Where in the world…?

hello-600x400Well, hi. I’m here in the world, but have not been able to work on my blog with the regularity that I like due to overload at work and home. Spring tends to be the busy time at work, and then in my non-work time, I’ve been researching a trip that I’m taking with my lovely old mum and twin sister which is fun but does take up some time and energy. (It’ll be worth it in the end, for sure.)

And you know – I have been reading. I’m just about to finish up a non-fiction called “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by medical scholar Harriet Washington. Goodness me. This has been a very difficult and serious read, not because the content is complex but because the content is true and almost too horrible to contemplate.

Washington’s thorough research seems to cover almost every instance of when the U. S. medical system has experimented on the African-American population over the years, with the (white) medical establishment doing everything from giving an unnecessary and unwanted HIV vaccine to healthy infants (without the parental consent) to digging up bodies to sell for dissection at medical schools, from lying to study participants about receiving treatment (the infamous Tuskagee study) to hideous other well documented incidents of other abuses to a population with no recourse to change any of this.

Obviously, this is a tough read for me (as it would be to anyone), and I’ve had to take some breaks – how can people be so horrible to each other (specifically to African-Americans)? – and at the same time, I think it’s important to know this history, and I’ve also been under a tight deadline to finish this since it’s an unrenewable inter-library loan. (And yes – I could have forked over the cash to buy my own copy, but I’m on a book-buying ban AND I’m learning that I’m better as a one-book-reader than trying to juggle several).

Long story short – it’s been an intense reading week and so not much time or energy for putting together a blog post. But trust me – one will be coming on this particular read as I think everyone who is aware of social justice in any form should learn about this issue. One must know the past to influence the future, I think.

I’ve also been reading “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit which is a series of hard-hitting essays on how activists have changed the world for better, even when it’s tough to see the progress. (It’s been helpful to balance the terror that has been coming out of the WH lately.)

So – some hard hitting books here, and once I’m finished with the Washington book, I’m probably going to be heading for some lighter reading to balance things out. It’s astonishing to me that there are years and years of this documented medical abuse and yet no one did anything about it. No wonder that the African-American community tends to stay away from the American health care system. I would as well if I knew that history.

So – that’s where I am at right now. What’s new, Blue’s Clues?

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Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

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A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_familyA number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

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(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and it was really interesting to me to learn that once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

A Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1946)

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

So, I finally picked up “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy,” Viktor Frankl’s mesmerizing autobiography about his time and thoughts when he was captured as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, one of the most notorious concentration camps in Germany during WWII. I’d been meaning to get to this for a very long time, but I felt that I needed to psych myself up to read it as I know it was not going to be an easy time.

Now that I’ve finished it and can reflect back on the experience, I see that it was a tough read in both the subject matter and also the philosophical discussion that is in the second half of the book, but it was hard mainly because it was true – that people had treated each other in this manner. What. The…. ?

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna during the 1930’s when Hitler came to power and instigated the horrendous concentration camps that tortured and killed millions of Jewish people (and others) at the time.

It’s a time that I find incredibly hard to understand as it’s so completely removed from anything that I would choose to do (I hope), that there seems so little overlap between the life I choose to lead and the lives of the people who ran these camps. It’s easy to judge over time and distance, but I hope to god that I would have tried to stop this whole genocide if I’d had the chance, but who’s to know? The human condition is a strange one at times.

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Back to the book: it’s basically a book in two parts, the first part detailing the three years of his life (and those of others) when Dr. Frankl was picked up and sent to Auschwitz, and then the second half, which is more of a philosophical discussion of how he made sense of the whole ordeal and came up with his school of treatment called logotherapy.

It’s an intense read, and if you’re feeling remotely sorry for yourself when you start to read this, I can almost guarantee that you will have your perspective shifted by the time you finish it. How could one compare the minor trials of life today with the lives of these prisoners who had *nothing*? Literally nothing.

It’s not an easy read, but how could it be when one considers that topic matter? What’s amazing is that anyone survived long enough to walk out of the camps when the final day of freedom arrived. (You’ll need to read Frankl’s description of how some of the prisoners reacted when the gates of the camp were first opened…. It’s incredibly powerful to read.)

So, Frankl discusses his ideas on the meaning of life for himself and others, and concludes that life has meaning to be found in every moment of living and that it never ceases to have meaning, even when one is suffering profoundly.

This is the concept of “tragic optimism” — that no matter how terrible life can be, it only ceases to have meaning when there is no hope for change in the future. Once the hope is gone, then life is over – that love is the ultimate and highest goal that (hu)man can aspire to.

