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Book Reviews

Chavs: the demonisation of the working class by Owen Jones (Verso, £9.99)

chavsA bookshop customer bought this the other day, together with a Bill Bryson book. Perhaps guessing that I was mentally raising an eyebrow he said that he knew that reading Chavs would put him in a bad mood so he was planning to read Bryson afterwards to make himself feel better. He had a point.

A year or two back Chavs was the must-read leftie book. It really took off – I bought my copy at the time from a WH Smith’s bookstall in Crewe railway station. I’ve only just got round to reading it, to my shame. In the meantime Owen Jones has become the Milky Bar Kid of the British left (a phrase coined by the Five Leaves’ writer Harry Paterson), the Tories have got worse, UKIP are on the rise, but fortunately Jones’ chapter on the BNP has become out of date. And I suspect that a lot of people who bought this book have not quite finished it yet.  Why not? Because it really is bloody depressing.

I read the book with a view to covering it here, and turned down so many pages from which to quote – Jones knows how to marshal his facts.  Here’s one I did not know – “over half of the top one hundred journalists were educated at a private school” – one of the reasons for their distaste at worst and lack of understanding at best for the working class, especially those from the north. I could have filled this short review with a fraction of Jones’s battery of facts which present a convincing case for the deliberate break up of working class organisations and ways of living – think the decline of trade unions, the deliberate rundown of industry and the great sell off of social housing – and the “chavification of working class people, the constant portrayal of them/us as being “‘non-aspirational’ layabouts, slobs, racists, boozers, thugs – you name it”. We can see this most in the current millionaire cabinet attack on those who are not in work or claim benefits.

Chavs is essential reading but I got more out of the forthcoming The People: the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010 by Selina Todd (John Murray, £25, due April) as though the working class lost out in the end at least some of the century was “ours”. A review will follow at some stage. Owen Jones’ book could be summed up by one of his sentences: “Chav-hate is a way of justifying an equal society” which “justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it is actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” He is not wrong.

Ross Bradshaw

Fighting Fit: a memoir by Chanie Rosenberg (Redwords, £6.00)

fightingfitLast year, at the Jewish Socialists’ Group annual seder/Passover meal, people were reading stories and poems of liberation. Someone read a poem by Isaac Rosenberg, one of the greatest of  poets of WWI (in which he was killed). MCing the event was the Five Leaves writer David Rosenberg who remarked that he was unrelated to the poet… but one of the others present was Chanie Rosenberg, a first cousin of Isaac’s. Chanie, who was born in 1922 obviously never met her cousin, but talked about his short life and work with the background of family knowledge. It felt like a magical moment, with the long dead Isaac Rosenberg almost, almost within touching distance.

Unfortunately Chanie does not include mention of her connection to Isaac Rosenberg in this short memoir. Indeed, the memoir barely touches the surface of her interesting life. I wish she had written more. Some of the text is bitty, but she shows flashes of inspiration, for example when she describes her courtship with Ygail Gluckstein/Tony Cliff in Palestine saying “Cliff was attracted by my South African passport. [He had been desperate to find ways of leaving Palestine.] Bolstered by this and possibly some other useful characteristics, we started living together.”

The memoir is particularly strong on her early years in South Africa, where Jews were considered white but subject to racism by the English and Afrikaaner majority among whites. She describes knowing one Black family which had members who could pass as white, who no longer talked to one another to avoid risking the “white” members being exposed. Chanie rejected South African racism and, later, Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism. With Cliff she was one of the founder members of the group they set up after leaving Palestine, which became the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP was once the biggest group on the UK left, now in serious decline following various internal bust-ups over sexual harassment by a leading member. Chanie remains loyal to her Party. Her own political involvement included successful activity in the National Union of Teachers, for which she was blacklisted for some time. Unfortunately the memoir skates over most of the issues the SWP has been involved with over the years. It would have been nice to have known what she really thought.

The memoir includes a quite unrelated, but excellent, illustrated essay on the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, indicating the Chanie Rosenberg could have been a significant writer had she given more time to it.

