Wednesday 26 January 2022

Best Reads of 2021 Part One

I had hoped to begin traveling again last year but other than a few nights in Kent, Covid kept me in London. I tried to use my time profitably by beginning to learn a new language, producing a small book of pictures and stories from my travels, and of course, by reading. I spent many happy hours - and quite a lot of money - in London's bookshops, especially Foyle's flagship store on Charing Cross Road, Daunts on Cheapside and Stanfords in Covent Garden. I also bought several books from The Book Corner, an excellent independent book shop in Saltburn-by-the-sea, that kept me supplied with reading material during the various lockdowns. This post is the first of two detailing my favourite fiction reads in 2021. 

Anthony Quinn's London, Burning brilliantly re-creates the mood of  the city during the chaotic late 1970's. The story is set against a background of strikes, rubbish-filled streets, IRA bombings, National Front marches and the collapse of old political loyalties in the dying days of Jim Callaghan's Labour government.

There are four main characters. Hannah Strode, a young reporter with a talent for uncovering corruption, and Vicky Tress, a policewoman at the beginning of her career, work in different worlds but face similar challenges of dealing with casual sexism and patronising attitudes to women. Freddie Selves is a brilliant but philandering and unlikeable theatre director, while Callum Conlan, a young Irish university lecturer becomes a victim of prejudice and circumstance. The fears, hopes and romances of the four play out against the political backdrop, with their fate coalescing around the murder of Anthony Middleton, an ex-spy and hawkish Shadow Cabinet member. Middleton is clearly based on real-life politician, Airey Neave a member of Margaret Thatcher's inner circle before she became Prime Minister, and who was killed in a bomb blast.

As well as the 1970's political references, Quinn reminds us of the cultural mood of the decade, with passing references to World of Sport and Dickie Davies, John Travolta's white suit, the Deer Hunter movie and Punk Rock. One of the minor characters attends a Clash concert. Although the action takes place several decades ago, the main themes are topical - a changing political landscape, the threat of terrorism and the hypocrisy of the elite. But perhaps there is hope. Towards the end of the book, Freddie shares the following thoughts "When you behaved decently and put others before yourself people liked you. And when you behaved like a prick people resented you. It wasn't such a difficult principle. But it seemed to have taken him most of his life to grasp it". 

Trevor Wood's One Way Street is the second in a trilogy of crime novels set on the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Homeless military veteran Jimmy Mullen, has a habit of getting drawn into the city's underworld. This time he is drawn into the search for the suppliers of a dodgy batch of spice that appears to be behind a series of drug-related deaths amongst the city's teenagers. 

As in the first novel, Jimmy is ably (well, more or less), assisted by his two friends - Gadge, an alcoholic IT expert and teenager Deano whose search for his missing brother is one of the main strands of the plot.  These characters are further developed in this story, as are those of several of the supporting cast, including Kate, the daughter Jimmy hasn't seen in years and his extremely tough probation officer, Sandy, who knows when to step in and when to feign ignorance. 

Jimmy is a tough character, sometimes given to violence, but despite this, he also has a more vulnerable side and we see him struggle with PTSD, following active service in the Falklands. The city makes a perfect stage for Wood's writing. I enjoyed the local references to Dog Leap Stairs, the Crown Posada pub and Brighton Grove, all of them real places, and all of them familiar to me from my student days. Wood perfectly describes the Crown Posada as "...a proper drinker's pub. Great beer, a handful of old men at the bar who looked like they'd taken root, and a snug in the corner if you wanted privacy". I also enjoyed the scenes set in the local library where Gadge helps Jimmy look for evidence on the internet. I especially liked the no-nonsense, but heart of gold librarian who allows Gadge to charm his way back in to the library after having been "banned...for attempting to fart the national anthem..."

Trevor Wood describes himself as "an adopted Geordie" after having lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years. The first book in the trilogy, The Man On The Street received the CWA New Blood Dagger award. The follow-up,  Dead End Street, was released earlier this month.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz wrote The Passenger in 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom that finally made clear Nazi intentions towards the Jews. It is the story of Jewish businessman Otto Silberman who flees his home to escape the violence and who is quickly abandoned by his non-Jewish wife, his friends, colleagues and business associates, several of whom take the opportunity to divest him of his belongings.

He goes on the run, taking one train after another, traveling around Germany in an attempt to find a safe place, a friend or acquaintance who is willing to help him. He attempts to cross the border into Belgium but is sent back to continue his journey to nowhere. Silberman's shock at his transformation to pariah status was the shock of many middle-class German Jews whose ethnicity and, or, religion was incidental to them until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. He may have been successful and respected but he is now  reduced to the letter "J" stamped on his papers.

