Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dead Wrong by Cath Staincliffe (Robinson 1998)

Teatime at home was a disaster. Maddie burst into tears and refused to eat a morsel. Something to do with the layout of the food on the plate. Tom had been fine until he knocked his blackcurrant juice all over his plate and the rest of the table. I struggled hard to force food down into my stomach which was tense with irritation. Maddie continued to howl until I told her to go off and do it somewhere else. She stormed off. Ray cast me a questioning look.

‘I’m not in the mood,’ I said. ‘It drives me up the wall when she does this, when she won’t explain what’s wrong. God, if I knew she wanted the flipping peas in the middle I’d put them in the middle. I’m not telepathic.’

‘You should be,’ Ray said. ‘It’s a prerequisite of motherhood.’

The door flew open and Maddie flounced in. ‘Mummy.’ She’d stopped crying now and she was all outrage. ‘You didn’t give me any tea and I’ll starve and I’ll die and then you’ll be really sorry and I’ll be glad.’ She wheeled round and pulled the door to behind her hard. She was trying for a satisfying slam. Unfortunately a well-placed stuffed dinosaur was in the way and the door merely bounced back open again.

I covered my mouth to stifle the giggles. It wasn’t the first time she’d threatened me this way, but I reckoned her mouthing off her anger at me was probably healthier than swallowing it all and storing it up for adult life.

Of course by bedtime peace had been restored. We’d talked about my need to know about her constantly shifting requirements – not that I thought it would make one iota of difference. I hugged her, told her I loved her and read a long story. I even managed to bite my tongue when she complained of feeling hungry and brought her warm milk and an apple. Perfect mother or what?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

For Pete's sake

94 was a good innings, but enough already. I can't have any more You Tube clips of the fingers-in-ears folkie stuff clogging up my social media timeline. Sentiment is not enough. I need a bastard tune as well.

The obligatory Pete Seeger Socialist Standard article.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby (Believer Books 2012)

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I am a literary fattist anyway; I have had a resistance to the more amply proportioned book all my adult life, which is why the thesis I'm most likely to write is entitled "The Shortest Book by Authors Who Usually Go Long." The Crying of Lot 49, Silas Marner, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . . . I've read 'em all. You can infer from that lot what I haven't read. And in any case, long, slow books can have a disastrous, demoralizing effect on your cultural life if you have young children and your reading time is short. You make only tiny inroads into the chunky white wastes every night before falling asleep, and before long you become convinced that it's not really worth reading again until your children are in reform school. My advice, as someone who has been an exhausted parent for seventeen years now, is to stick to the svelte novel—it's not as if this will lower the quality of your consumption, because you've still got a good couple of hundred top, top writers to choose from. Have you read everything by Graham Greene? Or Kurt Vonnegut? Anne Tyler, George Orwell, E. M. Forster, Carol Shields, Jane Austen, Muriel Spark, H. G. Wells, Ian McEwan? I can't think of a book much over four hundred pages by any of them. I wouldn't say that you have to make an exception for Dickens, because we at the Believer don't think that you have to read anybody—we just think you have to read. It's just that short Dickens is atypical Dickens—Hard Times, for example, is long on angry satire, short on jokes—and Dickens, as John Carey said in his brilliant little critical study The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination, is "essentially a comic writer." If you're going to read him at all, then choose a funny one. Great Expectations is under six hundred pages, and one of the greatest novels ever written, so that's not a bad place to start. 

Back In The Day (2014)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Go Not Gently by Cath Staincliffe (Robinson 1997)

On our journey to the Infirmary I told Agnes about the business and family links between the three doctors.  ‘Mr Simcock is on the board of directors there and Mrs Goulden is the Managing Director so that could be one reason why we saw Dr Goulden at the hospital – he’s got business connections with Simcock.’

Silence. ‘Agnes?’

‘Let me get this right. Mr Simcock is on the board of the company?’


‘And Dr Montgomery?’

‘Yes. And what’s more, Mrs Goulden, who works there, is actually the sister of Dr Montgomery too. It’s very incestuous.’

‘I don’t like it,’ she said sharply.

‘It stinks,’ I agreed, ‘and there are too many coincidences flying around. All these people have been involved in Lily’s treatment – is that just because it’s a specialised area? Is it just nepotism, the old boy network, or is there something else going on?’ I was speculating aloud.

Agnes shook her head.

‘You’d think one well-paid job would satisfy,’ she remarked, ‘with all this unemployment.’

‘It might be greedy but it’s not illegal,’ I pointed out. ‘Besides, they’re directors of the business – they employ people to work there.’

