The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

GOTT

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (2015)

I realise that I’m the last person to read this book but nevertheless, here’s my take on it. The Girl on the Train has been a stupidly massive success globally, with a movie on the way. So my question was, does it live up to the hype?

You don’t know her. But she knows you.

Our lead protagonist is a woman called Rachel. Far from being a girl, she is recently divorced, in her early thirties and her life is unravelling. Every day she catches the commuter train into London and every day it waits at the same signal overlooking a row of houses. Rachel sits in the same part of the train every day and watches the same house, making up names and characters for the couple who live there, drinking their coffee in the garden as she travels into London, their glasses of wine in the evening as she returns home. One day she looks into the same garden and sees something unexpected. This begins her involvement in the lives of this couple who know nothing about her, but who she has been watching.

It’s no surprise to find out that Rachel is an unreliable narrator. We quickly discover her to be an alcoholic, downing cans of premixed G&Ts on the train home each evening and stopping off to buy white wine two bottles at a time. She lives with an old uni friend, who she admits she never got along with, after the end of her marriage to Tom. She wakes the morning after yet another solitary bender to find that she called Tom multiple times but cannot remember doing it. He’s in a new relationship and begs her to leave them alone.

Rachel is not the sole narrator. Megan is the woman whose house Rachel peers into each day, Anna is the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband. To have three women narrating was interesting, although at times their voices became too similar to work as well as they could have. None of them were likeable, all three of them lied continuously, to themselves as well as everyone around them. It would have been a nice contrast to have at least one of them be a little more sympathetic. Perhaps reading this novel on the weekend of Brexit was a mistake as it didn’t exactly help to restore my faith in humanity! Apart from the long-suffering Cathy, reluctant flatmate of the alcoholic Rachel, everyone in the novel is morally dodgy at best.

So what is my verdict? I thought the novel worked well. To tie up the different strands of narrative, Megan’s taking place in an earlier timeframe than Rachel and Anna’s, was ingenious. I did guess the ending but not far in advance enough to ruin it, and most people I’ve spoken to didn’t. I think the success of the novel has come down to Rachel. Not necessarily her as a character, as no one would want to have her life, but because she serves as a warning to us. Just as I catch the train to work each morning, passing past houses on the way, so do many of us. Loads of us like a drink, and it is the glimpses into Rachel’s old life that show us a shocking decline that could befall any of us. This central premise is what has captured the attention of so many. That the plot keeps us hooked right the way through is testament to Hawkin’s perfect plotting, weaving the strands of Rachel and Megan’s testimonies to bring us to a thrilling conclusion.

Novel London – 1 July @ Waterstones Islington

For anyone who loves historical fiction I’ll be reading the first chapter of my novel at this event this Friday. Click the link at the bottom to get your free tickets.

The other readers are:

Guinevere Glasfurd, author of The Words in my Hand, set in 17th century Amsterdam (which I reviewed here: Books – The Words in My Hand – Guinevere Glasfurd).

Kay Seeley, author of two Victorian novels: The Water Gypsy and The Watercress Girls.

 

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https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/novel-london-historical-chapter-readings-at-waterstones-islington-tickets-25951379274?utm_term=eventurl_text

The Comedian – Part Four

The Comedian – Part One

It took another three weeks and a decent amount of gin for Ned to tell Maggie how he felt. He had suffered in silence throughout, watching her giggle at Ulysses’s terrible jokes, letting him paw her during breaks in rehearsal, and spending a suspiciously long time in his dressing room with the door closed. Everyone was gossiping about her and Ned’s face burned bright indignance on her behalf. He refused to think the worst, saving a friendly smile for her whenever he saw her. She was grateful; the other actresses shunned her once they found out that she had the lead female part.

Ned’s generosity even extended to Maggie’s talents. She was not a natural actress, though she worked hard. Most nights the audience let their displeasure show and she would run from the stage in tears. Ned longed to comfort her but it was Ulysses she turned to. To Maggie’s credit, she was relentless in her pursuit of improvement, and Ned wheedled himself back into her good graces by coming to the theatre early each day so that she could rehearse whilst Ulysses slept off the excesses of the night before.

