“True Freedom” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – book review

True Freedom Michael Dean book cover“True Freedom” is ambitious in scope, looking at the sixteen years leading up to the Bostonian Uprising in the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of America’s war of independence from Britain. It’s a fictional account following key characters, mainly politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic.These characters include Thomas Hutchinson, a wealthy Bostonian whose hands are tied by an ineffectual governor and lack of support from Parliament in London. Samuel Adams and Thomas Young, who try to unify and inspire the Sons of Liberty and Mohucks, rebels seeking to feed their families and angry at paying taxes to a British government they see as distant and irrelevant. The brothers, John and Thomas Pownall, on opposite sides of the Bostonian/British divide and their attempts to influence key figures in the British Parliament to their side.

At its heart is a power vacuum. King George III only appears briefly to snub Thomas Hutchinson; a useful illustration of his failure to see how British policy towards its American colony – the drive to raise taxes to fund foreign campaigns in Europe – would inflame sparks of rebellion. That vacuum allows British politicians to manoeuvre their own agendas to suit, to the horror of Bostonian experts, who know the rebels are unifying, gaining traction and building towards a launch for independence.

A novelist, telling a story where the ending is known, has set themselves a big challenge to keep readers hooked. Michael Dean tackles this by using meticulous attention to detail, recreating the atmosphere of the British Houses of Parliament, the tiny offices of civil servants work in, the contrasts between the opulent houses of wealthy Bostonian merchants and the ragged clothing of rebels meeting in a room above an inn. The machinations of power-plays, the point scoring and struggles of the characters draw focus to the micro-dramas, fears and motivations of the characters.

On the odd occasion the focus on details feels misplaced. The description of Thomas Hutchinson’s primary residence detracts from the impending visit of the governor. This detail would have been better saved for the incident where rebels break into the residence; they would have been seeing it with fresh eyes and the details relevant to a group deciding what to vandalise, what to leave and what to take, throwing the contrast between poverty and wealth into sharp relief.

“True Freedom” is not for those seeking fast-paced action and military drama. It is for those who love to linger over period detail and gain a thorough understanding of the political situation and how it led to the revolt. It is meticulously researched and some minor artistic licence has been taken with facts whilst remaining true to the events described. Its focus on interpersonal relationships of the key characters offer insight and readers see familiar events with a new understanding, enhanced by its tone of quiet commentary, which allows the drama to speak for itself.

“True Freedom” is available from Holland Park Press.


 

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“London Undercurrents” Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire (Holland Park Press) – book review

London Undercurrents book coverTwo poets explore the hidden histories of women based north and south of the river Thames in London through poems with Joolz Sparkes focusing north of the river, and Hilaire south. Poems are grouped by theme so chronologically they jump around and are marked N or S to indicate the writer. Some poems feature a named subject. Others look at a class of women, e.g. “Dodging the Doctor” subtitled “The White Lead Works Factory, Islington, 1892” and labelled N,

“It’s out job they once said for girls
didn’t get poisoned like men.
But now a doctor visits regular,
warns us to Take a bath once a week.
Any sign of sickness
we’re sent home,
our pay docked.

To avoid diagnosis,
I drift silently in blizzard,
invisible in the powder-fogged air,
clamber barefoot
up the drying scaffold,
hide at the top on rough planks.
Hup I go.”

Through ignorance, it was a historical belief that women were not affected by lead poisoning to the extent that men were therefore it was safer for them to work with lead powder, used in white paints. Once it was realised this wasn’t the case, a bizarre compromise of sending a doctor in to access workers’ health was introduced. To the workers, who need their wages, this compromise seems more punishment than help. Getting colleagues to warn of the doctor’s visit and help hide each other a measure of solidarity. Move forward to the 1970s and solidarity is still needed, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” subtitled, “Sit-in at Decca’s Colour TV Factory, Ingate Place, 14th August 1975” and labelled S (the image in the text is the Gujarati word for redundancy which also translates into English as futility),

“They lied to us. They lied with untranslated words. Redundancy. Spit it out in Gujarati Redundancy We hear it as futility. They translate us into no job in two weeks. Redundancy. Our insignificant bodies occupy their factory. They nail up the toilet doors. They send our food away. Redundancy They brand us with the stigma of barrenness. Together we’ve assembled hundreds, thousands of colour TVs. Between us, we feed dozens upon dozens of dependents. Why close our black and white TVs in our crowded, borrowed homes? We are seventy strong.”

