My review of “Nightmarch Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas” Alpa Shah




Alpa Shah is from an East African Gujerati background. Her family moved to England when she was 15 years and she followed the usual  liberal middle class journey to Cambridge,  and  on to jobs ranging from international development organisations to the World Bank, and then  back to Cambridge and a PHD.

Aged 23 , she decided to undertake her research in the field: going to India but not to her relatives, instead  going  to the remote forests and hills of Jharkhand, living with the Munda Adivasi  tribal people in a village of mud houses with no electricity or running water.  “A good base from which to understand, from the grassroots, the virtues and limits of the various attempts at addressing poverty and inequality –whether it was by international development agencies or by grassroots social movements.”

Alpa dons her fatigues and  joins communist guerrillas, the Naxalites,  on a 250 mile trek through the hills and forests of eastern India. Her timing was not brilliant as the Indian government in 2008 launched its counter insurgency policy  “Operation Green Hunt,” putting  thousands of troops into the area surrounding the Adivasi hills.

Journalists and human rights activists were jailed if they tried to get into the guerrilla areas or report on the government’s human rights abuses. Alpa was now going to be one of the few outsiders and the only woman who was going to take part in this night march. “Hunted ruthlessly by the state, we had to march in the safety of the darkness –all under cover of night and without the light of a torch to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.”

For decades the Naxalites have been engaged in a long struggle against the Indian state. It is a movement made up of middleclass, well educated revolutionaries and poor people outraged by the discrimination and inequality they experience who  have decided to take on the highly militarised might of the Indian state.

Alpa’s discussions and analysis of the movement and its role amongst a rural community is fascinating,  as well at the same time reflecting her own lack of political experience.  Her own views about political violence were tested when she was confronted by the guerrillas making bombs.  And,  whilst she could draw the links between their use of political violence in response to that  of the Indian state towards the poor,  she was less sure about the Naxalites use of violence when it came to its own comrades. “What about those who were co-opted by or turned to the other side? Or those whom the Naxalites shot dead as police informers, betrayers or traitors?”

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Alpa meets up with female comrades.   “Despite the existence of women’s organisations of the Maoists, the number of women to take up guns was small and their participation was  often fleeting.” And,  not unlike many male comrades in the West,  when it came to women becoming mothers the same conservative attitudes came to the fore: Naxalite women would then return to the villages. “They became important, providers of food, trusted messengers and couriers and much needed guarantors of safe houses and security.” As Alpa comments; “Perhaps involving fathers in childbearing might help resolve the issue of women leaving.”

Nightmarch is a fascinating insight into a war going on in one of the world’s largest democracies. A war that is largely unreported in the west, maybe because the revolutionary nature of the communist guerrillas is too challenging to the politicians and parties that dominate in the UK and Europe. Unlike the UK where post war ideas about the Welfare State seem revolutionary the Naxalites fighting in the forests and jungles of eastern India,  as Alpa comments. “…strive for a utopian human community, devoting their lives to fight together, when the circumstances were so set clearly against them.”


It costs £20 if you can buy it here

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My review of “Staging Life The Story of the Manchester Playwrights” by John Harding

staging life


Manchester used to  have its own municipal theatre, the Library Theatre based in Central Library and its southern sister at the Forum in Wythenshawe. In those days going to the theatre was more democratic. For many Mancunian school children like myself, it was where we were introduced to theatre through its annual Xmas play.  It was a theatre that was unpretentious and attracted a working class audience searching out for ideas and escapism through drama.

The  days of the municipal funded  theatre  have long gone,  alongside the history of Annie Horniman and the Manchester Gaiety Theatre which spawned the life of repertory theatre locally and nationally.

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Gaiety Theatre

John Harding’s new and very well-researched book, Staging Life,   on the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester is much more than the story of one northern theatre company over ten years. It highlights Manchester’s significant role in the history  of repertory theatre in Britain.

In 1907 Annie Horniman (AH), inheritor of a tea fortune, decided to site her new repertory company in Manchester with the aim of promoting  drama written by and about local women and men who lived and worked in the city.


