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Book Reviews

Hello, Stranger, by Will Buckingham (Granta, £16.99)

“Only connect”

How do you greet a stranger?  You probably don’t imitate adult lemurs, at least on a regular basis. Lemurs, I learn from Will Buckingham’s new book, Hello, Stranger, have a code which is both friendly and cautious. “They gently slap each other, they turn cartwheels, they engage in rough and tumble, they play-bite each other’s genitals.”  Will Buckingham points out that  “when you have had your genitals in someone’s mouth and they haven’t done anything untoward” there’s a strong probability that they mean you no harm. However the custom is unlikely to catch on among humans, although a display of cartwheeling might be safer than a handshake in these Covid times.
Hello, Stranger offers a delightful and wide-ranging guide to the many codes and rituals that communities have developed to ease connection with strangers. The Serbian hint that a guest has outstayed their welcome is pleasantly subtle and requires no verbal hints. You simply serve your guest with the small, week coffee that is called sikterušaor  “fuck off coffee” and, if your guest is familiar with the code, polite farewells will follow. Some of the oldest writings in the world deal with guest/host obligations. The English language has a range of related words from ‘hospital’ to ‘hostile’ that come from the same ancient root. And as, in these pandemic days, we devise new ways of greeting and making contact with one another – and are largely prevented from travel – it’s a good time to read a book that explores the human connections that have become so difficult in the past year and more.
At times Hello, Stranger draws us into the world of Will Buckingham’s own travels. These are driven by different motives, including curiosity, research and philoxenia – the opposite of xenophobia which encompasses a curiosity about other people and a desire to encounter strangers. Travel, with all its risks, is also healing; after a devastating bereavement Will seeks a new country and the company of strangers as a way to remake himself and reconnect with theworld. This healing journey provides the frame for a fascinating and challenging book. Philoxenia isn’t always easy. We need to take account of what fuels our innate and sometimes sensible xenophobia – strangers may present very real dangers and threats. Yet at the same time we have a human need to reach out – to be involved in the world and discover new things. A stranger, whether a chugger in Leicester or a fried rice vendor in Yangon, can offer comfort and connection to the wider world. As strangers, we can choose to offer connection, or mistrust and threat. We need to see the strangeness in ourselves – to recognize that we are all at times, as the label on Will’s bike in Chengdu says, “lao wai”, the “old outsider.” When we recognize this, when we acknowledge our loneliness and fear – and also our contradictory desire to be alone – it becomes easier to embrace the crowded world we inhabit. This in turn is a way to understanding the needs of others, like the refugees who Will meets briefly on the train from Strymonas to Thessaloniki and the boys from Afghanistan with whom he swims from the beach in Kalamaria.
The easy passage that Will’s passport allows and the ease with which he travels the world is set against the obstacles these men and children face. Will’s reflections and stories are framed by memories of his partner, Elee Kirk, who died of breast cancer five years ago at the age of thirty-eight. Her brilliance, courage and love of life recur as themes. The advice she gave to Will in the last weeks of her life looked ahead, beyond her death. “Go elsewhere,” she told him. “Get some space. You’ll go away, because that’s what you do.” This advice helped bring this book into being and it is rightly dedicated to her.
Hello, Stranger: how we find connection in a disconnected world by Will Buckingham is published by Granta, London (2021) at £16-99 and can be ordered here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/hello-stranger-how-we-find-connection-in-a-disconnected-world/
Will Buckingham will be talking about his book at a Five Leaves online event – details here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/events/hello-stranger-with-will-buckingham/
Kathleen Bell

 

Trans-Europe Express by Owen Hatherley (Penguin, £9.99)

