Thursday, October 29, 2009

I read this recently - and am ashamed to say it is true in my case.


Asylum seekers seem to be in the news all the time these days, what with the French clearing out the squalid camp on the outskirts of Calais and our own Attorney General being fined for employing someone who had no right live and work in Britain.
Harare North by Brian Chikwava paints a picture of what it is like to be an asylum seeker living below the official radar in Britain today - and it is pretty grim . Harare North is the nickname for London - along with Johannesburg (Harare South) it is one of the destinations of choice for ex-patriot Zimbabweans.

" I disappoint them immigration people because when I step forward to hand my passport to gum-chewing man sitting behind desk, I mouth the magic word -'Asylum'- and flash toothy grin of friendly African native. They detain me."

This young man whose name we are never told, is released after 8 days, and a cousin and his wife who already live in London grudgingly take him in. Some weeks later he drifts to Brixton where he re-connects with an old childhood friend called Shingi. Shingi is living in a squat with various other Zimbabweans who are all struggling to find a way of earning a living wage when they are illegal or semi-legal, and have none of the official paperwork employers demand.
The squat is run by Aleck who works as a BBC (British Buttock Cleaner) ie in a residential care home, which is one of the better paid jobs available - presumably because no native Britons wish to do such work. One of the other squatters is a teenage Zimbabwean girl called Tsitsi who has a small baby.
"Tsitsi have start to bring in small money by going out to the salon; MaiMusindo and them other women is helping she rent out the baby to other women that want to apply for council flats as single mothers. For £50 any woman can take Tsitsi's baby to the Lambeth Housing Department and play out to be single mother, fill them forms and take baby back to salon as she have been interview."

The language used is quirky, often ungrammatical and misspelled, and frequently relies on phonetics, and this gives the tale a flippant, almost casual tone which belies the life our nameless narrator has lead and is now leading.
At times I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Zimbabweans living in the UK are often fleeing from the violent political situation back in their own country, and the news from home gets worse and worse as time goes by. However we learn that our narrator, an extremely self-centred young man, was a member of one of Mugabe's notorious youth squads 'The Green Bombers' who used to mete out 'forgiveness' (beatings) to anyone who has fallen foul of Mugabe's regime, and he has come to Britain reluctantly to try and get hold of $5000 to pay a bribe after having beaten someone to death. He refuses to acknowledge the atrocities being committed by the regime, and does not let his fellow ex-pats know of his history. Although the narrator is actually a rather unpleasant individual he has a very engaging way of expressing himself, and the reader is won over by his unflagging attempts to raise money one way or another. Working illegally at a succession of short-term, poorly paid jobs he manages to amass a little cash, most of which he starts spending on liquor and skunk. Slowly but surely he begins a downward slide into paranoia as the strains of living in Harare North start to tell on him.

I actually picked this book up because of the title, as I have a deep affection for Zimbabwe,
and had no idea I was going to be learning about one aspect of life in my own city. London exists on a raft of illegal immigrants who do much of the city's dirty work, and yet their plight is rarely written about. Brian Chikwava is a great new voice in African writing, and I look forward to reading future books by him.

Rated 4*


When you were seven years old,
what did you want to be when you grew up? - yes, I realise its a long time ago, but work with me on this.
I seem to remember wanting to be an artist or a synchronised swimmer - not that I knew what scantily clad girls who fooled around in a swimming pool were called - but splashing about for hours on end seemed highly desirable. My son and his best friend decided they would have a chicken farm ( presumably for a constant supply of eggs and chicken nuggets) with an attached diamond mine. Mind you it was a close thing as the lure of joining the A-Team was fairly enticing.

Our esteemed overlords, in the person of the Secretary of State for Education Mr Ed Balls (and that is an unfortunate surname for a politician don't you think?) have decided that primary school children as young as seven can't have these sorts of foolish ideas, and they should now get careers advice. Careers advice for heaven's sake, it'll be pensions advice next.
These are children, let them BE children.

It seems ironic that Ed Balls is introducing another loony government initiative in education when we still have too high a proportion of children who are unable to read by the time they leave primary school aged eleven. Surely basic literacy and numeracy is where any extra effort should be concentrated.
And who is going to deliver this advice to the nation's little darlings? our already overburdened teachers? or will a whole new strata of educational advisors, specially trained at vast public expense, be created to talk little Johnny, Sarah or Mohammed through their options. Hmm, should they be considering the legal profession, horticulture, or joining a scaffolding firm...or perhaps something in the meedja.

Thank god my kids are all grown up, but for the sake of my as yet unborn grandchildren I hope this stupid idea dies a death before too long.

What a shame no-one took the newly graduated Ed Balls aside and whispered in his ear just one word "Plastics" , that might have steered him away from a career in politics, to the benefit of the nation.


We have had the most gorgeous Indian Summer for the past month, but the evenings are definitely beginning to feel quite cold, and so my thoughts have turned to serving what I call 'winter' food. At the weekend I looked out an old Joseline Dimbleby recipe (I mean the recipe is old, not JD!) which I have not made for years, and jolly good it was too.
Use the cheapest piece of bacon you can find for this pot roast.

BACON IN BEER (aka Gammon in Guinness)
Serves 6

1.3 - 1.8kg bacon joint - preferably on the bone

3 onions, sliced
250g carrots, scraped and cut into largish chunks
1 can of peeled tomatoes (approx 400g)
330ml bottle of stout (I used Guinness)
6 cloves
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cornflour

Soak the bacon joint in cold water for several hours - overnight if possible - changing the water once or twice.
Put the bacon into a large saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 15-20 mins. Drain, rinse with cold water and then slit the thick skin and peel it and most of the fat off.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C.
Put the joint into a casserole dish with the onions, carrots, cloves, caraway seeds and sugar. Pour in the tomatoes from the tin and the stout and season with pepper. Do not add salt.
Bring the casserole to simmering point on top of the stove and then transfer it to the oven and cook for 2-3 hours, basting the bacon with the juices now and again, until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone.

Remove the joint to a carving board and put the casserole on top of the stove . Mix the cornflour with a little cold water, add to the vegetable and juices, bring to the boil and allow it to bubble for 2-3 minutes.

Serve the bacon with the vegetables and juices accompanied with boiled or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.


nick said...

The Chikwava book looks interesting, I must seek it out.

Not sure I agree about careers advice. I think if I had had a few serious chats about my work future when I was a kid, and what I had an aptitude for, I might have made better choices than I did. As it was, virtually nobody raised the question, even my dad didn't talk about it much.

As I was good at English, I became a journalist but disillusion set in and I ended up being a bokseller and then a charity worker. I think if I'd thought more seriously about a career I might well have become a painter or writer instead.

But I have no faith whatever in the government's ability to give careers advice. They've made such a pigs ear of so many things.

Marj said...

The Chikwava book sounds interesting if a little disturbing re. the activities of the 'underworld'. What different lives we lead or are forced to lead through circumstances etc.Makes my life feel very ordinary, but that is probably someone's desire?
As for Ed Balls - why bother having in depth research done!
The winter cooking dish sounds delish - will try it soon - thanks!