In 1991 in “Permitted to Play” set in Arsenal Football Stadium, a girl’s voice asks,

“Teacher says I’m better than the boys.
Dad, Dad, I can beat them on this pitch.
With you and mum eating hotdogs
in the red seats, waving scarves.

On telly, they only show the men’s.
Dad, when can I play for Arsenal? When?”

The women’s team play most of their home matches outside London in Hertfordshire rather than at the Emirates Stadium in north London. Moving back to 1977, a similar note of defiance is uttered in “On the Way to See The Sex Pistols Play at the Hope and Anchor” where the speaker ends, “We’re pretty in black,/ mother, daughter, sister, Punk.”

“He was a Lovely Boy” subtitled “Somewhere on the Estate Essex Road, 1969” and labelled N, is about the Kray twins,

“My lad, my son, my blood.
Brought him up nice, polite.

His second birth tore me apart.
Both halves twinned together –

could’ve ripped them in two
with my teeth, but this one

kept the peace, stayed respectful,
never swore. Class. Stuck to his code:

just his bare hands grappling
in back rooms of pubs.

Knives or guns?
You choose you lose.”

It could be just as relevant today. “On the Marriage of Catherine Boucher to William Blake” subtitled “St Mary’s Church Battersea, 18th August 1782” and labelled S,

“We say our vows
bathed in a splendor of light.

And when he signs his name –
William Blake – in the register
I believe this to be true,
unable to decipher
those marks that flow
so swiftly, serpent-like,
from his pen. This X
I make, crooked, unfamiliar,
symbol of my freely given hand,
he swears he’ll take and soon
have learnt me how to read and write.
To sign my own proud name:
Catherine Blake.”

It’s a touching reminder of how women weren’t educated and therefore reliant on husbands or fathers to speak for them. There’s a reminder of the women’s suffrage movement too, “Cat and Mouse”, Holloway Prison 1913, N,

“for cheeks to hide histories of hands
that forced open a mouth to gag

on rubber pipe. This waiting affords me
respite at home, soft boiled eggs, a glimpse

of headlines. Then they’ll start again. But we,
my sisters, we will wait no more.”

The so-called cat and mouse act allowed hunger-striking women prisoners to be sent home under house arrest and returned to prison when they were deemed strong enough to serve the remainder of their sentence. Many were also forcibly fed to prevent starvation.

Personally, I would have preferred the poems in chronological order because I feel this would have reflected the growth of the city and allowed historical echoes of current day concerns to emerge. However, this is just a personal preference.

“London Undercurrents” is an intriguing, worthy collaboration that focuses on histories in two specific areas of London. The poems imaginatively give voices to stories often overlooked from those who usually go unheard. Both poets, Hilaire and Joolz Sparks, have distinct but complementary voices but share the ability to use selective details to bring their subjects to life in an engaging manner. The poems suggest both poets love their city and want to share its stories with a wider readership.

“London Undercurrents” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Houses Along the Wall” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

2018 11 21 Karen Hayes The Houses Along the Wall book cover“The Houses Along the Wall” is a collection of poems inspired by a row of houses along the coast in Parrog in Pembrokeshire where pieces of china and pottery frequently wash up on a nearby beach. These poems are acts of preservation: charting the landscape and people, and recording overheard conversations and local stories associated with the houses. They also imagine past inhabitants and what their lives might have been based on the fragments of crockery and gathered stories. Each poem is subtitled by the name of the house that inspired the poem. Some names are Welsh, some English.