To me, the book seems to be about the importance of deriving meaning from suffering – that one suffers only so that you should learn from it to be a better person and if one loses sight of that goal, then one is doomed. If one feels a sense of control over one’s environment, then you will fare better than those who are physically strong but do not have that sense, and the existential angst that people may feel at some point in their lives is due to the lack of personal agency they may feel in their lives.

I’m not sure. It’s hard to write about this clearly without babbling and sinking into a morass of blather, but it seems to me that perhaps the key to a good life is to serve others. If one looks outside oneself to help someone else, therein lies the meaning of life.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

I urge you to read this for yourself and to draw your own conclusions. My vague personal ones are above, but I think this book is too important for you to try and draw your conclusions from my version of things. It’s a hard book, yes, but it’s an extremely important book and frequently in the top ten lists of influential books for people. It’s an astonishing read. Don’t miss it.

 

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America – Thomas King (2012)

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“While the hardware of civilization (iron pots, blankets, guns) was welcomed, the software of Protestantism and Catholicism – original sin, universal damnation, atonement – was not and Europeans were perplexed, offended and incensed…”

This was a fascinating read about the troubling history of Native Americans in both the U.S. and Canada and written by an eloquent English professor who is also Cherokee (and Greek, as it so happens) so it was a perspective that was very unusual for me. It was also so interesting especially after having learned so much about the U.S. historical background of African-Americans last month. There are a lot of overlaps unfortunately – not the same, but definitely some issues in common.

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

It was also interesting as I happen to live in West Texas which was/is the large original home for the Apaches, the Comanche, and the Arapaho, and so our local history is peppered with references to battles and treaties developed throughout time. (It must be added that the history tends to reflect a very one-sided perspective of things… Guess which one?)

(If you’re curious to know more about the Indian Nations of Texas, this is a good introductory site from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. It’s much more complicated than a John Wayne movie, let me tell you.)

This title was actually more of a collection of thoughtful essays with the common theme of the history of Native Americans in Canada and the U.S.

Goodness gracious me – how this group has been mistreated by governments over the years. Coming as it does through the author’s eyes, it’s not a straight history but more of a conversation over coffee with the author, and I think that this worked really effectively as you, the reader, were exposed and immersed in the anger and frustration of the author as he reflects over the events.

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One of the Native Americans at a local tribal celebration here in West Texas.

Essays covered a wide spectrum from how the early settlers set treaties with a particular tribe (and then broke them very easily) and this was a thread throughout the whole collection, really. It was tough to read the endless broken agreements over the years, and knowing this now, it’s more understandable to me how some of the Native American nations are mired in poverty, unemployment and other social ills.

One of the essays covered how Hollywood used the Native American and created a particular image for its own ends. According to the author, between 1894-2000, Hollywood made more than 300 movies featuring Indians (an accepted term for the author) as characters but rarely using a Native American as the actor. Producers were seeking “real” Indians and “authentic” Indian culture. To get a picture of the most frequent image of Native Americans for Hollywood, think of the well-known sculpture, “The End of the Trail” by James Earl Fraser in 1915. (See below.)

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

Other tidbits:

  • At one point, Canada produced a dollar coin that featured a totem pole with a raven in its design. Some of the Indian groups viewed this design as very insensitive and called this the “Death Dollar” as the raven is a sign of death for some tribes.
  • Will Rogers (U. S. actor/satirist) was a Cherokee, but in all his films, he never once played an Indian. (Compare with the painful effort that Johnny Depp did in “The Lone Ranger”.)
  • Re: the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the stars in the pavement project): there are more cartoon characters and dog actors represented in this than there are Indians. There are only two stars for actors who were selected to play an Indian character, and one of those was actually Sicilian.
  • There are more than 600 individual and recognized tribes in Canada and more than 550 nations in the U.S.
  • There were two main foci to “handle” the Indians in the early years: Extermination or assimilation.
    • Extermination of Native peoples was “acceptable” due to the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (i.e. “this new land is meant only for us” [i.e. Christians]). It was justified by the concept of “natural laws” and “survival of fittest” (twisting of Darwin’s evolution idea which was pretty new at that time).
    • Assimilation: Indians were seen as “savages” who had “no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language and lacking civilized manners”. White people (and mostly religious groups) saw the savages as needing to be saved from themselves and made into the image of white people (or how they saw themselves). There was no compromise.
  • The crux of the problem, according to the author (and many others) was land as Will Rogers said: “Buy land. They ain’t making more of the stuff.”
  • King notes that land was “the defining element of aboriginal cultures” whereas for white people, land was only a commodity which had value only for what you can take from it or for what you can get for it.

