Monthly Archives: September 2015

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Sandy Tolan, Children of the Stone (Bloomsbury £20)

 

Even those who have never heard of Ramzi Aburedwan, may have seen him. When Ramzi was eight years of age, he was photographed in the Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah throwing a stone at Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada.

The image went viral, before the term was invented. And there are two more photographs in Sandy Tolan’s book about him which contextualise the original. One is a black and white triptych which shows Ramzi’s stone-throwing action in three phases – run, pivot and release. Together they resemble the action of a javelin thrower transferring momentum into power. However, a colour photograph on the following page shows him at a makeshift barricade with other children and it is clear how small he was and how tiny the stone. No wonder he became a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

Tolan first met Ramzi in 1998 during the relative optimism of the post-Oslo Accords period. By then Ramzi was eighteen and had swapped his stone for a viola. Tolan recorded his music and his memories of the intifada and subsequently broadcast the story on National Public Radio. The two met again in a restaurant on the West Bank in 2009 and the second encounter prompted this book. It tells the remarkable story of Ramzi’s life from clearing rubbish from the streets of Ramallah with his grandfather to his founding Al Kamandjati (‘The Violinist’ in Arabic) which established music schools for Palestinian children.

The title ‘Children of the Stone’ derives from ‘Children of the Stones’ as the Palestinian youth of Ramzi’s generation were known. The use of the singular ‘stone’ is deliberate and is intended ‘to invoke the stone of terra sancta [or Holy Land]’. The book is divided into four ‘Movements’ – ‘Stone’, ‘Instrument’ ‘Practice’ and ‘Resistance’ – and these in turn are separated by three short interludes. The interludes consist of a running black comedy involving a group of musicians who were refused entry to Jerusalem to play a Beethoven concert and are forced to employ smugglers to help them cross the Israeli West Bank separation barrier.

Ironically, Ramzi’s story is an extended exercise in the theory of six degrees of separation. A music therapist called Mohammed Fadel heard about him and suggested the viola rather than the violin because he had large hands. Another teacher was connected with the Apple Hill Chamber Players in the United States and Ramzi was awarded a scholarship to play in its annual festival in New Hampshire. From there, he caught the attention of Argentine-Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said who had founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; named after a poetry anthology by Goethe and set up to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

All this played out against personal and political circumstances that could hardly have been more challenging. Eleven year old Ramzi was part of a family group that discovered the decapitated body of his father who was accused of collaborating with Israel and his brother Rami was murdered by criminals while attempting to buy a car. Ramzi’s Al Kamandjati dream also had to contend with the daily reality of violence, travel restrictions and dashed Palestinian hopes stretching from Oslo to Obama.

And yet Al Kamandjati came to be; based initially in Ramallah and reaching out from there to villages and refugee camps elsewhere in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon. One marvellous sequence in the book describes Ramzi taking delivery of a truck load of musical instruments, ‘perhaps a half million dollars’ worth’, collected across Europe and shipped from France to support the newly established music school.

It would be easy to descend into hagiography and it is to Tolan’s credit that he avoids that despite the fact that the book is underpinned by ‘hundreds of hours’ spent with his subject. Ramzi is occasionally portrayed as difficult and demanding and some teachers fled back to their home countries when they were unable, or unwilling, to deal with him. More broadly, he was uncompromising in his dedication to the Palestinian cause and eventually became estranged from both Apple Hill and Divan when he decided that that they were passively supporting ‘normalisation’ – i.e. acceptance of the status quo, including Israeli settlements. Both organisations refused to join Al Kamandjati in endorsing the Palestinian ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ strategy which was intended to increase economic and political pressure on Israel.

Away from the adult politicking, however there are the children and music as their path to healing or pride or as an expression of longing for a home which some in the refugee camps are now three generations removed from.  Under the circumstances, Scottish comparisons can’t help but seem reductive, but there is one lurking here. Eric Culver, a sixty year old violinist from New York, is quoted as saying that Al Kamandjati reminds him of El Sistema which was formed to introduce impoverished Venezuelan children to music. As Culver puts it, El Sistema ‘is not about “making musicians”. It’s about improving people’s lives through music.’ Scotland doesn’t have checkpoints, military patrols, night raids, surveillance towers or occupation to contend with, but it does have its own version of El Sistema. Those of us who watched and listened in 2012 when the children of Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise Orchestra played an outdoor concert in the Raploch below Stirling Castle left with a good idea of how it is all works.

