Grand Tour #27 – United Kingdom. The People of Providence / Tony Parker

December 2, 2017

About half of the books I read must be by British authors, so it was never going to be a struggle to find a book for the UK, but I did want to find something in the spirit of this project, a book with Britishness as its subject somehow. After much deliberation, it came to me suddenly: Tony Parker’s 1983 book The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants, which I bought in 2011 after hearing a radio documentary about the author. Tony Parker (1923-1996) was one of the great oral historians of the last century, and his work focused above all on the voices of marginalised people. His book Life After Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers, made a great impact on me a few years ago, and The People of Providence promised much.

Parker spent a good chunk of the early 1980s interviewing various residents of and visitors to the estate he calls Providence (in fact the Brandon Estate in Southwark, built in 1958 and by the 1980s beginning to be somewhat dilapidated), meeting each interviewee several times. This book consists of 49 of these interviews condensed into monologues, each lasting about six pages in total, the interviewees’ identities tactfully disguised. At the start a passer-by, asked to sum up Providence in a single word, offers the word ‘mixed’. That is indisputably the case: it’s mixed in terms of accommodation (20-storey tower blocks, low-rise flats, prefabs, squats), and in terms of its residents, who are racially diverse, come from all sorts of backgrounds (though predominantly middle- and working-class), and range in age from babies to pensioners. The People of Providence, then, is a study of a place that itself can be viewed as a microcosm of Britain at a particular time.

As a chronicle of social attitudes, it’s fascinating. At the forefront, perhaps unsurprisingly, is race, and it’s interesting that racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be divided broadly along age or class lines. You might expect opposing attitudes from the likes of 12-year-old Ian (‘There are five black boys in our class: they’re just the same as the rest of us, nobody cares if they’re coloured or not, it’s no different from anyone else.’) and 61-year-old Frank (‘Old Enoch was right, you know, when he said we should send them all back home … The thing is that their ways aren’t our ways: they never will be, we’re two completely different sorts of people.’), but more striking are those who buck the trend, such as Trevor, the young father of a baby boy:

‘If he ever came home with a coloured girl and said she was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t let him in the house … I’m not racially prejudiced, but to me it’s downright unnatural for races to mix themselves up, the whole idea’s unnatural. Know what I mean? [Later] In the last couple of weeks when you’ve come round and we’ve been talking, I expect I might have given you the impression I was a bit anti-black. But I don’t hold with the National Front … I don’t mind blacks living here so long as they behave themselves.’

Or ‘senior unretired citizen’ Percy, whose greatest pleasure is going to the cricket at Lord’s with his great-grandson, and is himself a staunch defender of immigrants:

‘There’s still hardly more than a handful of black people in top jobs anywhere in the country: not only them but their children have been exploited and taken advantage of. And this is after twenty-five to thirty years of them being here. I think it’s disgraceful what’s been done to them, I lose my temper.’

The non-white residents tend not to make a fuss about racism. One, Camilla, says she has hardly ever suffered racist abuse, though she thinks it’s a shame that Prince Charles hasn’t taken the opportunity of marrying a black woman rather than Princess Diana: after all, half of his future subjects will be black, and it would have sent out a very positive message that we are all the same. (I hope she’s still alive today.) Her modest dream is that her husband will take her to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps as a Christmas present.

Most of the people of Providence don’t give too much thought to the Royal Family. One teacher calls them parasites and is disappointed that the children in her class don’t feel as strongly as she does; Joan, by contrast, is a devout monarchist:

‘I think the Queen is a really lovely person; I don’t care how much money she’s got, she earns every penny of it. But it never changes her, deep down she’ll always be an ordinary everyday person with a house to run and a family to bring up. You can tell that from her face, when you see her among people; she’s right close to them, and she really cares for her people and what happens to them. I’m sure in elections and things she votes Labour like all the rest of us ordinary people do.’

Other social attitudes: the North-South divide is occasionally mentioned, particularly by Northerners who have moved South and find Londoners unfriendly. The only interviewee who talks about homosexuality is gay man Paul, whose attitude is depressingly typical of the time, progressive up to a point but damning of flamboyant gays and cross-dressers, the ‘freaks’ who by their refusal to assimilate stop straight-acting people like him from being accepted. He’s a relic, but not as much as reactionary Stanley, who talks unironically of ‘dear old England’ and reels off a list of his accomplishments (JP, local councillor, British Rail, ‘well known and respected in the Conservative party in this area’, Masonic Lodge), concluding, ‘There’s surely nothing else that a man could want.’ He was the only person in the book for whom I couldn’t muster up any empathy.

