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Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt (Penguin, £9.99)

“Travel was forbidden; schools closed and playground gates were locked; cafes and pub were shuttered … Where I live, compliance was immediate and total. All traffic noise ceased, and you could hear litter scuffing down the empty streets. Paper rainbows began to appear in windows, painted as a token of hope by children kept indoors; but of the children themselves there was no sign. It felt less like a catastrophe than an aftermath, as if nine-tenths of the population had disappeared overnight….
“But most of all, we began to notice the birdsong.”
This, then, was March 2020, that strangest of springs. I was working at Five Leaves Bookshop, still going to work to send off mail orders. I walked in for 45 minutes, early every morning, in that most brilliant of springs. There were no cars, no street noise … and I began to notice the birdsong.
I’d not wanted to read any books about COVID, but picked this up, the page falling open to the quotes above, on page two. I stopped, thinking of that period and of the return of wildness to our cities and towns – the goats taking over Llandudno for example. The book went unread for a year, but is now out in paperback and, searching for the quote, I read my first ever book on birds, specifically on birdsong, by a birder. Save for a few paragraphs at the start of the book there are only occasional references to the first year of COVID as Lovatt talks us through the birdsong we heard. Who are these birds? Why are they making such a racket? Are they really singing? Do they see it as singing? Do they mimic other sounds?
I was entranced by this short book. Not so entranced as Lovatt was with nature when “As a boy I assembled… quite a collection of vole skulls and the glossy bramble-black wing-cases of beetles, to the unexpressed delight of the rest of the family.” But like other boys – did girls ever do this? – I collected eggs for a period, little knowing how bad that was. But there it ended. Not so for Lovatt, who has been listening to birds for nearly forty years, though he is still “often fooled by chaffinches”. His way of describing the song he hears is charming – the bullfinch, for example “has a diffident repertoire of unassuming creaks and croaks, as if something hidden in the woodland badly needed oiling.” He describes the willow warbler, which will fly from Africa, usually non-stop, covering a distance of 5,000 miles or more in just a few days – one of what he describes as long-haul specialists that double their weight before leaving in order to survive the journey. They join a cacophonous throng singing (or croaking or wheezing) their little hearts out to attract mates and to warn others off their territory.
In the playground – “temporarily converted to a starling canteen” – he watches starlings which “seen in close-up each bird in its own galaxy of spangles on an iridescent ground of indigo, bottle-green and metallic blue – every colour of the petroleum rainbow. Add to this a pair of jaunty pink legs and multi-purpose omnivore’s bill of palest ivory yellow, and you have a gorgeous bird indeed.” OK, OK. Somewhere upstairs there’s my late mother’s old binoculars. I’ll get them later.
I learned more about birds in 140 pages than in the rest of my life. Did you know that egg-bound chicks cheep and squeak and learn their parents’ calls before hatching? Vitally important to colony-nesting seabirds “such as puffins, terns and guillemots, since amongst all that caterwauling a chick needs to recognise its parent, and vice-versa, as soon as it has hatched.”
Of course our bird population is changing. Insecticides did their work, climate change impacts… but also university buildings have become cliffs and street-thrown kebabs are as good as herring, if not so healthy to the eater.
But soon it’s the solstice. The mating calls are mostly gone, but “the delinquent starlings keep up their incessant rasping as they beg for food, and sometimes they take short but perilous stiff-winged flights low over the lake to the island, where scores of them wheeze and rattle in the wind-tossed trees.”
The book ends with a handful of poems about birdsong – including John Clare (of course), Emily Dickinson, “Sumer is icumen in”, Aderyn du (a Welsh poem), and Adlestrop…
“And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”
Ross Bradshaw
Birdsong in a Time of Silence is available here:

Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich, by Harald Jähner

Without looking anything up, what five things do you immediately think of if I were to say “Germany immediately after the war”?
Answering my own question… John le Carré ‘s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; the GDR; Orson Welles in The Third Man (yes, I know it was set in Vienna – but that was what I thought of); “picturesque” ruins; the image of the red flag being raised over the Reichstag when the Soviets took Berlin.
Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich sets out to have a more logical approach. Harald Jähner first outlines who was there at the time, remarking that “more than half the population are where they do not belong or want to be”. Several million were German soldiers who were now prisoners of war. Another nine million were internally displaced civilians, primarily city dwellers who had been evacuated to the countryside (where,  Jähner points out, they were not exactly welcome). There were another eight to ten million prisoners of Germany – primarily forced labourers who were suddenly free. Their number could have been higher but for extensive massacres by their captors, even at a time they knew the war was about to end. Finally there were another twelve and a half million ethnic Germans trailing in from Eastern Europe as, often unwelcome, refugees. These numbers were augmented by 100,000 Jews, primarily from Poland – “a migration that nobody expected” – who were passing through, having faced pogroms when they tried to return to their home towns and villages.
Who was to feed these forty million? Where were they to live? The four occupying forces – Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union – had to deal with this. And create a Germany – well, two Germanies – out of the physical and political rubble. Indeed, the rubble. The cities were largely in ruins and had to be cleared, including by trummerfrauen – “rubble women” – so often photographed. The ruins were a photographer’s dream, and there were even fashion shoots with a background of ruins, as life returned.
The population was shattered, particularly the men returning from the front. There were many divorces as the men who returned after years away came back to a different world. The occupation was harder for women – the incidence of rape by Soviet soldiers is now well known (the 1954 book A Woman In Berlin is a major source of information on this). But it was hard for everyone as the rations were not enough to get by, leading to not just an extensive black market but organised theft. This was described as Fringsing after one Cardinal Frings, who gave a sermon saying theft was acceptable to survive. The Third Man turned out to be a good call after all.
The clear up took a long time. The last Displaced Person’s Camp (for people leaving) did not close until 1957, the last camp for those ethnic Germans arriving did not close until 1966. Yet other issues were dealt with with astonishing speed. Hans Habe – actually a Hungarian Jew – thought that the best tool of denazification was newspapers and he set up sixteen of them, just as soon as major cities were liberated. The jewel in the crown was the Neue Zeitung, based in Munich, which had a star cast of German exiled writers, reaching a circulation of 2.5 million “along with a further 3 million orders that could not be fulfilled because of lack of paper”.
Ah yes, the Nazis… Jähner describes how the worst were weeded out, but former Nazis were soon back as judges, politicians and businesspeople.
Aftermath is weakest, perhaps, on the new GDR – East Germany. One interesting chapter describes how art made a comeback with the GDR promoting socialist realism, while the FDR – West Germany –  saw the promotion of abstract art. A Cold War of artistic direction – and there in the background of the West German art scene was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CIA front. This was one of the few chapters that compared what was happening on the different sides of what became a separation wall. I’d have liked to have read more about the GDR side.
There’s several chapters of material new to me. The impact of the refugee Germans arriving in rural areas for example. One town of 1600 had 600 ethnic Germans billeted on them. These were Germans who often had little connection to Germany, who spoke different dialects, who had different morals, often a different religion from the farming communities who had to put them up. Ironically, this mixing led to a more united German volk than happened under Hitler, with the decline of local dialects and the development of industry in previously farming areas.
What was hard to stomach though was the common feeling that so many Germans felt, that they were themselves the most important victims of Hitlerism. Only a later generation, typically the students of 1968 rebelled against this, pointing out how many former Nazis moved seemlessly into position of power, and who asked the basic question “What did you do in the war, daddy?”
Aftermath is well translated, by the way, by Shaun Whiteside
The book costs £9.99. It is published by Penguin and available from
Ross Bradshaw

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: a new biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller ((Profile, £16.99)