So – this was a powerful book that was really well written (although I would have like a bibliography). It wasn’t a scholarly book with footnotes or anything (and very openly reports that it’s not at the start of the book) , so through that lens, it really worked as a perspective of someone who has been in the trenches and knows of what he speaks. It was a fascinating look into Native Americans and their history.

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One of the Native Americans at a recent tribal celebration in Lubbock, Texas.

Dr. Cornel West rocks.

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Wow.

Dr. Cornel West visited our campus last week as part of the African-American History Month, and wow. He was a fantastic orator. You can tell that he has experience as a spoken word performer and you can tell that he is probably one of the smartest people you’ll ever hear from. (Huge vocabulary!) It was great.

cornelDr. West’s talk was along the lines of how African-American lives have been changed (or not) during the Obama administration and I had been expecting to hear how great President Obama has been and all that jazz. Instead, we heard a fairly diluted message of support for him, and a lot about how it’s much more important to be the best person you can be, regardless of color. Great message. However, Dr. West was also very astute in his biting commentary about how racism still exists for African-Americans in the U.S. and he particularly focused on the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. It really got me to thinking and linked nicely back to Ta Ne-Hisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me. (See my review here.)

(I had expected the lecture hall to be as packed as it was with Black Violin , but instead (and rather disappointedly), it was only two-thirds full and mostly with older white people. I was saddened because Dr. West was rather a coup for our university to secure. He’s an important intellectual activist and his messages crosses boundaries of all kinds. They missed out is all I can say.)

So – to the talk. Instead of focusing on President Obama’s eight years in office, Dr. West revolved his talk on the problem of systemic racism in the U.S. and linked that with four questions from the African-American writer, W. E. B. Du Bois:

  • How shall Integrity face Oppression?
  • What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception?
  • What shall Decency do in the face of Insult?
  • What Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

(Du Bois had some other questions as well, but these were the four that Dr. West chose to focus on for his talk.)

It was a powerful talk. Dr. West is a fiery and passionate speaker and covered a wide swath of issues. He addressed some uncomfortable realities (at least for me, as a privileged white person) and the advice that he gave to address these four questions in an honorable and powerful way was dead on.

It was really a good lecture, and if you should ever get a chance to hear Dr. West, then please go. It was a thought-provoking and energizing talk from one of the leading activists and philosophers in the U.S. Highly recommended.

(I’m also going to look for some of Du Bois’ writing at a later date. It looks v interesting to me.)

Going Home to Nicodemus – Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994)

 

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Subtitle: The Story of an African-American Frontier Town and the Pioneers who Settled It.

“All colored people that want [sic] to go to Kansas on September 5th, 1877, can do so for $5.” (Taken from handbill issued by the Nicodemus Town Company.)

This was a fascinating read about a part of the Wild West which I’ve not seen receive much mention before: how the pioneer world also included African-Americans in its spread westward during the nineteenth century. What was so interesting for me was learning that Kansas was a hub for these African-American pioneers. Kansas, I hear you say? Really? Well, yes.

In 1865, the U.S. cemented the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment secured citizenship for African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 secured voting rights for African-Americans (at least on paper).

kansas mapSo in the later nineteenth century, former slaves were now free-ish (depending on lots of factors and not just the law), but although they had their freedom, it was not without its own set of problems. Former slaves were often just released without any resources to support them; many had no land, no money (and little chance of getting any), no home, no job, and limited access to employment due to a lack of skills and to rampant job discrimination. How was a former and newly released slave supposed to support him/herself and the family?

Thus the Freedman Bureau  was established to address this need, but it fell wanting in numerous areas. Most slaves were minimally agriculturally skilled which only allowed them to earn a living through share-cropping (where they don’t own the land, but work on it and then share a portion of what is produced on that land). With no means to buy land and thus no opportunity to own land, what was a former slave to do?

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Along around now also came the Homestead Act (1862) which opened up land ownership for many people in the newly established western states (including Kansas). So with the numerous land companies popping up and with their exaggerated exhortations with regard to the amount and quality of resources that were available in these states, newly freed men and women were targeted for populating these wide open states. Slaves with few other opportunities jumped at the chance for a better life and thus a door was opened for the African-American pioneers of the time.

Kansas was, at that time, a mix of pro-slavery and anti-slavery with the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas” due to its liberal values. With the abundance of flowery literature portraying it as a land of plenty and with the fact that famous abolitionist John Brown lived there, the state looked really attractive to the freed slaves and so thousands of African-Americas moved there. The influx of new settlers were called “Exodusters” and estimates go as high as 40,000 people who moved there.

