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.

Book Review: London Fog- The Biography

London fog cover

London Fog by Christine L. Corton.

Christine L. Corton. London Fog: The Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. RRP £13.95 paperback.

I like books about London, and I like books that take very specific objects or phenomena, such as a particular weather condition, and links them to wider political, social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts (Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum is a really good example of this). So when I found London Fog: The Biography, I was excited to read it.

Although London’s location in the Thames basin means it has always been susceptible to mist and damp, London Fog begins in the 1840s, when the city’s rapid expansion and industrialisation meant London began to suffer from fog in earnest. The book’s narrative ends in the 1960s; the last major period of fog London experienced was in December 1962. For more than a century the city suffered from dense, cloying fog during the winter months that was capable of shutting down the city by reducing visibility to almost zero, and caused breathing difficulties, respiratory illnesses, and even death.

Christine L. Corton uses the fog to tell a social, cultural, and political history of London between those two dates. She explores the way that fog was constructed and interpreted in various narratives, including political debates and identity. Over the course of the century in which fog was a defining characteristic of London life it was the subject of many arguments about what caused the fog, what was so dangerous about it, what could be done to prevent it, and whose responsibility it was. Corton traces these debates with skill and patience.

There is also a lot of literary and art criticism in London Fog; Corton devotes significant attention to how fog in London has been represented in various art forms including paintings, photography, novels, and films. In this way, London Fog reminds me of Nightwalking by Mathew Beaumont, which explores the literary history of London at night. Whereas Nightwalking suffers from a distinct lack of female writers, however, London Fog does discuss female artists.

London Fog is obviously the product of extensive and detailed research. It is full of wonderful images, often in colour. This is a big plus; it is quite unusual for books like this to have so many high-quality images. The narrative is incredibly detailed, which occasionally causes the pacing to suffer; readers with only a mild interest in the topic may struggle.

There are a huge number of books about London’s history, and it takes a lot to write one that stands out from the crowd. London Fog is about a subject that is quintessentially London, but also manages to be original. It is an excellent example about how something small and specific can be used to better understand the large and general.

The Historical Geographies of Protest Reading List

As part of my thesis revisions, I had to read as much academic research on the historical geographies of protest as I could get my hands on. To keep track of it all, I made a database using Zotero, an open-source referencing programme. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Zotero is a wonderful free-to-use (unlike EndNote or RefWorks) referencing software that I have used to keep track of all my academic reading since I started my PhD. It occured to me that I might not be the only person that would find this list useful, so I have made it publicly accessible. You can view the database here. Each book or journal article is tagged with key information such as the time period and location of case studies, as well as key themes, ideas, theories, and thinkers addressed.

Zotero screen grab

A screen shot of the Historical Geographies of Protest reading list.

I will keep adding to the list as I find more. I am sure that I have missed things out too, so please do let me know and I will add them in. For example, the list is quite Anglo-centric so far, it would be great if we could get some more references about non-English speaking places. Or even some literature that is not written in English! I would really like this to be a resource that lots of people both contribute to and benefit from, so please do get in touch if you have something to add.

Book Review: A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance

A Radical History of Britain front cover

A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance.

Edward Vallance. A Radical History of Britain. London: Abacus, 2010. RRP £13.99 paperback.

The British have a reputation for being a bit passive when it comes to protest, rebellion, and revolution. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 is celebrated for being ‘bloodless,’ and when the rest of Europe was wracked with revolutions in the mid-nineteenth century we had the largely peaceful Chartist movement. Books such as A Radical History of Britain, however, demonstrate that us Brits can rebel with the best of them.

A Radical History of Britain pretty much does what it says on the tin, although Vallance does admit in the introduction that it is largely about England rather then Britain. The book is split into seven parts, each with several chapters, that focus on particularly contentious periods in English history, including: the English Civil Wars; British radicalism around the time of the French Revolution; Chartism; and the Women’s Suffrage movement. In each case, Vallance focuses on two elements that make A Radical History of Britain more than just a straightforward narrative. The first is a concern with ideas as well as events; Vallances devotes significant attention to the theories and writings that inspired and drove radicalism, from those of the Levellers, to Thomas Paine, Feargus O’Connor, and the Pankhursts. The second element that makes the book stand out is discussion of how protests and periods of radicalism were used by later activists and campaigners as sources of inspiration, justification, and legitimisation. Social movements often draw on the history of radicalism in lots of ways, and A Radical History of Britain traces that process.