The whole company tripped out after the Saturday night performance, the prospect of a day off enticing them into indulging a little more than they dared during the week. Ned had noticed that Ulysses was already growing tired of Maggie, his attentions flitting amongst the pretty ballet girls who had gathered to sip their sherry in a booth near the window.

‘Let’s get a breath of fresh air,’ he suggested to Maggie who was standing on her own by the bar. ‘I thought you were marvellous tonight. The hard work is beginning to pay off.’

His chest puffed out as she smiled at him, her whole face lightening as she cast off the cloud that Ulysses’s behaviour had hung above her. She stepped outside where they stood by the entrance, light from the street lamp bestowing a warm yellow glow on her.

‘Don’t be upset about Harrow,’ Ned told her.

‘What d’you mean?’ She looked put out.

‘Oh, Maggie, I don’t mean nothin’ bad by it. Only everyone knows his reputation. He’s a known rogue is old Ulysses Harrow.’ He grinned at her but his smile faded as she frowned.

‘I’m no idiot, Ned.’ Her arms were crossed and she stood away from him now. ‘I only went with him because I wanted the job. I have more ambition than you give me credit for.’

‘Clearly.’ Ned was taken aback. How had his precious country town girl turned so quickly into this jaded woman? ‘I am glad though. That you are not hurt by his behaviour. I had rather hoped…’

The words would not come but she guessed anyway and laughed, not in a pleasant manner. ‘Oh, Ned, what on earth do you have to offer me?’

‘Offer? Well, I, I, I…’ he stuttered as shock and hurt made his tongue feel twice as large in his mouth.                 She laughed again. ‘Oh my poor, poor Ned. Find someone worthier to waste your affections on. I have another in my sights already. And here, he has arrived.’

For the first time Ned noticed that even her way of speaking had changed. Now she spoke as though she had been brought up on Park Lane and never even set foot in a blacksmith’s. She smiled politely at Mr Willoughby, the theatre manager as he approached.

‘Mr Willoughby, how kind of you to join us,’ Maggie told him as he greeted her. Ned may as well have been invisible.

‘This is no place for a lady, Miss Lenahan,’ the older man told her. ‘I thought that I should do the gentlemanly thing and escort you home. My carriage is only around the corner. Unless you are otherwise engaged?’ For the first time he looked hard at Ned.

‘Oh no!’ She quickly corrected him. ‘Ned and I were just discussing how the play had gone. I was about to leave.’

‘Good, good. Now Ned I hope you’ve listened to Miss Lenahan. You missed a cue quite obviously tonight and that really isn’t good enough.’ Willoughby scolded Ned as though he were a schoolboy getting his sums wrong. ‘This is your first serious role. I do hope you’re not only good as a comedian.’

It was too much, this comparison to his failure of a father, and Ned forgot himself. ‘Sir, I only missed my cue because I was helping Maggie backstage.’

‘Ned, how dare you!’ His former friend was outraged.

‘Not very chivalrous, Mr Bennett, not at all.’ Willoughby looked down on him with disdain.

He tried to apologise, followed them all the way to the end of the street where the Willoughby carriage sat waiting, but all to no avail. Once the run was finished, Ned Bennett was out of favour and finished at the Theatre Royal. The last of his earnings he ran through in a matter of weeks, frittering it away on beer and gin until the tragic point when we first met up with him, ejected from the tavern on Union Street after running a tab he could not settle.

‘Why don’t you try the local theatre, whasitcalled?’ Sean turned to Ned during a break in his custom.

‘Which one?’ he asked.

But he knew the theatre Sean meant. The Olympia had recently reopened with a new owner. He could see the building now, sitting on the corner with its proud new signage. Hope dared to plant a seed in his heart as Sean handed him a playbill for that night. Othello. Ned knew Shakespeare. He was still an actor, though perhaps not so clever an actor as that duplicitous Maggie Lenahan. He would get his own back, the only way he knew how. This lowly Lambeth theatre should welcome him with open arms and when he was a success he would find Maggie. She would come to rue the day she had crossed Ned Bennett.

