So, here we are. Innovating and that. I’ve been compiling these reviews for a few weeks now, so we’ll start with a bumper edition. If you’re here for the reading list, you’re in the right place at the wrong time. That will be next week.
See how this goes, tbh. Let me know what you think in the comments or somewhere, idk. Might do longer or shorter reviews.
Late for work, so I’ll leave you to it.
Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain – Trevor and Mike Phillips
Regular readers of the reading list (mouthful) will have noticed that there’s always a lot of articles about race relations and stuff in the United States, and far, far fewer on race relations in the United Kingdom1 . This is partly just because online discourse is sort of driven by the USA, partly because Ta-Nehisi Coates is sort of brilliant and most of his work demands sharing, partly because there doesn’t seem to be the same attention paid to these issues in the United Kingdom, and, probably mostly, tbh, because I’m just quite ignorant about my country’s history in this regard.
So I did what I do whenever I have a problem now, and Amazoned it. I knew of the Windrush as a significant moment in post-war immigration so I looked for that, and a book called Windrush came up. What follows this annoyingly-rambling-navel-gaze of a pre-amble is my take on it.
As a piece of social history and a document of a group of people/generation with incredible experiences and stories, Windrush, by Trevor and Mike Phillips is wonderful. The Phillips make a point of quoting their interviewees at length, often letting them go on for several pages if they have a particularly relevant perspective on events, and rarely quoting people for less than a solid paragraph. This has the effect of emphasising their voices over the book itself, which is, for the most part, good. The stories and memories stand on their own and aren’t broken down to support an argument.
This is sort of double-edged sword, though one edge cuts less than the other. While a foregrounding of the experiences of the Windrush generation is exactly what I wanted and needed to read, the fragmentary nature of a book built entirely on interviews makes it very hard to see any sort of real through-line to it. Where someone like Antony Beevor does the whole ‘extensive research’ thing then crushes it down into a compelling narrative, this book seems content to let its subjects speak for themselves. So as a thing to read, I think it has its limits.
Nevertheless, the interviewees are incredible. Some of them remain prominent in British life today, and you are struck by how many of the initial generation of Caribbean immigrants went on to greater things only a couple of decades after arriving. The hardship and difficulty they went through is movingly recounted, and it can be quite eye-opening to read how nasty their reception was. There’s one unsettling passage that honestly reads like something out of Maya Angelou. It’s quite difficult to sustain the sort of self-satisfied superiority British liberals sometimes have when thinking about race in America when you look through it all.
Personalising the narrative does incredible things for the major events the book recounts – the successive riots, and particularly the Deptford fire, which I had never even heard of but is wrenchingly retold, among others, by relatives of some of the victims and a volunteer nurse on-site at the time. It’s properly heart-breaking stuff, and not really to be read on public transport, tbh. It also ensures the book is enriched by all the little details that must have stuck with these people for decades.
But yeah, it’s good. If, like me, you’re a bit of an ignoramus, it can’t hurt.
1 not to mention Brazil
Dominion – C.J. Sansom
There’s a lot that’s unpleasant about this spy thriller. It’s set in fifties Britain, so it’s very grey, very rainy, and all the characters have variously repressed and miserable backstories and childhoods that unfold throughout the story.
Also it’s set in an alternate history where Britain surrendered to the Nazis after the Norway campaign, and is now a satellite of a triumphant Nazi Germany. That’s pretty grim too.
It’s good though. It’s a propulsive story, with the cat-and-mouse between the British resistance and the SS carrying it all along – despite it being a 700-page slab of a book, I read it in the course of about three days. Almost as interesting as the actual plot, however, is the historical background it’s set against – Sansom includes an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, and it shows. The broad outline of history after Churchill didn’t succeed Chamberlain as PM is fairly plausible, and the grim scenes of special police and internment camps in the Midlands don’t seem as outlandish as you’d hope.
One minor/major flaw – man has such a vendetta against the SNP that he seems to have expressly included a Glaswegian character so that he could insert comparisons of them with the Nazis. Even aside from the actual politics, which are a bit much, it’s very tedious – you can almost see where the plot wrenches to a halt for a little chat about the SNP. There are then three pages dedicated to, again, comparing the SNP to the Nazis, in a historical note at the end. It’s like that Michael Crichton book where he wrote whole chapters of author-mouthpiece characters ranting about climate change being a hoax in the middle of a car chase. Exhausting, tbh.
