Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Child Thief by Dan Smith (Pegasus Books 2013)

Once again I took the German pistol from its wooden case, but this time I set the case on the floor and checked the weapon. It was in good condition, and when I drew back the slide I could see it was loaded. I ran a fingertip around the red number nine and remembered how I had looked into the barrel of a similar weapon, in the days after we were betrayed by the Red Army.

In those days everything was tainted with one colour or another. Black, red, white, green. Every army gave itself a colour, as if they were teams preparing to meet for some purpose other than to murder each other. With the anarchist Black Army under Nestor Makhno, I had fought hard against General Wrangel’s White Army, eventually joining forces with the Red Army that I’d deserted just a few months before. In 1920, with our tenuous bond holding, the cavalry and infantry of the two armies pursued Wrangel south through Ukraine to the Crimea, but after our combined victory that winter, the Red Army renounced its agreement and broke the weak alliance between black and red. The communists were ruthless in their treatment, more so of those of us who’d once been among their number, and the palette was washed clean. The only colour that remained was red, and few of my brothers in arms escaped the executions.

Just days after Wrangel fled, Bolshevik communications were intercepted: orders for all members of Makhno’s organisation to be arrested. All staff and subordinate commanders were apprehended and executed. Makhno escaped, taking his soldiers, fleeing north into Ukraine and then disbanding, heading west for the places Lenin had signed over to the Polish.

I was with a small group of men who, like me, had no intention of leaving Ukraine. Natalia and I first met in my home town of Moscow, but she was from Ukraine, and when the war with Germany began, she returned to the village of Vyriv to raise our sons. So that’s where I intended to go – I had a wife and children I hardly knew and I wanted to make a new life with my family.

I and a few stragglers shed any sign of allegiance and headed north, hoping to find provisions in villages along the way, but at one settlement a small unit of Red Army soldiers had already been to requisition grain and food. The villagers had protested so the communists retaliated by burning them out of their homes. As we approached, we saw the smoke from the fires and chose to skirt around the area, but the reds had already left and we ran straight into them.

The communists were fuelled with the destruction and death they’d left behind, and they confronted us without fear. Their commander drew his pistol and nudged his horse forward so he could point it down at me, the barrel close to my face. I was younger and faster in those days. Battle-hardened and fearless. I reached out and took the pistol in my fist before the mounted soldier could fire. I pushed it aside, dragged the soldier from his horse and took the weapon from him. I shot the commander twice, pressing the pistol against his chest, and red and black emptied their weapons at each other until there was silence once more.

Two of my friends were killed in the fight, but when the rest of us left on horseback, taking the communists’ weapons, all five red soldiers lay dead.

Now I rested the pistol in my lap and stared at the flames. The room was filled with flickering orange light, the only sound was the crackling and snapping of the wood. The ticking of a clock.

‘What are you doing?’ Natalia asked, making me blink and rub my eyes.

‘Sitting,’ I said, looking up to see her standing in the doorway. ‘Remembering.’
She came in and eased into the chair opposite.

‘How long were you standing there?’ I asked.

‘Long enough. You going to tell me about it?’

I watched the fire reflected in her eyes. ‘He wasn’t alone. There were two children with him. A boy and a girl. Both dead.’

Thursday, March 05, 2015


My last three reads have all related to London in the interwar years. I think my inner reading pixie is telling me something . . . and it would explain the twin monocles I'm currently sporting.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Journey Through a Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff (Robin Clark Limited 1972)

I drifted into Communism when I was about eleven under the influence of a militant boy called Mickey Lerner. He was thin and undersized, with a chronic cough, and suffered many indignities at the hands of bullying masters and pupils. His father, a presser, also coughed because his lungs had been rotted by the steaming cloth he pressed ten hours a day. In fact, the whole family coughed. They lived in the sooty air of a Brick Lane alley overhung by a railway bridge and had a habit of blinking like troglodytes in full daylight. This made them seem puzzled and defenceless when, in reality, they were tough and stiff-necked tribe. I was led into Communism more by the misery and toughness of the Lerner family than by anything in my own predicament.