Black History Walks in London

Benin bronzes

The Benin Bronzes, British Museum

Last weekend I went on a guided walk with Black History Walks. These guys run several tours around London, from Elephant and Castle to St Paul’s, each taking around two hours. I did the Secrets of Soho walk (though most of it is actually in Bloomsbury, finishing at Soho Square). There is so much forgotten and hidden black history around this area which neither I nor anyone in our group knew about. I don’t want to give a minute by minute account of the tour, as if this subject you I would highly recommend you do one of these tours yourself, but I’ve picked out a couple of my highlights. I have done some extra research around the topics we discussed on the tour so some extra information is included below.

In the photo above you can see the Benin Bronzes which are on display at the British Museum. Like many other exhibits, the method in which these bronzes were acquired is characteristic of many controversial trophies housed within the walls of the museum. In 1897 British forces were sent on a punitive mission to Benin City. What began as an argument over customs duties (British traders did not want to pay them) ended in the sacking and destruction of Benin.

As our guide described it to us, imagine showing up at Buckingham Palace unannounced and demanding to see the Queen. Then, if you were asked to come back the following week, attacking the palace. In this situation, the vice consul general James Philips took some British officials and translators from the port of Sapele and set off for Benin. They sent word of their intended visit but were asked to delay their journey as their timing was poor: there were sacred rituals taking place in the city, during which time no foreigner was allowed to set foot within its walls. In typical British imperial style, this warning was ignored and as they reached the south of the city they met an Oba warrior ambush, only two men surviving the massacre. The subsequent ‘naval punitive expedition’ led to the destruction of the city and the exile of its king.

The Benin Bronzes are comprised of over a thousand metal plaques and originally decorated the royal palace of Benin. They date back to the thirteenth century but now are held by various institutions around Europe and the US, most famously over two hundred pieces within the walls of the British Museum. Many of them pre-date contact with European traders and so are regarded as high quality examples of the expertise of an indigenous culture. The Benin Expedition brought back these treasures and changed the European perception of African art as being primitive and pagan.

Today there is a collection of bronzes Nigeria again, though still controversial. Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has asked on several occasions for the return of these priceless artefacts (in a debate similar to that better known over the Parthenon marbles). Between 1950 and 1872 the British Museum sold back to Nigeria a small number of the bronzes.

Imperial htl

Imperial Hotel, Russell Square

While there was never a legal colour bar in the UK, the truth is that many non-whites were discriminated against in the past. Back in 1943 the West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine (1901-1971) was due to play in a charity cricket match at Lord’s. He booked rooms for his family to stay at the Imperial Hotel, London for four nights. After previous bad experiences, he made sure to mention when booking that he was black. Nevertheless, when he arrived he was told that his family could only stay for the one night as there had been a complaint by some white US servicemen who were staying at the hotel. Constantine was furious and, since there was no legal recourse against racial discrimination at the time, he took the hotel to court for breach of contract, since they had no just cause to refuse him accommodation.

The hotel claimed that since they had found an alternative hotel for the Constantines that they had fulfilled their duty. This was rejected by the court and, although the damages awarded were only five guineas, the moral victory had been won. This case did not end the colour bar that existed in many establishments, but it was seen as a milestone on the way to the Race Relations Act which was finally passed in 1965.

Constantine didn’t stop there. In 1947 he became chairman of the League of Coloured Peoples, and he wrote a book, Colour Bar, which was published in 1954. This book was taken all the more seriously as its author was not a militant campaigner, but rather a man who fitted in with British society and its values. It wasn’t as hard-hitting as other books on black oppression but he had aimed it more at a white audience, as an educational tool.

In 1954 he also returned to his home country of Trinidad and became involved in paving the way for independence from Britain. He returned to London in 1961 as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. The following year he was knighted and in 1969 was awarded a life peerage and became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords.

I have picked out the Benin Bronzes and Laurie Constantine as particular highlights as I was completely ignorant of their existence before doing this tour. It was shocking to learn so much about a city that I have lived in for a decade. We also talked about famous black women, Mary Prince and Mary Seacole in particular, but these Victorian women are better known than many of those who fought for justice in the twentieth century.

Another point of interest from the tour group came when our guide asked a couple of younger members what their schools did for Black History Month. One girl, American, listed off organised activities, competitions etc, Both British girls said that their schools did nothing, even one with a black head teacher. Black history is barely taught in schools these days as it is not really on the curriculum (apart from Mary Seacole I believe). While it is fantastic that organisations like Black History Walks exist, we should not have to rely on them for our own history. I for one intend to get more involved in BHM this year (October).

 

Black History Walks – £8 adults, £3 child.  http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk

Books – The Words in My Hand – Guinevere Glasfurd

The words..

The Words in My Hand – Guinevere Glasfurd. Two Roads, 2016

I first came across Guinevere Glasfurd via the TLC (The Literacy Consultancy) website. She won their Pen Factor competition in 2014 and I heard her read from her debut novel as part of the TLC’s Writers’ Day on June 11th. I loved the section that she read aloud, enough to buy the book on the day, and so here is my review.

The Words in My Hand is based on the true story of Helena Jans, a maid in 17th-century Amsterdam. Her English employer, Mr Sergeant, is a bookseller who takes in a mysterious lodger. Said lodger turns out to be Rene Descartes. The novel tells the story of the relationship between Helena and Descartes, known to her as Monsieur. Their real life relationship, and the daughter that they had, is documented, but the details are imagined based on the author’s research into a woman of whom little was known about.

The story is told in first person from Helena’s point of view, and she is a compelling protagonist. She is a young woman who is constantly frustrated by being held back for reasons of her gender and class. While her brother, Thomas, was allowed an education (which he then wastes), she was forbidden. She learns to write in secret, making her own ink and writing on whatever she can find, including her own skin, as paper is too valuable. She even goes on to teach her friend, the neighbour’s maid, how to read and write.

I hadn’t noticed that the button had come off my cuff and the sleeve was loose at my wrist. Betje stared open-mouthed. Although the words had faded and weren’t the neatest I’d written, they were, without doubt, words.

It is Helena’s yearning for knowledge that attracts Descartes. He encourages her learning, buying her paper and spending time with her that soon moves from teaching into a clandestine relationship. It is almost inevitable that Helena will fall pregnant, and even more so that he will be unable to marry her, a maid so far beneath him that over the years they spend together they must keep their real connection secret.

Helena’s voice drew me into this novel. She is a woman of her time but not a victim of it. Despite the limitations of a poor woman in the 17th-century, she is strong-minded and relentless in her attempts to educate herself and her daughter. Although she loves Rene she does attempt to hold him to account for his mistakes, and to his credit he does eventually realise that he must admit to the existence of his daughter. The knowledge that all must surely go wrong (although it never is completely plain sailing) is what keeps this a page-turner.

Despite the tragic events towards the end of the novel, I felt hope for Helena, that she ended up having a good life. While we don’t know what happened to the real Helena Jans, we do know that she was close to Descartes for a decade. It would be nice to imagine that theirs was a happy relationship.

 

 

The Comedian – Part Three

The Comedian – Part One

The Comedian – Part Two

The Crown and Anchor tavern was only a little out of the way home, and Ned made his way there as soon as the curtain fell each night. After his successful comic turn in the pantomime, he was in favour and secured a small part in the farce that followed. When the curtain fell he was out of the building within minutes, usually alone but occasionally with a fellow actor or two. He always bought Maggie a drink, and she always rewarded him with a few minutes of her time when she could, longer on quieter nights when her attention wasn’t so in demand.

‘This isn’t all I’m good for,’ she told him one night in February. ‘I got plans. I didn’t come all the way to London just to hand out beer to drunks.’

‘What did you come for then? Looking for a rich husband?’ he teased hopefully.

‘I wouldn’t say no if I had the chance, but I thought there’d be more work opportunities here. I grew up in a country town. My father was the blacksmith. It’s not a trade for a woman, and then he tried to marry me off to the baker’s son! The lad was so ugly and stupid that his father was offering out a dowry in order to get rid of him.’ Her indignation was such that Ned burst out laughing, apologising when she looked put out.

‘I do not mean to mock you, Maggie,’ he explained. ‘It is only that I suddenly had a vision of this poor idiot. You were right to leave, but what would you do if you had the choice?’

She looked down at her hands, her cheeks reddening. ‘I had a thought recently but surely it is a foolish idea.’

‘You can tell me, Maggie.’ Ned leaned over, bold from the beer, and took hold of her hands. ‘You can trust me with anything.’

‘I do believe I could. ‘She smiled. ‘You have been kinder to me Ned than any man I’ve known. I will tell you but you must promise me that you will not laugh.’ This he swiftly did. ‘Very well. I had the idea that I could work with you, Ned. At the theatre.’

He stared at her. ‘What? You mean as an actress?’

‘Yes. Oh, Ned, you don’t think I can do it, do you?’ He felt her tiny hands tremble in his. ‘You can laugh then if you want. Go on!’

‘No, Maggie.’ He leaned forward and dashed away a tear that had slowly fallen from her wide blue eyes. ‘I just wonder if you know what the life of an actress is. The money is not always good. And some of them have their bad reputation for good reason. When I leave the theatre at night there is often a queue of gentlemen awaiting their admittance. They’re no better than the women who work under the bridge. You are too precious, too good for that sort of work.’

‘You want to protect me, Ned, that is kind of you.’ She squeezed his hands in thanks. ‘I must get back to work though or I will lose even this poor job.’

Ned did not think any more of this conversation until two days later when he arrived at Drury Lane for rehearsal. He recognised Maggie’s copper red head from afar but could not believe it to be her until he was close enough to see her face, in profile as she watched the stage door.

‘Maggie,’ he said her name and she turned, smiling broadly as she saw him. ‘What brings you here?’

‘Hello Ned. You’ll never guess – I work here now.’ She was so proud to tell him that he felt a burst of happiness for her.

‘Really? And which role have you been given?’ He expected her to say that she had a part in the chorus, even as a ballet girl in the interval act. He was not prepared for the answer he received.

‘Ophelia! Ned, isn’t that incredible?’ She gripped his hands in excitement.

‘Yes, my goodness. So you will be playing opposite…’ He could not bring himself to say the name.

‘The great Ulysses Alexander.’ The man himself appeared, jacket slung over one arm as he proffered the other to Maggie. ‘Maggie, I see you have met Ned, also known as Horatio for the purposes of our play. Ned, they are waiting for you. Maggie here is coming with me. I will be instructing her personally on the bard’s text.’

Ulysses leered down at the young girl and she giggled, looking up at him with wide eyes as Ned’s stomach turned. There was nothing he could think to say as they walked off down the street but inside he was cursing himself for not acting sooner.

The Comedian – Part Four

London, Sugar and Slavery

Museum of London Docklands

Museum of London Docklands

I’ve been to the main Museum of London site several times but this was my first trip out to Docklands. It’s well worth a visit – entrance is free and it’s great for families (I went on a Sunday afternoon and there were lots of family friendly activities taking place). For adults, many of these activities take place away from the main galleries so there aren’t too many kids under your feet!

The ten free galleries begin from the third floor taking you through in a sequential order from 1600 to the present day (like a less stressful version of Ikea). I specifically went to visit the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery but spent time in all of the galleries. For anyone who like the Victorian Walk at the London Wall site, Sailortown is similar, a recreation of the area around the docks in the mid nineteenth century.

