Smart, by Kim Slater (Macmillan Children’s Books, £6.99)

Kieran lives in the Meadows in Nottingham with his mother, who he loves, a bully of a step-father and his waster son. Life’s not easy like that – his step-father orders him about, barely allows him to be fed and calls him a retard. The waster son watches violent stuff on Xbox all day and joins in with a bit of bullying on the side too.

It’s even harder if you are a bit different. When you’re a child whose favourite artist is LS Lowry, when you know the rules of grammar and your specialist teaching assistant helps you get by at school, but wants to know what is going on in your homelife. In the playground you learn to stay on the outside, to keep away but the bullies still find you. Your mum tries to protect you but even she loses patience sometimes, telling you she doesn’t have time for that when you have to make your special moves when you get near home. Kim never uses words like autistic, but Kieran’s problems are clear enough. The problems are other people.

The book opens with Kieran finding a body in the Trent, a tramp who the police, when they arrive, think simply fell in and drowned. The tramp’s friend, Jean, knows otherwise but nobody listens to her apart from Kieran. One of his obsessions is CSI so he sets out to solve the crime, which he does with the aid of his own drawing skills and the help of Karwana, a Ugandan boy who turns up at his school.

Kieran – the book is in the first person – feels the need to explain everything to you, and tell you the ways you can win, even when you are losing. Along the way he sets out to visit his grandma in Mansfield. She’s banned from the house because she took on Tony, the step-father so he gets a bus to visit her.

I sat near the back. It was 4.45 p.m.
I tucked the ticket inside my notebook and refastened my satchel.
At 4.45 p.m., I walked down the aisle to the driver.
It was difficult walking when the bus was moving but not as hard as you think it would be, because there are silver rails to hold on to, all the way down.
‘Are we nearly there?’ I asked…. ‘I’m worried the bus will go past my stop.’

There’s a lot going on. Kieran drops by the homeless shelter to seek clues and finds the security man acting suspiciously. Wasn’t he the one he saw speaking to his mum? Tony – the step-father is dealing rocks from home, and there’s Tony’s vicious dog, confined to a shed since he bit the wrong person. There’s hints that Ryan, the waster son, is perhaps not as bad as he seems. But if you are Kieran you also need to find the special pencil sharpener that vanished from the kit you won for your art. No other pencil sharpener will do. Finding a murderer might just be easier.

Smart is Kim Slater’s first book for older children. There’s two more I’ll be reading soon. Impressed.

Ross Bradshaw

The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney and Small Pieces: a book of lamentations by Joanne Limburg

I’m hesitant to offer a review of two memoirs by people I know but these books, which I’ve read over the summer, are so very good that I want to recommend them to all.

There’s a book by George Perec called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’) in which he observes, makes lists and otherwise attempts an exhaustive account of one small corner of Paris. Of course, it’s not exhaustive; apart from anything else the place is in motion and continually changing – even the present moment cannot be captured.

There’s a sense in which both Graham Caveney’s The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness  (Picador, £14.99) and Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations (Little, Brown, £14.99)  are similarly attempts at what is termed in French an épuisement in that they are both attempts to understand distressing and traumatic events by investigating them in a multitude of aspects. One of the ways they do this by placing them in the broader settings of life before and after. But both also acknowledge that the subjects they address will never be fully understood or accommodated; what has happened has to be borne and managed, and the attempt to understand will continue long after the books are written and published.

The two traumatic events – the death by suicide of Joanne Limburg’s brilliant younger brother and the sexual abuse perpetrated on the teenage Graham Caveney by his charismatic headmaster – are very different. However both lead to a consideration of the effect of trauma on family relationships, social position and relationship to religion (Joanne was raised in the Jewish faith while Graham’s family background is Catholic). Both also occupy a kind of outsider status. In Joanne’s book this is most clearly articulated in her encounter with the mostly kind and well-meaning Americans in the place she calls Plainsville where her brother and his Japanese wife settled. Graham explores the distance between working-class Accrington with its loving but limited home life and his desire for something beyond, suggested by the works of Beckett and Kafka, by music, by the visits to the theatre and abroad which his headmaster, a Catholic priest, holds out as tempting treats. and both cannot help at times asking the question we all ask ourselves after grief and trauma: “Was it something I did or said? Was it all my fault?” However much logic tells us this is not the case, it is usual to be burdened at times, solipsistically, with a sense of guilt.

