My review of “Why We March: Signs of Protest and Hope”.

 

 

why we MARCH

On 21 January 2017 several hundred women (and  some men) gathered in Albert Square in Manchester in support of women’s rights,  and in solidarity with similar events taking place in Washington DC on Trump’s first full day as President. The organisers stressed that it was not a march,  but a peaceful, non-partisan protest with music and placards.  It was noticeable that many of the women taking place were middle-class, fairly typical of a class of people that live in the centre of Manchester these days or the affluent south of the city.

womens march manchester

Why We March is a pictorial history of the Women’s March on  21 January  2017,  which took place worldwide: inspiring people from Antartica  to Zimbabwe.

The book includes 500 photographs, mainly from cities in the USA,  which demonstrate how  millions of women, men and children raised their voices and placards  on issues such reproductive rights, migrant rights, police violence, climate change and feminism. All the profits from the book sales are going to a non-profit organisation in the USA that provides reproductive health services; Planned Parenthood.

Many of the signs carried by the protestors featured Donald Trump:  his ascendancy to President  provoked  a groundswell, particularly  amongst  women, against the way he flaunted his misogyny and issued threats against women’s rights. One placard says,   “Trump, Illegitimate, ignorant, intolerant, instrument of international interests,” while  a shorter sign retorts, “Love Trumps Hate.” Another one screams, “I will not go back to the 1950s.”

The controversy about Russia’s alleged involvement in the US elections is referred to:  “Poutine  Tient Trump par les” in Paris,  “Tinkle, Tinkle Little Czar,  Putin put you where you are” in New York City.

The authors comment that the marches brought a real mixture of ages, ethnicities, religion, sexual orientation, classes and gender identities on to the streets. (Not sure how they gauged the economic classes of the marchers?) And rather than include comments from celebrities such as Helen Mirren and Barbra Striesand it would be  better to tell us a bit more about the marchers.

I have to say it is the homemade signs that really stand out, eg, one child In London  clutching a piece of cardboard with the message; “Babies against Bullshit”.

Missing from the photos are any trade union banners or political parties.  Is that because they did not take part or were not chosen to be in the book? The march in the USA did have political messages,  but the Manchester event had agreed beforehand that “We are non-partisan, and will not use the Women’s March primarily to criticize politicians or political parties”.

It is great seeing people expressing their anger at political events but the question is; what happens next?  This book was brought out very quickly –  just  three months after the march – so we do not know what the marchers did next.

The January march in Manchester was followed by another one in July, this time it was women only against male violence. Women, and in particular working class women, have been hit twice as hard as men by the austerity , and whilst the Durham Teaching Assistants,  and recently in London the Barts Hospital cleaners (women and men) are leading the way with their campaigns,  there has been no organised fight back by women or men to create grassroots  organisations that  challenge the real power blocks in society.

BARTS CLEANERS 1

 

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Posted in anti-cuts, book review, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

My review of Milosz: A Biography by Andrzej Franaszek. (Edited and Translated by Aleksandra Parker Michael Parker)

 

milosz

Andrzej Franaszek’s biography of  the great Polish poet Czeslaw  Milosz is more than the story of one man’s life: it is a compelling history of Eastern Europe in the  twentieth century.  Milosz was born in 1911 in Lithuania but during  his lifetime the whole geography of his homeland was redrawn. Reading this book,  it  feels as if one is travelling with Milosz as he navigates  the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi invasion and occupation of his homeland,  and the new world order post-1945 when Poland became part of the Soviet sphere.

The narrative runs alongside the numerous poems and prose writings through which Milosz tried to make sense of his constantly changing world. In  his poetry he tried to explain his experiences as he lived through different kinds of exile,  until he finally defected from Poland to the West  in 1951.

Milosz might have physically left his homeland,  but he always wrote his poetry in Polish. His words reflected his life,  his unrelenting  hope for the future,  and later on,  his more spiritual view of the world.

In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980  he reflected on his life; “It is good to be born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania, a country of myths and poetry.  My family already in the sixteenth century spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland, English: so I am a Polish,  not a Lithuanian poet.”

