Tag Archives: africa

Movie review – A United Kingdom

Based on a remarkable true story, A United Kingdom opens in post-war London.

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Young black African Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is coming to the end of his education, and about to be recalled to his home country – Bechuanaland, later Botswana – to rule the British Protectorate as hereditary King of nation and tribe.

But he falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund  Pike), who is from a very humble background and who is most definitely the wrong colour, alienating many in Bechuanaland and in Whitehall.

If the story told in the film is remotely close to the truth, it is yet another episode in British colonial history of which we should be ashamed. Driven by the burgeoning cold war, the new policy of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, and the possibility of finding valuable minerals in Bechaunaland, Seretse is banished by the British government from his own land, initially for 5 years and then for life.

But Ruth has remained in Africa, where she gives birth to a daughter and where she slowly wins round the local people.

The only British politician or diplomat to emerge from this shameful overbearing behaviour is a young Tony Benn, who fights Parliament for the right of Seretse to return. Newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill reneges on an earlier promise to overturn the exile, and Jack Davenport deserves credit for his reptilian portrayal of Sir Alistair Canning, a devious – though fictitious – career diplomat who thrives on wielding colonial power over subjugated nations.

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The film moved me to tears. It is a powerful tale rooted in reality, and told with vivid cinematography, particularly of the African landscapes. But it is related somewhat in stark black and white tones – the evil colonial masters against the wholly good Seretse and his pale skinned wife – when I suspect there were many shades of grey in the truth of history.

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No matter. Good wins out, Seretse returns to his homeland and facilitates a new democratically independent country.

And Ruth is even finally reconciled with her own family.

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Book review – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene, like a dazzling meteor, with the publication of White Teeth in 2000, written while studying English literature at Cambridge.

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That debut novel captures perfectly the complicated relationships between the English and migrants, particularly those from the old colonial countries. Based in her native north-west London, as most of Smith’s novels are, friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are beautifully drawn characters, with depth and warmth. Their story and the writing linger long in the memory.

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Swing Time also has its roots in north London. Two young brown girls (mixed race, like Smith herself) meet at a community dance class. Tracey is talented and wild. The never-named narrator is smarter, but not such a great dancer.

The novel tracks their stories and relationship over the next 25 years of adolescence and young adult life.

Tracey has some brief but minor stage success, but descends into council estate poverty, with bitterness and with several children from different fathers.

The narrator finds that a weird globetrotting existence, as PA for a Madonna-like superstar, suits her aimless ambition. With no life of her own, she is glued to Aimee’s whims and changing directions. Based mainly in London and New York, as the writer herself is, the story takes on a different dimension when Aimee decides to fund a girls’ school in West Africa.

The lesser characters in Swing Time are subtly drawn. Aimee is besotted with much younger Lamin, from the African village, and wants him to become part of her inner circle. Beautiful young Hawa, also from the village, chooses a different escape route. Intellectual philanthropic facilitator Fernando from Brazil falls in love with the narrator.

The novel has been well received, but I’m afraid it falls short of the lasting impression I had after turning the final page of White Teeth. Zadie Smith’s novels have won prizes, she is often included in most influential people lists, and she lives a gilded life spanning New York and London. But somehow Swing Time feels a little too much like a hook for her personal concerns and political beliefs, than a well-formed story with wholly believable characters.

Maybe I’m being excessively critical, but you set the bar very high with White Teeth, Ms Smith. Can you please find another meteor?

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William Boyd

Steve Coles, where are you now…..?

Steve was a finance colleague for The Thomson Corporation in London, when I was working for the group captive insurance business in Bermuda. But on one of my UK visits, we were talking books, and he recommended the author William Boyd.

I even remember that Steve was reading Brazzaville Beach at the time.

Fast forward a few years…..I was back in England, living in Godalming, had read a couple of Mr Boyd’s books already and then had the good fortune to hear him speak at the local college.  He was essentially promoting the publication of Restless, a spy story with a difference and later a very successful TV adaptation, with a stellar cast (Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon).

But he also gave some illuminating insights into the writing process  and his own interesting life. He spent his formative years in Africa, experience used in several novels, including his first published book A Good Man In Africa, then An IceCream War and Brazzaville Beach.

Since then, I’ve read several more books from his impressive output of 17 novels in 34 years, for which he has garnered a significant number of prestigious prizes. He has also written several successful screenplays, some non fiction and a theatre piece. No wonder he’s been called one of the greatest living British writers.

His stories are that elusively perfect marriage of plot, characterisation and style that capture the reader almost as much as they make an aspiring writer seethe with envy.

Even the protagonists’ names tend to be imbued with genius: Logan Mountstuart (Any Human Heart), Eva Delectorskaya (Restless), Lysander Rief (Waiting for Sunrise).

I’m reading Waiting for Sunrise now. Early days, but the author is already luring me into Lysander’s world….the research into Vienna is so meticulous that I’m transported there as soon as I pick up the book. The plot will no doubt unfold like a chess Grand Master’s strategy, ending with the reader in complete thrall to the writer’s skill and mastery of the literary game.

The last time I saw my old colleague was in Sevenoaks. Sainsburys car park. If you happen to read this, Steve, thanks for the introduction to William Boyd. He -and you – have enriched my reading life.