Annie Horniman


Annie was the driving force. With no training in the theatre she was a great enthusiast for the new avant garde European drama of writers such as Ibsen.  She  had  bankrolled her friend W.B.Yeats in setting up the Irish National Theatre,  but politics  –  both national and personal  – drove her out of Dublin and on to Manchester to set up a new kind of theatre.

Her cast included theatre manager  Iden Payne,  who  was  idealistic and ambitious to create  a permanent theatre company, produce new plays, stage foreign plays, and most importantly, have a  change of play two or three times a week.

Iden was the power behind the throne of the Gaiety. “ He was by instinct a teacher and he set about creating a style of performance that would help to transform the way drama in Britain would henceforth be presented.”

Key to this new drama was the one-act play. In the first three seasons of the Gaiety  some fifty-one plays would be staged:  most of them by new Manchester-based playwrights. They were mainly  by men, middle class and professional, who had been to the “best” local schools such as  Manchester Grammar or  to university.

But for once local plays written by local people were getting a venue to be performed in. And creating a body of work that would be a key feature of the legacy of the Gaiety Theatre.

Manchester in 1908, when the Gaiety opened,  was going through hard times. There was a slump and in response to a proposed pay cut of 5% workers went on strike. Many of the actors were socialists and they wanted to appeal to the working classes and “spent much of their free time campaigning and proselytising, while the Gaiety itself would become a focus for left-wing-leaning individuals.”

A.H.  was a suffragist and recognised the barriers facing women playwrights. Gertrude Robins, another  local suffragist, was one of the more successful women  playwrights at the Gaiety. Her play Makeshifts appeared on the fourth Gaiety bill in October 1908 and as Annie Horniman said it “was one of the best one-act plays…performed at my theatre.”

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Gertrude Robins

The Gaiety was attracting left wing writers including Harry Richardson, a journalist, who was  involved in setting up the National Union of Journalists in 1907. Angry and bitter at the state of the world he poured it into drama. In his first play The Few and the Many he castigated employers for paying their women workers low wages which forced them into prostitution.


Harry Richardson

But it was  playwrights such as  Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse  that   gave Manchester some of its best loved plays,  including  Hindle Wakes, Hobson’s Choice and the now  forgotten The Conquering Hero.

Over ten years the Gaiety attracted an audience of working class socialists, including factory worker Alice Foley, who were looking for drama that would speak to their lives and experiences.  “As a member of a group of socialists I hoarded my scanty pocket money…so I could afford with them the luxury of a monthly matinee.”  Harding would have liked to included more about the way in which the Gaiety brought in mill girls such as Alice,  but she was unique in writing up her memoirs.

Alice Foley, 16

Alice Foley

Staging Life   not only commemorates the legacy of Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester,  but as John   Harding reminds us, “It was a pioneering institution that would have far-reaching effects for drama in the United Kingdom.”


Buy  it  here

John Harding and Tim Gopsill of the NUJ will be speaking in Manchester on November 10 at 3MTheatre. Further information contact

Posted in book review, drama, education, feminism, Manchester, Socialism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

My review of “A Most Unladylike Occupation” Lisa Wright

a most unladylike


Lucy Deane was one of the first female Factory Inspectors in 1893. In this novel, Lisa Wright, a distant relative of Lucy’s, captures the life and history of a pioneering woman.

It was the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, who appointed Lucy and three other women inspectors to travel across Britain and Ireland and inspect and  report on the working conditions of working class women.

Lucy documented  her work through a series of  diaries and it is these historical documents now in the L.S.E that Lisa uses to re-create her life as an Inspector.

Lucy is given advice by one of the first women lawyers, Eliza Orme, about the importance of keeping records. “but not to buy smart leather bound note books, but soft cheap 3d school exercise books and indelible pencils; to keep one in her private handbag at all times, and to write immediately after any meeting, in cabs, hotels, trains, factories; and to keep a record of everyone and everything and everywhere she travelled; and to record her opinions and descriptions of everyone she met.” Unfortunately Ms Orme continues with some derogatory remarks about working class women, trade unions etc.

