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!

Monday 10 January 2022

"We want our films to have soul, to be memorable" - an interview with Babitha Mathew, award-winning film director

"I never thought or believed I would make a movie" said Babitha Mathew, director of the upcoming Malayalam language movie Pyali, when we spoke recently via zoom. 

Pyali will be the Kerala born and based director's first full length feature film. It tells the story of two Kashmiri street children and their daily struggles living alone in a Kerala slum. Older brother Ziyah, aged 14, takes responsibility for the care of his little sister, five year old Piyali as he attempts to make a living, keep her safe and realise her dreams. In India (and elsewhere) many unaccompanied children are drawn or forced into organised begging and at one point Pyali asks her brother "...who are beggars?" Ziyah, determined they won't beg, answers "beggars are those who take money and food from people without doing any work, but we aren't like that. I go to work, right?" The story was written by the director's husband, Rinn AX.

"I had to coach her in the correct expression and pronunciation of every word"

The film took five years to complete. Babitha explained "we spent two to three years to find a producer before Sofia Varghese of NF Varghese Pictures came forward. There was also an extensive search to fill the lead roles. We needed actors who both looked, and could act like, Kashmiris, who are often a little shy and reserved". Pyali is played by six year old Barbie (also known as Arravya Sharma). Despite her age she is an experienced actress and has been in more than 100 ads and a Hindi language TV serial. I was astonished when I learned that Barbie does not speak Malayalam. Babitha explained "I had to coach her in the correct expression and pronunciation of every word. She grasped things very quickly. Barbie is a born artist and extremely professional. She understands continuity, different camera angles and many other technical matters".

George Jacob plays Ziyah and is new to the film industry. He was born and grew up in Dubai and was unfamiliar with the lives of street people.  Before filming began he was given training in how his character would speak, behave and respond to his surroundings. Babitha recounted how he was sent to buy a pair of chappals, the open sandals worn by many Indians. "He had only ever worn shoes and came back with a very nice pair that cost 6,000 rupees (almost £60). I took him back to the shop and bought some for 200 rupees. He wore them from then until filming was complete". 

I asked her about the difficulties or special responsibilities of working with children. She explained "this is not a children's film, but the lead actors are children. That means we had special responsibilities which we took very seriously, ensuring that they had proper breaks and enough rest time".

"I wanted to give myself to movies, to learn more"

I asked her how she came to be involved in the film industry. "I always loved movies," she said "I studied Business Management and then worked for various corporates for six years, but film was always my main interest, and I spent most of my free time watching movies. I was curious about how films are made and began to do my own research. I taught myself about everything to do with film, such as script writing, directing and camera work". She continued "I never had the chance to help on a film or to do a course - I learned film-making by doing it". In 2016 she decided to quit her corporate job - "I wanted to give myself to movies, to learn more. I couldn't do anything while working"

Her story is unusual as is the fact that she is a female film director. Even today, few women are found behind the camera in the film industry. Babitha said "many people have been surprised to see a female director".  She is also a mother. Her daughter was born five years ago, but this did not mean taking time off. "I started making Pyali when she was just a few months old. I held her with one arm whilst directing with the other. I called action whilst feeding her". She acknowledges the support both her and her husband's families give, how proud they are of her achievements and how difficult it would be to manage without them.  

"All creative discussions begin and end with an argument"

Her husband, writer and interior designer, Rinn, is also passionate about film. Babitha said "He has written stories since childhood but had never showed them to anyone. When I read them I realised that they would make  good movies". They also worked together on Kiss, an award winning short-film which they made in 2014. It considers inter-generational relationships, the passage of time and loss. Kiss was shown at various festivals, including the prestigious Pune Film Festival  and introduced the couple's work to a much wider audience.

I asked how it is, living and working together, and if artistic differences cause problems between them. She laughed and said "we talk about film all the time. We often disagree on how to do things and all creative discussions begin and end with an argument. But we complement each other and this helps us to do our best work". She also says that being married to and living with her creative partner means they can talk about their work at any time - "there's no real division between work and home life". 

They are currently working on another full-length film featuring just one character. In the meantime, Pyali has already won two Kerala State Film Awards and is generating much interest both in India and overseas. Due to Covid it is not yet on general release, but the world premier may take place next month. The trailer indicates a beautifully shot film, sensitive portrayals of the main characters and an engaging storyline. I asked Babitha what she wants to achieve with her work. She said "We want our films to have soul, to be memorable". Initial responses indicate that Pyali fulfils both of these ambitions.

