Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a reviewer for the Morning Star.

Hollywood corruption in the McCarthy period: Left of Eden
Sunday, 02 August 2020 09:09

Hollywood corruption in the McCarthy period: Left of Eden

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews Dennis Broe's new novel

Author Dennis Broe is an international expert on film noir and an acclaimed socialist writer, as his dialectical and highly readable contributions to this website and his reviews for the Morning Star evidence.

In his first novel Left of Eden, his expansive knowledge informs his homage to past crime writers such as Raymond Chandler and to the US film workers and socialists who faced the purges of the McCarthy years of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Eschewing a self-mocking pastiche, Broe toys with the hardboiled American crime-thriller genre in the novel and, within the firmly established canon of a smart but wonderfully compromised private detective, various troubled clients, a cohort of devious criminals and plodding FBI muscle, he expands upon the political corruption at the heart of the US.

Harry Palmer, ingloriously late of the LAPD, has been hired by Democritus, a leftist film studio specialising in grittily realist tales, to uncover who is blackmailing its leading actor Jason “Gabby” Gabriel. Palmer quickly bumps up against the desperate and exploitative wings of a Hollywood culture that is bending to accommodate the growing state-sponsored anti-communism of the years immediately after the second world war. Broe adeptly demonstrates that the ecology of the US film business is an augmented version of society as a whole, with a few studio owners, themselves in hock to Wall Street, inflicting sexual and economic despotism over a dizzyingly large number of wannabe actors, mostly young women.

Palmer’s investigations see him commissioned by other clients connected to Gabriel, such that the plot eventually resembles a gigantic ouroboros, a serpent consuming itself and everything else in its way. Murder, beatings, exploitation, hidden sexuality and artistic freedoms and integrity are dominant themes in the novel and, in the hands of a less assured writer, they would surely strangle its narrative and impetus.

But Broe manages to successfully carry the whole project through to a most satisfying conclusion, thanks to compelling characterisation and clever dialogue, in which wisecracking conversations provide moments of humour, as in this exchange between Palmer and Democritus’s accountant:

“Are you honest?”
“As honest as the day is long,” I said.
“The days are getting shorter.”
“Exactly.”

Left of Eden is published by Pathmark Press, £11.66.

Relating the personal to the political: Stormlight, by Jan Woolf
Sunday, 09 February 2020 10:12

Relating the personal to the political: Stormlight, by Jan Woolf

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews Jan Woolf's latest collection of short stories

This latest collection by Jan Woolf is like a Swiss Army penknife. Each is of different length and intention but all gleam with an incisiveness that will impress even the most casual reader.

There are arguably two themes which unite this compact literary tool. The first is the presence of the political and the profound lying just underneath the surface of seemingly mundane human encounters which Woolf digs away at.The other has the writer forensically carving out the shape of close relationships, vertically between the age groups and horizontally within the same generational span.

One of the most effective combines both. The opening paragraphs of The Baton meander inconsequentially enough as a daughter pushes her wheelchair-bound mother through the streets of Sidmouth. Yet our sympathies shift quickly as the seemingly curmudgeonly older woman is revealed as a hardened veteran of numerous anti-nuclear campaigns.

Forced to relocate from Faslane by her daughter, she bemoans the inter-generational decline in political commitment: “I was rattling the fence at Greenham Common while you were just writing about it,” she declares.

In Polls Apart, in which a mother and daughter are attending their first counselling session, Woolf reprises this somewhat pessimistic view. The consultation is dominated by their opposing views on the country’s vote to leave the European Union. The mother articulates an evidenced and class-based Lexit position, while the younger woman more naively and emotionally castigates her decision, repeating bourgeois liberal tropes about the intelligence and motivations of the white working class. She cannot, yet, see beyond this windy rhetoric and her rage compromises the counsellor in the process.

A gentler, and one-way, communication between the generations is revealed in letter form in Dear Harry, which records the redacted thoughts of an anxious but politically astute mother as she writes to her son somewhere on the Western Front. The censor has left in the everyday comments but removed those that criticise the conflict and its origins. But, somewhere along the line, the mother’s warnings must have registered as the story ends with a footnote explaining that the recipient is Harry Patch. In describing war as “organised mass murder,” he famously snubbed Tony Blair,

In picking away at horizontal relationships, Woolf delivers pathos in Cultural Studies, where a young woman reflects on the end of her affair with a frankly insufferable postmodernist while Icarus is a comic narrative of a back marker on a ramble fantasising about a fellow walker and Voice Over bursts with humour and tension as two London Underground employees worry over the wording of a tannoy announcement as a prelude to sex.

One of the most powerful stories is also the shortest. Navaswan describes the encounter between an aged and dying yogi and brash Indian modernity in the form of man who wants to develop his cave. In the end, both achieve what they want.

Full credit to Jan Woolf for these uncompromising, moving and witty stories.

The book launch of Stormlight takes place on Friday February 28, 7-8.30pm, at Housmans bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX. Free.

Saturday, 29 October 2016 15:24

The Handsworth Times

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews a novel set in 1980s Handsworth, at the time of the riots.

This novel by Sharon Duggal of life in early-1980s working-class Birmingham during the time of inner-city rioting is defined by the greater and lesser griefs of the Agarwal family.Through their voices, the wonderful cussedness of a people and a community that will not be destroyed either by itself or by others speaks loud and clear.

The tone of loss is set early on, with father Mukesh Agarwal supping in a pub as the storms of a riot gather around him. In the mayhem of the confrontation, he helps to smother the flames engulfing a young man just before the ambulance arrives. A little later, Mukesh’s son Billy is knocked down and killed by a hurrying ambulance and, while Duggal is too good an author to suggest it’s the same vehicle, Mukesh’s devastation is complete.

As he slips into even greater alcoholic incoherence and joblessness, the other family members gravitate to different points on the compass of grief. The mother Usha, trying to wash away the stain of her loss, is obsessed with cleaning while son Kavi becomes totally nihilistic. Eldest daughter Nina escapes to university and commits the most heinous crime — she falls in love with a Pakistani man, while Kamela’s first experience of same-sex affection is shattered by violence and she retreats into the home. Anila, the youngest and most outspoken daughter, joins the dots between the family’s struggles and those of the wider community and becomes an activist in the Handsworth Youth Movement.

She, at least, confronts the wider griefs that threaten their community — the street thuggery of the still potent National Front and the vicious class struggle unleashed by the Thatcher administration’s deliberate destruction of manufacturing and the trade unions. But along with real solidarity lies betrayal and further violence and Anila must struggle to come to terms with a confusing and fallen world.

The novel accords all of these characters, with the exception of the declining Mukesh, the power of agency. Usha, no longer just a weeping mother figure, suddenly emerges as a catalyst for change. All, with the support of others, summon the energy to give voice to the community’s concerns and in doing so reunite the fraying bonds of working-class solidarity in new ways.

The Handsworth Times, utterly of a specific place and time but also universal in its themes, is a prose act of praise to the humanist spirit that will never succumb to fear and hatred. It is quite simply the most accomplished, complete and startlingly authentic novel I have read this year.

The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose at £8.99. This review first appeared in the Morning Star.

Lizzie Burns, 1865
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:46

Book review: Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea

Published in Fiction

Gavin McCrea was inspired to write this fictionalised account of Lizzie Burns by the fleeting references to her in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. Obviously, had he read the superior description of the latter’s life by John Green, he would have learnt a little more about her. Nonetheless, the relative lack of information about both Lizzie and her sister Mary, an earlier lover of Engels, provides the spaces within which McCrea has been able to imagine her voice, her body and her character in this exceptionally absorbing and satisfying novel. And in so doing, McCrea gives flesh and feeling back to not only Engels, but also Karl Marx, his family and a host of others associated with the birth of scientific socialism. These are the poster boys of our movement taken down from the banners we carry and placed firmly in the midst of their own challenges and triumphs.

The action alternates between London in 1870/1 and Manchester in the 1860s. In the former, Lizzie and Engels are establishing themselves, with varying degrees of success, in Primrose Hill so as to be nearer to the Marx family and the centre of the nascent International during the tumultuous times around the rise and destruction of the Paris Commune.

