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Book Reviews

The Edelweiss Pirates: teenage rebels in Nazi Germany by Dirk Reinhardt, translated by Rachel Ward (Pushkin Children’s, £7.99)

Though German resistance to Hitler once the Nazis were established in power was difficult, more than difficult, it did exist. The Socialist History Society brought together material on working class political resistance to the Nazis in Anti-Nazi Germans; the Christian resisters based round the Confessing Church especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller are well known; the ill-fated assassination attempt by the democratic centre and right under Claud von Stauffenberg, which led to thousands of executions, has been written about, notably in The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (who came to Nottingham to speak in 1989); the student White Rose Group is also now well known. There were also the  Rosenstrasse demonstrations by the German wives of Jewish men which successfully stopped the deportation of their husbands in the spring of 1943.
The one group that has had limited attention is the Edelweiss Pirates. This book will help to give them a profile, not least as Michael Rosen has written a foreword to the British edition.
The Edelweiss Pirates were actually not so much a group as a movement, perhaps not even that, but their activities eventually involved several thousand dissident young people who were increasingly repressed by the Nazis. It was a counter-cultural informal association of like-minded working class teenagers, who played music, grew their hair longer than was considered proper, camped out in the countryside, and held street battles with the Hitler Youth, an organisation which everyone their age was expected to join. Only in relatively recent times has their significance as resistors been recognised, when earlier they were seen as something akin to drop-outs. People finally realised that being a drop-out under the Nazis was being a resistor and some paid with their lives. There are a number of memoirs of former Pirates published in Germany, but little about them here.
But does it work as a novel, and a novel for older children at that? The book starts with a hanging, the brother of the narrator being publicly executed. That chapter, like most of the book, is written in italics, in diary form, the narrator of the diary being a teenager who starts knocking round with a group of Pirates, gradually getting more and more involved, his contempt for the Hitler Youth leading him into direct confrontation and direct resistance. He was fourteen at the start, with only eight years of schooling and he would soon start work in a factory, treated like dirt because of his views. Alongside the diary – printed without italics – is the story of a teenager from this century who is given the diary by an old man. They meet, seemingly for the first time, in a cemetery where the old man is at the grave of his brother and the teenager at the nearby grave of his own grandfather. Why is he picked out at the person to receive the diary? We will learn, but until we do we follow the paths in tandem – the teenager reading the diary slowly, chapter by chapter, wanting to savour it, wanting to know what it has to do with him. He visits the poor care home where the old man is living and is touched by his surroundings, and by the old man’s love for his pet birds.
I was not completely convinced of the links between the two sides of the story though. The circle that you knew would be completed seemed a bit artificial. What was better was the diary itself, where you could feel the excitement of joining a tribe, a group of people who understood you and were like you (it’s not only teenagers who do this!). There was great tension in the battles with Hitler Youth and the illegal acts the Pirates undertook. However, to my surprise, the part that affected me most in the diary was when the war was coming to a close – the Gestapo was even more murderous  towards those who were not patriots, but also the city of Cologne, the setting of the book, was so badly bombed that people were starving, living under wave after wave of bombings of civilian areas by the Allies. The Pirates were under attack from all sides.
Verdict? Yes, read, try it on a young adult, but also hope for a good English-language book on the Pirates which is not fiction.
Ross Bradshaw
You can order any of the books mentioned from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

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)

 

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

“Only connect”

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

 

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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Radical Bookstore should be bought, of course, from your nearest radical bookshop or here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-radical-bookstore-counterspace-for-social-movements/

Ross Bradshaw

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

 

 

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

Closing Time at the Royal Oak by John Lucas (Shoestring, £10)

