Book Review: Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25

Guilty and Proud of it Front Cover

Guilty and Proud of It! by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth. Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2009. RRP £12.00 paperback. 

In 1921, 30 Labour councillors for Poplar in East London were imprisoned for 6 weeks because of their refusal to participate in a local government system that was unfair. They knew that they were breaking the law, but willingly sacrificed their freedom in order to challenge a law that they firmly believed was unjust. Despite strong opposition, including from within the Labour Party itself, their stand was successful, forcing the national government into an embarrassing climbdown. In Guilty and Proud of It!, Janine Booth tells the story of what has become known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, as well as the longer conflict between the national government and the socialist Labour councillors that lasted from their election in 1919 until 1925.

Poplar council chose not to concede but to fight. And by fighting, it won. Poplar’s story – of defiance, of protests, of mass participation, of prison – has to be told. It deserves its place in the list of historical struggles that each generation of socialists and labour movement activists learn about, alongside the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the General Strike, Grunwick, the Miner’s Strike, the Poll Tax.

Booth, 2009; p. ix-x.

In the 1920s, Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. At the time, local governments had to pay unemployment and poverty relief benefits out of the local rates (like council tax today). The more poor and unemployed people in a borough, the more money had to be raised from the local residents. It was an unfair system which meant that the richest boroughs, where people could most afford higher taxes, actually had the lowest rates. In Poplar, Labour won 39 out of 42 council seats in November 1919. They set about using this impressive majority to make genuine improvements to the lives of working-class Poplar residents, which upset local elites, including employers and landlords.

For the next 6 years, the council would struggle with these local elites and central government, taking a defiant stance that became known as Poplarism (not to be confused with Popularism!) In 1921 the councillors demonstrated just how far they were willing to go, refusing to back down over their demands for a fairer rates system even when they were sentenced to prison indefinitely. The government backed down and the councillors were released after 6 weeks, winning significant concessions over rates.

Guilty and Proud of It! is a lucid account of a fascinating episode in London’s rebellious history. Janine Booth is a trade unionist and socialist herself, and her admiration for the rebel councillors and the stand that they took is evident. The book is less neutral than an academic book would be able to get away with, but Booth does not allow her politics to cloud her judgement. The concluding chapter of the book contains a thorough and balanced analysis, making convincing arguments about why the Poplar councillors were successful, why other councils were so reluctant to join them in their stand, and how Poplarism is relevant today. A lot of history books aimed at a popular audience do not contain this sort of critical analysis, so it was a pleasant surprise. This chapter also helps the reader link the book to wider contexts. Some may describe a book on such a short period of local history as niche, but Booth demonstrates Poplarism’s relevance to ongoing conflicts between local and national governments.

Guilty and Proud of It! is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, protest history, or local government.

Book Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage Front Cover

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans.

Lissa Evans. Old Baggage. London: Transworld, 2018. RRP £8.99 paperback

I love reading fiction, but I have an unfortunate tendency of reading books in one sitting, so I try to avoid it during the week because otherwise I end up a sleep-deprived mess. A few weeks ago, I dedicated my Friday evening to Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel about Mattie Simkin, a former Suffragette who is struggling to deal with her past and come to terms with her present. I must admit to picking this book up because of my interest in protest history, but Old Baggage is a wonderful book that will charm and engross you whether or not you are a history nerd like me.

Old Baggage is set in 1928, ten years after the right to vote was won for women over the age of 30 who owned property. Mattie Simkins is living in on Hampstead Heath with her devoted friend and former comrade Flea. Although her militant suffragette days are behind her, Mattie is still a vibrant character, quick to anger at injustice, slow to compromise, and fiercely loyal to her ideals. When Mattie realises that young women have little interest in, or knowledge of, politics, she sets out to change that by starting a group that combines physical fitness, intellectual debate, and female empowerment. The group is a resounding success, but Mattie’s single-mindedness causes conflict with the people she cares about the most, and she has to swallow her pride in order to put things right.

Some of you may know Mattie from Lissa’s first novel, Crooked Heart (2015), set during the London Blitz. I had no idea that Mattie wasn’t a new character when I read Old Baggage, and as it is a prequel you don’t need to read the older novel in order to understand this one (although I have heard that it is very good!). Old Baggage strikes a delicate balance between poignancy and humour (there were some sections that made me laugh out loud), and the fictional characters fit well into the historical events and context. It is not often that you come across a book where the two main characters are middle-aged women, and Mattie and Flea’s fierce, if a little dysfunctional, friendship is the wonderful heart of the book.

