Tag: Books

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

“Airports were often just the punctuation marks of a lifetime, the twilight spaces between places and people, the no-man’s-land between what had happened and what was yet to be.”

Tony Parsons, Departures

Few who have been subjected, willingly or through insidious pop culture osmosis, to romantic comedies’ crown jewel Love Actually, endeavour to forget the legendary airport scene. Not even the most granite-hearted of misanthropes could roll their skeptical eyes at that endearing thread of faces and embraces, all to (formerly) dishy Hugh Grant’s velvety tenor going on and on about how “love is everywhere,” how “love is all around,” and all this life’s hapless pilgrim has to do to resurrect their faith in humanity is to pop over to the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.

Next time you’re sequestered in some nauseatingly bureaucratic queue at Heathrow (or CDG or any other three-letter IATA combination for that matter), pick up a wee collection  of Tony Parsons’ short stories Departures, a 100-odd pages of smirk, hope, stress, ridiculousness, enthusiasm, regret, new beginnings and yes, love, that irreplaceable conductor of life’s symphony. Unlike the analyzed-to-bits scene in Love Actually, these morsels of airport life are not so much about what goes on in the Arrivals gate as they are about the humble yet vital work that throbs, every minute of every day, in the labyrinthine innards of world’s second busiest airport. What occasionally reads like a manifest promo piece to Heathrow, this collection is, above all, an appreciative hat tip to men and women of aviation who feed and water that enormous heaving beast of an airport and all those who come through (and those, for legitimate or not-so reasons, who don’t).

The stories are seven and all different. There’s a woman confronting her very banal fear of flying (and an even more banal one of seeing the in-laws). There’s an airport animal health inspector cloistered in the animal reception centre with a red milk snake wrapped around his arm and a blue-eyed starlet by his side. There’s a pair of geeky air traffic controllers exceedingly proud of their job, a pilot stoked to be flying Boeing 777s and another who lost his license (and his marriage), a no-nonsense passport officer taking down drug mules but showing clemency to two very different girls stepping onto British soil on the same day toward their pink unicorn wish “to marry their boyfriend Prince Harry.”

None of it is terribly genre-bending. Not all of it is even particularly moving or insightful. There is one quality, however, that not only unifies these stories but also animates them with the kind of unmistakable spirit that makes an aesthetic grouping of words worth reading. The knights of Heathrow all without exception share genuine, effervescent enthusiasm for their work, a childlike excitement, a purity of spirit, and honest passion for their respective 9-to-5s. In our cynical age of boarding pass + passport Instagram posts, in a time where air travel is notably less glamorous, a perfunctory bourgeois activity almost wholly stripped of its former vestiges of romanticism, exoticism, or at the very least exclusivity, Tony Parsons’ Departures show air travel through the fairy dust of childhood wonder for what it truly is and what we, scoffing globetrotters, chose to forget – air travel is pure unadulterated magic. From birds, to bats, to Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ornithopter sketches, to the stuffy tin can that takes us to that all-inclusive summer beach holiday, it’s all pretty amazing. Perhaps next time at Arrivals we, exhausted, sweaty, and jet-lagged, can exchange our “ugh” for:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight

Image: IMithila Madhubani, Depiction Of People Onboarding At Darbhanga Airport. iMithila

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

“I have a green card. This piece of paper,” he tossed it in his hand and said, “has ruined two people. Sometimes I really want to tear it to pieces and go home.”

Immigrant narratives are the Zeitgeist as our little blue planet spins ever faster and international travel expands like rising dough, making space for all those Airbuses, stuffed to the gills with vagabonds, conquerors, and dreamers. Citizens of the world. Explorers. Settlers. Survivors. Since times immemorial folk has been on the move, dragging their suitcases and ghosts of their past along with them across consulates, embassies, and border checkpoints. They search for fertile lands and better job markets, they seek book deals and Western boyfriends, they endure bedroom cockroaches and subway groping, but at the end of all this gargantuan sacrifice they have no problem taking out the lacklustre treasures nesting in their modest savings accounts and distributing them among relatives “back home.” To pay for weddings, or pianos, or a new baby, or grandmother’s birthday. It’s tough to ignore the calls of “back home,” that guilty teasing of prodigal child’s heartstrings, that omnipotent umbilical chord that ties a soul to its cradle and simultaneously to its grave.

In American Visa, her debut novel that came out in mid-nineties, way before the kind of glamour we see in Crazy Rich Asians, Wang Ping delivered, in tough-as-nails prose, a pained, honest, and uncompromising account of a young woman coming to New York with callouses tempered by Cultural Revolution. Seaweed, with pigtails and maple leaf-shaped scars on her armpits, is labouring to escape a great many things. Hard menial work in the countryside, humiliation of communist “re-education,” unfeeling parents, sibling rivalry, and insurmountable burdens of duty to totalitarian State and totalitarian Family. Strategically crucified right at the intersection of regime and tradition, Seaweed is equally abused and dismissed by both forces yet serves them with exemplary devotion, a model citizen and daughter, a Stakhanovite Cinderella with only a duck and a hen to call friends. No, this is not magical realism, this is proletarian noir.

