Category Archives: Review

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

The Ministry of Truth, by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, £16.99)

George Orwell left London for Catalonia on December 22nd 1936. He fled Barcelona in fear for his and his wife Eileen’s life six months later, hastily across the French border at Perpignan, through France by train, “away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm”, and was back in the family home in Wallington by the first week of July 1937.

He returned a changed man. Not just, as Fenner Brockway, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) observed, “far more mature as a socialist”. Nor simply having seen first hand the brutal early military realisation of the “wave of revolutionary feeling” that, recalling in 1944, he felt sweeping over every detail of life in Europe at the time.  The abject bitterness of Orwell’s experiences in and immediately after leaving Spain – the fatal betrayal of his militia by Stalinist Communist forces; the helpless witnessing of comrades imprisoned, tortured and murdered; the capitulation to Soviet propaganda, and subsequent personal defamations, by elements of the British left – affected him in the most profound way possible.

He returned a man shocked into truth and steeled as a writer facing those truths. And though it would be many years before he would put them to paper, many of the sinister realities forced upon Orwell in Spain would resurface in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bernard Crick wonders whether one bitter incident in particular – the apparent ‘confession’ by Orwell’s comrade in arms F. A. Frankfort (Frank Frankford), that the P.O.U.M. had been fighting for not against the Spanish fascists – was a grain destined to grow. “Could this specifically,” Crick writes in George Orwell: A Life, “as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?”

If by the time he returned from Spain, as Crick believes, “most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over” and the seeds of the two great dystopian novels were indeed sown, it is fitting that 1936 is the year in which Dorian Lynskey begins his new ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was the year in which Orwell himself said that “history stopped”; in The Ministry of Truth Lynskey adds that “history stopped, and Nineteen Eighty-Four began”.

Speaking at a recent event at renowned radical bookshop Five Leaves, in Nottingham, Lynskey agreed that Spain was a “turning point” for Orwell. As far as it can ever be truly surmised, by starting at this point of the novel’s conception, he explained, his new book offers a different angle for the reader. “I wanted to do it the other way around,” he told the audience. “I like to focus on the part of their life when they do their great writing. It’s easy to get lost in research. I wanted to bring Ninety Eighty-Four home to the reader.”

The Ministry of Truth doesn’t claim to be a complete biography of Orwell. But it does attempt to chart the life of his most famous novel, from conception to the modern day, decades past the point Orwell had succumbed to the illness that so blighted and dragged out the writing of it. In the years in between Catalonia and Jura [where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four], Orwell grew steadily in stature as a public literary figure. With that profile came renown, much praise and – perhaps inevitably, given his tendency for truculence and “intellectual brutality” – many opponents.

Of the high-profile clashes Orwell became involved with in his career, Lynskey is particularly interested in a bitter literary tête-à-tête with War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, setting aside a whole fascinating chapter to it. He recounts a fierce exchange between the two writers, on one of the few occasions when they met in person, at Orwell’s Abbey Road flat in August 1941. “Two days before dinner,” Lynskey writes, “Wells learned that Orwell had published an essay about him in Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon and procured a copy. ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ did not fill him with delight”.

One of the sharpest ironies of Orwell’s life is that after the punishing process of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, a fearsome vision of a potential future, he scarcely had a future himself. And he was acutely aware that this was probably the case. Leaving Barnhill [the farmhouse in Jura] for the last time, he wrote to his close friend, Observer editor David Astor that “Everything is flourishing here except me”.

Even so, Lynskey notes in The Ministry of Truth, Orwell maintained a fierce schedule of work while he was on the island: “He typed it himself at the punishing rate of around four thousand words a day, seven days a week, propped up in bed for as long as he could bear in between bouts of fever and bloody coughing fits.”

He would only see another 227 days after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, almost all in miserable health. “He never lived in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey said at Five Leaves. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has lived on in the world – well into the 21st century, yet another generation is hearing the warning bells from this great dystopian novel.

