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Book Reviews

When Grieving Begins: building bridges after the Brighton Bomb, a memoir by Patrick Magee (Pluto Press, £16.99)

“At 2.54 a.m. on Friday, 12 October 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing four people and injuring thirty-four others. One of the injured died five weeks later. I planted the bomb. I did so as a volunteer in an IRA active service unit committed to the continuing, long-term strategy of taking the war to England.”
“On 24 November 2000, sixteen years after the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton and seventeen months after my release I sat down and talked with Joanna Berry, whose father, the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was one of the five people killed.”
The first of these stark quotes appears on page 115 of Patrick Magee’s book, the second on page 172. Before the first quote he describes his life in Belfast and England in the time leading up to the bombing. His background was of poverty and discrimination – Magee’s father, for example, had to leave the local shipyard when it was discovered he was a Catholic. The family moved to and fro from Ireland for want of work, with Patrick becoming something of a tearaway teenager. Eventually he is drawn into the Republican movement. He describes the treatment of the Catholic population in the north, the pogroms, the shoot-to-kill policies of the RUC and the British Army – everything that drove him to the Brighton bombing. The most striking incident was when he was picked up by the state forces and dumped in an area controlled by Loyalist paramilitaries as if some kind of present for them.
We then hear of his time in prison. Beatings had always been a regular part of being scooped up by the forces but, ironically his spell in the most secure part of Leicester Prison (sentenced to eight life terms for the Brighton bomb) brought humane treatment and the start of his route through the Open University prison education system.
I do not, by this review, wish to skirt over what the active service units of the IRA did. Nor does he, “Terrible things had happened. We had killed innocent civilians. One thinks of Birmingham; of La Mon.” And Magee “believed absolutely, as I still do to this day, that the armed struggle was our only option.” He still believes that the violence of the oppressed cannot be compared to that of the oppressor. And, by God, the oppressor was violent. I’m typing this on the day that the it was announced in a coroner’s report that the ten people killed by the British Army at Ballymurphy in August in August 1971 were murdered (www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/may/11/inquest-to-report-on-alleged-killings-by-british-soldiers-in-ballymurphy).
The book is introduced by Joanna (Jo) Berry, whose father was among those killed at Brighton. Astonishingly, Jo is a cousin of Princess Diana.  Jo and Patrick’s combined story forms the second half of the book. She wanted to meet him, to understand his motives and to explain what the killing had meant to her. She wanted to build bridges… and what a way to do it. The report of their first meeting merits re-reading. By now Magee had been released on license under the Good Friday Agreement. The two talked for three hours, during which she made it clear she understood the role of the British in Ireland, but Magee also began to see her father in his full humanity. Magee expressed his regret he had killed her father. Berry said “I’m glad it was you.” This left Magee floundering, what could it mean?
You can read what this meant, but in due course and not without difficulty they sought reconciliation. They talked, were filmed, spoke at meetings, fell out, were reconciled all on the difficult path towards a wider reconciliation, understanding and respect. Not that any of it was easy. Magee and Berry found themselves traduced in the press. On one awful occasion he was invited to speak at an event for people who had lost family to the IRA. A tough gig when the organisers had not told the group he was coming. He has made sure since then it would never happen again.
The last part of the book, strangely, is the least interesting as they go on the road together, where they spoke and what were the responses.Though perhaps this is because the tension, the grimness and the memories of the period of the shooting war early on in the book were so raw. It is, however, a remarkable story and a remarkable book.
You can watch Patrick Magee at a recent Five Leaves online event, in conversation with Deirdre O’Byrne from the Bookshop: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RhB67JQQZ4
Ross Bradshaw

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Penguin, £9.99)

Hisham Matar is probably best known for his 2017 bookThe Return: fathers, sons and the land in between which describes his post-Gaddafi return to Libya to find out what happened to his father, a victim of Gaddafi’s rule.
Following his father’s disappearance, Matar became interested, obsessed with the paintings of the Siena School, religious paintings from around the fourteenth century. After The Return came out – still grieving, he finally visits Siena, and this 2019 memoir is of the month he spent there alone. It’s a short book, about art, about grief, about being alone and being a stranger in a strange city.
Matar makes his purpose clear, in this beautiful book. He finds a peaceful spot in the local cemetery where he was “… the mourner without a grave”, planning to “sit for a few moments and listen to the birds.” Going on he writes “I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.”
But the book is also about art and includes many of the Sienese paintings, which he analyses, particularly the Good/Bad Government frescos, which stretch to 14.5 metres in the room that features Lorenzetti’s ‘Allegory of good government’ – part of which is pictured here. There’s also the “unsettling” ‘Madonna del latte’ by the same painter, which is as unsettling as he describes it. The publisher has done a good job on the reproductions in this inexpensive paperback, especially in bringing out detail, but of course I long to see the originals. Matar spent so long with the paintings that the guards gave him a folding chair so that he could spend even longer in front of a picture, which he then did. “Didn’t we tell you?” said one.
Matar did not remain completely alone. Hearing a family speak Arabic, he greets them and is invited home by Adam and his children Kareem and Salma. Though from Jordan – half a continent away from Libya – they welcomed him as if family, explaining the town’s complex contrada system of neighbourhood loyalties and competition. He walked back from the evening he spent with them holding their kindness to “my chest as though it were a precious object I had been given.”
Matar ends the book, back in New York, reunited with his partner Diana, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Sienese painting ‘Paradise” by Giovanni di Paolo, painted around 1445, to return there weekly “as though we were going to see an old friend”.
Ross Bradshaw
A Month in Siena is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/a-month-in-siena/

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose (NYRB, £7.99)

 

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This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.

