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: Flaneuse-Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

Flaneuse

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin.

Lauren Elkin. Flaneuse: Women walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

As a Geographer, the flaneur is a familiar figure. It refers to some one who walks through cities, normally with no specific destination in mind, observing the city, it’s people, and it’s character. Flaneurs are mostly wealthy, and overwhelmingly male. But that has never quite sat right with me. After all, I love wandering around cities seeing what I can see, and I am not wealthy. Or male. So when I first heard Lauren Elkin speak, at an event at the Museum of London, I was intrigued by what she had to say about the female flaneur; the flaneuse.

But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can…The joy of walking in the cities belongs to men and women alike.

Elkin, 2017; p.11

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is hard to categorise. It’s publisher defines it as memoir/social and cultural history and whilst this sounds like an odd mix, it is quite accurate. I think at its heart, it is an argument to redefine the concept of the flaneur to include women. Elkin offers up her new definition, and then spends the rest of the book providing us with examples; attempting to persuade us of the existence of the flaneuse. As evidence, Elkins tells us about women whose walking in cities is in some way central to who they are, such as their identity or livelihood. Some of the examples are well known; Virginia Woolf in London and George Sand in Paris. Others are perhaps less so: French filmmaker Agnes Cards in Paris and Elkin herself in Tokyo and Paris. I would say Elkin makes a very convincing argument, but she was pushing against an open door with me; others may be harder to convince.

If you are expecting a straight social history of women walking in cities, then you will be disappointed. It is more a series of snapshots into this history. Some of these snapshots contain quite detailed descriptions of the cultural outputs of the women featured, such as the novels of Jean Rhys and the art of Sophie Calle. Elkin is an English Lecturer, and at these points in the book this background comes through the clearly. In this way, Flaneuse is similar to Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont, about the writings of the (overwhelmingly male) people who walked the streets of London after dark. Nightwalking feels like a more coherent history than Flaneuse, but that is largely because it focuses on one city rather than five. To be fair to Elkin, I don’t think she set out to narrate a history, and what she has done is done well.

I read Flaneuse over two days, mainly on two long journeys. Even if I am enjoying a book, I sometimes lose focus after an hour or two of reading. This wasn’t the case with Flaneuse; chapter after chapter kept me hooked. Elkin is a good writer, her work is engaging and thoughtful. The book is a nice balance of Elkin’s own story and the stories of the women and cities who have shaped her.

Some sections of Flaneuse were published elsewhere first, but there was only one point that I guessed the book wasn’t written as a coherent whole. The chapter on Tokyo revolves around Elkin’s relationship with a French banker–she moves to Japan to be with him when he is transferred. In a later chapter, she mentions this relationship as if she is telling the reader about him for the first time. It is a minor detail however, perhaps made so noticeable because it is the only such slip-up in the whole book. Each chapter is named after the city in which it is set. I think this is slightly misleading as, although the cities are very important, it is the women who wander them that are the book’s driving force.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s or urban history, anyone who fancies something a bit different, or anyone who just appreciates a good book.

Book Review: A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

A History of Britain in 21 Women Front Cover

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2016. RRP £9.99 paperback.

A few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing a bookshop when I noticed the vibrant cover of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I was sorely tempted, but, remembering my overflowing bookshelves and the growing piles of books at the bottom of my bed, I restrained myself. I put the book on my Christmas list instead, so I at least didn’t have myself to blame when my piles of books grew a little bit taller. I am very glad that I was given the book; it is a thoroughly enjoyable read that has left me more determined than ever not to allow misogyny to hold me back.

The twenty-one women in this book rose above the low expectations of their gender and defied anyone who insisted ‘a girl can’t do that.’ Slowly, slowly, over the centuries, they changed the gender landscape for those of us who came after.

