The Book of Birmingham is the latest title to be published by Comma Press in their cities in short fiction series which serves as an excellent introduction to some superb contemporary writers. The ultimate in armchair city tours, the series is ideal for discovering other places, other lives.
The Book of Birmingham – focusing on the second largest city in the UK after London which “sits atthe central crossroads of England, the industrial heartland of the country” – brings together short stories by some writers known to me, (Kit de Waal, Bobby Nayyar, C.D. Rose, Sharon Duggal, Kavita Bhanot), and some not, (Sibyl Ruth, Malachi McIntosh, Joel Lane, Jendella Benson, Alan Beard, Balvinder Banga). The city’s “working-class foundation is inseparable from the city’s literature, reflected in the voices of its best-known contemporary authors: Jonathan Coe, Catherine O’Flynn, Benjamin Zephaniah, Kit de Waal, Joel Lane . . .”
Summer is the time for comics and graphic novels. They are an easier read when hanging out by the pool, or on the beach, than that 624 page whopper you finally have some time for, now that it’s the holidays.
Comic Books & Graphic Novels
From Mad Magazine, The Beano, Billy Bunter and Asterix while growing up . . . to Charles Adams, Robert Crumb’s Kafka, Maus and Persepolis as an adult . . . comic books, and more recently, longer more complex graphic novels, are a delight. As culture has moved from being a print to a visual one, great novels like The Three Musketeers or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way are now available in comic book versions. The trend is growing and business is booming. Those literati who turn their noses up at them are missing out! Continue reading Review | Emma, Other Ways of Seeing | Massot Éditions
“Some said it was karma, the industry had grown at an extraordinary upturn in the era of C.D.s – selling their clients their whole discography on a medium that cost half the price to make and was sold for twice the price in shops . . . with no real benefit to music fans, since no one had ever complained about vinyl records . . .” Age twenty, Vernon Subutex started work as an assistant at the record shop Revolver, and took over when the owner moved to Australia. File sharing on the internet thanks to the likes of Napster and Limewire heralded the beginning of the end of the party. In 2006 he shut up shop.
Live for today, who cares about tomorrow?
Easy-going Vernon had drifted through Parisian night life, lost in music and high on sex and drugs, oblivious to time passing and how people change. “He didn’t do monogamy . . . Vernon understands women, he has made an extensive study of them. The city is full of lost souls ready to do his cleaning and get down on all fours to lavish him with lingering blow jobs designed to cheer him up.”Continue reading Review | Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex 1 | Maclehose Press
“Our own, personal experience of the event – as it unfolded live in front of us – gets over-written, overlain with any narrative available that complies with Thomas Carlisle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, that ‘history is but the biography of great men’, that the rest of us, the ‘bystanders’, aren’t part of history. The short story rejects this version of events because, as a form, it has evolved to prioritise the non-heroes – the bystanders, the disenfranchised, the ‘submerged’ (as Frank O’Connor would say). And when it comes to ‘world events’, none are more suited to the short story than the protest. In a protest, we’re all bystanders, we’re all there because of some attempt to marginalise us; the bystanders are the people making history,” writes Ra Page, editor of Protest! Stories of Resistance.
The workings of the state when it is under threat are not pretty. One man’s system is another man’s nightmare. Protest! takes the long view. From the Peasants’ Revolt sparked by the Poll Tax of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003, the 20 movements featured in this superb book have parallels in terms of ideas and tactics and emotional charge. The framework of the anthology brings to life the events and the people involved. A short story like a snapshot in time is followed by an afterword by an academic who, in certain recent cases, was an eyewitness.
Prior protests loom large over present ones. This struck me forcibly while reading the stories and simultaneously following Westway 23’s facebook posts about the Grenfell Tower Protest in my neighbourhood. It is no coincidence that safe Tory seat, Kensington, went to Labour by a narrow margin for the first time ever in the recent snap election. The gruesome fire has illuminated years of institutionalised abuse and disregard for the law on the part of the corrupt powers-that-be. Establishment standard bearers The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Spectator have been accusing the ‘hard left’ of ‘hijacking’ the Grenfell fire tragedy for their own ends. Plus ça change.
Lawrence Scott is a prize-winning Caribbean novelist and short-story writer from Trinidad & Tobago.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up? I was born on Petit Morne Estate, a sugarcane estate in southern Trinidad which my father managed for the Usine Sainte Madeleine Sugar Company owned at one time by Tate & Lyle. I went to primary school in the nearby town of San Fernando. I went north into the mountains for my secondary school with the Benedictine monks of Mount Saint Benedict. Before leaving Trindad, I had been in a Junior Seminary from the age of 15. I left Trinidad at 19 to go to England to join the Benedictine Abbey at Prinknash in Gloucestershire.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences? My father read books like The Ascent of Everest by John Hunt. He had been educated in England at Shrewsbury Public School and was very attached to that story, especially as Hunt was himself from Shropshire. My mother was educated by nuns in Port of Spain and was a pillar of the Catholic Church; however, she read Graham Greene and loved to discuss the controversies over his writing. She particularly loved Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. She was aware of the fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s and a great storyteller herself.
Papillote Press is based in Dominica and publishes fiction and non-fiction, including children’s books, reflecting the island’s rich culture and literary heritage.
Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself. We had books at home but I wouldn’t consider my parents as having been “great readers”. I remember a long, low bookcase in the sitting room with the Encyclopedia Britannica gathering dust on the bottom shelf. The books were mainly non-fiction — illustrated tomes about art or classical Greece — and Readers’ Digest. I don’t remember my parents reading novels but I do remember some tut-tutting about the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a book that certainly wouldn’t have been their bedtime reading. We lived in a school — a boy’s preparatory school — which my headmaster father founded in Richmond after the war (then mainly a place of bedsits and residential hotels) and there was an interest in learning but it wasn’t an intellectual environment. Most of my early childhood seemed to be spent sitting at the top of the school stairs watching life unfold below me, with small boys lining up outside my father’s study to be admonished (unusually for the time my father disapproved of corporal punishment). Being able to play in the classrooms and in a large garden (climbing trees and playing cricket) during the holidays was a bonus. I went to school in London and then on to Edinburgh University where I studied politics and began to think about things such as class and race and feminism, certainly not part of the domestic discourse.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start? No — but I did briefly and many years ago work at Heinemann’s in the Rights department where I had to type formulaic letters giving other publishers permission to use extracts from works (Graham Greene novels mostly) for which Heinemann held the rights. A fearsome boss had her office one floor below and an even more intimidating secretary shared my office. I left after one year — and went into journalism where I spent the rest of my working life. I was on the Observer for many years where I was features editor of the Magazine; my last job was on the obituaries desk of the Guardian. I published my first Papillote Press books when I was still at the Guardian.
“Here at the window of the turret room, Lavren, at the sill of the Demerara window, Marie Elena behind him on her deathbed telling the last tales before the end of the world as bachac ants attack the rose bushes in Immaculata’s sunken garden, and woodlice eat their way through the pitchpine floorboards, and Josephine sits by the kitchen door shelling pigeon-peas: from this vantage point, Lavren can listen and write and tell the history of the New World.” So begins a hallucinatory Caribbean tale involving the imperialist land-grab, sexual anarchy, abandoned women, religious mania, “the destruction of the Amerindians, the enslavement of Africans and the indentureship of the Indians,” and culminating in self-rule and independence. “People were dreaming in the twilight barrack-rooms, in the kerosene-lit villages for the setting of the imperial sun.”
Caribbean-style magical realism
Lawrence Scott weaves a magical, lush tapestry of words and images, bringing alive local legends and family narratives; and redressing written histories. The impact of the events recounted still resonate in Caribbean society today. A quasi-historical novel, Witchbroom recounts the story of a colonial white enclave on an offshore island through muddled memories. The central narrator repeats what he remembers “from the distracted mind of his muse Marie Elena, and her art of telling stories while they eat Crix biscuits, rat cheese and guava jelly together in the turret room overlooking the Gulf of Sadness.” The stories are bewitching and highly disturbing. The reader surfs a tidal wave of addictive fascination like a Dickensian tricoteuse sitting beside the guillotine in Paris watching heads roll during the public executions of 1793-4.
Lesley Blanch was Features Editor of British Vogue 1937-45. During the Second World War, she was on the front line of women journalists covering a wide range of topics. She covered various aspects of Britain at war for the Ministry of Information, and documented the lives of women in the forces with her friend the photographer Lee Miller.
In these unsettled, divided times in which segregation and racism are making an unwelcome comeback, positive historical reminders of tolerance and kindness are to be celebrated and shared.
The exhibition, Giles: Friendship in a time of war, curated by social historian David Cain, tells of the British cartoonist’s all-but-forgotten friendship with two African-American GIs, Butch and Ike, based near his Suffolk home during World War Two.
In the early 1940s, Giles lived with his wife, Joan, in Badger’s Cottage in Tuddenham St. Martin. He befriended several men serving with 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment based at nearby RAF Debach. He often welcomed Butch and Ike at his home for drinks. Giles loved Jazz and their musical evenings frequently spilled over into the local village pub.
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ − one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” The spirit of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech made on 28 August, 1963, underpins this captivating and lyrical children’s book, deftly translated from the Italian by Siân Williams. Thrills and spills galore, compelling characterisation, fast-paced action and a suspenseful plot combine in this satisfying, thought-provoking read. The Oh Freedom! playlist at the end of the book is a natty touch.
Freedom of thought, religious freedom, freedom to live a fulfilled and happy and better life . . . People fleeing from the violations and abuses of tyrannical regimes all around the world dream of it. Oh Freedom! How precious you are! To what lengths will people go, in the hope of starting a better life? Continue reading Review | Oh, Freedom! Francesco d’Adamo | Book of the Week
BookBlast® was founded in 1997 to give voice to new or neglected writers, and to showcase world writing. The agency was one of the first in the UK to adopt online technology — the company website went live in 2000. It was selected by the curators of Bodleian Electronic Archives and Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, as being of lasting research value and worthy of permanent preservation in the Web Archive of the Bodleian Libraries in March 2015.
At a young age, I was introduced to writers, stories and imaginary worlds from many lands. To cross cultural boundaries and explore alternate ways of seeing and being is a great gift to give a child.
Sorting through the BookBlast agency archive has thrown up happy and sad memories, not only in terms of the projects and writers I have been lucky enough to collaborate with, but also the visionary commissioning editors who backed untried-and-tested writers and projects.