 Picking the original edition up from the shelves at home, bought in 1995, never read then forgotten, I found it moving to read as if reading in the present tense having also forgotten the detail of her life (and death) so the chapters about her fatal illness came almost as a surprise to me.
 It’s not an easy book to read – I don’t just mean those details, laid out with candour, but Rose was a philosopher and she had a habit of including technical, exclusive language and the odd phrase of mostly untranslated Latin. But it is worth carrying on.
Her book is autobiographical, but not a full autobiography. Chapters include memoirs of her friends and lovers, the very elderly Edna; her priest-lover; her bisexual lover Jim who died in the New York AIDS epidemic; the promiscuous mother-of-five Yvette, who also died of cancer. So many of her friends died. Her family life was broken too, though her teenage self found more familial love with her step-father than her estranged natural father. But it is the chapter on her illness, her realisation she would not survive a year with the details played out, the spread of the cancer, the disagreements between the consultants, the way her colostomy bag deals with body products. Did her death feel more tragic as she was fit and healthy as the cancer was growing inside her, cycling and swimming, feeling alive?
Rose was a Jewish intellectual and at one stage was called upon, with others, to advise the Polish government on what to do with Auschwitz. Save for the branch of her family that came to England some fifty of her relatives had perished in the Holocaust, yet the person who made her weep was a survivor of the Polish nobility resident only in a fraction of his old house who had scraped a living working as a translator under the Communist regime.
The book is searingly honest.
Ross Bradshaw

At the Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage, £9.99)

About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.

 Did I know these were existential books? Probably not. I did, after all, read Camus’ Plague without realising it was a metaphor for the German occupation of France. I learned that later, but never got round to finding out what existentialism was. Here was my chance…
Well, existentialism could be summed up by “existence precedes essence”, which even Bakewell says “gains in brevity [but] loses in comprehensibility”. Right. So let’s go back to phenomenology, out of which the e-word came. The brief description of this by Husserl is “to the things themselves”, which it took Husserl 87 volumes to explain. I’m not planning to live long enough to read them. All this lot are long-winded. Sartre, the key person in this book, was asked to write an introduction to a book of essays by Genet. He sent 700 pages, which might have been a tad long, so his publisher turned it into Sartre’s well-known Saint Genet book.
Bakewell’s title, however, is a bit misleading. I expected to be thrown into the world of cafes, of Juliette Gréco , of black polo-neck sweaters (I bought one specially) – we were, but also thrown into the much darker world of Heidegger. In fact the third chapter, twenty-four pages, was all about him and we weaved back and forth to him later, not least his involvement with the National Socialists. Though he had an affair with Hannah Arendt and pre-war friendships with other Jews, he never recanted on his support for the Nazis. His followers only needing an apology before they would accept him back into the fold. And he did have followers, acolytes. One early fan remarked about a lecture that Heidegger had “given us a glimpse into the foundation of the world… manifest in an almost aching brilliance.” But why did he not recant? Perhaps he just being true to himself. These Nazis, eh?
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As an exercise in group biography At the Existentialist Cafe is brilliant. In comes Colin Wilson, in comes James Baldwin, and also from Black America, in comes Richard Wright. And Sonia Orwell has a walk on part. The book is full of humour, for example when Heidegger gives a lecture to some shipping magnates in Bremen there is a huge ovation at the end. Brakewell interjects that perhaps it was simply because he had finished.#
Sartre and the others fell out with each other all the time. At one stage Sartre did a diagram to work out who was speaking to whom, which presumably also included who had been sleeping with whom. He and De Beauvoir were together, unfaithfully on both sides, for fifty-one years, but non-sexually after the first eight or so years. De Beauvoir revelled in her freedom and in sex. Sartre found it all a bit gloopy.
Sartre and De Beavoir also, in a sense, fell out with themselves, changing their own minds among others, particularly post-war when they became neo-Stalinists, somewhat at odds with their ideas of freedom. They fell out with Camus over their support for executions of French collaborators.
So what remains? Sartre is not so much read these days. Many of us have nostalgia for those Paris cafes in the period when we were actually still in short trousers. Visiting them now is not the same but De Beauvoir is still read – at least her 1949 book  Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) is, not least by young people. Why? At our bookshop book group a young woman said it was because things have not changed, or not changed enough. People agreed. Though it was Sartre who encouraged, indeed pushed her to continue, it is perhaps De Beauvoir’s work that will be the lasting impact of that exciting philosophical movement created in a France still bleeding from the second world war and which was convulsed by the resistance to Colonialism in Algeria and France.
Ross Bradshaw
At the Existentialist Cafe is available, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop 0115 8373097