Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans


Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.


His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.


He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.


“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.


His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.


He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.


Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!


His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.


His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.


The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.


The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

T-shirts, T and poetry

Friends of the Earth inform me that it takes the amount of water to manufacture one t-shirt that would be needed to make 15,600 cups of tea. A thought-provoking statistic – but straight away, I start wondering if that’s why they’re called t-shirts. Or is tea named after tea shirts? Did British colonial officials once relax on the verandah having changed into a tea shirt to drink tea?


Now I take t-shirts seriously, like them. I have quite a collection, many commemorating somewhere I’ve been (Georgia, Fair Isle Bird Observatory, the most south-westerly pub in England – The Saracen’s Head, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly – plus one printed with my own wording, “Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”).

Towards the end of a walking holiday, though, the dirty clothes do mount up and of course are dead weight to carry. Working on that FOE statistic, maybe I could convert a small fragment of a dirty, old t-shirt into cups of tea?

By the way, that personalised wording refers to a favourite snippet from my history reading. During the Commonwealth period when we were between kings, the radical Leveller group had fallen out with Oliver Cromwell, but one of their number, a Major John Wildman, had defected to Cromwell. His former comrades put out a pamphlet attacking him. You can imagine what this would be like today – a pamphlet or blog post from a far left group attacking someone who’d abandoned them. The Leveller pamphlet read,

“There was a great stone, and it fell in the sea, and it gave a great PLOP. Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”


Incidentally, I was at a reading last night by performance poet Luke Wright. I’d seen two of his poems before and thought one brilliant and the other rubbish, but this was all good. Few performance political poets have such subtlety and compassion, plenty of passion but nothing of bludgeoning you into assent.

New Something

This was a piece I wrote for a Chelmsford writers’ group on the subject of “New Beginnings for the New Year” and with an allotment of 1,000 words.

New Year


New Beginnings for a New Year

New beginnings? Isn’t that a whatdoyoucallit? You can’t have old beginnings. I suppose you could say the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War is an old beginning now, but it was a new beginning when it began, which was the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, I think. I mean, there’s only any point in saying anything if the opposite is possible. Like…what’s the opposite of two plus two is four? Four plus four is two? I was always better at English than Maths. Or is it two minus two is four? Or minus two plus minus two is minus four?

I suppose you could just about say that an old beginning is something that really is a beginning, but it’s been used before for other beginnings – like pawn to king four. Or pawn to queen four. Whereas WHITE: 1: RESIGNS would be original, I think. “It was a dark and a stormy night” would be an old beginning, then. Or if you started your novel with “In the beginning was the word”, which is a pretty silly statement because of course in the beginning of a story there’s a word, in this case “in”. Now that’s a point: if I remember rightly, copyright expires seventy-five years after the death of the author, but if the author of the Bible is God, is God dead? I believe theologians and philosophers are still arguing about it. The theologians say he is and the philosophers say he isn’t, if I recall rightly. In any case, even if he is dead, when did he die? That’s crucial if you’re quoting from the Bible without paying royalties.

I suppose someone must have thought this through because some gravestones have biblical quotes on. Mind you, I’m not sure who the action for breach of copyright would be against.

What about new endings? Well, obviously if a story or a football match or something is new, the ending will be new – except I suppose if it’s old hat it’s not new, like Manchester United scoring in surprisingly long injury time or a book ending with THE END just in case you were tempted to start reading it back to front in which case it would say DNE EHT. Esle gnihtemos yas dluow ti neht. Sorry, I got a bit carried away.

So let’s go back to the new beginning. I make that three hundred and ninety-five words, which isn’t bad considering. Four hundred and seven now. Four hundred and twelve.

There was a man in a Len Deighton spy story called Harvey Newbegin, an American. He was called Harvey Newbegin because he wasn’t. I don’t mean he was like The Man Who Never Was, except of course he was, because he was fictional whereas The Man Who Never Was was real. And Welsh, apparently. This Harvey Newbegin was an immigrant to the USA from some Baltic country, which explains why he chose to rename himself Harvey. Anyway, the hero pushed him under a bus, which made him Harvey Newend. I did mention that this wasn’t true, didn’t I? I mean it’s fiction, not that what I’m saying about Len Deighton’s book isn’t an accurate summary, though it’s years since I read it so it might not be.

Who said “In my end is my beginning?” Was it Eliot? Someone did say he was anal retentive, so that might be right.

Why do we want new beginnings for a new year anyway? The break-off point for the year is purely arbitrary. Up until the eighteenth century they began the new year in spring some time, not on 1st January at all, which plays havoc with dates, so for example if a Civil War battle was fought on 21st February 1645 according to accounts at the time, that’s actually 21st February 1644 to our way of thinking. No, 21st February 1646, I think. See? Chaos. What if the Royalists turned up on 21st February 1644 and the Parliamentarians on 21st February 1646? Could be a bit awkward for any Royalists commemorating their easy victory, but it would have kept the casualty figures down. That is, of course, if we were fixing the battle at a point on the map, which because of the earth’s rotation and the earth circling the sun, would be quite a long way in space from the same point on the map a year or two earlier, assuming no-one had moved the map. No – would it be at the same point in space because what goes round comes back? But then there’s the expansion of the universe to take into account, so that would mean the Parliamentarians turning up somewhere in deep space, which would be unfortunate, though how they’d get there I don’t know.

Did you know the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing? We’re all rushing apart faster and faster according to Stephen Hawking, which means that our feet are ageing slightly faster than our heads, which I’m not sure is true of me at all, though remembering when I last looked closely at my feet, maybe it is. But in Australia it’s the other way around. Old heads on young feet. With other bits in between.

Some people make resolutions at the New Year, but usually they aren’t new beginnings at all because they’re the same resolutions they made last year or the year before, like eating less or writing a novel. Or writing less and eating a novel. Personally I find Dickens indigestible.

Some people just go out, get drunk and sing badly. It’s usually not new beginnings in their songs, though, it’s bits in the middle or at the end that are new. Getting drunk is known as getting rat-arsed, though I don’t understand that at all. I have not observed that drunken people have small hairy arses, though some Welshmen have. And they had them before they got drunk. Not that I’m any kind of expert on Welsh backsides. Er…

Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans


An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.