Book review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

There is a wall that seperates Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport from the neighbouring Annawadi slum in Mumbai. Along the wall are adverts for Italian floor tiles with the corporate slogan ‘Beautiful Forever’ running it’s length. This extraordinary work of narrative non-fiction is about the slum dwellers of Annawadi residing behind the ‘Beautiful Forever’ wall, hidden and without a voice, until now.

This was an undertaking of 3 years that involved documenting conversations and observations, working with translators,  using video and audio tape and verifiying data using over 3000 public records. As such, this book a testament to the value of rigorous research and the skill of a seasoned journalist who not only knows how to handle data, but can tell a ripping yarn too.

The stories of Annawadi residents are played out against a backdrop of the sorry state of the Indian justice system and of the abuse of vital resources that rarely reach those they aim to help. It is utterly hopeless and unbelievable at the same time, and nothing brings this more into focus than when one young girl ingests rat poison as a way out. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not an easy read, but you will not want to put it down when you start.

Book review: Tender Hooks by Moni Moshin

On the surface, Tender Hooks (also published as Duty Free) appears to be a light read, but it soon becomes clear that our nameless narrator’s naive judgements are vehicles for poking fun at the social norms governing Pakistan’s elite, and the inner workings of her closed circle of opinionated, Prada-wearing, back-stabbing friends. The stock subject of familial ties is also ever-present with our narrator being pulled by her shamelessly snobby Aunt Pussy into finding a wife for her ‘bore’ cousin Jonkers.

And so begin the trips to visit ‘illegible girls’ with good ‘baggrounds’ (the malapropisms are perfectly selected and made me laugh out loud). The wedding circuit holds the key to Jonkers’ second marriage, and proves fertile ground for acerbic monologues. When she sees one of her closest friends at the biggest wedding of the year, she simply can’t help herself:

Mulloo was wearing a sequenced sari I’d seen twenty times before and so much of blush that she looked as if she’d just been given two tight slaps. A thin little choker with tiny, tiny diamonds was buried in roles of fat in her throat. She grinned at me. I wondered if I should tell her that she had lipstick on her teeth. She noted my necklace with her slitty little eyes but didn’t compliment. Typical.

Wealthy, cocooned, and oblivious to how bitchy she is, she still manages to perceive herself as a kind-hearted woman of the people who lets ‘buygones be buygones.’

Knowledge of social norms in South Asia will probably make reading some of the scenarios more rewarding, and you can see the plot turns coming from some distance, but that doesn’t take anything away from them when they arrive. It is a cleverly written satire with a strong voice, and a blessed relief too from reading South Asian fiction about family dynasties and war. Funny, biting, clever.

Review: Count Arthur Strong, Somebody Up There Licks Me, Harrogate Theatre, March 2015

I absolutely love Count Arthur Strong. I discovered him on Radio 4 when I was doing my PhD – a wonderful distraction from the months of coding and analysis – and I’ve been a loyal fan ever since. During his Command Performance in 2012, I thought there wasn’t a wasted word or movement in the stage show, and the Count has since come to life on our screens and so the visual cues and facial expressions are even more honed.

The Count’s most recent tour – Somebody Up There Licks Me – has had excellent reviews, so I won’t repeat the sentiment here, except to say that the reviews are well deserved. Instead, I’m going to try and push you towards his earlier work – the genius that is his radio performances.

Radio is a great medium for visualising the chaos he leaves in his wake. Sit back and listen to the Count’s blood pressure rise at the slightest question, comment or conversation that he can’t quite grasp, his twisted logic and blundering conversations, his claims to fame (Juliet Bravo and ‘that vet programme All Things Bright and Beautiful’), his links with stars like Danny La Rue, Anita Harris and Edward Woodwardwardward, to name a few.

Sit curled up with your cocoa as you’re introduced to his long suffering friends – Wilf the butcher (who unwittingly hosts a book reading for him in his shop), Geoffrey the church hall caretaker (forced to engage with the many, many auditions and revues organised by the Count), Gerry the cafe owner (never has taking a breakfast order been so stressful) and Sue the regular at the Shoulder of Mutton (will she ever be able to have a quiet drink?).

Bartering, queuing and conversations with customer services departments are the staple of his annoyance with everyday life. Then there are the inexplicably frequent events to which he is invited, woven together with a thread of delusion and self-importance that is the hallmark of the Count.

From the smallest of errands at post offices and libraries, through to appointments at hospitals and opticians, and grand days out, there is not a moment of everyday life that doesn’t descend into farce and borderline horror. The range of ‘incidents’ span a cookery show on cable TV (Ready Steady Dinner with a cabbage, package of ginger nuts, half a bottle of vodka, packet of odour-eaters and chewing gum), a murder mystery evening (comedy gold), a book reading (a ‘cricketly acclaimed’ book), ‘Piddler on the roof’ (the title says it all I think), and various speeches at universities and WI events (after a wee tipple of course). The best moment for me was when he thought a full Brazilian was a type of breakfast (‘I know that’s real cos someone on the estate’s had one of those’). Priceless.

