A politician’s memoirs

My most recent blogs have been about women, their power, resilience and resourcefulness. This week I want to share with you, my thoughts about a couple of books I read recently which are written by a man, Labour politician Alan Johnson, but which I think, are very much about the women in his life, their power, resilience and resourcefulness. His two volume memoir is very much a tribute to those women – his mother, his sister and his ex-wife.

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I am an admirer of Johnson (for many the best leader the Labour party never had, very pertinent in the present circumstances!) and he was, in my view, one of the few honest, credible voices in the recent EU Referendum campaign. I read This Boy, the first volume of his memoir some time ago, and picked up Please, Mister Postman, the second volume, in my local Oxfam Bookshop earlier this year. This Boy covers Johnson’s childhood, growing up in abject poverty in derelict post-war west London, up to the age of 18, and is fascinating reading. Johnson has a warm conversational style that really draws you in. He paints a vivid picture of the hardships of his childhood and the squalor in which he and his irrepressible sister grew up.

The account is powerful without being emotional. Johnson has no self-pity, but you sense his deep resentment that his mother endured such hardship for so long and died tragically young, without having realised her, let’s be honest, very modest dream of her own front door. Whilst there is little hint here of the embryonic politician – he was more interested in music and football – there is a clear path from the deprived, urban upbringing, with its straitened circumstances and injustices, to the left-leaning politician he would become.

What comes through most strongly in the book is Johnson’s love and respect for the two women who dominated his early life. First, his mother, Lily, a humble woman neglected and then abandoned by her feckless husband (Johnson barely conceals his contempt for the man who was his father) and left to provide for two young children in London, hundreds of miles from her native Liverpool. Like many women of her generation, Lily’s ambitions were modest; simply getting through the daily travails of life took all her energy and willpower. Feminism will have meant very little to her despite the fact that she probably did more to demonstrate the resourcefulness and strength of the female than many of her modern counterparts. Lily’s poor health eventually got the better of her and she died prematurely, leaving her two teenage children tragically early. Second, Johnson’s phenomenally resourceful sister Linda, a tower of moral and emotional strength to the family. Linda is a remarkable presence and Johnson’s love and admiration for her shine through.

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Do you ever give up on a book?

So much to read, so little time! But ever since I was very young, I have found it very difficult to give up on things; once I’ve made a commitment I see it through to the end. I guess this makes me quite a loyal person, but perhaps it has not always in my best interests! I’m the same with books, once I’ve started I tend to keep pushing on, even if I’m not enjoying it much. I’m always hopeful that it will improve, or I try to be positive and look for the value and virtues in a book. I also know how hard it is to write one, so I keep going partly out of respect too.

Do you always keep going with a book you’re not enjoying?

Miss Carter's War imgI had very mixed feelings reading Miss Carter’s War. I love Sheila Hancock: she published this, her first novel, at the age of 81 (which encourages me greatly!) and still has the energy to speak out for what she believes in – many of you will no doubt have seen her speak in the TV debates on the EU Referendum where she gave one of the most eloquent and passionate arguments for Remain that I saw throughout the entire campaign, and was one of the few people I saw truly engaging an audience. At 83 she is magnificent! However,  I’m afraid I was disappointed with the book and had to work hard to keep going with it.

I attended a publicity talk for this book at the 2014 Manchester Literature Festival. Sheila is a very engaging speaker and her interviewer, broadcaster Jenni Murray (whom I also love), expressed great praise for it. I bought it, even though I felt it probably wasn’t my usual thing. This is not necessarily a problem, but when the work is of a lower standard it makes it hard to persevere. Had it not been written by Sheila I doubt it would have been published.

The novel opens with our beautiful and brilliant heroine, Marguerite, graduating from Cambridge, unusual for a woman at that time. She is half French, half English, and has had a mysterious role in the French resistance in the war, working for the British, having been sent here by her underground intellectual parents, whom, we find out, were killed by the Nazis. Brief cryptic descriptions of her wartime activities are dotted throughout the novel for the purpose of illuminating Marguerite’s perspective on contemporary events…I think, although sometimes this is a little clumsy.

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Women and survival

Earlier in the week, I blogged about completing the Race for Life with my two daughters. I’ve been pondering a great deal about women recently and am fascinated that we might soon see a political first in this country – the three largest political parties in the UK all led by women! And perhaps the first female US President later in the year? Tantalising.

