It's been a turbulent year, but there hasn't been a shortage of books to read, so we asked some leading activists what they've been reading in 2020
Judgement on Deltchev
Eric Ambler, 1951, republished by Ipso Books 2016
If I had to recommend one author that I have enjoyed during lockdown it would be Eric Ambler. He is just simply a superb writer – a talent which overcomes sometimes odd plots and slightly old fashioned scenarios. Ambler wrote dozens of thrillers, often based on shady political intrigues in eastern Europe or Latin America. He was an anti-fascist who started writing in the 1930s against the background of fascism and war. His perhaps most famous books are The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940), both made into films. I’m at present reading Judgment on Deltchev (1951) set against the background of a show trial in Eastern Europe. Ambler was a successful Hollywood scriptwriter – and during the war was seconded to a forces film unit. Many writers are in his debt, including Le Carre and Greene. All ideal reading for these dark days.
The Spirit of the Blitz: Home Intelligence and British Morale
Edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, Oxford University Press 2020
There is not a moment when the Tories pass up the chance to evoke the 1940s and the Blitz for patriotic reasons – so it’s good to know what people thought of government while it was going on. The Spirit of the Blitz: Home Intelligence and British Morale gives it straight from the horse’s mouth. Home Intelligence was essentially a government eavesdropping – or spying – operation which listened to ordinary citizens in pubs, shopping queues and estates and recorded their morale. In this second volume, editors Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang cover the period from September 1940 to June 1941 – the main period of bombing until the rocket attacks of 1944 -45.
The same incompetence and worse that we are seeing during the current pandemic are present here – shelters not available or properly provisioned, claims the government is lying about air raid casualties, complaints about profiteering by landlords in the safe areas, and by undertakers in the Blitzed areas, the unpreparedness of firefighters in the terribly bombed Scottish industrial town of Clydebank, shortages of food and tobacco, problems with evacuation and the registration of women for work. It’s all here in immaculate detail. People made great sacrifices but they didn’t like the government or the way the war was being conducted. A very good antidote to Boris bluster.
Priyamvada Gopal, Verso 2020
A recent survey found a third of British people believe the colonies were better off for being part of the Empire. This myth of Empire contends it was a force for good - introducing the ideas of freedom and democracy to the world. Once this mission was complete the Empire happily withdrew. And, you can’t judge the past by today’s values. Gopal demolishes these arguments. But this isn’t just a history of the evils of Empire, it shows the colonised not as passive recipients of the ideas of freedom, but those actively shaping them. The colonised educated the colonisers. This is Gopal’s central argument - the insurgencies were the ‘vital relationship between anti-colonial resistance in the periphery and the emergence of such dissent in the metropole.’ Gopal delivers a strong challenge to the myth-making of the British Empire.
Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden
Branko Marcetic, Verso 2020
As the blurb on the book says, Biden is one of the United States’ longest-serving politicians, and one of its least scrutinised. So what does a Biden presidency offer? Even before his victory, Jonathan Freedland was penning his eulogy. After, the liberal media declared it ‘a return to decency, unity and humanity’. But Marcetic’s book documents Biden’s extensive record, and it leaves everything to be desired. His opposition to busing, disastrous welfare reform, his support for the war on terror. Marcetic says Biden ‘arguably more than any Democrat had created the crisis in Iraq.’ His propensity for bombing continued as Obama’s vice president, in such countries as Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and more. Biden’s politics are neoliberalism and imperialism. Marcetic’s book gives us the facts to challenge the facade of respectability offered by the liberal media.
The President's Gardens
Muhsin Al-Ramli, 2012, published in English by MacLehose Press 2017
The President’s Gardens spans 50 years and recounts the stories of three ordinary Iraqis as they navigate war, dictatorship and the 2003 invasion. Muhsin Al-Ramli masterfully details the stories of Ibrahim, Tariq and Abdullah. These three men are raised together in a small village in rural Iraq, but drift apart and suffer horrendous evils as a result of powers out of their control.
The President’s Gardens is a damning critique of the West’s treatment of Iraq, while also taking aim at Saddam Hussain’s brutal dictatorship and his seemingly arbitrary war with Iran. Al-Ramli’s retelling of Iraq’s recent history is personal and heartfelt, with the stories of ordinary Iraqis taking centre stage, giving the horrors of war a human face.
