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

Rokkering to the Gorjios by Jeremy Sandford (Interface/Univ. of Herts. Press, £11.99)

Rokkering to the GorjiosI need to know more about Jeremy Sandford. His landed-gentry Irish grandmother travelled in a horse-drawn vardo (covered wagon) and spoke Romani. He went to Eton, yet wrote Cathy Come Home and continued his family interest in Travelling people by editing the Romani paper Romano Drom (Gypsy Road) and writing this book, which was initially published in 1973 as The Gypsies. The book had a large sale at the time and was, for many people, their first introduction to the culture of Travelling people. This book is the 2000 edition, introduced by Charles Smith of the Gypsy Council, once a really lonesome Traveller who picked up the original book, wrote to the the organisations listed in the back and got drawn into organising.

Sandford tries to cover the various strands of the Traveller world, Anglo-Romanis on the road and those who live in houses, Scottish Travellers (including the singer Belle Stewart), Irish Travellers and even some of the then nearly extinct group of “water gypsies” who plied their trade on the canals. At the time he was writing he was also able to speak with Travellers still living in bender tents. It is hard to imagine that there are still people doing that now. Indeed, the book was suffused with a sense of time passing, some people being left behind and others facing an unsure future as it was harder and harder to retain a traditional Traveller life. Indeed, there were many Sandford interviewed who wanted out, and who wanted their children to have an education and to live in houses.

Not all the characters in the book were of interest. I was keen to move on from Prince Nathaniel Petulengro Lee who started the book. The most interesting was the fifty page section at the end written by Johnny Connors, a man who had eight hours of schooling in his life and who taught himself to read thereafter. Connors described his Irish childhood – including the snow storm in which he and his family, living in tents, had to be dug out and barely survived. So often he suffered from prejudice, including a Walsall Hospital sister who refused to treat his family, an area where the local Council and police attempted to drive all the Travellers out.

Rockering to the Gorjios - the Anglo-Romani title means speaking to the non-Gypsies – is well illustrated with period photographs, though annoyingly put in sometimes irrelevantly to the section being illustrated. Like the Five Leaves title Beneath the Blue Sky about life in the 60s, this is a period piece, but it also feels a bit dated in editorial terms. Perhaps people are better at doing oral history than in the 1970s.

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, translated by Daniel Weissbort (Godine, £14.99) and Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano, translated by William Rodarmor, illustrated by Jean-Jaque Sempe (Anderson, £9.99)

ModianoIf you scroll down, you’ll see that the last book I reviewed was by Modanio, and I liked it. I regret that I can’t give such a positive review to the first book here, though it is perhaps his best known, having won the Prix Goncourt in France, some years before his winning the Nobel in 2014.

Godine – a great American independent publisher – must be so thrilled (they were the first English language publisher of the second book here) having stuck with Modiano despite sales that could only be described as modest until the Nobel. But  Missing Person did not do a lot for me. The story is of Guy Roland, who decides to find out who he really is. That name and his identity were given him by his employer, a private detective, when the narrator becomes a private detective. Roland is a man without a past – the survivor of a fugue state (though the words are never used). When his employer retires Roland starts following clues to discover he could be one of several people. The clues lead him to assorted odd characters who invite him up, give him copies of photos and documents that lead him on to his next possible persona. He becomes a collector of other people’s memories and starts to imagine the lives of those he might or might not have been. Modiano deliberately confuses real life with imagined life so the reader is not sure if Roland has found anything real or is living in his imagination. Now that I am more familiar with Modiano, it is no suprise that a turning point is on the Swiss border in 1940 when a woman disappears without trace. The bones of a great story are here, but though this is only a novella of 168 pages I had to push myself to get to the end.

Catherine_certitudeModiano’s book for children, though quite suitable for adults, is, however, charming, and beautifully illustrated. The Catherine Certitude of the title looks back from New York to her childhood in Paris where she lived with her father before they rejoined her dancer mother in America. Her Papa owned a small firm which bought and sold, well, anything. It was obvious that the provenance of some at least of what he sold was dodgy. Was this the black market (which is how Modiano’s father made his living) or just scraping a living? Either way, her father was not a success and when Catherine is invited to a fellow ballet student’s party he pretends to own a posh car parked in the street, something nobody believes. When someone drives it away he pretends it is being stolen. But nobody is quite what they seem – he often speaks to people in “mysterious languages” while Catherine’s Russian ballet teacher is no more Russian than this writer.  Despite, or perhaps because of his failure, Catherine loves him and the whole book is a a fond look back on Paris and childhood memories.

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person is available for £14.99  and Catherine Certitude for £9.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
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The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, translated by Joanna Kilmartin (Harvill, £8.99)

the-search-warranEvery time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few.  They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.

It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.

I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre,  novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it  has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.

The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.

The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.

Ross Bradshaw

A Modern Don Juan, ed. Andy Croft & N.S. Thompson (Five Leaves, £14.99)

Modern Don Juan

I
A book judged by its cover, this one’s cute:
…..Byron on the phone. Judged by its pages
(A whopping three hundred and fifty), it’s a beaut –
…..The best epic narrative poem in ages,
Co-written by fifteen poets of good repute.
…..Their versifying excites, provokes, engages
As they resurrect Lord Byron’s anti-hero.
He’s not changed much. Morals still count for zero.

II
The neat conceit behind these ribald rhymes
…..Is a case of o tempora … wotsit? … mores:
The book reflects the hours and the times
…..As our anti-hero romps through fifteen stories
Set in the present day. These modern climes
…..Are taken in his stride as Don Juan forays
Between London, Amsterdam and Budapest
While a spell in prison puts him to the test.

III
Elsewhere, our mad bad lad is quite tech-savvy
…..(Via internet he lines up all his lays)
While another tale subverts his cocksure happy-
…..go-lucky bed-hopping escapades –
Through his interactions with another chap, he
…..Seems to be a Don who swings both ways.
But whichever conquest appears to him like Venus,
The book’s more than just One Man and His … Libido.

IV
Satirical, artful: this book’s the cream – a
…..A cornucopia of style and wit,
Reinventing Juan as DJ, statesman, schemer,
…..Likeable rough diamond, total git.
Rendered in dodgily rhymed ottava rima,
…..Folks, you’ll have a lot of fun with it.
The cover price couldn’t be a fairer deal.
A quid per canto: lovely! It’s a steal.

Neil Fulwood

Towns in Britain by Adrian Jones & Chris Matthews (Five Leaves, £16.99)

Towns_in_BritainExpanded from their ‘Jones the Planner’ blog, Jones and Matthews’ Towns in Britain presents what I’m tempted to call a whistlestop tour of urban planning, architecture and civic redevelopment … only “whistlestop” seems something of a pejorative for such a rich and detailed work.

Starting in Jones’ adoptive hometown of Nottingham, the pair set out to assess the various successes and manifold failures of two dozen British towns and cities (London gets four chapters, while a single chapter covers five key locations in the Hertfordshire Metropolis). The pattern that emerges is one of compromise between visionaries and quangos, aesthetics and red tape. Guess what? – the quangos and red tape usually win.

The authors pull no punches in their findings: Nottingham University’s Jubilee Campus Phase 1, designed by Michael Hopkins, is a “carefully considered, quietly confident and slightly flawed essay in sustainable design”. However, “the second phase by Make is all vacuous glitter … based on a grand axis that leads nowhere … It is all an academic Vegas.” I pass through this development on the way to work: the description fits perfectly.

Elsewhere it’s not just individual buildings or developments that get the sardonic treatment; sideswipes are taken at entire cities. “Leicester has a bit of a problem with its image,” begins the chapter on that city: “it hasn’t really got one.” Cardiff loses points on account of its “parallel urban universe of such crassness and banality that it disgraces the capital city of Wales”. Their reaction to Hatfield can probably be summed up by a photograph caption: “promise unfulfilled”. Ah, yes, the photographs. Towns in Britain is lavishly illustrated. I’m guessing there are in excess of 500 photographs spread across its 324 pages, often satirically captioned.

But I’d be doing Towns in Britain a disservice if I made it sound like nothing more than The Grumpy Old Buggers’ Guide to Crap Architecture. Jones and Matthews praise as often as they damn, and even when they’re indulging in criticism it’s leavened by suggestions towards improvement (here’s hoping town planners read and take heed). Behind the throwaway one-liners and witty captions is an intelligent, discursive and eminently readable prose style. If you’ve never given a thought to urban planning beyond cursing the ring road during rush hour or averting your eyes from some tombstone-like office block, don’t let the subject matter put you off. Towns in Britain offers some fascinating perspectives: if your home town’s featured in the book, it’ll change the way you look at it.

 Neil Fulwood

Towns in Britain is available for £16.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
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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