It was the old dog who noticed it first. About thirty years ago, Sunday-walking round Lambley I passed four pubs. As we approached each one the dog speeded up, waiting at the pub door, but I carried on. After a moment he would follow., looking confused. When I passed the fourth and last pub he shook his head sorrowfully. Something had changed. No drink for me, no crisps for him. No shared cheese and onion sandwich. I was no longer somebody who customarily went into pubs. Pubs after meetings and events, pubs for meetings, pubs for a quiet read, pubs for a social evening out – all gone or in decline. The dog was not happy.
In John Lucas’ excellent memoir of Beeston’s Royal Oak he describes the glory days and the decline and fall of his, and by extension the local. The Royal Oak would be packed at weekends, the Ladies’ Darts Team would travel to their away matches with a busload of supporters, on Saturdays people would dress up for a night out in their pub, sitting at the same tables with the same people. Suits and ties, dresses, the women maybe wearing a nosegay. The men would be on pints of “mix” – that Nottingham working-class favourite of half mild, half bitter – the women on gin. The Oak, however, was a pub where women felt comfortable going in on their own or in pairs, knowing that the landlord/landlady would not stand for any nonsense. Indeed, Lucas remarks that a openly gay couple of friends were just as welcome as others there (at a time when it was rare for that to happen). He doesn’t give their names, but it must have been Mick and Simon, Beeston stalwarts of the era.
This was a community pub – you could buy your week’s fruit and veg there from the local allotmenteers, and sometimes a pair of socks from someone doing the rounds of pubs with a suitcase. There were pub singers; the men who came round selling whelks; the moment when the trays of pork pie slices and sandwhiches would be passed round by the landlady. The Jug and Bottle room where locals would turn up with enamel jugs for a pint of two to take home for “t’maister”. The games of cards, the pub league football team. Lucas’ description of one particular match will live long in the memory. 6-2 to the Royal Oak, the two goals against being scored by the Oak players too, one being a backpass to the goalkeeper who was temporarily otherwise engaged off the field sharing a joint with his girlfriend. This was a pub where you might expect to find someone to do a couple of hours cash in hand labour. A Shippos pub selling “honest piss” – check the anagram. Most pubs in Beeston were Shipstones, one of several Notts brewers – the main rival being Home Ales, the scorned Mansfield, and there was Kimberley Brewery whose spectacularly beautiful building out there is under the sledgehammer now.
And yet, side by side with this idyllic picture were the solitary men, drinking night after night on their own before walking home to God-knows-what. Lucas describes several of them, warmly, sympatheic to their quiet desperation. Sheffield Tommy, an ex-soldier, who would put by six or seven pints. Big Bob, a wiseacre. Or Ian, not so solitary, the genuine pub intellectual, another where drink got to him in the end. Reading some of these passages I recalled Dave Bishop’s Nottingham short story which goes, in its entirety “Shippos, mild; Home, bitter.”
The Royal Oak faded. The big lace factories in Beeston closed, as did Beeston Boilers. The workers who would come down after their shift were dispersed, redundant. Lucas blames Thatcher, rightly, for the the damage done. He also goes through the changes in local shopping; you could see Beeston turning into Anytown with the resulting decline in community. At the same time money was a problem. John – enough of the Lucas, he is a good friend – mentions moving to Beeston in the early 60s where he bought a three floor semi on twice his junior lecturer salary, just round the corner from the Royal Oak. Such a house might as well be on Millionaire’s Row now for many people, including lecturers – junior or otherwise. How, now, do you buy a round let alone spend the whole evening in a pub without mortgaging your future?
The brewers too, can be blamed. Landlords were squeezed, bled dry while locals became sports bars, “vertical drinking establishments” over one floor with no nooks and crannies to tuck yourself away from the loud music.
Writing this reminded me of a particular local in Forest Fields, the Carlton, in which one particular bar was the watering hole of the Nottingham left. The anarchists, Trotskyists and mainstream Labour, if I remember right, all sat at different tables but always had a -more-or-less friendly smile for the others. I’ll raise a glass to that memory and, maybe, after pubs open, nip over to the Gladstone in Carrington or to a micro-pub, just to see. Just to see.
Closing Time at the Royal Oak is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/closing-time-at-the-royal-oak/
Ross Bradshaw

Trans-Europe Express by Owen Hatherley (Penguin, £9.99)

