This book is such a good idea, stills from the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with black and white pictures on the facing page of the exact same scene now in Nottingham.
In most cases the scenes are unrecognisable – Arthur Seaton cycling out of Raleigh on Faraday Road, now no Raleigh but plenty of student accommodation; Derby Road with a variety of buses, a trolley bus and a Ford Cortina, now the one-way system and a variety of hotels in view; Salisbury Road with cobbles and children playing in the street, now a weed infested car-park… So much has gone, though who wants to go back to having outside lavvies even if your kids could play in the streets and you could leave your door unlocked (because you had nothing worth stealing)?
Surprisingly, there have been few books for the general reader on what happened at, and what happened after, liberation of the concentration and work camps at the end of World War Two.
Liberation was not the end of the story. Thus one report mentions that German Jews who survived the war in hiding said that “little has changed since the Russians entered Berlin, except the food is even shorter”. These people, obviously, were not from the camps, but chaos was common – and lasted a long time. Even Belsen – operating as a Displaced Persons camp – had a few hundred inhabitants in 1950, who were transferred to a further camp in 1951. Stone writes of the irony that these unlikely places would “become the setting for the revival of Jewish life and culture”. At Belsen, “1,438 marriages had taken place and some 500 circumcision ceremonies” in the first two years after liberation. The author comments “It was not what the Nazis had intended”.
Anti-Semitism towards the victims did not end in 1945 either. In 1952 customs police raided the Föhrenwald DP camp – looking for black market goods – shouting slogans about gas chambers. The residents fought back, driving the police out.
Care of the survivors was patchy, with a bewildering array or organisations involved but the big issue of “what next?” arose. For Britain the concern was Palestine. President Truman suggested allowing 100,000 DPs to enter Palestine, while stalling on allowing Jews into America. There was an active Zionist movement in the camps but the author holds back from judging whether the impulse to move to Palestine was born of an inner drive or outside forces. Many DPs emigrated to Canada, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.
This is an important book which adds to our knowledge.
Following the decades of local government reorganisation, including the separation of Nottingham from Nottinghamshire, the notion of a “county” seems quaint, a barely remembered division of the country used only by cricket teams. Engel knows this of course, not least because he is a cricket writer and is used to dividing the country in this way. In Engel’s England he visits all thirty-nine counties and the capital to report on what he finds.
This is a large book, but it is in the best tradition of gazetteers, being quirky, garrulous and happy to miss bits out if the author can’t be bothered. In Sussex, for example, he writes “I skipped Worthing, having known it all too well”. Engel is also opinionated and is probably banned now from visiting Surrey, a county where “Money and property are the Surrey obsessions”. Nothing is in proportion, it depends on what catches Engel’s eye. Thus, a Martian reading about Yorkshire, a rather large place, would come away with the notion that rhubarb growing is one of the County’s main industries. Rutland, a much smaller place, is given due care and attention as Britain’s smallest county, with detailed notes given of what must be the most boring local authority meeting ever, a meeting witnessed by one local blogger and one Matthew Engel.
I found the Nottinghamshire entry to be disappointing, save for its chapter heading “The Silence of the Trams” with too much attention given to the predictable. LeftLion would do a better job. But other counties fare better. And throughout there are memorable cameos, the most memorable of which is that at Beachy Head in Sussex, Britain’s most popular suicide site, there is a sign next to the Mr Whippy van for the Samaritans.
Books like this often end up in the loo, on that bookshelf so many people have for the quirky. It is a good addition.
Oliver Sacks wrote a succession of popular books about strange medical conditions, most famously The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and a well-received autobiography, On the Move. He died at the end of last year. This short book – beautifully produced in a gift format – includes four short essays written in his old age and in expectation of his imminent death. The title reflects how he felt about the gifts that life had given him. The final essay – his final essay, is a meditation on the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbes of his youth, where, after describing the Orthodox practice of friends and their acceptance of him as a gay (married-out!) atheist, he comes round to seeing his own life as a Sabbath, with the feeling that he has done his work and can now, at ease, rest.
This book is a prescient amalgam of reportage of the inspiring campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn, but is also a celebration of a confident grassroots espousal of a renewed socialism with real Labour values, free at last from the torpor of what Tariq Ali called the “extreme centre”. The Left in Nottingham was among the first to give impetus to the Corbyn campaign. It is therefore fitting that the text begins with Corbyn’s speech at the first Nottingham meeting and the contribution of two young participants at the second.
These contributions are a breath of fresh air, cleansing the fetid atmosphere of defeat and conformity that has become the hallmark of residual New Labour placemen.
