Radical Walking Tours of New York City by Bruce Kayton (Seven Stories, £11.99)

In the era of Trump I won’t exactly be rushing back to the USA, but I wish I’d known of this book on my one previous visit, when I spent some time in New York. During that visit I joined some friends in marching with a largely Hispanic demonstration against police brutality. I don’t speak any Spanish but it did not take much knowledge of the language to know why big, tearful, poor Hispanic women were holding up pictures of their sons. There had been a lot of Hispanic men from “the Projects” shot in the back, allegedly when running away from burglaries. Immediately after the demonstration I joined a distant relative at a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. It had a luxurious men’s room where a Black man handed you a towel…

Poverty and wealth then. Most of the New York guides concentrated on the latter, this book the former, or at least attempts to break the poverty, racism – including restrictive employment practices, red-baiting, union-busting and environmental damage on which the wealth is built. In any one chapter you can find details of union struggles, anti-war activism, socialist bookshops, Black self-organisation from the nineteenth, twentieth and early in this century.

Over all, however, is the blight of gentrification. One of the flats rented by the anarchist Emma Goldman was recently on the market for $4000 a month while the Black gay poet Langston Hughes’ old house in Harlem would set you back a million.  The writer suggests that if you want to visit Revolution Books, the best radical bookshop in New York, you check its website first as it has moved so many times, most recently from Chelsea to Harlem, as it has been priced out of premises after premises.

The section on Brooklyn Bridge remembers how many men died in its construction and the terrible illnesses the underwater workers suffered. The Bridge has become a way of snarling up the city and over 700 Occupy marchers were arrested there. At least some aspects of New York’s radical past continue.

This is a great book to dip into, full of interesting snippets of labour history, though an index would have been a great help.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Poems for the Young at Heart, by Martin Stannard (Leafe Press, £10)

Martin Stannard has two reputations: as poet, and as literary critic. His reputation as literary critic is akin to that of Brian Sewell walking into an art gallery and frowning or Boadicea sharpening the knives on her chariot wheels. It’s a reputation – one might even say an infamy – that threatens to overshadow his work as a poet. I wonder how many reviewers, themselves previously on the receiving end of a bruisingly honest Stannard review, have gleefully rubbed their hands together at the prospect of a little quid pro quo on a receiving a copy of one of his books.

The benefit of not having a collection out myself is that Stannard hasn’t given me the lit crit equivalent of five rounds with Mohammed Ali, and I can therefore approach Poems for the Young at Heart without an agenda. It’s Stannard’s first collection in over half a decade and clocks in at a significant 130 pages – kudos to Leafe Press for releasing such a hefty and well-produced volume at an affordable price, particularly in a market where a tenner is the standard asking price for collections half this length.

Poems for the Young at Heart starts with ‘One Week in the Life’, an observational piece in which quirky little details are polished to reveal different and enigmatic facets as the week progresses. The setting is rural, the period ambiguous. Something unspoken and possible sinister is lurking just off-screen. I say “off-screen” because the cumulative effect is almost cinematic – reading ‘One Week in the Life’ is like watching some alternative version of Witness as if it had been directed by David Lynch from a script by Michael Haneke. It’s a compelling and weirdly unsettling introduction to the book.

Stannard then delivers a series of so-called “occasional poems”, although the fact that they occupy seventy pages suggests they’re not so occasional. But then again, rug-pulls, surreal humour and a gleeful monkeying-around with the reader’s expectations are his stock-in-trade. Take ‘3 Openings’, which I quote in full:

1.

The tall man opened the door and

2.

The tall handsome man opened his eyes and

3.

The tall handsome ill-advised man opened the can of worms and

In one respect, it’s a one-trick pony: three unfinished scenarios, the pay-off left to the reader’s imagination. What makes it works is the accretion of detail; and that one touch of the unexpected – why does he open the door before he opens his eyes? – is what makes it memorable.