Philip Kerr, Quercus 2019
Bernie Gunther is one of my favourite literary creations. Philip Kerr created him and wrote 14 crime novels centred on him. The latest, and last, Metropolis, was published shortly after Kerr’s death.
Fourteen of them are set in the Third Reich and after and involve Gunther, a former detective in Berlin’s Kripo, criminal police, being forced to serve in the SS. Gunther is no Nazi but his SS membership, not his choice, leaves him exposed post-war.
The books tell you volumes about the chaotic way the Third Reich functioned, the petty jealousies and about the horror of genocide.
Metropolis is set back further back, in 1928, before the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Young Gunther is promoted to the Kripo, serving under two Jewish senior officers. As yet the Nazis are far from power but antisemitism is ever-present, as is violence. The book brings to life the decadence of 1920’s Berlin. In some ways, I’d start with March Violets (1989) and come back to Metropolis having met Gunther. But I thoroughly recommend it, and the series.
Sails and Winds: A Cultural History of Valencia
Michael Eaude, Signal Books 2019
Having written a cultural history of Catalonia, it was inevitable that Michael Eaude would turn his hand to one on Valencia. The result is a book, Sails and Winds: A Cultural History of Valencia, the region not just the city.
While it’s billed as cultural history, it covers more including Valencia’s troubled politics. For one section of its population it’s an integral part of Spain, for others it is one of the Catalan lands, where Catalan is spoken from the River Ebre to Alicant.
Michael explains how this exploded into street violence during the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. He examines the horror of Francoist expression when the region fell in 1939, how industrial centres of anti-fascist resistance were sent to the wall by the Socialist government of Felipe González in the 1980s plus the rich culture and its food, in large part inherited from its Arab rulers and peasant farmers, removed by the new Kingdom of Spain and largely excised from its history.
Two very different books about war: one new, the other a classic
Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes
Phil Miller, Pluto Press 2020
Firstly, a page-turner that reads like a thriller as it lifts the lid on the murky world of British mercenaries: Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes. On the basis of deep digging in the archives, Miller reveals how Keenie Meenie Services, an early exemplar of privatised security provision underwritten by the British state, wreaked destruction in multiple theatres of war during the 1970s and 1980s. Essential reading for a grasp of Britain’s status as the ‘mercenary kingpin’ of the booming global private security industry.
Vasily Grossman, 1952, republished by Harvill Secker 2019
Secondly, boxed set reading on an epic theme: Stalingrad. This immensely ambitious, Tolstoyesque portrayal of the battle of Stalingrad – the turning-point of World War II – will carry you through any number of dark winter days, all the while triggering every emotion you possess, from terror (especially when Nazi bombers begin their eradication of the city) to pathos and wonder. Grossman was on scene to record it for us all in his notebooks, diaries and letters; his account will never be surpassed.
My Name Is Why
Lemn Sissay, Canongate Books 2019
My Name Is Why is the quietly heartbreaking and profoundly important memoir of poet Lemn Sissay. It describes the childhood of a beautiful, bright boy who was separated from his Ethiopian birth mother and then rejected by the English family who he thought of as his own, to be dumped in the brutally abusive ‘care’ system. The story is pieced together from Sissay’s memories and the contrasting official records of Wigan Council – records he had to fight a thirty year campaign to obtain – which reveal that his every word and action were met with bad faith, cynicism and cruelty by those responsible for his care. It is a withering indictment of the care system but also a shining tribute to Sissay’s strength of character and humanity.
It Takes Blood And Guts
Skin with Lucy O'Brien, Simon & Schuster 2020
It Takes Blood And Guts is the autobiography of Skin – a working class shaven-headed queer Black woman from Brixton who became one of Britain’s biggest rock stars. Her band Skunk Anansie’s rapid rise from the North London pub circuit to major festival headliners makes for an exhilarating read. There is all the glamour, celebrity gossip and haute couture you might expect from a rockstar and fashion icon. But there are fascinating social and political insights too, including descriptions of appalling racism experienced by the band while on tour – notably in Russia and when supporting the Sex Pistols in Australia in 1996. Particularly moving is her account of the anti-apartheid struggle and her stories of campaigning on the issue of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).
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