Most of the interviewees confront the question sooner or later of whether they are happy living in Providence, indeed, whether they are happy generally. Many feel settled there and praise the GLC for having given them a home, while some view Providence as a stepping stone to somewhere else, and a few are frankly desperate. One young mother living on the sixteenth floor says she sometimes consoles herself with the thought that if she ever wants to end it all she can simply go out on the balcony and jump off: ‘When I was a kid I used to read in books hell was down under the earth somewhere; but it’s not, it’s up here in the sky.’ The final interview is incomplete, for reasons I won’t go into here, and is one of the most guttingly sad things I’ve ever read. I had to read it twice, and the second time it read completely differently from the first.

In a book this rich it’s hard to choose a favourite character: 12-year-old Ian, perhaps, who’s a bit of a hellraiser, dropping milk bottles and light bulbs off the top of the high-rise flats, but also does odd jobs for the elderly; or kindly teenager Anne Knowles (‘I hope I’ve been a bit of help’); or benevolent sponger Mr Cross, who goes around the houses of old people to keep them company and eat their food; or Arthur Davidson, the community copper of everyone’s dreams; or Mrs Bedford, who wants to be buried with a box of her beloved peppermint creams in case she wakes up and feels lonely. But the one story that touched me most was that of 78-year-old Mr Elliott: ‘Did you say this is all confidential with no way anyone could tell who I was? All right then, I’ll tell you: I vote Conservative. No one else in the world knows that.’ As the interview progresses, it turns out he has a secret deeper even than that:

‘If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer. I never told anyone about it when I was a boy because it’s not the sort of thing you could tell anyone in those days … I’ve never seen a ballet in a theatre, but whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. The music for that one is very beautiful. I don’t know who wrote it or who the story is by – I believe Sylvia Deeds was a lady, perhaps even a princess. She must have been very beautiful for someone to write beautiful music like that about her. When I think about it I’ve got an idea that she was Polish, a Polish lady or something, but I can’t be sure.’

I take ‘Sylvia Deeds’ to be Les Sylphides, though at a push it could be Sylvia by Delibes. Without, I hope, being patronising, I find the innocence of Mr Elliott’s fantasy enormously poignant. He says he’s asked in record shops about getting the music on tape, but no one has been able to help him. (As it is, he has the largest collection of Mario Lanza cassettes in existence.) I wonder if Tony Parker might have been able to track it down for him, given more time. Later he talks of his unsuccessful marriage, many decades earlier. He can’t now remember his wife’s name, but it may have been Cora or Connie. A distillation of the small but precious life of an ordinary person – perhaps one of those who, in George Eliot’s words, rest in unvisited tombs.

It feels a great privilege to be allowed into these people’s lives and homes, and prompts contemplation of the tremendous diversity of humanity, of how little we may know about the lives of those who surround us. A book as engrossing could have been written about any block of flats in the world, only it needed a Tony Parker to do it, someone with the knack of getting people to open up. I don’t imagine a filmed documentary would have been as effective, because the interviewees would have felt inhibited by the camera. As it is, their voices are disarmingly direct. One young married couple thanks Parker at their final appointment, telling him that they will miss him, that talking out loud about things has helped them to get to know one another better, and that it’s something they may carry on doing after he’s gone, making a weekly appointment to talk to each other. I don’t make a habit of forcing books on people, but I do urge you to consider this one.

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Grand Tour #26 – Sweden. The Brothers Lionheart / Astrid Lindgren

November 25, 2017

Ah, Astrid Lindgren. Not that I haven’t enjoyed reading my way through the EU, but if I did this project again I’d choose exclusively children’s books. Lindgren was a big deal in my boyhood, her books having a peculiarly Scandinavian exoticism that they shared with Alf Prøysen’s Mrs Pepperpot (rechristened ‘Mrs Pepperbox’ by my ancient Austrian babysitter Lisl). They were probably exotic because they showed a life that was recognisably like mine and yet intangibly different (same as the American books I loved like Maurice Sendak, Treehorn and Peanuts, I suppose). I loved Pippi Longstocking struggling with her pluttification, and more than that even I loved mischievous Lotta, with her piggly bear Bamsie and her sister Mia Maria and her kind brother Jonas, on whom I probably had a bit of a crush. It was Ilon Wikland’s illustrations that did it, his hair looked so Swedish.