But there’s more than this that the books have in common. Both are also structured adventurously – and perhaps this is essential when the experience at the centre of each will never cease to have its effects. While both memoirs have a sense of direction, they are compelled to move backwards and forwards in time – something which any writer knows is hard to achieve while maintaining the momentum of the book. Yet both are written in such a way that I read them avidly. In Joanne Limburg’s book, this meant I had to move through a series of vessels rather than chapters. In the tradition of the Kabbalah there were ten aspects of of the divine contained in vessels which almost immediately fractured, scattering the contents through the universe and mixing them up with the material world with its evils and suffering. And each of the vessels in Joanne’s book includes fragments of the divine – of goodness, of love – as well as the anguish of loss and the difficulty of accommodating a mourning self in a changed world.

Graham’s book is even more urgent with almost every section headed ‘Next’. It articulates the question which may be implicit in Joanne’s book: what would I have been if this had not happened? That, of course, is the unknowable. It is plain that Graham has suffered damage from the assaults he experienced and that his pathway has been different as a result of his singling out by the headmaster. The results are not even entirely regretted since the headmaster offered, in place of sweets or temporary goodies, the treat of a knowledge of culture which cannot be entirely dismissed or rejected – although Graham’s choice to specialise in American literature was conceived as a rejection of what the headmaster stood for.

Despite the clear focus of each memoir, both build the sense of a wider world. In Small Pieces there are pictures of family life with all its complexities as well as meditations on the author’s relation both to her Jewish identity and the Jewish religion. She comes from a family of tough women, sometimes overset by events beyond their control, and the memories she recounts of her childhood show the kind of relationship between older sister and younger brother that is founded on familial closeness and love. At times it called to mind my relationship with my own younger brother, who I love dearly – there are the same childhood squabbles and jostling for power and love as well as alternating times of communication and times when conversation is less frequent (my brother also lives in North America). While the references to Judaism were largely unfamiliar to me, I read them – as I often read – for greater knowledge and understanding, and also because they were integral to the story being told.

In some ways, Graham’s story seemed closer to my own life, although my working-class parents in London were consumers of culture and my mother in particular was avid to devour the culture of which she felt deprived after leaving school at thirteen to work in a factory. His lists of the tastes of childhood set me to conjure up the tastes I recalled from that time. I also shared his sense of the need to protect my parents – in my case from an acutely unhappy boarding-school experience having been sent away from home on a scholarship at 9-years-old. I knew this involved sacrifices made by my parents, that they were happy and proud of some of my achievements, and that they couldn’t understand why their happy child had such difficult teenage years. And, like Graham, I don’t know how much was the separation from my parents and how much the normal pains of adolescence. But I also know that I was lucky not to endure the appalling betrayal he endured of being abused by someone in a position of power. Of course he couldn’t have told someone at the time. Who could he have told? Who would have believed a working-class teenager’s word rather than that of a headmaster and a priest? Later, when the climate of public opinion and knowledge had changed Graham was able to report the abuse to the church. His position as the author of two books probably gave him credibility and the headmaster admitted what he had done.

These books don’t have happy endings – what could those be? Yet they don’t have entirely unhappy endings either. Life is a movement forward in which we learn to live with seemingly impossible loss and trauma. Both Joanna and Graham are part of our world and have written books from which we can learn, if only by being aware of the grief of others and bringing our own intelligence and experience of life to bear on the problems that caused it. Both books reach towards understanding. They invite the reader to play a part in that important work.

 Kathleen Bell

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