Category Archives: Review

Lingo: a language spotter’s guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren (Profile, £12.99)

lingoBooks on popular linguistics flood out, not least from the David (and now Ben) Crystal factory.  Lingo by a Dutch writer, looked as if it promised something more substantial within the genre, and got good reviews on publication at the end of last year, but did not quite hit the mark for me.

Yes there is lots of interest, yes there are lots about some of the minority languages of Europe (sixty of which are covered) but ultimately the book failed by being just too, well, popular, and for having an annoying, jokey,  over-familiar text: “There once was a green and fertile land – let’s call it Kleinstein – where a prosperous and civilised people flourished under the benign leadership of a price whose name was as unassuming as his people: John. … What was striking about the Kleinsteiners was their knowledge of languages…” in his introduction to Luxembourgish.

The sixty languages are spread over short chapters, each with bit of history, an anecdote and, again annoyingly, a note at the end of words in those language which comprise a whole concept in English, which have no direct translation.

Lingo - a nicely designed book – was published as an “affordable hardback” in time for Christmas. It makes a nice present. It’s designed to live forever in people’s loos and to be the source of many “did you know that…?” comments after use. If such limitations are accepted, it is a good book, but anyone looking for an overview of European languages should look elsewhere. On the other hand, did you know that some people in Jersey, Guernsey and even Sark speak individual dialects of Norman French? See pages 57-62.

Ross Bradshaw

Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television by Michael Herbert (Five Leaves, £4)

Reviewed by Mat Coward in the new Doctor Who Magazine and reprinted by permission

The Communist Party of Great Britain was never a huge organisation. At its absolute peak, it had 60,000 members and two MPs. But for three or four decades following World War Two it was remarkably influential, in industry, in science, and not least in culture. It was Communists, after all, who invented the Notting Hill Carnival, the folk song revival – and, it turns out, the Sea Devils.

Sometime Communist, and lifelong Leftie, Malcolm “Mac” Hulke wrote two serials for the Second Doctor, and six for the Third. Before creating the notoriously ill-named Silurians, he was responsible, along with his script editor, and one-time lodger, Terrance Dicks, for that extraordinarily adult epic, ‘The War Games’ (1969). It’s probably remembered today chiefly for being the last story to star Patrick Troughton, and the first to name the Time Lords. Those of us who watched it as children usually remember it as “the one that went on for ten weeks, and had no monsters in it.”

But, with its contempt for authority, its anti-militarism, its message that wickedness can be beaten by solidarity, ‘War Games’ is also a perfect example of Hulke’s unapologetically political approach to fiction. ‘Doctor Who’ was “a very political show,” he once said, because it was about “relationships between groups of people.” Even when one group are reptiles, “they’re still a group of people.”

Just as radical in its intentions, and arguably Who fandom’s founding document, was Hulke and Dicks’ 1972 paperback The Making of Doctor Who, the revolutionary book that first transformed passive viewers into active fans, able to watch our favourite programme from backstage, as it were, as well as on the screen.

Surprisingly little is known about Hulke’s life outside television, at least until John Williams’s eagerly anticipated biography appears. Meanwhile, this slim but fascinating pamphlet, written by a professional historian and true fan, serves as a delightful introduction to Mac – the man who did so much to pave the way for a primetime show in which a Silurian enjoying an inter-species gay marriage seems like the most normal thing on Earth.

Fire Songs by David Harsent (Faber & Faber)

firesongs (2)‘ … this is a compelling, not a depressing, read. Fire Songs teems with images and ideas that manage to be both richly detailed and vividly musical, from ‘the sopping bud’ of a dead Christ’s heart to an alliterative ‘scorch on corn and kale’. The wide‐ranging word‐choice is consistently surprising and beautiful: ‘the raised arm /of the dreamscape silhouette. The tierce that hunts /from high‐rise city blocks in a slipstream of dead air.’ Full‐rhyme and end‐rhyme play a greater part than they have hitherto: as the virtuoso rooms/reams/ rhymes of ‘Effaced’ close in, they let us hear Dorothy Wordsworth’s entrapment by William.’ (Fiona Sampson, The Independent)

‘Creating verse which garners critical attention is one thing – it feels as though a cynical box‐ticking exercise sometimes permeates contemporary poetry – but crafting verse which affects a deeply primordial, human reaction – whether it be subtle unease or caustic fear – is something entirely different, something more skilled and much more worthwhile, and this is Harsent’s success. Fire is his chosen symbol, the paradoxical emblem of fear, salvation, destruction and regeneration. Harsent does not claim it as his own, he renders it as a universal, eternal signifier which haunts our nightmares, underpins our relationships and possesses civilisation‐ending power: ‘The bed/time story is fire, the fairy‐tale is fire, the promise of light/to a dying man is really a promise of fire. What’s left to be said?’ (Ralf Webb, Ambit)

ISBN 9780571316076
Hardback, 80 pages
£12.99 (£11.00 during March 2015)

Fire Songs  is available to buy in the shop, by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email ( with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
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Five Leaves Poetry Book of the Month is in association with Stanza poetry reading group. Every month we feature a poetry book chosen by Nottingham Stanza.

To Kill a Mocking-Bird by Harper Lee (various editions, £6.99 upwards)

downloadWith the fuss about the sequel of Harper Lee’s other book scheduled for this summer, I thought it time to reread Mocking-Bird (and then rewatch the Gregory Peck movie)…

My copy of To Kill a Mocking-Bird is dated 1983 and in big indiscreet letters the cover announces “Over 11,000,000 sold”. I believe that figure is now about forty million. That probably means that just about everybody pitching up here will know the story, but for the few who don’t… The book, written in 1960, is set in Alabama in 1935 and is set among white people who all have Black maids, except they did not call them Black in 1935, and some of the everyday cruder versions are hard to stomach – but that was the time, those were the words. The narrator is Scout, tomboy sister of Jem, both the son of the single parent lawyer Atticus Finch but mostly looked after by the Black woman Calpurna. We learn a lot of the town – hot, slow, Southern, long-established, with people being identified as a “Ewell” or a “Cunningham” as if the family name alone is a guide to character though Harper Lee makes it clear that everyone white was really related whether they were professionals or “trash”. There’s the “Radley Place” where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, a dangerous recluse and somewhere out of town live the Black people. White men go to work while white women raise money for missionaries to the uncivilised. Harper Lee makes them look so foolish. Most people are pretty foolish to Scout.

The one who isn’t is Atticus, who treats people as he finds them, but finds good in most people or at least he has an understanding of their position. But the simmering issue is that he is due to defend a Black man charged with rape of a white woman, and this is the Deep South. He is not popular. The most moving part of the story for me is when he sets up camp outside the town jail before the trial knowing some people are coming to lynch the man, Tom Robinson. Scout – always with a nose for trouble – turns up and in her innocence shames the men into leaving. In the trial Atticus has to shred the story of the poor woman who called rape. A woman who lived in squalor, was mistreated, possibly sexually, by her father. A woman who was asked if she had any friends but who did not understand the question. One person only had been kind to her – the man now charged with, but obviously innocent, of rape. Tom is found guilty, as the whole town knew he would be. Despite the verdict Atticus’ family is deluged with gifts of food, firewood and crops by the Black people of the town who had seen, at last, that someone would stand by them.

I liked the book, admired the writing and took pleasure in the small things – such as how and when children did nor did not wear shoes, about the visit by the Finch children to Calpurna’s church where she faces down what could be described as a Black separatist, where, towards the end Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and sees what he must have seen of the town in his years of isolation. And I liked Scout, even when she was a vicious little brat. Gradually it becomes clear that Atticus does not stand alone. There’s the wealthy white man who  chose to live among Black people and the employer who gets himself thrown out of court trying to defend Tom. Towards the end a law officer shows great kindness to Boo Radley.

It would be easy to argue that, in the book, Black people are people who have things done to them and have no agency, or that this is a book about white liberals. The latter is true and the former is also true. This is the Deep South, in a red-neck area, in 1935. Yet there are strong women like Calpurna – Cal – who Scout loves and the whole was stratified not just by colour but by class and the grinding poverty that created victims like Tom and the woman Mayella who he did not rape. Harper Lee knew all this and used her language carefully, like when the seemingly decent Mr Gilmer prosecuting the rape case starts calling Tom “boy” as he questions him.  The effect is ice.

Tomorrow night, I’ll watch the film.