Please note all images in this post were provided by Babitha Mathew.

You can see the trailer for Pyali here.

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Thursday 6 January 2022

"A city that has a bit of everywhere but is not like anywhere"

I first met Manjit Singh Hoonjan, owner of Calcutta Photo Tours, in 2017. I booked his early morning Mesmerising Markets tour and for three hours I experienced the crowds, colours, sounds and smells of Kolkata's vegetable and fish markets. He helped me engage with people, gave me the back story to the markets' activities and I came away with some great pictures. Since then I've made a point of repeating the experience whenever I've been in India. We spoke recently on zoom and I took the opportunity to get the full story of Calcutta Photo Tours.

"Her pictures were in colour and attracted more attention than mine"

Manjit started taking pictures at a young age and was given his first camera for his eighth birthday. "It was an Agfa click 4 with a plastic body and took black and white pictures" he said. He was delighted with it but recalls "I went on a school picnic and took several photographs. One of my classmates also had a camera. Her pictures were in colour and attracted more attention than mine". 

He did not have a colour camera until the age of 17 but by that time his work was already attracting  attention. College Street is the centre of the book trade in Kolkata and like many other students Manjit went there to buy textbooks. On one visit he saw a notice bearing the word "Silence" on the street lamp post, close to the exterior wall of a hospital, under a poster for the film "Kab Tak Chup Rahungi" which means "how much longer will we remain quiet". He wanted to photograph the two notices together and to enter The Telegraph newspaper's regular photo competition. His father borrowed a camera from a friend, bought film for it and Manjit took two shots before returning it. He then had to  wait for the friend to use the rest of the film and have it developed. The pictures were chosen for publication and he won a prize of 250 rupees which he used to open his first bank account.

After completing his studies he spent some time working in, and then managing, the family print and graphic design business. In his spare time, he continued with photography and an American friend suggested he start running photo walks in Kolkata. At the time most photo tours tended to concentrate on whole regions and lasted at least a couple of weeks. After a few years of running the walks in his spare time he decided to close the family business and to concentrate on photography. When I asked him about his family's reaction to this he said "at first they were worried and pointed out that tourism, the main source of business for the walks, is seasonal, but when my work started getting a lot of media attention, they became very proud". 

"I am booking this tour and I hope you will be there"

He recalls his first ever client "A Dutch woman sent me a message saying 'I am booking this tour and I hope you will be there'". He too had concerns and remembers thinking "I'm getting up at 5 a.m. will she even be there?". They both turned up and since then his decision to concentrate on photography has brought great success. Trip Advisor lists the tours as one of the most popular things to do in Kolkata and his work has been featured in National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph,  the Guardian and other high-profile publications. In 2018 his Durga Puja pictures were seen by millions when they were exhibited outdoors on London's South Bank as part of the Thames Festival.

The Hoonjan family have been in West Bengal for three generations and have a strong connection to Kolkata. Despite his Sikh heritage and religion Manjit considers himself to be deeply connected with Bengal. He said "When I started some people queried how a Sikh could really know Kolkata but more recently a Bengali friend said that I am more Bengali than he is". I asked him what inspires his desire to show Kolkata to others. He explained "It is a city that has a bit of everywhere but is not like anywhere". This is reflected in the range of tours he offers. The Culture Kaleidoscope tour reveals the religious diversity of Kolkata and also includes a visit to India's only China Town. European Calcutta concentrates on the colonial legacy of the city and Mesmerising Markets shows the day to day life of some of Kolkata's key workers. All include short breaks for chai and snacks - important elements of any day in India - and the telling of stories related to the tours. 

I asked Manjit about how people respond to the tours. He said "Sometimes they become emotional, particularly people who have not previously left the tourist trail and who are having their first glimpse of real, day to day life in the city. A Chinese family who came on the Cultural Kaleidoscope tour were delighted to be able to speak to locals in their own language. One member of the family said they felt so happy they had goosebumps". My own favourite comment came from a group who had begun their tour of India in Kolkata with Manjit ."They told me I had spoiled their trip because later guides had not been able to equal their time with me". In my case, that first early morning walk in the markets led to Kolkata becoming my favourite Indian city and one of the places I've missed most in the last two years of being unable to travel. 

Please note all photographs in this post were provided by Manjit Singh Hoonjan.

You can follow Calcutta Photo Tours on instagram and on Facebook

For more details of the tours and booking see Calcutta Photo Tours