Murray, 2016; p.4

As the name implies, A History of Britain in 21 Women profiles 21 women from British history. Each chapter is about 15 pages long, and details the women’s biography, their achievements, and their impact on society, politics, and culture. The selection is historically comprehensive, beginning in the first century with Boadicea, and ending in the modern day with Nicola Sturgeon. Inevitably, many women are left out, but Murray is careful to justify her choices, explaining why the 21 she chose resonate with her personally.

The book is more personal than I was expecting. It does have the subtitle A Personal Selection, but this is only mentioned in the front matter, not on the title. After initially being unsure about this, I came to enjoy Murray’s short personal reflections and anecdotes. I was particularly charmed by a conversation she describes having with one of her sons when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

Beyond being thrown at first by the tone of the book, I can find very little to criticise in A History of Britain in 21 Women. Each chapter is self-contained, so it feels almost like a collection of short stories, but I wasn’t put off if I read several chapters in one sitting, as I often am with similarly structured books. Each chapter is accompanied by a portrait by Peter Locke, the style of which suits the book’s message really well. Locke’s sketches don’t feel idealised or ‘touched up,’ the women in the sketches feel…real; they look like they’ve lived. It’s quite hard to put my finger on it, but I like them.

It is the women themselves, their lives, actions, experiences, and attitudes that are the real stars of this book. Some of them are familiar–such as Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and Margaret Thatcher–whilst others are less well-known–like Aphra Behn, Mary Somerville, Gwen John. But they are all remarkable. Every one exelled in the field they chose, whether it be medicine, art, politics, or science, often despite massive obstacles and prejudice. They are inspirational.

I was given A History of Britain in 21 Women as a Christmas present, and I do think it makes a wonderful gift, even for those who aren’t avid readers. It’s especially good for those who need a reminder of just how much it can be possible to achieve.

Book Review: Long Road from Jarrow-A Journey through Britain then and Now

Long Road from Jarrow Front Cover

Long Road from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie. Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey through Britain Then and Now. London: Ebury Press, 2017. RRP £16.99 hardback.

Before I read of Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now, I kind of knew who Stuart Maconie was, mainly through his radio-presenting double act with Mark Radcliffe. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in the Jarrow Crusade; a protest march by a group of unemployed men from Jarrow in Newcastle to London in late 1936. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Crusade, Maconie recreated it, following the exact route and timetable that the marchers took almost a century ago. Along the way he talks to the people he meets about the Crusade, their knowledge and opinions of it, and their perspective on modern politics (Brexit looms large throughout). As a result, the book is a lot of things: a travelogue, a history book, a memoir, a snapshot of two particularly turbulent moments in British politics, and a reflection on the way society remembers and commemorates its history. I can’t remember ever having come upon a protest-based travelogue before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

‘Jarrow’ (the whole matrix of events reducible to one word like ‘Aberfan’, ‘Hillsborough’ or ‘Orgreave’) has become mythic, storied; a thing of lore and romance as much as hard fact, one whose details and legacy are still debated today.

Maconie, 2017; p.7

Maconie is a likeable narrator, striking a nice balance between the serious and the humourous, the personal and the general. His reflections on modern society feel considered and genuine. I really like the chance meetings and discussions he has with people he meets along the way, highlights of which include: the dogwalker on the A41; Julia, the Russian waitress in Leeds; the well-known author and graphic novelist Alan Moore; Lynn, a guide at the John  Bunyan museum in Bedford; and Labour MP for Luton North Kevin Hopkins. Some of these encounters are only brief, but they are nonetheless brilliant insights into the wonderful variety of people living in modern Britain. The spontaneity of these meetings demonstrates how open and welcoming strangers can be.

The book is very time specific; for example Maconie often discusses Twitter exchanges he had on his journey, including one with then Education Secretary Michael Gove over the scrapping of the Art History A Level. Whilst these details make the narrative rich, the book may age quickly as a result– it runs the risk of rapidly feeling out-of-date. The book is also much more about the cities, towns, and villages Maconie passes through than the journey itself. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, but if you’re expecting a book about walking, you’ll be disappointed. One issue that definitely is a criticism is the distinct lack of pictures and maps– there is only a basic map of the route on the back cover. Maconie describes the places he visits well, but I still would have liked some pictures to document his journey. And what self-respecting Geographer wouldn’t be disappointed with a lack of maps?

