erasing clouds

5 Book Reviews

reviewed by anna battista

Matthew Collin, This Is Serbia Calling: Rock'n'Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance (Serpent's Tail)

"Serbia is definitely a nation still in a very deep crisis and this makes me sad," Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf stated in August 2003, "It was only during the past few years that it became obvious that the decadence which Serbia and Montenegro went through was something much more serious than we were ready to admit to ourselves. It's because while you are in the midst of a crisis, you are driven by adrenaline and you just keep on running, otherwise your heart will break or you will go nuts." British journalist Matthew Collin’s This Is Serbia Calling: Rock'n'Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance is not specifically the story of Serbia, but of the Serbian people who lived through the decadence Zograf mentioned, of all those Serbians who, rather than flying away from the country, bravely chose to remain in Belgrade, what Collin calls the "city of chaos", struggling to survive, marching in pacific demos and making history together with Radio B-92.

Far away from the rest of the world, Radio B-92 started broadcasting in 1989 and straightforwardly opposed the regime with its programs and its music, more orientated towards European influences rather than towards the repulsive turbo-folk genre proposed by the regime. When war broke out the resistance spread through the B-92 airwaves, broadcasting information and music and even inviting to the radio mics KLF's Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. B-92 was banned in 1991, 1996 and 1999. The radio reopened as B2-92 in August 1999, but was seized again, eventually moved to new premises and kept on changing the frequency every time it was gagged by the regime.

Closed, banned, robbed, attacked and seized, B-92 later started broadcasting from the net, “We were selfish, because through the station we came to create the things that we lacked and those we wanted most,” B-92 editor-in-chief Veran Matic claimed, “We created a world to live in which was practically severed from the reality of repression that surrounded us. It was perhaps the only way we could survive."

This Is Serbia Calling is the story of B-92, of the underground bands who fought with them, of the Otpor organisation, but above all of the hundreds of people who confronted Miloševic. B-92 tried to create “a parallel world”, Collin writes in the introduction to the book, “one in which people still cherished human rights and justice, in which the world wasn't split into believers and heretics, good Serbs and delinquents, fighter for the heavenly kingdom and the evil forces of Western decadence (…) In a country where politics and culture became one and the same - vehicles for unhappiness and oppression, orchestrated by the state and its lackeys - theirs was a vibrant cultural resistance, a unique fusion of pop culture and politics.”

This Is Serbia Calling is simply the testament of a struggle for freedom and independence bravely and exemplary fought through the airwaves.

Ray Gosling, Sum Total (Pomona)

Born in Chester, Ray Gosling wrote Sum Total in 1962, when he was 22 years old. The book is conceived as a sort of autobiography, but it’s definitely not as dull, as many volumes labelled under that genre. Indeed, Gosling’s style is fresh and passionate: the author starts narrating us his life from his early recollections of his parents and relatives, spending quite a few pages describing his grandfather, a figure enshrouded in mystery since his death. Gosling tells us about his part-time job at a railway station working as a signal man, his religious crisis, his negative and short experiences at the university and his failed attempt to promote a young band and run a club for the “unclubbables”, the bottom rung youths.

The author writes in the pages of this book about all his experiences and impressions: the boredom and ordered life of people trapped in a mechanical job at a factory; the fun at the jukebox cafes; the dull British industrial towns he passes through; the rebellion and revolutionary instincts buried in the minds of the youth.

Gosling became later more famous for his radio programmes and documentaries: many will remember his documentary series Who Owns Britain?, The Heavy Side of Town and Battle for the Slums, Gosling's Travels and the later Bankrupt: Ray Gosling, a documentary about the threat of re-possession of the house he shared with his partner Bryn.

Sum Total was how my life began and it is full of the spirit of those early pioneer days,” Gosling writes in the new preface that comes with this reissue of his volume, “And I see now. The dreams of youth at the very beginning of the world – of the 1960s when it all began. I was there, beginning it with the first murmuring, almost incoherent muttering stumbling teenage fumblings towards what became the Great Rebellion that was to change the world as it has been.” Sum Total is the beautiful story of the enthusiasm, rage, skepticism and disillusions of a young man.

Choman Hardi, Life for Us (Bloodaxe Books)

Choman Hardi was born in Suleimanya, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1974, before her family fled to Iran. She returned to her homeland in 1979, but left it again nine years later when Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked the Kurds with chemical weapons. In 1993, Choman moved to Great Britain, where she studied psychology and philosophy and completed a doctorate research at the University of Kent in Canterbury about the mental health of Kurdish women refugees. Choman already published three books of poetry in Kurdish and Bloodaxe Books has recently released her first volume of poems in English, Life for Us.