Ah, Europe, I remember it well…
Owen Hatherley’s book was written two years after the EU referendum but before the endless negotiations on fish that were to follow. This book is about the architecture of some European cities, some well-known, some less well-known in this now less European nation.
Not all come out well. Paris, for example, won’t be hurrying to give Hatherley the freedom of the city soon but Skopje’s council must have been tempted to hire a hitman other than they blew all their money on “a diarrhoea of statuary…. variously celebrating Ancient Macedonia… sundry medieval kings and folk heroes, a rotunda decorated with Third Reich-esque golden statues … and of course a triumphal arch…” The latter is pictured with the caption “Come and see the sights”. No thanks. “The effect is North Korea without the planning…” Let’s move on. But maybe not to Dublin unless we like “luxury flats” or the “stunning offices” that developers like to foist on us.
But at least Dublin does not have the (literally) Fascist Edificio España of Madrid, “a stepped, stone-clad ziggurat”, which has become a hotel since this book was published. Look it up on Google images. You will regret it. Fortunately Hatherley’s image does not show the building in all its Francoist glory. Indeed, I have to mention the photographs in general. They are poorly reproduced, in the paperback and the earlier hardback. If you are describing buildings like the Modernist Aarhus City Hall, for example, designed by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller, whose clocktower “is both chic and jolly” with “its serif Roman numbers incised into the clock-face, which is attached to the concrete frame” there’s something you need to see here and you can barely make out that something in the photograph. By the way, I specifically mention Jacobsen by name here as Hatherley reminds us that Christine Keller sat in a Jacobsen chair – that chair – in 1963.
Hatherley does make me want to go to many places – Rotterdam, to see the public housing estate Kiefhoek which “consists of tiny terraces, painted in the De Stijl colours – crisp yellow metal window frames, red doors and white stuccoed walls.” The Five Leaves’ logo is based on De Stijl designs so we have an interest here. But also because I want to see something he describes as an “hysterical church, a white cube with a chimney that could pass as a boiler house”. And while there, why not nip over to Hilversum to see “what appears to be a police station for Hobbits.”
By now you will have guessed that I love Hatherley’s writing, but his work is serious. He understands cities, though questions  why Stockholm, with Sweden’s enlightened asylum and immigration policy, has housing that appears to be segregated. Yet the Husby estate, which houses the poorest, with high rates of unemployment and which is overwhelmingly non-white (and was the place of a past riot) is “better maintained than Hampstead”. In passing Hatherley often talks about the high level of maintenance by those who run social housing and those who live in them compared to the UK. But again the pictures are not good enough to prove what he was saying.
So… for the moment, let’s pretend Covid is over and you can go where you want. Of all the places described the one that draws me in is….. sound of trumpets…. Hull. Actually, I really like Hull, with its Georgian terraces (well, there are some), its Old Town, the Hepworth Arcade, a street called The Land of Green Ginger, the smell of mud as you walk out to the sea… And you arrive in a wonderful station, one you can sit in. I was in Hull on the launch night of Hull being a city of culture, staying in the most comfortable and affordable hotel (with the most boring breakfast) to join 10,000 others at nightfall to be showered with feathers by high-wire dancers dressed as angels (perhaps you had to be there…). Anyway, read Hatherley’s chapter and go to Hull. You won’t regret it.
Trans-Europe Express is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/trans-europe-express-tours-of-a-lost-continent/
Ross Bradshaw

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree, £9.99)

