Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a reviewer for the Morning Star.

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