In 1953 his essay “The Captive Mind” he explained why he was not prepared to play first violin in Stalin’s orchestra of Socialist Realism. For him this was anathema to his whole existence. “”Socialist Realism” is much more than a matter of taste…It is concerned with the beliefs which lie at the foundation of human existence. In the field of literature it forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task – to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.”

the captive mind

In 1960 Milosz went to live in the USA, a secular and materialist culture that reinforced his Polish identity as a poet who  worked in his own language for a Polish audience. In  twenty years he wrote five volumes of poetry. He did not seek a public audience, but  worked closely with his students and was generous in promoting other Polish poets. His audience in the USA was small,   but unknown to Milosz,  as Franaszek reveals,  his works were being avidly read in Poland.

Changing events in Poland, including the emergence of the independent trade union Solidarity,  led to a growing interest in Milosz and other Polish writers.When Solidarity finally won recognition as an independent, self governing trade union in 1980 one of the first things the union did was to construct a monument to commemorate those killed during strikes in Gdansk ten years  earlier. Lines from one of Milosz’s poems “You Who Wronged” were inscribed on the monument’s plinth.

monument to fallen workers

In  1980 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature,  and,  typically, after a press conference was quickly organised at his university, he cut it short to return to his lecturing.

In 1999  he was welcomed back to  Poland and lived there until his death five years later.

Franaszek’s biography is a masterpiece. It is readable, thought provoking and a fitting tribute to one of Europe’s finest poets.  Probably best to order from your library as it is quite expensive at £24.

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Days of Hope: an article by Mary Quaile on her visit to the Soviet Union in 1925

USSR delegation 1925

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and it is difficult today to understand the hope that the revolution gave to ordinary women and men across the world. One of those women was Mary Quaile. An Irish immigrant who left school at 12, and,   because of her commitment to improving the lives of  women and her class,  dedicated her life to political activity. She went on to take leading roles within the Manchester  and the national trade union movement.

From April – July 1925 she led a delegation of women from the TUC across the USSR.   You can read my article about this  here. Christine Coates,  former librarian at the TUC,  kindly alerted me to an article that Mary wrote about her trip in the monthly journal  “Trade Union Unity”  in August 1925.  This journal is available at the Working Class Movement Library.  Here is the article:

Our Women’s Delegation to Russia

By Mary Quaile

The visit to Russia of six British working women is a milestone on the road to international Trade Union unity. It will long live in our memories and also in the memories of the thousands of workers that greeted us wherever we travelled in that great country. We left London on April 23, and were met in Riga by comrades from the Central Council of the Russian Trade Unions, but our first great welcome came when we stopped at the first town across the border from Latvia.

Women were there in hundreds, many of them with bunches of wild flowers to give to their British sisters, all of them wanting to shake our hands, some with tears in their eyes, not of sorrow , but of joy at our meeting. There also came to greet us children, the pioneers of the new social order, which will emancipate the workers of the world. It was Sunday, but these workers in their hundreds had been out early planting their trees to give value and beauty to the country they now owned. This was voluntary work, but it was done in the willing spirit that afterwards we met with so often in Russia.

Moscow was reached a day sooner than was expected, but a tremendous welcome awaited us with bands, banners, flowers and speeches. One was glad and proud to be a member of the class that demonstrated so plainly their love for the women workers of Britain. Our tour of Russia took us to Leningrad, back again to Moscow,down through the Ukraine via Kharkoff, and then to the Don Basin, the Crimea, Rostov, Kislovodsk, Grozny, Baku, Tiflis, Borjom, Akhaltsikh, Abastuman and Vladikavkas.

Visits were made to factories, mines, oil wells, rest homes, sanatoria, nurseries and children’s hospitals, schools, universities, museums and workers’ houses, both old and new. Co-operative stores,peasants’ villages,farms for experimental purposes were also investigated by the delegation.

I can best summarise our impressions by paraphrasing the preliminary statement we issued on our return

After many personal talks with the workers of all trades and grades,including peasants and agricultural workers, we have no hesitation in saying that the Soviet Government not only has the enthusiastic support of the vast majority of the workers and peasants, but that both these classes of workers look upon the present Government as essentially their own. There is certainly a dictatorship in Russia, but it is a  workers’ and peasants’ dictatorship. The Russian Communist Party is undoubtedly the directive force, but it is the workers and peasants  through their elected soviets or councils that rule.

Women are encouraged as far as possible to enter all classes of work, and for equal work they receive equal pay. Their entry into industry is facilitated by the fact that most factories have nurseries and kindergartens attached  where the women can leave their children to be cared for by skilled attendants, and this in most cases is free of any charge.