The early poems loosely focus on a family’s beginning, marriage before the children arrive. In “In His Cups”, house name Morwellan,

“His shilling, like ice in his palm, he touches
The rim of the collection bowl
Where the wood is warm from the heel
Of her hand and at the communion
Tastes where her lips have been.
And he knows how she gropes for the kneeler
Blindly with thumb and forefinger
And how she pulls
The resistant tapestry
Out of its hiding place.

She emerges from yew-tree dark
With the glamour of rain in her hair,
Her arm through his. Her smile an intoxication
To quench his thirst for ever,
And exacts her own promise in return.
He never took a drop from the day
She agreed to his proposal.”

The reference to shilling dates the poem to a time when divorce was stigmatised so the unnamed she is taking a huge gamble in agreeing to his proposal. The poem changes tone from the tender romanticism of touching the things she had touched to the more business-like transaction of exchanging promises where the language from the extract of the second quoted stanza becomes flatter and factual. The image of her groping for the cushion used to knee to pray suggests she’s seen something in him that he’s not yet ready to acknowledge and offers a note of hope for the marriage.

Karen Hayes visited Parrog as an English tourist in her childhood and explores other tourists in “The Belgians”, house name Ocean House, which starts “The Belgians came on the day of the regatta” and ends,

“Those three years, measured in regattas,
When the Belgians lived at Ocean House,
Marked an entente between us and next door.
On the last Sunday the eldest brothers won the double skulls
Then joined the fusiliers on Monday morning.
Their engraved cup still sits on our mantle-piece
With regimental medals from Palestine.
They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village
And understood that we were the English here,
And therefore also foreign.
Amongst the list of Evanses and Reeses
Their Belgian name stands out.”

I think “skulls” should be “sculls” so the cup is from a rowing competition because of the repetition of “regattas” both to mark the Belgians’ arrival and the span of time lived at the house. The poem explores the extra effort the foreigners made to fit in, “They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village” and the connection between them and the English tourists. Other poems explore the blessing and curse of tourism: that it brings a much needed boost to the local economy but also that holiday homes prevent people born in Parrog buying a house there.

One of the last poems looks at the oldest house, “The Runt of the Litter”, house name Trenydd, where the contradiction of “eldest” and “runt” is dealt with in the opening stanza, “Little Trenydd, eldest of the brood,/ But the runt of the litter of houses.” The poem continues,

“Little Trenydd, the first built,
Squats like a baby
Counting its mothers buttons from a tin,
Cross-legged on the strand.
Soon the other houses grown around it,
Those leggy younger siblings,
Vying for height and confidence, and
Competing architectural demands.”

And ends “And, an old man now, with the sun in his eyes/ Little Trenydd dozes on the wall.”

It’s the first poem to give one of the houses a persona. The others focus on the residents and visitors, the people who stayed relatively briefly in the houses. One poem imagines the missing estate agent Suzy Lamplugh playing hide and seek with children in one of the houses, giving the collection a contemporary edge. There’s much to savour here and the aim of preserving the character and houses is achieved.

“The Houses Along the Wall” is available from Holland Park Press

“Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories” Vicky Grut (Holland Park Publishing) – book review

Live Show Drink Included Vicky GrutVicky Grut’s short stories are based in ordinary, everyday lives where some small event triggers a series of actions that unravel the protagonist’s life. This makes the stories easy to relate to but they still have a hook that pulls readers in. The opening story, “In the Current Climate” takes the viewpoint of office workers reduced to spectators as a group of suited regulators usher them away from their desks and start collecting documents. The situation isn’t resolved but questions how much we know about our colleagues, what we might do to keep our jobs in a climate of austerity and high unemployment, how each reacts to the threat of job loss, how blame gets bandied around and how gossip and speculation fill a communication void.

“Mistaken” sees a customer mistake an academic for a shop assistant in a large department store. The customer is white and in a hurry on a lunch break. The academic is black and was merely browsing a rack of clothing. With no actual shop assistant in the vicinity, does she challenge the racist assumption or comply? When the customer reports the theft of her credit card, the academic is forced to choose between explaining the mix-up or escaping. The latter choice means putting herself in the spotlight and hoping the store’s security guards will understand she was the victim, not the perpetrator, but that relies on white guards understanding a black woman’s view having already listened to a white woman’s mistaken, racist assumption. Help comes from an unlikely source who also makes a mistaken assumption about the academic. It’s fair to say the store has lost a customer.

