My review of “Last Witnesses Unchildlike Stories” Svetlana Alexievich




last witnesses


PUBLISHED in 1985 in the Soviet Union this first English edition is a very painful reminder of the affects of war on children. In the 1970s  Alexievich  started interviewing the generation of children who had  lived through the Second World War and who had  carried that trauma with them as adults.

Official narratives of the Second World War -or as they dubbed it  in the Soviet Union  the Great Patriotic War –  remind us of the brutality of the Nazis,   the destruction of cities and towns and  the deaths of  at least 20 million soldiers  and civilians.  The preface of the book has two  quotations: one  from the People’s Friendship Magazine of 1985 which states that millions of Soviet children died during the war including Russians, Armenians  etc:  the second quotation is   from Dostoevsky  which says  that war cannot be justified if it makes a child cry.

Pouring out of this book are the tears of the children who survived the war. Each chapter begins with the child’s name, his/her age at the start of the war and their occupation at the time of interview. It is then followed by the individual’s story, told  in their words. This is what makes it a  very difficult book to read.

Each of the stories is heartbreaking; their thoughts and feelings as this terrible episode in their life begins, the constant theme of their father departing, their relationship with their mother and the way in which their lives are destroyed by the war.

Some stories stand out. The Jewish child whose father is taken away and whose  mother hands her over to another woman so that she will survive. Another child’s mother becomes a hospital worker as the casualties mount up, aged just  10  years old the child accompanies her mother to work, becomes a hospital worker herself and has a uniform cut down to fit her. Another 10  year old goes to work with his father in  the bomb factory.

Children lost  their parents, some never  to  find out what happened to them and many ending  up in orphanages. Children watched as their homes and villages were invaded by the Germans. Children watched as their relatives who were partisans were strung up by the Germans in the village square.

These are “unchildlike stories” because children should not have to be part of wars.  But we know this continues to happen across the world. “Last Witnesses” is an indictment of adults who  do not do everything they can to stop war happening.  One of the interviewees tells Alexievich,  “We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak..Our words will be the last.”

Cost £12.99 Buy it here

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My review of “Common Cause” by Kate Hunter


Common cause

KATE Hunter, a working class writer and political activist, recognises the massive barriers facing any person   from her background who wants to write. At the age of  nine she won a  National Essay prize,  but there was no encouragement from her teacher to take it further. So  she left school at 15 and worked in jobs as diverse as care worker to trade union tutor. In later life she returned to education and gained a degree as a mature student.  It is only now that she has been free  to write.

Kate says: “It has taken me most of my life to believe I can do it. Because people from my background don’t write books. I didn’t manage to do it until I retired and had a pension. You need the free time and working class people don’t have that.”

Kate  is from Edinburgh  but  lives in Milton Keynes.  Her  second novel, Common Cause  is about to be published which continues  the story of Iza Ross –  now Iza Orr –  a woman compositor from Edinburgh. Her first novel The Caseroom (which  was shortlisted for the Saltire Prize) introduced  Orr who starts work as a compositor, aged just 13,  at the end  of the C19th. Set at a time when unskilled workers were  becoming unionised,  the story of  Orr and her fellow women workers fight  at  their workplace   for equality and justice is  pitched   against a background of political and industrial struggles in Edinburgh with James Connolly among others  appearing in the novel.

women compositors

Common Cause is a radical retelling of the First World War and the way in which it affected the working class community of Edinburgh. Kate’s research is personal. Through the 1911 Census she discovered that her own  grandmother was one of the few women compositors.  Both her novels tell the story of how this group of women fought for recognition as skilled workers against the hostility of the male Typographical Union and  the machinations of  the employers who wanted to use them as cheap labour.

Kate ’s novels are informed by her own experience in the printing industry  as a worker and trade unionist. Her research showed her how it was that a 13 year old had the literary skills to typeset the Encyclopaedia Britannica – backwards. “It was because Scotland had 100% literacy long  before the rest of the UK. “

 Common Cause draws a picture of a young woman and her growing political consciousness.Kate reflects: “She is a woman in the thick of events, struggling with her own life, her own ideas, but with not a lot of time or opportunity. Like most people political consciousness is a slow process of learning….I wanted the socialist and trade unionist James Connolly to be in the story. He is a hero of mine. My family lived in that area of Edinburgh.”

