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Agent Sonya by Ben McIntyre (Viking, £25)

“Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Perhaps their romantic relationship was already over, but for Ursula it never really ended.
Ursula returned to her dreary dinner guests. No one noticed that her heart was broken.”

Hmm. This is the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a colonel in the Red Army and one of the world’s most successful spies – Agent Sonya of the title and of the sub-title Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. It’s not an untold story, or at least some of it is not untold, not least by Kuczynski herself in her autobiography, though this is the fullest version we are likely to read. Kuczynski was a German Jewish Communist who worked in several countries – including in a bookshop in America (you really have to watch that type) and spied in most of them. She was the handler of Klaus Fuchs and Melissa Norwood (the subject of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op) and her work ensured that the Soviet Union was privy to the detail of Western plans for nuclear weapons, enabling the East and West to have Mutually Assured Destruction. She would argue that this helped create peace, or at least that it was able to defend the Soviet Union.

As the sub-title and the sub-Mills and Book opening quote suggest, this is a typical Ben McIntyre book aimed at the popular market. No bad thing, but over-writing is over-writing and we could have done with less. The story, however, fascinates and McIntyre calms down a bit.

Sonya – one of her many names – was a radio operator, a courier, an organiser and a handler. Her life was often at risk. Richard Sorge, a fellow spy mentioned earlier was tortured and hung, in Japan, and that could have been her fate too. She was, however, possibly even more at risk from her own side – on pages 138/139 there are details of friends, fellow spies, comrades “swept away in the butchery” that was Stalin’s Russia in 1937 and 1938, the period of the Great Purges that did so much to weaken the Soviet Union as the war with Germany approached. She was in the Soviet Union during this period and was only too aware of the fate of others. Despite this she kept the faith and her big successes were still to come.

In England, as Mrs Burton of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford she lived a quiet life, cycling around (taking in dead letter drops), drinking tea with her neighbours and making scones. Throughout her spying career she got away with a lot as a mother of three, because spies are never mothers of three. Yet sixteen days after the top secret “Quebec Agreement” between Churchill and Roosevelt to collaborate on building the atom bomb the Soviet Union knew, thanks to Sonia. This was before the Cold War when Britain, the Soviet Union and America were allies.

One of the particularly fascinating parts of the book is about the “Hammer” group of spies. This was a group of exiled German Communists parachuted into Germany to act as spies towards the end of the war, who would report on troop movements and provide information for bombing missions to the Americans. Their direct command was the OSS – the American intelligence organisation, the Organisation of Strategic Services – but they were under the real control of Sonya.

After Klaus Fuchs was arrested. Sonya skipped the country, moving to the German Democratic Republic. Although she had been under suspicion, nobody here knew of her real role in the UK. Or did they? McIntyre revisits whether Roger Hollis, the big cheese in the UK spy world, was really a double agent. Whatever, she escaped to a desk job in the GDR but was caught up in the Government anti-Semitic hysteria in the GDR in 1953. Astonishingly, a new career awaited as she became a successful writer – “Ruth Werner, novelist.” She’d outwitted everyone.

Available from Five Leaves here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/agent-sonya-lover-mother-soldie…/

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald ((Oldcastle, £7.99)

Next year Michael Farris Smith is publishing a prequel to The Great Gatsby, focusing on the life of Nick Carraway, who was Jay Gatsby’s neighbour in the original and the book’s narrator. Seeing it announced encouraged me to re-read Fitzgerald’s book, having only a half memory of languid women of the Jazz Age and the sort of parties I would rather die than attend, hosted by Gatsby. I should say, if you have not read the book or seen the film, there are spoilers below.
I’d like to think that when I first read the book – decades ago – I was brought up short on page 32 when one Tom Buchanan starts talking about The Rise of Coloured Empires, whose author “… has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.” How very QAnon. Tom then, is a baddie. His wife Daisy does not exactly share his views, nor are they shared by the narrator Nick, a distant relative of Daisy’s but Nick knows nobody other than them, having pitched up on Long Island working as a bond salesman. No, me neither, but it’s legit if not exactly productive employment.
Nick lives across the Sound from Daisy and Tom, having rented a place next to Jay Gatsby’s pile where every weekend high society turns up to party. “…the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gullick the state senator and Newton Orchid who controlled Films Par Excellence… And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who strangled his wife. … and the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers…” Fitzgerald must have had fun with this two page long list. “All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.” But none of them really knew who Gatsby was, or, more importantly for those at the sort of superspreader parties Trump would love, where he got his money. There were rumours disguised as facts, facts disguised as rumours but it was unlikely to be through honest toil. Bootlegging maybe.
Though Nick hated the parties, he was fascinated by Gatsby, who, it turned out was in love with Daisy and had carried a torch for her for five years some of which he spent at war in Europe, then time at “Oggsford” as the one person who seemed to know him explained. Nick, Nick’s languid girlfriend, Tom and Daisy and Gatsby circle round each other. Tom has a mistress, the wife of a garage owner and, after a row, Daisy runs her down while driving Gatsby’s car, killing her. It’s an accident but Daisy and Gatsby hit and ran. The garage owner traces Gatsby and, thinking it must have been him driving his own car, shoots him, then shoots himself. Look, I said there were spoilers.
Nick is desolate, and does the rounds to get people to attend the funeral. No-one comes, save Gatsby’s father – an ordinary Joe from out of town, still believing that Gatsby had done good, Nick and one of the odder party guests, and that’s it. Even the one person who seemed to be a real friend, who’d talked about “Oggsford” and was rumoured to be the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, declined to attend. “I can’t do it – I can’t get mixed up in it.” Nick “felt a certain shame for Gatsby”. It was time for everyone to move on, including Nick who decided to go back West and Daisy, who loved Gatsby, but had definitely moved on, still with Tom. It was over.
Gatsby’s world made me shudder, as much as I shudder when I see the celeb focused mags on newsagent shelves, and when reading of the parties attended by our own High Society, the Camerons, the Johnsons, the Lebedevs, the Elton Johns… it would be easy to draw up one’s own two page list.
The book still holds up.
Fitzgerald is out of copyright, so there are several editions of the book, but this one’s cover is a homage to the original of 1925. It also includes an intro by Michael Farris Smith and a promotional chapter for his forthcoming Nick, the prequel.
The Great Gatsby is orderable here – https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-great-gatsby/
Ross Bradshaw

Bookshop Tours of Britain, by Louise Boland (Fairlight, £16.99)

I have one serious complaint about this book, which is that Louise Boland never took me with her on her journeys around the bookshops of Britain. Not that I have ever met her or knew anything much about the book in advance, but I can still bear a grudge, surely.
This would be the holiday of a lifetime, guaranteed to break the bank as you can’t really visit a new bookshop without buying a book… And the tour covers hundreds of bookshops – and, along the way, country houses, museums and other places of tourist interest.
Her trip north includes The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool which is also a hotel and a pub, while her most southerly stop is The Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance. Both these shops hold regular live events (or did, before COVID) and both these towns manage to support two independents, also covered in the book. Largely the book is about independents, for obvious reasons, but there are features on the biggest Waterstones in Piccadilly, Foyles, Oxford Blackwells and Hatchards. Hatchards, owned by Waterstones, is well-known to be the oldest continually operated bookshop in the UK – but it isn’t! Step forward Whitie’s Books and Crafts in the Scottish Border town of Peebles, trading since 1791 and run by the same family since 1899.
Whitie’s doesn’t have the biggest book stock in the world, but it does also sell wool and has a haberdashery department. Maybe that’s a Scottish Border thing as Main Street Trading – a really excellent bookshop, by the way, also sells tableware and antiques. Other bookshop items around the country include globes and (oh dear, how do you stop the staff getting too enthusiastic for the product) ice-cream.
Many of the shops are in small towns or villages and operate from attractive, sometimes historic premises and this book is full of photos. I’m not sure if Bookshop Tours qualifies as a vade-mecum as it is heavy, printed on art paper to show the photos to their advantage. It’s beautiful. Not every bookshop is visited – I was hoping to see something of the Stromness Bookshop on Orkney, which orders more books published by Five Leaves than just about anywhere. And locally her tour didn’t reach our friends at Kibworth, or indeed Page 45, but she says nice things about us and The Bookcase in Lowdham. She restricts herself to saying nice things – this is a bookshop tour guide, not a critique. Her view is that we are all doing a great job. And it is largely about bookshops selling new books. Maybe another volume for second hand?
Our own little national family of shop friends is well covered, including a lot on Gays the Word, Housmans, Scarthin, Sam Read, Lighthouse, News from Nowhere, Category is Books and Portal (two new LGBT bookshops). There’s a nice photo of October Bookshop’s shop front, which looks like a bank building. It *was*, with October being the first radical bookshop to buy a bank. Capitalism replaced with anti-capitalist books. Nice.
Time to mention animals. It’s well known that indie bookshop owners often have a dog on their staff. Many are pictured, with Quayside Bookshop’s Kaiser being something of a tourist attraction in Teignmouth. However, if I ever get to Devon, the dog Astor of Astor’s Bookshop in Chagford has the most soulful eyes of any dog ever. Astor gets a full page picture. Another shop has a tortoise while Much Ado Books in Alfriston has chickens in their courtyard, though on the day of the author’s visit they had come into the bookshop itself. Maybe we could use our alley… “Would you like some eggs with that?” I can see it now.
Ross Bradshaw
Author signed copies of Bookshop Tours of Britain are available here – http://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/bookshop-tours-of…/

 

Not a Novel: collected writings and reflections by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, £14.99)

“So what was I doing the night the wall fell? I spent the evening with friends, just a few blocks from the spot where world history was being made, and then: I slept, I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning I learned: we didn’t even need pots anymore.”
This was the night the Berlin Wall fell, the Wall being the subject of several of the essays in this collection, essays about the author’s childhood living in a street right next to the Wall which, as a child she saw as being the ends of the earth. Except though the physical boundary marked the end of the known earth, the flat she lived in enabled her to see into another world. A world that had double decker buses, then unknown in East Berlin, and a glowing clock. She writes “The whole time that I’m in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.” On her side, Berlin was something of a construction site, but also a world of ruins. Nobody was that fussed about the bombed wartime remains of buildings which she climbed into to explore and, later, to meet her first boyfriend.
Several decades ago, in Aberdeen, skint and on the lookout for ways of getting a holiday on the sly, I attended a few meetings of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) Friendship Society in a rather posh house in the hope that I might score a holiday. The elderly woman who ran the Society kept getting awards from the GDR and was a bit batty, but not so batty as to allow me a subsidised holiday at her beloved GDR’s expense. Reading about the place was the nearest I got over the years, which included quite a lot by John Green who used to live there. John, in short, says it wasn’t as bad as its detractors made out, but not as good as its supporters have said.
This ambivalence seems to be shared by Erpenbeck. After the fall… “Many workers lost their jobs and university professors, lecturers and researchers were laid off in the East and replaced… When the common currency was introduced, rents increased by a factor of ten overnight. West German speculators bought up East German real estate. … Suddenly everyone was talking about money.” She goes on to analyse borders, their history and who gets mourned. But the Wall was very personal, She describes an old neighbour “who always bought his rolls at the bakery across the street… until suddenly that side of the street was in the West.” She describes as a child knowing that “the warm air that drifted up to us” was coming from ventilation shafts from the Western underground that passed beneath their feet, not stopping at “subway stations that had been closed off ever since the wall had been built.” … “But what I remember most of all… was an almost small-town sense of calm… in a world that was closed off, and thus completely and utterly safe.” Even if spied on – her thin Stasi file included details of those who had visited her house and copies of love letters sent to her by a teenage admirer!
Unfortunately, when she moves away from the subject of the Wall and her early years, Not a Novel is much less interesting. Chapter after chapter comprises speeches she gave after winning awards. There’s repetition that we could have lived without and several of the speeches are related to the particular books that won the awards. Attention wandered. I’m not sure who would be the audience for some of these chapters other than the audience at the award ceremonies themselves. Still, one chapter has reminded me that I have still not read Thomas Mann, despite having had The Magic Mountain on my shelves for most of my life and another introduced me to the work of Walter Kempowski whose books I have sold but never looked at. I will now.
I can’t end this review without mentioning one tiny chapter in a small section at the end called Society. There she writes an obituary for the most wonderful man, Bashir Zakaryau, a Nigerian refugee who, after “five years of flight” finally obtained a tiny apartment in Berlin which he immediately filled with other homeless refugees who also needed shelter.
Ross Bradshaw
Not a Novel is published in November of this year.

Mazel Tov: the story of my extraordinary friendship with an Orthodox Jewish family by JS Margot, translated from Flemish by Jane Hedley-Prole (Pushkin, £12.99)

On the right hand lintel of the front doors of the houses of most Jews I know is a mezuzzah, a little tube with a particular Biblical quote in it handwritten by a professional scribe in Hebrew letters. Visiting Lithuania some years ago it was heartbreaking to see the shadows of mezuzzahs on the paintwork of old houses taken over during the Holocaust.
But it’s pretty odd really. Why is the scroll handwritten when nobody will ever read it? And why… But every religion has its idiosyncrasies which make no sense to outsiders. In the Jewish world the more Orthodox you are the more rules you follow and the more odd these appear to outsiders and even other Jews.
Into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy steps JS Margot, a 20 year old student, employed to do some home tutoring for a middle-class Belgian Orthodox Jewish family. That itself would be unusual. She had no previous connection to the Jewish world and hadn’t a clue about the life she was walking into. Surprisingly, she stayed for years and years, becoming a family friend.
Of course she gets things wrong, but this isn’t a book of humorous interludes (though there are some). She also disagrees with the family in their Zionism (not, by the way, a position at all universally held by Orthodox Jews) and finds the actions of the Israeli government and troops upsetting. She gets to understand anti-Semitism, but the most interesting part of the book is her reflections on her own life. She is a modern woman, has boyfriend trouble, true, but initially sees her modernity as better than their traditional life. Yet over the years, struggling financially and emotionally she finds herself more sympathetic to that other world especially when she is adrift in her own.
No, she does not convert, nor fall in love, and is still bemused and at times angered by what she sees. But her unlikely closeness to the family gives her an insight into a world that neither expects or wants our interest or understanding. The author is constantly discovering more. The eruv for example, “a ritual enclosure of a specific domain” – in this case, and uniquely, the domain is the the whole of Antwerp which turns that public space into a private space. Thus, on the Jewish sabbath, “certain strictly defined actions were permissible: carrying a baby, carrying shopping, pushing a pram…” because a boundary had been created, an enclosure sealed by overhead wires joining other physical boundaries. Without the eruv Orthodox Jews could not do any of these activities on their sabbath. Margot writes, bemused, “I didn’t know what to think of the eruv.” Don’t even think about the dietary rules. But she has to.
There’s a form of “orientalism” in the way the black-hatted Jewish men and their modestly-dressed wives and large families in Stamford Hill in London (or in Antwerp, the setting of this book) are seen. There’s certainly a lot of interest – Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a novel that became a film) in which an Orthodox rabbi’s married daughter has a forbidden lesbian relationship had a big circulation a few years back. Currently the book and film covering related ground is Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, which describes her journey in leaving the Satmar Hassidic group. Feldman provides a cover quote for Mazel Tov, thus linking the two books.
If there is a tendency to read books like these and feel a bit voyeuristic, Margot covers our back here as the book is as much about her as it is about the family she befriends.
Mazel Tov, by the way, means “congratulations”, a Yiddish phrase used by religious and secular Jews. Margot and her translator can be congratulated on an excellent and accessible read.
Ross Bradshaw

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham (Particular Books, £16.99)

I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.

The Bookseller’s Tale is more of the weird and definitely wonderful stories attached to bookselling, not least Martin Latham’s own story, though he is slightly coy perhaps about the bulk of career being at Waterstones as such. Of course he mentions it, but not much.  But it is Canterbury Waterstones, and our publishing wing owes him a favour as he used to promote our old New London Editions books, our reprints of forgotten books from the 1960s, which we must return to sometime. His tales of the supernatural within the bookshop make me jealous.
His Tale is, however, not just one of anecdotes. On page 74 the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wanders into the book, as does Walter Benjamin. This in a chapter devoted to the early book peddlers who sold books door to door and from barrows. Here you can discover the origin of the word chapbook, a type of pamphlet loved by poets, which were sold by chapmen – hawkers basically.
From there we move to ancient libraries, the ur-libraries he suggests, not least as perhaps the original library was at Ur. Here we also find the old libraries of the Islamic world where “what’s written in Cairo is published in Beirut, but read in Baghdad.”
The author is not exactly absent from the text and a flavour of his own practice is found with him saying that his favourite question to ask at interview – for a bookseller, mind – was “Who would win a fight in a pub car park between a vampire and a werewolf?” There are of course parts of Nottingham where this happens every Saturday night so some Nottinghamians would have direct experience to offer here.
His chapter on marginalia is fun, giving lots of examples of historic and literary scibblings in the margins of books. Meant for posterity or for personal record? It varies.
As a bookseller I like to think of myself as being in a profession, within a trade that has to be learned. After decades in the business I’m still learning, slower perhaps than I should be so I would have had little chance of being a bookseller in Renaissance Venice where you had to serve a five year apprentice and pass an exam covering nature, philosophy and several languages. No mention of vampires there though, but perhaps Renaissance Venice was short of car parks. It wasn’t easy in bookselling at certain times, with the 1492 “Bonfire of the vanities” in Florence and in Venice itself the Doge was told by the Pope in 1562 that all books had to be checked by the Inquisitor before going on sale. He was opposed by one Friar Paolo Sarpi who found ways round the various bans and burnings. There’s a statue to him in Venice, holding a book.
Moving towards modern times Latham waxes lyrical about Book Row in New York where there were perhaps more books on sale within walking distance than anywhere in the world, ever. Sadly, gentrification brought that to an end. In this chapter the author makes a rare slip, suggesting that one bookseller, the socialist Leon Kramer, “founded the world’s first Yiddish newspaper” from his bookshop. No, Yiddish newspapers started about two hundred years before that and in the year Kramer arrived in America the Yiddish Forverts was selling 120,000 copies daily in the same city.
There are so many bits of this most readable book that I want to quote, but space does not permit. But there’s a nice piece of bookselling nostalgia when he refers to “checking the microfiche (5 x 4 inch celluloid sheets listing books in print which we viewed like holiday slides on a device which most customers called ‘the computer’, although it was just a monitor-shaped box with a light bulb inside).” Booksellers of my vintage thought this was cool and modern.
Ross Bradshaw
The Bookseller’s Tale is available here (and in all good bookshops) fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-booksellers-tale/

My Search for Revolution – and how we brought down an abusive leader by Clare Cowan (Troubador, £19.99)

If you have had the pleasure of being around the left for some time, you will remember the Workers Revolutionary Party. Oldsters might even remember the Socialist Labour League, its earlier incarnation, or even the secretive “Club” of its early years. For 49 years this Trotskyist group was led by one Gerry Healy, a violent man and serial abuser of women. This book makes for difficult reading and some might want to avoid reading it.
Clare Cowan was at the heart of the WRP for half her life. A well-off white South African, she became central to the organisation, not least as Healy saw her as a cash cow. When money was short she’d be sent off to her parents or her trust fund to bail out the organisation to buy property because preparing for a “workers’ revolutionary government” does not come cheap. And Healy had a BMW, loved expensive food, foreign trips and, despite its size, the WRP ran a full colour daily newspaper, one of the first in the country. The membership was soaked too and driven to exhaustion by paper sales that started at dawn and continued into the evening. Talking to ex-members I am aware that some just paid for their papers and threw them away, pretending to have made the sales.
The WRP had little to do with the rest of the left – they had their own panoply of organisations, a Marxist Education Centre in Derbyshire, flats for many full timers, trucks, cars (and an unused fleet of mopeds), six bookshops, and seven Youth Training Centres. Clare Cowan never mentions what the youth were being trained to do, but there was certainly a lot of grooming going on, of which more later. In fact the left avoided them as much as they avoided the left. There were good reasons, for example in 1979 Healy sent staff photographers to take pictures of a left wing demonstration by Iraqi exiles to send the images to the Iraqi Ba’athist Party, then busily executing trade unionists in Iraq. Cowan includes an advert for a WRP meeting defending  Saddam Hussein’s party. The Middle East was another source of funds for the bottomless pit that was the WRP. Libya under Gaddafi seems to have been particularly generous.
The violence was astonishing. Healy was prone to fits of temper, attacking staff, and in one case perforating the eardrum one of his core workers. Nor was it exactly private. Cowan describes at one Central Committee meeting how when a Young Socialist delegate challenged him on an issue, Healy simply punched him in the face. No members of the Committee said anything.  Cowan was herself the subject of one of his rages, being hit on the head with some books – not long after having had an operation on her head, something that was known to Healy.
Why did nobody speak out? Well, some left, but others believed that this group of a few thousand would bring the revolution. Healy used the full panoply of enforcement and coercive control including public humiliation followed by exclusion or rewards. Somehow he got otherwise sensible people to drive him, to cook for him, to wash his clothes, to do everything he asked – in the name of the revolution. Core members were overworked and encouraged to think that the fascist state would come for their Party soon. The WRP were paranoid about the state snooping on them – and not just the British state, but Stalinist spies infiltrating their international organisation.
It was Healy’s voracious sexual abuse that brought him down in the end. The author discovered – after twenty years – that Healy was not just ordering her to “take off her dress”, but was doing the same to other full-timers, including the one he had hospitalised with the perforated eardrum. His secretary – whose back he damaged by hitting with her with a broom –  finally went into hiding and sent a letter to the Party listing the 26 women she knew by name who he had abused. Clare Cowan outlines how he was able to break women, to enforce silence. This was not a political party but a cult. Even then some of the leading members, while accepting this happened, described those who complained as people having a bourgeois morality. Including, presumably, the girl who Healy tried to seduce who was under age – and he was seventy. Astonishingly some of the leaders tried to cut a deal with Healy, forcing him to sign a letter saying he would “cease immediately my personel ([sic] contact with the youth”.
And then it all collapsed. The Party was losing £20,000 a month – this was in the mid-80s. Healy’s supporters – who included the actor Vanessa Redgrave and her actor brother Corin – decamped, suing those who remained for the assets they had loaned to the Party. In time all that remained was eight micro-group splinters. Healy himself was never prosecuted and died in 1989. Clare Cowan and others kept the much reduced Party alive until the late 1990s and she recovered from the beatings, the sexual abuse and the theft of her resources. Some found it harder. A handful kept the flame – if that is the word – alive, including the Redgraves and occasionally on large demonstrations you can see a tiny group that still use the Party name.
But there are two others worth mentioning. Ted Knight – recently deceased – was widely seen as Healy’s operative in the Labour Party. I have no idea if that was the case but his Labour Herald newspaper was printed on favourable terms by the WRP and at one stage Clare Cowan was simply told to give him her car, this at a time he was leader of Lambeth Council. The other is Ken Livingstone, also associated with Labour Herald. In 1994 Livingstone wrote a fawning introduction to a hagiography of Healy. Worse, in that introduction he said “I have never changed my belief that the split in the WRP during 1985 was the work of MI5 agents.” Not the 26 women then, three of whom had worked for the Party for decades.
Since the effective demise of the WRP there has been one major convulsion in another left organisation, when the general secretary of the Socialist Workers Party was accused of sexual harassment, which led to the resignation of 700 – perhaps more than a thousand – members of that Party. I am not comparing like to like, Healy stands in a league of his own not least for the length of time he got away with it, and his related violence. In America at least two other Trotskyist groups had similar issues. What’s sad is that at one stage even the abusers and those who knew and covered it up wanted a free, socialist society, and they ended up as no better than the worst capitalist.
Ross Bradshaw

A Radical Romance: a memoir of love, grief and consolation by Alison Light (Fig Tree, £20)

Towards the end of this book, a memoir of the historian’s life with and love for Raphael – Ralph, Raph – Alison Light, another historian – writes of the obituaries that quickly appeared in all the broadsheets. “As well as being grateful, I was taken aback by how swiftly Raphael’s closest male friends could write about him, how readily they occupied the public space.” At that point I rested, wondering whether to write this review, as someone who neither knew Samuel directly or Light at all. What right have I to intrude on this public space, this public grief? I have not even lost a partner, so how could I understand? So if there are yawning gaps in this review, reader, forgive me. They are there on purpose.

Alison Light will be known to some readers for her books of social history and for her spell as an editor of Feminist Review. Raphael Samuel may be familiar to older readers of for the History Workshop project. Samuel was a secular Jew to whom, according to this book, Jewishness was not important, though there were shadows of his Yiddish past. He happily fried bacon in the morning before setting off for Ruskin College and the mezuzzahs on his doors were from previous residents at his house in Elder Street in East London. We would come to know this house well through the book, a five storey Huguenot house with an outside toilet and with books, papers, folders and Lever-arch files spilling out of every room, every space.

A Radical Romance is not a biography of Samuel, still less of Light – but it did make me want to know more about both people. The couple were twenty years apart in age, leaving her as a youngish widow when her husband died at 62. He had previous lovers, previous significant others and – keeping everything – there’s letters from them to Samuel. But he also kept the sort of “see you later” notes busy people would leave for their partners, addressed to Honey, to Sweetheart, sobriquets he would use in everyday life.

But I did know something of Raphael Samuel’s biography, my partner being a sometime guest at his uncle Chimen Abramsky’s Friday night meals, invited by Miriam Abramsky (they were her meals, to be exact), both of whom appear in this book. More publicly, I was entranced by the story first published in New Left Review and filled out in Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism of how, one by one, the family became communists. Twelve according to Alison Light, with The Lost World... describing how the family bookshop, once a mainstream Jewish bookshop sold taleisim (prayer shawls) at one end and and Marxist texts at the other. Being a Jewish communist was almost an ethnicity of its own.

The History Workshop books included some impressive titles, notably Jerry White’s Rothschild Buildings and Theatres of the Left, edited by Ralph Samuel and others. And their two dozen or more conferences were important – it’s hard to imagine a conference nowadays about “history from below” advertised by a poster saying “Tickets limited to 700”. This meant that everyone wanted a piece of Raphael Samuel – the house was a way-station for sophisticated scholars from around the world. Alison Light makes it clear that was not always easy for her, particularly as a younger working class woman from Portsmouth. At times she felt Spitalfields, while it was not yet so gentrified, oppressive. And the conflict between his Jewishness and her Englishness was there to be negotiated.

But now to try to address some of the yawning gap. Alison Light explains things clearly enough – how, at the huge memorial meeting someone said there were quite a few widows present. No, she wanted to say, there’s only one widow. And she talks of “widowing about”, with so much to do. Only later, at Bishopsgate Institute some twenty years later, does she go through the letters of condolence saved from public view but part of the Raphael Samuel archive. There’s letters from friends, from ex-lovers, from the man at the photocopy shop, from people who did not know her husband, from professional colleagues, from people who get her name right and wrong…. letters that had peaked at 200 a day. Reading through them she “fell into a daze, a reverie. And in that dreaming state some miracle took place, call it a romance. … Raphael was remembered. Grief turned back into love. … I saw too that what we were in other people’s eyes was also true: a happy marriage, a blessed companionship.”

Copies are available, post free, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Ross Bradshaw

A Theatre for Dreamers, by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

“I wish this summer would last forever.”

The speaker is Marianne, the reporter is Erica, the narrator of this fictional memoir of the summer of 1960 on Hydra island in Greece. Erica is a troubled, naive eighteen year old who flees London and a brutal father after the death of her mother. She and her boyfriend head for Hydra to join a friend of her mother’s, Charmian, the matriarch of an ever-changing international community of writers and artists sojourning on the island.

The Marianne in question is Marianne Ihlen, a real person and sometime muse of Leonard Cohen. Marianne’s disastrous relationship with her husband Axel Jensen and her affair with Leonard Cohen forms a major part of the book. For this book, though fiction, weaves in and out of the real lives of Marianne, Cohen and, more, the lives of the charismatic and beautiful writer Charmian Clift and her ghastly husband George Johnston – chain-smoking, suffering from TB and causing others to suffer from his bitter tongue. Johnston was another writer who had worked in 64 countries, reporting on war. Throughout the book he sucks energy from Charmian whose own writing suffered.

Erica watches all this. She is taken under her wing by Charmian, for reasons only clear at the end of the book, which ends in modern time with Erica one of the few survivors from those days looking back. to 1960 and a subsequent visit ten years later.

And what days those were, and people “… keep coming… all with their pocketbooks of names who might be relied on for a meal or a bed in Ibiza, Paris, Venice, Tangier, Corsica or Casablanca.” To spend their time, and why not, where you can go “… outside to pick vine leaves. Beyond the high courtyard walls the island bells ring: mountain bells from churches and goat bells and the jingling of passing donkeys. [Where the] light falls tender green… [and] an ancient lemon tree is splinted but defiantly beautiful with both blossom and fruit.” There people can “swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks”. Or, like Cohen, write for 24 hours solid on Benzedrine, while seducing Marianne, Charmian and everyone else for that matter.

The island has a port, tavernas, impossibly steep streets up which people have to carry their supplies including water – there were no cars on the island. Indeed there are still no cars on the island though I believe what was once a working island is now overrun by the wealthy from Athens, and those on the Leonard Cohen trail. But this is 1960 and while the tavernas need the trade of the internationals, as does the water seller who charges them more than the locals, there is little interaction between the islanders and their quarrelsome bohemian visitors. It is not the islanders who are insular, but the internationals even though the central couple have lived there a decade.

We are left to guess what the islanders think. There is a passing reference to a traditional religious parade of local women, covered head to toe in peasant costume which contrasts with the young, bronzed women visitors covered in very little. But we are left to guess as local people form little more than a backdrop to the parties, the drinking, the bed-hopping and the petty jealousies of those who leave at the end of summer.

And yet, as the main story ends with Charmian and George themselves leaving for Britain at the end of that summer Polly Sampson’s description of the various birds of passage moving on I was left with regret that I was leaving too. Erica stays on for a few months, leaving the day the almond trees come into blossom.

The lives of a number of the Hydra characters has been picked over, especially that of Leonard Cohen and Marianne. Some ended tragically, not least the Johnston family, and not only Charmian and George but their children – young in this book. Some of this is prefigured in a slow moving, sometimes annoying – because so many of the people were annoying – but ultimately successful novel which blends fiction with truth. A Theatre for Dreamers makes me wish I was there in 1960 but also to thank the stars that was neither my time nor my life.

A Theatre for Dreamers is available for £14.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Ross Bradshaw

An Accidental Bookseller: A Personal Memoir of Foyles by Bill Samuel (Puxley, £14.99)

People’s memories of Foyles, the major bookseller on Charing Cross Road (with some branches elsewhere) vary according to age. The modern reader will know a smart bookshop geared up to an international customer base that pours through its doors. The elderly overseas reader of the past might have been one of those who sent 35,000 letters a day to them in the 1950s, when they were the pre-eminent English language mail-order bookshop in the world. The reader in the 1960s might remember a rather bitter strike. In the 1970s the reader with time on their hands will have queued to hand over the book of their choice, be given a slip to go somewhere else – never nearby – to pay for it, before returning to queue again to pick up their book… that is if you had not just walked out of the shop because it was impossible to find anything, or anyone to ask in what was then its old warren-like building.
Bill Samuel has written (and self-published) an entertaining, old-fashioned memoir of the firm, his own rather adventurous life before joining the family business and his successful attempt to rebuild the finances and reputation of Foyles, both of which had been destroyed by his aunt Christina Foyle. His aunt had run the business from its glory days when she took over until it had become the shambling wreck it was at her death some fifty years later.
There was no love lost between the author and his aunt who he describes as “beautiful, charming, witty and intelligent” and “self-centred, ruthless and vindictive”. Among her many sins was to sack workers just as they would have become eligible for employment rights. The bizarre payment system she invented – which inspired a poem by Wendy Cope – was partly because she did not trust her staff. But her complete lack of financial controls meant that some of the senior workers were taking bribes from publishers’ reps to overstock their books, and were syphoning off, it would appear, millions. When the author came into the business he found one worker with a complete non-job (running a speakers’ agency that had not booked anyone out for years), uncashed cheques all over the place and an unsent cheque to the tax people for over a million pounds. Christina also refused to allow computers in the business. Or to allow the phones to be answered, leaving just a recorded message with opening times.
Christina treated the firm’s income as her own private account, and her country house drains were once found to be blocked by financial records she had tried to flush away.
So how did the shop survive, the shop whose origins stretched back to one George Foyle who set up a wholesale grocer and drysalter in Hoxton in 1843? Well, it was an entrepreneurial family – one member invented the folding cardboard box – and William Foyle, the author’s grandfather – put the firm’s profits into property during the period when his firm was selling about 8% of all books sold in Britain.
After Christina Foyle, Bill Samuel had the job of rebuilding the firm. He sacked the corrupt staff, appointed people who knew what they were doing and, along the way, bought in Silver Moon Feminist Bookshop and Ray French’s Jazz shop, both of which were due to close due to rapacious landlords elsewhere on Charing Cross Road.
It’s hard to imagine now the importance of Foyles in the past, but their customers included Bill Clinton and one Nelson Mandela. And in January 2003 the US Embassy bought their entire stock of road maps of Iraq. Work that one out, but just the thought of there being a bookshop that did have a stock of road maps of Iraq.
To a bookseller, it’s all fascinating but the book might be of interest to anyone interested in how family firms grow and wealth gets passed on or dissipated by subsequent generations.
Towards the end the author is a minority of one on the board in, for example, allowing charitable use of the Foyles Gallery for events, and clearly there is more going behind the scenes on than we are told. But he was in agreement with the decision to sell Foyles off to Waterstones and their American owner. So ends the life of Foyles as an independent bookshop, though Waterstones promises to keep Foyles as Foyles.
And Bill Samuel – no longer young – can develop his own interests which includes planting olive trees in Ramallah. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to The Book Trade Charity, another area of the author’s charitable interests.
And the firm’s fortune? Well, Christina, who, while living, had no love for her family or for charity, did leave her money to establish the Foyle Foundation which supports charities working in arts and literature. So she finally did something useful!
Strangely, this £14.99 book is on sale at Foyles website for £20 – perhaps the ghost of Christina is at work.

Ross Bradshaw