Ross Bradshaw



The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken (Gallic, £8.99)

9781908313867Ah Paris, where booksellers go out for espressos and glasses of wine during the day at their nearby cafe instead of a trot round the block and a baked potato with cheese and beans… Bookseller Laurent comes across an upmarket handbag dumped by a bin which about to be emptied. He rescues the bag, guessing it had been thrown there by a thief. Having failed to give it in to the police he goes through it at his leisure. There are plenty clues as to the owner, but no address, no phone, nothing of monetary value but things of sentimental value. What is the story? An intriguing clue is  a novel dedicated to “Laure” by the elusive Patrick Modiano (see reviews of his work elsewhere on this site). Neat because Modiano’s novels are mostly about tracing someone unknown on the basis of clues. Among the possessions is the red notebook which includes the owner’s scattered thoughts, her fears and hopes

Gradually Laurent tracks down the woman who we know from the first is in hospital in a coma following a mugging. He knows her well by now, he’s read her journal, has picked up her strappy dress from a laundry and, unaccountably when he turns up at her door to return the bag he allows Laure’s gay friend, William, also visiting her flat to think he is her latest boyfriend. Laurent finds himself looking after the flat and moves in, to explore room by room, bookshelf by bookshop, painting by painting the surroundings of the woman he has not yet met but knows so well. Meanwhile his relationship falls apart as the women he is seeing thinks he has found someone else, as he has.

Literary references abound; Sophie Calle is there of course, but this is not a book with pretensions, just an easy Friday night read with the odd bit of clunky translation.

But the fantasy has to end. Laurent leaves a brief note for Laure is getting better and will return. She knows that this man knows her life better than others who have simply known her body and sets out to find a bookseller called Laurent…

Ross Bradshaw

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto, £16.99)

NarrowRoadtotheNorthA couple of years before my mother died she sent me a photograph of herself, arm in arm with a man I’d never seen before. It was not a good photo – an old Box Brownie I imagine – which made the contrast between her own normally pale face and the near-black, but Caucasian-looking, man startling. I asked her about it but she said she did not want to say, but would I keep the photograph for her sake? In fact I knew the story. The man was someone she’d gone out with during the war who’d become a POW in Burma. He arrived back burnt black by the sun. His experience haunted him which led, eventually, to the relationship foundering. There’s more of course, but there’s no place for it here, other than to say the last part of Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North covers the lives of a group of Australians who survived working “on the Line” in Burma and there were similar stories. Of men who were broken by the experience, men who never mentioned it again and some, like the surgeon Doriggo Evans who achieved fame because of his heroism and leadership. He kept at least some of his men alive when not one of them was fit enough to work and hundreds were dying of hunger, dysentery, cholera, beri beri and overwork imposed on them by their captors.

It was the last part of the book which worked best for this reader, not just for personal reasons, but in reading the stories of survivors after the narrative. This included the experiences of three of the worst Japanese and Korean soldiers. Was it a surprise that the most senior officer segued into a cushy government job after the war, the second most senior went on the run and was not caught and the junior (the Korean) was executed? Not really. But all the stories of the survivors were interesting, and in one case hilarious when two ex-POWs smashed the window of a fish and chip shop to rescue live fish in a tank waiting their turn, yet went back the next day to pay for the damage. They found that the Greek owner of the shop had lost his son in the war so they sat all night eating and drinking with him, and he refused any payment for the damage they had done to his shop.

It took a long time to get to these stories but the earlier descriptions of the lives and deaths of the other prisoners will stay with me for years. Please don’t read this book before going to bed – you will not sleep well. The author’s father was a survivor of the Burma railway and one assumes accuracy in the fiction. Nor will it be easy to read haiku again – the cruellest of the Japanese recited haiku. The title is taken from the best known work of the Japanese poet Basho.

Other parts of the book were less convincing. Doriggo Evans was indeed a hero and was seen as such by his charges even when he had to pick 100 of them to go on a march that he knew few would survive yet before the war and afterwards, despite his marriage, he slept with every woman he could, without feeling. Or possibly in search of feeling, which he was only able to achieve in his illicit affair with his uncle’s much younger wife. These parts of the book did not work for me, not for any moralistic reason, simply because they did not work – and the sex scenes were just about bad enough for the Bad Sex Award.

Ross Bradshaw


Fug You, an informal history of Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, by Ed Sanders (Da Capo, £17.99)

FugI came to adulthood just after the 1960s, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and like many of my generation regret having just missed out on the 1960s. Though I was fined £1 in Glasgow for flyposting against the war, which still raged, the main countercultural changes in the USA, the draft resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, flower power were all over.