JC birthplace

The novel portrays an Edinburgh mired in poverty which explains its radical history. When Orr is sacked as a compositor the family have to take in a lodger – who shares a bed with her husband. As Hunter says:  “This is how people lived – if anything I probably gave them more space in terms of their housing than really existed!”

She also brings in the Women’s Freedom League who set  up food banks in Edinburgh in 1915  for the wives and mothers of soldiers. But Hunter shows their lack of sensitivity to working class women.  “I wanted to show the invisibility of working class women in the suffragette movement and I suppose get some revenge on the snobbery of some of the women.”

Her novel refutes the recent repackaging of the First World War as a celebratory event.  Iza Orr’s husband returns from the war mentally disturbed and is locked up in the asylum, like one of Kate’s grandfathers. “They were not in Craiglockhart Hospital with the officers,  but put in the asylum and forgotten. We didn’t even know he existed.” 

Orr, now with a disabled husband, does get her job back as a compositor. Only because printers were not allowed reserved occupation status. “It seems the country needs starched cloth-lappers and lunatic asylum attendants, but it does not need learning and intellectual stimulation.”

Common Cause reflects Kate’s own politics from working in the printing industry and being an activist in trade unions, the SWP and the Bedroom Tax Campaign. It is grounded in her research including Sian Reynold’s “Britannica’s Typesetters: Women Compositors in Edwardian Britain.” which documents the history of Edinburgh’s female compositors and is where Kate found a picture of her grandmother.

Throughout her own life Kate has seen massive changes take place and her novels show the victories and defeats as experienced by activists in the 19th  and 20th  Century. And although today the trade union and labour movement has experienced  many  defeats she says “The struggle is always there”.




Common Cause is published by Fledgling Press and is being launched in Manchester by the Mary Quaile Club on 13 July at 2.30pm at the Friends Meeting House on Mount Street. The event is free.  Book a place at

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My review of “Labour Women in Power Cabinet Ministers in the Twentieth Century by Paula Bartley



labour women in power

In the mid 1970s I was the first person in my family and  the first on my council estate to get a place at University. Our elderly neighbour Mrs Hall said to me. “Ooh you’ll be another Barbara Castle” My father groaned  inwardly because as a trade unionist and reluctant Labour voter he had railed at Castle’s White Paper “In Place of Strife” which had sought to curtail trade union power. That was never going to happen.

In this new and well researched history of five Labour women who were the only ones to get  posts in Cabinet  in the period from the Labour Party’s birth in 1900 to the Blair Government in 1997,  Paula uncovers the very male world that these women worked in and documents their own individual paths to power. “These  women  were not a homogenous group: they came from diverse family backgrounds, entered politics in their own discrete  way and held divergent political beliefs. They rose to power at different times: the early years of the twentieth century were quite different from those of the early years of the twenty first and it is important not to oversimplify women’s lives by imagining a seamless continuity.”

Of the five women Margaret Bondfield  came from the poorest background with the least education but she was the first  woman to chair the TUC, the first woman to hold a ministerial post in 1924  and the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister in 1929.  She  inspired other working class women. When she was joint Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League she spoke in Manchester in February 1908 at the AGM of the Manchester and Salford  and District Women’s TUC and inspired another  working class woman Mary Quaile to begin a lifelong career in trade union organising. For Margaret  (and many other women)  joining a trade union changed their lives as workers and allowed  them an entry into a  larger political world  of trade unions, the Labour Party and power in government.

Ellen Wilkinson, like Margaret,  came from a poor background in working class  Ardwick,  Manchester. And also like Margaret  her politics were driven by her Methodism while  she was encouraged by her father to read widely and continue her education.  In 1910 she won a scholarship to attend the University of Manchester.  In  1915, aged 23,   she became a national  organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees. Her role was to organise women shop and factory workers, an important job.  “It would further her political education, help her form alliances within the labour movement, consolidate her skills in organising, finance her politics and make it possible for her to become an MP.”

Ellen was lucky to be part of the first majority Labour government in 1945,  one of 21 female Labour MPs in a  government that would transform the UK; one that is now looked back on as a golden era for Labour and the country. Ellen was central to that reforming government as the  first ever female Minister of Education. “Her persistence and tenacity led to the transformation of the British educational system giving working class children opportunities they had rarely enjoyed before.”

