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Book Reviews

Not a Novel: collected writings and reflections by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, £14.99)

“So what was I doing the night the wall fell? I spent the evening with friends, just a few blocks from the spot where world history was being made, and then: I slept, I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning I learned: we didn’t even need pots anymore.”
This was the night the Berlin Wall fell, the Wall being the subject of several of the essays in this collection, essays about the author’s childhood living in a street right next to the Wall which, as a child she saw as being the ends of the earth. Except though the physical boundary marked the end of the known earth, the flat she lived in enabled her to see into another world. A world that had double decker buses, then unknown in East Berlin, and a glowing clock. She writes “The whole time that I’m in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.” On her side, Berlin was something of a construction site, but also a world of ruins. Nobody was that fussed about the bombed wartime remains of buildings which she climbed into to explore and, later, to meet her first boyfriend.
Several decades ago, in Aberdeen, skint and on the lookout for ways of getting a holiday on the sly, I attended a few meetings of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) Friendship Society in a rather posh house in the hope that I might score a holiday. The elderly woman who ran the Society kept getting awards from the GDR and was a bit batty, but not so batty as to allow me a subsidised holiday at her beloved GDR’s expense. Reading about the place was the nearest I got over the years, which included quite a lot by John Green who used to live there. John, in short, says it wasn’t as bad as its detractors made out, but not as good as its supporters have said.
This ambivalence seems to be shared by Erpenbeck. After the fall… “Many workers lost their jobs and university professors, lecturers and researchers were laid off in the East and replaced… When the common currency was introduced, rents increased by a factor of ten overnight. West German speculators bought up East German real estate. … Suddenly everyone was talking about money.” She goes on to analyse borders, their history and who gets mourned. But the Wall was very personal, She describes an old neighbour “who always bought his rolls at the bakery across the street… until suddenly that side of the street was in the West.” She describes as a child knowing that “the warm air that drifted up to us” was coming from ventilation shafts from the Western underground that passed beneath their feet, not stopping at “subway stations that had been closed off ever since the wall had been built.” … “But what I remember most of all… was an almost small-town sense of calm… in a world that was closed off, and thus completely and utterly safe.” Even if spied on – her thin Stasi file included details of those who had visited her house and copies of love letters sent to her by a teenage admirer!
Unfortunately, when she moves away from the subject of the Wall and her early years, Not a Novel is much less interesting. Chapter after chapter comprises speeches she gave after winning awards. There’s repetition that we could have lived without and several of the speeches are related to the particular books that won the awards. Attention wandered. I’m not sure who would be the audience for some of these chapters other than the audience at the award ceremonies themselves. Still, one chapter has reminded me that I have still not read Thomas Mann, despite having had The Magic Mountain on my shelves for most of my life and another introduced me to the work of Walter Kempowski whose books I have sold but never looked at. I will now.
I can’t end this review without mentioning one tiny chapter in a small section at the end called Society. There she writes an obituary for the most wonderful man, Bashir Zakaryau, a Nigerian refugee who, after “five years of flight” finally obtained a tiny apartment in Berlin which he immediately filled with other homeless refugees who also needed shelter.
Ross Bradshaw
Not a Novel is published in November of this year.

Mazel Tov: the story of my extraordinary friendship with an Orthodox Jewish family by JS Margot, translated from Flemish by Jane Hedley-Prole (Pushkin, £12.99)