In addition to this every month every woman factory worker gets two months leave of absence before and after the birth of her child, with full wages. All sorts of other benefits, such as food and clothing, are provided.

Workers’ canteens or communal dining rooms help to make the domestic drudgery very much less for working wife or mother.

The health of the worker is a first charge on industry, and rest homes and sanatoria are a feature of Russian life which will give the workers a better chance to carry on their great work of reconstructing their industries and abolishing many  of the evils inherited from the capitalist regime.

The workers showed a very lively interest in the cause of Trade Union unity, as the tremendous May Day demonstrations which we witnessed in Moscow made clear to us. We were asked many questions about the chances of a real international United Front. They see in this movement  a chance for the workers of all countries to emancipate themselves from capitalism and also to afford greater protection for the Russian workers from the many machinations of the imperialist Governments of the world.

The British workers have in the past often stood by the Russian workers. Let them once more lead the way in a movement to strengthen and protect the pioneer Worker’s Republic. Let us appeal to the leaders of our workers’ movement to come together, and with their great organising powers, set themselves the task of understanding and building up the united Trade Union organisation, national and international, that is so necessary to the working class of the world.

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My Review of The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

the unwomanly

 

It is only recently that women in the UK have been able to take up frontline roles in the armed forces but in liberation struggles across the world from Northern Ireland to present day Northern Iraq there are plenty of women who have taken up guns to defend their country.

 

YPG 2

YPG women in N.Iraq

In this newly published book, it came out in the Soviet Union in 1985 but was heavily censored,  The Unwomanly Face of War, we learn about the motivations of women during the Great Patriotic War  ( aka Second World War)  who decided that they wanted to fight for their country and way of life.

The author, Svetlana Alexievich, has  a track record in producing books that challenge the orthodoxy of the Soviet Union and present day Russia. In previous books she has covered the war in Afghanistan and the disaster of Chernobyl.

But her books are not just exposes of state criminality but they start from the point of view of the individuals concerned. They are oral histories of how women, men and children felt about the circumstances of their times. She was born into the Soviet Union in 1948 and much of her analysis is about the massive changes that have taken place in the post Soviet Union era and how it has affected  individuals.

This is a deeply personal book. Svetlana is not one for objectivity nor laboured intellectual analysis. The book begins with her challenging herself about the times she grew up in and the way in which the Soviet involvement in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) was a constant theme of her childhood and youth.

“The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes.”  Not surprising when you consider that half of the country was occupied by the Nazis and 20 million people died over 4 years. As she says; “We were the children of Victory.”

Challenging this orthodoxy, particularly the role of Soviet women, was not easy and in this new edition she includes the conversations she had with the Soviet censor. When Svetlana exposes the barbarism of war, the fear of the women, she is told; “Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism.  Heroic women. You dethrone them.”

woman and rifle

 

The power of this book is the testimonies of the 200 individual women and the way in which they lay bare their joy, fear, hatred and despair in their individual stories- told only in a way that women do expose their lives to other women. “We’ll eat pies. I’ve been fussing about since morning….  the hostess greets me cheerfully on the threshold. “We can talk later. And weep our fill…”

For Svetlana her research took over her life. “With it began a search that went on for seven years, seven extraordinary and tormenting years, during which I was to discover for myself the world of war, a world the meaning of which we cannot fully fathom.”

A million women took part in the Great Patriotic War. From doctors and engineers to snipers and partisans. Many of them were very young; some as young as fourteen.  One young woman commented that her preparations to go to the front included packing a suitcase full of candy and her class picture.

Many of them went with a determination to defend their motherland and that is a constant theme in their stories. Even children of political prisoners and victims of Stalin,  wanted to go to war. One young woman said; “The grown-ups wept, but we weren’t afraid; we assured each other that within a month we’d “beat the fascists’ brains out.”

soviet women snipers

Women snipers

For some women the war came to them as the Nazis occupied their villages. Women joined the underground, one had a small baby.  “I used to go on missions with her. The commissar would send me off, and weep himself.”

women partisans in Ukraine

women partisans in the Ukraine

Running alongside all these harrowing stories is Svetlana’s personal response to them and how the women’s stories did not fit in with the story of victory that the government had promoted. She did not want the story of what happens in a war but she did want to know; “What happened to human beings? What did human beings see and understand there? About life and death in general? About themselves?…. I am writing a history of the soul…the history of small human beings, thrown out of ordinary life into the epic depths of an enormous event. Into great History.”

This is not just a great history book but is a template for future oral histories of women and working class lives. War has not gone away and the experiences of women in this book can be mirrored in many conflicts across the world today.

 

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Political Women: Sandy Rose, Socialist, Feminist, Trade Unionist

 

In this occasional series I ask the question; why do some women become political activists?  Sandy Rose was part of the post war generation that lived at a time of great hope, this is her story………..

sandy

“I was born in 1945 and my parents were very conservative and narrow minded”. Sandy left school at 17  and then worked in a library for a year before going to university at 18.

In order to do a degree she had to  overcome both her parent’s objections and their refusal to make the parental contribution to her state grant. In order to support herself she worked in various jobs,  including  one at the London Zoo.

In 1967  Sandy went to the London School of Economics to do a postgraduate diploma in social administration.  LSE was then  a hotbed of radicalism,  and it was there that Sandy met her future husband, Brian Rose.  “He was the first dustbin man from Kent to go into higher education and was involved in the big sit-in at LSE in 1968.”She also met her best friend Celia and her then huband, Brian.  Unlike Sandy; “They were all very left wing whereas I had no interest in politics up to then. I gradually became drawn into their way of thinking and went on all the anti-Vietnam war demos.”

She took part in the Grosvenor Square demonstration in 1968 with her new friends. ” Thousands of people were in the Square and were pushing towards the American Embassy. Suddenly a row of enormous police horses was galloping at full pelt towards us and Celia and I were really scared. We all turned and ran as fast as possible over the low chain link fence in any direction. We got away without trouble. After that we all joined the International Socialists and that was the start of my political life.”,   I.S. was   a small Trotskyist organisation  founded in 1950 whose leading figure was Tony Cliff.  In 1977 it became the Socialist Workers Party.

Sandy joined IS because “I was convinced that parliamentary reformism would not change anything. And after the LSE sit in  and anti-war demonstrations all over the world that revolution on the streets was the only way forward”.

She was not alone and her friends also decided to join, inspired by the leadership of  I.S. Looking back she acknowledges, “I was also rebelling against my parents.”

In the 1960s students  in Britain were inspired by events in places as diverse as the student protests in Paris at the Sorbonne in May 1968, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the protests in the USA against war in Vietnam. Occupying the LSE was part of the ideology of revolution that worked its way through the universities of the UK. The chant was  “London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, we shall fight and we shall win!” Sandy says;  “It was exciting, it was positive, and we just knew we were going to change the world”.

 

LSE 2

But 1968 for Sandy meant a job as a social worker in Hackney. Home life meant that she worked as Brian completed his teacher training course and,  like a  good wife,  she made sure that he had breakfast each morning! Outside  work both she and Brian  were  members of Fulham IS and active in anti-Vietnam protests.

Surprisingly perhaps, they got  married in 1969. “We were living together,  but we did it to please my Mum,  who was religious. It was what people did in those days”, admits Sandy.

Life within IS was not radical for women,  even though the Women’s Liberation Movement was questioning women’s role in society. “The view of the party was that it was class that was the unifying factor and that feminism would divide the sexes.”

IS did have a women’s magazine Women’s Voice but,  but the editorial  team was seen as too middle class.

 

womens voice

Sandy began to question the role of social work in society and  became a founding member of a revolutionary social work organisation called “Case Con” with friends Celia and Bob Deacon which started in 1970. Jeremy Weinstein, another founding member, commented; “We were, then, part of an explicitly anti-capitalist movement that rejected traditional authority and struggled to find instead new ways of living and relating, both personally and professionally.”

Sandy says,  “We campaigned for fundamental change in social work from challenging the concept of case work to recognising poverty as the main cause for families with problems”. Later she became the northern correspondent of the organisation’s journal, which also called Case Con. One of the campaigns she was involved called on Manchester City Council to remove the source of methane gas on an estate which caused a man to nearly get killed when his cigarette blew up just outside his house. The estate was built on an old tip.

Case-con 1977

In the early 1970s Sandy and Brian moved up to the north-west. They set up an IS branch in Salford and it became their social grouping. Sandy worked at the local college,  and as a medical social worker in a children’s hospital.