Ross Bradshaw

 

 

 

Autonomy: the cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970 (Hyphen, £25)

The bookshop stocks quite a few books that were turned down by the publishing wing of the Five Leaves empire, usually coming out from more appropriate publishers – some bigger, some smaller. This book is one of them. I loved the idea – colour images of Colin Ward’s Anarchy magazine, with supporting essays – I just could not see how it could be produced economically, 100+ full colour images and information about a long-dead magazine that never sold more than 2-3,000 copies. Anarchy was hugely influential though, taking up issues like adventure playgrounds long before anyone else, with lots of important writers cutting their teeth on the mag. The Rufus Segar covers were in advance of their time… but how to sell it?
Fortunately, Daniel Poyner found a much better publisher in Hyphen, which only publishes in the field of graphic design, and which can reach a market outside of political archaeologists.
And what a job they have made of it. £25 is a lot for a paperback book, but it is worth every penny. The supporting essays are by the late Raphael Samuel, who understood the importance of Anarchy and Colin Ward’s ideas, and Richard Hollis on Anarchy‘s design in relation to the 1960s. Ward and Hollis have, separately, had an involvement with the publishing side of Five Leaves but we had no role in putting this book, or the contributors together.
Last week someone came into the shop with a satchel full of library-borrowings, a sort of Wardist grab-bag. Did we know of any organisation locally or nationally that brought together those who followed Colin Ward’s constructive anarchism? I admitted failure on this. Ward remains influential – Lawrence and Wishart are bringing out a memorial volume for him this year, and Five Leaves is planning a final volume of his essays, but those who he influenced are scattered. This book – one of those shortlisted for the 2013 Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing – will make him better known in the design world. But it is hard to think how a permanent organisation promoting Wardism (a term he would have disliked) could survive as his own generation fades out and the generation he influenced most slip into retirement. But the bookshop is here, in part, because of his influence!

Ross Bradshaw

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt (Vintage)

How to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom ChatfieldIf my own personal library (God, that sounds pretentious) could have only one type of book, it would be essays. Accessible essays on all sorts of subjects. You can see where the annual Five Leaves essay collection comes from. At the heart of the collection would be a group of books like this one. Excellent essays, fairly personal in orientation, but grounded in experience and an understanding of history and politics.
Reading The Memory Chalet is difficult though, because you are aware that the author was dying when he wrote them. In fact he did not write them, he dictated them as motor neuron disease made movement impossible. The reader is always conscious that these were the last writings by a major writer occupying his well-ordered mind in a productive way. What else could he have done?
The essays I am drawn back to are the more personal accounts – of early travels in Europe, of his disenchantment with Zionism born out of living on a kibbutz, of London bus routes, of manual labour on board a ship, alternating “between scrubbing diesel boilers and throwing up in the teeth of a North Sea blizzard”.
Judt was of the left, at home mostly in the pages of the London Review of Books, but was quite clear about the kind of socialism he wanted – in the 1960s supporting Havel, Michnik, Kis and other “outcast” intellectuals who he saw as the best hope in replacing the “dead dogma immured in a decaying society” that was Eastern Europe under communism, and which also helped him reconnect to his East European Jewish origins.
Judt finishes the book with a chalet – a cafe at a small train stop In Murren, Switzerland – with the mountains falling away into the valley below, with the sight of summer barns you can climb up to. You can wait for the next train “punctual, predictable” or just wait, in a place where nothing goes wrong. Judt was rootless, lived in many places, but he ends “We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” And that’s when you cry.

Ross Bradshaw

Undercover: the true story of Britain’s secret police by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis (Faber)

UndercoverIt’s not often I read a book with a raised cover – you know the sort, the title being a bit bumpy. Clearly Faber thought this book would reach the mass market – the sub-heads “They steal identities. They break the law. They sleep with the enemy.” are also a bit bumpy in another way. And then the cover image of that stupid Guy Fawkes mask, beloved of (some) protesters and (most)  press photographers everywhere. But this book is sensational, and “they” did all of these things, in some cases not just sleeping with their enemy but fathering a child with that enemy.  And a lot of  the action was in Nottingham. If you were on another planet you might have missed the fuss about Nottingham’s Mr Mark Stone/Mark Kennedy, the copper who infiltrated and made himself central to local protest groups over many years. He also made himself central to the lives of the core individuals involved, and had several sexual relationships while undercover. He and the Special Demonstration Squad were eventually exposed. Almost all the policemen and one of the policewomen who were deep undercover, also mostly for many years, had sexual relations with members of the groups they infiltrated. In some case they became instigators of illegal action. It now appears that the famous McDonald’s/McLibel leaflet was written mainly by a policeman and that the tiny London Greenpeace Group who produced it had almost as many infiltrators as activists. Perhaps McDonald should sue the police. The story of the SDS is fascinating reading, though the question remains as to how, psychologically, these long-terms undercover police spies could live with, act with and sleep with people yet have “normal” lives too. What kind of person could do this?

Ross Bradshaw