New novel on 1981 British Handsworth riots

This reggae music video says about itself:

Steel PulseHandsworth Revolution

Steel Pulse – Live At The Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland 1979, “Montreux Casino

David Hinds – Vocals, Guitar
Basil Glendon Gabbidon – Guitar
Ronald, Ronnie “Stepper” McQueen – Bass Guitar
Selwyn D.”Bumbo” Brown – Keyboards, Vocals
Alphonso “Phonso” Martin – Percussion, Vocals
Steve Nisbett, Stevie “Grizzly” Nesbitt – Drums

By Farhana Shaikh in Britain:

‘I’m interested in exploring how the personal becomes political’

Saturday 15th October 2016

SHARON DUGGAL tells Farhana Shaikh what impelled her to write her first novel, set during the 1981 Handsworth riots

The Handsworth Times is your first novel. How did you go about writing it?

I’d like to say I have a routine and a set process for writing but it would be a big fib.

I am quite unorganised and a bit sporadic as a writer but I do always carry a notebook, jot down ideas as they arise and revisit them later. I have taught myself to write quickly through necessity and I can bang out a shoddy first draft at speed.

This is because I know my time is short due to other commitments, so I have to get whatever is in my head down on paper before it is too late. From there I revise and redraft a lot and I suppose that has organically become my process.

You’ve set your novel in Handsworth in Birmingham but your story has at its heart a Punjabi family. What personal experiences did you draw on?

I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in a British-Asian family in Handsworth, surrounded by the joint values of traditional Indian culture, family loyalty and an emphasis on hard work as a way of progressing through life and becoming upwardly socially mobile.

However, I was also surrounded by people of diverse cultural backgrounds living in reduced circumstances, struggling to make ends meet, and it soon became apparent that actually, for the working-class communities that I was in the midst of, opportunities for social mobility and aspiration were severely restricted whatever we did.

Having said that, Handsworth was also an extremely lively and exciting place to grow up with the street, doubling as a playground, central to community life.

I come from a big family with lots of siblings and cousins so there was a rich pool of material to draw on for ideas and characters. Like most extended families, stories about legacy and family history get passed down and become fragmented over time but some things, even though you don’t quite know whether they actually happened or not, do stick in the mind and resurface when writing.

The novel’s set in 1981 and, while it’s fiction, it feels as though we’re very much grounded in reality.

How much research did you do about the period and were you surprised by what you uncovered?

The novel started as part of a research degree so I was well placed to do research as part of the process but, rather than heavy academic research, I found what I had to do was a lot of googling to check things like TV listings and pop charts from the time. I do remember certain things about the period but it was a long time ago so I did have to do my homework, especially on the cultural and news references.

What made you want to write about the riots of 1981?

Birmingham in general is under-represented in mainstream literary output. Not enough stories about the city get published and I don’t know why.

But it is hugely interesting, both for its industrial past and how that has shaped its present, including its demography. It must be among the most multicultural places in the world yet, for some reason, publishers are not choosing stories based there.

This, coupled with the political landscape of the 1980s, of which the riots were a consequence, continues to be of interest, not least because our politicians and governments don’t seem to have learnt anything from what happened then.

Unfortunately, as ordinary people get squeezed tighter with welfare cuts, archaic education policies and lack of investment in communities and as racism and xenophobia rise, stoked as political tools by certain politicians and by their media mouthpieces — or vice versa? — manifestations of social unrest like rioting have and could so easily happen again at any point.

We see the struggle within the household juxtaposed against the one happening in the community. What were you interested in exploring by setting the story firmly within the space of domesticity?

I suppose I was interested in exploring how the personal becomes political, especially for the younger female characters, and how the domestic world and the social external world are inextricably linked.

The world beyond the house very much influences how characters develop and this, in turn, begins to transform how they exist alongside each other in the domestic sphere. They each go on a journey of some kind that helps equip them for the challenges of the world beyond the domestic sphere or, in the case of the father Mukesh, a journey that actually contributes to his demise.

