November was a good month for reading! December is starting with The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Fitzcarraldo, £20) which is 912 pages so I doubt I’ll get through as many as this set.
Ken Worpole is an old colleague and occasional Five Leaves’ author. His latest book is No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the land in wartime Britain (Little Toller, £14.00). Here he tells the story of Frating Farm, a colony in Essex set up by Christian pacifists in 1943, which survived fifteen years before passing back to private hands. At one time up to fifty people lived there, working the land and running other local businesses. Frating was only one of several utopian or economic communities attracted to Essex. Worpole followers will know that he is an unofficial historian of all that has been good in that County. Frating did not come out of nowhere, their ideas were drawn from John Middleton Murry, our own DH Lawrence and others around the Adelphi magazine. Their number included Iris Murdoch, whole novel The Bell draws on Frating in its description of communal life. The best chapter in Worpole’s book is the last,”New Lives, New Landscapes” where he ranges widely over the work of authors and thinkers writing about land use.
George Orwell was something of a back-to-the-lander of course, in Jura and Wallington. In Orwell’s Roses (Granta, £16.99) Rebecca Solnit starts from the roses that Orwell planted to wander off at tangents before wandering back to Orwell, his life and work. Stalin’s lemons put in an appearance as well as ecological issues about importing flowers. This is not, not, a biography of Orwell but there are many bits and pieces of information on Orwell I, at least, had forgotten, particularly to do with his slave owning ancestors. Drifting so far from the subject that causes people to pick up the book can be a highwire act, but Solnit remains in command at all times. Mind you, she is one of the few people who could write about telephone directories and make them interesting.
1984 was at the back of my mind reading Lea Ypi’s Free: coming of age at the end of history (Granta, £20). The book is a memoir of growing up in Albania under Enver Hoxha, particularly where the adults in the room would talk about friends being away studying (ie in prison) or using some other words to cover being tortured or killed. The author’s family was always somewhat more at risk than others because of their “biography”. Only belatedly did the child come to understand her great-grandfather was one of a cosmopolitan elite. In fact he was Prime Minister of Albania before communism. Though Ypi lived in the open-air prison that was Albania, she was a content Young Pioneer. After the fall, in 1990, the country embraced freedom, with rapacious capitalism taking the place of the former dictatorship. As many people fled as could get out, and the country collapsed into a mess of pyramid schemes and unemployment. Ypi’s father obtained a responsible job in the shipyards and did what he could to stop the Roma workers being sacked but neo-liberalism did what neo-liberalism does. The country was not free before and it was now too free.
Over the COVID period one or two million poets turned to writing about these strange days. Chris Searle’s Over Eagle Pond (Culture Matters, £12.00) stands out for his gentle observations of the world he sees from the window of his flat, looking out over Eagle Pond in East London. Sometimes it’s the changes in fauna and flora, but the best is a simple poem, a story if you prefer, of the elderly couple who come every day, first thing in the morning, park their car on double yellow lines and walk the fifty yards to the pond, look for a moment, walk back”in a semi-circle of daily devotion/before they drive off/until tomorrow/same time, same place”.
Geoffrey Trease was a well-known children’s writer from Nottingham’s past. Faber Finds publish his Red Towers of Granada (£10), reprinted from 1966. The book is partly set in this city, in the Jewish Quarter in 1290 just before and during the expulsion of the Jewish community. The main character – a local teenager, Robin, wrongly expelled from his village as a leper thanks to a deliberate misdiagnosis by his priest – chances on a robbery in the forest. He sees off the robbers, the victim being an elderly Jew, Solomon, – obvious from him being a “man in a yellow cap”. Robin too is in enforced, distinctive garb, that of a leper (and wearing a clapper to announce his arrival). Solomon takes in young Robin, cures his non-leprous skin ailment and, ere long, they set out on an errand for the ailing Queen to Solomon’s native Granada. There this Christian and Jew join up with a Muslim to obtain that which the Queen has asked for, with lots of adventures on the way. Yes, though not all the Jews, Christians and Muslims are good guys, this is a book about unity in diversity – only flawed by physical descriptions of Solomon and one Muslim that are, shall we say, a bit old fashioned. This isn’t, now, really a book for older children but it’s a fine yarn for a snowy day, with lots of period interest.
The Promise by Damon Galgut (Chatto, £16.99), winner of the Booker Prize. This novel is set in South Africa and follows the lead up to and aftermath of four funerals, all of members of the Afrikaaner Swarts family. Except not all are Afrikaaners as the opening funeral is of Rachel Swart, the mother of the family who, in middle age, returns to the Judaism of her youth as her terminal illness takes hold. “The Promise” is that made by Rachel’s husband – at Rachel’s insistence – that their servant Salome will be given the shack she lives in, a promise heard by daughter Amor. Will this be kept? I’m not telling… The Sward family is dysfunctional. They remain centre stage though Galgut cleverly gives the backstory of the other characters – an avaricious pastor, a confused Catholic priest, a homeless man living in the church porch. Galgut handles time changes well – the story is told over four decades – with the momentous changes within South Africa, from Mandela through to Zuma, forming a backdrop. And he handles changing points of view well, occasionally simply addressing the reader. Galgut picks out some issues nicely, Amor, for example, works as a nurse in an AIDS ward at the same time as Thabo Mbeki’s government was in denial of the AIDS crisis sweeping the country. This is not, well, maybe it is not, a political novel other than how can any novel set over forty years in South Africa not be. It’s a worthy winner of the Booker.
And finally… Keith Kahn-Harris has been working on a book with Five Leaves for some time. It was due out in November but Keith asked if we could put it back as he had another – a commercial book – out then. What is it, we asked. It’s a book based on the warning message in Kinder Eggs, he said. We’ve agreed to publish this man? we thought. And yes, The Babel Message; a love letter to language (ICON, £14.99) is indeed a book on the multilingual message in that ghastly chocolate item (which comes with a plastic toy, which should not be eaten), but it’s also a book on translation, linguistics, linguistic conflict, on why language matters, on linguistic imperialism, on the languages of small communities and long-dead Samarians, on the languages of those who will never have an army and a navy to defend their language, on dialect (including, I am pleased to say, Scots) – above all it’s a book on why languages – plural – matter. It’s a serious book, with lots of humour and an attempt by Keith to invent a language. It is also about Kinder Eggs.
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