On April 22 1978 Harry Murray went to a bungalow in the town of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, on the pretext of meeting Millar McAllister to talk about pigeons. Millar was a well-known and respected photographer of pigeons in the journal Pigeon Racing News and Gazette. After a brief conversation Harry took a revolver from his jacket, shot Millar in the chest, aimed another shot at the head, and then shot him again twice in the chest. Millar’s young son Alan witnessed everything and screamed for his mother as Harry ran from the scene. As well as his hobby of taking photographs of pigeons Millar McAllister was an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Harry Murray was an active member of an Active Service Unit in the IRA.
Anatomy of A Killing tells the story of what led Harry and his three accomplices to this point. The level of detail is remarkable. Author Ian Cobain traces the lives of all involved not just from childhood, but for several preceding generations, and in the process tells the story of the island of Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries. He describes the process of radicalisation, training and organisation that enabled them to participate in a political assassination. Contrary to the myths put about by British politicians IRA member were not ‘mindless thugs’, and Cobain reveals the reality in terms of background, gender, profession and why they had arrived at this point.
News of the murder was sparse in Britain, many British people taking the view that this was all happening in a far-off place and that with any luck British troops would prevail. Ironically on that same day Nottingham Forest secured the First Division title, which would have been of much greater interest to me as a 17 year-old. I was studying for my A-levels and knew more about 17th century French drama than what was happening much closer to home. That was exactly how the British state wanted it. They were correct in assuming that most people had little interest in visiting Northern Ireland for themselves, therefore making anti-Republican propaganda all the easier. One government minister who did visit Belfast was however truly shocked at the dire levels of poverty, unemployment and housing that the Catholic community had to endure.
The backgrounds of those who took part in the killing give countless examples of the hardship and discrimination going back several generations, ultimately leading to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The stance of the British government of the time was that, over time, the IRA and its supporters would run out of steam. After all, the British state had infinitely greater resources with the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, plus a licence to engage in shocking levels of brutality. Cobain details the horror – there can be no other word – of what happened in Castlereagh Police station, where all suspects were interrogated and sometimes tortured. He quotes from official police accounts of interviews and contemporaneous doctors’ reports, plus statements from those being questioned. As for the bigger picture Cobain contrasts what was being said in parliament – if anything was being said at all – with how Gerry Adams and other republican leaders were trying to keep the profile of the struggle high with the ultimate aim of getting the British to realise that they would never secure a military victory.
You know what is going to happen, and the murder of Millar McAllister is described with deep sensitivity by Cobain with no needless sense of drama; but by this point you why it was happening. Cobain has also traced those involved as they were released as a part of the Good Friday agreement, and he asks them to reflect on what happened; their answers are fascinating. The same privilege is accorded to Harry’s family. Anatomy of a Killing is an outstanding work, we get the historical sweep plus the perspective of the individual. The extensive bibliography is pointing me to other works. Ignorance on these issues is still shameful in Britain, as evidenced by recent Brexit-related events, but for those who wish to find out for themselves the truth is close at hand.
Book orders: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/anatomy-of-a-killing-life-and-death-on-a-divided-island/
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 is a retired UNISON trade union official, and a customer of the bookshop)
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/
*The Feminist Bookstore Movement by Kristen Hogan (Duke, 2016)