Choman’s touching poems concentrate on themes very dear to her, such as her homeland - a place not represented on the world map, and hence, for many people, not actually existing, as she underlines in her poem “To Kurdistan” – her family, and in particular her parents, the subjugation of women, emigration, exile and identity. Choman writes her poems in a passionate style: “My Mother’s Hands” focuses on the ordinary gestures of everyday life; “Anfal” is about the 1988 attacks in which 4,000 Kurdish villages in Iraq were destroyed and thousands of people died; “Lausanne 1923” is about the treaty with which the British and French divided the middle east into twenty-two Arab states, drawing lines on maps that intersected Kurdistan, leaving the Kurdish population stateless; “The 1983 Riots in Suleimanya – III Pyjamas, 1983” remembers those protesting Kurdish youths running away after demonstrations and wearing pyjamas, taking hiding in other people’s houses, pretending to be their sons in bed; “At the Border, 1979”, is about the poet herself, standing at a check-in point and waiting with her family; “Two Pages” is divided in two short poems, told from the point of view of two pages, both bearing terrible news in two different situations.

The language of Choman’s poems is very accessible and can be defined as a mixture of poetry, prose and journalism: at times it hides terrible and painful images, at others it is evokes warm summer evenings and happiness.

Choman, who has also been chair of the Exiled Writers’ Ink!, a group of established refugee writers who write in another language as well as English, was inspired to start writing poetry by his father, the Kurdish poet Ahmad Hardi. Choman’s poems, like her dad’s, are moving and beautiful epiphanies about Kurdish history and about a population being denied its own country and its own identity.

L A Naylor, Judge for Yourself (Roots Books)

According to a Home Office bulletin, at least 3,000 people are wrongfully convicted every year in the UK, while a report by the Prison Reform Trust shows that in 2002 alone, more than 10,000 people were held on remand in prisons across the UK until proven innocent. The two data are mentioned by author L A Naylor in the introduction to her volume Judge for Yourself – How Many Are Innocent? published by Roots Books (a publishing house based in the UK and dedicated to documenting the political and social aspects of injustice in Britain).

Naylor’s book which analyses the miscarriages of justice phenomenon in the UK and the frequency miscarriages of justice seem to be happening, opens with a foreword by Paddy Hill, one of the ‘Birmingham Six’, the men wrongfully imprisoned in 1975 for an IRA attack on two pubs in Birmingham in November 1974 in which 21 people died, and released 16 years after when their case was overturned.

L A Naylor explains in the eight chapters the book is divided in how a miscarriage of justice is created: police corruption, the poor quality of forensic evidence, racism and perpetuation of miscarriages of justice by the judicial system, are among some of the causes underlined by the author. The cases of three prisoners, Paul Blackburn, Sue Lucas-MacMillan and Keith Li, are also analysed in the volume through interviews Naylor did with them, while chapter 6 focuses on the cases of three wrongfully imprisoned men who have been released, Robert Brown, Satpal Ram and Mark Barnsley.

Judge for Yourself is a very well-researched book and the first about miscarriages of justice to be so detailed and precise. “One of the things the public find hard to understand,“ Paddy Hill writes in the Foreword, “is just how easy it is to be put in prison for a crime you didn't commit.” Reading L A Naylor’s volume will help understanding that miscarriages of justice could happen to anyone. A definite must not only for those who deal with the legal system every day, but for each of us.


Mary Oliver, Wild Geese: Bloodaxe World Poets Series 2 (Bloodaxebooks)

“I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it nothing fancy,” Mary Oliver states in her poem “This World” and, in many ways, her wish seems to become true in the pages of this anthology. Wild Geese is the first poetry anthology by Pulitzer winning American poet Mary Oliver published in the UK in 40 years.

In the poems collected in this anthology, Mary Oliver looks up at nature, at the beauty of the world and of the human soul. Her poems are often set in woods, near a pond or on a beach, populated by swans and geese, foxes and bears, fish and whelks. Wild Geese is divided in five parts, each containing a varied number of poems. In all of them Oliver writes about the marvels of the world that surrounds her: lilies in a field, a water snakes, the ear bone of a pilot whale found on a beach, an owl living in an orchard and starfishes lying in the sun.

Though the shadow of death seems to be hanging over a few of these poems, Oliver’s final message is quite positive. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things,” she writes in “Wild Geese”. Dedicated to all the lovers of delicate, ethereal and atmospheric poetry.

Issue 28, November 2004

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