Of Migrants and Distressed Gentlefolk

Holiday Reads aren’t always big fat novels. These are the books that grabbed me in Buxton bookshops, on my holidays this year…

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo - cover pic“I know London – I ate some sweets from there once… Uncle Vusa sent them when he first got there.” … “If I lived in Budapest I would wash my whole body every day and comb my hair nicely to show I was a real person living in a real place.”

The children are refugees living in a shanty town, and their ‘countries game’ is all about places desperate family members have emigrated to in search of work, or sometimes the game is imaginings based on the gated, guarded estates of ‘real’ houses near their home territory.

One day, an NGO lorry arrives with gifts of food for the families, clothes, toys and sweets for the children. Those who know the ritual, perform for photographs and win their presents. No love is lost for the distributors of gifts, although everyone looks out for a chance to travel to Europe or the USA to make their fortunes.

There are many absent parents, because travelling overland to South Africa to work in the mines is easier than getting to the USA – but Noviolet Bulawayo tells the story of Darling, a girl who grows up to emigrate to ‘Destroyed’ (Detroit) Michigan, USA, where she finds an escape from material poverty but a certain poverty of community and “a coldness like it wants to kill you, like it’s telling you, with its snow, to go back where you came from.”

Scriveners Bookshop, Buxton
Scriveners in Buxton, where I found Bulawayo’s book

Things improve a bit when she learns American – learns it convincingly, by imitating the accent and phrases of characters on TV – but then she’s taunted by the black girls for talking like a white girl. She in turn taunts the Nigerian girls for worshipping college qualifications, and coming from the home of junk mail but “because we were illegal and afraid to be discovered we mostly … shied away from those who were not like us…”

I bought We Need New Names because I had just come from the FiLiA conference in Bradford, where I learned about all kinds of international women’s projects, about people who became refugees, and who were considered ‘illegal’ when they failed to get papers, so this particular book called to me from the shelf at Scriveners in Buxton, promising to make that story real. It did that job superbly.

Scriveners bookshop boasts five floors of books, as well as a serve yourself coffee and biscuits area and book-binding courses and the range and extent of their stock is ideal for browsing and pouncing on books that catch the eye by such chance associations.

img20191028_22201427In great contrast to Scriveners is the High Peak bookstore, which is a kind of discount warehouse, and has a huge collection of popular books including all the usual suspects – but me being me, my browsing and pouncing led me to completely avoid any discounts and make my purchase from the locally produced books shelf – small presses and independent authors can rarely manage discounts if they want to pay the printers and have anything left over.

I found From Riches to a Ruin. I had no idea I wanted a book about the tragic demise of a country pile but as soon as I saw riches to ruinthe book, I remembered exploring a similar mysterious ruin on a holiday at the other end of the country a few years ago, and wondering how such a thing could happen. Here was my chance to find out. Historian Paul Halksworth grew up in the area and remembers scrabbling around in the ruins of Sutton Scarsdale Hall as a child. In this book, he tells the story of the rise and fall of the Arkwrights of Sutton Scarsdale. Like Bulawayo’s book, it’s all true – and as gripping as ever any holiday novel ever was.

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