For me, Ilon Wikland is the true heroine of Lindgren’s 1973 book The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta), which I read in the translation by Joan Tate. More on that later. I was particularly keen on reading this book firstly because I hadn’t read it before and secondly because of the controversy it inspired. More on that later too, and some spoilers.

Nine-year-old Karl is a sickly boy, and is upset when he overhears a conversation in which it is mentioned that he is dying. His older brother Jonatan (Jonathan in the translation, but I’ll stick with the original spelling because it’s sexier) consoles Karl with stories of the afterlife in mythical Nangiyala, a carefree world where you can fish to your heart’s content. Still, Karl seems to have an acute case of separation anxiety, and doesn’t want to leave Jonatan behind. ‘Just think how good it would be if you’d gone there first,’ he says, ‘so that it was you who was sitting there fishing.’ As luck would have it, Jonatan does indeed precede Karl to Nangiyala, dying saving Karl’s life in a house fire, and he visits Karl from beyond the grave apparently in the persona of a pigeon (or concealed among the pigeon’s feathers, a prosaic reading that I enjoy less), after which Karl joins him in Nangiyala.

The metaphysical intrigue of the opening chapter didn’t prepare me for the boredom of what followed. Well, not boredom; this is a good book; but if you’ve read The Horse and His Boy and recall how tedious that was (‘O dispatcher of messages, here is a letter from my uncle Ahoshta Tarkaan to Kidrash Tarkaan lord of Calavar’), then this is … well, not the same, but at any rate close enough that I thought of the comparison. Karl and Jonatan’s life in beautiful Cherry Valley is threatened by the machinations of the evil ruler Tengil who has enslaved neighbouring Wild Rose Valley with the aid of the mysterious Katla (who turns out, spoiler alert, to be a dragon). Jonatan is involved in the resistance, and Karl, fired by loyalty to his brother, becomes his staunch ally. They ride around in death-defying missions on their trusty steeds Grim and Fyalar, allies and enemies defy expectations predictably, and at some point everyone learns the true meaning of something.

I’m being unkind because it comes to me naturally, but actually there’s a lot to love about this book, and it’s only my profound antipathy to fantasy that stopped me embracing it as I’d hoped I would. Firstly, just how dark it is. The brothers witness the regime’s brutality first-hand when Tengil visits Cherry Valley and identifies several people to be taken off to camps where they will die. A man who challenges him is put to death instantly with a sword. For the child reader of Lindgren, this is not a smooth progression from Lotta and Pippi Longstocking, it’s a portrait of a totalitarian state. Its morality seems solid, the recurring message being that sometimes you have to take the hard road for the greater good, if you want to be more than just (to use the phrase Jonatan often repeats) ‘a bit of filth’. Towards the end of the book, as the final showdown approaches, he saves the life of an enemy, Park, prompting a question from Karl.

‘Why did you save that man Park’s life? Was that a good thing?’

‘I don’t know whether it was a good thing,’ said Jonathan. ‘But there are things you have to do, otherwise you’re not a human being, but just a bit of filth. I’ve told you that before.’

‘But suppose he’d realized who you were,’ I said. ‘And they’d caught you.’

‘Well, then they would have caught Lionheart and not a bit of filth,’ said Jonathan.

It was only when contemplating the book afterwards that Adrienne Rich came into my head:

and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

That’s the ending of one of her Twenty-One Love Poems, which I’ve loved since I was about 20, and it feels relevant here. Jonatan and Karl exist in a series of lives and afterlives (not that the word afterlife appears in the book). In the first world, when confronted by Karl’s anxiety about death, Jonatan comforts him with the concept of Nangiyala. When the same thing occurs in Nangiyala, Jonatan talks of a further afterlife, Nangilima. And who’s to say there isn’t another one beyond Nangilima. The point is that death is gone through and survived, though the Christian allegory (if this is one) isn’t as crass or offensive as it can be in the hands of C.S. Lewis.

The controversy comes at the end, where, having been brought to Nangiyala by Jonatan, Karl has to repay the favour by helping Jonatan get to Nangilima, effectively by helping him die. The tables have turned: at the start of the book Karl was dying of his unspecified coughing sickness; now, Jonatan, as a result of his having been licked by the flame of the dragon Katla, is becoming paralysed and can only move his arms. I suspect nowadays it is the suggestion that death is preferable to disability that would upset and anger people; forty years ago it was the suicide pact. Critical reviews damned the book’s ‘romantic-deterministic dream’. I sympathise up to a point, but I’ve always rather liked this kind of fatalism, and I was moved by the conclusion.