‘3 Openings’ is also worth quoting in full as an example of a short Stannard poem. Many of the pieces in Poems for the Young at Heart are long poems (written in long lines: Stannard is unafraid of the extended, tongue-twisting line) that give his imagination and his pyrotechnic approach to wordplay free range. Personally, I often approach a long poem with a sense of trepidation, wondering if it justifies its length. Certainly, there are enough contemporary poets who use the longer form purely to showboat. Stannard, however, goes big because that’s how his imagination works. As a general rule of thumb, the longer he spins out a poem, the more playful and deliciously offbeat the result. ‘How I Watch a Year Go By’ is a perfect example – and a genuine standout in a collection that doesn’t have a single duff entry: Stannard sets up a subject, a format and an effortless segue from one month to the next, only to happily break his own rules mid-way through as the poem becomes a dialogue between its ongoing composition and its creator. The effect is bold, ballsy and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Two sequences conclude the book. ‘Selections from Dramatic Works’ is a series of variations on a theme, the theme being the stupidity of the male when in thrall to his libido. Each of the twelve dialogues that comprise the sequence is prefaced by a bizarre set-dressing instruction. Again, it’s the combination of the outright surreal and the sense of things-not-quite-said that makes the piece memorable. The collection rounds off with ‘Chronicles’, a series of 23 poems developing from the same opening phrase and building into a demented character study. Imagine an Alan Bennett monologue on magic mushrooms delivered in a tone so dry you’d think it was typeset in sand; imagine that and you’re halfway there.

Poems for the Young at Heart is a full-throttle achievement, a blistering testament to the power of the imagination. Stannard’s voice is gloriously and emphatically his own. He’s out there, at the edge of the globe, trawling the section of the poetry map that’s been left blank apart from the warning “here be monsters”; these poems are his dispatches from the undiscovered.

Neil Fulwood

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, volume 2, Britain 1965-1970 by Ernest Tate (Resistance Books, £13)

Yes, I can feel your eyes glazing over already, but there’s more to this book than you think, not least the many photographs of Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali and Richard Branson at the front of big London marches against the Vietnam War. BRANSON? Yes, the world’s worst balloonist and train operator hung out with revolutionaries in the 1960s. At least Stephen Hawking (pictured likewise, walking with canes) kept his socialist principles.
The local – Nottingham – interest is with the late Ken Coates, one of the key people in the International Group which joined with others to form the nucleus of what became the International Marxist Group, British section of the Fourth International (that’s the Trotskyist one). Pat Jordan, who once ran a radical – and comic – bookshop in St Anns is also there at the start. Pat came to a sad end, some of which is covered here.
Ken Coates went on to be the key person in the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which continues in Radford with a set up involving Spokesman Books and Russell Press.
In this book he features large in a long chapter on the Russell Tribunal on the Vietnam War which pulled together an investigative panel including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The author spends too long discussing the disastrous finances of the Tribunal but at last I started to understand the mercurial Ralph Schoenman who was at the centre of the various controversies around the Tribunal and anti-Vietnam War activity until his (American) passport was taken away, meaning he could not travel to Europe any more.
Opposition to the Vietnam War is at the centre of the book and Tate takes us behind the scenes as he was an organiser of the mass mobilisations in London in the 1960s.
Equally fascinating,but in a car-crash kind of way, are the later chapters of the book where Tate describes the work of the Fourth International when they decided to take to the hills, Cuban style, to ferment guerrilla uprisings in South America. Few of the participants survived. Tate had been sent from Canada to build a group in the UK and returns home, exhausted and broke. Volume one covers his earlier years building the Canadian movement but he is frozen out of his own organisation as it descends into a cult-like grouping. They take a “turn” to industry. Having mostly failed to organise a working class base they substitute themselves for the working class by sending previously professional workers onto the factory floor. Hilariously, he describes holding bi-weekly training sessions on how to be working class (which he was himself) including showing people how to use basic tools so that they were not completely ignorant after they left their middle class jobs.
It’s beyond the scope of the book but his former UK comrades did the same here.
Not surprisingly, it was the beginning of the end.
Ross Bradshaw

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: Then and Now by Ron Disney (self-published, £9)

This book is such a good idea, stills from the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with black and white pictures on the facing page of the exact same scene now in Nottingham.