I also wanted to convey something of the claustrophobia of living in a large family in a small house and how this can mirror the claustrophobia of living a seemingly fish-bowl like existence in a community like Handsworth.

Plenty of writers have written about the immigration experience but British stories set outside of London still seem few and far between. What were your hopes for the story you wanted to tell?

Like most people, I get frustrated by the stereotypes that continue to get churned out in books, sitcoms, film etc. It seems that there is an acceptable face of multiculturalism that mainstream publishers and other cultural gatekeepers want to perpetuate for some reason — I suspect it is because it is what they perceive as marketable.

The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great talk a few years ago where she warned against the danger of a single story as it leads to misunderstanding and stereotypes which are almost always untrue. I couldn’t agree with her more.

We have a long way to go to change the lack of diversity in literary output despite some really good recent interventions.

The saddest thing is that this is at the expense of some very talented writers that don’t fit the mould and at the expense of the reading public who, I am sure, are thirsty for different kinds of stories and voices.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about writing about the past?

Bring the past alive as part of the research by exploring personal accounts, diaries, social histories, film archives and oral testimony.

Luckily, with more recent history, we have a lot more access to this kind of primary source material online, including digital archives housed on library and community sites.

I found old photographs, music videos and news footage particularly helpful to informing some of the more descriptive passages of the book. Visual stimuli really are useful.

The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose Books, price £8.99. A longer version of this interview was first published in The Asian Writer,

Threatened toads and English literature

This video from Italy says about itself:

Rospo comune / Common toad (Bufo bufo) * ENGLISH SUBS *

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Alert as the common toad appears to be on its last legs

Friday 7th October 2016

The toad’s bright eyes led to the belief that inside its head was a valuable jewel hence their slaughter – today’s threats are more complex but equally calamitous, says PETER FROST

I love toads. I shared a garden once with one — he lived for years in an upturned flowerpot in a damp and shady corner and helped in my constant battle against slugs and other garden pests.

I always called him Mr Toad. He was much better pest control than a whole shed full of chemicals.

George Orwell shared my love of the common toad (Bufo bufo). In the year I was born — 1946 — Orwell wrote an essay for the socialist paper Tribune in praise of the humble creature.

Orwell loved nature and occasionally wrote nature notes instead of the hard left-wing politics his Tribune readers expected. Some wrote to complain and suggest he got back to writing about serious politics and world affairs.

John Betjeman on the other hand wrote to say: “I have always thought you were one of the best living writers of prose,” and telling Orwell he had “enjoyed and echoed every sentiment” of his thoughts on the common toad.

Orwell pointed out that the pleasures of simple natural things are available to everybody and cost nothing and he argued that retaining a childhood love of nature makes a peaceful and decent future more likely.

He finished his toad essay thus: “How many times have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could.

But luckily they can’t…

The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

Sadly, today my and Orwell’s toad is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Britain’s toad population has plummeted by nearly 70 per cent over the past 30 years and is now in such peril that the once common species is close to qualifying as endangered.

A combination of new intensive profit-driven farming techniques, which have entailed the loss of ponds and the death of prey from pesticides, as well as increasing urbanisation has reduced toad populations by thousands.

Tidy, hard-surfaced domestic gardens are another peril as is the massive increase in road traffic. This is despite widespread schemes to help toads safely migrate to their breeding ponds by carrying them across busy roads. You have probably seen the many quaint roadsigns indicating toad crossings.

Climate change is another cause of the population decline because of the disruption this causes to hibernation cycles by milder winters.

South-east England has suffered the worst decline in toad numbers recently but populations are falling all over the country.

Toads are extremely adaptable and can live in many places ranging from farmland and woodland to suburban gardens, where they play an important role as pest controllers, eating slugs, snails and insects and are food themselves for many of our most likeable mammals such as otters.

Toads and frogs are easily distinguished by the fact that frogs have smooth, moist skin while toads have drier, “warty” skin. Frogs have longer legs so that they can jump whereas toads have shorter legs which they use to crawl.