Our freedom lies in our power. Pessimists may point to demonstrations against the war in Iraq as evidence of modern government’s capacity to ignore the will of the people. However, the millions who marched against that illegal war also remind us of the readiness of the British people once again, in the words of Shelley, to rise ‘like lions after slumber.’ This is the lesson of Britain’s radical history: the struggle for our freedom goes on.

Vallance, 2010; p 552.

Last year, I reviewed The English Rebel by David Horspool. It too tells the story of English radicalism, although Horspool is more explicit about the English focus. On the surface, the two books are quite similar; they are telling the same story, and feature many of the same events. They also both indulge in my  pet hate of collecting images together rather than dispersing them throughout the text. However, there are differences. The English Rebel is more of a straightforward narrative, whilst A Radical History of Britain explores radical ideas and legacies, as I have mentioned. David Horspool’s overall message is that the English have always been more radical than our reputation implies. Edward Vallance’s key message is that rights are something that the English fought long and hard for, and they can be lost if they are not defended. The narrative in The English Rebel is more complete than in A Radical History of Britain; Vallance sacrifices breadth for depth in some places, so skips over some time periods, and finishes in the mid-twentieth century, whilst Horspool goes right through to the nineteen-nineties. I personally found The English Rebel easier to read, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better book, it depends what the reader is looking for. I understand that not everyone enjoys reading about the history of protest as much as I do, so if you only want to read one, I can offer some advice. If you’re after a more general overview of protest in England throughout history, I would recommend The English Rebel. If you would prefer something with more analysis, then I would suggest A Radical History of Britain.

A Radical History of Britain presents some interesting arguments about how legacies of protests and radicalism are shaped and used by radicals that come after, and it also provides a thorough introduction to the history of radical ideas in Britain. It is not the easiest book to read, but I think it is worth the effort.

 

Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City

Revolting New York cover

Revolting New York will be published early next year.

On my trips to New York City (in 2015 and 2016), I have scoured bookshops looking for a history of protest in the city, assuming that there must be one. After all, there are at least two books about London’s turbulent past. Whilst there is lots of great research about dissent in New York, there has not been an overarching survey–until now. Next year, a book will be published not just about the history of protest in New York, but about the historical geography of protest in the city. Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City began as a project by Neil Smith with some of his post-graduate students at the City University of New York. When he passed away in 2012, Professor Don Mitchell took over the task of editing the collection, and it is finally being published next year. As you can imagine, I’m quite excited about it, whilst also being a bit frustrated that I didn’t get there first!

Last week, Professor Mitchell gave a lecture about the project at Queen Mary, University of London. I went along to find about more about the project. Mitchell used various examples to demonstrate the strength of the relationship between dissent and the material landscape. We tend to view demonstrations, riots, and other expressions of dissent as unusual events, but they are actually very common, particularly in large cities like London and New York. It is actually more uncommon to have a peaceful period.

Mitchell started the lecture with an in-depth look at a decade of bombings in New York, culminating in anarchist Mario Buda’s attack on Wall Street on the 16th of September 1920 (I have written a review of Mike Davis’ excellent book about this bombing’s part in the early history of the car bomb here.) The bombings contributed to the deindustrialization of New York, as the small-scale manufacturing and transport networks that produced and planted the bombs were driven out of the city. Finance, insurance, and real estate came to dominate the city’s economy. In attempting to strike a devastating blow against the bankers of Wall Street, Buda inadvertently helped them tighten their grip on New York.

Mitchell used this narrative, and others, to argue that “landscape is power materialised.” Whilst this is not a new argument, Revolting New York applies it in a new context. Space is produced through social struggle, the result of constant negotiation and conflict between groups with different visions for that space. Protest is just one form that this process takes. As such, protest shapes and reshapes the city you see when you look out the window (apologies to those of you who are not currently in a city!)