[This review first appeared in The Herald]

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

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Mark Peel, The New Meritocracy: A History of UK Independent Schools 1979 – 2015 (Elliot & Thompson £20)

 

Mark Peel attended Harrow and taught at Fettes for twenty-five years. The cover of his modern history of the UK independent school system commits him to explaining “the vastly superior level of education” offered by the schools he spent his life in and others like them. It also reveals that his efforts have attracted plaudits. The book is “timely and important”, “well-described” and “definitive” according to journalist Magnus Linklater (Eton alumnus), political biographer D.R. Thorpe (Fettes) and Sir Eric Anderson (former Head Master and Provost of Eton).

There is clearly a lot of support from within the choir for Peel’s belief that the election of old Etonian David Cameron and his “cabinet of millionaires” in 2010 is attributable to the fact that “the concept of meritocracy didn’t simply disappear [with the demise of grammar schools] – it found a new home in the resurgent independent sector.” And if that’s not enough to scunner the vast majority who do not attend private schools (95% in Scotland), there’s more. “The growing political commitment to reforming the state sector”, Peel adds provocatively, “is based largely on the independent model, a sector in which hope, encouragement, opportunity and respect have taken on a new meaning, enabling many to attain heights never previously contemplated.”

Peel is silent on the contrary position: that private school control of the political levers of state and reshaping society according to the sector’s view of itself might create more problems than it solves. One searches in vain for references to the bedroom tax, or the growth of food banks, or, indeed, any recognition that old Etonian political hegemony and growing inequality might be related.

Peel traces the current “success” of the private school sector to changes that were implemented when it felt threatened by Labour politicians and before it landed in the safe hands of Tony Blair; a former Fettes student, if a recalcitrant one. The book’s title derives from Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy, written in the 50s, which foresaw grammar school elites running the country.  Peel, however, confuses merit with advantage. Some of the “improvements” he identifies – new management structures, professionalising teaching, accepting girls – were already state sector concerns and obligations; others like the building of swanky new arts and sports facilities partially funded by international student fees were only available to the private sector. 

Peel generally agrees with the various changes in private schools, but he’s also a nostalgic. He is fond of listing private school sports heroes while lamenting a decline in sportsmanship and waxes lyrical about the eccentric teachers of old despite the “drunks, disappointed academics, non-practicing pederasts and practicing cradle-snatchers” that journalist Harry Mount identified among his former teachers at Westminster School. His chapter on headmasters (“Primus inter pares”) recalls the “wretched hagiography” charge previously levelled against him for his biography of Eton headmaster Anthony Chevenix-Trench. And he’s a fan of chapel which provides “a clear sense of responsibility and good living.”

One of Peel’s common room stories worth repeating concerns the aforementioned Eric Anderson who wrote “Business, Industry, Commerce” on a board at Eton and a student called Boris Johnson responded with “These three words suggest to me that the Head Master dined on London last night.” Peel sees only boy banter and precociousness in the exchange where others might detect arrogance, entitlement and a London-centricity which is extremely unattractive, and unhelpful, to those outside the city. In fact, Peel’s complete immersion in the private system and its ways routinely forces the reader to seek alternative interpretations or read silences. There’s no sustained expert defence of the state system, just crude political representations of it. HIs chapter on examinations is completely concerned with A Levels, perhaps because Fettes follows the English curriculum.  And despite the fact that Peel taught in Edinburgh for twenty-five years, Scotland barely registers here.

If Peel detects a threat to private schools from the state educated ministers of the Scottish Government and their numerous declarations on fairness and equality, he doesn’t say so. The system has seen off politicians who talked one way and acted another in the past, including left wing Labour MP Dianne Abbott who described her decision to send her son to private school as “indefensible”. Perhaps this time it will be different, at least north of the border. Charitable status and its risible associate “public interest” would be an interesting place to start.