The second half of The Ministry of Truth explores how this has happened, tracing Nineteen Eighty-Four’s passage through the collective cultural consciousness. Orwell coined the phrase “Cold War”, and this is where Lynskey begins, taking the reader through the 1950s when the novel was first received and began to pervade the wider culture. (In December 1954 seven million people in Briton watched the first two-hour adaptation of the book, on the BBC).

Later the music journalist in Lynskey loves to tell the story of David Bowie’s traumatic visit to Soviet Russia in 1973. During the return leg Bowie told Roy Hollingsworth from Melody Maker “I’ve seen life and I think I know who’s controlling this damned world. And after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life”. Soon after this Bowie began work on a musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which would form the basis of the album Diamond Dog, released in 1974.

Having traced Nineteen Eighty-Four’s life right through to the modern day, The Ministry of Truth ends, perhaps fittingly, with one of the novel’s first reviews – written while Orwell was still alive. The 1949 review, in Life, Lynskey says, “correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message”, that to guard objective truth against self-serving mendacious minds who try to pervert it, is the highest calling of a writer. The Ministry of Truth goes a long way to showing how, and why, that is still so essential today.

Benedict Cooper

This review first appeared on the website of the George Orwell Society

Rebel Footprints (2nd edition) by David Rosenberg (Pluto, £12.99)

David Rosenberg has demolished an assumption and disrupted a habit.  I always assumed my knowledge of London’s dissenting tradition was adequate but incomplete, but this revised edition of Rebel Footprints exposed my ignorance of key aspects of even the better-known episodes in the city’s radical history. 

For years, quarterly meetings in Chancery Lane have been preceded by aimless, time-killing strolls around EC4, but my next visit will include a carefully planned trudge from the Savoy Hotel, on The Strand, to Dorset Rise, just off Fleet Street. As Rosenberg reveals, the Savoy marks the site of a palace destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, while Dorset Rise is the location of an obelisk commemorating Robert Waithman, linen draper and rebellious MP. 

The Fleet Street writers and rioters walk, new to this edition, also introduces us to the London Corresponding Society, which integrated the struggle for democracy with the battle against slavery. Local figures of note are ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a Leveller flogged, pilloried and gaoled for attacks on the authority of the clergy, and the pamphleteer Richard Carlisle, who was repeatedly imprisoned on charges of seditious libel and blasphemy.  

Another new segment, on Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, introduces us to the area’s housing campaigners, including Charles Mowbray, tailor, printer, anarchist-communist, ‘no rent’ activist, co-founder of the Socialist League and sole non-Jewish member of the Yiddish-speaking sweatshop workers strike of 1889.

Mowbray’s story, deftly outlined over a few pages, illustrates one of the strengths of the book. Rather than compartmentalising people, places and issues, Rosenberg meanders across thematic and geographical boundaries to highlight the connectedness of class struggles and celebrate the resilience and diversity of Londoners.

The book’s eleven historical excursions are crammed with fascinating detail, such as the geographical and class-based schisms in the suffragette movement, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s lifelong commitment to socialism and anti-fascism. Sylvia’s contribution to the foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union did not, we are told, secure a namecheck on the suffragettes’ commemorative statue in Westminster.

Rosenberg’s style is clear and accessible and his scholarship impressive, but the vital element of Rebel Footprints is its passion for the capital’s history of radical change. And it’s tremendous fun. Each chapter ends with an elegantly lettered and illustrated map, and an itinerary listing significant landmarks in geographical order. 

This is a welcome antidote to the focus on ‘great men’, royalty and military adventure celebrated by the heritage industry and official guidebooks. It’s also a goldmine of narratives showing conditions can be improved, racists can be resisted, better cities can be built. The publication of this new edition is a fitting celebration of the first 50 years of Pluto Press. 

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the  Morning Star

David Rosenberg’s first book – Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s – was published by Five Leaves

Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics (Second Edition) by Gabriel Kuhn(PM Press, £15.99)

THERE is a widely accepted idea that football emerged from working-class culture, went through a golden age as ‘the people’s game’ and then sold its soul to Sky, Adidas and Coca Cola. Soccer vs, the State, Gabriel Kuhn’s lively and painstaking examination of the sport’s hidden history and competing cultures, reveals a more complex narrative.

The book is full of surprises. In the early nineteenth century football was played by future ‘captains of industry’ and ‘administrators of empire’. This changed in the 1880s, when ‘professionalisation’ attracted young men seeking an escape from factory work. With professional players came working-class crowds keen to watch their mates.

Another revelation concerns female players. We are currently witnessing a revival, not a genesis. Women participated in medieval village matches and were excluded only when public schools appropriated the game. There was renewed interest in women’s football in World War I, and in 1920 Dick, Kerr’s Ladies (from Preston) beat St Helen’s Ladies before a record crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park. The response of the FA was to introduce a ban, not lifted until 1971, and to encourage international prohibition of women players.

Kuhn highlights the tension football provokes between workers and bosses on every continent, using archived pamphlets, manifestos, interviews and news clippings. A complex picture emerges of a Jekyll and Hyde sport. There is evidence it’s a counter-revolutionary activity fostering greed, corruption, sectarianism and nationalism; but there are also examples of teamwork on the pitch promoting working class solidarity.  For example, the late Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins said the Greek and Croatian soccer teams of Adelaide were the first groups to recognise him as a person.

The book provides fascinating snippets of information on activism, racism, anti-fascism, corporate influences on accessibility, bigotry and internationalism.

The author’s impressive archive and interview-based research, and his rich and varied presentation of information, is slightly compromised by the book’s structural flaws. The thematic similarity of some chapters leads to repetition of ideas and makes it hard for readers to refer back to specific information and stories. But Kuhn offers a cornucopia of anecdotes, facts, life histories and extracts to create a fragmented but fascinating picture of a sport facing profound risks and possibilities. The new edition covers the development of feminist clubs, the contribution of ‘ultra’ fans to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and the impact of the FIFA corruption scandal.

The book is an invaluable resource at a time in which football risks destruction by the greed of club owners and their corporate ‘partners’. At the same time it celebrates the game’s potential for building social cohesion and alternative forms of community.  It is a timely and entertaining read.

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the Morning Star

Copies of Soccer vs  the State are available, post free UK, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman (Faber, £8.99)

I’ve mentioned before that there is a category of books, mass-market novels, about falling in love with an accidental bookseller. By accidental, it’s because the shop owner usually inherits a shop, or a bookbarge, and falls for an interesting customer. This sub-genre moves on with The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, but back in time to Australia in 1967 where sheep-farmer Tom, never a reader, falls for Hannah, an older woman who sets us a bookshop in his small town. But in this case the bookshop is not a major character.
Tom is the sort of sheep farmer who drives his “ute” “forward and back over the acorns while the ducks watched on in approval”  so they can “eat the flesh out of the acorns fallen from the trees planted by the Lutherands fifty years past” – Hannah is a Hungarian-Jewish survivor of Auschwtitz and a death march, a well-read, well-dressed intellectual who seduces him.
Neither has been lucky in love in the past. Tom’s wife ran away, returning pregnant by another man, before running away again to join a Christian commune which is not very Christian to say the least. Tom looks after the child and grows to love him, but his wife and her creepy Pastor are given custody. Hannah has been married twice before. Her first husband and her only son were murdered in Auschwitz, her second, mad, husband is killed in Hungary during the 1956 uprising. She came to Australia to start again, unable to talk about her grief, but determined never to have and therefore never to love a child again for fear of losing them.
But Peter, the child that Tom had grown to love, is determined to leave the prison camp that is the commune and return to the only person who has ever looked after him properly.
Everyone is broken-hearted, including, in a minor way, the young bookshop assistant who has a pash for Tom.
The shop itself struggles, but later becomes successful when it moves into a Lutheran barn at Tom’s, becoming a destination, not least for tourist buses as it is between major vistor sites. And Tom, Hannah and Peter have to work things out.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is essentially a love story. The flashbacks to Hannah’s earlier life are particularly well done and there is nothing maudlin about the book.
But the bookshop itself adds not a lot to the story.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is published in July 2019
Copies can be ordered, post free UK, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s by Lisa Blower (Myriad Editions, £8.99)

UNFLINCHING descriptions of sex, violence and addiction are less controversial than in the past, but writers and publishers remain reluctant to tackle important aspects of human experience. Their refusal to talk about class led the writer James Kelman to accuse the literary establishment of treating people without money as if they ‘should be swept under the carpet.’

Lisa Blower lifts that carpet to explore lives deemed superfluous by business, media and government. Her well-rounded and convincing characters have limited choices as they face deprivation, disappointment and a relentless struggle for survival. Blower has been compared to Alan Bennett: the monologue is her preferred form and she shares Bennett’s knack for revelation through detailed observation and telling omission. The similarity ends there. Blower’s purpose is to find a voice for people often dismissed as inarticulate. Her narratives are direct and accessible, but there’s variety of both situation and style. Some are traditional monologues, others more dialogue driven; some are related from the first-person point of view, others use second-person; some are related by people struggling to survive, others by observers who have escaped the circumstances of those less fortunate.

Handled badly, a second-person narrative reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, but Blower’s deft writing creates deeper engagement with the dilemmas of her characters.

There’s a nod to Great Expectations in ‘The Land of Make Believe’. It concerns the struggles of talented, working-class Dee, who tries to fit in at Cambridge University and wants to understand her mother, Ruthie, who works as a prostitute. It’s a touching and powerful tale, freighted with wit and subtle complexities. Blower’s stories are be grittily realistic, but she relishes ambiguity and enjoys injecting humour into the darkest of situations. Her readers are treated with as much respect as her characters.

In another standout story, ‘The Trees in the Wood’, Mia experiences sleep deprivation as a result of grief, while Laura’s sleeplessness is caused by panic and anxiety. It’s a many-layered story. It assesses the power of character-driven fiction in increasing our understanding of science; it highlights the risks modern life poses to sleep and health; and it’s an affecting tale of women’s resilience in the face of tragedy.

In ‘Dirty Laundry’ Alma’s life spirals out of control when she loses her job due to the Icelandic Banking collapse. Gradually, we learn of Alma’s other source of anguish and the story ends with a sense that all may not be lost.

This is a fine collection of twenty tough but tender tales by a writer who celebrates the lives of uncelebrated people with compassion and caustic wit.  It’s a tough but by no means depressing read with moments of hope as well as hardship.

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the Morning Star

 

Waiting for the Revolution: the British far left from 1956 ed. Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (Manchester, £14.99)

Some time ago I was at a conference  when one of the speakers from the floor commented that he used to be a historian, now he “was history”. This comment came to mind when reading Waiting for the Revolution as so many of the groups mentioned in the book, once the makers of history are now, literally and metaphorically history. You can find the remnants scattered round the Market Square on some Saturdays. The Socialist Party, once 8,000 strong as Militant with three MPs and Liverpool Council under their control. Now with what?, 1000 members, pleading with Labour to be readmitted; the Socialist Workers Party, once perhaps 10,000 strong (if you believed their membership figures) and with a paper selling 30,000, rent asunder as a result of alleged sexual abuse by their former General Secretary; the Revolutionary Communist Group, locally but not nationally the most active of the bunch, usually to be seen flying the flags of Cuba, Palestine and now Venezuela, countries in which they have no influence and no members.
All of these groups are covered here, as well as the old Communist Party of Great Britain (which survives with less than a thousand members in the form of the pre-dissolution hard line split off, the Communist Party of Britain – the size of membership the old CPGB once had in Nottinghamshire alone). The stuff of PhD theses… indeed the word PhD appears in many of the biographies of the contributors to this book, with only two of the seventeen contributors not being linked to a university.
For trainspotters of the left (of which I am one) this is a good read. Unusually for a book on the far left there is a chapter on anarchism, specifically about the Angry Brigade of the late 60s and early 70s, and this is one chapter I would like to see made into a book as there seemed to be much more to say. There’s material on the RCG and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which brought back the days of that group organising a non-stop picket of the South African Embassy against the wishes of those representing the main South African group in struggle, the African National Congress. There’s material on the role of the Communist Party in the National Union of Mineworkers and the role of the left in support groups for the miners. The chapter on the left and Northern Ireland was another chapter that felt like there was more to say.
The chapter I found most interesting was by Daisy Pailing on the urban left in 1980’s Sheffield  in the earlier life of David Blunkett when he and a number of others tried to use local authority socialism as a bulwark against reaction.based on the strong socialist traditions of the city, generations of Labour families and the local trade union movement. This chapter came to mind at a recent Momentum debate on how to be a socialist councillor and how to use the Nottingham city council in the future as more than a dented shield. Unfortunately the councils have had endless cuts in budgets, a reduction of their powers and heavy loading on services due to an increasingly aged population. It won’t be so easy this time round.
The one chapter that perhaps should have been omitted was Michael Fitzgerald’s hagiography of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Fitzgerald was one of its leaders and one of those who led the organisation to become the reactionary group around Spiked who are to socialism what Melanie Philips is to progressive thought.
But turning to the issue raised over the SWP and their “Comrade Delta” affair, which led to so many activists leaving… their one time American affiliate has just wound itself up because of issues of sexual abuse and a botched cover-up within their leadership. The old Workers Revolutionary Party – which once had substantial support – blew apart because of their leader’s sexual abuse of women members. As did the Scottish Socialist Party over their leader’s alleged sexual behaviour and his alleged demand that members cover it up. Meantime the Socialist Party looks like it will split from its more successful Irish section which has fallen out with the SP’s British leader-for-life.  Several of the other groups have had similar but less publicised sexual scandals and/or splits. It wasn’t Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of “The forward march of labour halted?” that was responsible.
Perhaps it goes back to their notion of democracy, democratic centralism whereby the old Revolutionary Socialist League (ie Militant, then the Socialist Party), quoted in the book, said that “All members of the RSL are required to enter the mass organisations of the working class under the direction of the organisation… for the purpose of of fulfilling the aims of the organisation.” And “All members holding public office, paid or otherwise, shall come under the complete control of the organisation…” Doesn’t sound too great does it? At least the Communist Party trade union members, mentioned in the book, were not generally put in the “impossible position” of always following Party policy in industry to the detriment of the views of those who had elected them to trade union positions.
This book, now in paperback, a companion to a set of essays called Against the Grain, was first published in 2017 and omits reference to the revival of what could be called the far left in the shape of Momentum, Corbynism and, in America, the Democratic Socialists of America. The current Socialist History (number 34) starts to bring the story up to date. Some would argue that there’s nothing far left about any of these groupings and it’s too early to say if they will stay the course, but, Trump and climate breakdown notwithstanding, we might have some more history to be written.
Ross Bradshaw

An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer) published by Pushkin at £7.99.

My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.

An Untouched House | Willem Frederik Hermans | 9781782274445
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.

Ross Bradshaw

An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose (NYRB, £7.99)

 

Image result for love's work gillian rose

This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.

 Picking the original edition up from the shelves at home, bought in 1995, never read then forgotten, I found it moving to read as if reading in the present tense having also forgotten the detail of her life (and death) so the chapters about her fatal illness came almost as a surprise to me.
 It’s not an easy book to read – I don’t just mean those details, laid out with candour, but Rose was a philosopher and she had a habit of including technical, exclusive language and the odd phrase of mostly untranslated Latin. But it is worth carrying on.
Her book is autobiographical, but not a full autobiography. Chapters include memoirs of her friends and lovers, the very elderly Edna; her priest-lover; her bisexual lover Jim who died in the New York AIDS epidemic; the promiscuous mother-of-five Yvette, who also died of cancer. So many of her friends died. Her family life was broken too, though her teenage self found more familial love with her step-father than her estranged natural father. But it is the chapter on her illness, her realisation she would not survive a year with the details played out, the spread of the cancer, the disagreements between the consultants, the way her colostomy bag deals with body products. Did her death feel more tragic as she was fit and healthy as the cancer was growing inside her, cycling and swimming, feeling alive?
Rose was a Jewish intellectual and at one stage was called upon, with others, to advise the Polish government on what to do with Auschwitz. Save for the branch of her family that came to England some fifty of her relatives had perished in the Holocaust, yet the person who made her weep was a survivor of the Polish nobility resident only in a fraction of his old house who had scraped a living working as a translator under the Communist regime.
The book is searingly honest.
Ross Bradshaw

Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain by John Kelly (Routledge, £29.99)

Image result for contemporary trotskyism
In 1971 I became quite friendly with some people from the International Marxist Group n Glasgow, then a significant Trotskyist group. I did find it a bit strange – people had pretend “cadre” names, though everyone knew who each other was and it is hard to imagine for a second that the state didn’t have the odd implant within the group anyway.
I didn’t get that involved, but I did go to a conference where I found the various factions of the group hated each other more than they hated capitalism. Not for me.
That was my flirtation with Trotskyism. In the intervening years I have worked closely with some Trotskyists on anti-fascist work, seen the arse-end of their sectarianism, seen organisations built by them and organisations destroyed by them, stood appalled at some of their behaviour and made good friends with some individual Trotskyists who I know would have my back if the going got tough. But never thought of joining them.
John Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain is about as good a guide to that scene as you can get (with the exception of John Sullivan’s essential but dated skit A Soon as this Pub Closes, freely available online).
Kelly reveals there are (or were in 2017) 22 UK-wide Trotskyist parties or groups in Britain, whose membership ranges from a claimed 5,936 members of the Socialist Workers Party to the mighty two of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency in Britain. At least they do have two as that would be a very large banner for one to carry. Nine of the organisations have fewer than fifteen members, even the Spartacist League whose ten is a fairly small achievement for a group operating here since 1975. Having read the odd paper of the Sparts, the amazing thing is that ten have joined them. My sources in some of the groups indicate that Kelly’s membership figures are fairly accurate, but quite unbelievable about the SWP. During the period around 2012 when about a thousand active members left in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal (involving the SWP’s general secretary, Martin Smith, strangely missing from this book’s index) it became obvious that most of their “members” had never paid dues, never attended branches and many were students, say, who’d signed up at a meeting but were never seen again. One person I came across “joined” several times at a national demonstration, for a laugh. Attendance at any political demonstration nationally or in my home town of  Nottingham will tell you that the SWP is at a very low ebb.
The SWP is famously sectarian, forever setting up front organisations under their control. They were, for example, the only left group that would not join Notts Anti-Fascist Alliance. It was a little too democratic for them. In 1994 Mushroom Bookshop, where I worked, was attacked and wrecked by fifty or so Nazis, many of whom were arrested and about dozen of whom were eventually jailed. Immediately after the attack the local Anti-Nazi League ie the SWP called a press conference about the attack and a demonstration a week later. We were invited to attend their press conference and to speak at their rally about the attack on us! We declined – not least as we were busy putting the shop back together – and working with a much wider grouping to organise the biggest anti-fascist demonstration Nottingham had seen since the 1930s.
More on numbers – the fourth largest Trotskyist group listed is Socialist Appeal with 300 members. This is the group that stayed in the Labour Party when Militant (now the Socialist Party) left, the minority following the former Millie leader Ted Grant in staying. That’s fewer than one person in two parliamentary constituencies. Here in Nottingham the exotically-named Alliance for Workers Liberty has a significant presence, yet nationally only 140 members. These two are the biggest groups in the Labour Party but despite that Tom Watson, yes, that Tom Watson, in his long campaign against his party leader, claimed in 2016 that the Labour Party was at risk of a Trotskyist take over. Indeed, the impact of Corbyn has almost certainly to diminish the number of potential recruits to the main Trotskyist groups, as they are outside the Labour Party. The Socialist Party is a fraction of its size when, as Militant, it had two or three MPs in its ranks, control of Liverpool council and more full time workers than the Labour Party itself. Millie’s much vaunted record of control in Liverpool, by the way, is contested – it is worth finding an old copy of The Racial Policies of Militant in Liverpool published by the Runnymede Trust and the Liverpool Black Caucus during Militant’s high water mark in 1986.
Contemporary Trotskyism starts by explaining what Trotskyism is, bringing back happy memories of debating permanent revolution, the united front, united fronts of a special kind, transitional demands, the revolutionary vanguard party, democratic centralism, rank and fileism and, ultimately, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But primarily this book is about their organisational presence as parties, as internationals (you are nobody unless you have a sister group or two overseas), and within social movements.
And it is in the latter that most people will come across them, often not so much in the vanguard as trying desperately to catch up. This happened in my lifetime with the miners’ strike, the anti-poll tax campaign, CND and the anti-fascist movement. But they were ahead of the game with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and others. In the latter the SWP provided the organisational framework for the Stoppers, until two of its leaders, John Rees and Lindsey German, were turfed out, forming Counterfire. The power couple had been blamed for the SWP’s lash up with George Galloway in his Respect Coalition.
John Kelly’s book has many charts such as growth, income and membership of Trotskyist groups but he could have done to have added a chart of longevity of individual leaders. Most of the Trotsskyist groups have the same leaders for life. Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein in Palestine) founded the SWP (as the Socialist Review Group) in around 1950 and he was still leader fifty years later when he died. Ted Grant (born Isaac Blank in South Africa) formed the group that became Militant in 1937 and was still at the helm in 1992 when he was defenestrated, setting up the Socialist Appeal group which he run until his death in 2006. Gerry Healy was an early colleague of Grant’s before setting up the fiefdom that became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party in 1950 which he led for 35 years before his sexual abuse and bullying led to the implosion of the group, after which he still led a fragment of true believers. Sean Matgamma, like Healy, an Irishman, has led the group that became AWL since 1966 and still leads it, when he is not writing his famously bad poetry. Peter Taaffe was in Militant’s leadership when Ted Grant was expelled and has already racked up twenty years as the leader of the Socialist Party. Alan Thornett…. well, you get the message.
Much of this can be laid at the door of they way these parties seem to operate – outgoing central committees suggest their slate for the incoming committees, and are based round a group of full-timers. Membership commitment (the SWP aside) is high and dues are sometimes 10% of your wage.
Kelly’s book is well-written, given it is a book for trainspotters of a special kind, though strangely its cover features a banner from a tiny Maoist group which must have annoyed some people, not least those members of the Maoist group. Anyone seriously into Trotskyist trainspotting, however, should sign up to receive the bulletins of Splits and Fusions which also has an online archive of current, long-dead and half-forgotten Trotskyist papers and organisations, including the semi-mythical Internal Bulletins. It’s encouraging that the website is self-mocking in its title as, well, that’s what Trotskyist do – split and fuse.
Turning back the International Marxist Group and Nottingham… Our own Ken Coates’ International Group, which became the IMG in 1967 is barely mentioned, nor is (Pat Jordan’s) International Bookshop in Nottingham. Indeed the Trotskyist bookshops are mentioned on one page only and only as a source of funds for the party. Anyone wanting to explore this further should go to http://www.leftontheshelfbooks.co.uk/images/doc/Radical-Bookshops-Listing.pdf which has the best listing of past radical bookshops, communist, Trotskyist and libertarian. But what is worth mentioning is that whereas I rarely come across anyone who used to be in the awful WRP, which at one time had perhaps 6,000 members, in Nottingham at least all the former members of the IMG I know here are still involved in politics, have been and are major and beneficial contributors to trade unions, local and labour history, the women’s movement, refugee support groups and environmental campaigns. Perhaps I should have paid more attention at that conference in 1971.
One final point, given that this website is about left culture, though the Trotskyist movement has produced some excellent writers of non-fiction – Paul Foot and David Widgery stand out – they have produced little left culture of their own. Aside from Rock Against Racism, which was Trotskyist influenced, I’m struggling to think of any long term or even short term arts project coming from that milieu save for a very short-lived coffee-bar and venue run in London by Counterfire modelled, perhaps, on the Partisan coffee house of the late fifties and early sixties. But there is hope, I am told (by a very cultured member) within the Socialist Party. At a recent conference this subject attracted a very large attendance and the SP has spawned an art magazine, Bad Art. I can’t help but think old Ted Grant would think that a bourgeois deviation from the real class struggle.
Ross Bradshaw