Europe has also been at the forefront of my mind, as it has in most of my social circle too. So, with all that in mind, I thought I’d like to tell you about A Woman in Berlin. No, it’s not a biography of Angela Merkel! It is a war diary, written anonymously in the aftermath of the fall of Berlin to Russian forces in 1945.

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My husband suggested I read this book. It was adapted for film in 2008, which we had watched, and he bought the book soon after. The film was powerful, but my husband found the book even more so. It tells the story of how the remaining population of Berlin, left behind after the fall of Hitler, broken, abandoned and disillusioned, goes about the daily challenge of survival amidst the ruins of their once great city.

Part of the survival contract, for the women at least, is meeting the sexual needs of their new Russian masters. At first, we can see how this is psychologically devastating to the women, terrifying to the mothers of teenage daughters and emasculating to the rump indigenous male population. The author writes about the details of violent rapes carried out by Russian soldiers from all ranks. Some of the sexual encounters are frenzied; many of these men have had no contact with women for months, sometimes years. They have been brutalised by war and by the actions they have seen the Nazis take in their own country, are half-starved and exhausted from fighting, and most of the lower-ranking soldiers seem to be peasants, snatched from their simple lives and with no idea how to relate to their middle-class German captives.

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Girl power!

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Last Sunday, I and my two daughters (aged 10 and 12) completed the Tatton Park 5k Race for Life. I’m not a runner, it’s not really my thing, and, frankly, I will find any excuse not to go for my once or twice weekly jog round my neighbourhood. But something propelled me to register for the Race for Life, an event which is now held in different locations up and down the country and which has been established in Tatton Park for a number of years now.

Race for Life is a powerful brand which started out, I believe, to raise awareness of breast cancer. Each year these events raise many millions of pounds for charity and this financial input is critical to the global fight against cancer.

Cancer touches most of us these days; I lost my father to lung cancer six years ago. A dear friend lost a parent to the disease just last week. In your RfL pack is a card where you can write the names of people you are running for which you pin to your tee-shirt. Running the race, it was striking how many people had multiple names on their cards. For many of those running, it will have been an exercise less in fitness and more in catharsis. Many were running in groups, perhaps having lost a friend, taken too early, or in support of a friend still fighting. It was emotional.

The other aspect of the RfL which is so striking is the sense of the power of the feminine. I was kind of expecting this, it being a female only event. I applied with my daughters because I thought it would be something we could do together, the girls in the family. But I could never have explained to them in advance how that sense of women’s collective voice, authority  and dynamism would impact on them. It was tangible and they felt it.

We ran with a friend and her daughter and our husbands came along. It was a brilliant day for them too and all the men present were so supportive, so proud and so…secondary. They knew they were in the presence of something awesome. #pinkarmy

There are still a number of RfLs still to go up and down the country during the month of July. It’s not too late to register. I’d recommend it!




Quite possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read

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I finished this book at the end of half term on a trip to Italy for a dear friend’s vow renewal ceremony. I was tavelling alone, without the family, and it was wonderful to be able to read the last quarter of the book in long sessions, which I think was a good way to approach it. Time alone also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the book’s content. And to take a breather after the emotional battering I felt it dealt me!

It is a tremendous book. A stunning achievement. It deserves every plaudit it has received and I cannot believe this did not win the Man Booker in 2015, or the Baileys Prize this Spring. I’ve yet to read the winners of both those competitions, but if they are better than this then I’m in for a treat.

The last time I enjoyed a book of this length this much was over 20 years ago when I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy over 2 days during a lonely Christmas! At 720 pages it’s daunting, but it’s a book that rewards you handsomely for your patience. It’s a similar size to War and Peace, but it’s not an epic; it’s about a single individual and the effect he has on the people who love him.

It’s set in New York and the central character is Jude St Francis. We first meet him with his three close friends Willem, Malcolm, and JB, having one of their regular get-togethers. The four friends first met in college and have remained close. When we first meet them they are all quite young and at the start of their careers, all but one of them living in economically straitened circumstances, but they are all destined to be (very!) high achievers in their chosen fields – Willem becomes an A-list screen star, JB an acclaimed artist, Malcolm a highly successful architect and Jude a successful corporate lawyer. The fact that they are all so successful and wealthy doesn’t stop you empathising with the characters, and this fact is important to the story in other ways. Themes of success, failure, expectation and disappointment are threads running through the entire novel.

(Not exactly spoilers, but some background info in the remaining paragraphs!)

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#Independent BookshopWeek

book-2869_1280With all the talk of “Independence” this week (don’t worry, I’m not going THERE) it will have escaped the notice of most people that it is Independent Bookshop Week (18-25 June).

Most of us in the UK have been watching the pennies closely in the last few years. Hobbies and interests are often the first things to suffer in a recession so it’s no surprise that book sales have fallen. The rise and rise of Amazon, and its ability to offer often huge discounts, has threatened many independent businesses, not just booksellers, and the supermarkets have got in on the act too; my local branches of the big four all now devote an entire aisle to books.

But there are some reasons to be hopeful: figures published earlier this year showed a rise in physical book sales for the first time in four years. E-book sales have plateaued showing that, whilst they have their place, most of us still prefer the visceral pleasure of paper at our fingertips. Amazon has itself become an online department store, it’s much less about books these days, and, yes, guilty as charged, I do buy some books from them, especially non-fiction or books the kids need such as academic editions. But, they’re not always cheaper, and I often find I spend more as I try to top-up my purchase to get the free postage. Where’s the saving in that?!

Waterstones dominates, and it is a very good business model. I like the way they try to bring a local feel to their stores and they are genuinely pleasurable places to be. They deserve their place in the high street.

However, we need independent bookshops and if we don’t use them we’ll lose them. It’s thought there are now fewer than 1,000 independent bookshops left in Britain, a one-third drop in 10 years. If they were a bird species they’d get funding for special protection!

Why should you use them?

  • Without them, a few large companies will dominate, and they will determine WHAT gets published and what YOU and I read. Yes, self-publishing has taken off (via Amazon), but the routes to market for writers will be severely curtailed if just a handful of companies dictate.
  • Just look at the range of available titles in that large aisle in the supermarket? Enough said.
  • Indie bookshops do more than sell books; they will advise, recommend, search for and order books for you. They often also do author talks, run book clubs and provide lovely spaces for you to explore and dip into books.
  • Bookshop owners are just small businesses trying to make a living and it’s not easy. Many have had to diversify; we often expect a posh coffee in our bookshops these days so they have had to skill-up and invest in equipment.

So, I encourage you to make a little time this weekend and pop along to your local indie bookshop, take your kids, spend some time and make a purchase.

My locals are:

Urmston Bookshop – 72 Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 5AB

Chorlton Bookshop – 506 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton, Manchester M21 9AW

I also love Magma in the Northern Quarter (22 Oldham Street, Manchester M1 1JN) for arty, design and illustrated books. A favourite at Christmas for fantastic gifts.



What’s been messing with my mojo?!

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Yes, I am! Yes, Iam!

I’m feeling rather pleased with myself after launching this Blog last week, but I’ll let you into a secret…it was supposed to happen about 6 weeks ago! It was deeply frustrating to me that I just couldn’t seem to make it happen when I planned. There were a number of excuses reasons for this failure to implement: my eldest is in Year 10 and was doing some important exams, needing a lot of support and help with revision. My other two children seemed hardly to be at school – in the 3 months from the beginning of March to the end of May there were only 7 weeks where they spent 5 days there. I found that really hard to manage. And my two girls both had birthdays, therefore expectations, therefore parties (need I say more!) Added to that we are doing a lot of work on our house this year; spring was bathrooms so we’ve been toilet-challenged and under a permanent layer of dust for 3 months.

So, we had a lot going on, that seems to be a fact of modern-day family life, but I have never before felt the same degree of inertia, like I just wasn’t moving forward on anything. And I’m afraid to say that my frustration made me somewhat irritable at times, as well as feeling like I was under-achieving on all fronts. Not very Zen.

I’ve picked up similar feelings from a lot of other women recently, including those without children. People have been talking about negative energy and general discombobulation. Is it the alignment of the planets, or even something as prosaic as the weather? Wet, dry, sticky, cool, we just don’t know where we are!

Naturally, I turned to books for a bit of help. The Confident Mother by Sherry Bevan is a quick and easy read and something you will want to go back to. It certainly helped me to accept myself as “good enough” as a mother, partner and general citizen, when I was feeling a bit low. Years ago, when my eldest was about 2 years old I bought a book called Having it All? Choices for today’s superwoman by Paula Nicholson. I didn’t even have time to finish it, that’s how super I was! Never picked it up again. Too depressing. Sherry Bevan is a bit more my cup of tea. Good enough is good enough.

