Saturday, 31 July 2010

Book Review: The Somnambulist



Back in late 2006 I was asked by Gollancz if I would review a new novel they were going to publish. The idea was that my short text would be included on the cover or just inside so should be informative but with a restricted word count. In the end, they didn't use my blurb, so it never saw the light of day. But lucky you... I've just found the original text and thought I'd re-present it here. Enjoy.

The Somnambulist,  by Jonathan Barnes, reads like a first novel... impressive, gripping, funny, and full of the author’s every creative idea and vocabulary. It’s not for the light-hearted. There are twists and turns, truth and lies, and that’s just between narrator and reader. Barnes has pulled together half-remembered images from the collective consciousness and crafted a tale more possibly aimed at playing with the reader’s mind than the characters within it. Confused? Wait till you read the book. You’ll either love it or hate it, I doubt there’ll be any middle ground.

I read this book of spies and magic, intrigue and action, perversion and murder in a single session. If I needed a break, the narrator sensed this and taunted me to read on. Just when I thought I knew where the plot was going, he admitted a lie and changed direction. As the villain of the piece tries to manipulate events in the narrative, so too the narrator manipulates the reader. A curious thing indeed. Made more so by his pre-empting any criticism of style and elegance in storytelling with apology or bravado. This is not a book you’ll forget in a long time.

But what of the characters? A bizarre freak show you feel you’ve met somewhere before. Barnes seems to have borrowed elements from all over the genre, incorporating them in post-Victorian London in a familiar yet disturbing way. Hints of Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein, shadows of the Rue Morgue, with a nod to She-Hulk. All these elements  flow (bizarrely) together, driven by a thesaurus-wielding sadist (with a curious sense of humour). His use of language is almost poetic and often leaves the reader feeling impotent, only to then spell out the mundane (hands up who knows what the London Monument is?)

Definitely an enGROSSing read.


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Monday, 26 July 2010

What do we fear?




As an artist I grew up fearing going blind. Not that there was any risk of it mind, just too much idle time during which I would contemplate what it would be like if I were to lose a limb or sense. My reasoning, as it was as a teenager, was that losing an arm or leg wouldn't bother me much... I could live with loss of hearing... I wouldn't be aware of insanity... but loss of vision would have been the end of the world!

I'm not sure if any other artists out there had similar fears in their childhood, but to me the fear was a constant companion. So how do I feel now about it, given my current disability?

Back in 2006 I was at the top of my game teaching in a local comprehensive. I had everything going for me, when out of the blue I lost my sight.

Now you would probably imagine that I would have freaked out, given my childhood phobia, but no... I was unfazed and managed to continue teaching the lesson without pause. Only 2 people in the room noticed that something had happened: my TA, and a pupil because her mother is bipolar (although I didn't see the connection). For any of you wondering, my vision returned before the end of the lesson after about 50 minutes.

So why wasn't I panicking during those 50 minutes? All I can say is that curiosity got the better of me. That is to say, that when I lost my sight, it was not because everything went black... rather, everything went white. Now all through my childhood I had associated blindness with darkness and void. But what happened to me during the lesson, was quite the opposite: yes I had lost all vision, but instead all I could see was whiteness.

For some reason, this whiteness was not fearful. It had the same net effect of blindness-with-darkness in that I could no longer see, but I was not scared. This leads me to believe that loss of sight was not what I was really afraid of for all those years, rather it was a fear of void. Loneliness... loss of control... abandonment... who knows? All I can ask is that having briefly experienced sudden blindness, but not expecting vision to return, and it not being the end of the world... does this mean that I no longer fear this state?

The answer is: No.

While the threat of white-blindness still doesn't scare me, the threat of dark-blindness still sends a shiver through me. Is this just because of the legacy of my childhood fear... or is it something else altogether?


[image : King Crimson album cover art - 'In the Court of the Crimson King' by Barry Godber 1969]


Friday, 2 July 2010

Are the Poles celebrating 'Battle of Britain' week?




In case you weren't aware, at this moment 60 years ago Britain was waging its most important battle in the skies above our homes. Forever remembered as the 'Battle of Britain' this marked an important turning point in the war against Hitler, and you can now follow its daily progress in real-time at http://www.1940chronicle.com// (thanks to Stephen Fry for the link).

So why am I writing a blog about it... and why am I talking about Poles in this title? The answer is simple:

For those readers unaware of my ethnicity, I was born in the NorthWest of England to WWII immigrants who found themselves displaced from home after the war. As you can tell by my name, my father was Polish. Like many Poles, he fought alongside the British to defeat the Nazis, and saw much bloodshed and lost many friends and family. He is the reason for this post.

As I was growing up, I knew my father to be a quiet and thoughtful man. Although I knew he fought in the war, he would not talk about it... except to joke how his ability to speak so many foreign languages (he was fluent in 11) was something he learned in the beds of young ladies as he passed through their countries. I later learned that this was in fact not true, but a mask he used to avoid his true feelings concerning the war.

I won't go into any detail here of his childhood and the war (I'm still compiling his war memoirs from his notes) except to remark on why this week in history makes me think of him.

When he was the age my daughter is now, he watched the slaughter of friends and family in the streets as Hitler and Stalin rounded up 'undesirables'. He was lucky inasmuch as while his friends and family were sent to the camps or executed, he was instead drafted into the Polish-now-Russian army to make rebellion difficult. The idea was that if neighbours were rounding up Poles instead of Russians, then maybe it would be more acceptable. My father hated being put into this position to the day he died, and rather than do this he planned to desert.