'There he goes . . . '

Singing that seventies classic 'Long Haired Hater of Liverpool':

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bright Summer - Dark Autumn by Robert Barltrop (Waltham Forest Libraries and Arts Department 1986)

And, in the height of the summer, the 'red' air-raid warnings began in the daytimes. There was a siren on the island in the road junction near us, at the top of a very tall grey post. At the shop we heard the deep metallic growl as it started up, rising to the harsh wail which went on for a couple of minutes. People scurried away, and the shops closed; the streets were nearly empty by the time the siren finished sounding. Nothing happened. As a reminder that it was not a meaningless warning, bombs were dropped on Croydon and killed sixty-two people. Sometimes on cloudy days when the warning was on we would hear the throbbing of an aeroplane engine, hidden and persistent as if hovering not far away.

Yet, in this threatened state, normal activities and recreations went on. On their afternoons off the shop assistants were going to the West End to see Gone With the Wind (they said it was too long - we were used to films which lasted an hour and a half). The dance bands and comedy shows on the radio: Jack Warner playing the Cockney soldier in 'Garrison Theatre', Robb Wilton, 'Itma' with its fund of catchphrases; Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters singing 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen'. Pubs flourished, as did dance halls. There was said to be a boom in reading the classics of English literature, and I suppose the black-out nights were an opportunity which many people had previously lacked for reading. The book I remember from those weeks before the Blitz was a paperback novel called This Bright Summer. Several of my friends were reading it; it was well written, and passionate in places, and in my mind it belongs to the summer of 1940.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In The Thirties by Edward Upward (Heinemann 1962)

Most of the others, when all of the group had arrived here, sat on the tree-trunks, but Alan and Elsie chose the grass, which was warm and thistle free and had been grazed by rabbits till it was as short as the grass of a lawn. Alan had been carrying his and her lunch in a small rucksack that he now removed from his back and handed to Elsie, who had prepared the food and knew which of the greaseproof-paper-covered packets contained what. She grinned as she gave him the three hard-boiled eggs that he had told her he would want when she had asked him in the flat how many. And he did want them. The walking he had done gave relish to his eating, made it a pleasure so keen that it was like an aesthetic experience. With the eggs there were brown bread-and-butter sandwiches and afterwards he ate a banana and an apple, and he drank hot coffee which she poured out for him from a vacuum flask into a plastic cup. And the pleasure did not end when his appetite was satisfied: it changed, evolved, became a happiness deriving not just from food but also from the presence of the comrades eating and talking around him.

‘How fine they are,’ he thought. ‘How devoted and honest, how different from what anti-Communists say that Communists are, how much better as human beings than their traducers.’ He looked at Lamont, conqueror of dreadful disabilities, and at Lamont’s wife, whose self-sacrifice for her husband had made possible his outstanding work for the cause; at Len Whiscop, born in a slum, mainly self-educated, who was among the Party’s most effective economics tutors and who once, when trespassing on principle, had led a group of ramblers including Alan and Elsie past a gamekeeper holding a shotgun; at Sammy Pentire and his Polish wife Rosa, both of them nearer seventy than sixty but slim and fit, who were vegetarians and had been active for socialism since their twenties; at George Farmer, an Old Etonian who could have made a bourgeois career for himself if he hadn’t chosen the Party; at Enid and Bertha, teachers, who had remained loyal to the working class into which they had been born and whose scrupulous intellectual honesty would allow them to accept nothing on faith, not even from the Party leaders. He thought of other comrades who were not here on this ramble: of Wally first of all, and of Eddie Freans, and of Jimmy Anders. Then he thought of people opposed to the Party: of Mrs Greensedge, who cheated at whist drives and who had once said that her husband would be furious if he thought she was getting mixed up with Communists; of a university don who had alluded to Marx and Engels with complacent contempt and in words revealing that he had not bothered to study their writings; of Christian imperialists paying lip-service to the Sermon on the Mount and expressing horror at the Marxist view that the use of force was in certain temporary revolutionary circumstances justifiable; of young careerists despising the working class they had risen from and abhorring Communism because it contradicted the only principle that made sense to them – their own advancement. Such people were of the class which Alan himself had belonged to, but which he had broken with. ‘I have cleansed myself of their customs,’ he thought, remembering Dante’s line: ‘da’ lor costumi fa che tu ti forbi.’ He belonged at last, without reservation, among these comrades he was sitting with here. They accepted him as one of them, and he knew that in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, his diffidence, they liked him. He loved them, and he would never again allow himself to repine because of the amount of work the Party expected from him, or to hanker back after what he had been fond of in his bourgeois days.