Still, it’s pretty gripping.
London is the Best City in America: A Novel – Laura Dave
The ever-excellent Bim Adewunmi recommends this book a lot, and I finally took the plunge when I realised it was only a couple of quid on Amazon.
London is the Best City in America by Laura Dave centres around a young woman whose life has been sort of in suspended animation since she walked out on her fiancé several years before the story starts. Now, with her brother’s wedding bringing everyone back home, secrets will be revealed and decisions made etc. etc.
It’s OK. Frustratingly, there’s no way to criticise it without falling into very-unfairly gendered criticism and calling it chick-lit but it is basically a rom-com (which isn’t a bad thing!). It’s very pleasingly written and its characters are astutely observed and psychologically real-seeming, but in the sort of tropes and plot beats it hits, its, yeah, a rom-com. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but I guess it did look a bit odd in my to-read pile, sandwiched in between two books about Nazis.
I think what elevates it above being a fluffy, sweet story about a wedding weekend (aside from the fact that it’s like 200 pages long so can’t outstay its welcome) is the depth of the characters. Dave (I wish my surname was Dave) has a real gift for making all their actions seem entirely consistent with their personalities as described, which makes the unfolding of a reasonably-predictable plot much more rewarding than it could have been. She’s also wonderful at that highly-broken-up and detailed way of describing people’s movements, body language, and behaviour that I absolutely love.
Anyway, it’s short and quite nice and it’ll give you a break from constantly reading about Nazis (seriously stop that).
Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
“Gabriel you should read less books about Nazis and read more novels, more fiction. Lighten up a bit.”
Loopholes, innit. Novels about Nazis, and extremely depressing ones at that.
Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada is very good though.
Essentially the story of an old couple in wartime Berlin who undertake a quiet campaign of resistance against the Nazis, with several peripheral characters becoming involved, and a fairly humanising look at the (still awful) police hunting them.
It’s an engaging and slightly grubby thriller with a sort of low-key inspiring moral core, which is more ably discussed by @How_Upsetting here – he draws very interesting (if ever-so slightly stretched) contemporary parallels around the key notion of “decency”.
It’s a fairly long one, with several digressions that are sort of brought back into play at various moments but mostly just seem to drag on a bit – the two ruffian-scoundrel characters, in particular, are exhausting. It’s also quite grim, predictably, as it takes place from like 1940 to 1943 which were not really good years in Berlin imo. It’s not quite to the point of being utterly crushing to read, as the central focus on decency keeps it from being a cynical or pessimistic book, despite everything inside it. Oddly, it reminded me quite consistently of Joyce’s Dubliners, despite those stories being set in late 1910s Dublin and not Nazi Berlin. I don’t really have anything to say beyond that comparison tbh, just thought it was interesting.
It’s a good book, idk.
Commando: Winning World II Behind Enemy Lines – James Owen
Been a while since I’ve read a legit WW2 book (by which I mean about a month) so the minute I got my shiny new Islington Library Card* I made a bee-line for the history section.
This one got picked because it was the only paperback about WW2, tbh.
But it was decent!
Owen presents the history of the Commandos from their formation to their disbandment at the end of the war, which creates quite a scattered story – Commando units saw action from Norway to Burma, and, tragically, the high casualty rate they suffered deprives the book of strong protagonists to anchor.
Similar to Bomber Command (reviewed a couple of years ago on this very blog), the author gets around this difficulty by almost personalising the unit itself – each mission’s impact on The Commandos is considered. However, he never fails to provide background details of the men involved and personal recollections to humanise them, which, again, makes the brutal losses all the more shocking.
As a military history thing, the main flaw I found with it is there are no maps. This might be partly because the Commandos saw action in a variety of chaotic, improvised battles and raids that don’t lend themselves to being diagrammed in the same way the Battle of Kursk would. Still, in one instance in Burma, Owen has to describe a set of Japanese positions in tedious detail and you’re only slightly the wiser as to what he means.
Still, good. Not many tanks, but.
*or as it’s now known, Passport of the People’s Republic of Corbyn