Not that I’d like to live through a war like Vietnam again or to have to fight segregation and there were terrible things within the counterculture – another Ed Sanders book was about The Manson Family. In this book he gives his take on the 1960s, a detailed history. Sanders was, with Tuli Kupferberg, the main character in The Fugs, a political rock’n'roll band, and a poet. He was the proprietor of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the editor of Fuck You magazine, a friend of everyone from Janis Joplin to Allen Ginsberg. And when he came to Britain he visited Stonehenge with the poet Michael Horovitz, who I know, which makes me only two steps of separation from Janis Joplin!

Ah, the 60s. This was a period, under Johnson’s Great Society when he introduced “Medicare, Medicaid, the Freedom of Information Act, the Voting Rights Act, a law setting aside millions of acres of public land as permanent wilderness, and [his] executive order on affirmative action.  … At the same time Johnson started up a ground and air war in Vietnam – with napalm, Agent Orange, fragmentation bombs… ” In response The Fugs tried to levitate the White House with the chant “Out, demons, out”.

Ed Sanders lived through it all, but more, in that he was a living link between the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and the hippie era. Unfortunately, from this bookseller’s point of view, his promised history of the Peace Eye Bookstore is missing. Though the shop is constantly referred to we are left no wiser about what it stocked, other than at one stage he turned the shop over “to the community”. On his next visit he “noted that there were a lot of books in the garbage cans out front.” He was told that “the needed the wall space for psychedelic designs” and the floors were covered in mattresses as “what the community needed was space to crash”. Never anyone suggest Five Leaves is turned over to the community… At least he mentions a book party for the launch of Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It. 

Apart from campaigning against the Vietnam War and trying to make a hit record Sanders campaigned for the legalisation of marijuana. Drugs were important to him and campaigns for legalisation took up much of his time. That had its dangers – the poet John Sinclair got ten years for supplying a couple of joints “to an undercover cop in Detroit who was pretending to be a volunteer from the Committee to Legalise Marijuana”. The drug parts of the book reminded me of the tedious parts of the counterculture, in Sanders case also hanging round with people who injected harder drugs and who used amphetamines. In my day I was partial to the odd joint (who wasn’t?) but making it the centre of your life seems pretty boring.

Having not read much about the counterculture of late, what is also striking is the awful, awful sexism of the men. Save for his comments that he would not have been so positive about the use of needles  in the Fuck You artwork – Sanders reports what happened, often in great detail and with lots of archive and fugitive material, without  judgement. I found it hard not to be judgemental. I’m glad I read the book but will not be rushing out to find his nine volume verse history of America.

Ross Bradshaw


Shingle Street by Blake Morrison (Chatto, £10)

ShingleStreetWe’ll put a copy of this book in “landscape” as well as poetry…

For many years I’d holiday in Suffolk, walking the salt marshes, risking all as the old seafarers’ paths changed with the tides and the storms, under big skies, flat seas and always with a consciousness that the sea was winning, most famously at Dunwich.

One day my then partner, dog and I came across Shingle Street, a hamlet facing the sea on one side or, as Blake Morrison says “A row of shacks in stone and wood, / The sea out front, the marsh out back, / Just one road in and one road out, With no road in and one road out, / With no way north except the spit, And now way south except on foot … A wrecking ground, that’s Shingle Street.” It’s a place where, for a moment you think you would like to live, but know you never will and never could. Like WG Sebald, I never saw a soul there – a position Blake reports then negates with reference to an article by the writer Tim Miller, who does live there.

Shingle Street opens with a “ballad” of the street, which leads on to other Suffolk poems. The collection then turns to a sequence, This Poem, whose star poem is Redacted, the report of a death of a soldier in Afghanistan. The collection concludes with a selection of individual poems, but most readers will return to the opening, elegiac sequence which gives the book its title.

Ross Bradshaw

Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain by Lisa McKenzie (Policy Press, £14.99)

GettingByIt is 30 years since the end of the Miners’ Strike in March and looking back, for those of us who were involved, has been a mixture of being amazed by what happened during that year and being angry when we look around at the state of Britain in 2015.

Lisa McKenzie’s family were part of that struggle. She grew up in north Nottinghamshire, part of an honourable tradition of the mining community: she is from a family where generations were miners and during the 84/5 strike her mum was chair of the Women Against Pit Closures. In her new book she tells the story of the St. Ann’s Estate where she went to live as a single parent. We get an insider’s viewpoint of what life has been like for her community over the last 20 years.

It is a story from the inside, but also one that aims to challenge the simplistic and uncomplicated way that council estate life is often represented.”

