Order, order! Ideas for a cross party parliamentary book group

I’ve put together these titles and questions for my imaginary cross-party MPs’ book group, meeting at the House of Commons once a month. Since participation will help all MPs do their job in an empathetic, efficient, positive way, I’ll let them claim the books on expenses (also there are so few local libraries left they’d be lucky to get them there). I’ve allowed 48 books, one per month for four years, sorted into themes, plus a year to digest. So there can’t be another election until they’ve read them all, ok?

On poverty and deprivation, and the effect they have on the lives of potentially healthy human beings:

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

Germinal by Emil Zola (1885)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914)

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood (1933)

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (1935)

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (1945)

Wigan Pier Revisited by Bea Campbell (1984)

Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth (2005)

The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited by Stephen Armstrong (2012)

MPs’ book group question: How far do you think living and working conditions have improved in the UK and elsewhere since each of these books were published?

On the rich, and how their behaviour affects other individuals and society as a whole:

Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac (1835)

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

MPs’ book group questionsDiscuss the extent to which the characters in these novels enjoy equality of access and opportunity. Discuss the ways they use their money, when they have it.

On immigrants, migrants, displaced people and their places in our society:

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham (1939)

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949)

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007)

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed (2013)

No Country for Young Men by Julia O’Faolain (2015)

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016)

MPs’ book group questions: Imagine you are a character in one of these books. What would be your main hopes and fears, and how realistic are they? Can you get what you need without harming other people and how vulnerable do you feel yourself?

On War and its effects:

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1953)

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the worst scenario of all the ones described in these books? Do you think the world is a safer place now than at the time of the wars these books discuss? How could you end existing conflicts and prevent new ones?

On the death penalty:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding (1996)

MPs’ book group question: In your view, do the main characters in these two books make you more or less sympathetic to the idea of imposing a death penalty, and if so for which crimes?

On old age and dementia:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (2014)

MPs’ book group question: Can you imagine being old yourself? What difference do money, company, good mental and physical health and empathy make to the life of an older person?

On education:

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Roaring Boys (1955 by Edward Blishen

Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School by Leila Berg (1969)

The School I’d Like Revisited by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor

MPs’ book group questions: All these books raise questions about how and what we teach children. In what ways do you think our treatment of children and the curriculum we deliver have improved since these books were published?

On the environment:

The Tower to the Sun by Colin Thompson (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify ways in which adults receive the same message, and how the problems it highlights are being dealt with?

On First World/Third World inequality:

Angus Rides the Goods Train by Chris Riddell and Alan Durant (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is also a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify any novels for adults which deliver the same message? How are the problems it highlights being addressed internationally?

On the NHS:

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (2014)

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MPs’ book group questions: This book describes  surgical expertise developed within the NHS. How precarious do you think this expertise and practice is, going forward? Will it still be possible to write a book about a contemporary NHS in five years time?

On Women:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (2009)

Saving Safa by Waris Dirie (2013)

MPs’ book group questions: Would you say the lives of women in the first novel and the second book of are reflected anywhere in the world in contemporary society? How much do you know about FGM and forced marriage? What measures can be taken to protect women from all kinds of exploitation and abuse?

On LGBT rights:

Maurice by EM Forster (written 1914, published 1971)

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides (2002)

Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson  (2011)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the earliest date at which these books could have been published without significant personal risk to their authors, and why? How can you continue to protect LGBT interests?

On human rights and freedom of expression:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

1984 by George Orwell (1948)

For Every Child: The Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures by UNICEF (2000)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (2000)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016)

MPs’ book group question: What measures would you personally take to ensure that none of your constituents were ever subjected to any aspect of any of the kinds of oppression described in these books?

Good luck, new and returning MPs! I’m sure most of you are truly good people who genuinely have the interests of your constituents and of the people and places of the world at heart. I hope you will enjoy and learn from these books and make wise decisions based on what you have read.

If any fellow bloggers or those who follow this blog would like to make their own suggestions below, please do so! I wanted to include books on addressing the threat of terrorism, but got a bit stuck. And on childhood, but had too many – that will be for another post. And on Remain/Leave/Soft/Hard/No-deal Brexit… Over to you!

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Prose and Prosecco

Sadly, “Prose and Prosecco” isn’t a newly unearthed Jane Austen novel whose intelligent heroine triumphs over a bubbly rival. The two words describe a more mundane dilemma: how to take up the pen (well, mouse) again after Christmas and New Year?

hibiscus-2Rich food has clogged my plot, chocolate stuffed my characters, and I certainly wasn’t inside the head of my devout Muslim heroine while glugging snazzy cocktails. This year there was an unexpected and beautiful present on Christmas Eve: a jar of hibiscus flowers and a bottle of Crémant de Loire to start us off in style. I thought I deserved it – I’d posted off a seasonal article that very day and another the day before on this blog.

The label on the hibiscus flower jar said “average contents 11 flowers” so in order to waste not and want not we also tried them with Prosecco and pink champagne (too sweet, crémant is best). I’d promised myself the week after Christmas off (though I hankered after escaping the clutter and decorations for the quiet of my study), and since my blog posts oil the wheels of the Great Second Novel, it too ground to a halt. prosecco-1I spent days sofabound, reading. Reading is essential for any author and these books were gifts: Margaret Drabble and Somerset Maugham and a new Austen biography, tales from and of establishment figures happily received despite my having been rather preachy about diversity just before the Prosecco season began. Such reading is not helping the Somali mum take shape. The plot, never very distinct, has receded altogether and the characters gone on leave. The world looks fuzzy…

When I remembered to make a resolution, it was to spend less time on social media. Authors are supposed to use social media for marketing, but with only my debut novel still to market, and that now identified with the year before last, I need to produce Novel Number Two more than I need to faff about on Facebook and Tweet to an unlistening world. Although, perhaps one of the Facebook book groups would give me the stimulus  I need? Maybe in the form of a review to investigate or a discussion of writing methods and procedures? I broke my resolution in five minutes.

How depressing, to be honest. The main thread in the first, usually supportive, positive group I visited was about the objectionable behaviour of a self-styled reviewer/blogger who gets as many books as he can free and doesn’t bother to review them. I agree this is dastardly behaviour – no, seriously, I do – but by comparison with all the dishonesty, violence and abuse the world has seen recently the length, outrage and personal sniping of the comments thread did seem excessive. (Fortunately the threads were very soon back to their normal sense and sensibility.)

I tried another group, also usually helpful. This was even worse. More outrage, some justified, this time aroused by a tactlessly written, poorly researched Huff Post article about how bad indie authors are, on the lines of “If you can’t sell to an editor how will you ever sell to the public?” As I begin to note ideas for this post (Monday 2nd), the writer has issued an apology and claims to have received threats of rape and death. Her initially enraged critics have variously commiserated with her or disbelieved her, and the argument has set off again. The indie writers stake their claims to respect (rightly, though some would aid their cause by checking their spelling and grammar first). The traditionally published writers weigh in, one so aggressively I couldn’t work out whether the post was intended ironically or to be taken at face value – if the latter, just imagine you’ve been knocked out cold. Whichever side they’re taking, these people are all so FURIOUS! Happily it’s Friday now and either there’s a ceasefire, or everyone’s just worn out.

Those were books, authors and reviewers you were talking about, folks. People can discuss them in a light hearted way or a scholarly way. People can enjoy them, dislike them, ignore them, be mystified or delighted or amused or frightened by ambiguitythem, but they are only authors telling stories or reviewers of stories (most of the books referred to were fiction. I agree non-fiction has a different range of influence and importance.) Fiction is written and published via various economic models, one of which is currently threatening the market share of the other. How that will pan out is not yet known. But nobody is getting killed (except in fictional ways); nobody’s home has been bombed, nobody has been forced into hiding or tortured or lost their families. In every culture and every market, the majority of authors have always struggled to make a living, and that matters, but it won’t be solved by a mass throwout of toys from the pram.

The world has huge problems. No point listing them, we all know what they are. In 2017 we’ll need intricate, complex, long lasting, multi faceted diplomatic conversations and careful, damage minimizing action to resolve even a small number of the political, environmental, and economic difficulties we face. And we can’t even talk about book reviewing and publishing without flying into a rage?

It makes me wonder whether it’s even worth writing my Somali mum, supposing I can beckon her back from the shadows? The Prosecco tastes sickly in the light of so much anger: I need to find a more serious drink to divert my attention. If the new book ever sees the light of day, please don’t use it, me, the publisher (if any), the reviews, the price, the genre or any other aspect of its existence as ammo in a slanging match.

