Thursday, 30 January 2020

Discovering different lives: 5 books that changed my viewpoint

One of the things that characterised 2019 for me was the feeling that I was suddenly hearing from a lot of viewpoints that I'd never heard before.   I realised that most of the people I know are a lot like me, and that other people have a very different way of seeing the world.

Put like that, it seems dumb not to have realised that before.  But most of these books have been published in the last 4 years (Americanah is oldest, from 2013), so maybe, too, these are voices that just wouldn't have been heard, and experiences that wouldn't have been talked about, a decade or more ago.

I feel like these books have made me think more about prejudice, identity, and my assumptions about them.  But more than that, they've taken me to new places and helped me to see the world through different eyes.  And that's what books, at their best, are there for.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch


Afua Hirsch was born in the same year as I was, and grew up barely 30 miles from my home.  Like me, she had family links to another country outside of Britain, and spent some time in that country.  But unlike me, the colour of her skin has meant that she has spent her whole life having her Britishness questioned.

The similarities we share made the differences all the more startling.  This is a life where hairdressers don't know what to do with your hair, fellow delegates at a conference assume that you are a waitress, and your sister's baby is described as "like a little gangster" - all in the same kind of environment that I am familiar with, but where, as a white person, I was utterly oblivious to these challenges.

The details from Afua Hirsch's own experience are backed up by references to wider research about race in Britain, and all of it is eye-opening, informative and engaging.

Good as You: From Prejudice to Pride - 30 Years of Gay Britain by Paul Flynn


This is another book which had a personal resonance; the 30 years in the title correspond very closely to the first 30 years of my life.  But once again, those 30 years are looked at very differently from the way that I saw them.

How does it affect your life when "people like you" are represented only negatively, or not at all?  When you have no role models for a settled, loving relationship?  And how do things change when, gradually, you see singers, TV characters, and film actors who share your own feelings and experiences?

I never had to ask myself those kind of questions, but many people did, over those 30 years, and this book explores some of the answers.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I'd already read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's moving novel about the Nigerian civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun, so I knew the quality of her writing when I picked this one up.

Ifemelu, a Nigerian girl, moves to America, and discovers that in America, her nationality is irrelevant: she is black.  And being black comes with a whole host of expectations about what she can say, how she can say it, how she should behave, how people will behave to her.  She writes an anonymous blog about race, to much acclaim, but then, when she moves back to Nigeria, has to reconsider her experiences and identity yet again.

This is a powerful story dealing with some big themes.  In some ways it covers similar ground to Brit(ish), but from a fictional perspective.  Like Afua, Ifemelu moves between countries and finds that she is labelled differently in each one, and doesn't fit completely in either.

Al-Britannia, My Country: A Journey through Muslim Britain by James Fergusson


Unlike the other books here, this is written by an outsider to the community he is writing about.  But James Fergusson is clearly sympathetic to and genuinely interested in the faith and lives of Muslims in Britain.  He - and I - see a country we hardly knew existed, as he visits Muslim schools, mosques, and even cage fighting events in Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester.  He brings out the humanity and community behind the shock headlines of radicalisation and riots, and asks questions about the role of faith in society, and what it means to be British.

Here is yet another layer to the Britain that I think I know - once again, a strikingly different experience but with surprising similarities.  Like churches, mosques are struggling to hold out much appeal for the younger generation.  Muslims, like Christians, are dealing with the complexities of holding a faith in an increasingly secular country, with the added pressure that Islamic religious fundamentalism is often equated with radicalisation, and legislated against.

James Fergusson finishes his book by undertaking the Ramadan fast - not as a statement of belief, but more as a kind of homage to the Muslim faith.  One thing that really stood out was the way that this changed his relationship with his Muslim neighbour.  Before, they had barely spoken, despite living next door for several years, but as soon as the man found out that Fergusson was also keeping Ramadan, he invited him over, and brought him meals several times.  The shared experience created a bond that might not have formed any other way.