Sandy was an active member of her union Nalgo, and says  she enjoyed recruiting workers both  to the union  – and  to IS. But it was when NUPE nursing auxillaries went on strike at the hospital she became active in the campaign. “I helped produce leaflets and supported them. Their shop steward was right wing and did little to help the women”. The strike failed,  and Sandy was reprimanded for supporting the strikers by her management. She says; “Nalgo did not approve of my role in supporting the strike. I used to attend the Nalgo  National Conference because the other union officers were not interested”.

NUPE 2

In 1974 she was pregnant with her first child, Danny, and gave up work. “It was the norm for women in those days, and I do believe that children are better off with their mothers at that early age”.  Sandy’s life in IS continued though. “I was District secretary of the District and we had premises on Deansgate in Manchester,  so I used to work for the party”.

Manchester in the 1970s was still  a city with many factories and engineering workshops and  a radical tradition of sit ins and strikes. IS members were active during this industrial activity. Sandy and Brian were the only couple with children in their IS Branch,  but other members were supportive. “We had a babysitting rota  and the male members were very good”. But IS was a very macho organisation,  and Sandy says; “I felt I was not taken seriously because I could not do the early morning paper sales (of the IS paper Socialist Worker) or  go on the picket lines”.

She went back to work in 1976,  and her son Danny went to the college nursery. ”I worked about 20 hours a week in two jobs. Brian’s involvement in childcare was nil”.

By the early 80s she had drifted out of  the SWP. Her marriage had broken up,  and she was now a single parent with two sons aged  6  and 11. “I did not feel that the SWP were child friendly, and they got even less so, and I thought my kids were getting neglected”.

Sandy  worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau part-time,  but was then diagnosed with ME. This meant she was off work for long periods and felt vulnerable about her job. “I spoke to my trade union, ASTMS, but they said they could not do anything”. Luckily she had a supportive manager,  and being a highly skilled worker , she was valued for her work as a trainer and doing benefit appeals.

Politically  Sandy’s activity changed and , like many parents, she now  focussed on a local level. “I attended my union meetings,  and went on demos with the kids. I was a school governor,  and got involved with an anti-bullying campaign”.

Sandy  still sees herself as a feminist but  says, “I have not found any women’s group that is worth joining”.

Neither of  her  sons have been involved with political parties but, according to Sandy,   “Joe comments on politics through his anti-capitalist blog and,  since Jeremy Corbyn  became leader of the Labour Party,  my older son has joined. Both of them voted Labour in the General Election”.

Sandy still believes that society needs a radical change. “I voted Labour,  but it is not an anti-capitalist party. We need a united front of progressive people”.

Although now  in her early 70’s Sandy still sees being in a trade union as crucial. “I could not not  be in a union. I am still in Unite and try to get to meetings. I support the work of groups such as Tameside against the Cuts and wish I could help out with their work on benefits. I enjoy going to meetings and support the Mary Quaile Club”.

And her advice to young people……..”Don’t join the SWP because it is no longer democratic.  Campaign for a united left organisation through union work”

Posted in anti-cuts, biography, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, NHS, political women, Salford, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Struggle or Starve, Working Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots” by Sean Mitchell

s or s

“Struggle or Starve” could be an epithet for  UK in 2017  as the government pursues its policy of persecuting the poor. In this new book Sean Mitchell, socialist and founder of Ireland’s People before Profit Party,   reminds us  of an important part of Belfast history when Protestants and Catholics united to oppose a draconian Poor Law. It’s more than just a history book,  as  Sean shows  us that the conditions of the poor in Belfast in the 1930s had a direct relationship with the creation of the  Northern Ireland state in 1920,  and its continued existence today.

Northern Ireland was created as a one party state to enshrine  Protestant hegemony. But as the economic depression took hold after 1929 the position of both Catholics and Protestant workers reached a catastrophic condition of  poverty and hunger. Unlike in  Britain and over the border in the south of Ireland,  the 1834 Poor Law was never repealed in Northern Ireland. Unemployment reached 40% in 1932:  tens of thousands faced starvation. The Poor Law system failed to address the scale of the crisis, while  the Protestant government did not care.

