An Everywhere: a little book about reading by Heather Reyes (Oxygen Books, £8.99)

An EverywhereHeather Reyes is a contributor to the Five Leaves’s book London Fictions, writing about Virginia Woolf, and is the editor of the city-pick collections of literature from the world’s best loved cities. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I could hardly resist picking up her book on reading. I picked it up some months ago but have just got round to opening it to discover that it is not just a book on reading, but a meditation on reading in relation to her discovering she was very ill, with a prognosis of four to five years. How did I not know? I felt I should get to work immediately and read it in one sitting. Somehow that felt important.

This is not a maudlin book, far from it, and though Heather writes that it is not a book about illness but a book about books, there’s always a sense of time running out – indeed, talking about Turkish literature she ends the chapter lamenting her lack of reading with “…there is so much … so much … And that’s just one country. What about all the others I’ve missed out on or scarcely touched at all. So much to know, still, so much to enjoy, understand, experience. I want more time. More time.” And discussing an early incident when she was asked to dispose of an elderly person’s books she remarks “What will happen to my books?”

Not that this stops her buying. In the period she is writing she buys forty books, many of which she discusses here. The start of the book was picked for her – when she was facing a time when it was unlikely she’d have the energy to do more than read so she opens with a pre-treatment French holiday which includes stocking up on those beautiful austere French books with just their author, publisher and title on the cover (Heather reads easily in French). This is the hardest chapter, partly because of the shock of the illness and partly because the average reader – well, this very average reader – did not know any of the writers mentioned and can’t speak a word of French. But stick with it. Along the way I drew up a little list of must reads, including a travel writing book about France itself and was reminded to read Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, one of which is buried in a pile somewhere at home.

But for me, the most interesting parts of the book were not about reading or about not reading. She writes about her father, an immigrant who left school at thirteen but became a successful businessman, an adviser to the UN, who crafted a roll-top desk with his hands. After his death Heather found an inscribed copy of her first novel on his shelves with a bookmark between pages twelve and thirteen. He was an autodidact who could not read fiction. I wanted to know more about him, about her family.

Along the way we learn the first book she bought independently – a Penguin Classics book of essays by de Montaigne (to my shame, I can remember the first record I bought, by one Elvis Presley, but not my first book) and share with her pain at revisiting the burning of the library at Alexandria. We discuss books that change your life, including Heather’s daughter reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and deciding on a career in law. She is a Human Rights lawyer.

There is more to discuss of course, and more to read. The book ends with Heather’s husband Malcolm pouring her a glass of white wine while she gets on with her reading party – her guests ranging from Aeschylus to Zola.

Ross Bradshaw

Voice and Vision: songs of resistance, democracy and peace (Topic CD, £9.99)

Voice_and_VisionTopic Records and the GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions) have released a double CD compilation of songs about working lives and struggles. Amongst those who appear are Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Roy Harris, Anne Briggs and a host of others. Twenty- nine tracks in all encompassing a wide range of traditional and modern songs all  performed with passion, honesty and integrity.

Highlights for me are Roy Bailey’s rendition of ‘Hard Times of Old England’, a song which always puts me in mind if The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Reading it many years ago the book stood as a condemnation of the world in which my grandparents had grown up; re reading it recently it is now a terrifying vision of a future that is not too far away. Roy Harris is here with a great performance of ‘Poverty Knocks’. Many of us will remember Roy singing this at clubs in the 1960’s. Then it seem that poverty was on the brink of defeat; now it knocks ever more insistently at the door.

One of my favorites comes from the incomparable Paul Robson. His version of ‘Joe Hill’ towers above others and it from him that many of my generation in the Labour Movement learned the song. I recall being told by one of the projectionists at the Odeon Cinema in Nottingham how Paul had performed there in the late 1950s and on being told that there was a large crowd outside who had been unable to get in went out on to the pavement and sang for them! This is the man who had his passport removed by the Champions of Freedom in the White House who more lately have turned our own Parliament into its poodle.

Paddy Ryan’s uproarious ‘The Man that Waters the Workers Beer’ richly deserves its place. Just as true now as when he wrote it in the 1950s ( £3.00 a pint for chemical garbage, we’d never pay that would we….but we do, we do and the landlords and brewers still have their cars and aeroplanes and with the convenience of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Camoron have managed to avoid the tax on meths and water!!) Join CAMRA and persuade them all to buy a copy of this CD.

