Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Stopping Places: a Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian le Bas

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In a Jhalak Prize longlist dominated this year (2019) by non-fiction books, this one stood out for me. It struck me as I read it that anti-Roma prejudice could be called ‘the last non-taboo’ – a bigotry to which many otherwise liberal members of the white middle classes would still admit to without blushing.

It is also a voice rarely heard. Almost my only other encounter with non-romanticised writing about contemporary Romanies was at the 2011 Sanctuary London event, when New Zealand author Garth Cartwright read from his book Princes Among Men, an account of his travels with the gypsy musicians in the mahalas (ghettos) of Eastern Europe – and even then, that was writing ABOUT Romanies, not the voice of a Roma author. I am sure part of that is my failure to look, but it is certainly a voice is desperate need of boosting.

Damian le Bas comes from a long line of English Romanies based around Surrey. He was raised in a Romany family, speaks the Romani language and has suffered his fair share of anti-Roma prejudice. But because he is of mixed blood – with fair skin and fair hair – even some of his own family don’t fully accept him as a true Gypsy (the word, always capitalised, that he himself most often uses to describe his people).

So one autumn he sets out in a white transit van to discover the aitchin tans – stopping places – used by Romanies and Travellers around the country. He starts with the ones his family have used for generations – Pagham’s Copse, Butler’s Down, Messenger’s Meadow, names that are unlikely to appear on any map.

Then he branches out, travelling around the country, going to famous horse fairs like Horsmonden in Kent and Appleby in Cumbria. He crosses the channel to attend the annual ceremony of Sara-la-Kali in Petit Camargue – where the Manouche (French Romanies) commemorate the arrival of the first Gypsy in Europe. He follows the trail of the Welsh Gypsies of Lake Bala – said to be the home of the purest form of Romani spoken in Britain. (Though why, le Bas asks, is English praised for its ability to adapt, to taken on board words from other languages and to invent new ones, and yet Romani scorned for the same adaptability?) At his furthest point north, finds the site in Scotland of the first recorded Gypsy presence in Britain, at the beginning of the 16thC.

His writing throughout is richly evocative – as in this description, early in the book, of his family’s flower selling business at Petersfield market.

“There were boxes of daffodils packed squeaky tight; tall green buckets of chrysanthemums, yellow and copper and pink, stargazer lilies that burst into purple and white streaked with orange. There were little black buckets of freesias, their buds like fruit humbug sweets sucked to a tight bright core...”


In the course of le Bas’s year long journey discovers the rigours of living on the road through winter, and the joys of the summer. He rediscovers some of the tricks and habits that made such a life possible. He encounters friendliness among settled folk who remember Gypsies as season workers in hop fields and on fruit farms, and rare hostility from fellow Romanies determined to maintain old demarcations.

By the end of the year, le Bas has begun to come to terms with his dual identity, reflecting:

“I am at the roadside, miles from anyone I know, and yet still in my place, inside my home, my own little world. I feel a mounting dislocation form the constant need for an endpoint ... I’ve lost the constant need to get somewhere.
We are all somewhere, I tell myself. I go back to the van and put the key in the igniting, in no great hurry to hear the engine start.”

The way of life that le Bas’s great grandmother, Nan, grew up with is gone, and with it some terrible hardships. Yet le Bas shows there was a time when Romany life slotted in with the seasonal nature of farm work and a kind of coexistence was possible. The present day almost complete lack of tolerance by settled communities of Travellers and Romanies is, in the end , in the interests of no one.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro; Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Princes Among Men by Garth Cartwright.

Avoid If You Dislike: Pulling back layers of romanticism and demonisation

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea brewed by the side of the road

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

A Stranger in Paris by Karen Webb


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

What could have been a dull memoir of any British au-pair arriving in France is given a sincere emotional charge by an exceptional heroine. 

The naïvete of the gauche yet observant nanny makes the reader both cringe and smile. The gossamer hopes of her romances set against the expectations of the household set up moments of delight and sadness.

This is a hiccupy, awkward and yet charming insight into the British abroad. There are times when you want to give almost every character a shake. The nuances of cultural difference are mountains not molehills to this young woman. Overconfident, underprepared but always optimistic, our heroine stumbles from situation to situation, slipping from the dangerous to the futile with blithe belief. 