Barbara  Betts  came from a political background:  both her parents were activists  in the Independant Labour Party and she was encouraged to believe in her own equality with men and to follow in her parents political beliefs and activity. She went to University and then became involved with Labour party politics working her way through the political machinery. In July 1945 she was elected as an MP for Blackburn and the youngest female MP.   Unlike Margaret  and Ellen she got married,  to  the  journalist Ted Castle

For twenty years Barbara was a formidable political figure nationally,  taking on several Ministerial posts.  As Minister of Transport  she brought in speed limits on motorways, the breathalyser, seat belts and the tachograph.  But for many people in the Labour movement  she was tainted by her bid as Secretary of state for Employment  in 1969 to  “reform” the trade unions while  the Equal Pay Act she introduced after the 1968 strike by sewing machinists at Ford  gave employers  five years to evade pay regulation leading many working class women to feel betrayed.

The other two women who achieved Cabinet rank were  Judith Hart and Shirley Williams. They represented a more privileged strata of the Labour Party. Judith Hart who began her career in Parliament  in 1959  (as did  Margaret Thatcher)   as MP for Lanark was the first of the five women Cabinet Ministers to be a mother as well as a politician. Lucky for her she had a supportive husband who was happy to move the family down to London so that she could maintain her career.

Shirley Williams was the  most privileged of the five. Her father was a political scientist while her mother  was the famous  journalist  and novelist Vera Brittain. In October 1964 she was elected as a Labour MP but entering Parliament did not faze her because many of her fellow MPs were people she had known from her time at Oxford University. Marriage and one child did not stop her parliamentary career and she held several powerful political posts in government. But as the Labour Party  questioned its direction after the defeat in 1979,   she left the Labour Party in 1981  to set up the Social Democratic Party and this  begin another chapter in her political career.

For me, who is not  a member of the Labour Party, but a socialist feminist,  I can respect these women for their courage and commitment to taking on national politics through the parliamentary system. But I would question the underlying political message of this book which I think is too deferential  to mainstream Labour politics and uncritical of some of the policies that these women promoted. Today,   while there are more women than ever in Parliament the  political system has  delivered an  austerity  that has affected detrimentally the lives of working class women. I despair when I see campaigns calling for more women to get into parliament without discussing the policies that they should pursue if elected.

Buy it here it costs £22.99.

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My review of the exhibition of Flag of Covenience by David Dunnico



Flag of Convenience David Dunnico

Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery   25 May-28 June 2019


THE Union Jack has never been just a flag. In this new exhibition Manchester documentary photographer David Dunnico takes us on a trip around the world and through time to explain why it is has meant different things to different people.  Using film, photographs, postcards and ephemera he unpicks this complex and powerful symbol. Patriotism, nationalism and corporatism are sewn into the image of the Union Jack,  giving people an important focus for their view of themselves and their national  identity.

dunnico 1

David became interested in flags when artists such as Andy Warhol used the Stars and Stripes in their work. In the exhibition he has a copy of the Adbusters take on the flag in which  they replaced the stars and stripes with logos of American corporations.


For lefties the Union Jack has represented everything wrong with British society particularly in the 1970s when the Far Right embraced it. The Sex Pistols stole the image back and rewrote the imagery on their single” God Save the Queen” while the 1990s saw it being rehabilitated by Tony Blair as part of the Cool Britannia and Brit Pop era.  Looking back it sums up the right wing Labour government trying to portray itself as a forward thinking, youthful authority,  when the reverse was nearer the truth.

The 1990s saw the George Flag succeed the Union Jack on the back of the growth of football fever.The Cross of St. George is still a toxic image for leftwingers,  although it has now become the symbol at mant  football matches. Dunnico’s images of poor terrace houses festooned in England flags sit uncomfortably with the poverty of people’s lives.

Recently he spent his honeymoon following Farrage’s  Brexit Party around Doncaster  documenting how the Union Jack is once again the favourite image for those people who are looking for a sense of hope and pride in their country – however anarchonistic this may seem to the rest of us.


More depressing are his images from North of Ireland,  although one was tinged with irony,  showing  the front door of a Loyalist office with the usual Union jack and  a disability scooter parked outside. Brexit has shown to the rest of the UK that it is in the North of Ireland that the Protestant Community see themselves as the real owners of the Union Jack with all its connotations of empire –and loss.