The lecture was an introduction to the Revolting New York project, outlining it’s history, structure, and key arguments. It is particularly exciting for me because of its parallels with my own work on London. The book will be affordable too, less than £25 for the paperback, so hopefully it will help bring historical geography to a wider audience. I for one can’t wait to read it!

On This Day: Occupation of the Savoy, 14th September 1940

When we think of London during the Second World War, we think of the Blitz. When we think of the Blitz, we think of the Blitz spirit epitomising the British stiff upper lip. There is a collective imaginary of Londoners banding stoically together, facing down the Nazis with a grim smile, a cup of tea, and maybe a sing song. But London was not always united in the face of the enemy. The occupation of the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 14th September 1940, the 8th night of the Blitz, was a manifestation of some of these divisions.

E and C during air raid

Londoners sheltering in Elephant and Castle Underground station during an air raid. At first, the government were reluctant to let people shelter in the underground (Source: IWM)

In the early days of the Blitz, there was a serious lack of deep shelters in the East End, which was particularly hard hit due to the high levels of industry in the area. Pre-war planning by the government had rejected deep shelters in London, afraid that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop. They decided instead to issue gas masks and rely on surface level shelters, such as the Anderson shelter. It very quickly became obvious that this provision was insufficient. What shelters there were lacked facilities and were overcrowded.

The Communist Party immediately took up the cause. the London district printed 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters calling for better provision of shelters and the requisitioning of empty houses for the homeless. The East End Communists decided to march for better air raid shelters in the East End, and to highlight the fact that not all Londoners suffered the effects of the bombs equally.

The Savoy

The entrance to the world famous Savoy hotel on the Strand (Source: The Daily Mail)

With the help of some sympathetic waiters, between 40 and 70 protesters occupied the Savoy’s luxurious air raid shelter. The shelter was divided into cubicles, with beds and armchairs. Nurses and waiters served the hotel’s guests during raids. When the air raid siren went off, the Savoy’s manager realised he could not chuck the occupiers out; they would have to stay the night. After some negotiation with the catering staff, the occupiers were provided with tea, bread, and butter. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant way of drawing attention to the disparity of deep shelter provision across the capital.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done…One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006); p. 73. Phil Piratin was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and became one of the party’s first MPs in 1945. He was present during the occupation of the Savoy.

The Blitz was one of the darkest periods in London’s history. By the time it ended 43,000 British civilians had been killed, half of them in London. Protest and dissent was less common during the world wars than in peace time, but Londoners were willing to fight for decent air raid shelter provision. Thanks to actions such as the occupation of the Savoy Hotel, the situation greatly improved, making the lives of Londoners that much more bearable as the bombs fell.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

Piratin, Phil. Our Flag Stays Red. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006.

Sweet, Matthew. “When Max Levitas Stormed the Savoy.” Spitalfields Life. Last modified 3 November, 2011. Accessed 23 August, 2017. Available at http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/11/03/when-max-levitas-stormed-the-savoy/

On This Day: The Coldbath Fields Riots, 13th May 1833

In a previous On This Day post, I wrote about the death of PC Keith Blakelock in the Broadwater Farm Riots in 1985. He was only the second police officer to be killed in a British riot since 1833. In June 1919, Station-Sargeant Green died of injuries received during a riot of Canadian soldiers in Epsom. The officer killed in 1833 was PC Robert Culley, who was stabbed in the chest during the Coldbath Field Riots over 150 years before. The response of the public to the two deaths in 1985 and 1833 was vastly different, demonstrating just how much the Metropolitan Police’s reputation with Londoners has improved since its foundation in 1829.

Coldbath Fields Meeting Poster

A poster advertising the protest that would become the Coldbath Fields Riots.

The Coldbath Fields Riots on the 13th of May 1833 was the first major clash between radicals and the young Metropolitan Police. The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) organised a demonstration in Coldbath Fields against the 1832 Reform Act. The Reform Act increased the number of men allowed to vote, but only by a small amount, and it didn’t go far enough for the NUWC. The Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, declared the meeting illegal, but it went ahead anyway. On the afternoon of the 13th of May a large crowd had gathered, listening to speeches given from the back of open wagons.