The characterisation is uneven but when it works, the personae leap off the page. Most importantly, this book conveys the pumice stone of cultural interaction. Travelling changes people, almost always for the better. The gradual acclimatisation is a joy. Those were the days. 

This book should be compulsory reading for school-leavers across the UK. More now than ever.



You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or When in Rome by Penelope Green

Avoid if you don’t like: Naïve young Brits, student life, cultural confusion

Ideal accompaniments: Cheap red wine, Chinese takeaway and this version of I Love Paris by Zaz.


Saturday, 27 April 2019

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Raymond Antrobus’s stunning debut poetry collection, The Perseverance, has been shortlisted for both the 2019 Jhalak Prize and the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize International.

Antrobus is Deaf. (The capital letter distinguishes between those who are born Deaf and who regard Deafness as part of their culture and identity rather than a disability, and those to become deaf later in life, whose relationship with deafness is primarily medical.)

For Antrobus, late diagnosis as a child led to years of low expectations. When he attended a Deaf School in London attached to a hearing school where he had many of his lessons. There, hearing children mocked him for using sign language, while Deaf pupils mocked him for his lack of fluency. In Echo, A Deaf Sequence, as essay he wrote for poetryfoundation.org, Antrobus writes: “This was when I most needed the nurturing of a Deaf identity, one that wasn’t medical, but philosophical, one that embraced my natural of language and valued Deafness as a way of being."

Many of the poems in this collection address the experience of being Deaf. He rails against the othering of the Deaf – writing poems that respond to Ted Hughes’ Deaf School, and to Charles Dickens writing about Laura Bridgman (a Deaf-Blind woman born fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller) or his sentimental tale, Doctor Marigold.

He confronts the murder of three deaf women street vendors in Haiti in 2016, and the fatal shooting by a state trooper in America of a deaf driver trying to use sign language.

In Dear Hearing World (a poem which plays on Dear White America by Danez Smith), Antrobus challenges reluctance of the education system to recognise the validity of sign language as a means, not a barrier to communication – an attitude that goes right back to Alexander Graham Bell.

The Perseverance of the title refers in part to the pub in Broadway Market in London where his alcoholic father drank. Many of these poems were written shortly after the death of his father, who he nursed through the last two of his life as he suffered from dementia, and explore different aspects of their relationship.

There is ambiguity too in his mixed race identity, which he explores in (Jamaican British / Miami Airport / Maybe I Could Love a Man)

Poetry does not take you by the hand and lead you, as fiction does. It demands work from the reader to chisel out meaning. I found myself spending time delving back into Antrobus’s references before reading the poems again. I also sought out YouTube videos of Antrobus performing his poetry, to hear the spaces he left between words and where he placed the stresses. It was effort well worth putting in, as it opened up layers of understanding and appreciation.

This is an exceptionally talented poet at only the start of his career. As he points out, Deaf culture has too often been silenced, patronised, othered and misrepresented. Antrobus’s cuts through that with shining clarity.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Avoid If You Dislike:Having to put a bit of work into your reading 

Perfect Accompaniment: Red snapper, rice and peas, and a few lessons in BSL

Genre: Poetry

Buy the book here.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

So many layers of complexity are woven into this story of two lives colliding (literally) on Waterloo Bridge.

Attila is a psychologist from Ghana specialising in trauma resulting from war. Jean is an American biologist who studies human interactions with wild animals. He is in London for a conference; she for a long-term study of urban foxes. Their first encounter, as they both hurry across the bridge, is barely registered by either of them, but then their paths cross again and again.

The core story takes place over a mere handful of days, but through shifting timelines, we see something of Attila’s work in war zones from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, and the three women has loved in his life. And behind Jean’s story lies the history of human response to encroaching predators, from wolves to coyotes to London’s growing population of foxes.

And then there is Tano, the runaway boy, and the army of mostly immigrant workers who comb the city to find him.

This is the London most of us never see. The London of street sweepers, security people, care workers, kitchen staff – those who work when the rest of the city sleeps, behind the elegant facades of theatres and hotels. It is beautifully evoked without being sentimentalised.

