she actually enjoys killing people.

It is funny, and it is horrible. There is so much mud and darkness and shelling and not enough food or soap. I had heard that Monte Cassino was no picnic, but only now I understand what it might have been like.

And when things go well, I was appalled to discover how much less positive the experience is for Frangie. Because she is black. But all our female soldiers are true heroines and role models, even at times when things are FUBAR (Google it).

The worrying thing is that as opposed to last year when I read the first book, things weren’t too FUBAR in ordinary life. Now, I don’t know what to think.

Other than that Silver Stars is the best book I’ve read this year. OK, it’s February, but still.

Tilt

Mary Hoffman’s new book for Barrington Stoke is about the leaning tower of Pisa. You’d sort of guess that from the title, maybe.

Mary Hoffman, Tilt

I now know an awful lot more about the tower than I did before. In fact, I have never really known much, and I’ve not been to see it. But it is iconic, and you feel you own the image, knowing it so well from photographs.

While teaching the reader about the tower, Mary provides a truly inspiring story about a young girl in Pisa, who wants what was unthinkable back in the 13th century. Netta’s father is a sculptor and stone-carver and it is his task to work out what to do to stop the tower from leaning so much, and to prevent things from getting worse.

Netta finds this fascinating and wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps. But she’s a girl.

This is great stuff. The background to why the tower leans is really interesting, and Netta is the perfect role model for generations of girls to come. You can have it all. Not that girls should have to want to wash and cook, of course.

It’s made up, but I feel it could have happened exactly like this.

The New Road

It’s Burns Night, and while we do not yet have any Haggis in the house, we do have a Resident IT Consultant, who not only has plans to walk the length of the country (Scotland), but has taken to reading Scottish books. More Scottish books than before, I mean. Here he is:

“On my return to Scotland after nearly forty years in England I decided it was time to seek out some of the Scottish classics that I was vaguely aware of but had never had the time to read. At school I read Kidnapped and The Thirty Nine Steps (thanks to an English teacher who knew how to pick books that would appeal to twelve-year-old boys). Some time in my twenties, thirties or forties I read Sunset Song, Waverley and quite a bit more Buchan but otherwise my reading of what I regard as classics (books written before, say, 1950) was restricted to English, American and European writers.

Neil Munro, The New Road

I decided to start with Neil Munro’s The New Road. I had always been aware of Neil Munro as the author of the Para Handy tales but knew nothing of his other books. Munro was born in Inveraray in 1863 but spent most of his adult life working as a writer and journalist in west central Scotland. He became editor of the Glasgow Evening News in 1918 and died in 1930. The New Road was published in 1914, was his last novel and is widely regarded as his best.

Set in 1733, the novel has much in common with Kidnapped. It has a young protagonist, Aeneas Macmaster, who, like David Balfour, has his naïve view of the world transformed by an adventurous journey through the Highlands. He is accompanied by an older, more experienced companion, Ninian Campbell.

Though Ninian is a Campbell only for the sake of expediency; his father was one of the proscribed Macgregors of Balquhidder. There’s a stronger romantic element than in Kidnapped, and it’s better developed than the romance in Stevenson’s sequel to Kidnapped, Catriona.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The characters are very well developed and the plot cunningly built through a series of twists and turns that only come to fruiting in the last few pages. If you’ve enjoyed reading Kidnapped try the New Road.”

There. That sounds so good I’m almost tempted to have a go myself.