(Update January 2021: I just re-read this post. The Magic Carpet – link above and on my home page – was published in summer 2019. In other respects the world has got even worse. I still stand by everything else I said here, but I’m learning to use shorter words and sentences.

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Happy New Year!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Plus ca change…

So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).

If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too.  Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.

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I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.

Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)

This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now  gives a joyous flame to my soul.

He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and  no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul.  When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.

Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…

Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:

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Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!

The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance,  and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.

Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf  in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
barbara-3She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.

I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.

Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Monnot & Mustacchi Published byLyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Reading for Remainers

We’ve heard so much recent talk about hard or soft Brexits. Call me a whinger, accuse me of not accepting a democratic result: I’ll still whinge, I’ll still refuse to accept. travel-books-2I don’t, as far as I know, have any “foreign” blood – unless being a quarter Scottish counts or my grandmother’s maiden name deriving (arguably) from that of a favourite of William the Conqueror’s. But since the referendum, part of my soul’s been torn out. I was brought up European before we’d even joined the Common Market. My parents lived through World War Two, just too young to be called up. My mother had to leave her school at 14 when so many pupils were evacuated it wasn’t viable for it to stay open. Trying to restart her education, she went as a paying guest to the French Massif Central in 1946, where she witnessed more that war had done. Later she managed a degree in French and Italian while bringing us up.

Before our first European holiday when I was seven, we had an introduction through books my parents provided. There were huge hardback Babar books (some with illustrations which would now be thought offensive so I’ve chosen one of the later books to show here: note the Citroën and what is surely a Provencal landscape):

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Babar’s Castle, Laurent de Brunhoff, Methuen 1962

Then came the delightful Madeline (“In an old house in Paris covered with vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines“). Cuddly, philosophical Moomintroll was a comforting bedtime read from a minority ethnic Finn who wrote in Swedish.

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This is Rome, by M Sasek, first published 1960

From This is Rome –  more cities covered now – I remember a multi-armed policeman directing mad traffic with six gloved hands.  In The Story of Ferdinand, a bull lived happily under the “cork trees”of Andalucia until captured for the bullring, but he was too peaceable animal to fight so they allowed him back. I’ve now discovered this classic was actually American, and has an interesting political history.Germany offered the terrifying Strewelpeter and Emil and the Detectives, which I tried several times but found boring. My father was equally bored by a gentle Dutch children’s classic called The Wheel on the School but I liked this environmental tale of protection for nesting storks. Then there was a sweet book of cartoons called The Lovers by Raymond Peynet. This was for adults, but such a Gallic blend of innocence and naughtiness was delightful for a child. What you give a child, an adult remembers, and Peynet was a precious find when we cleared the house after they died.

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By that time we were setting off annually in the Vauxhall Victor to Dover for our holidays “on the continent”. My mother did the talking, French, Italian, (no Spanish because they refused to go there until Franco died), German because although we were still playing English vs Germans in the school playground and our neighbours in Finchley had come over on the Kindertransport, my own parents had decided they wanted to put that past behind them. As soon as Spain grew out of such ideas too, they went there. When they retired they went to Hungary, what’s now the Czech Republic, Rumania, Greece, Portugal – my mother’s well thumbed phrase books evidence of her will to try meeting the locals on their own terms.

My memory is of a France still war scarred and dilapidated as late as 1970. We stayed in fly blown hotels and endured nasty toilets in the yards of dark cafes.But we discovered potage, beignets, and vinaigrette. We children drank Orangina, learned how pizza and ice cream should really taste and played boules on beaches that stayed warm till after dark. 61672I was lucky to see Marcel Marceau, the famous mime artist and as a teenager the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Fassbinder. I learned from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth that Europeans could collaborate across borders and centuries to create extraordinary art (much older, I discovered the potent mix of Shakespeare and Italian opera). I began very slowly to read in French: “Bonjour Tristesse” was my first conquest and from it I learned the phrase “J’ai envie de…”

J’ai envie de rester européenne.

My French Literature BA in the then school of European Studies at Sussex included German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and English literature too (plus Russian and Scandinavian), to be read in the original if possible. Why did I choose that degree? I think the books started it off, even more than the holidays, because books were so wonderful, no matter how often you read them, whereas the holidays were sometimes uncomfortable and the drives, in pre cassette/CD/DVD days, very long. Europe wasn’t perfect, after all, but then neither are we.

