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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.

Anatomy of a Killing by Ian Cobain (Granta, £9.99)

On April 22 1978 Harry Murray went to a bungalow in the town of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, on the pretext of meeting Millar McAllister to talk about pigeons.  Millar was a well-known and respected photographer of pigeons in the journal Pigeon Racing News and Gazette.  After a brief conversation Harry took a revolver from his jacket, shot Millar in the chest, aimed another shot at the head, and then shot him again twice in the chest.  Millar’s young son Alan witnessed everything and screamed for his mother as Harry ran from the scene.  As well as his hobby of taking photographs of pigeons Millar McAllister was an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Harry Murray was an active member of an Active Service Unit in the IRA.  

Anatomy of A Killing tells the story of what led Harry and his three accomplices to this point.  The level of detail is remarkable. Author Ian Cobain traces the lives of all involved not just from childhood, but for several preceding generations, and in the process tells the story of the island of Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries.  He describes the process of radicalisation, training and organisation that enabled them to participate in a political assassination.  Contrary to the myths put about by British politicians IRA member were not ‘mindless thugs’, and Cobain reveals the reality in terms of background, gender, profession and why they had arrived at this point.  

News of the murder was sparse in Britain, many British people taking the view that this was all happening in a far-off place and that with any luck British troops would prevail.  Ironically on that same day Nottingham Forest secured the First Division title, which would have been of much greater interest to me as a 17 year-old.  I was studying for my A-levels and knew more about 17th century French drama than what was happening much closer to home.  That was exactly how the British state wanted it. They were correct in assuming that most people had little interest in visiting Northern Ireland for themselves, therefore making anti-Republican propaganda all the easier.  One government minister who did visit Belfast was however truly shocked at the dire levels of poverty, unemployment and housing that the Catholic community had to endure.

The backgrounds of those who took part in the killing give countless examples of the hardship and discrimination going back several generations, ultimately leading to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  The stance of the British government of the time was that, over time, the IRA and its supporters would run out of steam.  After all, the British state had infinitely greater resources with the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, plus a licence to engage in shocking levels of brutality.  Cobain details the horror – there can be no other word – of what happened in Castlereagh Police station, where all suspects were interrogated and sometimes tortured.  He quotes from official police accounts of interviews and contemporaneous doctors’ reports, plus statements from those being questioned.  As for the bigger picture Cobain contrasts what was being said in parliament – if anything was being said at all – with how Gerry Adams and other republican leaders were trying to keep the profile of the struggle high with the ultimate aim of getting the British to realise that they would never secure a military victory.

You know what is going to happen, and the murder of Millar McAllister is described with deep sensitivity by Cobain with no needless sense of drama; but by this point you why it was happening.  Cobain has also traced those involved as they were released as a part of the Good Friday agreement, and he asks them to reflect on what happened; their answers are fascinating.  The same privilege is accorded to Harry’s family.  Anatomy of a Killing is an outstanding work, we get the historical sweep plus the perspective of the individual.  The extensive bibliography is pointing me to other works. Ignorance on these issues is still shameful in Britain, as evidenced by recent Brexit-related events, but for those who wish to find out for themselves the truth is close at hand.

Book orders: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/anatomy-of-a-killing-life-and-death-on-a-divided-island/

Bob Berry

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

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

PRACTICAL SOCIALISM: A HOW-TO GUIDE!

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: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/paint-your-town-red-how-preston-took-back-control-and-your-town-can-too/

Mike Scott

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

 

David King: designer, activist, visual historian by Rick Poyner (Yale, £30)

If you were a political activist of a certain age you will have been inspired to attend demonstrations by flyposted posters designed by David King, worn a badge designed by him, read a book with a cover by him and shared his concerns about Vietnam, apartheid, nuclear weapons and the National Front. King’s bold, simple designs were instantly recognisable and were just everywhere, though probably few gave thought to the designer!
Beyond the agitprop, David King’s activism included the cause of Trotsky against Stalinism. It might be hard for younger activists to understand but for decades last century it was necessary for King and his co-thinkers to celebrate the Russian Revolution but to condemn the gravedigger of the revolution, one Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. King’s books The Great Purges (with Isaac Deutcher), The Commissar Vanishes and Ordinary Citizens: the victims of Stalin are almost but necessarily unbearable in printing the photographs of political activists and, well, ordinary citizens killed in their millions by Stalin. After reading these books you cannot get some of these images out of your mind. The Commissar Vanishes is also about the way history was rewritten and revisualized to erase those who had at best fallen out of favour, at worst been murdered. In that book, revisited here, King describes how one survivor, the constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko even blanked out photos in his own book collection of those who had fallen.
In his later years David King had become one of the world’s experts on Soviet art, curating a famous exhibition at the Tate, which became his final publisher. He had collected posters, badges, leaflets, books from the Soviet past and was perhaps uniquely able to curate these exhibitions and books, such as Rodchenko’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.
If you were not so much a political activist you perhaps also saw his design for Crafts, City Limits, Sunday Times Magazine, London Review of Books, Penguin book covers…though the Jimi Hendrix Electric Ladyland album sleeve might not have been a great idea. This book also describes King’s photographic and design techniques which means that as well as grey-haired activists marching down memory lane it would be a useful read for any design student.