‘And money makes money. Always has done. What about them?’ She pointed towards a cluster of youths who were gathered outside a local off-licence. ‘Nothing, no hope. Even in the thirties there was hope, the belief that things could change. Now…all this talk about moral standards and the fabric of society. A return to Victorian values. Huh,’ she snorted, ‘Victorian values were savage, smothered in hypocrisy.’

I was fazed at her outburst and I’d no idea what had set her off. I said nothing. We arrived at the hospital.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Looking for Trouble by Cath Staincliffe (Robinson 1994)

I parked a few doors down from Diane’s. The narrow street was lined with cars at that time of day. 

Behind the lacy net curtains, little ones were being put to bed and the small rooms tidied up. At this time of year, if it hadn’t been raining, the kids would have been out on the street, mums would bring out chairs and sit on the dusty pavement, swapping tales and shouting warnings to their offspring. They’d all grown up together round here. Diane was an incomer, regarded as a ‘student’ by the neighbours, who pitied her lonely existence, as they saw it, and were plainly bemused by the bright abstract prints she made.

As I unclicked the seat belt, a car drew up alongside me, blocking the narrow street. Oh no, an irate resident perhaps. One of those people who insist on parking right outside their own front door.

I got out of the car and the passenger leapt out of the other car and came towards me.

‘Have I got your space?’ I called.

He looked incredibly upset. It was only a parking space, for heaven’s sake. I opened my mouth to offer to move, if that’s what he wanted. He leapt the last yard onto the pavement and thumped me full in the face. Suns burst in my eyes, trailing wires of pain from my nose. I was on the floor, my hands cupped over my face, making little yelping noises. Pain exploded in my belly, my ribs. Kicking me. I curled to protect myself. I could hear his breath coming in noisy gasps as he kicked my legs and my arms. He stamped on my head; my skull and ear ground against wet paving stones. I think he just did that once. I could taste iron, sweet and salt. There was a pause. Then a blow to my kidneys, sharp and hard, which sent a deep, bruising pain rolling through my abdomen.

‘Come on, you wanker.’ A shout.

I waited for the next blow. Nothing. Sick boiled up and spurted from my nose and mouth. It was nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there.

I was wet, the pavement was wet. I was lying on the pavement. He must have gone. I opened my eyes. The left one swam red. I closed it. I could see quite well out of the other. A tuft of grass growing between the paving stone and the kerbstone. And just there, a neat white turd. How come some dogs do white ones? There were feet. Two. In Mickey Mouse socks with ears that stuck out at the side and red plastic sandals.

‘What yer doin’?’ A high piping voice. ‘Yer’ve been sick. Have you got a nosebleed?’

I tried to lift myself up but nothing worked.

‘Can you get Diane?’ My voice worked. It sounded so ordinary. ‘She’s at number twenty-three.’


I closed my eye.

‘Sal? Oh my god.’

‘I brought you some flowers,’ I said, ‘but I don’t know where I’ve put them.’

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Graveyard by Marek Hlasko (Melville House 1956)

He walked out. Was that really water dripping—or was it Bear's little boy still talking and staring with his black eyes at the murky grayness of the wall? He was in the street when Bear caught up with him. They walked side by side in silence, breathing heavily.

"Listen," Bear stammered. He gripped Franciszek's arm and looked in his eyes, stumbling all the while. "It isn't the way you think it is. Listen, you've got to understand. I have a son . . ."

"Franek," Franciszek said. "In memory of those moments."

"Those moments, those moments," Bear stammered. "What are they next to life? Next to the fear you've got to live with, constantly, without interruption, from morning till night? Can we bask in the days of glory when we live in a time of pestilence? They'll finish us off, you, me, Jerzy. Our time is over; and the others, the ones on top, they know it. They commit crimes when they have to, but in spite of everything they're laying the foundations for faith in man; they believe in you, in me, in Jerzy, and that's why they'll finish us off when the times comes. They believe that we're somehow decent, and that someday we'll wake up, and let out a wild shout: no! And maybe this shout will be taken up by a few others. It's neither you nor I that's at stake, but something beside which we mean nothing at all. Ah, Franciszek, we wanted to take the road to life, and we've come to a graveyard; we set out for a promised land, and all we see is a desert; we talked about justice, and all we know is terror and despair. Once I lived on the fourth floor, and all day long I did nothing but count people's footsteps on the staircase—were they coming for me or not? Someday they would come, I thought. History has no use for witnesses. The next generation will rush headlong into whatever is expected of it. It will regard each of the crimes now being committed as sacred, as necessary. And what about us? You? Me? We've done our part, and now we must try to survive, just survive as long as possible. Do you want to be the righteous man of Gomorrah? What do you want? Testimonials? Give it up. Can't you die like a strong animal, alone and in silence? You've nothing left, no teeth to bite with, and nothing to shoot with. Go away, and if you don't understand, at least leave the rest of us alone. After all, we're entitled to something in return for our days of glory: at least we have the right to be forgotten."

