logo-cropped

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

Book Reviews

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/

The SS Officer’s Armchair: in search of a hidden life by Daniel Lee (Cape, £20)

This book starts at a dinner party. A new acquaintance of the author described how her mother had take an armchair for repair in Holland, and the upholsterer had found a pile of Nazi documents sown into the upholstery to his consternation and to the astonishment of the chair’s owner. Daniel Lee, a historian, immediately wanted to know more – what were the papers, what was the story.
His new friend’s mother had bought the chair second hand in Czechoslovakia many years before. Soon Daniel Lee was examining the documents which had belonged to a Nazi lawyer, Robert Griesinger and was off on in pursuit of the story. Who was he? Did he survive the war? Why did he hide the papers? Did he have any living relatives?
It turns out that Griesinger was a genuine Nazi, a member of the SS, though part of their civilian branch. He was also a war criminal, but in the scale of things, not a serious player. Lee was able to trace the children of Griesinger – indeed, by then he knew more about their father than they did. Pre-war, Griesinger was active in the SS mostly in Württemberg in Swabia, and their records show that the SS behaved in many ways like, say the Rotary Club but with added marching, singing and racism. They had a community function, in one case building a new house for a member’s family who had died in an accident.
The membership rules, however, of the SS were strict – marriages had to be approved and a full family tree of the partners had to be presented to ensure there was no trace of a genetic illness or Jewish blood hidden in the background. It was still unclear what would happen later. In 1936 the – now Nazi – government even removed anti-Semitic posters for the period of the Olympics, replacing them with adverts for Coca Cola. International image still mattered and the SS did love sport.
Of course it got darker. Spoiler alert – Griesinger did not survive. He died, or was killed, in mysterious circumstances in Prague at the end of the war. His wife and children made it back to Germany, with difficulty – but he stayed at his post after it was all over and the Czech people arose against both the occupying Germans and the ethnic German community in Czechoslovakia. There were war crimes there too.
What makes this book stand out from other war books is that it concentrates on the life and career of a middle-ranking Nazi official. He was not a monster, neither was he just compromised as he was a career Nazi by choice. What also makes this book stand out is the astonishing amount of information Lee was able to find out. Every move Griesinger made was tracked, every house he lived in was examined from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) and through its extant records of residence. It seems that Germany kept everything – thus Lee was able to examine internal references and reports on Griesinger’s work. Within the dusty files of the Ministry of Economics and Labour he was able to find documents that Griesinger wrote, including, bizarrely, correspondence about recycling beer bottles in 1944 when, it appears Bulgaria was “the only country not to return bottles”. Meanwhile, across Europe…
There is also some irony – is that the right word? – that Griesinger’s father’s family came from America, migrating back to Germany. His father had been born in 1871 in New Orleans. The family had been involved in slavery, both as owners and – there’s no surprise – fathers of children. Griesinger, the Nazi, had Black relatives in America. Lee was able to trace them and met one relative, Marshall Honoré  Jnr., then in his mid-90s. Honoré fought at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine in spring 1945, penetrating deep into Germany fighting the Nazis. Here the word irony works; his unit was segregated.
 
Ross Bradshaw
The SS Officer’s Armchair is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-ss-officers-armchair-in-search-of-a-hidden-life/

Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

New Year – new hobby? How about mudlarking? First find a big tidal river which has a couple of thousands of years of human habitation alongside – the Thames will do nicely. Get yourself some maps and tide calendars and a knowledge of history. Get your eye in, you only have to look. And you are all set. Within minutes you’ll likely pick up a bit of an old clay pipe, some nails, and, if you are not careful, an unpleasant water-borne disease, a welly-boot full of stinking mud and be trapped by the sea coming in.
You will need a long-suffering partner – Lara Maiklem’s wife has only visited the foreshore a couple of times ever – who doesn’t mind you coming up smelling of the riverbank and stuffing your house with twenty years’ worth of bits of broken crockery, dolls’ heads and bits of metal type. For Lara is the sort of person who writes ” I came to bricks fairly late, having ignored them for many years, but they are surprisingly interesting…”
Whatever we have used, it has ended up in the Thames. Chucked in or dumped, mostly, as sewerage is a fairly modern invention. Or lost. At one time there were 12,000 wherries operating on the Thames, the taxi service of the day, and things – and sometimes people – fell overboard.
From time to time Maiklem over-uses “perhaps” in imagining who might have held the 400 year old item that has just surfaced. She is on more solid ground when she researches the real stories of coins, tokens, beads, pin-heads, pipe-bowls and the former buildings that lined the Thames giving rise to the particular rubbish outside their premises. Because mostly this is the rubbish of the past, buried in mud for hundreds of years. The mud preserved the material as it was without oxygen, which sometimes meant that items that surfaced would break down on contact with the air and fresh water.
The history of mudlarking is not a great one – it’s the story of the London poor who would scrabble for bits of metal, coal and the debris of ships and rubbish generally to survive. This at a time when the Thames was the heart of our Empire’s shipping and an open sewer. Indeed, as late as 1957 the water of the Thames was considered to be dead. Even now there are places on the foreshore where the soil contains “asbestos, lead, arsenic and cadmium. It is filled with poisons and carcinogens…” And there is our modern additions of plastic and micro-plastics too.
Maiklem is one of the mudlarkers who uses her eyes, not metal detectors, scanning the ground carefully – mostly down on her knees wearing fetid kneepads and only slightly less fetid overalls. (Please don’t sit next to me on the tube…) She is critical of the mudlarkers who use metal detectors or who dig deep in the foreshore, their holes encouraging erosion. There’s a wonderful section of photos in her book showing some of her finds – and I would like to see more.
The best story, however, is hinted at on the cover. The title page, the running heads of the book and some of the text is typeset in Dove. The owners of the Dove typeface (in the days of metal type) fell out and every bit of it was chucked in the Thames in 1916. One hundred years later a designer wanted to recreate Dove and started trawling the banks around Hammersmith where he knew it had been dumped. After twenty minutes at low tide he found the letter “i”. Of the 500,000 bits of type thrown in the river, with the help of some divers, he found 150 or so – the site had had concrete poured on it during a bridge repair. But he did not find a comma – Maiklem did.
Another reason to read this book is to learn more about the history and geography of London – the most tantalising part being the story of the Tower Beach where 1500 barges of yellow Essex sand was dumped on the foreshore in 1934 to create a “London Riviera”. In 1935 100,000 Londoners went to their own “seaside” to build sandcastles, watch Punch and Judy shows and the like. It was closed in 1971 due to concerns about pollution and all that now remains is a much smaller half-moon of yellow sand, the rest washed away by the tide.
Ross Bradshaw
Mudlarking is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/mudlarking/

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

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