Seeking a free drink and a new experience, a young couple try the “Live Show, Drink Included” offered by a Soho club in the title story. Expecting something tantalising or at least vaguely sexy, they make the mistake of overlooking the club’s dingy appearance and stay, despite the barman’s warning. Even when the performance area is a grotty piece of carpet rather than a stage, the couple cling to their optimism. It takes the same song played on a repeated loop and the realisation that, aside from the barman and ticket seller, they are the only audience, to provoke a response that could make or break them as a couple.

Other stories involve management theory and organisational reviews, a gardener struggling with a head injury, a woman visiting her mother-in-law, a young couple blagging a free meal and hotel room for a night, a mother charged with repaying a debt others incurred in her name, an actor explaining to her director boyfriend that she got a part she didn’t audition for and other familiar situations.

Each story starts with a realistic situation and lets it unravel, forcing the protagonists into a course of action and not necessarily the right one. The stories don’t reach for an easy resolution, often letting readers figure out how the situation resolves. There is humour amidst the darkness and glimpses of hope within the despair of some characters’ reactions. Vicky Grut’s stories are taut, astute stories that draw readers into their recognisable situations and shock with a sudden but credible tilt in perspective.

“Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories” by Vicky Grut is available from Holland Park Press.

“The White Crucifixion” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – novel review

“The White Crucifixion” is subtitled “a novel on Marc Chagall” and is split into parts that explore Marc Chagall’s beginnings as a painter, his first stay in Paris, his return to Vitebsk, his promotion to Director of the Vitebsk School of Art and then his return to Paris. The structure is linear as it follows Moyshe Shagal (not yet Marc Chagall) from childhood in Vitebsk where he first learns to paint, to discovery in Paris, a muted return and fatherhood in Vitebsk, where he is trapped as war breaks out and finally Chagall’s return to Paris as his rival wins dominance.

Michael Dean’s novel blurs the line between fiction and creative non-fiction in that the events are based on Marc Chagall’s life but the conversations and reactions are fictional. I imagine, too, that the cast of characters has been limited because the named characters have an impact on Chagall’s life and some resurface as the painter moves from Vitebsk to Paris and vice versa. This approach means that the tension and drama in the novel is not based on events in Chagall’s life, since a biographical overview is widely known or available after a quick online search, but relies on the interactions and Chagall’s reactions to them.

Moyshe Shagal is born to a herring-schlepper and a grocer and carries a guilt about a younger sister’s death, believing her to have choked on a piece of charcoal he’d given her. His mother, the grocer, is actually the main breadwinner and she allows him to go to art school. It’s through art school that he finds himself mixing with teenaged children from the richer areas and how he meets his future wife, Bella. Bella’s parents, who own a jewellery shop, are not initially impressed with the idea of their daughter marrying a painter but don’t prevent nuptials. Moyshe is invited to Paris where he joins an artists’ community and is discovered by a dealer. Bella joins him. She vacillates between becoming a writer or an actress and fails to pursue either. Readers only see Bella through Chagall’s eyes and he fails to appreciate the limitations she faces and, at times, she becomes merely someone to share a bed with rather than a fully-formed character. There is a good sense of the rivalries, camaraderie and petty jealousies that dog an artists’ community. There’s also a good sense of what it means to be an artist, “I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.”