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is not a tourist guide but an attempt to see the city – and Teller really does mean the Old City, the walled city – beyond what is sometimes seen as a binary, Israeli Jews versus Palestinians. Of course there’s the added spice of Jerusalem also being one of the holiest sites in Christianity with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion as well as the Jewish Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque, all within 300 yards of each other.
That there are four quarters in the city suggests the situation is already more complicated. But who drew up the lines deliniating the them – the Christian, the Muslim, the Jewish and the Armenian quarters? Teller tracks this back to one George Williams who pitched up in Jerusalem in 1842. He was (well, I never!) an Old Etonian, probably did not speak Arabic and was Chaplain to the first Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem, a Chritian evangelist who was a convert from Judaism. Teller points out that these quarters were fabricated divisions, with churches, synagogues and mosques scattered outside their religious boundaries. But henceforth these quarters had power – they were on the map, every map. Yet 90% of those who live in the Old City are Arab.
90% of only 35,000 people. There might be a few people on the planet who have not heard of Jerusalem, but the Old City, the site of some of the holiest places of the three Abrahamic religions, has a population just a bit more than the St Anns estate in Nottingham in the 1960s. But two thirds of them are under 30… which means population growth will become unsustainable. In conversation at the online launch of this book (on our YouTube channel soon) Teller said that many young people leave – for Ramallah, the commercial capital of Palestine, or abroad – probably never to return.
But back to the book – and the nine quarters. Teller explores the minorities within the major communities and outside those communities. So we hear from the Karaites, a Jewish religion whose synagogue is the oldest in the city. It’s been going since the eighth century though the number of Karaites now in Jerusalem is tiny. The eighth century and still in use! Though they follow the Jewish Torah, many of their practices are similar to Islam – a religion predated by the Karaites. And within Islam there is the Sufi minority, and the ethnic minority of African Muslims – Afro-Palestinians if you prefer. And the Indian Muslim hospice.
Huge areas of Jerusalem are owned by the Greek Orthodox church, but everyone is represented – Copts, Catholics, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian Orthodox… And these are only the ones who have a stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Famously the Status Quo agreement of 1757 means that each of the groups control a bit of the Church and in 2022 they control only the part they controlled in 1757. But to ensure nothing goes wrong one Muslim family (the same once since 1757) holds the keys, another Muslim family (the same one since… yup) unlocks and locks up the Church. And then there’s the ladder that serves no purpose but nobody has been able to move it since the eighteenth century as the Status Quo rules.
Perhaps the group least known group within the Old City are the Domari, the thousand or so Gypsies (the description they prefer if English is used). The Dom are outside all the communities, though most are Muslim by religion. They are the poorest, the least educated and are subject to racism by the others. The Arab word to describe them is “Nawar” – black, but not in a good way. Teller interviews Amoun Sleem who set up the Domari Society to educate and train Domari people. But Teller makes it clear that this unmarried woman (a rarity among the Dom) has her problems within her own community. The Dom, by the way, are scattered across the Middle East and are the equivalent of the European Roma, with a shared ancestry in India.
There is one missing quarter – the Moroccan quarter that was destroyed in 1967 to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall when Israel took Jerusalem in the Six Day War, its residents dispersed, in some cases back to Morocco. Teller interviews one of the few remaining in the Old City.
You will have noticed from the review that the author, a journalist, does not talk much about the Jews in the Old City, though they are represented and he does remind us that the period of Jordanian control was not exactly a period of religious tolerance. Teller is Jewish, his Bar Mitzvah was in Jerusalem, when he was taken to the Western Wall, and he has been back most years over the last forty years. He loves the city, but does not love the modern settlers who are buying property expressly to Judaise the city, or who are using dubious legal means to take over homes in suburbs like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Their views are not represented in this book. He ends his book by envisaging a New Jerusalem, freed from “the nationalist fever-dream of partition” where Jerusalemites, and their compatriots in the wider hinterland, can “live without polarisation, under protection of the law, their rights assured, their aspirations respected, in dignity…” You can see why he does not wish to include the voices of the settlers.
Every story he tells has a backstory, often stretching back hundreds of years. The book is well-written. It will tell you things you didn’t know about Jerusalem and remind you of what you might have forgotten if you do know the place.
Matthew Teller’s book is available here:
Ross Bradshaw

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £20)

Some books are hard to review so this is a short recommendation for the current Nobel literature prize winner’s magnus opus. And the first thing you need to know is that it ain’t half magnus. 900 large pages, some of which are in small type, tightly bound ie it cannot be laid flat. So only read this book if you have the thumbs for it.
Secondly, it’s about the life of Jacob Frank, a false messiah in 18th century Poland, whose followers – the true believers – were often drawn from sympathisers of an earlier false messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi from the previous century. Tsvi, in the Ottomon empire, was given the choice of converting to Islam or death, and he chose the former. Frank, on the other hand, led his followers into the Catholic Church, the second leg of the Trinity out of which the final true religion would come. I think. I think only because the detail of his religion was only revealed to close followers so it is never clear what they actually believed. Perhaps they did not know themselves. And there is a cast of thousands whose lives appear in short chapters, and whose names change steadily not least after they are baptised. The settings sprawl over several countries too.
The novel – this is a novel – includes an early follower of Frank who is dead but who is more like the living dead, watching over what happens. Bishops flit through the text and there are medieval disputations as the mainstream Jewish world and the Catholic Church works out what to do with these people.
Frank was charismatic, dicatorial, immoral and believed that the the rules had to be broken to set yourself free yet leaving the Jewish world allowed his followers to prosper in ways that were not open to them before. They were able to move from a squalid life of povery and exclusion, but lost the freedom to decide on their own sexual partner with Frank behaving like all cult leaders do when it comes to that issue. They also has to find the money to keep Frank’s court running.
The text is littered with Hebrew and Polish words. There is no continuous narrative. There is, perhaps, one likeable character, Moliwda, a Gentile who is drawn to the Frankists, works with them as a translator and who tries to smooth their way despite knowing of the deep faults within their leader.
Yet I would recommend the book, with fair warning that you have to give up a lot of reading time, you might not be able to remember who is who of the characters, you might have to dip into the history of false messiahs and the history of Poland and the Ottoman Empire but if you can cope with all of that – dive in.
I was pleased to see that in December this book “bubbled under” (as they used to say on Top of the Pops) our best-seller list. Somehow I doubt it was a Christmas present though.
A more traditional review – and longer – is here:…/the-books-of-jacob-by-olga…
The Books of Jacob is available for purchase here :

Ross Bradshaw

Daring to Hope: my life in the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso, £20)

If you can remember the 70s… Well, I do and I was there, in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Nottingham and I remember parts with great clarity, parts only vaguely and some parts I regret remembering at all. Sheila, on the other hand, has the utmost clarity as she kept a diary and a journal throughout that tumultuous decade where she was a prominent activist in the women’s liberation movement and leading historian.
Being prominent – being one of the writers of seminal texts published in the period – she knew “everyone” so I found myself nodding at the names, Audrey Wise MP, historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Marsha Rowe from Spare Rib, May Hobbs of the Night Cleaners Campaign, the libertarian Marxist doctor David Widgery… and the campaigns and organisations, the Institute for Workers Control, the Claimants’ Union, the campaign against Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, the various campaigns against those who would restrict abortion rights, to name just a few. On one of the latter I can remember an overnight minibus trip to London from Aberdeen to attend a demonstration, returning overnight the next night. What it was to be young.
Of course the 1970s did not spring out of nowhere and the rise of the women’s movement grew from small groups or networks “clusters of women’s liberationists had also cohered in several towns and cities, and the Trotskyist-influenced Socialist Woman magazine based in Nottingham, had appeared.” Nottingham appears here and there in the text, not least as Paul Atkinson came from here, Paul being one of Sheila’s long-term partners in the “duogamy” she shared with David Widgery, both of whom had other partners. Not that Sheila was entirely into duogamy, at one time adding Bobby Campbell to the roster, Bea Campbell’s former husband. What it was to be young…
Sheila talks us through the rise and rise of the women’s movement, and is honest about the crises it went through. These include its battles with “Wages for Housework”, the internal battles over hierarchy (some women thought that she should not have her name on her books as it created hierarchy), the move to recognise lesbians – which she approved of very much – and the later debates about whether, in short, men were the enemy. This was not a position she held at any time, not least as she was teaching WEA classes which rooted her, as well as giving her access to earlier generations of trade union activists (and in one case an elderly Jewish man who lived through the Russian Revolution). My women friends of that era talked over all these issues.
Astonishingly, men attended some of the early women’s liberation conferences. The last time men were allowed saw the Maoist Harpal Brar drone on and on and on, refusing to leave the stage until he was dragged away by security from the University hosting the event. Brar is now tied up with George Galloway in his Workers Party of Britain. Go figure.
The 70s were a period of industrial struggle, the great mining strikes of 72 and 74, Grunwick and the aforementioned Night Cleaners’ Campaign. Night after night Rowbotham was out trying to unionise night cleaners. Ironically, over the last few years, the pop-up unions have had the success that eluded May Hobbs, Sheila and the big unions back then.
On the history front, Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop was at its height and people went to great lengths to rediscover our political past, in Sheila’s case this included Edward Carpenter and a “pilgrimage” to Millthorpe in Derbyshire where he used to live, and other sites associated with him. She remarks that she had to pinch herself on approaching Millthorpe to remember that Carpenter would not be there to meet her. I felt exactly the same on the first Edward Carpenter walk organised from Nottingham by the late Chris Richardson!
The national women’s conferences fell away to be replaced by socialist feminist conferences, a description that fitted Sheila but caused her and others to struggle with the “Leninist” model. She was still involved in campaigning, but now, as a parent, this included organising with the Hackney Under-fives Campaign. At that time the word “libertarian” had not been stolen by the right and the left was in flux. The group Big Flame was influential, there were debates on being “In and against the state” – the important book by that name has recently been re-issued. But Sheila, Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal came together to publish – initially in a run of 100! – the book Beyond the Fragments, subtitled Feminism and the Making of Socialism. The 70s ended with this book which is now in its third edition and, perhaps as much as anything, enabled Sheila to call this book Daring to Hope.
I should say this is an exciting read. I read it over a weekend. It’s not just for oldsters who were there at the time. And there are moments of fun… the chic Greek feminists who were not impressed with, shall we say, the downbeat style of living of the Hackney and Brixton left and the American feminists who were surprised at Sheila turning up for a lecture tour with a single dowdy dress (she normally, of course, wore dungarees). And there are moments of sadness – a long drive with Ruth First, talking non-stop on the last time they met “It was the last time I saw Ruth, who was about to leave Durham for a post as director of research at the Centre of African Studies in Mozambique. In 1982 she was assassinated by a parcel bomb…” It was a salutary reminder that those days of hope were not welcomed by all.

Around the World in 80 Trains, Monisha Rajesh (Bloomsbury)

“Taking the train is the best way to cross a desert.”
No, this is not the latest advertising slogan for the Robin Hood LIne, but one of many quotable remarks in Monisha Rahesh’s love letter to train travel.
The title – referencing Jules Verne – is inaccurate though. It might be a 45,000 mile adventure but there is more to the world than Europe, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Canada and the USA, but that’s enough for anyone living out of a rucksack and with a choice of only five T-shirts. It took Monisha and her  fiancé seven months. Not all of which were actually on trains, so we learned a lot about being a tourist in, for example, Tibet and North Korea. Indeed we learn that North Korea does not like being so called as there is only one Korea and in that bit in the north of the country the state gets very angry if you take a photo of one of the zillion Kim statues that does not show their whole body, from foot to the top of his head.
Monisha makes no apologies for being a tourist, but is happiest venturing into the unknown, getting into scrapes such as when on the morning after her arrival in Llasa, inadequately prepared for the altitude, “a glance in the mirror confirmed that I had indeed died overnight”, while her fiancé  “lay slumped against the pillows apparently experiencing the early stages of rigor mortis”. Remind me to skip Llasa on my world tour. There are other reasons to avoid Tibet and Monisha does not shy away from political issues there, or indeed in China where she visits the highly controlled province of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghurs.
The book does have elements of the romance of train journeys, but not so much on the bullet trains and not so much on certain other trains where the toilets and corridors stunk and where, in one case for three days solid crossing Russia, people glared at her and her fiancé , another person of colour.  This is not a major focus of the book but you will not be surprised that here and there… well, I can remember being on a long distance bus from Prague where the only person asked for papers, at every single border, was the only Black person on board.
But who are these people on the long journeys she undertook? In America, in places, her fellow passengers were those who “had no choice but to board a train at quarter to three in the morning”. In America she encountered the needy, the homophobic, the gossipy, the runaways, the seedy… And the Amish. Though she might just have hit lucky, the three generation Amish family talked to each other, quietly read to their children in their own language, played with them, ate well… while across the aisle a man was into his second can of Coors, ignoring his wife and children, the children loudly complaining that they did not have  iPads.
Monisha is an observer of what you can see from trains, those parts of the countries you can never visit but where for a moment as you pass you can glimpse into the lives of those who will likely never even be on a train. She is also an eater. Only on one occasion do her and her chap pass on food. I won’t describe what they turned down, but everywhere else they hoovered up whatever was on offer from street stalls, hole in the wall cafes and traders at obscure railway stations.  At some of their mealtimes I was glad to be an armchair traveler.
But there is romance there, and friendships made, and random acts of kindness. On one train a man they meet recommends a hotel at their next stopover and when they get there discover he had rang ahead, booked and paid. They have no idea how to contact him or thank him. Perhaps he will read this book.
Around the World in Eighty Trains was first published in 2019 and took a while to get written – explained by the dedication to Ariel “without whom this book would have been published a year ago.” Early in the book Monisha mourns the decline of long distant sleeper cars in Europe but the good news of this year is that sleepers are making a comeback in Europe. Check out The Man in Seat 61 website to plan your own journey or, given the times, dream…
And maybe pack this book on your next long train journey, or the next weekend in your armchair. It’s worth it.
Arouind the World in 80 Trains is available here:
Ross Bradshaw

A long post with short reviews!

November was a good month for reading! December is starting with The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Fitzcarraldo, £20) which is 912 pages so I doubt I’ll get through as many as this set.
Ken Worpole is an old colleague and occasional Five Leaves’ author. His latest book is No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the land in wartime Britain (Little Toller, £14.00). Here he tells the story of Frating Farm, a colony in Essex set up by Christian pacifists in 1943, which survived fifteen years before passing back to private hands. At one time up to fifty people lived there, working the land and running other local businesses. Frating was only one of several utopian or economic communities attracted to Essex. Worpole followers will know that he is an unofficial historian of all that has been good in that County. Frating did not come out of nowhere, their ideas were drawn from John Middleton Murry, our own DH Lawrence and others around the Adelphi magazine. Their number included Iris Murdoch, whole novel The Bell draws on Frating in its description of communal life. The best chapter in Worpole’s book is the last,”New Lives, New Landscapes” where he ranges widely over the work of authors and thinkers writing about land use.
George Orwell was something of a back-to-the-lander of course, in Jura and Wallington. In Orwell’s Roses (Granta, £16.99) Rebecca Solnit starts from the roses that Orwell planted to wander off at tangents before wandering back to Orwell, his life and work. Stalin’s lemons put in an appearance as well as ecological issues about importing flowers. This is not, not, a biography of Orwell but there are many bits and pieces of information on Orwell I, at least, had forgotten, particularly to do with his slave owning ancestors. Drifting so far from the subject that causes people to pick up the book can be a highwire act, but Solnit remains in command at all times. Mind you, she is one of the few people who could write about telephone directories and make them interesting.
1984 was at the back of my mind reading Lea Ypi’s Free: coming of age at the end of history (Granta, £20). The book is a memoir of growing up in Albania under Enver Hoxha, particularly where the adults in the room would talk about friends being away studying (ie in prison) or using some other words to cover being tortured or killed. The author’s family was always somewhat more at risk than others because of their “biography”. Only belatedly did the child come to understand her great-grandfather was one of a cosmopolitan elite. In fact he was Prime Minister of Albania before communism. Though Ypi lived in the open-air prison that was Albania, she was a content Young Pioneer. After the fall, in 1990, the country embraced freedom, with rapacious capitalism taking the place of the former dictatorship. As many people fled as could get out, and the country collapsed into a mess of pyramid schemes and unemployment. Ypi’s father obtained a responsible job in the shipyards and did what he could to stop the Roma workers being sacked but neo-liberalism did what neo-liberalism does. The country was not free before and it was now too free.
Over the COVID period one or two million poets turned to writing about these strange days. Chris Searle’s Over Eagle Pond (Culture Matters, £12.00) stands out for his gentle observations of the world he sees from the window of his flat, looking out over Eagle Pond in East London. Sometimes it’s the changes in fauna and flora, but the best is a simple poem, a story if you prefer, of the elderly couple who come every day, first thing in the morning, park their car on double yellow lines and walk the fifty yards to the pond, look for a moment, walk back”in a semi-circle of daily devotion/before they drive off/until tomorrow/same time, same place”.
Geoffrey Trease was a well-known children’s writer from Nottingham’s past. Faber Finds publish his Red Towers of Granada (£10), reprinted from 1966. The book is partly set in this city, in the Jewish Quarter in 1290 just before and during the expulsion of the Jewish community. The main character – a local teenager, Robin, wrongly expelled from his village as a leper thanks to a deliberate misdiagnosis by his priest – chances on a robbery in the forest. He sees off the robbers, the victim being an elderly Jew, Solomon, – obvious from him being a “man in a yellow cap”. Robin too is in enforced, distinctive garb, that of a leper (and wearing a clapper to announce his arrival). Solomon takes in young Robin, cures his non-leprous skin ailment and, ere long, they set out on an errand for the ailing Queen to Solomon’s native Granada. There this Christian and Jew join up with a Muslim to obtain that which the Queen has asked for, with lots of adventures on the way. Yes, though not all the Jews, Christians and Muslims are good guys, this is a book about unity in diversity – only flawed by physical descriptions of Solomon and one Muslim that are, shall we say, a bit old fashioned. This isn’t, now, really a book for older children but it’s a fine yarn for a snowy day, with lots of period interest.
The Promise by Damon Galgut (Chatto, £16.99), winner of the Booker Prize. This novel is set in South Africa and follows the lead up to and aftermath of four funerals, all of members of the Afrikaaner Swarts family. Except not all are Afrikaaners as the opening funeral is of Rachel Swart, the mother of the family who, in middle age, returns to the Judaism of her youth as her terminal illness takes hold. “The Promise” is that made by Rachel’s husband – at Rachel’s insistence – that their servant Salome will be given the shack she lives in, a promise heard by daughter Amor. Will this be kept? I’m not telling… The Sward family is dysfunctional. They remain centre stage though Galgut cleverly gives the backstory of the other characters – an avaricious pastor, a confused Catholic priest, a homeless man living in the church porch. Galgut handles time changes well – the story is told over four decades – with the momentous changes within South Africa, from Mandela through to Zuma, forming a backdrop. And he handles changing points of view well, occasionally simply addressing the reader. Galgut picks out some issues nicely, Amor, for example, works as a nurse in an AIDS ward at the same time as Thabo Mbeki’s government was in denial of the AIDS crisis sweeping the country. This is not, well, maybe it is not, a political novel other than how can any novel set over forty years in South Africa not be. It’s a worthy winner of the Booker.
And finally… Keith Kahn-Harris has been working on a book with Five Leaves for some time. It was due out in November but Keith asked if we could put it back as he had another – a commercial book – out then. What is it, we asked. It’s a book based on the warning message in Kinder Eggs, he said. We’ve agreed to publish this man? we thought. And yes, The Babel Message; a love letter to language (ICON, £14.99) is indeed a book on the multilingual message in that ghastly chocolate item (which comes with a plastic toy, which should not be eaten), but it’s also a book on translation, linguistics, linguistic conflict, on why language matters, on linguistic imperialism, on the languages of small communities and long-dead Samarians, on the languages of those who will never have an army and a navy to defend their language, on dialect (including, I am pleased to say, Scots) – above all it’s a book on why languages – plural – matter. It’s a serious book, with lots of humour and an attempt by Keith to invent a language. It is also about Kinder Eggs.
Any of the above can be bought or ordered from
Ross Bradshaw

Paint Your Town Red, by Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones (Repeater, £10.99)


One of the biggest problems for socialists is that we’re really good at criticising the Tories and capitalism, but not so good at coming up with practical alternatives. This book is all about community wealth-building and offers lots of suggestions on how to achieve it, with special tips for Labour Councillors(!)

The authors were instrumental in developing the “Preston Model”, which everyone has heard of but few know anything much about. They explain clearly what they did and what the results were – a significant rise in good quality jobs and money spent locally – but are careful to emphasise that there is no magic solution and each town or city will need to find its own, though based on certain common principles.

The book is written for ordinary people and is very readable, with jargon and socialist theorising kept to a minimum. But would it work here? The answer is clearly “yes” and I look forward to readers getting together to develop the Nottingham Area Model.

Since 2011, when Preston was in a bad way, the new approach has resulted in 5,000 new jobs and a 15% pay rise for city employees. In 2018 it was voted the most improved city in the UK to live and work in – and incidentally, Labour made gains in the last round of Council elections.

It’s all too easy to slip into pessimism at the moment, to feel that nothing can change. But this approach is genuinely worth trying and can also win supporters among non-socialists. As the authors say: “some will think these ideas and strategies are too radical – while others will think they’re not radical enough….much of what has been tried in Preston and elsewhere is merely common sense.”

And if common sense was ever needed in politics, now is definitely the time!

Paint Your Town Red is available here:

Mike Scott

(Mike is a retired UNISON trade union official,  and a customer of the bookshop)


Hello, Stranger, by Will Buckingham (Granta, £16.99)

“Only connect”

How do you greet a stranger?  You probably don’t imitate adult lemurs, at least on a regular basis. Lemurs, I learn from Will Buckingham’s new book, Hello, Stranger, have a code which is both friendly and cautious. “They gently slap each other, they turn cartwheels, they engage in rough and tumble, they play-bite each other’s genitals.”  Will Buckingham points out that  “when you have had your genitals in someone’s mouth and they haven’t done anything untoward” there’s a strong probability that they mean you no harm. However the custom is unlikely to catch on among humans, although a display of cartwheeling might be safer than a handshake in these Covid times.
Hello, Stranger offers a delightful and wide-ranging guide to the many codes and rituals that communities have developed to ease connection with strangers. The Serbian hint that a guest has outstayed their welcome is pleasantly subtle and requires no verbal hints. You simply serve your guest with the small, week coffee that is called sikterušaor  “fuck off coffee” and, if your guest is familiar with the code, polite farewells will follow. Some of the oldest writings in the world deal with guest/host obligations. The English language has a range of related words from ‘hospital’ to ‘hostile’ that come from the same ancient root. And as, in these pandemic days, we devise new ways of greeting and making contact with one another – and are largely prevented from travel – it’s a good time to read a book that explores the human connections that have become so difficult in the past year and more.
At times Hello, Stranger draws us into the world of Will Buckingham’s own travels. These are driven by different motives, including curiosity, research and philoxenia – the opposite of xenophobia which encompasses a curiosity about other people and a desire to encounter strangers. Travel, with all its risks, is also healing; after a devastating bereavement Will seeks a new country and the company of strangers as a way to remake himself and reconnect with theworld. This healing journey provides the frame for a fascinating and challenging book. Philoxenia isn’t always easy. We need to take account of what fuels our innate and sometimes sensible xenophobia – strangers may present very real dangers and threats. Yet at the same time we have a human need to reach out – to be involved in the world and discover new things. A stranger, whether a chugger in Leicester or a fried rice vendor in Yangon, can offer comfort and connection to the wider world. As strangers, we can choose to offer connection, or mistrust and threat. We need to see the strangeness in ourselves – to recognize that we are all at times, as the label on Will’s bike in Chengdu says, “lao wai”, the “old outsider.” When we recognize this, when we acknowledge our loneliness and fear – and also our contradictory desire to be alone – it becomes easier to embrace the crowded world we inhabit. This in turn is a way to understanding the needs of others, like the refugees who Will meets briefly on the train from Strymonas to Thessaloniki and the boys from Afghanistan with whom he swims from the beach in Kalamaria.
The easy passage that Will’s passport allows and the ease with which he travels the world is set against the obstacles these men and children face. Will’s reflections and stories are framed by memories of his partner, Elee Kirk, who died of breast cancer five years ago at the age of thirty-eight. Her brilliance, courage and love of life recur as themes. The advice she gave to Will in the last weeks of her life looked ahead, beyond her death. “Go elsewhere,” she told him. “Get some space. You’ll go away, because that’s what you do.” This advice helped bring this book into being and it is rightly dedicated to her.
Hello, Stranger: how we find connection in a disconnected world by Will Buckingham is published by Granta, London (2021) at £16-99 and can be ordered here:
Will Buckingham will be talking about his book at a Five Leaves online event – details here:
Kathleen Bell


The Radical Bookstore: counterspace for social movements by Kimberley Kinder (University of Minnesota Press, £20.99)

There are no current books on radical bookshops in the UK, and save for one academic book on feminist bookstores* in North America, this is the first book I have seen on this subject there generally. This is surprising given the radical booktrade’s contribution to left-wing culture. On my shelves I have a book devoted to the Berkeley bookstore Cody’s, a book on Melbourne’s radical bookshops and several old British texts but we really should publish more about ourselves!

Unfortunately The Radical Bookstore is too academic to reach beyond a specialist audience. That is not to say it is without value, The book, for example, discusses “landscapes that shout” compared to “landscapes that entice”, contrasting the book displays and interior decor of different shops which have different approaches. This alone should be a subject of discussion on the shop floor (even if nobody is suggesting joining our Prime Minister and employing Lulu Lytle at £800 for a roll of wallpaper). What are we trying to say, and to whom? Who do we exclude if people find our spaces “intimidating to walk into”? Do potential customers think we are shouting at them? Ironically, though that might not be the right word, most of the books available in the radicals could appear in any big mainstream bookstore but, as Minneapolis’s Boneshaker Books suggest, it’s “like somebody has taken a big bookstore and put it through a sieve and only the very best stuff came out… So hopefully there’s not as much noise, and you just get all the signal that you’ve been looking for.”

Some traditions in radical bookselling in the States have been uncommon here until recently, businesses owned by what Kinder calls “activist entrepreneurs”. A neat phrase that accurately describes many of the recent radical bookshops here, compared to the collective tradition once more common. And what might these activist entrepreneurs have to do to survive? They might have to compromise. Or, sometimes, close down rather than compromise when only a more commercial approach will pay the workers or the rent. This happened over some shops going “non-profit”, the equivalent of obtaining charitable status here, which brings tax and other concessions but limits the campaign possibilities of the spaces. They felt it was better to shut up shop than “sell out”.

The rent… one of the reasons radicals have struggled has been gentrification, though, astonishingly Kinder writes about neighbourhoods where they have been part of that gentrification, where radical bookstores have anchored or even started to turn round a failing retail area. She remarks that not all the shops eschew capitalism – “In many feminist-, queer-, and Black orientated spaces, the goal is less about escaping capitalism and more about combating patriarchy, homophobia and white privilege by getting more minorities into leadership positions, including business ownership.”

Finance is often a problem, leading to volunteerism and “self-sacrifice”. About half the shops she spoke to relied on volunteer labour or private money. This is a major political issue, for who can afford to work for free or extremely low pay indefinitely? Red Emma’s, an anarchist set-up, moved from people working for free, usually with a job on the side, to full-time employment with living wages and benefits which, in their words “keeps the space going.” Others, however, don’t mind being shoved to the margins because they “associate the spatial fringes with a positive sense of transgression”. Sure, but economic displacement kills custom. Giovanni’s Room, City Lights and Quimby’s and others have only survived because they bought their premises in an act that was a hedge against gentrification.

The Radical booktrade in the USA had its problems of course – 90% of feminist bookstores and Black bookstores closed within a few years. The high water mark of Black bookstores was between 1965 and 1979 when their number grew from around a dozen to between 75 and 100. But times change. Beyond the time frame of this book, in the States, so far this year 23 BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of color) bookstores have opened. This must be due to the impact of Black Lives Matter. The earlier range of Black bookshops included places affiliated with the Black Panthers and other militant groups whereas Mahogany Books in Washington (online since 2007, physical since 2017 and now with a second outlet in Maryland) had a surprise visitor to a recent meeting of their regular online book group… one Barack Obama.

Most of the bookshop workers interviewed saw their premises as a shelter from the storm. Kinder describes these as “filtered offstage places [that] provided social support for processing and grieving not simply because likeminded people were present but also because opposition groups were absent”. This was in the era of Trump, though some of the women’s bookshops had a longer term caring role for those, sometimes literally, escaping patriarchy.

And radical bookshops are often there for the long haul. In the two years Kimber took to write the book, several of the places she covered closed down, but their average lifespan was twenty-eight years. Wild Iris, Minnehaha, Rainbow, Modern Times, Boxcar, Calamus, Internationalist had served a generation. She writes that “Closing is not failing” as “these venues leave lasting, life-altering impressions” which “encourage new generations of activists to find updated ways to get durable spaces back on the map as part of the infrastructure of dissent.”

So welcome City of Asylum, Violet Valley, Café con Libros, Black Feminist Library, Mahogany, Uncle Bobbie’s, Nuestra Palabra and the others that opened in the same two years. I look forward to reading how they fare in years to come.

The Radical Bookstore should be bought, of course, from your nearest radical bookshop or here:

Ross Bradshaw

*The Feminist Bookstore Movement by Kristen Hogan (Duke, 2016)