You are more likely to see them on mild nights as they hide during the day. In the winter, they hibernate in hollows or at the bases of hedgerows.

They like ponds with fish. This is because their tadpoles are poisonous to fish which gives them a greater chance of out-competing frog tadpoles.

They continue to be able to secrete toxins as adults and therefore have few predators. However, they will be taken by herons, members of the crow family and grass snakes.

You may notice the noxious secretions they have if you pick them up.

They usually hibernate between October and March and then breed from March onwards when tiny toadlets emerge from ponds during August.

There is no doubt that although popular and friendly toads are ugly, squat and warty. Their remarkable large bright eyes led to the belief that inside a toad’s head was a valuable jewel which led to the destruction of many toads by ignorant people until relatively recently.

They occupy a fond place in the British imagination. Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 novel The Wind in the Willows, is a selfish and reckless character but is nevertheless well loved.

Perhaps that is why every year thousands of volunteers take part in Toads on Roads patrols to help carry nearly a million of the amphibians in safety to their breeding waters.

Britain has another even rarer and more threatened species of toad. This is the natterjack toad — Bufo calamita.

It can be distinguished from common toads by a yellow line down the middle of the back and shorter legs that gives them a distinctive walking gait.

Natterjacks have a very loud and distinctive mating call so their name literally means the chattering toad — the jack (or toad) that natters. In the sand dunes around Liverpool they call them the Formby nightingale.

In England, the natterjack lives in very few locations mostly among coastal sand dunes along the Mersey estuary. But never, sadly, anywhere near Wigan Pier.

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize In Literature

This music video from the USA is called Bob Dylan – Masters of War – lyrics. The song is about the military industrial complex in the USA.

On the same day that Nobel Prize In Literature winner Dario Fo has died, a new prize winner…

From Reuters news agency:

2016 Nobel Prize In Literature Awarded To Bob Dylan

10/13/2016 07:02 am ET

STOCKHOLM, Oct 13 – Bob Dylan, regarded as the voice of a generation for his influential songs from the 1960s onwards, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature in a surprise decision that made him the only singer-songwriter to win the award.

The 75-year-old Dylan – who won the prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” – now finds himself in the company of Winston Churchill, Thomas Mann and Rudyard Kipling as Nobel laureates.

The announcement was met with gasps in Stockholm’s stately Royal Academy hall, followed – unusually – by some laughter.

Dylan’s songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” captured a spirit of rebellion, dissent and independence.

More than 50 years on, Dylan is still writing songs and is often on tour, performing his dense poetic lyrics, sung in a sometimes rasping voice that has been ridiculed by detractors.

Some lyrics have resonated for decades.

“Blowin’ in the Wind,” written in 1962, was considered one of the most eloquent folk songs of all time. “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” in which Dylan told Americans “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” was an anthem of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.

Awarding the 8 million Swedish crown ($930,000) prize, the Swedish Academy said: “Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound.”

Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg said: “He is probably the greatest living poet.”

Asked if he thought Dylan’s Nobel lecture – traditionally given by the laureate in Stockholm later in the year – would be a concert, [he] replied: “Let’s hope so.”

Over the years, not everyone has agreed that Dylan was a poet of the first order. Novelist Norman Mailer countered: “If Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.”

Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Academy, told a news conference there was “great unity” in the panel’s decision to give Dylan the prize.

Dylan has always been an enigmatic figure. He went into seclusion for months after a motorcycle crash in 1966, leading to stories that he had cracked under the pressure of his new celebrity.

He was born into a Jewish family but in the late 1970s converted to born-again Christianity and later said he followed no organized religion. At another point in his life, Dylan took up boxing.

Dylan’s spokesman, Elliott Mintz, declined immediate comment when reached by phone, citing the early hour in Los Angeles, where it was 3 a.m. at the time of the announcement. Dylan was due to give a concert in Las Vegas on Thursday evening.

Literature was the last of this year’s Nobel prizes to be awarded. The prize is named after dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and has been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace in accordance with his will.