It is back in Vitebsk that Bella gets her break as an actress but is thwarted by a sprained ankle. The sprained ankle seems to trigger labour, which feels surreal because Chagall failed to notice his wife’s changing body during her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Ida in welcomed into the Chagall household. Chagall gets what he thinks is a break when invited to be director at the new Vitebsk People’s Art School. However, he soon discovers his title doesn’t confer any actual power. He tries to resign but Bella urges him to hang on. Her panic attacks have made her agoraphobic and, some days, bedridden. This isn’t explored or explained and Chagall doesn’t seem bothered that his wife, happy to explore Paris and nurture ambitions, is reduced to one room in their apartment at the school. At this time, against the back-drop of the First World War and Russian Revolution, Chagall describes his paintings as “documents”, recording a Jewish world which is being destroyed. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, the Chagalls return to Paris and the story can re-focus on art, building towards the painting “The White Crucifixion”.

On occasion the drama is undermined. After an attempted suicide by Indenbaum in the Paris artists’ colony, readers are told “During the course of his long and by and large contented life, Indenbaum never did anything remotely like this again.” On another, when Chagall is facing starvation, he is rescued in the next paragraph, the sense of danger passes too quickly.

The novel is at its strongest when depicting La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris and exploring Chagall’s inspirations and motivations to paint. It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.

“The White Crucifixion” by Michael Dean is available from Holland Park Press


“The Institute” Vincent Bijlo (Holland Park Press) – novel review

34552597A novel from Dutch stand-up comedian and columnist translated by Susan Ridder, where readers meet Otto Iking, aged eleven, wannabee radio show host, who provides a droll look at life in an institute for blind children during the 1970s. Alongside the usual school lessons, the children are given instructions in how to use a white stick and read braille. Some children get transferred to mainstream schools, something Otto is ambivalent about: on one hand it’s something his parents would welcome, on the other he’s currently in a place where the children are more or less equally disadvantaged. With the exception of Edwin who has partial sight and likes kicking other children. Otto and Harry spend time planning all sorts of revenge schemes to deal with Edwin’s bullying, but, ironically, Otto deals with the Edwin problem by accident with better results than either he or Harry could have anticipated.

Other plots go wrong too. Otto denies buying cigarettes when accused by a member of staff because he’s not realised that the petrol station assistant put them in a clear plastic bag (the staff member lets him off though). He and Harry plan to be heroes in an elaborate plan involving a catering trolley, a moped (both stolen from staff) and a gun only to find the compass they thought they had was actually a thermometer and when they get to the petrol station to fill up the moped, they discover the problem they wanted to solve has already been solved. There’s also a disastrous camping trip…

The humour is interlaced with a poignant coming of age story. Returning home to recover from a fever, Otto discovers his parents’ marriage has become strained due to his mother’s increased drinking after losing her job due to substandard work which has further eroded what already seemed to be a precarious self-esteem. His mother talks of going on holiday on her own. His father hints that the holiday is a stint in rehab. While his mother is quick to dismiss a girl at the institute as “that podgy thing”, Otto’s crush on the girl, Sonja, seems to be reciprocated.

Throughout, Otto manages to keep up almost daily broadcasts on Radio Fed-Up, a one boy radio channel exclusively starring Otto. Otto never asks if any of the children listen to it, but, when a local TV station visits the institute to film a documentary about life there and Harry is selected for interview, Otto finds that not being a TV star gives him a chance to get involved in the broadcaster’s radio channel. The irony of being “a good voice for radio” isn’t lost on the readers but it is on Otto. In the end, Otto is forced to test his ambivalence when he’s given a choice to stay with his dysfunctional family and, most probably, ending up stuck at the institute or rejecting his family and taking responsibility for his future by allowing his move to a mainstream school.

“The Institute” is a bittersweet coming of age story, demonstrating that despite being institutionalised, the children adapt and generally turn out OK. Otto, in needing material for Radio Fed-Up sets himself up as a natural outsider and observer, recording the conversations, situations and rough-and-tumble of pre-teen life. Through Otto’s eyes, the staff seem like two-dimensional dimwits for the children to pit their wits against and win, but that’s entirely in keeping with the narrator’s viewpoint, which is credibly that of an eleven year old boy. The only character who is allowed to wallow in self-pity is Otto’s mother and even that doesn’t last long. The humour is balanced with tragedy so it doesn’t become relentless and readers find themselves rooting for Otto.

“The Institute” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.