On the right hand lintel of the front doors of the houses of most Jews I know is a mezuzzah, a little tube with a particular Biblical quote in it handwritten by a professional scribe in Hebrew letters. Visiting Lithuania some years ago it was heartbreaking to see the shadows of mezuzzahs on the paintwork of old houses taken over during the Holocaust.
But it’s pretty odd really. Why is the scroll handwritten when nobody will ever read it? And why… But every religion has its idiosyncrasies which make no sense to outsiders. In the Jewish world the more Orthodox you are the more rules you follow and the more odd these appear to outsiders and even other Jews.
Into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy steps JS Margot, a 20 year old student, employed to do some home tutoring for a middle-class Belgian Orthodox Jewish family. That itself would be unusual. She had no previous connection to the Jewish world and hadn’t a clue about the life she was walking into. Surprisingly, she stayed for years and years, becoming a family friend.
Of course she gets things wrong, but this isn’t a book of humorous interludes (though there are some). She also disagrees with the family in their Zionism (not, by the way, a position at all universally held by Orthodox Jews) and finds the actions of the Israeli government and troops upsetting. She gets to understand anti-Semitism, but the most interesting part of the book is her reflections on her own life. She is a modern woman, has boyfriend trouble, true, but initially sees her modernity as better than their traditional life. Yet over the years, struggling financially and emotionally she finds herself more sympathetic to that other world especially when she is adrift in her own.
No, she does not convert, nor fall in love, and is still bemused and at times angered by what she sees. But her unlikely closeness to the family gives her an insight into a world that neither expects or wants our interest or understanding. The author is constantly discovering more. The eruv for example, “a ritual enclosure of a specific domain” – in this case, and uniquely, the domain is the the whole of Antwerp which turns that public space into a private space. Thus, on the Jewish sabbath, “certain strictly defined actions were permissible: carrying a baby, carrying shopping, pushing a pram…” because a boundary had been created, an enclosure sealed by overhead wires joining other physical boundaries. Without the eruv Orthodox Jews could not do any of these activities on their sabbath. Margot writes, bemused, “I didn’t know what to think of the eruv.” Don’t even think about the dietary rules. But she has to.
There’s a form of “orientalism” in the way the black-hatted Jewish men and their modestly-dressed wives and large families in Stamford Hill in London (or in Antwerp, the setting of this book) are seen. There’s certainly a lot of interest – Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a novel that became a film) in which an Orthodox rabbi’s married daughter has a forbidden lesbian relationship had a big circulation a few years back. Currently the book and film covering related ground is Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, which describes her journey in leaving the Satmar Hassidic group. Feldman provides a cover quote for Mazel Tov, thus linking the two books.
If there is a tendency to read books like these and feel a bit voyeuristic, Margot covers our back here as the book is as much about her as it is about the family she befriends.
Mazel Tov, by the way, means “congratulations”, a Yiddish phrase used by religious and secular Jews. Margot and her translator can be congratulated on an excellent and accessible read.
Ross Bradshaw

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham (Particular Books, £16.99)

I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.

The Bookseller’s Tale is more of the weird and definitely wonderful stories attached to bookselling, not least Martin Latham’s own story, though he is slightly coy perhaps about the bulk of career being at Waterstones as such. Of course he mentions it, but not much.  But it is Canterbury Waterstones, and our publishing wing owes him a favour as he used to promote our old New London Editions books, our reprints of forgotten books from the 1960s, which we must return to sometime. His tales of the supernatural within the bookshop make me jealous.
His Tale is, however, not just one of anecdotes. On page 74 the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wanders into the book, as does Walter Benjamin. This in a chapter devoted to the early book peddlers who sold books door to door and from barrows. Here you can discover the origin of the word chapbook, a type of pamphlet loved by poets, which were sold by chapmen – hawkers basically.
From there we move to ancient libraries, the ur-libraries he suggests, not least as perhaps the original library was at Ur. Here we also find the old libraries of the Islamic world where “what’s written in Cairo is published in Beirut, but read in Baghdad.”
The author is not exactly absent from the text and a flavour of his own practice is found with him saying that his favourite question to ask at interview – for a bookseller, mind – was “Who would win a fight in a pub car park between a vampire and a werewolf?” There are of course parts of Nottingham where this happens every Saturday night so some Nottinghamians would have direct experience to offer here.
His chapter on marginalia is fun, giving lots of examples of historic and literary scibblings in the margins of books. Meant for posterity or for personal record? It varies.
As a bookseller I like to think of myself as being in a profession, within a trade that has to be learned. After decades in the business I’m still learning, slower perhaps than I should be so I would have had little chance of being a bookseller in Renaissance Venice where you had to serve a five year apprentice and pass an exam covering nature, philosophy and several languages. No mention of vampires there though, but perhaps Renaissance Venice was short of car parks. It wasn’t easy in bookselling at certain times, with the 1492 “Bonfire of the vanities” in Florence and in Venice itself the Doge was told by the Pope in 1562 that all books had to be checked by the Inquisitor before going on sale. He was opposed by one Friar Paolo Sarpi who found ways round the various bans and burnings. There’s a statue to him in Venice, holding a book.
Moving towards modern times Latham waxes lyrical about Book Row in New York where there were perhaps more books on sale within walking distance than anywhere in the world, ever. Sadly, gentrification brought that to an end. In this chapter the author makes a rare slip, suggesting that one bookseller, the socialist Leon Kramer, “founded the world’s first Yiddish newspaper” from his bookshop. No, Yiddish newspapers started about two hundred years before that and in the year Kramer arrived in America the Yiddish Forverts was selling 120,000 copies daily in the same city.
There are so many bits of this most readable book that I want to quote, but space does not permit. But there’s a nice piece of bookselling nostalgia when he refers to “checking the microfiche (5 x 4 inch celluloid sheets listing books in print which we viewed like holiday slides on a device which most customers called ‘the computer’, although it was just a monitor-shaped box with a light bulb inside).” Booksellers of my vintage thought this was cool and modern.
Ross Bradshaw
The Bookseller’s Tale is available here (and in all good bookshops) fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-booksellers-tale/