Alongside this was an African-American Kansas resident called Pap Singleton who is credited with being one of the earlier visionaries with regard to establishing all-black communities for these new incomers. His ideas, along with the huge influx of settlers, led to the formation of the town Nicodemus and other communities run for and by black residents. It was quite a revolutionary idea for the times.

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However, with the now-free slaves with few resources and not many skills, many preferred to live close to the already established communities and so although the incomers were many, few had the skills to homestead. Such an increase in community population led to an increase in crime, of poverty and other social ills, and in 1880, the Kansas Governor finally had to say no more to the newcomers and to the town companies who were promoting this state.

Roughly two-thirds of the incomers left the state after that, either going home or on to different states, but even so, it still left a pretty large population of African-Americans struggling to make Kansas their home.

And so the story goes on. It’s an amazing tale and one that I had never heard of, despite having lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I knew that there were African-American cowboys – in fact, I happen to know two guys who do that now – but I had no idea of the sheer numbers of freed slaves who came west. Just imagine how brave these newly freed pioneers were – and what a risk they took to create new and better lives for themselves and for their families. Amazing.

I’m really interested in learning more about this more unknown side of pioneer life, so I’m looking out for other books now. This was fascinating.

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick (2010)

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“Our enemies are using … specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism… If we allow ourselves to be affected by these materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal (Kim Il-sung in this case] will disappear…”

This intriguing non-fiction read has been sitting on my TBR pile for a while – a fact that I rather regret now as it was a good read. In it, Demick follows the lives of six fairly typical people who were born and lived in North Korea. What adds another level of interest is that they have all defected to South Korea – which is the only way that Demick could ever get an opportunity to have this kind of access to interview them for the book. There is no way that she could have had that sort of unfettered access whilst they were living in North Korea as it’s such a government-controlled environment with regards to free speech and other civil rights (i.e. there aren’t many civil rights) – many individuals have served years in hard labor camps (similar to the gulag) or even been executed for saying something that was not supportive of the ruling powers.

Korea_mapAs the reader learns more about each of the book subjects, Demick structures the narrative to deliver startling descriptions of life under a communist dictator and his administration. In this day and age, it’s pretty astonishing to read about the trials and tribulations of its ordinary citizens, and you learn just why people stay in such a hostile environment. If it’s so bad, why not just leave? But, as with many things, it’s never that simple for the average citizen. Potential threats of execution and government-controlled education and media (along with high levels of poverty) narrow the available choices of such a populace and clearly demonstrates how the denial of reality by a whole government controls the future of a nation.

kim-jong-unHistorically speaking, North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as their government calls their country) has been held back from progress for decades, experiencing widespread famine in the 1990’s and poverty of resources and optimism for its people. Until reading this, I did not fully comprehend how powerless its people really were and how few choices or opportunities for change there really were in this particular environment (or weren’t which would be more accurate in this case). This, combined with news of the recent nuclear talk et al. by current leader Kim Jong-un, made it a very relevant read for me (which made me love it even more).

However, Demick does not take pity or feel sorry for her subjects. Instead, each person is allowed to keep their dignity and their individual lives are presented with journalistic objectivity which makes the descriptions of their very grey world even more powerful to Western readers.

Some of the notes that I made included the following:

  • If you (as an individual person) made a slight against the government (or their “Great Leader” as Kim Jong-un is called), not only would you be punished but also your whole family would be punished for three generations to get rid of the “tainted blood” (i.e. your parents and your children would be included in such punishment as was deemed necessary). This sort of thing doesn’t really encourage open communication about things, does it?
  • People need a travel permit from the government just to travel to the next town.
  • People who worked for the state (and everyone works for the state) didn’t get paid for months at a time and so almost the whole population were struggling for enough food, power, or shelter in a pretty harsh environment, weather-wise. Ugh. Even if the working folk had been paid what they were owed, there was still very little of anything to buy for the average citizen.
  • Despite this widespread famine and shortage of living necessities, the government still managed to scrape together enough funds to build a large and impressive building in Pyongyang just to house the permanent exhibit of “Kimjongilia”, a flower named for Kim Jong-il who was the leader of North Korea for half of the twentieth century. His grandson is the leader nowadays. (Him of the really bad haircut if you’ve seen pics.)
  • Also related to the famine: there are now significant physical differences between the populations of North and South Korea. Demick reports that due to significant childhood malnutrition, the average 17 year old male in North Korea is approximately five inches smaller than his counterpart in the healthier South Korea.

Demick is a prize-winning author and reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and was stationed in Seoul (South Korea) as their bureau chief. She is also the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (2012).

National flower named after Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea in first half twentieth century.

National flower named after Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea in first half twentieth century.