Part two of the book concentrates on the nuts and bolts of the campaign and its beginnings in a Facebook page of Red Labour. The online social media campaigning became a tsunami of digitised activity. All this is described in Ben Sellers’ piece, entertainingly entitled “#JEZWEDID“. Chris Williamson, former Labour MP for Derby, places the campaign in its historical context, describing how the acceptance by Labour of the neoliberal austerity agenda paved the way for the restitution of the Tories into government in 2015. He explains how the Tories twisted the rescue of the banks by the Labour Government into a rallying cry, accusing the Labour Government of incompetence. He tells how Ed Miliband made a sally at Blair’s legacy but seemed incapable of drawing the obvious conclusion that before Labour could move forward, it had to ditch the neoliberal austerity-lite legacy of both Blair and Brown, with their virtual acceptance of bi-partisan accommodation. The writer concludes with a verse from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy and an appeal to the Labour movement to rediscover “the spirit of 1945”.
Christine Shawcroft and (Sherwood’s) Adele Williams both write of the need for the democratic nature of the institutions and practice of the Labour Party to be restored. The writers wish the era of the “focus group” mentality and the stage-managed annual conference, with its adulation of the leader, to become a thing of the past. They wish to see the local Labour Party, and the labour movement in general, integrated into the local community. New institutions such as the People’s Assembly have a vital role to play in such involvement. The media campaign against Corbyn assisted by parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party was, and is, vicious, inaccurate and calculated to offend. But in spite of all this Corbyn has been able to retain his equanimity. Abi Rhodes (who works at Spokesman) charts the campaign against Corbyn and his labelling as “unelectable”. The fact that he scored a majority vote in all three electoral colleges belies this. She notes the efforts of the media to smear Corbyn because of his espousal of socialism, which is supposedly anathema to the British electorate in any form.
Corbyn’s campaign rallied thousands to a socialist agenda and showed that there is an undercurrent of profound dissatisfaction with the austerity agenda of the “extreme centre”.
The final section starts with a demonstration of Corbyn’s firm belief in the continuing exploitative domination of the developing world. The text in question is the Foreword he wrote for the reprinting of the classic work, Imperialism by J.A. Hobson, published by Spokesman, and much admired by Lenin. And it is Corbyn’s internationalism, opposition to war in general and his hostility in particular to that vehicle for mass murder, Trident, that Tony Simpson discusses. His contribution deals with the Syrian debate, but also mentions Corbyn’s long-term oppositional role both in and out of Parliament on such issues as Palestine and the plight of the Kurds. The final text is one on Workers’ Control by Tom Unterrainer. This is a cause, again always supported by Corbyn, which is surely one of the most important strategies to engage people and stimulate the question of democracy in the workplace and in the wider world. The book concludes with the text of Corbyn’s “Campaign policies”.
As the Introduction points out, this book represents no particular line of march, other than a generalised commitment to radical social change. It does, however, stand as a record of events to which I suspect few of us, certainly in its initial stages, would have given credence. It will surely help to bring about the changes so necessary in our society.
This set of essays starts with the well-known image, in Gill Sans type, with a crown at the top and plain lettering saying KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. This annoying slogan, Hatherley found, seemed to follow him everywhere, sometimes with varied text, even to street markets of Eastern Europe. Good job he had not come to Nottingham where you can see a poster outside the type of hairdresser I could never go into saying KEEP CALM AND GET YOUR HAIR DID. Or even Five Leaves Bookshop where we stock a similar card says KEEP CALM I’M AN ANARCHIST. Once, in Forest Fields (a local Asian area) I saw a T-shirt saying KEEP CALM I’M A MUSLIM. So far, so annoying, but Hatherley turns this into a general public desire for “austerity nostalgia” as that image became a staple in museums and gift shop harking back to better, more innocent times when “we” were “fighting the Hun and eating SPAM”. Hatherley goes to town exploring the vacuous and reactionary nature of such nostalgia.
More challenging, for any of us on the Left, is his like-minded attack on Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 film, with its use of black and white, brass bands, the absence of the impact of Windrush and avoidance of the downside of the Labour Government that gave us the NHS but also brought us nuclear weapons and dirty colonial wars. His objections are aesthetic as well as historical. I like a brass band as much as the next person but began to feel a little shifty when Hatherley moved on to the film on Tony Benn, Will and Testament, as, though it does not overlook colonialism, in parade “more brass bands and mournful marches”. Are we, too, guilty of what EP Thomspon called the “enourmous condescention of posterity”?