"Have you seen Jerzy since those days?" Franciszek asked.

"No, and I don't want to see him."

Franciszek slackened his pace. "You certainly don't think," he said, "that he would ever be capable of saying the kind of thing you've just said. Do you?"

They were silent for a while.

"No," Bear said. "Jerzy? No, Jerzy will never say such things, I know. I often think of him; he was the purest of all, better than either of us. Maybe that's what has saved him."

They stopped.

"Farewell, Bear," Franciszek said.

"Goodbye, Skinny," Bear said.

Neither of them saw the other's face: they were far from any street lamp, standing in darkness and rain. After a moment's hesitation, each of them extended a hand. Their hands did not meet, but they pretended not to notice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times by Howard Zinn (beacon Press 1994)

Starting college coincided with a change in our lives: moving out of our miserable basement rooms into a low-income housing project in downtown Manhattan, on the East River. Four rooms, utilities included in the rent, no rats, no cockroaches, a few trees and a playground downstairs, a park along the river. We were happy.

While going to N.Y.U. and Columbia I worked the four-to-twelve shift in the basement of a Manhattan warehouse, loading heavy cartons of clothing onto trailer trucks which would carry them to cities all over the country.

We were an odd crew, we warehouse loaders—a black man, a Honduran immigrant, two men somewhat retarded mentally, another veteran of the war (married, with children, he sold his blood to supplement his small pay check). With us for a while was a young man named Jeff Lawson whose father was John Howard Lawson, a Hollywood writer, one of the Hollywood Ten. There was another young fellow, a Columbia College student who was named after his grandfather, the socialist labor leader Daniel D eLeon. (I encountered him many years later; he was in a bad way mentally, and then I got word that he had laid down under his car in the garage and breathed in enough carbon monoxide to kill himself.)

We were all members of the union (District 65), which had a reputation of being “left-wing.” But we, the truck-loaders, were more left than the union, which seemed hesitant to interfere with the loading operation of this warehouse.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars by Maurice Dekobra (Melville House 1925)

"Well! Well! Nobody is eavesdropping . . ."

"Are you sure there are no wires hidden under the rug?" asked Lady Diana.

Varichkine made a reassuring gesture.

"I have taken every precaution. The man who is serving us is also in the service of my private agents, although the valet, I discovered yesterday, is in the employ of Madam Mouravieff."

"Isn't that amusing! You each have your special army of spies?"

"It's absolutely necessary. You will not be surprised, Lady Wynham, to learn that you are not exactly persona gratissima in Madam Mouravieff's eyes and that, consequently, she employs, in your case, the usual procedure of our good city of Moscow."

"Which is the capital of the spy system, if I am not misinformed."

"Exactly. The Tcheka without spies would be a newly married woman without her husband—or a Soviet without an executioner!"

I poured out some Rudesheimer for Varichkine, at the same time asking him to explain his jest.

"Why it's perfectly obvious, old fellow. We don't pretend for an instant that the Soviet Government is an expression of the will of the majority of the Russian people. When your French and English communist papers comment on the demands of Russian public opinion, they are speaking of the opinion of an extremely active but very small minority. With us, the freedom of the press, along with the other sorts of freedom, has not existed since nineteen-eighteen, and it's a good thing because liberty is as injurious for a race of people as it is for women."

Lady Diana listened attentively to these words.

"But," she asked, "how can you endure an atmosphere of perpetual espionage?"
Varichkine offered her one of his best cigarettes, lighted it for her with extreme grace, and in his gentlest tone, replied:

"My dear Lady Wynham, it's a matter of habit, I might say, even an acquired taste. Our Tcheka, which is a kind of political Committee of Surveillance, plays the rôle of a doctor whose duty it is to tap the arteries of our citizens at every hour of the day and night. Consequently, it has in its employ some thousands of benevolent nurses, who apply the stethoscope to the door, listen to the conversation and diagnose the malady."

"One is, then, at the mercy of the denunciations of these people, who, I presume, are not round-shouldered from an excess of honesty. But who would accept such degrading work?"

"Pardoned speculators, acquitted murderers, and policemen of the days of Czarism, who thus buy their personal safety. Thanks to their revelations, we are able to crush all the attempts at counter-revolution, which state of affairs, for a régime like ours, is the beginning of real development."

"And yet the result must be quantities of unjust accusations, of delations inspired by vengeance and of false reports."