This Nobel Prize for Dylan is not that surprising, the prize being Swedish. Carl Michael Bellman, arguably Sweden’s most famous poet, was a musician as well.

Italian playwright Dario Fo, RIP

In this 1997 Italian video, playwright Dario Fo is interviewed in a car by Ambra Angiolini. Ms Angiolini then tells Fo the news that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Italian Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo deceased

The Italian theater director, playwright and actor Dario Fo who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, has died at the age of 90. …

The author wrote much of his work together with his wife Franca Rame. The Nobel Prize which he received in 1997, he called “our prize”. …

Fo based himself in his work on the Italian Commedia dell’arte, improvisational comedy mocking authorities. In his work he mocked popes, politicians and the Mafia.

He was indicted more than forty times for insult or defamation, and was arrested several times on stage. Because of his political activities he was not allowed in the United States and was censored for a long time by Italian television broadcasters.

Dario Fo’s plays in Belgium: here.

Confessions of a Bibliophile tag, thanks paintdigi!

Confessions of a Bibliophile tag

My dear blogging friend paintdigi has been so kind to nominate my blog for the Confessions of a Bibliophile tag.

Thank you so much for this kind gesture!

The questions by paintdigi are:

1. What genre of literature do you stay away from?

Books glorifying wars.

2. What book do you have on the shelf and are ashamed to not have read?

Mother night, by Kurt Vonnegut.

3. What is your worst habit as a reader?

Sometimes reading the final chapter before the first chapters.

4. Do you usually read the synopsis before reading the book?


5. What is the most expensive book from your bookshelf?

Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia.

6. Do you buy used books?


7. What is your preferred library (physical)?

The university library.

8. What is your favorite online bookstore?

I don’t buy online.

9. You have a budget (monthly) to buy books?

No, it varies very much from month to month.

My questions are the same as paintdigi’s ones.

My nominees are:

1. Bette A. Stevens, Maine Author

2. Gronda Morin

3. Anti-Fascist News

4. Universe Unexplored

5. Small World, Smaller Girl

6. Greek Canadian Literature

7. Առլեն Շահվերդյան. հեղինակային բլոգ-կայք

8. It Is What It Is

9. Denisa Aricescu

10. Contemporary women

Seventeenth-century poetess’ wedding ring discovered

Maria Tesselschade's wedding ring

Translated from Dutch NOS TV:

Experts agree: diamond ring is Maria Tesselschade’s wedding ring

Today, 15:34

A diamond ring and a shoe found during archaeological research in Alkmaar belonged “with probability bordering on certainty” to 17th century poetess Maria Tesselschade.

Her father, the ship owner Roemer Visscher, named her Tesselschade (“Damage on Tessel/Texel”), because he had lost a ship near Texel island on Christmas day 1593, three months before her birth.

Experts have established this. Almost certainly the ring was her wedding ring.

Maria Tesselschade [Roemer’s] Visscher (1594-1649) was part of the Muiderkring group, to which famous writers like Huijgens, Bredero and Vondel belonged. She is often described as the muse of the group.

The ring and shoe were found along with engraved glass fragments which had been previously established as Maria Tesselschade’s property.

Large fire

The finds were made in the Langestraat in Alkmaar, where she lived. The archaeological research there, where in the seventeenth century were the most expensive houses of the city, began in 2015 after a major fire during the New Year. …

From the shape of the cut [the experts] could conclude that the diamond ring was made in the 1620s. This corresponds to historical data: Maria Tesselschade married Allard Crombalch in 1623. …

‘Historic sensation’

Alkmaar Alderwoman Van de Ven today publicized the new discoveries. She calls the findings a historical sensation. “Apart from her preserved hand written correspondence so far no personal belongings of her had been found. The discoveries make a tangible picture of a very special woman.”

The archaeological finds will be on display from February 2017 at a temporary exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar.

Maria Teselschade’s most famous work is a 1642 poem about a nightingale. It concludes by saying how wonderful it is that such a small bird can sing so beautifully.