Ah, Europe, I remember it well…
Owen Hatherley’s book was written two years after the EU referendum but before the endless negotiations on fish that were to follow. This book is about the architecture of some European cities, some well-known, some less well-known in this now less European nation.
Not all come out well. Paris, for example, won’t be hurrying to give Hatherley the freedom of the city soon but Skopje’s council must have been tempted to hire a hitman other than they blew all their money on “a diarrhoea of statuary…. variously celebrating Ancient Macedonia… sundry medieval kings and folk heroes, a rotunda decorated with Third Reich-esque golden statues … and of course a triumphal arch…” The latter is pictured with the caption “Come and see the sights”. No thanks. “The effect is North Korea without the planning…” Let’s move on. But maybe not to Dublin unless we like “luxury flats” or the “stunning offices” that developers like to foist on us.
But at least Dublin does not have the (literally) Fascist Edificio España of Madrid, “a stepped, stone-clad ziggurat”, which has become a hotel since this book was published. Look it up on Google images. You will regret it. Fortunately Hatherley’s image does not show the building in all its Francoist glory. Indeed, I have to mention the photographs in general. They are poorly reproduced, in the paperback and the earlier hardback. If you are describing buildings like the Modernist Aarhus City Hall, for example, designed by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller, whose clocktower “is both chic and jolly” with “its serif Roman numbers incised into the clock-face, which is attached to the concrete frame” there’s something you need to see here and you can barely make out that something in the photograph. By the way, I specifically mention Jacobsen by name here as Hatherley reminds us that Christine Keller sat in a Jacobsen chair – that chair – in 1963.
Hatherley does make me want to go to many places – Rotterdam, to see the public housing estate Kiefhoek which “consists of tiny terraces, painted in the De Stijl colours – crisp yellow metal window frames, red doors and white stuccoed walls.” The Five Leaves’ logo is based on De Stijl designs so we have an interest here. But also because I want to see something he describes as an “hysterical church, a white cube with a chimney that could pass as a boiler house”. And while there, why not nip over to Hilversum to see “what appears to be a police station for Hobbits.”
By now you will have guessed that I love Hatherley’s writing, but his work is serious. He understands cities, though questions  why Stockholm, with Sweden’s enlightened asylum and immigration policy, has housing that appears to be segregated. Yet the Husby estate, which houses the poorest, with high rates of unemployment and which is overwhelmingly non-white (and was the place of a past riot) is “better maintained than Hampstead”. In passing Hatherley often talks about the high level of maintenance by those who run social housing and those who live in them compared to the UK. But again the pictures are not good enough to prove what he was saying.
So… for the moment, let’s pretend Covid is over and you can go where you want. Of all the places described the one that draws me in is….. sound of trumpets…. Hull. Actually, I really like Hull, with its Georgian terraces (well, there are some), its Old Town, the Hepworth Arcade, a street called The Land of Green Ginger, the smell of mud as you walk out to the sea… And you arrive in a wonderful station, one you can sit in. I was in Hull on the launch night of Hull being a city of culture, staying in the most comfortable and affordable hotel (with the most boring breakfast) to join 10,000 others at nightfall to be showered with feathers by high-wire dancers dressed as angels (perhaps you had to be there…). Anyway, read Hatherley’s chapter and go to Hull. You won’t regret it.
Trans-Europe Express is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/trans-europe-express-tours-of-a-lost-continent/
Ross Bradshaw

Engel’s England by Matthew Engel (Profile, £9.99)

Following the decades of local government reorganisation, including the separation of Nottingham from Nottinghamshire, the notion of a “county” seems quaint, a barely remembered division of the country used only by cricket teams. Engel knows this of course, not least because he is a cricket writer and is used to dividing the country in this way. In Engel’s England he visits all thirty-nine counties and the capital to report on what he finds.

This is a large book, but it is in the best tradition of gazetteers, being quirky, garrulous and happy to miss bits out if the author can’t be bothered. In Sussex, for example, he writes “I skipped Worthing, having known it all too well”. Engel is also opinionated and is probably banned now from visiting Surrey, a county where “Money and property are the Surrey obsessions”. Nothing is in proportion, it depends on what catches Engel’s eye. Thus, a Martian reading about Yorkshire, a rather large place, would come away with the notion that rhubarb growing is one of the County’s main industries. Rutland, a much smaller place, is given due care and attention as Britain’s smallest county, with detailed notes given of what must be the most boring local authority meeting ever, a meeting witnessed by one local blogger and one Matthew Engel.

I found the Nottinghamshire entry to be disappointing, save for its chapter heading “The Silence of the Trams” with too much attention given to the predictable. LeftLion would do a better job. But other counties fare better. And throughout there are memorable cameos, the most memorable of which is that at Beachy Head in Sussex, Britain’s most popular suicide site, there is a sign next to the Mr Whippy van for the Samaritans.

Books like this often end up in the loo, on that bookshelf so many people have for the quirky.  It is a good addition.

Ross Bradshaw

 

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (Penguin, £8.99)

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie LeeI first bought this book for 30p in the early 1970s, in my imagination wanting to be like the bloke on the right, rather than the trampish bloke on the left. (Given that the book was written about the years starting 1934, the modern design perhaps uses poetic licence.) Yes, As I Walked Out… was one of those books young people used to read about going on the road, in Lee’s case by foot, armed only with a bedroll, and a violin to earn his crust by busking. He first walks from his village outside of Stroud to London, taking the long road, where he works on a building site for a year before heading to Spain, where he spends a further year. There he wanders from village to village, town to town seeking out the poor quarters only ragged people know (thanks, Paul Simon), which in Spain in the 1930s was most of the country. Somehow he gets by on lumps of rock-hard goat’s cheese, the occasional fig and too much rough wine, served by even rougher people happy for him to share their poor homes or taverns for the equivalent of pennies. The occasional woman takes him into her bed, while other locals give other assistance. The book is lyrical, but not romantic – how could it be when faced with the squalid lives lived by landless peasants, day labourers and fishermen. The shakedown mattresses he is given are alive with bedbugs, washing is cold water troughs in the open and there is an undercurrent of despair and violence.

As the book moves towards its end Lee begins to see that the peasants and poor people of Andalucia think there might be another way to live. The church in the village where he is staying is burnt out… The author is tasked with taking a message about grenades. The Civil War starts, and the book ends suddenly with Lee rescued by a ship picking up stranded Britons.

Rereading this book after a few decades I am perhaps aware that Lee might have embellished his story (there was an argument about the accuracy of his later Civil War memoir), but it is still a good read, and good background reading on the day-to-day lives of the people of Spain in the 1930s.

Ross Bradshaw