After a while, a large detachment of police arrived and began to clear the crowd. The high number of police officers raised tensions, leading to shouted insults. The police trapped some of the protesters in nearby Calthorpe Street, who then attempted to fight their way out. In the ensuing chaos, three police officers were stabbed; Sergeant John Brooks, PC Henry Redwood and PC Robert Culley. Brooks and Redwood both survived, but Culley only made it to the nearby Calthorpe Arms before he died.

Coldbath Fields Riot

An engraving of the Coldbath Field Riots by J. Prater (Sources: Mary Evans Picture Library).

Robert Culley was one of the first men to join the Metropolitan Police, aged 23, when it was founded. Although the murderer wasn’t caught, the inquest into Culley’s death began two days later, in an upstairs room of the same pub where he died. The 17 men of the jury returned a verdict of Justifiable Homicide, arguing that the police had provoked the crowd with their violent approach to policing the protest. The men of the jury were local shopkeepers and householders, not radicals, and their verdict reflected the extensive mistrust and disregard that most Londoners felt for the Metropolitan Police at the time. Many resented the state intervention that the new force represented, and the jury became local heroes. The following month, a riverboat trip was arranged for them and their families to Twickenham, and crowds lined the river to cheer them on, despite heavy rain. In a similar way, George Fursey, the man who stabbed the other two police officers, was acquitted in his trial at the Old Bailey in July.

The public outcry and widespread condemnation after the death of PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm Riots could hardly seem more different to the reaction to the death of PC Culley 150 years before. The Metropolitan Police is not universally liked today, but it is hard to imagine the death of an officer during a protest receiving such a callous response. For better or worse, the police force has become part of the fabric of modern London in a way that might surprise an onlooker from the early nineteenth-century.

Sources and Further Reading

Moult, Tom. “The Metropolitan Police in Nineteenth-Century London: A Brief Introduction.” New Histories 3, no. 5 (2012). Available at  http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/the-metropolitan-police-in-nineteenth-century-london-a-brief-introduction/

Rowland, David. “The Murder of Police Constable Robert Culley.” Old Police Cells Museum. Last modified 18th October 2015, accessed 28 April 2017. Available at  http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/page/the_murder_of_police_constable_robert_culley

Webb, Simon. Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015. 

Book Review: The English Rebel- One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties

the-english-rebel-by-david-horspool

The English Rebel by David Horspool.

David Horspool. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties. London: Penguin, 2010. RRP £12.99 paperback.

I have read several books about the history of protest in London, but I recently realised that I haven’t read much about the national history of protest. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties is a good place to start for anyone interested in how dissent has shaped the history of England. It is well-written, well-paced, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

David Horspool sets out to disprove the stereotype that the English are peaceful and submissive by demonstrating that “from Cornwall to Norfolk, from Sussex to Northumbria, England is crisscrossed with the ghosts of rebels marching, meeting, and fighting” (p xvi). The book is arranged chronologically, starting with opposition to the Norman invasion in 1066. Contrary to popular belief, the English did not just roll over and submit after the Battle of Hastings. Horspool then traces the history of rebellion in England featuring well known examples, such as the Peasant’s Revolt (1381) and the English Civil Wars (1642-51), as well as more obscure events, such as the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 and an uprising in Norfolk led by Robert Kett in 1549. I don’t pretend to know everything about the history of protest (far from it!), but I have been studying it for more than four years now, and there was quite a bit in there that was new to me.

The English rebel may only rarely be a triumphant or even a particularly likeable character. But he and she are as much a part of the fabric of English history as the monarchs, law-makers and political leaders they defied. They serve as inspiration, as warning, and sometimes simply as example.

Horspool, 2010; p. xxiii

In his Introduction, Horspool is very clear about the parameters of The English Rebel. He defines a rebel as a political opponent who risks their life or their liberty. Their opposition does not have to be aimed at government or the state, nor does it have to be violent or left-wing. The decision to focus only on England was also a deliberate one; Horspool argued that rebellions in a British or imperial context tend to have different objectives from English ones. It can be easy to criticise a project for leaving things out (I see it quite often in academia), and by explaining his decisions about what to include, Horspool fends off such criticism before its even made.