I tried to bring my children up the same. Babar and Madeline of course, but also a child’s version of Don Quijote, my son patiently allowing me to translate a few pages each night for a bedtime story, and a picture book called The Beast of Monsieur Racine that my daughter recently admitted she found “creepy”. Sebastian is always late  showed us what a rural Swiss school would look like (once he got there). On holiday in Brittany we saw lobsters in tanks outside restaurants and read the wonderful Monsieur Thermidor  (author from Warwickshire, actually). Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs helped them understand when their grandmother died. Cuentos para contar en 1 minuto y 1/2 (stories to tell in a minute and a half), picked up in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, boosted my daughter’s Spanish GCSE. Together we watched films by Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro, and I knew I’d done something right when she qualified as a translator of Spanish and Italian.

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From Don Quijote de la Mancha, retold by Antonio Albarran, Grafalco 1998

My family and I are European citizens. We can work, have medical treatment, travel… We have assured rights to holiday and sick pay, to maternity and paternity leave. We share the whole heritage. It doesn’t mean we aren’t equally fond of and proud of the English language (I write in it, after all). But between us we’ve lived in France, Spain and Italy. We have friends from all over Europe, some here, some there. These assets and relationships will now be weakened or even lost. I’m motivated by literature, but there are parallel arguments for scientists, economists, musicians, artists, medics. My children and I never had to go through a blitz on our city or hear guns booming as we stood on a doorstep on the south coast. Let’s not forget the original reason for establishing a European community: to create stronger trading and cultural links and thereby prevent another war.

In bookshops in Europe (many more than we now have here) I browse so much translated work, because nobody there minds reading the work of “foreign” writers. It shames me that we have so little available here. But, whether you read in translation or in the original, it does seem to me that if we keep reading, relating to and discussing European writers, we’ll never truly leave Europe. So why not Books against Brexit? Given the rise in hate crime since the referendum, we need a counter movement. (En passant, before I get yelled at, I do recognise the wide spectrum of opinion among Brexiteers and I know most of them have no racist or fascist intentions.) Rock against Racism and Love Football, hate Fascism were successful campaigns, so would Books against Brexit work? Could it even be parented by my other idea (as far as I know equally hypothetical) Words for the World?

In subsequent posts I’ll be making some recommendations.

Parce que j’ai envie de rester européenne. 

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiroshima – Carps, cranes and camphor trees

Hiroshima was included on the tour. We were to stay in Tokyo, Hakane (a beautiful lakeside hotel where we’d see Mount Fuji in the background, if the “shy lady” was showing her face), and then, on 10th and 11th September, we would stay in Hiroshima and finish in Kyoto.

I was apprehensive about Hiroshima. In New York, I avoided Ground Zero, and I didn’t do the tour of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, although I did once pay my respects to Allied POWs at the river Kwai war cemetery in Thailand.  I don’t watch videos of Aleppo, but I do donate to those who try to alleviate the misery there. I know what I think about war and nuclear weapons, I’ll sign any petition going and attend demonstrations – but face the evidence? Since having children (and that was a long time ago), I prefer not to.

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a souvenir pencil case for the committed Carps fan

But the British (Scottish) guide said: “You’ll love Hiroshima! The people have the best sense of humour! It’s always so lively! And the night we’re there, the Carps are playing!”

The local Hiroshimaniac (really) guide met us at the station, fresh from the zooming bullet train. Mitsu was tiny, with a hat like Chico Marx, and carried a red flag with a picture of a carp so that we could see her. Mitsu knew what we had come to see. But what mattered to her that day was the Hiroshima Carps game. They were to play the Tokyo Giants in the baseball league, and if they won it would be the first time they’d topped the league for 25 years.

As we went down an escalator, a small child coming up the other side with his parents shouted excitedly “Gaijin! Gaijin!” (a slightly pejorative word for “foreigners”). He was quickly shushed and we bowed and waved, no doubt grotesquely. Nobody had given us a second glance in Tokyo.

All four syllables of the name “Hiroshima” are stressed equally, which makes you say it very thoughtfully. And it has two World Heritage sights. We visited the older one first, about 35km away.