In most cases the scenes are unrecognisable – Arthur Seaton cycling out of Raleigh on Faraday Road, now no Raleigh but plenty of student accommodation; Derby Road with a variety of buses, a trolley bus and a Ford Cortina, now the one-way system and a variety of hotels in view; Salisbury Road with cobbles and children playing in the street, now a weed infested car-park… So much has gone, though who wants to go back to having outside lavvies even if your kids could play in the streets and you could leave your door unlocked (because you had nothing worth stealing)?

And some of the progress is welcome. The two shots of the Castle Terrace where Brenda meets Arthur shows industrial filth settled over the city while in modern times you can see for miles. Our air is cleaner, and those living in the valley that is Nottingham don’t die so young.
Of the instantly recognisable scenes there is Brenda paying attention to her headscarf at the bottom of the stairs at the Savoy in 1960 and then the same stairs though ticket prices seem to have gone up a bit.
The contrast between the still pictures and modern photos is a delight and it is easy to see why half the copies sold at the special screening of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning when the book was launched at the Savoy. But, oh my, the book could have done with a bit of proof-reading. This is a shame as the information is good and people’s memories of the period are interesting, not least those of Shirley Ann Field who provided her recollection of the filming.
But let’s just accept the book as it is, a loving, amateur (in both senses of the word) effort. And the author has his heart in the right place, dedicating the book to “those Nottinghamshire miners who came out on strike in 1984 to defend their industry and communities only to be defeated by the real ‘Enemy Within’.”
Ross Bradshaw

The Liberation of the Camps: the end of the Holocaust and its aftermath by Dan Stone (Yale, £20)

Surprisingly, there have been few books for the general reader on what happened at, and what happened after, liberation of the concentration and work camps at the end of World War Two.

Liberation was not the end of the story. Thus one report mentions that German Jews who survived the war in hiding said that “little has changed since the Russians entered Berlin, except the food is even shorter”. These people, obviously, were not from the camps, but chaos was common – and lasted a long time. Even Belsen – operating as a Displaced Persons camp – had a few hundred inhabitants in 1950, who were transferred to a further camp in 1951. Stone writes of the irony that these unlikely places would “become the setting for the revival of Jewish life and culture”. At Belsen, “1,438 marriages had taken place and some 500 circumcision ceremonies” in the first two years after liberation. The author comments “It was not what the Nazis had intended”.

Anti-Semitism towards the victims did not end in 1945 either. In 1952 customs police raided the Föhrenwald DP camp – looking for black market goods – shouting slogans about gas chambers. The residents fought back, driving the police out.

Care of the survivors was patchy, with a bewildering array or organisations involved but the big issue of “what next?” arose. For Britain the concern was Palestine. President Truman suggested allowing 100,000 DPs to enter Palestine, while stalling on allowing Jews into America. There was an active Zionist movement in the camps but the author holds back from judging whether the impulse to move to Palestine was born of an inner drive or outside forces. Many DPs emigrated to Canada, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.

This is an important book which adds to our knowledge.

Ross Bradshaw

Engel’s England by Matthew Engel (Profile, £9.99)

Following the decades of local government reorganisation, including the separation of Nottingham from Nottinghamshire, the notion of a “county” seems quaint, a barely remembered division of the country used only by cricket teams. Engel knows this of course, not least because he is a cricket writer and is used to dividing the country in this way. In Engel’s England he visits all thirty-nine counties and the capital to report on what he finds.

This is a large book, but it is in the best tradition of gazetteers, being quirky, garrulous and happy to miss bits out if the author can’t be bothered. In Sussex, for example, he writes “I skipped Worthing, having known it all too well”. Engel is also opinionated and is probably banned now from visiting Surrey, a county where “Money and property are the Surrey obsessions”. Nothing is in proportion, it depends on what catches Engel’s eye. Thus, a Martian reading about Yorkshire, a rather large place, would come away with the notion that rhubarb growing is one of the County’s main industries. Rutland, a much smaller place, is given due care and attention as Britain’s smallest county, with detailed notes given of what must be the most boring local authority meeting ever, a meeting witnessed by one local blogger and one Matthew Engel.

