This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

This Mortal Boy is a fictionalised account of a true crime story. A sensitively written account of the life of Albert Black a young man from Belfast, Northern Ireland who arrived in NZ in the 1950’s on a £10 one-way ticket, guaranteed work for 2 years, who never quite fit in and discovered it was a whole lot more expensive to return, if you decided you didn’t want to stay.

His father hadn’t been conscripted but had gone to war anyway, leaving his wife and young son Albert, who survived the Blitz together, an experience that drew mother and son closer than ever. He never attained the same closeness to his father, who returned a different man.

Remembering how it was, the explosions and the fire raids, the people dying or already dead all about their street, the way she had put Albert on a shelf in a closet and held the door shut against him, leaning her body in with all her might, hoping not to be thrown off her feet when the next blast came. He was barely six at the time, still small enough to put in a cupboard and keep him safe.

Belfast had its own problems and New Zealand seemed like an experience that might be good for him, so his parents bought him a ticket and Albert set off dreaming of getting rich and building a fine house for his family.

Some days she looks at her husband and think it is his fault. Then she thinks it is hers for over-loving him, for not wanting to let him go, and her husband seeing that, and thinking he needed the chance to to grow up, to go to a land of opportunity.

Initially he worked in Wellington where he stuck with his new friend Peter, a young man from Liverpool who he met on the boat, they move in as private boarders with a young widow and her children, but the letters from home give Albert  itchy feet; he takes the train to Auckland in search of better paid work to save for his passage home.

He is a gentle, kind lad, one his landlady trusted immediately to take care of her boarding house while she tended to a sick friend. A little lonely he began to frequent a local cafe where he came across a violent young man, who would cause a significant change in his life’s trajectory.

The volatile man called himself Johnny McBride after a character in a Mickey Spillane novel, he was quick to settle any dispute with his fists and feet. Against his better judgement, Albert allowed him to stay a few nights, he overstayed his welcome, their relationship turned sour, ultimately violent, resulting in a death. Albert Black was accused of murder and forced to face a judge and jury unlikely to consider the mitigating circumstances that might have reduced his crime to manslaughter.

Originally meaning ‘fake, false, inferior, worthless’, the term ‘bodgie’ was applied in the 1950s to a male youth distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions and behaviours. The ‘widgie’ was his female counterpart.

A change in government to a more right wing party and its disapproval of youth culture prompted the Mazengarb inquiry into ‘juvenile delinquency’ and the reintroduction of the previously outlawed death penalty. The government took a hard line on what they perceived as immoral youth and its representatives publicly expressed their prejudice against and contempt for outsiders, often blaming them for this wave of moral delinquency.

The offender is not one of ours. It is unfortunate that we got this undesirable from his homeland.

Delivered to every household it also blamed the perceived promiscuity of the nation’s youth on working mothers, the ready availability of contraceptives, and young women enticing men to have sex. Kidman, who was 15 years old at the time, remembers it arriving at her family home and it being quickly removed before it gave them ideas. It is said to have had no observable impact on young people’s behaviour, rather contributing to the sense of moral panic.*

The report, sent to every New Zealand home, blamed lack of parental supervision for juvenile delinquency and advocated a return to Christianity and traditional values. Excessive wages for teenagers, a decline in the quality of family life, the influence of films, comics and American literature all apparently contributed to the problem. The report provided a basis for new legislation that introduced stricter censorship and restrictions on contraceptive advice to young people.

Albert effectively becomes a scapegoat for a violent message they wished to deliver to wayward youth, and with the odds stacked against him, a terrible verdict is delivered.

…in the eyes of God as in those of conscience, what is a crime when individuals do it is no less an offence when society commits the deed. Victor Hugo

It’s a tragic story of a young man caught in a moment of history that came down hard on youth and migrants. His case was sensationalised by the media and there were a number of irregularities that are likely to have contributed to the verdict.

More than just a novel, Fiona Kidman has requested and hopes for a posthumous pardon for Albert Black, hoping for the sake of his family that he can be seen in a different way to how history has portrayed him. This work helps create more of a balanced view of the young man, his hopes, dreams and intentions in his short-lived life.

I began the story of Albert’s short life and death because it illustrated a theme that has run through my mind for a long time, a concern for young people who make one terrible mistake and have not only had their own lives changed forever, but that of theirs and their victim’s families, and of the wider society.

This Mortal Boy won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction.

Further Reading

Article by Fiona Kidman, Irish Times – Chasing justice for a Belfast man hanged in New Zealand

* NZ History – Mazengarb report released, 20 September 1954

More reviews of Fiona Kidman novels, The Captive Wife, The Infinite Air, Songs From the Violet Cafe

Buy a Copy of This Mortal Boy via Book Depository

N.B. Thank to the publisher Gallic Books, Aardvark Bureau for an ARC (advance reader copy) of this book.

Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo #WITMonth and an Urban Balade in Marseille

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository