Tag Archives: racism

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

This has been by quite some margin the most anticipated book of the year. All over the English-speaking world, people have been busily re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation for the release of its follow-up. This particular reader chose not to. I maintained a strong memory of the impression that To Kill A Mockingbird made on me when I read it as part of my English Literature GCSE. I didn’t want to alter that memory, flawed as it may be, but I have been timing my reading carefully so that I would be able to read the sequel as soon as it was released. You may recall I wrote about my hopes and fears about the novel.

So it was that on the day of its publication, Tuesday the 14th of July 2015, that I set off during my lunchbreak to Foyles to pick up a copy. So what did I find?

*spoiler alert – I will be giving some details of the storyline in this review*

Set some 20 years after Mockingbird, we get a reintroduction to some of the characters. The book’s focus is on Jean Louise, who most readers will remember went by her nickname, Scout. But here, she’s a grown woman, so references to Scout are few and far between. There are some flashbacks to her childhood with her brother Jem, but very few of these link directly to the summer of Tom Robinson. The case is referred to, though not by name. In this recollection, the defendant was said to have had one arm. I don’t recall Tom having one arm in Mockingbird, so maybe one of you can enlighten me on this point.

The first 100 pages or so are setting us up, introducing the characters, but very little else. That might be a bit unfair, because Lee is good at making her characters have independent voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue form, and there are times when Lee drops the narrative aid of “said Jean Louise” or “said Atticus” for some time. If this were a lesser writer, sometimes you have to turn back a page or two to work out who is speaking. Not so in this case. The voices are so distinctive that with just a sentence or two, you know whose voice is speaking. And even as I read in my head, without overdoing the phonetic spellings, I still ended up with an array of American accents in my inner monologue.

Then comes the sucker punch. Jean discovers some literature in Atticus’ possession which are of a decidedly racist nature. Jean Louise is then torn. To her, Atticus had been the model of all that was virtuous and just. Yet here, and in a public meeting he was spotted at, he was seen sharing a platform with those who viewed one race as superior to another. To whom can Jean Louise turn?

Towards the end of the book, there is a practical issue that has caused some problems. That is, on the books with the orange covers, the bottom of some of the pages haven’t printed properly. There are several paragraphs missing. So I still cannot tell you for sure how the book ends. I have a very good idea, but some of the details are missing.

What I can tell you is that it has really pissed some people off. While Mockingbird was seen as a triumph of liberal social attitudes over racism, there is more of a compromise here. If you can’t beat them, learn to live with them. In some ways this is even more liberal, as Atticus refuses to make an enemy out of racists. Instead, he is adamant that they must be given a platform and not have their views censored simply because some might disagree with them.

Some reviewers have chosen to see this is as Atticus becoming a racist. It’s not quite that simple.

What the book shares with Mockingbird is that it is a book about growing up. Only now this is something more of a grown-up kind of ‘growing up’. The thing is, Jean Louise idolised Atticus somewhat (as have many readers – or viewers of the film of Mockingbird) and at some point we must learn that our idols will let us down. Atticus knew it was coming, as did others, but Jean Louise didn’t. He was her rock, her point of steadfast faithfulness and upright morality whom she could lean on. Now that source of stability was rocking and she suffers a crisis of identity.

I don’t know about other readers, but I could readily identify with the theme of disappointment in one’s parents. I recently sat at endured something of a rant that my father that could only ever be described as homophobic. I disagree with him vehemently on the issue, although he doesn’t know this. I simply bite my tongue. There are times I’ve wanted to scream in his face and tell him how vile I find his hatred. In this book, Jean Louise does my shouting for me.

Just as To Kill A Mockingbird stayed with people for a long time, so will Go Set A Watchman, but for very different reasons.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This was one of those books I just picked up almost at random as I was browsing round a Waterstones in Covent Garden one day. Having looked at the endorsements on the front cover, I was surprised as to why I hadn’t heard of it before. It seems to have garnered lots of praise and accolades yet I can’t recall a single reviewer ever mentioning it, nor had I seen it mentioned in the press. After buying it, it came back to mind recently when I noted it being mentioned in Adam Rutherford’s Creation.

What we have here is science told as a narrative. It is not only the narrative of the events and discoveries that were made, but also the narrative of the uncovering of the story. So while it starts out as a biography of Henrietta Lacks (prefaced by a personal story of how Skloot became interested in Henrietta) it expands its scope and becomes a part autobiography of Skloot’s battles to be able to tell Henrietta’s story, and that of her family.

Henrietta Lacks was a black American woman who died in 1954. The crux of the story is what happened shortly before she died. You see, she died young. She died of cancer. After her diagnosis a biopsy was taken from her cervix and the cells grown in culture. It is those cells that are the heart of the story. From here, we go back a short time and tell the story, as far as it is known of Henrietta’s life, growing up and getting married in the American state of Maryland.