Moving on, Hatherley picks out the London Underground, which itself was no innocent in selling nostalgia with its there-will-always-be-an-Engerland posters advertising “Golders Green: a place of delightful prospects” or “Live in a new neighbourhood – Dollis Hill” with suburban satisfaction only a Tube ride away. Many pages are devoted to the Tube stations. Despite Verso’s dreadfully printed pictures I’ll make a point in visiting Arnos Grove, described lovingly by Hatherley. At this point I lost the thread of his main argument but cared not at all as modernism, constructivism and other such “isms” whizzed along. Hatherley mentions in passing that the foremost Tube station designer, Frank Pick (excuse my laboured pun in the first sentence of this paragraph), advised on the Moscow Metro and picked up an Order of Lenin for his troubles. Now there’s an answer for some pub quiz question sometime. Pick also worked for the now forgotten Empire Marketing Board, some of whose imagery is described but, thankfully, not shown.
In the longest chapter, “Family Portrait” Hatherley sifts out information showing that the public did not “keep calm and carry on” in wartime, not least in occupying the Underground against the wishes of their rulers and in one choice incident, shouting down someone who tried to get some community singing going. If you are going to have to sleep in a deep underground shelter with your home being blown up above ground you might not want to celebrate by singing.
The book is on strong ground when it comes to housing, reminding us that Bevan also built houses as well as the NHS, insisting on good housing, well-built and spacious such as at Spa Green and good buildings for health such as the Finsbury Health Centre. Bevan was less keen on the more revolutionary preventative work of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, this being mentioned here in passing. Hatherley has a lot to say about the designer Berthold Lubetkin, one of many architects and designers who either originated from mainland Europe or whose practice would draw on European modernism. Of course most of Bevan’s Council houses have been sold off on the cheap and now resell expensively as the well-heeled of London have come to appreciate that former Council housing, much of it, was well designed and well-built. Indeed, Hatherley remarks that increasing London commercially-built housing is designed to blend in with and look like Council housing, which was often appropriate to the environment unlike the Degeneration/Regeneration of the New Labour years. Ironically, after taking a swipe at the “free Boris Johnson propaganda and property porn rag, the Evening Standard” Hatherley gives credit to the mayor’s London Design Guide for improving standards.
The London mayor of course. And this – together with Verso’s awful muddy photographic reproduction – is the book’s main weakness. Most of the book is about London, London and more London. Hatherley is also week on solutions – housing, especially in London, is in crisis, but however much deserving of support we need bigger solutions than the Focus E15 Mums however much they “have not shown the Blitz spirit, they have not kept calm and carried on, and their iconography and slogans reflect that”. Not that Hatherley alone has to come up with solutions. That’s a job for all of us.
The Ministry of Nostalgia does, occasionally, show the signs of a publisher approaching an author with a book idea based on a couple of magazine essays. Sometimes you can see the sellotape holding it together. But that’s a trivial complaint because Hatherley can write. His demolition job on Norman Foster’s Imperial War Museum is a treat. There you can see the tired atrium (Foster loves atriums), the steps that go nowhere, the inaccurate captions on exhibitions, wonder about the brushing aside of inconvenient narrative and end up in the gift shops where you can buy a new catalogue featuring a foreword signed by Prince William. It’s a place “to pig out on Gill Sans, muted colours, Blitz spirit, crown logos, wartime cooking, duplicate ration cards – whatever your fantasy about living in genuine privation and fear might be … in a building that evokes a Bravo Two Zero version of a PFI hospital. The Museum of Keeping Calm and Carrying On.”
Even by their own standards, 2015 has been a particularly strong year for Bloodaxe. Standouts include a definitive J.H. Prynne volume, a bilingual Hans Magnus Enzensberger edition, and stunning debuts by Rebecca Parry and Jane Clarke. Now, at the turn of the year, Bloodaxe gift us with yet another essential addition to the poetry lover’s bookshelves.
Kim Addonizio is already widely anthologised courtesy of her seminal, full-throttle poem ‘For Desire’, and she’s published half a dozen collections in America, along with several novels and works of critical non-fiction, yet this is the first time there’s been a UK edition of her work. It’s long past due; but well worth the wait.
Addonizio belongs to that school of American poets whose work is direct, almost conversational, and indelibly keyed in to personal experience. I’d be tempted to compare her to Raymond Carver or Fred Voss, only I can’t imagine either of those gentlemen rocking a pair of killer heels and the kind of red dress that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lana Del Rey song. “I want that red dress bad,” Addonizio writes in the rhetorically titled ‘What Do Women Want?’; “I want it to confirm / your worst fears about me / … I’ll wear it like bones, like skin, / it’ll be the goddamned / dress they bury me in.”