Rebels are drawn towards centres of power so the content of the book is inevitably skewed towards London and the south east, but Horspool does his best to balance it out. My biggest complaint about The English Rebel is a pet hate of mine–putting all the images together in the middle, then not mentioning them in the main text, so they feel rather detached and unnecessary. This is only a minor gripe however.

The English Rebel is an engaging read, which I would highly recommend for those with a general interest in history, as well as those with a more specific interest in protest and dissent. Horspool makes a convincing case that the English are much more rebellious than the stereotypes make out. I’ve always seen myself as British rather than English, but I feel just a bit more proud of my Anglo-Saxon heritage after reading The English Rebel.

Turbulent Londoners: Jayaben Desai, 1933-2010

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The 20th Turbulent Londoner is Jayaben Desai, the fierce and inspirational leader of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike.


jayaben-desai

Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike (Photo: Labournet).

Throughout it’s history, London has relied on immigration to function. Jayaben Desai was one such immigrant, who refused to accept the long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions that have also been a feature of London for most of it’s history. She was one of the most prominent leaders of the Grunwick Strike, which

Born on 2nd April 1933 in the north-western state of Gujarat in India, Jayaben was defiant and headstrong from an early age. At school, she rejected passive obedience in favour of supporting the Indian independence movement. In 1955 she married Suryakant Desai, a tyre-factory manager from Tanganyika. The couple settled there in 1965, by which point the country had united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. East African Asians were members of the mercantile and administrative classes, and Jayaben had a comfortable lifestyle. It did not last however, the Desais were expelled along with tens of thousands of others as part of “africanisation” policies. They fled to Britain and settled in the north London borough of Brent. The couples’ socio-economic status dropped considerably; Suryakant got a job as an unskilled labourer and Jayaben worked part time as a sewing machinist whilst bringing up their two children, Shivkumar and Rajiv. In 1974 Desai started work at the Grunwick factory which processed mail order photographic film.

Two years later, on 23rd August 1976, Jayaben walked out of the Grunwick factory. The final straw was being ordered to work overtime; she persuaded 100 of her colleagues to go with her. Jayaben was known for having a way with words; she apparently told her manager: “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Jayaben is known as being a trade unionist, but I don’t think that really does justice to what her and her colleagues achieved. They were not members of a union when they first walked out, the Trades Union Council advised them to join Apex, a white collar union that is now part of the GMB. The strikers were also mainly Asian and women, two groups who did not have a strong tradition of striking in the past.

jayaben-desai-and-police

Jayaben was only 4ft 10in,much shorter than most of the police officers she faced. This didn’t phase her though (Source: Facebook.com/Grunwick40).

Another factor which set the Grunwick strike apart was the solidarity that the strikers received from employees in other workplaces and industries. Newly arrived migrants accepted (and still do) long hours and low pay because they had no choice. This has frequently caused resentment amongst British workers. The Grunwick strikers, however, received significant moral and practical support from other workers. For example, postal workers in the local sorting office in Cricklewood refused to handle Grunwick’s post. As the factory processed mail-order photographs, this move almost won the strike for Jayaben and her colleagues. In November a High Court ruling forced the postmen to start handling Grunwick post again, a big blow to the strikers. The strike committee visited more than 1000 workplaces around the country garnering support- many workers came to join the picket lines outside the factory. On 11th July 1977 the TUC organised a 20000 strong march to the factory. The workers at Cricklewood again refused to handle Grunwick’s mail. They were suspended for 3 weeks for their defiant act of solidarity.

The Labour Prime Minister, James Callahan, persuaded the TUC and Apex to allow a court of inquiry under Lord Justice Scarman to resolve the dispute. It was highly unusual for employers to defy the conclusions of inquiry, but Jayaben was convinced that Grunwick’s managing director, George Ward, would. She was right; Scarman recommended that the strikers be given their jobs back and that their union be recognised. Ward refused. With few options left and almost two years of hardship behind them, the strikers conceded defeat on 14th July 1978.

grunwick-banner

Jayaben was not the only person involved in the Grunwick strike, but she played a significant leadership role and she is definitely the best remembered participant (Source: Left Foot Forward).