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.

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic, £8.99)

It’s 1950 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, towards the end of summer, a time when the holiday lets end and the summer only residents return home. Two of the latter are Jo and Edward Hopper, he the Hopper whose paintings would eventually sell for up to $92 million but also an artist whose paintings of meditative (or possibly depressive) solitude have been described as the painter of the Coronavirus era.
 
In that period Hopper was struggling to paint, to find the combination of buildings, people and shadows that would inspire him. His health was not great. Jo – his wife – had been an artist and in the novel she bubbles over with anger that her talent was never recognised. Edward tries to be kind, but makes it clear that she had little to offer. Their marriage reads like a nightmare, he, depressed, she, well…”… in any given group she will sooner or later find an enemy – usually another female… she has always irked people, rubbed them up the wrong way, frequently insulted them or swiped back at an insult where none had been intended.”. Oh dear. This was marriage as car crash, literally too as Edward tries to stop her driving on public safety grounds which led, like virtually any spoken word, to periods of brooding silence or repetitive anger and outrage.
 
Into their barren lives come two ten year old boys, neighbours along the beach. One, Michael, is a wartime orphan taken out of Germany, a boy who knows little of his parents or past other than horror. The second is Richie, himself a lost boy, whose father was killed in the war and who resents his mother starting to take up with another man. The boys are meant to get on with each other, perhaps to help each other. They don’t.
 
But to the suprise of the childless Hoppers, they like the boys and the boys like them, with Michael becoming a near daily visitor to Jo. For once, everyone has a friend. Michael becomes less scared and in Edward Richie finds someone he can talk to (and, boy, he talks) who will actually listen. Even the awful Jo, usually so divorced from any feelings other than resentment, changes when looking at Michael – “… the feeling comes on her again, under her breastbone, between her ribs. A feeling that is one second of joy, two seconds of grief. And she knows then: what has been removed is loneliness and what has been added is love.” Can such a feeling sustain?
 
The novel comes to a head during and after a huge garden party organised by Richie’s mother. The problems of each of the main characters hang over us as the author views the party from different perspectives, as she does throughout. The recent war also hangs over the party – many of those attending also lost family or were wounded or were Vets, and the word Korea is on people’s mind. And we know that the long summer is ending, which, for Katherine, Richie’s sister, brings dread as this underplayed but interesting character knows she has not got long to live.
 
For everyone, the party will soon be over.
Ross Bradshaw
 
The Narrow Land is available for £8.99, post free, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