And I sat beside him and held his hand and felt that he was strong and good through and through and that nothing was really dangerous so long as he was there.

To return, finally, to Ilon Wikland, 87 years old this year: I salute the versatility of her illustrations, in places so tender, in others so terrifying. The depictions of Katla are terrifying and audacious, those of Jonatan and Karl simple and touching. A slight dissonance: Karl’s narrative occasional makes unflattering mention of his own looks compared to those of his brother, of his ‘snout’, for instance; in Wikland’s illustrations his nose is charmingly retroussé. I endorse this change.

Grand Tour #25 – Finland. Fatal Headwind / Leena Lehtolainen

November 14, 2017

Scandi noir, if that’s what you want to call it. I’d have liked to read more popular fiction (let’s call it) on this Grand Tour, but no one wants to translate Lithuanian potboilers. You have to wait until Scandinavia before you can get your hands on the good stuff, and most of that turns out to be either Swedish or (useless for my purposes, Norway not being in the EU, curse its insularity) Norwegian. But there is thankfully one Finnish crime novelist whose novels are now being widely translated, and her name is Leena Lehtolainen.

I decided to dive into the middle of her Maria Kallio series, choosing the one with the plot summary that most appealed to me. This was the sixth book, Fatal Headwind (Tuulen puolella), first published in Finnish in 1998. A very readable English translation by Owen F. Witesman appeared last year. I was put off by the presence of a ginormous character list at the start, but my alarm turned out to be groundless, though the names of Kallio’s colleagues – Koivu, Puustjärvi, Puupponen, Taskinen, Kantelinen – did blur into one another.

Maria Kallio is a Lieutenant in the Espoo Police, just returned from maternity leave. She is married to Antti and has a baby daughter, Iida. A year ago, Harri, a former lover of Maria with whom she had lost touch, died in not very satisfactorily explained circumstances. Now, on the anniversary of his death, local businessman Juha Merivaara has died in a similar manner. Could the two deaths be linked; if so, how; and is there foul play afoot?

Suspicion falls on a small group of people, most of them Juha’s close family – his wife Anne, half-brother Mikke, animal rights activist son Jiri, daughter Riikka, her opera singer boyfriend Tapio. At some point each of them seems to have had a motive for disposing of Juha, but the involvement of Harri muddies the waters.

Although the book moves slowly and deliberately, I was drawn in, and came to appreciate the stately pace. Not that Maria isn’t busy in her work – she’s in constant demand, struggling to keep all of her many figurative balls in the air, and rarely gets a moment to see her daughter – but revelations about the Merivaaras come thin and slow, which allows you time to ponder the motivations of each suspect.

The murder mystery was all well and good, but I confess I felt more emotionally invested in the parallel plot involving Maria’s unpleasantly racist and sexist colleague Pertti Ström being suspended from work after attacking a wife-beater in custody. In spite of his nastiness, Maria finds herself sympathising with his predicament. At one point it appears Ström may have hatched a devious plan to get Maria herself sacked, which is precisely what would have happened in a novel written by someone more interested in plot and less in human psychology, but events take an unexpected turn that I won’t write about, other than to say that I was very moved.

The novel doesn’t show its age too badly, though mobile phone use is more infrequent than it would be in a book written today, and it only took one sentence like ‘I cursed the slow network connection’ for me to be back in the school library swearing at the computer for not downloading my pictures fast enough. However did we manage with dial-up connections? Unthinkable today. And Maria and her colleagues go to a Finland World Cup qualifier (the 1-1 draw with Hungary on 11 October 1997, I looked it up) where Jari Litmanen is the star. That took me back. Hyypiä, Paatelainen, Valakari and Jonatan Johansson also played. Mikael Forssell hadn’t yet broken through into the first team. I tolerated Owen F. Witesman’s American English translation up to the point where he wrote about the soccer match ending in a tie. Soccer’s just about all right; tie, never. My only objection, really.

If I were an habitual reader of crime, I could quite imagine becoming a Maria Kallio completist, and I suspect that for those wanting a new series this would be a very good one to get into, and this book a good place to start. Witesman seems to be working through the series with great speed, and on the basis of Fatal Headwind he’s doing an excellent job.