Do you have a mental image of old Japan? It may be the kimono’d geisha of Kyoto (where they are not called geisha). Or it may be the O-Torii gate on Miyajima. This beautiful island  is home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples built in the water and the forest. Despite the scaffolding (they’ve been maintaining these buildings since 1186) and the tourists (who included ourselves, after all – why do tourists always despise each other?) Miyajima was serene, a place for meditation. A minute away from the main sights were quiet woodland footpaths. The sun shimmered on the Seto Inland Sea.

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In the evening our plan was to eat okonomoiyaki, another of Mitsu’s local passions, and view the hypocentre site by night. We walked past coolly fashionable shops with few customers, but the bars were all full of red shirted baseball enthusiasts. In a slightly emptier one, we watched the chefs selecting fresh vegetables from a beautifully displayed pile, slicing and grilling them to perfection, creating small artworks served with an endearing mixture of diffidence and panache. A hapless colleague who spoke some English was called in from the street outside to deal with us. Thinking the Carps had won, we kept the poor man chatting while we finished our meal, but we’d misunderstood. On leaving the restaurant the atmosphere hit us! A large crowd, including our poor waiter as soon as he decently could, was glued to a large screen mounted above the door of the bar opposite. The match wasn’t over and it was very close! My partner could just about work out the rules of baseball, and as he explained what was happening even I – not a sport watcher – was infected with enthusiasm. We craned our heads: more people arrived behind us. Immediate, die hard Carps fans, we joined in the rising whoops of joy and the slow gasps of disappointment. A taxi tried to get through, the crowd parted courteously, the taxi crawled away. Some people at the front of the increasing mass turned round, gestured like conductors to an orchestra, and the entire crowd flowed silently into a sitting position on the immaculate pavements. Baseball bewilders me, but I knew when something bad happened (well, it was good for Tokyo) and we sighed as one. Then something good! Hooray! – and something else – and we’d won! The Carps had hiroshima-best-carps-win-picturewon the league for the first time in 25 years. How we cheered!

I was in Rome in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup and the atmosphere was similar: joyful innocence with no aggression at all. In Hiroshima fans celebrated by throwing beer over each other rather than drinking it, but as we walked past, the beer throwers stopped to allow us through, as long as we returned their ferociously muscular high fives. It was the most controlled delirium I have ever seen (and next morning not a trace of spilled alcohol remained).

Then the Peace Park, quiet and dark. The looming hulk of the A-Bomb dome, once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building at the hypocentre to survive, is now maintained exactly as it was on 6th August 1945. A few people walking about, stopping in appalled silence to read the information signs, gazing at the empty window sockets and the ruined dome, or simply on their way home from a late night at work. A homeless (perhaps) man, rooting in the hedge behind his bench. The moon on the river and and faint sounds of continued cheering  a few blocks away. That was then; this is now.

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The Peace Park by daylight, very calm. The children’s monument is just one of many. It was erected in memory of Sadako who survived the blast aged two, but nine years later developed leukaemia. In hospital she tried to fold 1000 paper cranes, in the traditional hope of one wish being granted. Now the monument is surrounded by a semicircle of murals made from thousands of tiny folded cranes sent from around Japan and the wider world. President Obama visited in May, the first serving US president to do so. He couldn’t come as close to the monuments as we did, for security reasons, but one of the paper crane murals shows him with a rainbow background. These now hackneyed hippy images still carry all their original weight, in Hiroshima. Mitsu reiterated that, whatever the US is doing elsewhere in the world, this was a hugely meaningful visit for the people of her city. You are invited to participate in the Paper Crane project here.

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Children’s memorial, with Obama mural far right

 

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The present day view from the A-Bomb dome across the river where many people died trying to cool their burns.

Lots of the victims were teenagers, who had been drafted into school based work gangs. Their job, ironically, was to help demolish old buildings to prevent the spread of fire after bombardments. Many are remembered in the Peace Museum. Display cases hold their burnt uniforms – one with a note to say she had sewn it herself, their satchels, books and sandals. The poignancy of those displays was heartrending that day and I find recalling it for the purposes of this piece quite overwhelming, cutting through my normal stylistic showing off and careful punctuation which feels just trivial. Though you could argue it’s a cause that deserves well crafted persuasive prose more than most.