I found the Nottinghamshire entry to be disappointing, save for its chapter heading “The Silence of the Trams” with too much attention given to the predictable. LeftLion would do a better job. But other counties fare better. And throughout there are memorable cameos, the most memorable of which is that at Beachy Head in Sussex, Britain’s most popular suicide site, there is a sign next to the Mr Whippy van for the Samaritans.

Books like this often end up in the loo, on that bookshelf so many people have for the quirky.  It is a good addition.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Gratitude, essays by Oliver Sacks (Picador, £9.99)

Oliver Sacks wrote a succession of popular books about strange medical conditions, most famously The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and a well-received autobiography, On the Move. He died at the end of last year. This short book – beautifully produced in a gift format – includes four short essays written in his old age and in expectation of his imminent death. The title reflects how he felt about the gifts that life had given him. The final essay - his final essay, is a meditation on the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbes of his youth, where, after describing the Orthodox practice of friends and their acceptance of him as a gay (married-out!) atheist, he comes round to seeing his own life as a Sabbath, with the feeling that he has done his work and can now, at ease, rest.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Corbyn’s Campaign edited by Tom Unterrainer (Spokesman, £7.95)

This book is a prescient amalgam of reportage of the inspiring campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn, but is also a celebration of a confident grassroots espousal of a renewed socialism with real Labour values, free at last from the torpor of what Tariq Ali called the “extreme centre”. The Left in Nottingham was among the first to give impetus to the Corbyn campaign. It is therefore fitting that the text begins with Corbyn’s speech at the first Nottingham meeting and the contribution of two young participants at the second.

These contributions are a breath of fresh air, cleansing the fetid atmosphere of defeat and conformity that has become the hallmark of residual New Labour placemen.
Part two of the book concentrates on the nuts and bolts of the campaign and its beginnings in a Facebook page of Red Labour. The online social media campaigning became a tsunami of digitised activity. All this is described in Ben Sellers’ piece, entertainingly entitled “‪#‎JEZWEDID‬“. Chris Williamson, former Labour MP for Derby, places the campaign in its historical context, describing how the acceptance by Labour of the neoliberal austerity agenda paved the way for the restitution of the Tories into government in 2015. He explains how the Tories twisted the rescue of the banks by the Labour Government into a rallying cry, accusing the Labour Government of incompetence. He tells how Ed Miliband made a sally at Blair’s legacy but seemed incapable of drawing the obvious conclusion that before Labour could move forward, it had to ditch the neoliberal austerity-lite legacy of both Blair and Brown, with their virtual acceptance of bi-partisan accommodation. The writer concludes with a verse from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy and an appeal to the Labour movement to rediscover “the spirit of 1945″.

Christine Shawcroft and (Sherwood’s) Adele Williams both write of the need for the democratic nature of the institutions and practice of the Labour Party to be restored. The writers wish the era of the “focus group” mentality and the stage-managed annual conference, with its adulation of the leader, to become a thing of the past. They wish to see the local Labour Party, and the labour movement in general, integrated into the local community. New institutions such as the People’s Assembly have a vital role to play in such involvement. The media campaign against Corbyn assisted by parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party was, and is, vicious, inaccurate and calculated to offend. But in spite of all this Corbyn has been able to retain his equanimity. Abi Rhodes (who works at Spokesman) charts the campaign against Corbyn and his labelling as “unelectable”. The fact that he scored a majority vote in all three electoral colleges belies this. She notes the efforts of the media to smear Corbyn because of his espousal of socialism, which is supposedly anathema to the British electorate in any form.

Corbyn’s campaign rallied thousands to a socialist agenda and showed that there is an undercurrent of profound dissatisfaction with the austerity agenda of the “extreme centre”.

The final section starts with a demonstration of Corbyn’s firm belief in the continuing exploitative domination of the developing world. The text in question is the Foreword he wrote for the reprinting of the classic work, Imperialism by J.A. Hobson, published by Spokesman, and much admired by Lenin. And it is Corbyn’s internationalism, opposition to war in general and his hostility in particular to that vehicle for mass murder, Trident, that Tony Simpson discusses. His contribution deals with the Syrian debate, but also mentions Corbyn’s long-term oppositional role both in and out of Parliament on such issues as Palestine and the plight of the Kurds. The final text is one on Workers’ Control by Tom Unterrainer. This is a cause, again always supported by Corbyn, which is surely one of the most important strategies to engage people and stimulate the question of democracy in the workplace and in the wider world. The book concludes with the text of Corbyn’s “Campaign policies”.