Peoples Army

Dunnico’s exhibition is timely. It provides a space amongst the Brexit ballyhoo to reflect on ideas of community, symbols and history. It is funny, informative and challenges you about one of the most iconic images of this country – the Union Jack.

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My review of “second world second sex” Kristen Ghodsee


second world second sex


In this new history book Kristen rescues an important episode in the history of women’s activism at the United Nations – the contribution of women from the state socialist countries in Eastern Europe (“the Second World” as they called themselves).   Equally  importantly she reminds us of how important communism was to the lives of these women in giving them hope for a better future within a world turned upside down.

Kristen uses the experiences of socialist countries such as Bulgaria and socialist Zambia to highlight the way in which connections were made between the Second and Developing worlds,  leading to the spread of ideas about women’s equality and how women could be part of creating a new world in which  women played an important role in shaping society.

These ideas contrasted sharply with the lives of women in advanced capitalist countries such as the USA where Cold War politics marginalised progressive women and their hopes and dreams for a more equal society.

As a fluent speaker of Bulgarian Kristen was able to go and speak to some of the surviving women to find out how and why they became involved in women’s politics. She  explains the difficulties of interviewing women such as Krastina Tchomakova, a nonagenarian, who had been involved with communist politics from the age of 18 years.

For her it was a mixture of personal experience of being denied an education (unlike her brothers),  the revolution of 1917 and her own readings of Marxist literature that drove  her towards communist politics. As Kristen points out: “How could a poor peasant girl such as Krastina Tchomakova,  born in rural Bulgaria to illiterate parents, ever rise up to become a member of an official delegation to a United Nations conference halfway across the world?”

Women such as Krastina worked within the political constraints of the communist world they inhabited,  playing a clever chess game that weaved together socialist tracts with the country’s need for women in the workplace.  “Compared with the post-war situation in the USA Bulgarian women were leagues ahead of their American sisters by 1975”.

All women were working within the Cold War politics that had male politicians in the East and West still in control but it was the Second World women who worked hard to push women’s needs up the national agendas of their countries. At that time African, Asian and Latin American countries were emerging out of their colonial status after liberation struggles. To  women in these countries the socialist bloc provided a more positive alliance,  offering support to rebuild their countries and provide  the women in the countries with programmes for education, healthcare and training.

Kristen chooses Zambia as her example of a former colony that chose to go down the socialist route under charismatic leader Kenneth Kaunda. She interviews Chibesa Kankasa,  who was the President of the United National Independence Party Women’s League and a member of the Central Committee.

For a post independence country adjacent to  racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa choosing to make alliances with the socialist bloc led to the rise of women such as Chibesa  and the promotion of women’s issues in Zambia while links with the Bulgarian women’s movement ensured their position at international conferences during the UN Decade for Women in 1975.

How this international status played out for the ordinary Zambian woman on the ground is more difficult to assess,  but Kristen concludes; “Zambian women saw the most improvements to the material conditions of their lives during the UNIP era, particularly when one considers the free access to education and healthcare they once enjoyed.”

The United Nations  International Year of Women  and  its three conferences over the decade were promoted by Second World women who worked in alliance with their sisters in the developing worlds. They wanted to ensure that the needs of women would be on the international agenda. But the tensions between the different philosophies put them at loggerheads with countries such as the USA who promoted freemarket ideology while  socialist women believed in the primacy of the state as a catalyst for women’s equality . And for all the problems faced by socialist women in countries such as Bulgaria and Zambia their strength lay in working together to shape the international agenda about women’s issues.

Kristen has written a very important book. Not just in terms of reminding us of an important aspect of women’s history,  but in allowing individual women to tell their story and show the price they have paid for their political activity.

Reading it reminds me of interviewing Betty Tebbs, a British working class  woman who became involved in socialist politics in this country which led to her involvement with Valentina Tereshkova and a life long commitment to peace activities. Betty’s autobiography, which she wrote in 1997, was self published, and like many other Left women she has never been given the recognition that she deserved.

I think Kristen’s book is a reminder of how important this history is and how much it has been ignored and marginalised in the history of the left across the world.

Read more about Betty in my book Northern ReSisters

Buy “Second World Second Sex” here


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My review of “Trico A Victory to Remember” by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt

trico book


Why is it some strikes, many of them defeats for the labour movement, are constantly being replayed  ie Miners Strike, Grunwicks and Ford Dagenham women but successful strikes such as Trico have been forgotten. One of the big problems is that the people who need to write up that history are often excluded from the means of doing so. Or they, often women again, don’t think what they did was that important.