Not all the tracks work completely for me. The version of ‘General Ludd’s Triumph’ by M.G. Boulter is not a patch on the magnificent and defiant version by Roy Harris which can be found on his Topic album The Bitter and the Sweet. The version of ‘The International’ by the Topic singers does not really come off. This is a big song and needs a choir of hundreds to do it justice; though at the other end of the spectrum Robert Wyatt makes a good job of it. The problem with things that are in the middle is that they tend to fall down the middle. These views are of course subjective and others will listen and make up  their own minds. Whilst we’re on with subjective views its a pity that room couldn’t be found for Dick Gaughan’s version of the ‘Workers Song ‘and/or ‘Revolution’. Perhaps this is the start of an argument for a Voice and Vision Volume 2! This would  be a good idea but will only happen if the current one sells well; do your bit brothers and sisters!

These slight criticisms aside overall the CD is a remarkable production and Topic and the GFTU are to be congratulated for having the vision to reaffirm the power of song and the role that it has, does and will play in the fight for a better future, a fight in which like it or not circumstances conscript us all! At £9.99 a copy it is also real value for money.

Like any good night out at a folk club or a concert the evening should go out on a high and this CD goes out on a bang and a whoosh! It starts with ‘Saltley Gates’ which combines oral history, real people from Birmingham talking about the impact of that historic day in real Birmingham accents (something which eludes the media community who can only conceive of working class accents as parody and for whom any ‘northern’ accent descends into a sort of Sheffichesterpool insult). I remember seeing the news of Saltley Gates on the BBC news just after I’d got in from work and literally leaping out on my chair. This track has the same effect. Then there is Norma Waterson with ‘Coal Not Dole’. Thirty years after the great strike and twenty-five after the criminal destruction of the industry this song raises the hairs on the back of your neck and is an eloquent reminder of the damage done to us all by a cynical government act for which they have yet to be brought to account. Peggy Seeger turns in an amazing performance with ‘If You Want a Better Life’. It rolls along beautifully and it obvious purpose and commitment puts the wind in your sails and takes you out into the  world to face and overcome any challenge that might be thrown.  I’ve never heard this track before and I’m wondering where I’ve been for the last fifty years. The final track, ‘War’. a reggae number, yes oh yes. What a way out.

Lawrence Platt

The Bookshop has this CD in stock and will shortly have a good range of Topic and ECM CDs on sale.

 

The Eitingons: a twentieth-century story by Mary-Kay Wilmers (Faber, £9.99)

The_EitingonsI read this book after reading Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina about her time as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers’ (MKW) family. Mary-Kay came across as so delightful I took the opportunity to find out more about her family history.

The Eitingons is a big book – 476 pages including the index and references. There are a few personal references but mostly this is a well-researched book about three figures in the Eitingon family who achieved fame or notoriety in very different ways: Max, a psychoanalyst and close colleague of Sigmund Freud; Motty, a fur manufacturer, who achieved great fortune; and Leonid, an important member of the Soviet Secret Service (latterly the KGB). From time to time, MKW tries to find connections between the three, and although none are documented, she allows herself a little speculation.

These are weighty stories of the twentieth century and I found out stuff I hadn’t previously known, including detail about how the assassination of Trotsky (in which Leonid was involved) was managed. This part of the book is thrilling – even though I knew how it ended. Perhaps there is too much detail in some parts of the book as a result of MKW’s extensive research and from time to time I had to check back to remind myself who some of the characters were but MKW’s intelligence and charm is always there in the background.

They sound a clever bunch these Eitingons – they all seemed to know several languages and to be pretty successful in their chosen careers. Mary-Kay herself studied Russian although she ended up not using it and instead ended up as longstanding editor of the London Review of Books. One of my favourite bits of the book is where she describes her role as “obsessively attending to other people’s English words – washing them, ironing them, preparing them for publication.”

