Book Review

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London, Burning by Anthony Quinn

To people of a similar age to me, the name Anthony Quinn will suggest a well-built actor who starred in many acclaimed films [Wiki here], but this is not the same man: unfortunately, the flyleaf of the paperback for which this review is intended had a very unhelpful barcode sticker inconveniently placed over the author’s admittedly minimal biography, but I could ascertain that Quinn was born in Liverpool in 1964, and as well as being an author of seven fiction and one non-fiction books, he has also been a film critic, so quite culturally fluent. This comes across in the story under review, although it doesn’t strive to be highbrow: it reads very easily, and the characters are adequately believable.

The title is a reference to a famous song by The Clash, which suggests the timeframe of the story, which is 1977: the fag end of the Callaghan government which, like several others for various reasons, was a very poor advertisement for democratic socialism, which had been so successfully implemented by Clement Attlee after the ousting of Churchill in the 1945 general election. The trade unions were responding to the government’s austerity policy [sound familiar?] by flexing their considerable muscles; union membership being then much higher than it is today; and bringing the country to its knees, apparently totally oblivious to the hardship that this was causing ordinary people, thereby paving the way for the disastrous régime of Margaret Thatcher, which was then heralded as a return to common sense and that much-vaunted [and misused] concept: freedom.

The IRA was also active on the mainland, and one of this story’s characters, Callum Conlan, is inadvertently caught up in a terrorist incident. During the narrative, he comes into contact with some of the other characters: Freddie Selves, who is a self-absorbed theatre impresario; Vicky Tress, a young policewoman [as they were then called], who is encouraged to move from uniform to CID duties, and is supported by a senior officer, for only partially altruistic reasons; and an ambitious, as well as obviously noticeably intelligent reporter for a left-leaning news magazine, Hannah Strode. In order, Conlan is an academic who moved away from his native Newry to escape “The Troubles”, but unfortunately, they catch up with him in the form of a younger former school acquaintance, whom he meets when he is working on a building site adjoining the place of Selves’s employment, the National Music Hall. Selves is a lothario, and his latest adventure is discovered by Hannah Strode, who sees a scoop in revealing this. Vicky Tress becomes involved in an anti-corruption investigation at work [very common then and, sadly, not entirely eradicated even now], but she suffers a traumatic incident in the line of duty.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, I feel that the narrative slightly fails to deliver the tension promised by its title; having said that, I wouldn’t want that to be a disincentive for potential readers. Also, without wanting to spoil the plot in any way, there do seem to be some loose ends left at the conclusion, so I wonder if a sequel/continuation is on the cards? The acknowledgements at the end don’t support this inference, but it would strike me as odd if characters are introduced to a narrative, but left with unfinished business; or perhaps, this is just my desire for completeness in a narrative: presumably, time will tell. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown, London] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14428-3.

A Blue Plaque for Agnes Dawson

Photo courtesy of Hilda Kean

Wilfred Risdon was passionate about animal welfare, and Hilda Kean is another campaigner on the same subject, as well as women’s rights, and the rights of working people, both now and in a historical context, in her capacity as an academic. She blogs on hildakean.com, and her latest post deals with her interest in four women teachers she has been researching:

Decades ago I had researched and had published a book I called Deeds not Words. The Lives of Suffragette Teachers, arising from my earlier PhD on history and education. Then I was a school teacher at Quintin Kynaston, a progressive London school, and active in the local Westminster NUT. To be honest I had never been that interested in the suffrage movement, apart from Sylvia Pankhurst, but suddenly came across the way many women teachers activists organised in the NUT to try and get the union’s support for the vote.

http://hildakean.com/?p=3487

Please visit her blog, and leave a comment if you find her work interesting: she will be very glad to hear from you—she was very helpful to me with research material for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black shirt and Smoking Beagles.

Book Review


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The War of the Poor, by Éric Vuillard

This is a very short book; only 66 pages; and set in a large font [not specified, but probably at least 12pt] with wide line spacing; so it should possibly more accurately be described as a booklet or a tract; but no matter: the subject matter is important. It is essentially true, albeit with a certain amount of permissible embroidery, given its historical setting, for the sake of continuity & completeness; it was translated from the original French, La guerre des pauvres, first published in 2019, by an award-winning author in his own right, Mark Polizzotti. I have a few observations about the significance of the text, including a personal connection but, at the risk of appearing to opt for a lazy response, given the fact that this is a non-fiction narrative, there is no plot, as such, to spoil, so I hope my readers will forgive me for quoting in large part from the synopsis at the front of the book, on the inside front cover.

This story concerns a subject which is very important to me, and it is the story of a man whose “terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived — a moment when Europe was in flux and history was being written.” So far, so hyperbolic: here I could observe that Europe is again in flux [so what have we learned in between?], but surely, the writing of history is inevitable with the passage of time, so that statement is superfluous? “The history of inequality is a long and terrible one, and it’s not over yet [sadly, true]. The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told [definitely]. Sixteenth century Europe: the Protestant Reformation takes on the powerful and the privileged. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer: a complex and controversial figure, who sided with neither Martin Luther, nor the Roman Catholic Church. Müntzer encouraged the poor to question why a god who apparently loved them seemed to be on the side of the rich.”