Shinichi – just a toddler really, three years old – died playing on his tricycle in the yard. He was buried there, with Kimi, the little girl from next door, as their parents couldn’t bear the smell of bodies being burnt.Years later when they moved house and wanted to rebury the children, the iron tricycle was found intact with their bones. They donated it to the Peace Museum and the story can be shared with children you know, in Shin’s Tricycle. Shin would be 74 now, and no doubt an avid Carps fan, if he had survived.

Our guide Mitsu’s parents and grandparents survived. The Japanese government pays survivors a life pension at various levels depending on the severity with which they were affected, and according to Mitsu has looked after them well. (In contrast my father in law, a POW in Singapore, had to wait four decades for recognition from the MoD that his health had been affected.) Her aunt was badly burnt and disabled for life, although the friend she was walking next to was unharmed. Her grandmother had just time to grab a small Buddha from the shrine, and run outside. Her parents, fortunately, were both working outside the city, and immediately joined rescue parties, but the family did not know who had survived for many days or weeks. However in 2016 she and her parents were able to watch the Carps match together on TV. I may be labouring the contrast between past and present, triumph and tragedy, but on (as it happened) September 11th in Hiroshima it was very marked.

Rescue efforts and rebuilding began immediately, despite no power and extreme danger. (I wondered whether the Japanese, a nation of earthquake survivors, were more resilient and practical than other nations would have been. Fortunately there has so far been no way of knowing, but since 1945 scientists have developed nuclear bombs with more than 3,000 times the power of that unleashed on Hiroshima.)

And the camphor trees? hiroshima-camphor-treesAfter the bomb, people thought there would be no life again. Then, in the spring, the camphor trees came into leaf. This one’s a few metres west of the A-Bomb dome. They became a symbol of new life in Hiroshima. Many new trees were donated, but there are still around 170 that were A-bombed. They’re called Hibaku Jumoku, “survivor tree”, and identified by name plates.

Some members of the group we were with commented that the Japanese had also acted appallingly. In fact there’s a notice at the Peace Museum declaring they were wrong to attack Pearl Harbour. But that isn’t what the Peace Park and Museum are about. They’re about promoting peace, now, and remembering the horror of nuclear attack so that it will never happen again. If ever I have the chance to visit Nagasaki, I shall go.

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Please share this post or at least this image, as the card I picked up in the museum asks visitors to do.

The A-Bomb dome is the second World Heritage site in Hiroshima, and Mitsu said they were proud to have it. What can it be like to walk along the beautiful, tragic river every day to work or explain the monuments to your children? How can it be, now, to have the Peace Monuments as your main tourist attraction and a major source of revenue for a successful modern city? The Japanese don’t on the whole do therapy; they keep their troubles to themselves, work hard, and face forwards, so Hiroshima now gives the impression of a thriving, cheerful place I’d happily return to – partly to ride the fleet of trams from around the world, that brighten up the streets enough to convert anyone to tram spotting!

Although Mitsu said of course there had been long term mental health implications (and even had she not said that we would have known), Japan may have dealt with this disaster as well as any group of humans could. Let us hope no one need deal with it again.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

All human life is there

I’m a writer now but this is my prologue. I’ve just retired: Thursday was my last day in school. Thirty four years have included teaching in Paris, Dijon, Sheffield, and various London boroughs, moving backwards from adults down to Early Years. Although “trained” (in inverted commas because the training of the time was frankly inadequate and mostly irrelevant) to teach English as an Additional Language, I’ve taught right across the curriculum, from design and technology (badly) to French (well).

leaving 1

When I started, children with EAL were often taught separately, in a mobile on the playing field, down the road, or in some dilapidated annexe no one else knew existed. In theory, when their English was good enough, they’d “enter the mainstream”. But many staff were less than welcoming and anyway mainstream lessons didn’t stay still for them to catch up, so many never made the transition. Therefore they never saw specialist laboratories or technology rooms, rousing (or not) assemblies or school performances. Quite rightly,  the then Commission for Racial Equality challenged so called “withdrawal”, and an in-class support model developed instead.