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett


Simone is a teenager who's HIV-positive, black, has gay parents, and is directing a student production of Rent at her Catholic school, while dealing with someone who is threatening to make her HIV status public.  All that sounds like it should be far too much to fit into one book, never mind one character.  But Simone manages to be real, likeable, brave and fun - much more than just a way to challenge stereotypes.

Admittedly, this book is not for the faint-hearted, especially if you have children coming up to the teenage years.  Simone and her friends are definitely not shy about sex, even if they get pretty embarrassed when their parents try to talk to them about it.  If Judy Blume was straightforward, Camryn Garrett takes it to another level - but she manages to keep a good dose of humour in there, as well.

Like the other books, this deals with questions about coping when you are rejected or stereotyped based on who you are - both the parts that you can hide, and the parts you can't.

Have you read any of these books?  What did you think?

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Christmas 2019

January is whizzing by, and Christmas was almost a month ago!  It's far too late to be writing a Christmas post really, but the blog has got cobwebbed and dusty from neglect again, and it's an easy place to start.  So let's go.

Carol singing

Toby and Theo had an outdoor carol concert at school, in the absolute falling-down rain.  The parents peered out from under a multi-coloured array of umbrellas, the kids sang their hearts out from underneath dripping gazebos, a live donkey and horse made their appearance during Little Donkey, and the teachers did a flash-mob style rendition of Snow is Falling at the end, to much applause.  It was great.


Graham joined the church Christmas choir and spent two months booming, "Rise up, shepherd, and follow!" at odd intervals.  We finally got to hear the complete carol on the Sunday before Christmas, which was packed with a nativity service in the morning and two carol services in the afternoon.

Lights and other shiny things

The Lichfield cathedral illuminations are well on their way to becoming one of our Christmas traditions.  The west front of the cathedral is bathed in a stunning light show, and the inside is filled with art installations, candles and Christmas trees.  This year they used the front of a separate building for a sequence featuring swaying spinning tops, giant presents and galloping reindeer.  Then we walked around to face the cathedral and watched the Christmas story unfold, as angels descended, the stable glowed, and wise men trekked on their camels under whirling starry skies.






On a slightly less exalted level, I helped out with the village Christingle service, jamming sticky sweets into juicy oranges and trying to light the candles without setting the small and crumbling parish church on fire.  Bizarre though the ritual is, it's one of the few times that the church is actually full, and it's a lovely little service.

Family and friends

We hosted Graham's family this year, which meant that I had to cook a proper Christmas dinner for the first time in many years.  There were only 7 of us so it wasn't a huge undertaking - although I did vastly over-cater, so it was a good thing they stayed for a few days to help eat all the leftovers!  Some friends gave me the tip of cooking and slicing the turkey the day before, then reheating it in the gravy on the day.  It does away with that whole last-minute palaver of trying to chop up the meat while frantically stirring gravy and dishing up everything else - brilliant!




Apart from the food and the presents, we managed a cinema trip to see Frozen 2 (a little sadder than I expected), a snowball fight at Cromford Mill, and a few board games.



A local garden centre has an ice rink for the season, so we went with a few friends to try it out.  This was the boys' first attempt at skating, and my first try after about 15 years, so we were all a little shaky.  By the end of the session we were mostly letting go of the edge, and Theo keeps asking when we can go again.

After New Year we visited my parents, and had a good couple of days catching up.  The boys clamoured to go to their favourite place - a nearby science centre which they love - and we went for some walks and dug through the Lego box and ate good food.



Oh yes, the presents

Despite Toby saying he doesn't believe in Santa, he and Theo decided to rig up their bedroom with string, tape and a camera, to try and catch Father Christmas in the act.  He has had many years of evading small boys, though, and simply left their stockings by the door, with a note saying, "Don't try that trick next year!"

They were up at 5 am on Christmas Day, which is our earliest start for a while.  The rest of us got up about 6, and the living room was a sea of wrapping paper by 8:30 in the morning!  The boys had to do a treasure hunt to find their biggest presents (another tip from a friend).  Toby discovered a new bike in the garage and Theo found an electric guitar under the stairs.  They were both very pleased.