I also read Shattered: modern motherhood and the illusion of equality by Rebecca Asher. If you’re a bit more politically inclined and want to knock your partner into shape then this could be the book for you. I found it a little too angry for my taste, and a bit long, if I’m honest, but if you’re into studying this kind of thing, it could be worth a read.

Read more about both these books below.

I am reassured by people, better informed than I about this kind of thing, that change is in the air. Certainly, looking at the calendar, there are a lot more white spaces available for writing, reading, work and play, and as I write this, the rain has stopped and the sun is shining.  I look forward to restoration of my mojo in the coming weeks and will keep you posted!

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The Confident Mother by Sherry Bevan

Sherry Bevan is a business confidence coach and mentor who specialises in supporting women with children starting or running their own businesses. In her work she tackles head-on the challenges women face in pursuing their vocation alongside being a mother. Unlike Rebecca Asher in Shattered, who looks at the legal, structural and cultural factors which inhibit women’s progression, Sherry looks at the emotional and confidence issues. In that sense this is more of a practical work-through book, than a campaigning book to make you angry, like Rebecca Asher’s.

Sherry organised the Confident Mother Conference in January 2015 and this book brings together the interviews from that conference. These include parenting ‘experts’, business women, wellbeing and nutritional experts and other mothers who have been through the sorts of parenting challenges that most of us do not face. Each chapter represents a separate interview. At first, I did not like this structure; I was hoping for a bit more analysis and it seemed a little contrived. But the style grew on me as the chapters became more interesting and relevant. The style also means that you can skip chapters you may not want to read without it affecting your overall appreciation of the book.

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Blog no. 1 – Hello there!

So, my very first post, on my very new blog. Hello world!

I suspect this will land with a ‘pop’ rather than a ‘bang’, but hey-ho, that is in the nature of these things.

It is apt that my inaugural post should be about two books I read recently on the theme of family, books and family being what this blog is about. Specifically, these books are about family dynamics and how they change as children grow up and parents age. Both books deal with a widowed elderly parent and the various crises, reflections and disappointments of their adult children. I was reading them simultaneously: the first, Anne Enright’s Man Booker Prize winning The Green Road, I picked up whilst browsing in my local library. I was already halfway through this when I realised that my book club was a week earlier than I was mentally prepared for, so I had to work through that month’s book, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, in the margins of a busy weekend. Fortunately, it’s the kind of book you can read quickly.

What is also interesting to me is that I read both these books just prior to my middle child’s recent 12th birthday (my eldest being 15). In recent years I have found that my children’s birthdays, rather like my own, have triggered emotional reflections on the ageing process (mine not theirs!). I am evolving out of that heady, busy, bustling, noisy, joyously grubby and very physical maelstrom characteristic of life with small children and on my horizon is a time when my kids will be young adults. That means I will no longer have control over what they’re putting into their bodies, I won’t be able to choose who their friends are and they will decide for themselves where they want to be in the world and how far away that is from home. And, most challenging for me, I will no longer have the power to make them happy, with a hug or a game or an ice lolly or a chat. That is only partly what these books are about (more so in Enright), but it’s what they made me think about.

How do you feel about your children growing up? Is there anything you’ve read recently that helps you to think about it?

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The Green Road by Anne Enright

This is the first book by Enright that I have finished; I rarely fail to complete a book, but I gave up on both The Wig My Father Wore and The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch. There was something about the way both these books were written that simply failed to engage me. It wasn’t so much that I found the language difficult, more that I felt it lacked coherence. Both of these are much earlier works, however, and in this book her writing style has certainly matured.

The green road of this book’s title is a real road in County Clare in Ireland. In the novel it represents the powerful sense of belonging to a place that all of the characters possess, not entirely happily. Rosaleen Madigan is the central matriarchal figure, a woman who married for love to a man whom it seems was her social inferior, a fact that she at times at least, seems to regret. She appears to have spent much of her middle years, when her children were growing up, ailing in bed, and only at the end of the novel, when she is an elderly woman does ‘the green road’ take her on a journey where she is confronted with the sensual memory of her love for her late husband and what he stood for.

Continue reading “Blog no. 1 – Hello there!”

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