As the Introduction points out, this book represents no particular line of march, other than a generalised commitment to radical social change. It does, however, stand as a record of events to which I suspect few of us, certainly in its initial stages, would have given credence. It will surely help to bring about the changes so necessary in our society.

John Daniels

The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley (Verso, £14.99)

This set of essays starts with the well-known image, in Gill Sans type, with a crown at the top and plain lettering saying KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. This annoying slogan, Hatherley found, seemed to follow him everywhere, sometimes with varied text, even to street markets of Eastern Europe. Good job he had not come to Nottingham where you can see a poster outside the type of hairdresser I could never go into saying KEEP CALM AND GET YOUR HAIR DID. Or even Five Leaves Bookshop where we stock a similar card says KEEP CALM I’M AN ANARCHIST. Once, in Forest Fields (a local Asian area) I saw a T-shirt saying KEEP CALM I’M A MUSLIM. So far, so annoying, but Hatherley turns this into a general public desire for “austerity nostalgia” as that image became a staple in museums and gift shop harking back to better, more innocent times when “we” were “fighting the Hun and eating SPAM”. Hatherley goes to town exploring the vacuous and reactionary nature of such nostalgia.

More challenging, for any of us on the Left, is his like-minded attack on Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 film, with its use of black and white, brass bands, the absence of the impact of Windrush and avoidance of the downside of the Labour Government that gave us the NHS but also brought us nuclear weapons and dirty colonial wars. His objections are aesthetic as well as historical. I like a brass band as much as the next person but began to feel a little shifty when Hatherley moved on to the film on Tony Benn, Will and Testament, as, though it does not overlook colonialism, in parade “more brass bands and mournful marches”. Are we, too, guilty of what EP Thomspon called the “enourmous condescention of posterity”?

Moving on, Hatherley picks out the London Underground, which itself was no innocent in selling nostalgia with its there-will-always-be-an-Engerland posters advertising “Golders Green: a place of delightful prospects” or “Live in a new neighbourhood – Dollis Hill” with suburban satisfaction only a Tube ride away. Many pages are devoted to the Tube stations. Despite Verso’s dreadfully printed pictures I’ll make a point in visiting Arnos Grove, described lovingly by Hatherley. At this point I lost the thread of his main argument but cared not at all as modernism, constructivism and other such “isms” whizzed along. Hatherley mentions in passing that the foremost Tube station designer, Frank Pick (excuse my laboured pun in the first sentence of this paragraph), advised on the Moscow Metro and picked up an Order of Lenin for his troubles. Now there’s an answer for some pub quiz question sometime. Pick also worked for the now forgotten Empire Marketing Board, some of whose imagery is described but, thankfully, not shown.

In the longest chapter, “Family Portrait” Hatherley sifts out information showing that the public did not “keep calm and carry on” in wartime, not least in occupying the Underground against the wishes of their rulers and in one choice incident, shouting down someone who tried to get some community singing going. If you are going to have to sleep in a deep underground shelter with your home being blown up above ground you might not want to celebrate by singing.

The book is on strong ground when it comes to housing, reminding us that Bevan also built houses as well as the NHS, insisting on good housing, well-built and spacious such as at Spa Green and good buildings for health such as the Finsbury Health Centre. Bevan was less keen on the more revolutionary preventative work of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, this being mentioned here in passing. Hatherley has a lot to say about the designer Berthold Lubetkin, one of many architects and designers who either originated from mainland Europe or whose practice would draw on European modernism. Of course most of Bevan’s Council houses have been sold off on the cheap and now resell expensively as the well-heeled of London have come to appreciate that former Council housing, much of it, was well designed and well-built. Indeed, Hatherley remarks that increasing London commercially-built housing is designed to blend in with and look like Council housing, which was often appropriate to the environment unlike the Degeneration/Regeneration of the New Labour years. Ironically, after taking a swipe at the “free Boris Johnson propaganda and property porn rag, the Evening Standard” Hatherley gives credit to the mayor’s London Design Guide for improving standards.