 Myra Woolfson

 

The North, edited by Jonathan Davidson and Jackie Wills (Issue 52, £8.00)

North_52_coverI know it’s nearly October, but the spring issue of The North has just come through our letterbox, a voucher copy sent because the mag contains a review of Five Leaves’ Things of Substance by Liz Cashdan. An excellent review at that, by John Killick, who remarks “One always knows where one is with Cashdan, she is a kind of verse journalist, and you can piece together most of her life, places she has been, persons she has known, interests she has pursued, by following through this collection. And she has the journalist’s quality of clarity, concision and curiosity.” Killick concludes by praising Liz’s ‘The Names of Wool’, eleven verses of names of wool, when she “achieved a tour de force which should be in all the anthologies.” That would be nice.

Five Leaves – as a publisher – is only a part-time visitor to the poetry world, but this issue also includes an article by Mahendra Solanki about his life’s reading of British, American and Indian poets. Robert Lowell comes out as most returned to, but Mahendra also introduces the work of AK Ramunujan and Arun Kolatkar, new to me at least and perhaps most Western readers of the journal. His article will be useful in preparing an intro for Mahendra’s reading on October 1st at  the bookshop.

There are quite a few poems in the issue from that loose group of “friends of Five Leaves” – Robert Hamberger, who we used to publish; Maria Taylor, due to read in the shop next year; John Harvey, one of our irregulars; David Cooke, who read at out place recently and shared the launch of Liz Cashdan’s collection in Sheffield; Bill Herbert from our new A Modern Don Juan… as well as quite a few others who we’ve anthologised or with whom we have loose connections.

This issue of The North was guest edited by Jonathan Davidson and Jackie Wills and is well worth buying, not least for the longer, thoughtful articles about the craft and the business. My only criticism is that four of the reviewers – Malika Booker, David Cooke , Wendy Klein and Maria Jastrezbska also have books under review in the same.

The North is normally on sale at  Five Leaves Bookshop or from www.poetrybusiness.co.uk and costs £8.00.

Ross Bradshaw

The Hundred Years’ War, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe, £12.99)

the-hundred-years-war-anthology-001Marking not only the centenary of the Great War, but acknowledging that conflict – be it global, civil or religious war – has been a constant for the last century, Neil Astley’s major new Bloodaxe anthology takes us from the trenches to post-millennial terrorism.

As a discourse on both people’s inhumanity and the struggle to retain humanity in terrifying and desperate circumstances, The Hundred Years’ War is best read in sequence – though at nearly 600 pages this presents a daunting challenge. Daunting, but rewarding.

Opening with a 100-page selection from the Great War that eclipses the recent Faber 1914: Poetry Remembers anthology, the expected works by Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg are supplemented with French, Italian, German and Russian perspectives: poems by Albert-Paul Granier, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Wilhelm Klemm and Aleksandr Blok are hugely powerful and will deservedly find a larger readership. In particular, the twelve no-punches-pulled lines of Klemm’s ‘Clearing-Station’ are an unflinching distillation of his subject.

Poems on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War (Machado’s ‘The Crime was in Granada’, a threnody to the murdered Lorca, is a poignant inclusion) take us up to World War Two. Of the English poems in this section, the weary pragmatism of Keith Douglas and the brutal directness of Randall Jarrell are startlingly distinct voices. Pieces by Brecht, Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert and Miklós Radnóti widen the demographic and deliver unforgettable images and eye-witness accounts.

World War Two accounts for almost a quarter of the book. Smaller sections follow on the Korean War (William Childress, Keith Wilson and Thomas McGrath provide American viewpoints, but the weight of this section is borne by Ko Un) and the Cold War.

 Vietnam, The Troubles, and the continuing Israel/Palestine/Lebanon situation offer a broader spectrum of work. The excerpts from Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘A State of Siege’, a piece written more than a decade ago, could have been shaped from this week’s news coverage. Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15′, in which she rails against the throwaway term “stray bullet” sets up a forceful precedent for Brian Turner’s ‘Here, Bullet’ later in the anthology. Turner, of course, writes from the perspective of a US soldier serving in Iraq. Ditto Kevin Powers. Their pieces dominate the Iraq Wars section, although Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef is well represented. Still, the book isn’t about us-and-them dynamics and Astley keeps what Owen called “the pity of war” foremost in mind for the majority of his selections.