"Most assuredly! And as anyone who is accused of counter-revolution, even if there is no proof, is automatically condemned to death, those innocent people end up in the dungeons of the Loubianka. But all that is of no importance for it is better to shoot ten innocent people than to let one dangerous agitator escape."

Lady Diana's white shoulders trembled slightly. She looked at Varichkine in such a way as to make him regret his cynical avowal. Very gently, just as one comforts a frightened child with kind words, he added:

"But remember, Lady Wynham, that the Red Peril has undoubtedly already made more victims than it ever will in the future. It is always best to forget the past. Dead people are soon forgotten, you know. Between us, tell me if the last European rulers are still thinking about the massacre of the Czar and his family? Does the tragic fate of that lost potentate prevent the King of Spain from the mad pursuit of pleasure, or the Prince of Wales from disguising himself at Masquerade Balls? All right, then don't be more of a royalist than the kings, those living fossils of a worthless age, and don't bother yourself about the sad destiny of a few thousand aristocrats or ordinary people, who would soon have died of paralysis or appendicitis. My dear friend, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, are great names in the history of France. My dear Lady Wynham, you aren't ashamed, are you, of being the compatriot of Cromwell, who caused the head of your king Charles the First to be cut from his shoulders? Explain to me how the axe or the guillotine are superior to the machine-gun of our executioners. You say we have killed more people. Yes, but there are more than a hundred million Russians. The proportion of the blood shed remains approximately the same. And, after all, we are only imitating the Americans."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Ted Grant: Permanent Revolutionary by Alan Woods (Wellred Books 2013)

Before they left South Africa they had been given instructions on how to make contact with the French comrades. They were to walk along a famous boulevard (probably Boulevard du Montparnasse) and wait opposite a certain café. For about an hour they waited on the street with growing impatience. They were becoming anxious (was this the right café?) when finally their contact showed up. They were to meet Trotsky’s eldest son Leon Sedov and his partner Jeanne Martin, Erwin Wolff (who was subsequently murdered by the GPU in Spain), Pierre Frank, Erwin Bauer and Raymond Molinier.

Paris was now the centre of the International Left Opposition, the place where the celebrated Bulletin of the Opposition was produced by Leon Sedov. Ted and Sid stayed there about a fortnight before departing for England. They had a long discussion with Leon Sedov, mainly about the situation in France. Trotsky had suggested that the Trotskyists should enter the Socialist Party (the SFIO). This was known as “the French turn”; although in reality, Trotsky had already proposed something similar for Britain. Molinier, Frank and the others were against entry and later Trotsky broke with them. This was to become a common feature among the so-called Trotskyists, and not only in France.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Madman of Bergerac by Georges Simenon (Penguin Mystery 1932)

What he found strange was not Samuel's profession, but to find in a place like Bergerac links extending from Warsaw to Algiers.

People like this Samuel—he had dealt with hundreds in his time. And he had always studied them with curiosity that was mixed with some other feeling—not quite repulsion—as they belonged to a different species altogether from the one we call human.

You'd find them as barmen in Scandinavia, as gangsters in America, as casino owners in Holland, or else as headwaiters or theater directors in Germany, or wholesalers in North Africa.

And now they were cropping up again in this peaceful little town of Bergerac, which you would have taken for the most remote place imaginable from all the terror, sordidness, and tragedy that their doings involved.

Eastern and Central Europe between Budapest and Odessa, between Tallinn and Belgrade, an area teeming with a mass of humanity. In particular, there hundreds of thousands of hungry Jews whose only ambition was to seek a better existence in some other land. Boat-loads and trainloads of emigrants with children in their arms, and dragging their old folk behind them, resigned, tragic faces queuing at border checkpoints.

There were more Poles in Chicago than Americans . . . France alone had absorbed trainloads and trainloads. In every town in the country there were people who at every birth, death, or marriage had to spell their outlandish names letter by letter at the town hall . . . 

Some were legal emigrants, with their papers in order. Others didn't have the patience to wait, or were unable to obtain a visa.

That's where Samuel came in, Samuel and his like. Men who spoke ten languages, who knew every frontier in Europe. the rubber stamp of every consulate, and even the signatures of the officials. They could see to everything!

Their real activity would be concealed behind the façade of some other business, preferably international.

Postage stamps. What could be better?

To Mr A. Levy, Chicago.


I am this day dispatching two hundred rare Czechoslovakian stamps with orange vignettes . . . 

There was another traffic, too, which no doubt interested Samuel, as it did most of his kind.

In the maisons spéciales of South America it was French girls who formed the quality. Their purveyors worked in Paris on the Grands Boulevards. But the smaller fry, the cheaper end of the market, came from Eastern Europe. Country girls who left home at fifteen or sixteen, returning—if ever they did—at twenty, with their dowries in their pockets.