We don’t often think about what happens to activists after the cause has been won, or after they decide to stop fighting. Many of the women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage put their energies into other causes; for example, Dora Montefiore was elected to the provisional council of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 at the age of 69. Some, such as Adela Pankhurst and Flora Drummond, became active in right wing politics. Others settled down to ‘normal’ lives; Jessie Kenney, younger sister of the more famous Annie, became a steward on cruise liners, and Rosa May Billinghurst retired from activism. Most of these outcomes are represented in the characters of Old Baggage (including the suffragette-turned-fascist), so as well as being an enjoyable read, it is also a thoughtful reflection on what happens next. When you have dedicated your life to a cause that was dangerous and all-consuming but also thrilling and empowering, what do you do when it ends? Old Baggage asks questions about moving on and making sense of a different life that don’t have easy answers. But it’s the books that make you think that tend to be the ones you remember.

Book Review: Triumph of Order- Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

Triumph of Order Front Cover

Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller

Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.

Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.

Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.

The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.

Keller, 2009: p.223

Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.

As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.

The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Death in Ten Minutes Front Cover

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Italian Boy- Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London

The Italian Boy front cover

The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise.

Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback

Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.

The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.

It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.

The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.

Book Review: Black and British- A Forgotten History

Black and British front cover

Black and British by David Olusoga.

David Olusoga. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

In the introduction to Black and British, David Olusoga tells a disturbing story from his childhood, where his family were driven out of their home by racist attacks in 1984. After they left, a swastika was painted on the front door, along with the words “NF [National Front] won here.” My response was: “I know racism is still a problem in the UK, but at least it isn’t that bad any more.” A few days later, the story broke about Vaughan Dowd painting racist graffiti on the front door of 10-year-old David Yamba and his father in Salford, Greater Manchester. I was shocked, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by my naivety in believing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen any more. Black and British is an excellent introduction to thousands of years of intertwined history between black people and the British isles, that helps put the racist ideology behind the persecution of the Yamba family into context.

In Black and British, David Olusoga eloquently explores the place of black people in British history, stretching back to the Roman occupation and beyond. He brings the story up to the 1980s, arguing that his personal memories of the period since then limit his ability to be impartial. In between, he covers a huge swathe of historical material, ranging from Britain’s role in both the growth and eventual decline of the Atlantic slave trade, through the influence of black music on British culture, to the impacts of the presence of African-American GIs in the UK during the Second World War.

What I find most innovative about Black and British is Olusoga’s definition of ‘British’. He doesn’t just consider people who live in the British isles, or who hold British citizenship, but everyone who’s lives were shaped by Britain or her people. For example, the book includes a fascinating exploration of the history of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was founded as a colony for poor black people ‘repatriated’ from London in the late 1700s. The city thrived as the base for the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, who were responsible for enforcing the ban on the slave trade. Slaves from throughout Western Africa were freed by the Royal Navy’s ships, and made their homes in the city, creating a vibrant and diverse population. Sierra Leone is 5000 km from the Britain, but Olusoga’s writing makes the connections between them impossible to deny.

I also admire the way that Black and British is not just a history of racism in Britain, although it does tell that story very well. It is predominantly about the lives of black people with the British sphere of influence, their triumphs and their tragedies, and their attempts to create a space for themselves within British society. It is easy to focus on racism when we think about black people in the UK, but there is so much more to the story than that. People should be defined by who they are and what they do, not the prejudice they face, and Black and British does that.

There has been (and perhaps, still is), a tendency to overlook the role of black people in British history, an erasure that helps to undermine the ability of black people to assert their right to be part of a society that they have contributed to for hundreds of years. Black and British is just one part of an attempt to rewrite British history in a way that more accurately reflects the contribution of black people, and it does a wonderful job. It has profoundly altered my understanding of the history of Britain, and I think that everyone who lives in Britain or considers themselves British should read it.

Book Review: Radical London in the 1950s

Radical London in the 1950s

Radical London in the 1950s by David Mathieson.

David Mathieson. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I have been studying the history of protest in London for more than five years now, so it’s relatively unusual for me to come across a book on this subject that I haven’t seen before. So when I found Radical London in the 1950s, I was pretty excited. The book tells the story of a decade of radicalism in St. Pancras and Holborn, now within the London borough of Camden.

The subject of Radical London in the 1950s is a little more specific than the title lets on. It actually deals with a decade of radicalism in Holborn and St. Pancras to the north-west of central London that culminated with the St. Pancras rent strikes and riots in 1960. In 1956 the St. Pancras Council swung dramatically to the left when John Lawrence, socialist and former member of the Communist Party, was elected as council leader. He ushered in an era of radicalism which saw the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in February 1958, the red flag flying over St. Pancras Town Hall to celebrate May Day in 1958, and civil defence and social housing policies that defied the Conservative national government.