To cut a long story short (as this post is a long one), he successfully (but not without incident) deserted the Russian army and found himself among others waiting for sea transport to England to join the British Airforce. Now just before transport arrived, he and many others became fatally ill. This resulted in the sick and dying being left behind, as the healthy departed to become pilots in the 303 and other squadrons. As fate would have it, he and a friend survived the illness (although its legacy would plague him for the rest of his life, ultimately killing him) and he found himself transferred to the Polish II Corps within the British 8th Army to join Montgomery and the Tanks making its way across North Africa and Europe, fighting at Monte Cassino (http://bit.ly/KIlwm) before ending up in England to the news of the exploits of his Polish friends in the airforce, particularly the 303 Squadron (http://bit.ly/qxNYy).



So why ponder the question as to whether the Poles would be celebrating the 'Battle of Britain'?

Returning to the man I knew as I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, I was unaware of his part in the war. Even when a long lost relative (believed dead) reappeared having survived Auschwitz, he was still taciturn. The only true emotion he could not hide was the bitterness and anger he felt... not towards the Axis, but towards the British authorities.

I could understand his anger at Hitler and Stalin, but not his venom towards the British government. In hindsight, I now fully understand - and share - his anger for the way the Poles were treated immediately following the end of the war. Hence the title of this blog.

Everyone knows the importance the 'Battle of Britain' had in deciding the outcome of WWII, and it has long been remembered in history and celluloid. As I was growing up I was taught, and watched films, all extolling the heroism of the British pilots who "single-handedly won the war for the Polish". And as any Polish descendant, I was very proud to be British, and could not see why my father appeared ungrateful. After all, wasn't it because of "Johnners" and "Spiffy" with their flying caps and scarves who against all odds defeated the Hun in the air for him?

It wasn't really until the late '70s that I started to become aware of what was making my father quietly angry. It was the Queen's Silver Jubilee... celebrations and street parties were everywhere, differences were forgotten and all were welcome (or so I believed). For some strange reason, my parents wanted to celebrate this event privately, rather than step outside and join all our neighbours in the street. Being a naive child I couldn't see why, so I took my younger siblings outside to join in.

We were forcibly stopped. "You are not welcome" we were told, and made to return home.

We were forced to remain in our home by our neighbours because we were "foreigners". Even more, the older neighbours even cited the war, blaming my father and the Poles for "letting Hitler start the war" and doing "nothing to defeat him except leaving the British to do it all for them".

At the time, I knew nothing of Monte Cassino, D-Day or the Battle of Britain - except the official line of the "brave sacrifice of Englishmen on behalf of the Poles". Now I know the truth, and heartfeltly hope that the historical injustice of the Poles' role in the war, and the debt of gratitude this nation owes becomes well known.

At the time, the role of the 303 Squadron was legendary in being pivotal in winning the 'Battle of Britain'. These Poles were heroes and celebrities. Everyone in the country knew just how indebted it was for this small group of Polish men. But when the war ended, something changed...

Stalin was now a 'friend' of Britain, and instead of Poland being liberated as a result of winning the war, it was instead 'given' to the Russians... those same Russians who had rounded up and executed my father's family and friends. I cannot explain how this betrayal felt to the Poles and my father.

Not only this, but any Poles trying to return home after the war were shot... including members of the 303. My father's own home town no longer existed and was now a Russian town, and he was notified that he was "Polish no longer" and had to return to Russia to stand trial for desertion as a Russian. He did not oblige.

To add more insult to injury to the valiant Poles who had fought and died on behalf of the British, history was re-written and the roles the Poles played were excised. Where once the 303 stood proud as the defenders of the nation, they no longer were recognised. The thousands of Poles who died defending Britain were immediately forgotten, and history books now showed that the Poles played no part in the war.

Once celebrated as heroes for what they did in the 'Battle of Britain', the 303 and other Poles were told to "go home, you're not welcome here" although there was no home to return to... only a firing squad. And this attitude pervaded all through my childhood. Suddenly, the pilots were transformed into English men and a new National Pride was established at the Poles' expense.

The final insult came when the nation held a spectacular military parade to celebrate all the brave men and women who fought in the war. Air, sea and land were represented as thousands of every colour paraded though London: English, Scottish, Welsh, American, Indian, African, etc... even the Russians! In fact, every single nation that were at some point allied in the war against Hitler which was started by destroying Poland were cheered as they marched...

Every nation except the Poles.

The Poles were banned from the parade and kept away. The 303 who should've been at the top of the parade were denied access. The survivors of Monte Cassino were denied. No Pole was represented. And why? Because it was felt that to acknowledge the role of the Poles in the war both as victims and as heroes would upset Stalin.

So my father, after surviving Monte Cassino, losing this country, his family and his friends, was now an outcast from history along with his fellow Poles, who was now expected to be grateful for being betrayed and abandoned. He also had to watch as his children grew up learning how the Poles "did nothing" in the war, were laughed at for using horses against tanks, and was the victim of institutionalised racism. Something that particularly made him angry was the casual use of the phrase "Polish Concentration Camps killing Jews" which implies that the Poles were responsible, or collaborated with the Nazis, in killing Jews... when in reality, the camps were 'Nazi Concentration Camps to exterminate Poles, many of whom were Jewish'.

So when an anniversary such as this comes around, I can't help but wish that the role of the Poles is acknowledged, and that apologies are offered to these valiant men and women who for decades have continued to suffer in silence... like my father. He never did put down the British or their war effort, but he internalised all his pain and bitterness till the very end. This is why I ask the question: "Are the Poles celebrating 'Battle of Britain' week?"

[Photo of the 303 Squadron and the Squadron Insignia]



If you'd like to hear more about the 303, watch this Channel 4 documentary: Bloody Foreigners