A second wind for The Living Library

About a year ago, I thought I had given my final live reading from The Living Library. What a journey it had been: 2 years of working on a personal project, in between writing, researching and training full time was an ordeal. What started as a simple ‘might be nice to do this’ activity after work had mushroomed into a mammoth project spawning blogs and features on my residency, a prologue to my book, over 400 pictures, interviews with dozens of people, over 30,000 words in notes, a book proposal, a couple of live readings and me becoming a volunteer news reader for KR Talking News. In short, Kirklees took a punt on me, and the punt has paid off. It’s been a fruitful relationship, not least because I think the library service relies on my fines to keep the lending library ticking over.

Just after I did my last reading, I attended a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians (Northern region) where we all discussed what we could do with the pile of information I had gathered. We’d been unsuccessful in an Arts Council application, which in a way freed us to be as creative as we wanted with the material. The Chiefs were hungry for something to use, so we thought about producing podcasts from the stories I had gathered. But we needed money to hire the studio and pay the technicians to record them. After doing the equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa for loose change, the Chiefs found some money. It was the tiniest sprinkling of pixie dust sent from the heavens.

Life and my new job took over and, to my shame, I haven’t touched the manuscript since that meeting last December, so the podcasts have taken a back seat. That was until I was invited back as a guest speaker at an annual library event celebrating the contribution young volunteers make to library projects. I shared my experiences of volunteering overseas, as well as extracts from my dusty manuscript, and the brilliant response from the audience, as well as the kindness, humour and support of the library staff reminded me why I started this project in the first place. My daily mantra is: I will finish those podcasts and get them recorded. So now I have a second wind, and I hope it helps me finish what I started. Of course, the real moral of this story is how pixies are so very generous with their dust and how they never lose faith in you.

“Can you say something inspiring?” said the lovely lady from the library.

“Can you say something inspiring?” said the lovely lady from the library.

“Er…inspiring? Er…”

“Yes! You know, about your volunteering experience, and your library project and how it’s helped your career?”

“Er…I’ll do my best.” And here it is, an edited version of my 20 minute keynote speech at an event celebrating the achievements of young volunteers who have helped Kirklees libraries in recent weeks:

Can I start by saying what a great thing it is that you’ve done by volunteering at the library. Volunteering can be hard. I know, I’ve done it. You give your time, your energy, your passion for the subject and your skills to an organisation who, in this case, really couldn’t have done that particular thing without you. Sometimes, in the chaos of the day, it feels as if you get very little recognition in return, but that’s only if you end up volunteering in a company that doesn’t really understand what you can bring to an organisation, or how best to nurture you. I happen to think that you’ve hit the jackpot by volunteering at the library, but then I’m biased. Continue reading

A small, excited audience with Jhumpa Lahiri

You could feel the excitement contained in the tiny 8th floor lobby at Broadcasting House. Thirty of us had gathered to listen to the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri – a woman whose short stories are so powerful and evocative that you believe she is writing about your own life – being interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for the World Book Club. The experience taught me one thing: be careful about putting someone on a pedestal.

Harriett Gilbert was a delight; animated and gracious and sporting a very cool tie. It’s a shame that her warmth wasn’t matched by her interviewee. It’s not unusual to read about Jhumpa Lahiri being reserved or distant and luckily this doesn’t take away from her exceptional talent and maturity as a writer (and she’s only human, after all). In spite of her coolness in demeanour, there is a genuine depth in her explanations. She spoke of writing about profound shifts and of growth and loss, nodding once again to her two favourite authors William Trevor (she is nourished by his short stories) and Flannery O’Connor. Writing for Jhumpa Lahiri is seldom an intellectual process, but rather intuitive. In the interview she describes vividly how she inhabited Ruma’s father (in Unaccustomed Earth) and wanted to know and write his side of the story.

The questions from the audience were great, but she neatly sidestepped any real discussion on writing about wealthy, academic migrant experiences, instead of writing about the skilled, educated migrants who end up ‘driving taxis and cleaning’. I guess she’s earned the privilege of never really having to justify what she chooses to write about, as her writing is no longer ‘young’. What’s clear is that she understands her craft, not the craft of writing and owns it wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Such is the conviction of a seasoned award-winning writer – listen for yourself.

Review: Danny Bhoy’s boutique gig, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oct 2012

“Wow, this is intimate. More of a workshop. A boutique gig,” said the smiley, gangly comedian as he sauntered onto the stage. True enough, this wasn’t the sell out crowd that he’s used to, but then “Tuesday’s always a bad day for comedy.”

We first saw Danny Bhoy 11 years ago, at his first Edinburgh Fringe show, where he made us laugh until our stomachs ached. He even made himself laugh, a sign that he really enjoys what he does. Since then, his success in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America shows that he hasn’t rested on his laurels, but used the ticks and foibles of these cultures to form the bedrock of his polished performances.

This tour is a departure from what he’s done before. In this, his Dear Epson tour (specially prepared for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe), he draws on the comedic well of ‘letters to corporations that have pissed you off.’ The letters are clever, and there’s a loose storyline that connects them, but his strongest material is still his observational comedy based on his upbringing and Scottish culture.

He’s amiable, with a gentle and subtle delivery, and an easy patter with his audience. And he hasn’t aged one bit; he still has a boyish, handsome face. The gaggle of Asian girls behind us were clearly trying to catch his attention with crap heckles. “I like these hit and run heckles,” he said, not realising that it was their attempt at flirting. A lucky escape for Bhoy.