Like many working class people, including myself, she was brought up with a belief that she was just as good as anyone else; “I knew I was working class, and I had been taught that we were the backbone of the country, strong and proud, and it never occurred to me that ‘others’ did not think the same.”

Lisa left school at 16, became a single parent at 19, and later on went onto an Access course at the local college. “Like most working class women I wanted to do something more worthwhile with my life – I thought I could do more than make tights in a factory….I wanted to work in my community, to give something back.”

It was while she was at University she found out that her estate had been the subject of research in the 60s by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn (Poverty: the Forgotten Englishmen, 1970) and this led to her changing her study from social work to social policy. In 2010 she completed her PHD and in 2015 she published this book. “This book is the outcome of nine years’ academic research; it is the fruits of that labour, and the fruition of my goal, to tell my own story of council estate life.”

Today council estates are seen as the epitome of everything wrong in society and as Lisa points out: “The council estate appears to have become the symbol of the Conservative Party’s vision of what ‘Broken Britain’ looks like.”

She shows how the reality is that it is the consequences of long term disadvantage and inequality that has affected the lives of the poor and working class in neighbourhoods such as St. Ann’s. It is not just about the economic dimensions of inequality but the cultural dimensions of how people are looked down upon and the effect that this has on their lives.

The St. Ann’s estate is north of Nottingham. Nottingham has been until recently a thriving industrial city:built on the wealth of coal mining, manufacturing and engineering it attracted a new proletariat to work in the mills, factories and mines. New Town, or as it is now called St. Ann’s, was the place where these people went to live. Over the years it attracted people from all over the country, as well as immigrants from eastern Europe. Ireland, and Jamaica. Lisa says; “Very rarely is a city’s history mapped through the everyday lives of those who have gone unacknowledged for generations, and who are still barely acknowledged today, and even then only through reports showing their “lack of ” everything from education, employment, culture and morality.”

Getting By is a fascinating book because we sit with Lisa as she talks to individuals and groups of women and men about their lives on the estate. We discover what it has meant to women and men who are the descendants of Irish and Jamaican families, we learn about the lives of the men who no longer can be part of the workforce and how they deal with it, and the problems of money and drugs.

She has no problem in defining where the problem is – and it is not the people of St. Ann’s;
“What does exist here, in Nottingham, and within communities across the UK, where the poorest people live, are hardships caused by the consequences of structural inequality, a political system that does not engage those who have the least power, disenfranchisement relating to the notion of fairness regarding their families and their communities.”

Lisa is proud of her working class credentials and her academic career but she is firmly on the side of her community. In the General Election she is standing against Ian Duncan Smith, Conservative Party Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, one of the chief architects of the ongoing war against some of the poorest members of society. Let’s hope he knows what he is up against!

Bernadette Hyland (subscribe to her weekly newsletter – Lipstick Socialist)

Hope, a playscript by Jack Thorne (Nick Hern, £9.99)

I confess I did not buy this as a book, but as the £3.00 programme for the play just ended at the Royal Court in London. This relatively new form of programme is so much better than the empty and overpriced brochures full of ads for posh preparatory schools and makes publishing playscripts much more economic. And if you have a train journey home you can read the playscript of the play you saw the same day. Which I did, and was surprised how many changes were made in the play compared to the playscript – including dropping and adding some lines and entire mini-scenes. The performance was fresh in my mind so I could spot the changes. In this case, save for the very last line being missing from the play the changes were improvements. But it is still a good playscript.

The story is of how a set of councillors in a small, working-class northern town copes with the government cuts, responds to a community campaign to save a day centre before deciding whether to make a grand gesture by refusing to set a budget, and stepping out into the unknown. And the cuts are awful. Says Sanwar “Hart Council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority – net loss of these cuts £28 per person – while in Liverpool District B, the most deprived local authority – net loss £807 per person. How does that not make you want to tear someone’s throat out?” The interlinked personal lives of the councillors form the backdrop of the story, with other characters being an adult with learning difficulties whose day centre is at risk and a former council leader who believes that “Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.” It might be in many, perhaps most, Labour councils throughout the land – other councils are barely mentioned – but here are a group of honest men and women trying to work out what to do for the best. It’s a good play, and a good playscript, and should be read by every Labour councillor or anyone, and that should be everyone, who cares about how local democracy and functioning local economies can continue to work under the onslaught.

Ross Bradshaw