Along the way the novel takes on the brutality of the Hostile Environment and the failings of the care system. It challenges the Western notions of ‘normality’ that underpin psychologists’ assumptions about trauma and PTSD. And it questions our relationship with urbanised wild animals like coyotes and foxes.

Even the notion of happiness, captured in the title, is questioned, its place taken instead by the more enduring notion of hope.

One of only two novels to make it to the shortlist of the 2019 Jhalak Prize.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Kamila Shamsie, Esi Edugyan, Ruth Ozeki, Elif Shafak

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of late-stage dementia

Perfect Accompaniment: Suya (Nigerian kebabs) and a rumba in the background

Genre: Literary Fiction



Monday, 22 April 2019

Brit(ish) - on race, identity and belonging by Afua Hirsch


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This conversation is long overdue: a conversation begun in the spirit of honesty, not defensiveness, or fear, or blindness.”

Afua Hirsch is a British born woman of mixed race. On one side, the father is half Yorkshire, half German Jewish. On the other side, her grandparents were Ghanaian. She grew up in relatively privileged circumstances in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon, going first to private school and then Oxford University.

While Hirsch acknowledges that her experience is a world away both from the brutal racism faced by her parents’ generation and the life of young black people growing up in places like Tottenham, where poverty and lack of opportunity are rife:

“I didn’t find race, race found me: in the playground, or the classroom, on the street, in the shops.”

Hirsch describes searching for an identity in Africa, first as a new graduate working for a non-profit organisation in Senegal, and later with her young family in her grandparent’s home country of Ghana. Yet what she discovers is that, though Britishness contains the threat of exclusion, there is in fact nowhere else to go. Her identity IS British.

In this wide-ranging book she addresses such topics as our failure to properly address the truth about imperialism and British involvement in the slave trade. She examines the changing policies towards interracial adoption, Home Office attitudes to immigration and the concept of the Good Immigrant. She looks at colourism and the attitudes towards black women’s hair. She looks at riots in the 1980s and the Brixit vote in 2016.

Above all, she castigates white British society for its failure to acknowledge that racism and white privilege are still facts of life – and that this affects all members of society.

“Failing to acknowledge that whiteness exists, means ignoring the burden for a white child born into a culture that tells them they are innately superior, that they are entitled.”

Rarely have I gone through a book highlighting so many passages. Hirsch brilliantly captures both the positive and negative aspects of having multiple cultural identities. On the one hand, it: “offers the possibility of full-body immersion, deep-sea diving; an experience that is difficult to pin down, but feels mystical and profound.”

On the other, “at its worse ... (it) can feel like being helplessly adrift, unable to embrace the beauty of any one place, fearful of the water, awkward on land.”

This feels like a more deeply personal book than Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race. As well as her own experiences, Hirsch draws upon individual experience of other black and mixed race people – like Lola who experienced some of the worst aspects of the care system and who now provides a home of teens emerging from that system.

Despite the depth of racism – structural and otherwise – in British society that it exposes, this book feels optimistic. But if we are truly to become a post-racial society, it is vital that we stop trying to pretend that we already are. We have to have the courage to have to difficult conversations, to acknowledge ugly truths about ourselves. To have humility.

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Natives by Akala, Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Avoid If You Dislike: Honestly appraising the role of race in our society

Perfect Accompaniment: Jollof rice and herbal tea

Genre: Non Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Natives – Race and Class in the ruins of Empire, by Akala

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“When I say I could have been a statistic – another working-class black man dead or in prison ... people that grew up like us know just how real this statement is, how easily the scales could have been tipped.”


As a white woman on the upper end of middle age, it’s not surprising that I know Akala not from his music, but from his articles and speeches. If I come across a link to one of them on Twitter, I always click on it, knowing that what I will hear / read will be insightful, challenging, thought-provoking and scholarly. This book is no exception.

If David Olusoga’s Black and British was a history of Black people in Britain, Natives takes aspects of modern British society and traces their roots back into Britain’s imperial past – a past which present-day citizens have been taught to see only through blinkers and some heavily rose-tinted spectacles.