The key issue addressed in the book is housing. After World War Two, there was a desperate shortage of affordable, decent housing in London. For a time, the post-war Labour government invested heavily in building affordable homes. However, in 1951 the Conservatives took power and house-building was left to the market. As the value of land in London rose, many developers chose to build office blocks rather than the homes Londoners so desperately needed. Rents for those who had homes also increased. St. Pancras council resisted these trends for several years, attempting both to build affordable housing and keep the rents of council tenants low. This was an unsustainable position without the support of national government, however, and the council was eventually forced to back down. This led to a rent strike that lasted almost a year, and two days of rioting when two striking tenants were evicted from their council homes in September 1960.

The most striking thing about Radical London in the 1950s is the obvious similarities that can be drawn with modern London, and the current state of the Labour Party. The housing crisis that is ongoing across the UK is felt most acutely in London, where rents are astronomical, and luxury housing is being as an investment rather than to provide much-needed homes. The other issue which Mathieson discusses that feels remarkably familiar is divisions and conflicts within the Labour Party. The St. Pancras Labour council was rebellious, and often diverged from the policies of the main party. There were also divisions within the local Labour Party, leading to further conflict. It is hard not to be reminded of the current divisions between pro- and anti-Corbyn factions. In both cases, significant energy has been wasted fighting each other, when it would have been better spent fighting the opposition. I find it incredibly frustrating that obvious lessons from this episode were not learnt, or were quickly forgotten.

Radical London in the 1950s is easy to read, and well-paced. It includes a timeline of key events, and a list of the key individuals with brief biographies, which is very helpful. It also sheds light on the interaction between local and national government, which is an interesting topic that I haven’t read much about before. I do have some criticisms however, although they are quite minor. I would have appreciated a map of the area in question. St. Pancras and Holborn are now within the modern-day London Borough of Camden, so I would have appreciated some help identifying the precise area that the book relates too. Also, there are multiple typos, much more than you would normally expect to find in a published book. If David Mathieson were a student, I would advise him to proofread his work out loud, as this is a helpful way of identifying typos that have previously been overlooked.

I always welcome a book about protest history in London that I haven’t read before, and Radical London in the 1950s is an interesting read. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in London, politics, or housing.

 

Book Review: When the Clyde Ran Red- A Social History of Red Clydeside

When the Clyde ran Red

When the Clyde Ran Red by Maggie Craig.

Maggie Craig. When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I don’t need much of an excuse to go book shopping, but traveling is one of them. Whenever I go somewhere new, I keep an eye out for books about local history, particularly relating to protest and dissent. On a recent trip to Scotland, I bought When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside by Maggie Craig. The book tells the story of a period in Glasgow’s history known as Red Clydeside. In the first half of the twentieth century Glasgow and the surrounding areas experienced a period of radical politics which saw a number of dedicated campaigners fighting to improve the lives of working-class Glaswegians. When the Clyde Ran Red tells the story of Glasgow between the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 and the Clydebank Blitz in 1941.

Warm and witty, kind-hearted and generous, interested in everything and everyone, the spirited men and women of Red Clydeside had one goal they set above all things…to create a fair and just society, one in which the children of the poor had as much right as the children of the rich to good health, happiness, education and opportunity.

Craig, p. 301

When the Clyde Ran Red is an engaging and lively read, it is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maggie Craig has an informal writing style, her prose peppered with phrases in Scots that helps to transport the reader to Glasgow in the first half of the twentieth century. The book is comprehensive, covering everything from party politics undertaken by idealistic and self-sacrificing men, to rent strikes organised by fierce and determined housewives. Craig also brings in social history, explaining the context of Red Clydeside by describing the social, economic, and cultural life of Glasgow. For example, the Scottish Exhibition (1911), the Empire Exhibition (1938) and the popularity of increasingly ‘raunchy’ dance styles as a form of social revolution.

I criticised the last book I reviewed, The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn (LINK), for going into too much detail. Sometimes, When the Clyde Ran Red goes to far in the opposite direction. I occasionally found its lack of detail frustrating. For example, the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 failed, but Craig does not any offer explanations about what went wrong. There were several points where I just wanted more information. Nevertheless, I think the book is a good introduction to an area of history that I previously knew very little about, and I can always find more detail elsewhere about all the events featured if I wanted to. When the Clyde Ran Red is an excellent starting point.

I admit that my knowledge of Scottish history is patchy at best, but When the Clyde Ran Red was an enjoyable way of filling some of those gaps. I would recommend it to anyone interested in labour history, the history of protest, or Scottish history.

Book Review: The Headscarf Revolutionaries-Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster

The Headscarf Revolutionaries Front Cover

The Headscarf Revolutionaries by Brian W. Lavery

Brian W. Lavery. The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster. London: Barbican Press, 2015.