The London mayor of course. And this – together with Verso’s awful muddy photographic reproduction – is the book’s main weakness. Most of the book is about London, London and more London. Hatherley is also week on solutions – housing, especially in London, is in crisis, but however much deserving of support we need bigger solutions than the Focus E15 Mums however much they “have not shown the Blitz spirit, they have not kept calm and carried on, and their iconography and slogans reflect that”. Not that Hatherley alone has to come up with solutions. That’s a job for all of us.

The Ministry of Nostalgia does, occasionally, show the signs of a publisher approaching an author with a book idea based on a couple of magazine essays. Sometimes you can see the sellotape holding it together. But that’s a trivial complaint because Hatherley can write. His demolition job on Norman Foster’s Imperial War Museum is a treat. There you can see the tired atrium (Foster loves atriums), the steps that go nowhere, the inaccurate captions on exhibitions, wonder about the brushing aside of inconvenient narrative and end up in the gift shops where you can buy a new catalogue featuring a foreword signed by Prince William. It’s a place “to pig out on Gill Sans, muted colours, Blitz spirit, crown logos, wartime cooking, duplicate ration cards – whatever your fantasy about living in genuine privation and fear might be … in a building that evokes a Bravo Two Zero version of a PFI hospital. The Museum of Keeping Calm and Carrying On.”

Ross Bradshaw

Wild Nights: New and Selected Poems by Kim Addonizio (Bloodaxe, £12)

Even by their own standards, 2015 has been a particularly strong year for Bloodaxe. Standouts include a definitive J.H. Prynne volume, a bilingual Hans Magnus Enzensberger edition, and stunning debuts by Rebecca Parry and Jane Clarke. Now, at the turn of the year, Bloodaxe gift us with yet another essential addition to the poetry lover’s bookshelves.

Kim Addonizio is already widely anthologised courtesy of her seminal, full-throttle poem ‘For Desire’, and she’s published half a dozen collections in America, along with several novels and works of critical non-fiction, yet this is the first time there’s been a UK edition of her work. It’s long past due; but well worth the wait.

Addonizio belongs to that school of American poets whose work is direct, almost conversational, and indelibly keyed in to personal experience. I’d be tempted to compare her to Raymond Carver or Fred Voss, only I can’t imagine either of those gentlemen rocking a pair of killer heels and the kind of red dress that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lana Del Rey song. “I want that red dress bad,” Addonizio writes in the rhetorically titled ‘What Do Women Want?’; “I want it to confirm / your worst fears about me / … I’ll wear it like bones, like skin, / it’ll be the goddamned / dress they bury me in.”

Wild Nights offers nearly 200 pages of compressed and provocative poems on love and loneliness, desire and bad decisions; poems that have known too many blurry sunsets and too many hungover sunrises and still go out looking for love in all the wrong places; poems that hang around neon-soaked bars with a broken heart and might well break yours by the end of the night.

But there’s more than just Bukowski-style barfly philosophy to be found in this collection. Addonizio is ferociously honest and has the talent and bravery to nail down painful subjects and thorny life lessons in precise but finely nuanced language. She can also be wildly (and inappropriately) funny. Take these lines from ‘Penis Blues’:

A penis has taken flight.

Probably gon’ fly all night.

There’s a flock of penises headed south.

Their cries recede over the distant car dealerships,

over the darkened pleather interiors

and the stoned janitor, slopping his mop

in a bucket of dirty water.

The imagery is low-brow and ludicrous but chucklesome for all that. Yet there’s an undertow of melancholy. Apposite, really, for a poet whose work returns inevitably to the rhythms and imagery of blues music, be it explicit homage to Robert Johnson (“Look down into the river, I can see you there / Looking down into the blue light of a woman’s hair / Saying to her Baby, dark gon’ catch me here”) or the poignant sequence ‘Suite pour les amours perdues’. But if her individual poems are three-minute odes to the human condition, Wild Nights as a cohesive whole is more akin to the immersive emotional experience of a Mahler symphony. One where the conductor rocks a pair of killer heels and flocks of penises wheel above the concert hall.

Neil Fulwood