Rick Poyner and Yale have done an excellent production job on this book, the first to cover the whole career of David King, who died in 2016. They have done him proud.
David King: designer, activist, visual historian is available from https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/david-king-designer-activist-visual-historian/

Agent Sonya by Ben McIntyre (Viking, £25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Warriors: writers who waged the literary Cold War by Duncan White (Little, Brown £25)

It must have been strange working at Little, Brown and to edit, proof-read and publish pages 300-302 of this book where the company is reported as squashing the publishing of Howard Fast’s Spartacus, a dispute that forced out Angus Cameron, the firm’s editor-in-chief. Fast was a popular left wing novelist whose books – like Spartacus – were political as well as being racy. Eventually he self-published the book as no other publisher would take him. Fast was a target, and would end up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He would also discover that his babysitter was an FBI agent and his house was bugged. This was 1951 and writers like Fast had been taking sides in the Cold War. He took the side of Russia.
Fast was a catch. His Freedom Road, published in 1944, “had sold 30 million copies in ten years and had been translated into eighty-two languages”. (This was a novel about a group of former slaves in reconstruction America which could be popular currently, but the paperback is £30.99 from an academic publisher.)
Fast was one of the organisers of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, one of a bewildering number of organisations and conferences with harmless names that pulled in writers from this side or that. One of the names was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF operated internationally and was eventually found to be funded by the CIA and in turn organised the funding of literary magazines worldwide which advanced the cause of Western democratic freedom. Often they were good magazines. In Uganda, Transition published “important work by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo” and in South America Mundo Nuevo “helped popularise the writers of the Latin American boom, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez”. In Britain it was Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender. Few, if any, of the authors knew that their pay came from the CIA – nor, in the case of Encounter, did its editor. Spender was horrified to discover his magazine was so funded. He resigned in 1966, donated money that he had earned and never read a word of the magazine again.
In the West writers might be used, abused, lose contracts, gain contracts but it was a lot tougher on the other side when stepping out of line could result in a bullet (Isaac Babel), exclusion (Anna Akhmatova) or what was almost a public imprisonment (Boris Pasternak). These last were just three of many writers abused under Stalin. After the Thaw – was this the only period in history named after a novel? – the USSR relaxed, a bit, but the threat was always there. In 1966 Dmitri Eremin gave the Soviet writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yulii Daniel what could only be described as a bad review in Izvestia, describing them as “werewolves” who “spatter on to paper all that is most vile and filthy”. One month later they were on what became a world famous trial. Daniel included in his defence a roll call of writers murdered by the Soviet state – Babel, Mandelstam, Bruno Jasienski, Ivan Katayev, Koltsov, Tretyakov, Kvitko, Markish.* For his trouble, Daniel was given five years in a hard labour camp, Sinyasvky got seven. At least they lived.
Some of the writers covered in the book were desperate not to take sides. The Black American novelist Richard Wright could not bear to live in racist America, decamping to Paris, yet could not bear the way the Communist Party tried to exploit his community and himself. He died a tragic figure, broken by the fray.
Cold Warriors is a gripping read, though its structure is awkward. There is no linear narrative and chapters on one writer or group of writers often end on a cliffhanger leading you to either flick ahead to continue their story or move straight into the life of another writer or group of writers, often within another country. Duncan White (correctly) has a go at Howard Fast for overwriting for a popular audience, but White himself can get a bit carried away with the drama. The chapter “Koestler Berlin, 1950” starts “Arthur Koestler recognised this was his moment. As he approached the lectern, he looked out over the crowd, some fifteen thousand strong, knowing that they were eagerly anticipating what he had to say. He was the undoubted star of the Congress of Cultural Freedom and he knew it.”
Star he was, but White reminds us that Koestler
was out of his head half the time on Benzedrine and alchohol – and that he was a sexual abuser. A lot of the good guys, depending on which side you were on, were not exactly good guys. The Jewish Howard Fast showed no concern for the Jewish writers murdered by Stalin.
Those who came out of this period best were those in the middle, who did their best, Spender, Wright, Mary McCarthy – people we would now call public intellectuals – not always getting it right but who were for neither Washington nor Moscow, but for something far better.
Cold Warriors is available, post free, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw
*The latter two were among those murdered by Stalin in 1952, whose work Five Leaves included in our From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing from 1917-1952.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross Bradshaw

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