Wild Nights offers nearly 200 pages of compressed and provocative poems on love and loneliness, desire and bad decisions; poems that have known too many blurry sunsets and too many hungover sunrises and still go out looking for love in all the wrong places; poems that hang around neon-soaked bars with a broken heart and might well break yours by the end of the night.
But there’s more than just Bukowski-style barfly philosophy to be found in this collection. Addonizio is ferociously honest and has the talent and bravery to nail down painful subjects and thorny life lessons in precise but finely nuanced language. She can also be wildly (and inappropriately) funny. Take these lines from ‘Penis Blues’:
A penis has taken flight.
Probably gon’ fly all night.
There’s a flock of penises headed south.
Their cries recede over the distant car dealerships,
over the darkened pleather interiors
and the stoned janitor, slopping his mop
in a bucket of dirty water.
The imagery is low-brow and ludicrous but chucklesome for all that. Yet there’s an undertow of melancholy. Apposite, really, for a poet whose work returns inevitably to the rhythms and imagery of blues music, be it explicit homage to Robert Johnson (“Look down into the river, I can see you there / Looking down into the blue light of a woman’s hair / Saying to her Baby, dark gon’ catch me here”) or the poignant sequence ‘Suite pour les amours perdues’. But if her individual poems are three-minute odes to the human condition, Wild Nights as a cohesive whole is more akin to the immersive emotional experience of a Mahler symphony. One where the conductor rocks a pair of killer heels and flocks of penises wheel above the concert hall.
For some people in Aberdeen sometime in the 70s, their introduction to Patti Smith was a large graffito saying “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, painted up on the back wall of a city centre church. It stayed for quite a while. It’s the sort of thing that punky people did back then. To them Patti Smith was a star.
For people of a certain age and a certain background, Marge Piercy was an important writer. Her feminist utopia Woman on the Edge of Time is perhaps still read but, at least as a novelist, her star has faded. I’ve read thirteen of her seventeen novels and used to read Vida every year or two, Piercy’s book about a woman in America’s illegal political underground of the 60s and 70s, but the stream of novels seems to have ended.
Some years ago Five Leaves published two collections of Marge Piercy’s poetry. In America she is still renowned as a poet but her collections did not travel well. I met her once, prior to publishing the books. It would be fair to say it was probably not a memorable occasion for either of us. I hope I did not behave like some of her fans described in “Fame, fortune and other tawdry illusions” who expect more from Piercy than the normal relationship between an author and a writer. She writes in that chapter about the way some of her readers would over-personalise the author/reader relationship. Indeed she details the views of her academic feminist critics who thought that she was not living up to their expectations.
Yet it’s precisely her involvement in the causes she writes about that made her books important to so many people, and in this book – a set of essays – she reinforces what perhaps we instinctively knew. She describes her Jewish working-class, hardscrabble background which led her, as a writer, to give voice to women workers on whose labour, for example, universities depend. She describes the reasons she became a feminist, an essay that should be widely circulated, and she describes her involvement in the anti-war scene in America. Unusually for an American writer she also describes herself as a socialist.
Of equal importance to the historical essays are “Gentrification and Its discontents” and “Housewives without houses”. In the latter she talks about meeting homeless women, the hidden homeless of America and in the former – one of the causes of such homelessness – the way cities have become gentrified. In this essay she works her way through the cities she has lived in – Detroit, Paris, New York – talking about the rents she once paid and the rents now charged for the same flats showing how working class people and lower-earning bohemians are forced out. Even in Wellfleet, her Cape Cod home for many years, which has been famed as an artists’ colony, the area has been taken over by people with summer houses. Ironically, a committee set up to look at how to bring more year-round employment to the area had difficulty meeting as several of the committee themselves were only part-time residents.
For those of us who read Marge Piercy in the 70s and early eighties the “personal is political” strap-line mattered. And in America it still does as witnessed by the title essay in the book, “My life, my body” which is about abortion. Piercy talks about her own abortion and her active involvement in supporting women before the landmark 1973 Roe Vs. Wade case which made abortion legal in America. For the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty right abortion rights are at the cutting edge of their politics with clinics being picketed and pro-abortion doctors being attacked (and in some cases killed). At the same time as the right acts against women’s right to choose welfare is attacked, daycare is limited and Obamacare is threatened. Piercy reminds us who suffers most here.