Akala was born in 1981, the year that began with the New Cross Fire, in which 13 black children died in what was widely believed at the time to have been an arson attack. The utter indifference of media and the rest of society to their fate led directly to a march on parliament by twenty thousand black people. Together with police’s brutal application of the so-called sus laws in areas like Brixton, it was also one of the triggers for the series of riots that erupted across Britain that spring and summer.

Such outward manifestations of racism may have been less in evidence in the intervening years, but that does not mean that racism has gone away. Akala forensically examines Britain’s role in the slave trade (conveniently forgotten in our haste to pat ourselves on our backs for our part in ending it). It looks at the history of scientific racism and the hypersexualisation of black men in the imaginations of white people. And it connects those things to clearly and directly to language and attitudes prevalent today.

Scholarly as it is, this is also a personal book. Like Afua Hirsch, Akala is mixed race. His mother is white British (half Scottish, half English), and his father is from Jamaica. He grew up in Archway, on the borders between white, leafy, privileged Highgate and the much poorer, rougher area of Tottenham. The year he was twelve, he was stopped and searched by the police for the first time. It was also the first time he witnessed someone more or less of his own age attacked with a meat cleaver.

The picture Akala paints of his childhood – his adolescence in particular – is profoundly shocking to someone who has lived her life in a far more sheltered corner of England. Yet Akala swiftly demolishes the myth of ‘black on black violence,’ showing a correlation between youth violence and poverty, deprivation and lack of expectation that goes back in time hundreds of years and spreads geographically to cities where few Black people live. He shows how class is systematically used to trap white and black people alike – but how the few that break free may escape class, but that race follows them wherever they go.

At the end of the book, he looks forward into the coming century, at the growing economic power of countries outside the Anglo-America/European sphere, and wonders how and if white people will adjust to no long being the dominant world group.

“The shape of the world children born now will inhabit will be determined now just by politicians and billionaires, but by millions of supposedly ordinary people like you and me, who choose whether or not to engage with difficult issues, to try and grasp history, to find their place in it, and who choose whether to act or do nothing when faced with the mundane and mammoth conflicts of everyday life.”

A book that will challenge your world view – particularly those of us who have, however unwittingly, inherited the benefits and privileges of our imperialist forebears.

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge; Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

Avoid If You Dislike: Shattering the myths of British imperialism

Perfect Accompaniment: A willingness to address the difficult questions

Genre: Non Fiction

Available on Amazon


Friday, 12 April 2019

The Boy At the Back of the Class by Onjali K Raúf

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize

The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Boy At the Back of the Class is the only children’s book to make it onto this year’s Jhalak Prize longlist, and one that I hope will come to the attention of the Little Rebels judges too.

It is a story that centres on Ahmet, a refugee child from Syria. But it is not the story of his perilous journey escaping a war zone and making his way to England. Rather it is the story of four friends at the primary school he starts to attend and how they react to learning his story.

The story is told by nine year old Alexa, who doesn’t understand why with the new boy at the back of the class doesn’t speak or smile, or why he disappears every break and lunchtime. And she certainly doesn’t understand the way some adults talk about him – what is a refugee kid anyway? Nonetheless, she is determined to make friends.

As the barriers between them begin to break down, and she learns that he and his family escaped from bullies who bombed their home back in Syria, that Ahmet made it safely to England, but that his sister has drowned in the sea and his mother and father are still missing. Thus emerges The Greatest Idea In The World – a plan to find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.

Although it is clearly aimed at younger children, the book this most reminded me of was The Hate U Give. by Angie Thomas. Like Starr, Alexa finds herself having to deal with the consequences of taking a stand for what she believes in. Those consequences can be frightening and overwhelming, but they can also be amazingly rewarding.

Raúf does not shy away from showing the ugliness of some adults’ views. Teachers, neighbours and the Press are all among those who show Alexa just how cruel and unfeeling the world can be. But there are also heroes and acts of kindness, and people who learn to change their minds.

At the back of the book, Raúf provides information for children about refugees, as well as questions that might be used in class – or within the family – to provoke discussion. A portion of her royalties are also going towards supporting refugee charities.

A joyous, life-affirming book about acceptance and the power to change the world

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Don’t believe every child deserves a safe place to grow up in.

Perfect Accompaniment: A pomegranate

Genre: Children’s, Middle Readers (typically 8-11 years olds)


Available on Amazon