Matthew Tree, The Last Person in the World (England-Is-A-Bitch Productions 2023), 242pp. Matthew Tree, The Last Person in the World (England-Is-A-Bitch Productions 2023), 242pp.

Chris Bambery recommends a novel that brings alive the politics and atmosphere of 1970s England, with a well-paced plot, and a protagonist whose life is upended by murky elite schemes.

It’s the fag end of the 1970s. All the hopes of 1972 and 1974 when workers had fought and won, defeating a Tory government, are fading fast under a Labour government intent on holding wages down and imposing austerity at the beck and call of the International Monetary Fund. The British ruling class is beginning to breath a bit easier. A general election is approaching and they have a new champion, Margaret Thatcher. Not so long before, some had been involved in conspiracies to carry out a coup to depose Labour premier Harold Wilson, who they believed was a stooge of the Soviet Union. Now Wilson was gone and his replacement, Jim Callaghan, was dependable.

There is an awful lot we still don’t know about the 1970s, from police infiltration of far-left groups, military involvement with Loyalist murder gangs in Northern Ireland, and just who was involved in plotting a military coup. In Northern Ireland, there are consistent claims that a boy’s home at Kincora, in North Belfast, was the scene of a paedophile ring with links to the intelligence services. This has simply been swept under the carpet, even today when such things are supposedly taken seriously. Back in 1978, Jimmy Saville got away with vile sexual abuse because of who he was.

All this provides a murky backdrop to Matthew Tree’s latest novel, The Last Person in the World. Our hero is from a London lower-middle-class family who is a day boy at a London public school. There he forms an unexpected friendship with a boarder, Ralph, from a much more affluent background, and in the summer before going to university, he visits him at Ralph’s dad’s stately pile in Dorset.

The scene shifts to the prestigious university our hero ‘goes up’ to, where he is a bit of a fish out of water. He does, though, become involved with the Trotskyist Real Workers’ Party. The one bright spark is that he meets Beth, who works in the pub he frequents and they fall in love.

One night when he is with Beth, there is an explosion, and when they go out to investigate, the parish church is on fire. Another church in Nottingham was targeted, but there was little damage. These are the latest attacks by a group styling itself The Vanguard. The press and the secret service are quick to conclude this is another left-wing terror group like the Red Brigades in Italy. It’s a lazy conclusion.

More critical minds ask why, if that were so, would they target the home of the presenter of a major kids’ TV show or that of a northern left-wing Labour MP who prided himself on his Lancashire accent? And, that takes us to the heart of the book: who are Vanguard? What are they out to achieve? To answer that would be to solve the mystery in this excellent and well-paced novel.

Suffice to say, our hero becomes involved both with Vanguard and with MI5. This lands him in a mess he is going to struggle to get out of. That he does owes a lot to Beth, who having seemingly lost him is determined not just to find him but to rescue him.

Matthew Tree brings alive the Britain of the late 1970s. Once everything had seemed possible, but by the time this book is set, those hopes were draining away like the spilt bitter on a pub counter. He brings alive too an elite who may have lost an empire, but expect the media, the police and the judges to stick with them whatever and say mum whatever allegations come their way. And they do stick together because they went to the same public schools and the same top universities and drink in the same gentlemen’s clubs.

That is still largely the case today but back in the 1970s it was even more so and Tree brings that to life. This is a world were the most you can get to eat in a pub is a packet of crisps. Where the London Tube is quite intimidating, think The Jam’s ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, and fascists are marching on the streets. Yet it’s also a world where women are asserting themselves, and that comes across in the character of Beth in particular.

Matthew Tree was born in London but today identifies himself as a Catalan, living between Barcelona and the wonderful town of Banyoles. He is an activist in the independence movement. He has self-published two previous novels. The Last Person in the World is well written and the plot carries you along. I recommend it.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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