Small Island by Andrea Levy - 16 January

Nine of us were present on January 16th to talk and hear about Andrea Levy's Small Island, presented by Anne S, who had provided the details for the January newsletter article. Anne started by saying she found "surprises" all the way through the novel. Julie asked for examples, and two that were cited were the fact that Queenie's husband Bernard shows up after the war, and that Michael Roberts is not dead, but fooling around in England.

Much of the discussion, which was very personal, featured memories of post-World War II England, and even stretched across the Atlantic to Canada (Calgary, Alberta), where Anne was a "refugee" with her mother. Her sister was born in Canada during one of her father's military leaves. (Her father was with the RAF training Canadians.) She said that she remembered how amazed she was on her return to England at how much people had lost and suffered. She was particularly shocked by the filth and the holes everywhere. Docks, industrial areas and military bases had been blitzed. Jan asked how many civilians had been killed, and a visit to Google was suggested to check for statistics. [editor, from Google: There were 47 million civilian deaths, including 20 million from war-related disease and famine. In the UK, there were 67,100 civilian deaths, which was 0.94% of the 1939 population. In France, there were 267,000 civilian deaths. The US recorded 1,700 civilian deaths.] Katharine C and Janet H also had memories of the period. Every house had a bomb shelter. People slept in the underground tubes (the electricity was turned off). There was a "Plant for Britain" policy which encouraged vegetable gardens instead of flowers. It was noted that a similar policy existed in the US. Anne said that out of 14 ships which left Britain for Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada) in 1940, only 3 arrived safely. [ed.-statistic not verified] Janet remembered that children where sent to the countryside, away from the risk of bombing in the cities and towns.
Discrimination is a major part of Small Island, and US army discrimination appeared even stronger than English discrimination. Janet H noted that Gurkhas have only recently received recognition, and Katharine C said that Tuskegee Airmen have been invited to attend the inaugural ceremony in Washington. [editor's note: There are three black survivors of the USS Tuskegee, which was at Pearl Harbor, and was one of the first units of the US military to be desegregated.] Karen D mentioned the war museum in Manchester (Imperial War Museum North), which was designed by Daniel Libeskind (who won the competition to be the master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in New York), a museum which is felt to be very important for the British in helping to deal with trauma. Katharine C said that the clock in the Imperial War Museum South in London is set at one minute to midnight to remind us that we're just that much away from the end of the world.
Notes on the discussion of the literary aspects of Small Island go on for pages. Everyone participated. It was felt that the "voices" of the men were better than those of the women. (There are various Caribbean dialects, depending on the island.) Hortense was described as a "lovely person, with such hope and expectation" - and bad grammar. (Karen D, who studied in Canada, was told in Britain that she had a "colonial degree.") Gilbert came through at the end as a great support for Hortense, who until then wouldn't let him be of any support to her. Jan wondered what Winston Churchill's (over-cited) quote is doing at the end of the book. Katharine C said that the author, who was born in England to Jamaican parents, did oral interviews as well as research before writing the book. Julie felt there were too many coincidences in the book. Someone remarked, "We've come a long way," referring to multi-cultural London. There was mention of the "inappropriate" curricula and crafts in the "colonies," French as well as British. (e.g. in Africa, cricket bats in textbooks, designs of houses with slanted roofs, "nos ancĂȘtres les gaulois") Katharine C said that after seeing signs posted "no Irish, no coloured" in England, she was very surprised in 1977 to meet Irish-Americans who were proud of their heritage. Discrimination in England after WW II extended to the Poles, who, it was felt, "drank and lot and wrecked things." Evidently now they're going "home," but it was remarked that they did beautiful construction work, particularly of houses. Generational differences have been noted since the War, particularly among blacks from the Caribbean. (The words "brutatlity, mores, customs, traditions" appear in the pages of notes, followed by "too much to detail.") The African immigrants were generally more educated than those from the Caribbean.
As to the characters in Small Island, Queenie, who had been raised class-conscious and racist, was felt to be the least racist ("sort of"), apart from her remarks or feelings that it was "OK to be seen with a black." Gilbert was felt to be the most admirable character. The dichotomy expressed by his two language forms - "proper" English in his thoughts, and dialect in his speech - seemed an example of his humiliation, and how greatly he suffered. Bernard was a stranger to England when he returned from the War, and was the one who didn't belong. Almost an hour into the discussion Julie noted that we hadn't yet talked about Arthur, Bernard's father, who confused Gilbert with Michael and thought he was bringing someone "home" to Queenie. Obviously it was not only the terrain that was affected by the War. Lives changed immensely. Returning husbands were no longer wanted. Children didn't recognize their fathers. Queenie's shock at Bernard's return was understandable. For the first time ever, she had felt herself to be master/mistress of her own life. It was easier for her to deal with the idea that Bernard was dead than to deal with the fear of him dying.
In summary, it was felt that the author dealt with racism with humor and levity, and Small Island was not at all a "dark" (pun prabably intended) or depressing book. We did not have much biographical info about the author at the meeting, but it is available on Google. (ed.- She was born in London in 1956. Her father was one of the pioneers who sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948.) Anne said, with regard to the significance of the words "small island," that she has an island mentality and needs to live "near the edge." She said she suffered living in land-locked Switzerland.
Karen recommended In Pursuit of the English by Doris Lessing, which is to be produced as a TV mini-series by the BBC in September. (According to the internet, Small Island is also currently being adapted for BBC television.)