“Liverpool has always made me brave, choice-wise. It was never a city that criticised anyone for taking a chance.” (David Morrissey)

This week I’m spending a few days in the beautiful city of Liverpool, a place whose frankly bonkers mix of ridiculously over the top neo-classicist buildings at every turn, alongside strictly utilitarian constructions harking back to their industrial past, fair warms the cockles of my heart. So for this post I thought I’d look at a couple of writers who are proud Scousers.

Firstly, the writer who immediately sprung to mind when I thought of Liverpool, the wonderful Beryl Bainbridge.  The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) is one of the five of Dame Beryl’s novels nominated for the Booker, which she never won because the patriarchy who dominated critics and committees consistently underestimated her writing and subject matter, why is a mystery.

I love Beryl’s face so much I couldn’t limit myself to one picture 🙂

The titular outing is undertaken by a group of workers from a wine-bottling factory. Freda has organised it because she has designs on the heir to the business, Vittorio. Brenda, her flatmate and frenemy, does not want to go, and never wanted to work there in the first place.

“Patiently Freda explained that it wasn’t a bottle factory, it was a wine factory – that they would be working alongside simple peasants who had culture and tradition behind them. Brenda hinted she didn’t like foreigners – she found them difficult to get on with. Freda said it proved how puny a person she was, in mind and body.

‘You’re bigoted,’ she cried. ‘And you don’t eat enough.’

To which Brenda did not reply.”

Freda and Brenda are very different. Freda is a one-woman hurricane, sweeping aside anything in her path. Brenda is being molested by one of the managers and doesn’t know how to stop it:

“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it. If she was offered another piece of cake and she wanted it she was obliged to refuse out of politeness. And if she didn’t want it, she had to say yes, even if it choked her.”

Needless to say, all of this will come to a head during the day of the works outing…

If you like Beryl Bainbridge, you’ll like this, as in many ways it is typical of her. A short novel, the story told in simple language which belies its deeply disturbing subject matter. And that subject matter is human beings.  Bainbridge turns her unsentimental eye on relationships between people and finds them unpredictable and unsettling. At every turn, horror is narrowly avoided.

“Brenda wanted to say that she looked like a long-distance lorry driver in the sheepskin coat, that she was a big fat cow, that she had wobbled like a jelly on the back of the funeral horse. She wanted to hurt her, watch her smooth round face crumple. But when it came to it, all she could murmur was, ‘Sometimes you’re very difficult to live with.’”

Until it isn’t. When the horror strikes, it feels both inevitable and deeply shocking. Bainbridge is breathtakingly brilliant, I’d forgotten how much so. She sees everything as slightly warped and off-kilter, and for the duration of her short, punchy novels, you are right there with her. She’s never a comfortable read, but she’s always a compelling one.

A little curiosity for you. Before she turned to writing Beryl was an actor.  Here she is in soap opera/national institution Coronation Street:

Secondly, a poet who writes for both kids and adults, and as such his witty verse has followed me throughout my life (including to my Dad’s wedding where I read Vow). Roger McGough, alongside Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, is one of of the Liverpool poets. He also performed as part of Scaffold, with John Gorman and brother-of-Paul, Mike McCartney. Impressive sideburn alert:

I’ve chosen a quick poem, by no means his best, but I saw Mike McCartney read this live once when I was about 12 or so; it was probably the first of McGough’s adult poetry I heard, and its stuck with me ever since.  Also, a play I saw at the Everyman while I was here – a theatre McGough helped make part of the Liverpool scene  – included a song & dance about the death of Maggie Thatcher, so his leftist politics are at the forefront of my mind.

Conservative Government Unemployment Figures by Roger McGough

Conservative Government?

Unemployment?

Figures.

A tweetable poem written years before the advent of twitter. With a UK general election looming, I’ll leave you to decide if it’s still relevant or not…

To end, the man himself, replete with lyrical Scouse accent, reading his poem with the irresistible title of Mafia Cats:

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“That’s why I have a lot of love and good energy in me – that universal energy is a Ghanaian thing.” (Stormzy)

6 March this year was the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from British rule.

Celebrations are going on throughout the year and those of you who follow Darkowaa’s excellent blog African Book Addict! will have seen her 3-part series GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books which looked at 75 Ghanaian writers and certainly caused my TBR to reach even more astronomical heights. As an attempt to reduce the mountain by at least 2, this week I’m looking at 2 novels by writers of Ghanaian heritage. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Happy Anniversary Ghana!