After the strike, Jayaben’s health declined. She got another sewing job, which led to teaching for the Brent Indian Association, and she developed an Asian dressmaking course at Harrow College. She passed her driving test aged 60, and when her husband retired the couple traveled extensively. She passed away on 23rd December 2010.

At just 4ft 10in, Jayaben Desai shocked many with her strength and resolve. She was inspirational, and known for her charm, tact, and diplomacy, even in the face of aggression and threatening behaviour from police and the Grunwick bosses. Although the Grunwick strike failed, it had a big impact on industrial relations for women and ethnic minorities, forcing the union establishment to taken them seriously for the first time. Whilst Jayaben did not do this alone, her bravery and determination should be remembered, celebrated, and learnt from.

2016 was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike. The Grunwick40 group was set up to commemorate this event. They organised events, a museum exhibition, and a mural. More information can be found about their work here.

Sources and Further Reading

Dromey, Jack. “Jayaben Desai Obituary.” The Guardian. Last updated 23 February 2012, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/dec/28/jayaben-desai-obituary

Pattinson, Terry.”Jayaben Desai: Trade Unionist Who Shot to National Prominence during the Bitter Grunwick Dispute of 1976-77.” The Independent. Last updated 21 February, 2011, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jayaben-desai-trade-unionist-who-shot-to-national-prominence-during-the-bitter-grunwick-dispute-of-2220589.html

Wikipedia, “Jayaben Desai.” Last updated 17 December 2016, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayaben_Desai

 

Book Review: The Leveller Revolution- Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650

the-leveller-revolution-front-cover

The Leveller Revolution by John Rees.

John Rees. The Reveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016. £25.

John Rees co-authored one of my favourite books, A People’s History of London. As such, I was really looking forward to the publication of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, and I had high expectations. Whilst it doesn’t quite live up to A People’s History of London, it is a very good book.

The Leveller Revolution is derived from Rees’ doctoral research. As such it is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the detailed content and and considered analysis. The book is not just a narrative of the rise and fall of the Levellers as a political force, it is also an intervention in the scholarly debate on the nature and significance of the Levellers. Rees argues that whilst other groups used similar organisational and campaigning tactics, no one else used them as consistently and to such effect as the Levellers. He also argues that the Levellers were the only group to focus on popular politics and mobilisation, as opposed to social and political elites.

I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends.

(Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

The Leveller Revolution has multiple strengths. Rees’ arguments are persuasive; he makes a strong case that the Leveller organisation emerged out of pre-existing radical networks consisting of individuals who already had extensive experience of activism. Rees argues that London was significant to the development of the Levellers, but the book is not London-centric; many of the examples Rees uses to demonstrate his arguments come from elsewhere in the country. In addition, whenever there is historical doubt (e.g. over the authorship of a pamphlet, or exactly who was present at a particular event), Rees is open about that uncertainty, then justifies his own opinion. I always appreciate it when authors who are willing to acknowledge these kind of metholodogical subtleties.

Unfortunately, I often struggled to keep track of the book’s narrative, and I think there are 2 reasons for this. The first is that there were a large number of individuals involved in the radical networks around the time of the English Civil Wars, many of whom had quite similar names. As such, I found it difficult to remember who was who. Whilst there is little Rees could have done about the number of individuals involved and their names, a dramatis personae might have been helpful. The second reason for my confusion is, I think, that Rees assumes that the reader has a confident knowledge of the chronology of the Civil Wars. The book refers to events or battles by name only, making it hard to follow the narrative if you do not know when they took place or what happened. I did study the period as part of an A-level in Early Modern History, but that was almost a decade ago, and my knowledge is a bit rusty. If you are not familiar with the period, then I suggest reading The Leveller Revolution in conjunction with another book that details the key events of that time (I would recommend A Brief History of The English Civil Wars: Roundheads, Cavaliers and the Execution of the King by John Miller).

The Leveller Revolution is a thoroughly-researched, well-argued book. Whilst I found it less approachable than A People’s History of London, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has a interest in the English Civil Wars, or the history of protest and dissent.