Long Road from Jarrow is a curious hybrid of travelogue, history book, and memoir, framed by the Jarrow March. It is a comparison between two distinct moments in British history, 1936 and 2016. It is well written and engaging, and I would happily read anything else Maconie  has written. The book provides a competent day-by-day account of the Jarrow March. It is also a thoughtful reflection on the way that historical events are remembered, mythologised, and commemorated. I would highly recommend it.

 

Book Review: Walk the Lines- The London Underground, Overground

Walk the Lines Cover

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.

Mark Mason. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. London: Random House, 2011. RRP £8.99 paperback.

The London Underground is one of the most distinctive elements of the city, but it does result in a disjointed perception of the metropolis–I don’t feel like I really got to know how the various areas of London fit together until I moved there and started to walk or get the bus more. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground is the ultimate exercise in getting to know London; author Mark Mason walked the route of every underground line from beginning to end, then wrote a book about it.

I think the concept for this book is excellent; but unfortunately I am not so keen on its execution. I think it would be really interesting to repeat this challenge in a decade or so, London changes so quickly that some of Mason’s observations already feel out of date. Part of me also wants to recreate the exercise in my home town of Brighton, based on a map of a fictional underground network created by illustrator John Sims (see below). Walk the Lines is a fascinating idea that got me thinking about my own relationship with London, and as well as other British cities

The Brighton Line version 2

If Brighton had an underground network, it might look something like this (Source: John Sims)

Sadly, I did not get on so well with Mark Mason’s writing. I did not like the tone of the book at all when I started reading it; it felt like Mason was trying too hard to be funny. This did become less noticeable as I progressed through the book, but I couldn’t say whether it’s because the tone improves or because I just got used to it. I also dislike Mason’s heavy use of footnotes. They interrupt the flow of the writing, and sometimes I missed the superscript, and found myself searching the page for the relevant point. I think they are unnecessary in Walk the Lines.

I also found Mason himself to be a bit arrogant–one of his reasons for undertaking the challenge was to own London, a desire which I think is conceited and a bit odd, quite frankly (p. 4-5). Nobody owns London. If anything, the opposite is true; there have been several occasions when I have felt that London’s influence over my life has been a bit too significant for comfort. In addition, Mason is snobbish about anything that is ‘not London.’ He seems to look down on other cities and London’s suburbs, and view them as automatically inferior. I understand that both of these attitudes come from a great love of London, I too am captivated by it. I am just not so keen on how this affection manifests itself in Mason’s writing.

The final significant issue with Walk the Lines is the lack of photographs. This is a book about the many different faces of London, but there is not a single image of Mason or the different aspects of London he encountered on his walks.

The concept of Walk the Lines is not the only element of the book that I liked however. I enjoyed Mason’s musings on the subjectivity and power of maps, although these are not new ideas to geographers. The book also contains some decent historical facts. For example, London cabbies call the junction on which the Royal Geographical Society sits ‘Hot and Cold Corner,’ because the building has statures of David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton. Finally, I enjoyed the sections when Mason stops along his walks to talk to other people about their perceptions of London, such as: artist and ex-Popstar Bill Drummond; The Archers actor Tim Bentinck, who was the ‘Mind the Gap’ voice on the Piccadilly Line for 15 years; and John Pearson, the official biographer of the Kray twins.

I enjoy reading books about London, and I admire the inventive approach in Walk the Lines. I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around it, and I like the idea of using a city’s transport network, effectively its circulatory system, to organise such exploration. However, I am not so keen on Mason’s writing style or attitude towards London. This is not a bad book, it just isn’t a great one either.