“Jesus,” Celeste said later when I was trying to tell her the story. “It’s like you’re Hansel and Gretel. You just keep walking through the dark woods holding hands no matter how old you get. Do you ever get tired of reminiscing?”
Celeste, in Ann Patchett’s novel, newly out in paperback, is the wife of Danny,  the narrator and brother of Maeve, the Hansel and Gretel of her remark. She is not happy that her husband is so hung up on his sister and the “Dutch House” about which he talks constantly – the house of their shared childhood. It was the Dutch House because it had been the property of the Van Hoebeeks and the siblings’ parents had bought it, leaving the mansion unchanged – the same Van Hoebeek family paintings on the wall, the same furniture, the same Dutch books on the bookshelves.
The one addition was a portrait painting of Maeve aged ten, which graces the cover of the book. The painting itself has a backstory, something more to reminisce about.
The children were not the only people obsessed with their shared past. The family servants Sandy and Jocelyn, and Fluffy, who had an affair with Danny and Maeve’s father and had to leave hurriedly, all flit in and out of each other’s lives over the fifty years of the story, dreaming of a past when they were all together before the wicked step-mother came into the House.  Andrea – the step-mother – was a cuckoo, evicting everyone once her new husband had died. Nobody really understood their attraction and nobody really knew what had happened to his first wife, the mother of the children, other than vaguely that she had gone to India. Was she even alive? We would find out.
Danny and Maeve were thrown together. She takes a job beneath her talents and stays there, and stays there for decades with just the hint of a possible romance with the firm’s owner.  Danny goes to study medicine at Columbia. They’d been cut off from their inheritance as their father left everything to the step-mother save for a line in his will saying the Estate would support him through his education – and medicine offered the longest and most expensive course so he could get at least some of the inheritance. Having become a doctor he realises that his real interests lay in following his late father into the property business, initially buying broken-down property in broken-down Black slums knowing that eventually gentrification would happen. Not that he was a bad landlord at all. He’d learned how to treat people right from his mother who would let people off their rent and sometimes bring food for her tenants if they were going through a particularly hard time.
So what do we learn over the fifty years? I’m not sure, in the end. Many people look back on their past, the roots of their happiness or unhappiness in childhood, but few park up outside the house they were brought up in just to look at it over and over down the decades. Towards the end, everyone still lving is back in the Dutch House (it would be too much of a giveaway to explain how) and Sandy says “The ghosts are what I come for. I think about Jocelyn when I’m here, the way we were then. We were all so young… We were still our best selves.”  Maybe that, then.
Ann Patchett is a successful American novelist. Finding the town she lived in without a bookshop, she opened one, using her own fame as a magnet to attract customers and visiting writers. She is best known for Bel Canto, after this it is definately on my TBR list.
The Dutch House is available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk for £8.99 post free in the UK.
Ross Bradshaw

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

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

A recent call out on Twitter for cheerful fiction brought a range of suggestions to brighten up what has sometimes been a pretty morbid selection of novels in the bookshop. One of those suggested was The Offing by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury, £8.99 postfree from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk)  and it is a cheering and easy read. But not happy-clappy.
Even better, it is set in Robin Hood’s Bay – which would have been my holiday destination again this year, a two weeks’ reading and walking holiday. This might be the nearest I get to it.
The Robin Hood’s Bay of the book is not the one so many of us are used to, a former fishing village whose picturesque, tiny houses clinging to a disintegrating cliff landscape which is now largely a cottage-to-rent holiday village.
This story is set immediately after WWII. One Robert Appleyard – destined to go down the pit – walks off after leaving school in his pit village to see at least a little of the world to at least put off the inevitable for a while. It’s not quite As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning though. Walking by footpath, aimlessly, rough camping by night, a day labourer when he can get a job, he ends up walking down towards the sea near Robin Hood’s Bay. There he meets Dulcie Piper, a much older, slightly dotty, well-off intellectual drop-out, and her dog, Butter.
He offers his labour but, for reasons never clear to him or to her,  he is taken under her wing and stays for a while. Robert knows only the natural world and how to fix things, he knows nothing of culture or of good food. Dulcie, in this period of rationing, has contacts so Robert gets tanned and becomes less of a skinny rat as he rebuilds a broken-down studio on her land and eats (and drinks) well for the first time in his life. He knows nothing of conversation either, which suits Dulcie who talks with him, or at him, non-stop, dropping all sorts of hints of past lives led, of adventure, but also of sorrow.
She’s also outspoken and quite crude, shocking young Robert with lines like “You’re going to have to loosen up…  Look at you, you’re stiff as a lighthouse keeper’s prick.” She had been a friend of DH Lawrence, knowing “Bert” in Mexico. One of the books she gives the literate but unread Robert is a copy of Women in Love dedicated to her. Yet the more Duclie reveals, the more she holds back. At night in the studio Robert works through the books she loans him, particularly struck by John Clare, not least as Robert, too, knows of the natural world.
At the  little church above Robin Hood’s Bay he finds tombstones for drowned sailors facing out to sea, for those lost at sea, and what he later discovers are “maiden’s garlands”, carried at the funerals of unmarried girls – he had found one in the debris in the studio he is renovating. (This is actually the  real Old St Stephen’s Church, worth visiting for its garlands, box pews and gravestones.)
Also in the studio he finds a manuscript of poetry by one Romy Landau which…
The Offing – the local word for the skyline where the big sea meets the sky – is an effortless read and is one of the shop’s best selling lockdown novels.
Post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
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