Lucy’s privileged background does mean that she is paid more than the women Sanitary  Inspectors who are appointed by local authorities. They are paid £78 per year while  Lucy as a national Inspector is paid £216. Today’s equivalence is £9,700 to £26,000! Lucy is also given money by a rich patron of several hundred pounds per year. An irritating aspect of the book is Lucy’s flitting between the two worlds of privilege and poverty with little real analysis of the unfairness of the class system.

For me the book comes alive when we find out about the lives of the working class women workers. Women in the 1890s, were working in some of the worst industries while  trade unions were only just beginning.  The work of the female inspectors was crucial in raising issues about the working lives of women, the use and abuse of child labour which then fed into new legislation which would protect women and children.

As Lucy finds out, her role is not popular with the local inspectors who were generally male and some of them quite obstructive of her work. She started by shadowing the more experienced  Inspector May Abraham. “Lucy made copious notes and learnt that Miss Abraham was more abrupt and brusque than she was, that she never rang a bell and went straight to the workrooms, that unlike Lucy, she always asked the supervisors questions and spoke to the workers, that overtime was her bugbear, whereas Lucy’s was overcrowding.”

The novel is peppered with real life people. For me one of the problems with the novel  is that some of the comments attributed to them, presumably fictitious, are  contrary to what we know about them through historical documents.

Lady and  Sir Charles Dilke were Liberal reformers and fought for women’s suffrage, supported trade unions, free education and factory reforms. Lady Dilke became the President of the Women’s Trade Union League and every year attended the TUC conference.

In the novel, Lady Dilke,  explains to Lucy why she will not be liked by the Trade Unions.  “And all the Labour Organisations. Because you are “Upper Class” in the face of their candidates.” She goes on to  complain about a  trade union representative,  “very strong and very talented, certainly but very conceited and very aggressive. When I met her here I felt she was only working for her own ends.” To me, this does not ring true, but I would be interested in any proof for these comments.

Another objectionable aspect of this novel is the creation of the maid, Mrs.O’Casey, an Irish woman who takes to the drink. I do not think this racial stereotyping is acceptable. And of course Lucy replaces her with two English maids who fulfil the stereotype of the “faithful servant”.

In my work transcribing the Minutes of the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC  I learnt about the importance of the female factory inspectors in supporting the work of women trade union organisers such as Mary Quaile. It was an important partnership but unfortunately I feel this is missing in this novel.  Marrying  historical documents with fiction is not easy, it does rely upon a high degree of understanding a historical period and being able to convey that in a  readable and sympathetic style.

Unfortunately, although there is a lot of interesting material in this book, it fails in conveying a realistic view of the complexities of a fast changing and exciting period of women’s history. Perhaps it may lead to the publication of Lucy’s diaries?


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My review of “The Miami Showband Massacre A survivor’s search for the truth” Stephen Travers and Neil Fetherstonhaugh





On 31 July 1975  as the  popular group,  The Miami Showband, were travelling back home across the border in the North of Ireland, they were stopped by a fake army patrol made up of Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers and  members of the Loyalist paramilitary  Ulster Volunteer Force at a fake checkpoint outside Newry.

As the men were lined up outside the bus the soldiers tried to hide a bomb on the bus. The bomb exploded  prematurely killing  the bombers . Their compatriots then opened fire on the band, killing Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy. Band members Des McAlea and Stephen Travers were the only survivors.

In this new book Stephen Travers,  alongside journalist Neil Fetherstonhaugh,  reveals the truth about that night. The truth that “British soldiers were sent out to murder innocent people.  The truth that “collusion took place between the security forces and terrorists.” The truth that “Britain colluded in murder, and is therefore, guilty of murder, she must answer the charges.”

The book is Stephen’s story,  the story of a young working class man from Carrick-on-Suir,   a small town in Ireland, who went on to to become a member of one of the most popular bands in Ireland.  Like many people in the south of Ireland in the 1970s he was aware of the so-called “Troubles” but his life was his music, his wife and his family.

The Miami Showband was a band made up of Catholics and Protestants  who would entertain audiences right across Ireland. It made no difference to them or their fans what their religion was, but religion  was the deciding factor that led to the events of July 1975.

In this deeply moving book Stephen Travers uncovers the truth about that night and about  how the British government through its security services colluded with Loyalist terrorists. These “death squads” comprising  serving police officers, locally recruited British army soldiers and well known assassins made up the Glenanne Gang which targeted the Miami Showband,  as well as taking part in many other atrocities.

Stephen writes,  “While the Miami killings were particularly shocking because the band was a household name and the attack therefore received a huge amount of publicity, for the men who who had carried it out it was not very different from the dozens of other, less-well known murders that they had notched up.”

In his search for the truth Stephen not only has  to deal with the events of that fateful night, but come to terms with  his own mental health issues arising from his own survival.

It is a painful book to read as he traces his experiences from being seriously injured to recovery and the dawning reality of his small part in the bigger picture of what was  really  a war going on in part of the country he lived in.

Everything has changed since 1975,  including a peace process,  although the chapter where Stephen meets up with a representative of the UVF, who were behind the murders, is chilling and reflects the reality lived by a section of the Protestant community in the North of Ireland.

The book spans the forty years since the Miami Showband Massacre but,  whilst the events described are horrific, they are also a testament to Stephen, his family and supporters in their search for the truth about a  night that changed his life forever. Neil Fetherstonhaugh should also be commended for making the journey across the years with Stephen and collaborating in this important book.

For readers it is also in microcosm the story of the war in the North of Ireland,  and the way it changed not just Stephen’s life,  but the history of Britain and the Republic of Ireland.  Today  the truth about that war is being played out in the courts as Stephen and the other band members are suing both the Ministry of Defence and the Police Service of Northern Ireland over alleged collaboration between serving soldiers and  paramilitary killers.

Stephen has come a long way from the carefree musician of the 1970s.  In the epilogue he reflects on past events. “Every day, the British government accuses Syria or Iran or some other far-flung place of aiding terrorists – they should examine their own consciences. They sent their trained soldiers out to murder a pop group on their way home from a concert. We cannot be complacent and believe it could never happen again.”

Buy it here

Posted in biography, book review, Catholicism, education, human rights, Ireland, North of Ireland, Uncategorized, working class history, young people | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

My review of “Ants Among Elephants An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” Sujatha Gidla

ants among


Sujatha Gidla’s new book is not about the modern India of bollywood, nuclear weapons and a thriving economy. It is her family’s story set at the end of British colonial rule,  a family of “untouchables” – part of the caste system  which dictates  their  role in society and even where they live. The title of the book sums up the “untouchable” experience, being an ant among elephants, at the bottom of a system that is determined to squash you.

One in six people in India are born as “untouchable:  “whose special role – hereditary duty – is to labour in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all.”

It was when Sujatha left India to study in America that she decided to talk to her family about her background. Her uncle K. G. Satyamurthy, known as SM, was a founder in the early 1970s of a Maoist guerrilla group, which the Indian government designated as the biggest threat to national security.  His sister and Sujatha’s mother, Manjula –  who against all odds  becomes a teacher-  is the  heroine of the book.

 Ants Among Elephants is  both her family’s  story and that of the independence movement in India. Sujatha’s account of discovering her family’s history is a fascinating as the story itself. It is based on taped interview with her mother and uncle and their contemporaries over fifteen years. She also visited the places where her family had lived, to remote villages where she came across people who were happy to share their memories and backed up the stories that her mother and uncle  had told her.

The story begins in the 1800s in Khamman district where her grandparents were part of a nomadic clan. They were not Hindus,  but had their own tribal goddesses living a remote forest based existence. But when the British cleared the forest for teak plantations their family was forced out, took up farming and lived alone near a lake. They were also now designated as despised outcasts and  “untouchables”. But it is a familiar story in India where to this day  tribal people are often driven off their land and forced to become  landless labourers.

Ants Among Elephants  is a story of how people, however poor and marginalised,  can and do fight back.  The book takes the reader through a complex history of mass and individual opposition to poverty and injustice. It is an era in which  politics are writ large,  one that  delivered independence to India but one that sold short the untouchable community.