Firstly, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize (as it then was) and the Booker, and won the Giller Prize. Narrated by jazz musician Sid Griffiths, it tells the story of jazz prodigy Hieronymous Falk, a 19 year old ‘Mischling’ (half white European, half black African) and the band he plays in, trying to carry on working in Europe under threat from the Nazis during the Second World War. The narrative shifts between 1939-40 in the build up to when Hiero is arrested and sent to a concentration camp; and 1992, where Sid and his frenemy Chip attend a documentary about Hiero and then undertake a journey to Poland.

“See, Half Blood Blues, 3 min 33 secs, is almost all I got out of that time. I ain’t sore about it. Ain’t no glory made from being dependable. But it started Chip’s career a second time. Jolted the man awake again. And, well, it made Hiero one of them most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.”

The documentary and journey force Sid to look back on probably the most complex, confusing time of his life. He was a young man, there was sexual jealousy and musical rivalry, and there is survivors’ guilt. Sid could pass for white and had fake papers, but at what price?

“So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed like we’d passed right out of own skins.”

Edugyan captures the terror of living under Nazi occupation while the band await papers to get them out of France:

“I was crying soundlessly. I dragged my damn face against my sleeve, feeling ashamed. I ain’t never thought fear had a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it.”

She also writes evocatively about the music of the band, something which is essentially impossible to capture in words:

“Wasn’t like nothing I ever heard before. The kid came in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal.”

Half Blood Blues offers a well-researched, evocative portrayal of a time that has been well-documented but from a perspective that has been underrepresented: black experience in World War II. Hiero remains an enigma throughout the tale and so we don’t hear of black experience in the concentration camps but rather as artists declared enemies of the state. The novel never falters under the weight of its research however, and it is psychologically astute:

“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”

Sid does not behave well at times and his selfish actions have tragic ramifications. However, Edugyan is merciful to her characters and ultimately Half Blood Blues is about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance of ourselves and others. I found the end really moving which meant I got a little teary on the tube – but there’s usually someone having a cry on the Underground so it drew very little attention 😉

Secondly, Homegoing, the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi (2016). Recently I’ve found that contemporary novels garnering hype and rapturous reviews are leaving me distinctly underwhelmed so I approached Homegoing with some trepidation. But I will add to the hype surrounding this novel by suggesting I think it deserved #ALLTHEPLAUDITS. It was hugely ambitious, and I thought Gyasi totally pulled it off, which is just astonishing considering it’s her first novel.

It begins in the eighteenth century with separated sisters in the Gold Coast (part of modern day Ghana):

“in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia is taken to a fort, The Castle, to become the mistress of a British commander (ie slave trader):

“her whole life Baaba had beat her and made her feel small, and she had fought back with her beauty, a silent weapon, but a powerful one, which had led her to the feet of a chief.”

Her sister Esi meanwhile, is trapped in the dungeons of The Castle, to be exported as part of the slave trade.

“[He] had grown accustomed to the smell of shit, but fear was one smell that would stand out forever. It curled his nose and brought tears to his eyes, but he had learned long ago how to keep himself from crying.”

They don’t know about one another, and subsequent chapters alternate between the stories of their descendants, some in Ghana, some in the United States. Each generation is tracked through, and Gyasi demonstrates that just because slavery ends, the subjugation and marginalisation of people of colour does not.

“The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well.”

Gyasi’s ambition is huge: Homecoming tracks over 200 years of history to demonstrate how the legacy of slavery survives to this day.  That she does this through a compelling story with people you care about despite only being with them for a chapter marks her out as a formidable storyteller.

 “the need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad’, this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

At times I found Homecoming an almost unbearable read. The injustice, the violence, the depravity of what human beings can do to one another, turning a blind eye in the acquisition of money, made it an incredibly tough read in places. Gyasi does not dwell on violence, but nor does she shy away from the realities of what she is depicting.

 “The older Jo got, the more he understood…that sometimes staying free required unimaginable sacrifice.”

Gyasi is a huge talent, and a writer with something important to say. I’m really excited to see what she does next.

Happy 60th Birthday Ghana!