There is yet another dimension to consider – a place for a woman in a society aggressively shedding thousands of silken layers of its rich heritage. Seaweed’s sisters, aunts, mother, grandmother, female students and colleagues, all weave the tapestry of their own unique suffering, shamed, judged, humiliated, abused, betrayed, and abandoned. Their feet are too big, their armpits too malodorous, their libidos too high, their relations too poor. They shed tears of self-pity as they drive daggers of treason into their sisters’ chests, for all is fair in love and war. They wait, like Penelope waits for Ulysses, for their husbands to come home, for their American visa to get approved, for their mothers to say they love them, for their daughters to see that they love them. Some cannot endure the wait and run away to Japan or to Germany or hang themselves. Those lucky enough to experience the throbbing rhapsody of the New World are, alas, too wise (or too wounded) to be seduced by the Pied Piper of the American dream:

“English, eh, English?” She asked, waving the orange book fanatically under my nose.

I nodded, half scared, half fascinated by the feverish look in her eyes.

“Success, success,” she screamed. Although I could tell she was trying her best to soften her voice. “This book, American dream, success, rich and famous, you.” She thrust the book toward my chest.

Se mun, se mun, cheap, on sale, American dream, success, rich and famous, only se mun, just for you.”

It took me quite a while before I realized what she was doing. She had learned to say the price in Cantonese: se mun – ten bucks. She had quickly identified me as a new Chinese immigrant, and assumed that I spoke Cantonese.

I burst out laughing. This was too much, too bizarre, a white American selling the American dream in Cantonese and broken English to a poor Chinese woman. She took my laugh for encouragement and grasped my wrist.

”Yes, American dream, have one.”

There is little joy in this book, and love, like lipstick and Beethoven sheet music, is perpetually in deficit. There is some warmth, however, and, above all, strength of one seemingly unremarkable woman to win her very own corner under the sun. And this kind of strength seldom asks for embellishment.

Image: Hiveminer

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones -a witty stroll through bougie Edinburgh

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones -a witty stroll through bougie Edinburgh

“Did you see that survey published in the papers the other day where people were asked if they believed Winston Churchill ever existed? A quarter of them said they thought he was mystical.”

At what fateful sigh of time does history seamlessly transform into myth? At what point do harrowing mass bloodbaths become delightfully spooky tales by the crackling fireplace? Those grand, bushy-bearded kings of old, when do they slip into irrelevance? When does the sacred Stone of Destiny, the hallowed instrument of coronation, become just a minimally polished bit of rock? The Unberable Lightness of Scones (yes, pun intended) by a comfortably popular Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, does not attempt to answer these largely rhetorical questions of collective national mind. This is, after all, meant to be an easy, jolly read, with obvious hat tips to P.D. Wodehouse and David Lodge. Furthermore, this wee gem is part of a series about daily lives and pedestrian dramas of inhabitants at 44 Scotland Street (a real street, by the way, a very typical, quiet, residential nest in New Town). Still, as readers are taken out for a fun stroll along those unmistakeable Edinbughian streets of fog and stone, they are invited to ponder, through personal journeys of a dozen characters, the fate and future of this royal city in the 21st century.

After all, every city and nation must bow to time. Even a place as enviably strong, creative, and rebellious as the stone pearl that is Edinburgh. A cradle of Scottish Enlightenment in tow with David Hume, Adam Smith and its own vibrant literary Pleiad (Burns, Stevenson, Scott), it is not sheltered from the winds of Zeitgeist. Work, leisure, food, relationships, blood, belonging, identity, all gets a good toss. Even Boy Scouts are not entirely without sin, as six-year old Bertie discovers, chaperoned by an overbearingly progressive mum in between psychotherapy sessions and yoga classes.

Speaking of classes, the novel is a clearly bourgeois milieu, populated by gallery curators, teachers, artists, designers, restorateurs, and aspiring models. They go to Australia for their honeymoons and misplace their fancy Blue Spode cups, yet not all is sedentary in this quiet swamp. These bougies try to stir their snug little teapot by engaging in contraband of illicit jam, choosing love over money, and even aiding the descendant of the Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie reclaim his centuries-lost birthright to the Scottish throne. The folks of Scotland Street, through their amusing peregrinations, unwittingly labour on redefining their beautiful city as it gracefully endures into another century, weathered and wisened by all that passed before, from bloody Jacobite rebellions to the dark pleasure of the kind of life depicted in Trainspotting.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones went to print in 2008, when the world was just entering the feverish pain of the financial crisis. That was a globally shared misfortune though, quite unlike the deeply national challenge thrown by the chaos of Brexit. The latter, still ongoing, made a careless tear in the patchwork of national identity, British, English, Scottish… Voices, questions, doubts, and long dormant anger are now reopening wounds, pustules, and callouses. A referendum can be a cornucopia of fury, hope, hate, disappointment, joy, ugliness, progress, regress, and a whole lot of confusion in between. It can also be a dud, a deflated balloon, a false alarm. Millions are raising their hearts to the stars to ask: “What makes us us? What makes this place ours and us of this place? Is it mountains and heather, castles and Robbie Burns, hearty curry with your Polish neighbours, or simply the zesty chill of Edinburgh air?”