A Theatre for Dreamers, by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

“I wish this summer would last forever.”

The speaker is Marianne, the reporter is Erica, the narrator of this fictional memoir of the summer of 1960 on Hydra island in Greece. Erica is a troubled, naive eighteen year old who flees London and a brutal father after the death of her mother. She and her boyfriend head for Hydra to join a friend of her mother’s, Charmian, the matriarch of an ever-changing international community of writers and artists sojourning on the island.

The Marianne in question is Marianne Ihlen, a real person and sometime muse of Leonard Cohen. Marianne’s disastrous relationship with her husband Axel Jensen and her affair with Leonard Cohen forms a major part of the book. For this book, though fiction, weaves in and out of the real lives of Marianne, Cohen and, more, the lives of the charismatic and beautiful writer Charmian Clift and her ghastly husband George Johnston – chain-smoking, suffering from TB and causing others to suffer from his bitter tongue. Johnston was another writer who had worked in 64 countries, reporting on war. Throughout the book he sucks energy from Charmian whose own writing suffered.

Erica watches all this. She is taken under her wing by Charmian, for reasons only clear at the end of the book, which ends in modern time with Erica one of the few survivors from those days looking back. to 1960 and a subsequent visit ten years later.

And what days those were, and people “… keep coming… all with their pocketbooks of names who might be relied on for a meal or a bed in Ibiza, Paris, Venice, Tangier, Corsica or Casablanca.” To spend their time, and why not, where you can go “… outside to pick vine leaves. Beyond the high courtyard walls the island bells ring: mountain bells from churches and goat bells and the jingling of passing donkeys. [Where the] light falls tender green… [and] an ancient lemon tree is splinted but defiantly beautiful with both blossom and fruit.” There people can “swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks”. Or, like Cohen, write for 24 hours solid on Benzedrine, while seducing Marianne, Charmian and everyone else for that matter.

The island has a port, tavernas, impossibly steep streets up which people have to carry their supplies including water – there were no cars on the island. Indeed there are still no cars on the island though I believe what was once a working island is now overrun by the wealthy from Athens, and those on the Leonard Cohen trail. But this is 1960 and while the tavernas need the trade of the internationals, as does the water seller who charges them more than the locals, there is little interaction between the islanders and their quarrelsome bohemian visitors. It is not the islanders who are insular, but the internationals even though the central couple have lived there a decade.

We are left to guess what the islanders think. There is a passing reference to a traditional religious parade of local women, covered head to toe in peasant costume which contrasts with the young, bronzed women visitors covered in very little. But we are left to guess as local people form little more than a backdrop to the parties, the drinking, the bed-hopping and the petty jealousies of those who leave at the end of summer.

And yet, as the main story ends with Charmian and George themselves leaving for Britain at the end of that summer Polly Sampson’s description of the various birds of passage moving on I was left with regret that I was leaving too. Erica stays on for a few months, leaving the day the almond trees come into blossom.

The lives of a number of the Hydra characters has been picked over, especially that of Leonard Cohen and Marianne. Some ended tragically, not least the Johnston family, and not only Charmian and George but their children – young in this book. Some of this is prefigured in a slow moving, sometimes annoying – because so many of the people were annoying – but ultimately successful novel which blends fiction with truth. A Theatre for Dreamers makes me wish I was there in 1960 but also to thank the stars that was neither my time nor my life.

A Theatre for Dreamers is available for £14.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Ross Bradshaw