The cells that were taken from her body were capable of being grown in a laboratory, something that scientists had been aiming for but had not been successful with. With these cells (named HeLa), it enabled labs across the world to be able to a variety of tests without doing them on living humans. After all, even though they were cancerous, they were still human cells and behaved as such. Skloot tells us the story of 20th century medicine from the cells’ point of view, both the good and the bad. Many of the greatest developments seen in the last 60 years have involved the HeLa cells in one way or another. Sometimes this was unintentional as it turns out that where other cells were grown in cultivation they were in fact contaminated by HeLa.

Coupled with this is the story of the Lacks family and their struggle to come to terms with Henrietta’s legacy. It was years before they even realised that her cells were being used for research purposes. When they did, this was around the time that details were emerging of the Tuskegee syphilis scandal where, if you’ve not heard it before (I confess I hadn’t), black people in America were deliberately infected with syphilis under the guise of free healthcare. So there was deep suspicion over what Henrietta’s cells were being used for and also who was profiting from them. Skloot’s role here was not only as someone researching a book but also of the one who helped the Lacks family, especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, understand what happened.

The book ranges over a number of diverse topics. One of those that I noted in particular was the development of medical ethics; not so much in theory, but the practice. For the descriptions (and yes, as a warning, they are quite graphic – particularly at the start of the book) may well strike you as particularly barbaric. The reason why this jars against a modern sensibility is that when the facts surrounding the lack of consent about what was done with Henrietta’s cells became more widely known within the medical community it spurred people into action.

As an aside, I encountered a slight confluence of issues as I read this, as I was also watching the American tv show, The Wire, during the same period of time as I was reading this (actually, I’ve been on The Wire all year; the book took about 3 weeks to read). But they are both predominantly based in the city of Baltimore and have a huge amount to say, in microcosm, of the state of racism in America in the last half a century or so.

One of the things that becomes clear, though whether this was the author’s intention, I’m not sure, was the sheer barbarism that still persists within what passes for a national healthcare service within America. One of the ongoing battles the Lacks has had, and a cause of their major gripes were that the vast leaps in scientific work as a result of Henrietta’s cells did not allow them the financial means to be able to pay for their healthcare. The USA remains a country so backwards that if you go to a hospital, they have the audacity to present you with a bill – which the rich usually pay for through insurance and the poor are made to go without. The concept of universal healthcare which is free at the point of need still hasn’t made the journey across the Atlantic.

The book has apparently become a standard text in some university courses on cell biology. That’s not because the science is overly technical, though what is there is excellently communicated, but because it is a story of one aspect of modern science that has rippled far beyond the Maryland origins of one bereaved family. C.P. Snow famously espoused the notion of the two cultures: humanities and sciences. Here, Skloot has woven the two together to make a fabric that is stronger than either and makes for a fabulous piece of writing. It is educating, enthralling and overall one of the best pieces of writing I have had the pleasure of reading. It was only because of the more immediate need to heed the words of Harry Leslie Smith that this missed out on being my top book of 2014.

A question about UKIP and the left

Is it really such a good idea for those of us on the left to urge people not to vote for UKIP? 

A lot is made about the publicity that UKIP get these, not least the amount of airtime they are given in proportion to their current level of representation in the House of Commons. This is often contrasted with the Green Party (though oddly not so often with Plaid Cymru, the SNP or the Democratic Unionists).

With the European and some local elections coming up, things are getting ever more heated and partisan. I have seen people urged to mail bricks to UKIP’s offices on the basis that they use a freepost address and so will be made to pay for the delivery costs, rather than the person posting the bricks. Though amusing, it strikes me as rather childish.

One could examine their policies, as some have done, and point out areas of disagreement with an apparent sense of ridicule. One tactic I haven’t seen and wondered “why not” is to point out the contradiction that they don’t want the UK to be a part of Europe and yet they still put candidates forward for the European elections!

But so what? Those who have a tendency to stick to the left of British politics are never likely to vote for UKIP anyway. Who are we trying to persuade?

After the failure of the “Yes to AV” campaign to reform the voting system, we are stuck with the less democratic First Past The Post system. The downside of this system is that where you have multiple parties standing on similar principles, the vote can be diluted so that an overall less popular, but very different, view may win.

If UKIP were to gain a majority in the House of Commons (or be part of a coalition) then one might have a genuine cause for concern, but that really doesn’t seem like a probably outcome. One asks, where are the UKIP supporters coming from?

Some may be protest votes, but it seems reasonable that quite a few are coming over from the Conservatives. This is why David Cameron should be worried. The loony right wing section of racists and xenophobes who helped put him into number 10 are one of the legs upon the Tories stand. Take it away from them and you get the right wing vote diluted, which will favour the likes of Labour, the Greens and even possibly the Lib Dems (though I believe their credibility has been dashed by their role in the present coalition and that after the next election Nick Clegg will be a pariah, resigned from the party leader leadership and will be blamed for the next decade of poor outcomes for the Lib Dems).

So if we persuade those who are currently tempted to vote for UKIP not to do so, where might they turn? I would posit that the obvious place is to go for the party which has the most similar policies, the Conservatives. And do we really want to encourage people to vote Tory? I think not!