In the Unbearable Lightness of Scones the remedy against tough times is simple – a lovely dinner with the neighbours, a no-nonsense menu, some flirts and giggles, and a cheesy poem-toast for a finale:

“I love this country, for all its ways,

I am as moved as any when I see

That landscape of quiet glens,

Those pure burns and rivers,

Those blue seas and islands

Half blue. I love all that,

And the people who dwell therein;

But I love, too, our neighbours

And those who are not our neighbours,

I shall never relish their defeats,

Not celebrate their human difficulties;

For, frankly, what is the alternative?

I see no other way.

I see no other way but that;

I see no other way but love.”

Love thy neighbour. Make them dinner. Fix the world. Sláinte!

Image: Leamne Arias Deniz, “Edinburgh.”

Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days: Of protests, prisons, and the time Putin peed his pants

Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days: Of protests, prisons, and the time Putin peed his pants

Famous people’s explosive, celebrated, seminal memoirs, how does one go about reviewing them without sounding like a worn out cassette? Take the Pussy Riot girls, for instance. Their story is generally well-known, regarded as heroism by some, as vulgarity by others.  Subversive and beautiful weapons, they’ve been fetishized and cursed, celebrated and anathemized. They had their own Netflix special, were whipped by the Cossacks during Winter Olympics in Sochi, were kicked off planes and were denied asylums. And still, seven years after that fateful performance, they manage to stay around, relevant, and, most critically, alive. The West, initially an eager enabler of Pussy Riot aesthetics and now engulfed by a threatening wave of its own existential problems, may grow fatigued of these statuesque rebels, but that in no way denies their significance. Their battle, after all, goes on. Their Sauron is far from defeated.

Maria Alyokhina, a key Pussy Riot girl, wrote her powerful and laconic memoir in 2017, quite some time after having endured her personal Golgotha. She is not prone to verbosity, making each word of her story heavy and impactful, like a sizeable stone being plunked into a quiet forest lake. It’s not a memoir, it’s more of an intimate conversation Maria has with a reader, a close one, around a kitchen table, with strong black tea and cigarette smoke and mittens quietly drying on the heater. No embellishments, no sanctimonious sermons about fighting for human rights. Just a conversation, taking us back to that pivotal act at that strategically important church:

Glittering Orthodox iconostasis, scant light from gold and silver lampadas, cheerfully coloured balaclavas, and four slender bodies quivering in a punk song-dance whose thick-as-butter guitar riffs are periodically punctured by nun-like harmonies of the chorus:

“Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away!”

This performance was first in the arduous litany of many others: the Russian police had their own performance, and the corrupt courts too, and the brutal penitentiary system, and even the Botoxed tzar with his dead fish eyes had a show of his own. For everything in that country is performative, from the lowest bureaucratic motion to the highest affairs of state, concocted deep within Kremlin’s bloodied walls.

From Hobbesian Leviathan to Bentham’s Panopticon to Orwellian fantasies, a myriad of classical and contemporary metaphors have been used to various degrees of poignancy to describe what it’s like to live in a repressive system. And it’s always dismaying how fundamentally little things change, making pessimists the world over sigh and say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” On the Goliath side, organizations like KGB are now brandishing a new set of abbreviations (in this case FSB), but their ghastly innards (and often their actual staff) are the same old guard of Judas apparatchiks. On the David side, previous generation of Soviet political dissidents like Mandelstam and countless others are now replaced by Pussy Riot, Navalny, and God knows who else in the near future. There are many faces to a regime, but underneath it’s the same clever cockroach.

There is one thing about Pussy Riot that is somewhat overlooked by the mass media yet captured quite clearly in Maria’s memoir. These are clever girls. Well-read. Erudite. Deep thinkers. They are not actors, they are philosophers, tough like steel, fragile like children, terrifying in their modesty and surprising in their resilience. They are not into punk for the studs, spikes, and leather jackets. They repurpose and revive it, resurrecting it into a weapon of resistance powerful enough to piss off Putin, the man who rides horses topless, poisons his enemies, and periodically interferes in elections here and there.

In her tireless attempts to alleviate inhumane conditions endured by inmates in Russian prisons, Maria works hard and with mixed results, enduring threats, indifference and ridicule. No matter though, because her wisdom grants this young woman strength of acceptance and grace of humility. Maria gladly becomes a martyr, sacrified at the altar of the hollow Russian Ark:

“I think about fate. About how many prisoners who protested have died and now lie in the ground. It is just an illusion that you go on hunger strike to achieve results. Yes, that’s how it begins but, later, you realize that it’s not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest. A narrow sliver of a right, in a huge field of injustice and mistreatment. You also realize that your right will always be just a narrow sliver in the field. Not there, with the majority. But I love this sliver of freedom, however little it’s noticed by those on the other side of the wall.”

Image: Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism, Saatchi Gallery.