The mood progressively darkens, not only because the Engels’ household becomes the target of state agents and brick-wielding thugs, but also due to Lizzie’s declining health. In the earlier period, there is an equal sense of tension, but in this case largely confined within the domestic sphere as Lizzie’s ambiguous and at times downright suspicious attitude to Engels and his treatment of Mary is played out. Engels comes across as being genuinely concerned with both of them, but all too frequently distracted by his wider work and relationship with Marx.
The Lizzie created, or maybe more accurately re-created, by McCrea is an expression of her class and nationality’s growing sense of their own subservient situation.

‘Mrs’ Engels emerges as a no-nonsense Sancho Panza to her partner’s Quixote. She is better by far in dealing with the nuances and stresses of straddling two quite distinct social worlds, although this didn’t extend to building a mutually respectful relationship with her domestic workers – wonderful Moliere characters both better with the back chat than with the breakfast. Whilst only tangentially interested in the fate of continental revolutionaries, Lizzie maintains her old Irish contacts and involves herself in providing a safe house for those involved in the daring but ultimately failed attempt to rescue two Fenian freedom fighters, Kelly and Deasy, from their fate at the hands of British justice.

Purists might dislike and recoil from descriptions of Engels’ penis or Marx’s carbuncles, but McCrea re-creates such a detailed sense of turbulent times and turbulent people that the reader is engaged and enthralled by both the personal and revolutionary worlds colonised by his characters no matter what. Lizzie Burns emerges from it all as a working class woman to be admired and loved, not only because of her loves and friendships, but because of her unsentimental courage and determination to build a better world.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.

Book review: A Very British Ending, by Edward Wilson
Thursday, 10 December 2015 19:32

Book review: A Very British Ending, by Edward Wilson

Published in Fiction

I confess: I was always going to be personally, professionally and critically supportive of this engaging and intriguing novel. For between all the various British, American and Soviet spies who populate this book, the real hero is……Harold Wilson. I’ve had a soft spot for the maligned (maligned that is by right-wingers and ultra leftists) Labour Prime minister. After all, it was the Wilson government whose education reforms gave me, a working class boy, the chance to go to university. I ended up at Wilson’s old college and recall as a truculent undergraduate almost literally bumping into him in the mid-1980s as he was led around the college grounds by the then Principal. He looked both ill and ill-at-ease.

Edward Wilson’s novel interweaves fictional characters within the fabric of reported history to show how Wilson the politician, at that point the President of the Board of Trade, was a marked man the moment he delivered Rolls Royce engines – in return for food and timber – to Stalin’s embattled country in the 1940s at the behest of Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps. The CIA – and the bourgeois elements in the British secret services - needed a fall guy as a lever to tighten their growing grip on the right-wing of the Labour Party. From then on, Wilson was the subject of a continuous surveillance and destabilisation campaign. No wonder he was paranoid. The Cold Warriors in the West were indeed always out to get him.

Through the eyes of William Catesby, a fictional and utterly sympathetic left-wing British agent, the plots to stymie Wilson and the socialist wing of the Labour Party are exposed in all their duplicitous and serpentine detail.
The relentless campaign to undermine Wilson (codenamed ‘Oatsheaf’ in CIA records) reaches a peak as he refuses US requests to send troops to Vietnam and the book suggests that his subsequent resignation in 1976 was the result of a ‘soft’ coup d’etat, with tanks and troops discreetly positioned near to airports and key areas in Westminster should muscle be needed to back up the media and political campaign of hatred.

Author Wilson does for his namesake what DM Thomas does for JFK. For just as the latter’s Flying into Love humanises and quite possibly sentimentalises the 35th US president, so this novel shows Harold Wilson as a good and decent man, beset by rogues, traitors and the combined might of the military-industrial complex.
Catesby is a spy who can never shake-off his moral mantle and so once Wilson has been removed he finds himself alone and vulnerable on the Suffolk shore to await his fate.

Edward Wilson himself is a most assured writer; adept more than most in this factual/fiction genre combining first rate characterisation and depth that entwines itself around real and supposed events. This is a fantastic read and a prophecy, should one be needed, of how the Reaction will intervene if the Labour Party ever elects a socialist as its leader this coming autumn. Best start preparing the militias now.

This is an edited version of a review first published in the Morning Star