Satyam became an important member of the Communist Party, sacrificing everything, including  a normal life and his family, to take up the struggle for justice for the poor. He carried on this political work to the end of his life when he could hardly walk and his supporters had to carry him on their backs through the jungle.

Manjula’s story is the most poignant. Her struggle for an education and a decent job is heartbreaking.  But her own philosophy kept her going. “Owing to the twin influences of Christianity and Communism, Manjula believed that the task of removing all the immorality, injustice and corruption from the nation rested upon the shoulders of people in positions of responsibility, however slight, and that everyone must do his or her part.”

At the age of fourteen Sujatha followed  her family’s politics and   joined the Radical Students Union, the student wing of the People’s War Group. And when she took part in a strike at college she was arrested – the only girl. “The police made it impossible for our families to find us by continually moving us from one precinct to another. We were deprived of food and water and sanitary facilities for long periods and tortured.”

She now lives in the USA and is the first Indian woman to work as a conductor on the New York subway. “When I left and made friends in a new country, only then did the things that happened to my family, the things  we had done, became stories. Stories worth telling, stories worth writing down.”

Ants Among Elephants is not just a story worth writing down, it is an important part of Indian history and one that hopefully will inspire other people to follow in the footsteps of Manjula, Satyam and Sujatha.

Buy it here

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My review of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” by Jon Robins

guilty until proven


In the introduction to this critical and crucial analysis of the criminal justice (or rather injustice) system Michael Mansfield QC (who represented people in  many of the cases mentioned)  reminds  the reader that after the 1980s landmark miscarriage of justice cases such as the Birmingham Six, which revealed gross non-disclosure by the judiciary,  safeguards were brought in which were supposed to stop a repeat of these cases. But this book shows that the system is now in crisis and that  little has changed since the bad old days of the 1980s.

In chapter after chapter Robins reveals how the system is in a state of permanent decline and the effect that this has had on people caught up in it. The budget for the Ministry of Justice has been cut by 40% since 2010,  affecting  every part of the system from prisons to legal aid.  The Criminal Cases Review Commission,  a state-funded miscarriage of justice watchdog, which was set up in response to the Birmingham Six case, is now so underfunded and overwhelmed with cases that it is dysfunctional.

The Birmingham Six, and many not so well known other Irish cases, were lucky in that national campaigns were set up and run by grassroots Irish community groups, such as  the Irish in Britain Representation Group of which I was a member.

IBRG also vociferously campaigned against The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary)   Act which was rushed through Parliament in 1974 after the Birmingham pub bombings. This draconian legislation allowed the police to carry out raids throughout the Irish community. One of the few people who was brave enough at this time  to help those detained was Sister Sarah Clarke who later wrote in her biography;

People picked up under the PTA had no rights whatever in those early days. They disappeared. Eventually we found out they could be held for seven days. Police denied they were holding people. Detainees were questioned at all hours, day and night, and solicitors were not allowed in….Young children were questioned about their fathers’ and mothers’ habits and friends, and they were bribed with sweets.   (No Faith in the System; A Search for Justice.)

 In the 1980s a campaign was set up to publicise what was going on,  to provide support for people detained and to campaign against this act. The PTA Research and Welfare Organisation acted as soon as an Irish person was arrested and ensured that they got legal advice – and a campaign if needed. These cases fitted into a “political category” which raised their profile, particularly in the years 1981-1998.

The publicity gained by campaigns such as the Birmingham Six  led to other Irish prisoners in non-political cases contacting us. In the IBRG archive at the WCML the files are bulging with cases including the correspondence from  Michael O’Brien of the Cardiff Newsagent Three.

IBRG also brought up the issue of Irish deaths in police custody. At one of our Coventry meetings the sons of Leo O’Brien spoke about their father who had been arrested by the police as “drunk” but in fact  had suffered a blot clot and  was left in a police cell without medical care. He later died . His family  asked for support for a leaflet and for  help with their campaign.

Non-Irish people would contact us and there is a letter from Sue Caddick, sister of Eddie Gilfoyle, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife. She asked for their leaflets to be circulated around the Irish networks and for publicity for meetings.