Patience is a virtue… After thirty-five years, the tiny team at Peepal Tree has finally hit the big time, with their novel Mermaid of Black Conch winning the Costa Book Award at the same time as their Green Unpleasant Land, on the links between slavery and country houses, is debated, well, attacked, by the paragons of virtue at the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. I’m not sure if the DM/DT are angry that someone has noticed these links or whether they are angry that someone did not think such links were a good thing…. This less than two years since Roger Robinson won the TS Eliot Prize for poetry with Portable Paradise, Peepal Tree’s previous best seller.
For Robinson, his portable paradise, stitched into his family memory is “white sands, green hills and fresh fish.” He could easily have been describing the small island of Black Conch. There, in 1976 David Baptiste was out in his boat doing a bit of leisurely fishing, in his favourite quiet area, playing his guitar and smoking the odd spliff. And it is there he finds an audience – the mermaid who comes to listen. To be honest I had doubts about the book in advance, well, mermaids… but I was hooked. As indeed was the mermaid who would get caught by some Yankee sports’ fishermen. Roffey’s description of their struggle – or rather the struggle of the two white men, first the son, then the father – to reel her in was gripping. They had to be tied into the “fighting chair” as they would to bring in, say, a marlin. But this was a mermaid. Their crew of local fishermen were aghast, they wanted none of it, but the father could see the money that the mermaid would bring him.
The mermaid is hung up on the dock but is rescued by Baptiste who takes her home, putting her in his bath. However, this was no ordinary mermaid for she was Aycayia, one of the original residents of the Caribbean who had been condemned to roam the sea for thousands of years by a spell. She speaks no English, remembering only a few words of her original language. Nor does she know anything about clothes, of cooked food or of, well, how to go to the toilet when you no longer live in the sea. The book is earthy. Aycayia gradually turns back into a woman – her scales fall off, her tail rots, her feet and hands become less webby, but she never quite loses her mermaid characteristics including her odour of the sea.
Here the other two main characters of the book appear – Arcadia and her born-deaf son Reggie, who communicates in sign language. Arcadia is the only white person on the island, the last of the Rain family which once owned most of the area. But Arcadia speaks the Caribbean dialect of Black Conch, which suffuses the book. She comes to the door with a poetry book by Derek Walcott in her hand. The father of her child is Black. She has no interest in her estate, selling it off cheaply in parcels, bothering little about collecting rent, but there is still the issue of the rich woman on the island being white. Arcadia and Reggie help Aycayia – Arcadia teaches her English, Reggie sign language. She becomes his friend.
How does all this work out? I can’t do spoilers here but can a mermaid really adapt to life in the small town of St Constance on Black Conch? What do the neighbours think – it’s not like you can keep the whole incident a secret. So read the book. It’s the best novel about fish since Moby Dick.
Despite my reserve because of the subject I was able to suspend belief and cared about all the characters and whether the growing love (OK, a bit of a spoiler) between David and Aycayia could possibly work. There is drama in that Aycayia still feels the call of the sea and those who condemned her to live forever in the sea are watching and angry.
This is Monique Roffey’s seventh book and the one that will have made her name, being already shortlisted for other prizes. She will be reading and being interviewed by Deirdre O’Byrne at a Five Leaves online event on 14 April.

The book is available here:fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-mermaid-of-black-conch-a-love-story/

Ross Bradshaw

Dead Land by Sara Paretsky (Hodder, £8.99)

Crime writer Sara Paretsky has caused me many late nights and forced me to lie in many lukewarm and colder baths down the years. She writes short, often wittily-titled, chapters that have a cliff-hanger component that make you think “I’ll just read one more…” again and again. Her latest paperback, her 24th, is no exception.
Paretsky’s female Private Eye is V.I. Warshawski and her milieu is Chicago. Dead Land is up to date with a throwaway comment about the legal problems of a couple of Trump’s advisers and a sub-plot about armed militias and people believing right-wing conspiracies. But some things don’t change: her support group of an elderly doctor and a cranky neighbour and her frustrating relationship with a local journalist. And the basic storyline of big money ruining her city. Somehow you just know that if Warshawski turns up at a small community meeting about Chicago maybe redeveloping a shoreline wildlife park that dark money has changed hands, someone will be bumped off and that Warshawski will be in peril. Formulaic? Maybe, but you get to know the city – you can almost hear the planes coming in to land at O’Hare – and in this book she causes you to search your memory about what the Chicago School of economists were up to in Chile in the 1970s because the past is never just the past. The Chicago Boys – as they were called – have a lot to answer for.
Chicago is of course not Nottingham but is it really true that heads of Council departments (in this case Parks) go round with hired muscle and police protection? Maybe, it is America… It’s certainly scary when she includes the sentence, justifying her unofficial crime fighting that “Chicago police clear only 17% of our homicides each year.”
If I had a criticism it is that like other semi-formulaic books (I’m thinking of Robert Parker) there comes a moment when you feel you have had enough; enough of Warshawski’s neighbour Mr Contreras and her guardian angel Charlotte Herschel (both of whom must be about 105 by now), her running to the Lake with her dogs, the mentions of her opera-loving late mother and her late Chicago policeman father.
But after a few books away, this is what drew me back, comfort reading, and the promise of a bath that starts off hot and ends lukewarm at best.
Ross Bradshaw
Orderable here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/dead-land-v-i-warshawski-20/