Grand Tour #24 – Estonia. Brecht at Night / Mati Unt

October 29, 2017

I knew what whatever Estonian book I chose, it would have to be one translated by Eric Dickens, an old acquaintance of mine – if not a virtual friend exactly, then occasionally a virtual enemy. More years ago than I’d care to remember, Eric was a regular contributor to a message board I help(ed) to run. His posting style was a mixture of combative and defensive, but mainly the former. He liked above all to rail at the insularity of the British reader who never read books in translation. While most of us had a lot of sympathy for his point of view, when we did make an effort to read something different, it was rarely the right kind of different. Objecting to a group read of Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, Eric wrote:

If you want to read a Polish Jew, read a Polish Jew. There are many excellent Polish Jewish authors who wrote in Polish or Yiddish … Just because this chap wrote in French, doesn’t give him the right to jump the queue of most-read authors of Polish-Jewish origin.

To which the reaction of the rest of us, you may imagine, was that we hadn’t chosen the book because Perec was a Polish Jew, we’d chosen it because he was Georges Perec. Eric had no scruples about putting our backs up, and we occasionally told him to fuck off; it was a fulfilling relationship, sort of. Eric died earlier this year. A tribute on another message board, where his postings had been similarly inflammatory, read ‘Good night, sour prince,’ which struck me as the perfect tribute to the doyen of Estonian-to-English translation. This interview finds him in less antagonistic mood and is well worth reading.

When Eric wrote about Estonian literature on the board, it was generally with reference to Jaan Kross, whose books he may have been translating at the time, but Mati Unt’s was also a name he dropped occasionally. Unt himself died in 2005, and Brecht at Night (Brecht ilmub öösel) is one of his later works, first published in Estonian in 1996.

The book is set in 1940. Bertolt Brecht, having fled Nazi Germany, finds himself in Finland, and it is the period of a few months at the start of his stay in Finland while he waits to escape to America that is covered by the book. Unt’s imagining of Brecht’s life with his entourage of his wife Helene, his children, and his consumptive secretary Grete, who transcribes his every utterance and with whom he is having an indiscreet affair, is set against the progress of the war in the Baltic states. At times the book resembles a collage, the imagined episodes interspersed with passages of verified fact (in italics) and a number of excerpts from official documents and reports written by others.

Is this an appropriate place to admit I don’t really like Brecht? It’s not the style, it’s the content that puts me off. I like the style fine, enjoy Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt when it’s used by other writers, and liked Unt’s description of it here with reference to Brecht’s writing of The Good Person of Sechuan:

His protagonist is Li Gung, who appears to be coming from the side of goodness.

Why Li Gung?

Why shouldn’t it be Li Gung, when the play is set in China? This achieves the alienation effect.

You always view someone from China differently than you would a German, and some things immediately strike you more forcibly. If a German slips on a banana skin, this causes no surprise in anyone. If someone from China were to do the same, then we, the Germans, see this action as if for the first time, and we begin to think about what a banana is, what a human being is, and what falling is.

Unt uses similar tricks himself. The reader is constantly conscious of the novel’s artificiality of construction, most pleasingly so when Unt writes, for instance, after a passage about a plane crash:

This incident didn’t affect Brecht. I’ve tried to investigate whether he knew anyone on the plane. Unfortunately, I’m not a very good researcher.

The other games include a section narrated by one M. (Maksim) Unt, a real man, no relation of the author, a government jobsworth whose work involves the shutting down of institutions and societies. A novel needs more than occasional authorial interventions, though, to satisfy the reader, and I can’t pretend there weren’t large stretches where I was titanically bored.

The fault, I tend to think in such cases, is mine. I don’t have the right mental equipment to appreciate, for instance, Unt’s purpose in juxtaposing Brecht’s life against the war (other than to highlight his moral ambivalence), or in including a lengthy catalogue of Estonian officials who died in Russian oblasts. The lighter moments, where (for instance) Brecht eats some inky mushrooms and changes colour, are too few and far between. A brief digression on the subject of Mongolia led me to wonder about the nature of Mongolian literature, and whether it might be more accessible than Brecht at Night. An eloquent and informed review I found calls the book ‘a work that fills you with that excitement’. For excitement read misery, I’d say. Horses for courses.

An afterword by Eric informs the reader that he has intentionally omitted several sections from the book, which include a number of appendices he claims are irrelevant, and photographs of several of the personnel, which he advises the reader to check Wikipedia for. I get that photographs cost money, but it’s an oddly lazy-feeling note on which to end. Perhaps the publisher (Dalkey Archive Press, excellent as ever) was skint.