Whenever I move to a new place, I like to find out about its history, particularly its radical history. I recently moved to Hull in east Yorkshire, and one of the most famous episodes of protest in the city’s history took place in 1968. In early 1968, three trawler ships from Hull were lost in the Artic ocean in the space of just a few weeks. All three crews were lost, apart from one sole survivor. For some women in Hull, this was a tragedy that could have been avoided with better equipment and more stringent safety checks on the trawler ships, and better training for inexperienced crew members. The women started a campaign which captured national attention, won concessions from the ship owners, and changed government policy. They were largely pushing against an open door, but they did face hostility and criticism, including from some trawlermen who didn’t like women interfering in their working lives. The women became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries because of their distinctive headwear. In The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster, Brian W. Lavery tells the story of the campaign, the women involved, and the men who lost their lives on the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland.

Lily’s Headscarf Revolution may have been a naïve one. But it was a powerful action from the heart that caught the imagination of the world and shamed an industry and a Government into action. Hands that rocked the cradle shook the world and changed it for the better.

Lavery, 2015; p.190

I was not surprised to find out the Brian Lavery has training in both journalism and creative writing. The Headscarf Revolutionaries is incredibly well-researched; it seems like Lavery interviewed almost everyone who is still alive and had any involvement in the campaign. Virginia Bilocca-McKenzie, is the daughter of Lillian Bilocca’s, who kickstarted and was one of the key leaders of the movement. Virginia obviously had significant input into the book; multiple conversations between her and her mother are included. Many sections of the book feel more like fiction than non-fiction; it is much more descriptive that many of the other history books I read. It is an effective approach, particularly the section near the beginning in which some of the men on the crews of the doomed ships say goodbye to their families and head out to sea for what the reader knows is the final time.

There are some elements of Lavery’s writing style that I am not so keen on, however. He has an odd way of using commas that I found irritating. It’s not necessarily wrong, but there are lots of commas in places where I wouldn’t put them, which I found distracting.  Also, some details are repeated in a way that felt unnecessary. These are minor issues in what is otherwise an excellent book, and I guess it isn’t Lavery’s fault that I am quite pedantic when it comes to grammar and style; I blame it on all the undergraduate marking I do.

The Headscarf Revolutionaries is about a local tragedy which sparked a campaign which had national implications. It shines a light on both labour and gender relations amongst Britain’s working classes in the mid-twentieth century, and as such has a much broader appeal than those who are just interested in local history.

 

Book Review: The Road Not Taken- How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926

The Road Not Taken Front cover

The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926. London: Vintage, 2013. RRP £12.99 paperback.

There are several books that document and discuss the history of protest in Britain. I have reviewed two of them–A Radical History of Britain (2010) by Edward Vallance and The English Rebel (2010) by David Horspool–on this blog. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926, takes a very different approach to the previous two and, despite being quite difficult to read, manages to bring something new to the table.

The Road Not Taken is based on the premise that whilst Britain has never experienced a revolution, defined as an “overthrow of a regime and a drastic change of direction, politically, economically, socially,” it has come close at several points (McLynn, 2013; ix). McLynn analyses these moments in great detail, considering why they happened, what happened, and why they failed to achieve revolution. The revolutionary moments he considers are: the Peasant’s Revolt (1381), Jack Cade’s Rebellion (1450), the English Civil War (1642-51), the 1745 Jacobite Rising, Chartism (1837-48), and the General Strike (1926).

“why has there been no true revolution in British history? It goes without saying that Britain never approached anything like the socio-economic convulsions of the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban Revolutions. The nearest the nation came to something like the upheavals in the French and Mexican varieties was in the aftermath of the English Civil War, but Cromwell slammed the brakes on hard and turned abruptly right.”

(McLynn, 2013; p.479)

In the Conclusion, McLynn evaluates different explanations for why Britain has never experienced a revolution, including Britain’s island status isolating it from the worst impacts of land-based war, the monarchy, the British Empire, and Methodism. He gives each argument a fair hearing, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. My issue is that McLynn never comes to a conclusion. He has valid reasons for why every hypothesis is flawed, but he doesn’t explain what he thinks is the best explanation. McLynn does the same thing in the Appendix, where he evaluates the different theories and typologies of revolution more generally, but he doesn’t draw conclusions.

I also found McLynn’s writing style difficult to get along with. The text is dense, and includes unnecessarily complicated words like “fissiparious” (p127), “galimaufry” (p312), and “exiguous” (p430). All that such a writing style does is make a narrative or argument much harder to follow. Academics often write in this way, perhaps in an attempt to appear more impressive. All it does, however, is widen the gap between academics and the general population, particularly when it is used in a book aimed at a popular audience such as The Road not Taken. The history of protest is one of the thing I am most interested in, but even I struggled to stay engaged with the book at some points.

The Road Not Taken does manage to bring something new to the topic of Britain’s history of protest. It may well prove useful to me in my research someday, with its detailed and measured analysis. However, I would not recommend it as a ‘fun’ read, something to relax with curled up on the sofa or in the bath.