All well & good, and some of my observations could be seen as prejudice, for which I apologise, but they spring from my agnosticism, so I consider The Church, of any flavour, and religion in general, to be fair game. First & foremost, I was somewhat surprised, but also agreeably gratified, to read of a personal connection with the beginning of Müntzer’s ‘career’ in 1520 when, after emerging as a child from the trauma of his father’s execution, and reading The Bible which was produced with the new-fangled process called printing, “he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt  and Brunswick [Braunschweig], then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.” The beginning of the next chapter nails it for me: “Outside the borders of Saxony [Sachsen], hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater.” For non-German speakers, there’s an added complication: it’s difficult to pronounce—the combination of the ts consonants, followed by the v pronunciation of the German w is admittedly not easy, but not impossible, with practice. I was there for 6 months at the beginning of 1993; so, only two-and-a-bit years after one of the most momentous events of modern times, whose repercussions were to affect the whole of the soon to be reunited Germany for years to come, and the whole European continent, albeit somewhat less so, and to varying degrees in the different constituent countries. At the end of the GDR, Zwickau was where ‘Trabis’ were built, then VW took the plant over.

My overall concern with the story is that, although Müntzer was fighting for the rights of the common man, he was doing so within the confines of Christianity, and expecting his followers to be willing adherents also; it is reasonable to argue that those were the times in which they lived, when morality & religious observance were seen as inseparable, but he did set himself up as a fundamentalist demagogue: “He cited Luke: ‘Bring hither mine enemies, and slay them before me.’ He cited the psalms: ‘The Lord will smash down the old pots of clay with his rod of iron.’ … But … Müntzer introduced another populace, more invasive and tumultuous, a real populace, the poor laity and the peasants. This was a far cry from the catechistic generality of kindly Christian folk; now it was about ordinary people.” It all ended badly, of course: after several armed confrontations, and even a few victories, Müntzer was captured and beheaded, leaving history to be written by the victors. “These scurrilous legends come along to bow the heads of renegades only after they have been denied the right to speak. Their sole purpose is to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order, to which we are ultimately so attached that we surrender to its mysteries and hand it our lives.” Apparently, “Nietzsche took inspiration from him, from the Müntzerese gush and extravagance. But Müntzer is a man of action … He quotes Daniel: ‘Power will be given to the people.’ We’re a long way from Nietzsche.”

We’re also a long way from “Power [being] given to the people”, but at least the power of religion is being cumulatively reduced, although we still have some way to go. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-3855-2.

Book Review

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The Night Gate, by Peter May

Once again, Peter May has produced a layered and tense thriller which delivers in spades. The book’s title could be considered a distraction, given that it takes a while for its significance to be realised, but this is a very minor concern: overall, the narrative is well constructed, and it is bang up to date, embracing, rather than avoiding or ignoring the inexorable tide of infectious illness which has swept the world over two years, and is only now showing signs of abating. The protagonist, Enzo Macleod, is slightly unusual, in that he is a Scot by birth, with an Italian given name, but living & working in Cahors, south west France for enough years to allow him to become established, but without necessarily considering himself entrenched, in his chosen profession, forensic criminal investigation. His past personal life is somewhat complicated, and doesn’t really require exposition here, but suffice to say that he is now happily married to the significantly younger Dominique, who worked as an investigating officer in the Gendarmerie, and he has, in addition to a Scottish adult daughter, Kirsty, an adolescent son, Laurent, and another adult daughter, Sophie, who is currently in the late stages of pregnancy, hoping for a safe delivery after two previous miscarriages.

While on tenterhooks about the forthcoming birth, Enzo is invited, via an erstwhile almost-lover, a Gendarme named Hélène, by an old acquaintance, a forensic archaeologist named Professor Magali Blanc, to assist in investigating a very ‘cold’ case: a recently unearthed unsolved murder in a village, Carennac, situated on a bend of the Dordogne river, roughly an hour north of his home in the Lot valley. Enzo is initially reluctant to get back ‘in harness’, given that he is “retired from all that these days…Five years since I packed in my position at Paul Sabatier.” His former position is unspecified, but Paul Sabatier is a prestigious university in Toulouse, and he is revered as having “forensic talents”, so it is likely that he would have specialised, and probably lectured in one of the Life Sciences. When he learns that the seventy-five years old, or possibly more, remains are those of “a ranking officer of the Luftwaffe with a bullet hole in his skull, shallow-buried in a tiny medieval village…[which] wouldn’t exactly fit a conventional wartime scenario”, he is sufficiently intrigued to make the trip. When he & Dominique get there, they are informed by the local Gendarmerie Capitaine Arnaud, who happens to be a fan of Enzo’s skill, that the reason he is there is because there was a murder in the vicinity the previous day and, given his reverence for Enzo, persuades him to also take a look at this crime while it is still fresh.

There is a suspect for the new murder, but he has absconded, and thereafter, when Enzo starts investigating, the narrative broadens out to encompass events which took place in the early years of world war two, contemporary participants in these events, and how it becomes clear that these two murders are inextricably connected. The narrative alternates between the present, and wartime France, with the earlier events partly narrated by a current resident of the house where the latest murder occurred, and partly in third-person exposition; this could be a recipe for confusion, but May holds these temporally distanced threads together well. The main premise of the story is a proposition which is plausible, given the circumstances of the war in question, but which is impossible to prove, given its audacious nature; more cannot be revealed here! There is also added jeopardy as the hunt for the perpetrator intensifies, because a new lockdown was imposed in France at the end of October 2020, so Enzo only had a limited time in which to resolve the case, before his freedom of movement was curtailed. The description of the landscape in which the case unfolds is quite enticing, and I found it helpful to have a good map of the country to follow the characters’ movements. I can happily recommend this book, and the paperback I read was published in 2021 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78429-508-0.