Saturday, February 14, 2004

Also in today's Guardian: another review, by Mike Phillips, of Andrea Levy's novel Small Island:

Levy's immersion in the period seems an illustration of the fact that in recent years, 1948, marking the arrival at Tilbury of the Windrush, has taken on a new significance in the lexicon of Britain's social history. A few years ago, the commemoration of this event sparked off a small explosion of interest in the consequences of mid-20th century migration. Artists and writers of migrant origin, especially Afro-Caribbeans, have responded to this historical platform with a new confidence and interest in exploring both their own roots and the circumstances of the time. The result is a growing conversation about the effects of Caribbean migration on British identity.

Levy's authorial platform is balanced squarely in the middle of this conversation. The novel records some of the most un-pleasant racist aspects of the period, without displaying any sense of polemical intent, partly because her reliance on historical fact gives Levy a distance which allows her to be both dispassionate and compassionate. The history also offers an opportunity to construct the characters in patient and illuminating detail.

And: a short essay by Mark Bostridge on The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, the autobiography of the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, heroine of the Crimean War:

In the summer of 1857, while Florence Nightingale languished in London's Burlington Hotel, seriously ill but still working on the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, another Crimean heroine was publishing an account of her experiences in the recent war. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born Creole, had become celebrated for her British Hotel at Spring Hill, "an iron storehouse with wooden stores and outlying tributaries", two miles along the road from Balaclava. Here she had provided warm hospitality to passing soldiers, earning praise from the famous French chef Alexis Soyer, in the Crimea to revolutionise army catering, for her "soups and dainties".

"Mother Seacole" had also won a place in the hearts of many officers and men for her care of the sick and wounded. Applying herbal remedies derived from traditional Caribbean medicine, she successfully treated diarrhoea, dysentery, even cholera. With a bag of lint, bandages, needles, thread and medicines she courageously navigated the battlefields. On September 8 1855, "a ruddy lurid day with the glare of the blazing town", Seacole became the first woman to enter Sebastopol after the siege.

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