But, as Robins shows,  most people who are arrested and  convicted but are innocent are not so lucky. They are dependent upon themselves, a family member or friend to support them, a lawyer who is prepared to work pro bono, or a group such as the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, set up by Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six,  in 1991.

In 2018 the political settlement in the North of Ireland has emptied British prison of Irish political prisoners. A few years ago I spoke at a meeting in Oldham to a Muslim audience about how the Irish community defended themselves against legislation such as the PTA. The Muslim community has now taken over the mantle of the Irish as the latest “suspect community” and it seems highly likely that  similar miscarriage of justice cases may emerge.

Today miscarriages of justice are also more complex, including historical sexual abuse, “joint enterprise” convictions:  cases that do not fit easily into a category.

In conclusion Robins believes that we all have a stake in ensuring that the justice system works. “The increasing focus on convicting the guilty instead of protecting the innocent means that we may soon all have cause to fear the dawn raid.”

Buy it here

Read my blog posts about IBRG here

For a political history of the Irish in Manchester read “The Wearing of the Green” by Michael Herbert. Buy it here

Posted in book review, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

My review of “Tory Heaven” or “Thunder on the Right” Marghanita Laski

tory heaven 1


Marghanita Laski (24 October 1915 – 6 February 1988) was a writer and novelist who wrote fiction,  biography and plays. Born in Manchester,  she was part of an extended Labour supporting family,  her uncle was Harold Laski, for instance. An atheist,  she was also a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

m laski 2



“Tory Heaven” came out in 1948 and,  as David Kynaston points out in the introduction, just like 2018, it was  a worrying time for the middle classes of this country. Whilst 1945 and the great social changes led by Labour Government improved the lives of the working classes,  it was a different case for the middle classes who felt they were now the oppressed,  both psychologically and economically.

Marghanita picks up on this in an insightful and comedic novel.  In “Tory Heaven” it is the Tories who win the General Election in 1945 and proceed to   recreate a class system with all the trappings of the eighteenth century. The population are now graded into social classes from A-E.  The A’s  are paid in gold sovereigns and are required to do nothing but live out the lives of the idle rich.  The middle classes are B’s,  while the C’s are servants from domestics to hairdressers. Trade Unionists, who cannot now strike are D’s:  the last category E’s include the despised intellectuals.

tory heaven 2

Central to the story is James Leigh-Smith, an English gentleman, for which read a privileged education,  with no particular skills, but an innate belief in his superiority due to his birth and upbringing.

James is pleasantly surprised to find that new Tory Government has classified the whole population according to  the five categories and he is in class A.  Enjoyable as this is for him,  when he goes to visit his parents he finds out that they have been changed by the social cohesion borne out of the Second World War and are not happy with the new system that forces them to rigidly abide by the rules of their class or face being  degraded.

The Leigh-Smiths now have to live up to their A classification,  which includes having to eat lots of dull and badly cooked food. As James’s father explains; “It’s the servants” his father said wearily. “They’re genuine C’s, of course, so they won’t be satisfied with less.”

The new classification system affects all aspects of people’s lives. During the War James’s sister, Joyce,  became a land girl and fell in love with the manager. His brother Rodney  explains the problems with this liaison. “So if Joyce (an A) goes and marries a B, we could none of us have anything more to do with her.”

As the reality of the new system plays out in front of James he begins to realise that for many people, of all classes, are unhappy with this particular Tory heaven.

“Tory Heaven” is a novel of its era,  although watching  James Rees Mogg on television one can see that he would make an excellent “A”!!  It is funny, ironic and says a lot about the British class system. Of course in 2018 the Rees Moggs and Boris Johnsons are seen as buffoons by most of us,  although the reality is that they do represent a significant position of power in the Tory Party and in the country.

Marghanita is an important novelist who  has been largely forgotten and Persephone Books have given us back a lively  satire set in a crucial  period of our history. In 2018 people in the UK are reflecting on what it means to be British in the context of Brexit and a rapidly changing society.  It is not just an important novel but as with all Persephone Books it is also  a beautifully produced one.

Buy it here


Posted in book review, Communism, labour history, novels, political women, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , , | 1 Comment