The museum is housed in No.1 Warehouse at West India Quay which was built during the period of the slave trade and would have stored the sugar from the plantations who prospered from slave labour. As well as looking at the slave trade, black presence in Britain generally is examined, contradicting the common perception that there was no black community in the UK until the 1940s. There was a known community in Seven Dials, and the port area was a key entry point for merchants, traders etc. The painting May Morning by John Collett which shows a street scene. Here a black servant is shown joining in a traditional London festival in the 1770s. No one looks surprised to see him there, despite this being at the height of the slave trade, showing that he wasn’t as unusual a sight as many might suppose.

At the entrance to this section is a large black board, names and figures inscribed in stark white. These are the names, captains, owners and destination of the slave ships that set sail from London. I noticed that a lot of people stopped here for a while, I suppose just to think about the numbers of people transported on those ships in shocking conditions. There is a diagram of a slave ship showing how 609 men, women and children were crammed in and transported in horrific squalor. They were seen and talked about as goods, not people, and so their living conditions were not a concern.

From my own research I know that slavery existed in Africa long before the Europeans got involved. Slaves were often traded to settle debts or captured during wars. Crucially these slaves had rights and could even rise to positions of power and wealth. It was the European influence that resulted in the dehumanisation of slaves.

The slave trade was nicknames the ‘Triangular Trade’ after the route the ships took. First they would sail from Europe to Africa laden with goods such as guns, iron bars, alcohol and copper and bronze bracelets known as manillas). Enslaved people would be marched to the coast, those who survived what could be hundreds of miles of walking would be stored like goods in a warehouse while they waited to be sold. Once purchased they would be transferred to the ships, but even then they could face a wait of up to several months in the ship’s hold whilst waiting for the captain to purchase the numbers he wanted. To pay for the food and water needed to keep the slaves alive the ships also loaded gold, ivory and cloth to sell in the Caribbean or back in Europe.

Conditions on the ships were as awful as the warehouses, and it was said that a slave ship could be smelt from as far away as five miles. Some captains looked after their cargo, protecting the slaves from abuse and letting them have exercise (this could be for moral reasons, or for the purely financial aim of selling healthy slaves on arrival). Others played a numbers game and just crammed as many as possible into the ships. Revolts were violently stopped, and there were many cases of suicide and infanticide by mothers desperate to save their young children from the life ahead.

The third side of the triangle was the return journey. The revenue from the slaves purchased goods such as sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton and tobacco which could then be sold back in Europe.

It was the Quakers who first began the British movement towards emancipation, forming the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. This society was supported by leading African abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano who bought himself out of slavery. It is worth noting that many of the factors which led to the ending of slavery arose from the actions of the slaves themselves. They were not a passive and helpless people relying on the help of wealthy whites. After the successful slave revolt in Hispaniola, Haiti in 1791, and several failed attempts in Jamaica, it became clear that relying on enslaved labour could be unstable and expensive, and that paid labour could be more profitable.

Freetown in Sierra Leone was founded by British abolitionists in 1787 and populated by both rescued Africans, and also black Londoners who wanted to escape poverty. The British public came on board and in 1792 the West Indian sugar boycott began, with up to 300,000 people giving up sugar leading to the decimation of sales. In 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed but this was only the first step as it only banned the trade of slaves and so slave owners were free to continue on with those they already owned.

The belief had been that the abolition of the trade would lead to a gradual decline in slavery. This did not happen though and so the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. They weren’t keen on women though and so the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves was established in 1825. On the 1st August 1834 slavery in British territories became illegal, slave owners receiving £20 million in compensation for the loss of property. Many slaves were left without housing or clothing and had to leave their homes in order to find work.

This is a great gallery giving an objective view of the facts surrounding British involvement in the slave trade and its legacy. There is also an exhibit commemorating the Caribbean voluntary service in World War I, showing the names of the fallen. The museum as a whole represents all of the docklands communities well, and I would highly recommend it.

 

Museum of London Docklands, No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, London, E14 4AL. Free entry. Open 10am – 6pm daily. http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk