logo-cropped

Nottingham’s independent bookshop | 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH | 0115 8373097

Book Reviews

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.

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 bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

When Grieving Begins: building bridges after the Brighton Bomb, a memoir by Patrick Magee (Pluto Press, £16.99)

“At 2.54 a.m. on Friday, 12 October 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing four people and injuring thirty-four others. One of the injured died five weeks later. I planted the bomb. I did so as a volunteer in an IRA active service unit committed to the continuing, long-term strategy of taking the war to England.”
“On 24 November 2000, sixteen years after the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton and seventeen months after my release I sat down and talked with Joanna Berry, whose father, the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was one of the five people killed.”
The first of these stark quotes appears on page 115 of Patrick Magee’s book, the second on page 172. Before the first quote he describes his life in Belfast and England in the time leading up to the bombing. His background was of poverty and discrimination – Magee’s father, for example, had to leave the local shipyard when it was discovered he was a Catholic. The family moved to and fro from Ireland for want of work, with Patrick becoming something of a tearaway teenager. Eventually he is drawn into the Republican movement. He describes the treatment of the Catholic population in the north, the pogroms, the shoot-to-kill policies of the RUC and the British Army – everything that drove him to the Brighton bombing. The most striking incident was when he was picked up by the state forces and dumped in an area controlled by Loyalist paramilitaries as if some kind of present for them.
We then hear of his time in prison. Beatings had always been a regular part of being scooped up by the forces but, ironically his spell in the most secure part of Leicester Prison (sentenced to eight life terms for the Brighton bomb) brought humane treatment and the start of his route through the Open University prison education system.
I do not, by this review, wish to skirt over what the active service units of the IRA did. Nor does he, “Terrible things had happened. We had killed innocent civilians. One thinks of Birmingham; of La Mon.” And Magee “believed absolutely, as I still do to this day, that the armed struggle was our only option.” He still believes that the violence of the oppressed cannot be compared to that of the oppressor. And, by God, the oppressor was violent. I’m typing this on the day that the it was announced in a coroner’s report that the ten people killed by the British Army at Ballymurphy in August in August 1971 were murdered (www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/may/11/inquest-to-report-on-alleged-killings-by-british-soldiers-in-ballymurphy).
The book is introduced by Joanna (Jo) Berry, whose father was among those killed at Brighton. Astonishingly, Jo is a cousin of Princess Diana.  Jo and Patrick’s combined story forms the second half of the book. She wanted to meet him, to understand his motives and to explain what the killing had meant to her. She wanted to build bridges… and what a way to do it. The report of their first meeting merits re-reading. By now Magee had been released on license under the Good Friday Agreement. The two talked for three hours, during which she made it clear she understood the role of the British in Ireland, but Magee also began to see her father in his full humanity. Magee expressed his regret he had killed her father. Berry said “I’m glad it was you.” This left Magee floundering, what could it mean?
You can read what this meant, but in due course and not without difficulty they sought reconciliation. They talked, were filmed, spoke at meetings, fell out, were reconciled all on the difficult path towards a wider reconciliation, understanding and respect. Not that any of it was easy. Magee and Berry found themselves traduced in the press. On one awful occasion he was invited to speak at an event for people who had lost family to the IRA. A tough gig when the organisers had not told the group he was coming. He has made sure since then it would never happen again.
The last part of the book, strangely, is the least interesting as they go on the road together, where they spoke and what were the responses.Though perhaps this is because the tension, the grimness and the memories of the period of the shooting war early on in the book were so raw. It is, however, a remarkable story and a remarkable book.
You can watch Patrick Magee at a recent Five Leaves online event, in conversation with Deirdre O’Byrne from the Bookshop: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RhB67JQQZ4
Ross Bradshaw

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Penguin, £9.99)

Hisham Matar is probably best known for his 2017 bookThe Return: fathers, sons and the land in between which describes his post-Gaddafi return to Libya to find out what happened to his father, a victim of Gaddafi’s rule.
Following his father’s disappearance, Matar became interested, obsessed with the paintings of the Siena School, religious paintings from around the fourteenth century. After The Return came out – still grieving, he finally visits Siena, and this 2019 memoir is of the month he spent there alone. It’s a short book, about art, about grief, about being alone and being a stranger in a strange city.
Matar makes his purpose clear, in this beautiful book. He finds a peaceful spot in the local cemetery where he was “… the mourner without a grave”, planning to “sit for a few moments and listen to the birds.” Going on he writes “I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.”
But the book is also about art and includes many of the Sienese paintings, which he analyses, particularly the Good/Bad Government frescos, which stretch to 14.5 metres in the room that features Lorenzetti’s ‘Allegory of good government’ – part of which is pictured here. There’s also the “unsettling” ‘Madonna del latte’ by the same painter, which is as unsettling as he describes it. The publisher has done a good job on the reproductions in this inexpensive paperback, especially in bringing out detail, but of course I long to see the originals. Matar spent so long with the paintings that the guards gave him a folding chair so that he could spend even longer in front of a picture, which he then did. “Didn’t we tell you?” said one.
Matar did not remain completely alone. Hearing a family speak Arabic, he greets them and is invited home by Adam and his children Kareem and Salma. Though from Jordan – half a continent away from Libya – they welcomed him as if family, explaining the town’s complex contrada system of neighbourhood loyalties and competition. He walked back from the evening he spent with them holding their kindness to “my chest as though it were a precious object I had been given.”
Matar ends the book, back in New York, reunited with his partner Diana, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Sienese painting ‘Paradise” by Giovanni di Paolo, painted around 1445, to return there weekly “as though we were going to see an old friend”.
Ross Bradshaw
A Month in Siena is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/a-month-in-siena/

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

At the Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage, £9.99)

About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.

 Did I know these were existential books? Probably not. I did, after all, read Camus’ Plague without realising it was a metaphor for the German occupation of France. I learned that later, but never got round to finding out what existentialism was. Here was my chance…
Well, existentialism could be summed up by “existence precedes essence”, which even Bakewell says “gains in brevity [but] loses in comprehensibility”. Right. So let’s go back to phenomenology, out of which the e-word came. The brief description of this by Husserl is “to the things themselves”, which it took Husserl 87 volumes to explain. I’m not planning to live long enough to read them. All this lot are long-winded. Sartre, the key person in this book, was asked to write an introduction to a book of essays by Genet. He sent 700 pages, which might have been a tad long, so his publisher turned it into Sartre’s well-known Saint Genet book.
Bakewell’s title, however, is a bit misleading. I expected to be thrown into the world of cafes, of Juliette Gréco , of black polo-neck sweaters (I bought one specially) – we were, but also thrown into the much darker world of Heidegger. In fact the third chapter, twenty-four pages, was all about him and we weaved back and forth to him later, not least his involvement with the National Socialists. Though he had an affair with Hannah Arendt and pre-war friendships with other Jews, he never recanted on his support for the Nazis. His followers only needing an apology before they would accept him back into the fold. And he did have followers, acolytes. One early fan remarked about a lecture that Heidegger had “given us a glimpse into the foundation of the world… manifest in an almost aching brilliance.” But why did he not recant? Perhaps he just being true to himself. These Nazis, eh?
 Image result for at the existentialist cafe
As an exercise in group biography At the Existentialist Cafe is brilliant. In comes Colin Wilson, in comes James Baldwin, and also from Black America, in comes Richard Wright. And Sonia Orwell has a walk on part. The book is full of humour, for example when Heidegger gives a lecture to some shipping magnates in Bremen there is a huge ovation at the end. Brakewell interjects that perhaps it was simply because he had finished.#
Sartre and the others fell out with each other all the time. At one stage Sartre did a diagram to work out who was speaking to whom, which presumably also included who had been sleeping with whom. He and De Beauvoir were together, unfaithfully on both sides, for fifty-one years, but non-sexually after the first eight or so years. De Beauvoir revelled in her freedom and in sex. Sartre found it all a bit gloopy.
Sartre and De Beavoir also, in a sense, fell out with themselves, changing their own minds among others, particularly post-war when they became neo-Stalinists, somewhat at odds with their ideas of freedom. They fell out with Camus over their support for executions of French collaborators.
So what remains? Sartre is not so much read these days. Many of us have nostalgia for those Paris cafes in the period when we were actually still in short trousers. Visiting them now is not the same but De Beauvoir is still read – at least her 1949 book  Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) is, not least by young people. Why? At our bookshop book group a young woman said it was because things have not changed, or not changed enough. People agreed. Though it was Sartre who encouraged, indeed pushed her to continue, it is perhaps De Beauvoir’s work that will be the lasting impact of that exciting philosophical movement created in a France still bleeding from the second world war and which was convulsed by the resistance to Colonialism in Algeria and France.
Ross Bradshaw
At the Existentialist Cafe is available, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop 0115 8373097