The Hundred Years’ War is balanced, sober and reflective. Astley provides a general introduction as well as introductions to each section. Annotations on the poets’ lives and personal experiences of war are informative and unobtrusive. This could easily become the keystone war poetry anthology for this generation.

 Neil Fulwood

 

How To Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees (Melville House, £9.99)

how-to-sharpen-pencils-rees-bookWars multiply in the Middle East, The Tories are still in power, austerity bites, the world is going to hell in a handcart… So why not read a book on pencils? Or to be more exact not just on pencils, but on how to sharpen pencils. That’s pretty specialist for you. How could a book like this possibly work? How could it not? Name three things you know about Keswick… Quickly now. OK, it’s *waving vaguely with one hand* somewhere up in the Lake District, there’s a pencil museum there and, um, that’s it. 700 years of history and all we really know about Keswick is that it has a pencil museum. People go there. It must be interesting. It survives. I bet it sells this book.

What this book is not is one of those “Why don’t penguins have fingers?” type of books that sucker you in with a teasing title only to discover more about the anatomy, physiology and health of penguins than you really want, plus a lot of other superfluous pieces of information about ice, fish and weather and some weary bits about other birds. Fortunately that type of book is going out of fashion. This book will not go out of fashion because it is not fashionable to begin with. It has a bright yellow cover with a pencil on it. There are chapters including Using a double-burr hand-crank sharpener and sub-headings such as Step Two: Monitoring the egress, not of shavings, but of the graphite core itself! The exclamation mark is in the original. This is the sort of book that uses the word “egress”. There are novelty pencil-sharpening techniques, not just the mainstream pencil-sharpening techniques. And pictures.

It works too. In the two minutes it has taken you to read this review you have been able to forget about the Government. The book will make it disappear for an hour. Works much better than mindfulness.

Ross Bradshaw

The Reader, edited by Philip Davis (The Reader Organisation, quarterly, £6.95)

reader_54_web_coverThe Reader Organisation is a large, dynamic and well-funded organisation which, typically, runs reading projects in prisons, care homes and other areas to improve health and well-being by reading projects. Of course TRO might argue it is small, dynamic and underfunded, but with arts money so tight it is good to see that a fair amount of it does go to such a worthwhile project.

One of its projects is The Reader, a quarterly, devoted not to its social and welfare activity but to discuss books and authors seriously but accessibly, in an attractive format. Naturally editions vary but the issue I’ve just read is from Spring. It includes fiction from May-Lan Tan, who we’ll hear a lot more of in the future, an interview with Erwin Jones about prisons (Jones was a lifer who turned away from crime to write about prisons for the Guardian), regular writer Jane Davis remembering Doris Lessing and the ever entertaining regular Ian McMillan writing about his dawn tweeting and walks to the shop. The reading Recommendations feature this issue is on “rights of passage” novels. That there is a feature on Tolstoy and a really hard books quiz at the back tells you this isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure it is for me every issue, but always worth checking out.

Ross Bradshaw

Women Against Fundamentalism: stories of dissent and solidarity, edited by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis (Lawrence and Wishart, £17.99)

Women_against_fundamentalismIn the mid-80s, for my sins, I joined the Labour Party in Nottingham. Several inner-city wards were riven by two competing Kashmiri factions, groups of men who voted as a block depending on what their leader said. These whipped votes were, at times, obeyed by “members” who did not speak English and who had little idea what they were voting for. I say “members” because often their membership was paid for them by their wealthy leaders. Kashmiri women were almost entirely absent. In return, Nottingham Labour parcelled out favours to these “community leaders”. Similar things were going on nationally, not just with Kashmiris, and not just with Labour. Community leaders could get some of what they wanted by packing meetings and delivering the votes come election time.

It was something of a tradition – in certain areas it used to be the Irish, now it was the Kashmiris, Bangladeshis and, in some areas, strictly Orthodox Jews.

In the outside world there were some feminist women from ethnic minorities who were less than keen on these, invariably male, community leaders. After 1989 these women came together as Women Against Fundamentalism. Many had already been in local groups such as Southhall Black Sisters or in distinct ethnic groups, but WAF brought together women of Hindi, Muslim, Jewish, Irish Catholic and other backgrounds who had a history of opposing communalism and religious orthodoxy and could see the similar patterns across different communities.

Women Against Fundamentalism waxed and waned and waxed and waned again. This book marks the end of WAF as a campaigning group, but draws together many of their members’ individual stories and revisits the many campaigns they fought.

The group was sometimes seen as “anti-Muslim”, which was convenient, but a quick look at the individual stories contained here shows how wide the group’s background was and the wide canvas on which members operated.

What marks out the stance of many members is that while many of them did work and campaign within general groups – CND, Israel/Palestine or whatever – they chose to remain within their communities rather than become outsiders. The first choice was often personal, as Sukhwant Dhaliwal puts it “On not becoming a Southall Stepford wife”.

Since the high water mark of WAF some things have changed for the better – the power of the Catholic church in Ireland has been much reduced whereas there really are UK supporters of the Islamic State and, hilariously, some people are currently boycotting the Jewish Chronicle because it is not just not right wing enough.

Just as the current wave of feminism in dominated by young women, it feels (to this male outsider) that we would all benefit for a new wave of women against fundamentalism. This book provides a fascinating and personal history on which to draw.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Britain’s Communists: the untold story by John Green (Artery, £9.99)

I71nA8qx72UL._SY600_ am not, and never have been a Communist, but some of my best friends over the years have been. At its height the Communist Party of Great Britain had 60,000 members and even at its dissolution there were over 6000. The continuing organisation – the Communist Party of Britain has around 1000 members and, beyond its good daily paper (the Morning Star) has little influence. John Green, rather than analysing the twists and turns of Party policy, looks at the influence the Party and its members had over the decades.

The author tells the story thematically, including the struggle against fascism, the peace movement, the women’s movement, internationalism, among professional workers and, “the main focus”, within trade unions. The book comes alive in looking at the Party’s influence on literature and culture, on books, the stage and film. I’m not sure whether the arts were over-represented within the CP but certainly it had active members of import ranging from the lyricist Lionel Bart , the playwright Arnold Wesker through to critics such as Raymond Williams and many fine novelists and poets. Not all stayed with the Party of course but in arts, the trade unions and elsewhere the Party had influence beyond its numbers.

Over the past few years there has been much more attention given to the history of the CP. This book is a readable and worthwhile addition.

Ross Bradshaw

The Sun Bathers by Roy Marshall (Shoestring, £9.00)

the sun bathers

Roy Marshall’s debut collection takes its title from the linocut by Leonard Beaumont that is reproduced on the cover. Marshall imagines the 1930s bathing beauties as sisters – “let’s call them Dora / and Emily. Both warm-drowsy, both eighteen, / born on the eve of a war they’re told / their fathers fought” – and captures them in a last summer of innocence before global conflict again explodes: “none of us can say / who’ll be a WAAF or WREN, working the land / or in a factory”. Marshall concludes the poem with a grimmer prediction for the carefree lads hovering near them on the beach, their minds on romance and not the immanence of war.

‘August 31st, 1961’ similarly places a perfectly captured moment in time (the birth of his sister) against the bigger picture of the history books. “In the hospital car-park in Surrey / our Dad is watching the moon rise, / already a target for Kennedy”. Here, Marshall’s style is sparse, the maximum communicated with an economy of language. A sense of precision, of words carefully and purposefully chosen, characterises The Sun Bathers. Which is not to suggest that Marshall is a minimalist: these are poems that have depth and weight; their author’s skill in structure and lineation ensures they have room to breathe on the page.

Subjects are diverse, and Marshall certainly knows his history (pace the sequence about da Vinci that forms the collection’s centrepiece), but he’s arguably at his best when memory and autobiography infuse his work. ‘The Bow Saw’ became an immediate favourite on first reading and I’ve gone back to it several times: a simple recollection of father and son collecting fallen branches from the local woods, its half dozen quatrains are a masterclass in tactile evocation, taut use of poetics and how to achieve poignancy without succumbing to nostalgia. “I learnt the languages of wood: / dense oak coughing fine dust, jamming / the blade in the cut, asking more from / an aching arm, a racing heart and lungs”.

 The Sun Bathers is accessible without sacrificing erudition, sensitive yet muscular when it needs to be. Marshall has a fine talent for elegance and clarity. His poetry exerts a very quiet, understated spell: it keeps drawing you back.

 Neil Fulwood