Sometimes it worked. EAL pupils were inspired by subject specialist teaching, we differentiated materials and used any means we could to help them access information, they were surrounded by stimulating, varied models of peer and teacher English and many left school with good results. Sometimes it was difficult: one needlework teacher set the whole class to embroider “church kneelers” and from a junior and younger position I had to mediate on behalf of the 90% of the class who were not Christian. Sometimes it was ridiculous. My most embarrassing moment? “Supporting” a newly arrived 14 year old Bengali boy in a Biology lesson on STDs (at a time when I was heavily pregnant). I decided discretion was the better part of teaching that day, chickening out of trying to explain the diagrams of genitalia; his vague, accepting beam suggested he hadn’t really picked up the finer (if any) points of syphilis.

There was very little prescription when I started. For second year (now Year 8) English, the only class set of books I found in the stock cupboard was “The Nigger of the Narcissus” by Joseph Conrad. Historical context notwithstanding, I thought I’d be better off making up my own anthology of materials. The hapless head of English had 25 other random staff to deploy, of varying enthusiasms. One, technically  a geographer but the Geography department had jettisoned her, based all her lessons on dogs. (She liked dogs.) So I wasn’t against the National Curriculum when it arrived. There was still room for interpretation; you could teach didactically or collaboratively or it could be pupil centered or mixed ability or cross curricular or delivered through practical activities, but there was at least some general guidance which was quite welcome after the dogs and Joseph Conrad. But now there is far too much prescription. Teachers are becoming deskilled. They fear using their initiative, developing their own approaches, trusting their own judgement, and that has a narrowing effect on everything. Potential exploration and enjoyment is reduced, creativity  stifled, enquiry and dexterity and empathy discouraged in favour of facts and measurable outcomes. Of course schools should be accountable, but whatever happened to individualised learning?

Later I taught infants, and at the same time I taught French and Spanish at evening classes. The government introduced modern foreign languages to primary schools and I delivered training on how to teach it, often to staff who had no modern language qualifications and a deep fear of making fools of themselves. But any kind of teaching, or training, is the same. You find out where someone or a group stands in terms of their knowledge and ability, and you make progress by building on from there.You achieve this through humour, sensitivity, flexibility, and a range of varied activities. Failure shouldn’t be in your vocabulary if you are a teacher, of any age group, in any subject. Instead, you cajole, you encourage, you reframe, you adapt, you repeat, you reinforce, you inspire. It can be emotionally exhausting as you process everyone’s fears and transform them into attainment. I think teachers could often do with the sort of regular debriefing and counselling that therapists get, for it’s not so different from therapy, except with thirty subjects at once. Everyone remembers their best teachers, but why when you tell people what you do, do so many people love recounting stories of the teachers they reduced to tears, the paper darts thrown and lesson objectives derailed? Is it because deep down (or not so deep down) we all want revenge for years of boring assemblies, ugly uniforms, and perhaps patronising treatment? I think that will get worse in future, as ever younger children encounter stress. Teachers and pupils alike are human beings, with good days and bad, flailing about under constantly changing, increasingly idiotic government initiatives and fads, with a scandalously variable quality of management and all in an environment which would give a germ warfare researcher new ideas. The successes teachers achieve in the face of this are akin to those of overworked doctors steering patients through treatment or social workers (the ones we don’t hear about) providing comfort and reducing abuse.

I also remember pupils who didn’t make it. The two brothers with Duchenne’s whose condition deteriorated as they moved up the school and whose mother was one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, the nursery boy killed in a house fire, the 9 year old shot by his own father and the teenager who came off his motorbike. Also A. who died suddenly in her sleep aged six and Y. whose brave, generous parents provided funds for an entertainer for the whole school on what would have been his fifth birthday. There must be others I don’t know about.

Ayushi's garden 2 Rest in peace.

I wouldn’t have stayed in it this long if it was all doom and gloom. Thank you, children, teenagers, students and colleagues for your support, your thanks and your warmth. Thank you for your interest in what I had to say; thank you for making it clear when I’d said enough; thank you for your hiccups and your successes and your languages and your cultures. Thank you for showing me parts of society I’d never have encountered and for teaching me more than I taught you – all human life is truly there, in a school, and most human beings do not enjoy the privileged access teachers have. I wasn’t the most patient of teachers, I wasn’t a conscientious marker, I didn’t much like helping with extra curricular activities or going on outings, and I have a bad temper. But even though you were a captive audience you always did me the favour of laughing at my jokes, and that’s one of the best ways to reinforce someone’s ego that I know. Long may the humour and humanity continue in education, for even the current regime can’t, I think, snuff it out completely.

thank you

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016