Out of this crisis a small group of communists called the Revolutionary Communist Group seized the moment. Mitchell vividly brings to life this fantastic story of how individuals such as Tommy Geehan led a campaign of mass demonstrations, sit-ins in workhouse,  and strikes,  culminating in two days of rioting in 1932. The motto of the campaign was; “No surrender to poverty, misery and destitution.”

out-door-relief-2 march

Outdoor Relief Workers March

Geehan and his comrades had also to combat  prejudice between Protestant and Catholic workers. But he was able to  show  that these workers had more in common with each other than the Protestant upper classes who ran the statelet.

After two days of rioting the government gave in and doubled the rate of poor relief and modified the Means Test. The lessons of 1932 went o nto to influence other workers such as railway workers, mainly Protestant,  who sought solidarity with their southern Catholic  comrades in a strike in 1933.

Struggle or Starve is not just a book about a very important struggle of 1932. Mitchell demonstrates  how the rottenness of the Northern Ireland state dominates workers’ lives and futures on the island of Ireland in 2017. This well-written and captivating history of 1932 is an important step in showing people that people in Northern Ireland have more to gain from a united class struggle than sectarianism.

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My review of “A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

lucia berlin 1

I love this novel for lots of reasons,  but primarily because it is written about the people who rarely get any publicity but who  are the people who  make a bigger contribution to creating a good society than anyone else. It’s about cleaners, nursing auxillaries and clerks while its settings are the unglamorous parts  of the USA, Chile and Mexico. It’s  about laundromats and public buses, it’s about  drinking,  racism and  abortions. In short it’s  about real life.

The writer, Lucia Berlin, is worth a whole book written just about her life. She was  American, the daughter of a mining engineer, who spent her life as a child and adult travelling across the USA. She was married several times,  had four sons and existed on low paid jobs until near the end of her life  when she got work at a college teaching creative writing.

lucia berlin 2

Lucia Berlin

Lucia was an alcoholic and  died comparatively young, at   just 68, and  sadly her writing only became famous after she died. I came across this book after moaning on Twitter about the lack of books by and about working class life. Lucky for me I could find one of her books in my local library in  East Manchester.

In A Manual for Cleaning Women we get an insight into  Lucia’s life and that of countless anonymous working class women who work in the low waged and low value labour market.

Underlying many of the stories is  alcoholism, something that Lucia struggled with most of her life. One of the most tragic stories is Unmanageable. An unnamed woman wakes up with the DT’s. She needs a drink and to stop herself shaking she sits on the floor and starts to read the titles of books in her bookcase. “Concentrate, read them out loud. Edward Abbey, Chinua Achebe, Sherwood Anderson, Jane Austen, Paul Auster, don’t skip, slow down. By the time she had read the whole wall of books she was better.” Later on we find out her children are asleep in the room next door and have taken her wallet and keys to  try to stop her going for drink. It doesn’t work.

In the story A Manual for Cleaning Women we get the lowdown on a cleaner’s life. “Try to work for Jews or blacks. You get lunch. But mostly Jewish and black women respect work, the work you do, and also they are not at all ashamed of spending the entire day doing absolutely nothing. They are paying you, right?”

Waiting is what you do in hospitals and I have often spent my time watching the behaviour of the staff. In Temps Perdu the story begins. “I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make.”

Many of the stories are grim, small little tragedies of normal everyday life. But I laughed out loud reading. Electric Car, El Paso.  An elderly woman drives an electric car  at 15mph down the freeway.  The writer and her grandmother join her.“So slow we went that I saw things in a way I never had before. Through time, like watching someone sleep, all night.” The two elderly women end every sentence with a quote from the Bible.  There is a hilarious encounter with a policeman who “stomped around and got into the patrol car, gunned his engine and roared off, sirens wailing right through a red light, crash into the tan end of an Oldsmobile and then crash again, into the front end of a pickup truck.”  Brilliant.

At the heart of Lucia’s stories is a kindness towards the people she writes about. They are not all heroes- many of them dissolute and harsh- but she portrays them as real people with complex characters and struggling to get by in life. The stories include references – many of them literary but also to one of my heroes Tom Paine – as well as stories about Communism and the influence of left wing politics.

It is a life that many people lead,  one that gets little publicity in the mainstream media.  We need more stories like these,  but most of all we need to get more writers like Lucia Berlin.

If you cannot borrow it from your local library, you can buy it here

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