There are many eerily prescient moments in the book. At one point Silberman, reflecting on his situation says "If only I'd gotten a visa earlier on! But who could have foreseen any of this..." Yet the writer does seem to have foreseen where things would lead, and has Silberman say "Perhaps they'll carefully undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won't get bloody and our banknotes won't get damaged" before going on to say "These days murder is performed economically". He could not have known that this was exactly what was to happen just a few years later.

The author's own story is tragic. He was born in Berlin in 1915, left for Oslo in 1935 and then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He wrote two novels including The Passenger before he managed to settle in England in 1939. When war broke out he was interned as an enemy alien and then shipped to Australia with many other detainees. He was allowed to return to England in 1942, but his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, and all 362 passengers were killed. He was just twenty-seven years old.

In Lottie Moggach's Brixton Hill, Rob is serving the last few months of a seven year prison sentence for an initially unspecified crime. His preparation for freedom includes being allowed out to work in a local charity shop during the day, before returning to the prison at night. To be certain of his impending freedom, he must stay out of trouble, prove he can be trusted and not make contact with outsiders other than the staff at the shop.  The manager treats him with disdain and Rob spends most of his time sorting through unwanted belongings, preparing them for sale. 

A chance encounter on Brixton Hill puts his freedom in jeopardy. An attractive woman, Steph, "walking expertly in high heels," trips and literally falls at his feet. He helps her up and then over the following weeks continues to bump into her. They begin to form a connection but in order to maintain it, Rob must avoid telling her where he really lives. He must also ensure that the prison authorities do not find out. But is it really a coincidence that he regularly sees her, and is she really everything she says she is? Steph also has something to hide and although Rob is incarcerated in a building, she is a prisoner of circumstance.

The descriptions of prison life are detailed and believable. Drugs, suicide, violence and the impossibility of being able to trust anyone all feature strongly. The horror of sharing a small cell with a stranger is perfectly illustrated by Rob's dislike for his loathesome cellmate, Marko. Marko is addicted to trashy TV shows, sneers at Rob's books and constantly looks for an advantage or hold over him. He is so annoying that Rob admits to having been happier when he shared with a quiet, polite character, who left him in peace, but who he eventually discovered, was in prison for having stabbed someone to death. 

Both main characters have something to hide, something to lose and a desire to escape their surroundings. The uncertainty about how they might achieve this is maintained to the final pages. Tense, engaging and full of authentic scenes from south London, Brixton Hill is a contender for my favourite fiction read of 2021. 

Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men is based on the true story of a murder in 1952, in Cardiff's docklands. A Jewish woman, Lily Volpert (Lily Volacki in this story) was found in her shop and Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor becomes a suspect, is arrested and put on trial. The evidence against him is flimsy and circumstantial but an overtly racist police investigation and a series of dishonest witnesses combine to frame him. When his unsympathetic defence lawyer describes him as "Half child of nature - half semi-civilised savage" the outcome of the trial seems inevitable.

There are many moving scenes in this story, especially those in the condemned cell as Mattan awaits the outcome of his appeal application. His develops a relationship with his jailers, some of whom try to calm and encourage him as he veers from confidence to despair. The scenes of him waving through the prison bars to his wife and sons are particularly affecting.  

The story includes some rich background detail as Nadifa Mohamed describes the diverse make-up of Cardiff's Butetown during this period, with a cast of characters that includes Somalis, Yemenis, Jews, Italians, Poles, Africans and people from the Caribbean. The story provides a glimpse of daily life amongst these largely male communities and their clubs, bars, cafes and boarding houses. Many of them were seamen, some of them settled in the city, others waiting for a ship and a job. Some of the men married local women as did Mattan. We are also given Mattan's back story - his childhood in Hargeisa, British Somaliland, his time at sea and his experiences in various ports. 

The author makes interesting use of press cuttings and quotes to tell the story but also had access to someone who knew Mattan. Her father knew him in when they both lived in another port city, Hull, part of the same Somali community. Many British port cities are, or were, home to long established and sometimes relatively large numbers of Somali and Yemeni seamen. It is estimated that 1,500 Yemenis lived in Cardiff in the 1920'a - half of the city's ethnic minority population at the time.

The Fortune Men was deservedly shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. The author previously won the Betty Trask Award for Black Mamba Boy, based on her father's life in Yemen in the 1930's and 1940's.

Look out for Best Reads of 2021 part two, coming soon!

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