[This review first appeared in The National]  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TALES FROM A CANCELLED COUNTRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FICTION Eds. Alan McMunnigall, Brian Hamill and Stuart Blackwood THI WURD BOOKS £9.99

PORTRAITS OF HUMAN TRUTH
By Beatriz Lopez
 
TALES FROM A CANCELLED COUNTRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FICTION
Eds. Alan McMunnigall, Brian Hamill and Stuart Blackwood
THI WURD BOOKS £9.99 PB 9781908251428
 
The debut publication of Thi Wurd Books, Tales From a Cancelled Country features emerging and mostly unheard-of writers – with the notable exception of Alan Warner – providing a much welcome collection of new Scottish writing. Despite the political overtones of the title and the brief introductory discussion of the 2014 Scottish referendum, these stories are not concerned with national politics. Instead, they offer snapshots of a place through the eyes of its inhabitants, revealing their hidden fears and desires as well as their struggle to find their own voices. Even though the editors seem to draw an analogy between these experiences and the ‘cancelled country’, the vitality of this collection shows that this country is no longer cancelled.
 
A compelling picture of love obsession, Helen Archer’s ‘Veronica’ immerses us in the mind of a female stalker, whose intriguing story unfolds along the mental and physical persecution of an old lover and his partner. Through the wanderings of an unconventional woman, Archer beautifully evokes the conventional feelings of nostalgia, inadequacy and loneliness. This is a deeply moving story about the lengths we go to follow our desires.
 
Michael Gribbin’s ‘If ah don’t see you through the week’ offers a compelling depiction of infidelity and its revelation. Although most stories in the collection feature Scots words to varying degrees, Gribbin mirrors Irvine Welsh’s writing style in its linguistic verve, drawing attention to the nuances of the vernacular and its enhancement of meaning. 
 
In Alan McMunnigall’s melancholic tale of childhood alienation, ‘Danny Says’, a boy is bullied by an older one, whose threats loom over him and become a nightmarish reality. This bildungsroman displays McMunnigall’s clever deconstruction of the classical dilemma of strength versus wit, proving that there is no immunity from fear and how the thin line between bully and bullied can easily be crossed.
 
Thematically akin to Archer’s ‘Veronica’ although lacking in its insanity, Lynnda Wardle’s ‘Career Break’ speaks of a woman’s professional and emotional failure, which have turned her life into chronic apathy. Although guarding her feelings, the protagonist is nevertheless ‘turned inside out’ by her nose bleeding – a metaphor for her need to connect with others – until an encounter with a mysterious stranger triggers change. Despite losing its intensity towards the end, this is overall a witty and delightfully written story.
 
Like the deeply depressed but ironic Joy Stone in Janice Galloway’s masterpiece The Trick is to Keep Breathing, the narrator of Gillian Shirreff’s ‘Croy Shore’ whimsically chronicles her journey towards medical diagnosis. Offering an incisive portrayal of a medical establishment often oblivious to people’s feelings, Shirreffs depicts a woman progressively coming to terms with her illness. It includes some hilarious episodes, such as the protagonist’s sarcastic remarks on Dr. Byrne and her surreal mental journey inside a MRI tube.
 
Alan Warner puts the icing on the cake with his outstanding and very topical story ‘Who is Killing the Fringe Comedians of Edinburgh?’ This entertaining tale of comedy – or lack of it – follows the extravagant adventures of two serial killers during the Fringe Festival. Warner is a linguistic magician who masters the trick of turning upside down commonly held opinions, making us believe, for example, in the unpleasantness of laughter: ‘Backwards and forwards they went, their horrid face-holes open, lips of the mouth displayed their: “handy removable features.” [sic] Teeth showed. Their skin tightened at the sides of their faces.’ Focusing on the ambiguity between comedy – “The Act” – and reality, this story proves how likely fiction might be false and unlikely reality might come true. With a mesmerising narration intermingling sadness and happiness, Warner ironically portrays comedy as both a source of mirth and death.
 
This anthology of short stories – whether in English or Scots, or set in Scotland or abroad, urban or rural landscapes and told from an adult or infant, male or female perspective – offers a wide variety of portraits of human truth which together make up the reality of contemporary Scotland. 

 

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