It has taken over  forty years but Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt have produced this landmark history of a most successful strike; Trico.  The women not only won equal pay, they  also showed that the new Equal Pay Act was about decreasing pay levels rather than raising up women’s pay, and that a community-based strike with  strong trade union support could defeat an American multinational company.

Sally comments; “The Trico women’s strike has an important place in history: the strikers were remarkable role models in the struggle for equality, and understood the importance of building alliances of solidarity and inclusiveness.”

trico 6

Written by Sally, who was the Publicity Officer for the strike, and Vernon , who was a supporter, it is a brilliant example of taking a very important history and producing a well written and well produced book.  Central to the book are the words of the women strikers and some beautiful photographs.

On the afternoon of 24 May 1976 400 women walked out of the Trico factory in Brentford, West London demanding their right to equal pay with their male colleagues for doing the same work. Supported by 150 men they won one of the most important, if now largely  forgotten,  equal pay campaigns.

Trico first march

This was the 1970s with  a Labour Government while  trade unions still existed in a large manufacturing base with whole communities working in factories close to their home. Trico had a large female workforce working on the assembly line  which was  separate from the men. It was a workforce that was multi racial, including the Irish, Afro Caribbean, Indian, Spanish, Maltese and French.

trico 5

Trico, like many companies, were trying to keep their costs down and saw women as a good  source  of cheap labour (or so they thought).  But they had a trade union, the AUEW,  that was  prepared to back the women over 21 weeks to ensure that they achieved victory.

The strike at Grunwick film processing factory was only eight miles from Trico and they came out only a few months after their strike began. Unlike Trico they did not have a union to support them. Solidarity between the two groups of workers led to the poorer Grunwick strikers offering a donation to the Trico women.

The Trico women, unlike Grunwicks, won their strike because they had a strong union with local officials from the left and they kept all the negotiations in their own hands. As Sally points out; “The Strike Committee and their officials understood the dangers inherent in relying on a law rigged in favour of the employers (in our case the Equal Pay Act) and they knew the power of working class collective action for the securing of a just result.”

trico 3

Reading the story of the strike is a reminder of how organised and supportive the trade union movement was in the 1970s. We casually use the words solidarity and community,  but the story of the Trico strike shows the real meaning of the word. Trade unions up and down the country donated to the strike fund,  as well as organising the boycott of Trico goods. Locally people supported the picket line and provided food and money. Sally says; “We found that it was working class people, ordinary folk, even down to pensioners who could only afford to send a few stamps to help-it was these people that were our backbone.”

The heroines were, of course,  the working class women who led the strike  against all odds  – and won. Here are some of their comments.

Bella (Davis) Young , “I knew I was in the right. No man could do the same job I do and get more money than me when I’m working hard. If I had to do it again I’d do it again.”

Rhoda (Fraser) Williams said “I was proud of what I did. You never know, when people read the book, it might inspire them to do something if they are in trouble.”

Phyllis Green “It was a good time. I enjoyed the strike. I was glad I was part of women getting equal pay, well equal pay as far as it went – there’s still a way to go yet.”


Sally Groves, the Publicity Officer for the strike, speaks at the WCML on Wednesday April 10 at 2pm.

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My review of “I Have No Regrets: Diaries, 1955-1963” Brigitte Reimann

brigitte reimann 1



Brigitte Reimann was an East German writer and  an avid chronicler of her own  life through her diaries. In this new book we follow her as she becomes a successful writer, but at a turbulent time for her and  the GDR in the years between  1955 and 1963.

Reimann was like many people in their 20s; too much drink, too many men, and too much doubt about her future as a writer. The diaries are unusual for this period in  detailing her affairs with  numerous men. It seems a very modern book in that sense – reflecting a present day obsession (now played out in social media) with the importance of  self. She says “The diary is not dedicated to my adulterous escapades; it’s not about love and liaisons – I want to record whatever happens to me on my journey to becoming a writer.”

But self and navel gazing was not what was expected of writers  by the GDR state. Reimann knew this,  and in the diary  says, . “I want to dedicate my whole life to this one aim;to help people through literature, and fulfil my duties, the duties we share with humanity”.

Her first two books were rejected by the publishers on the grounds they were counter revolutionary, decadent, morbid, bizarre and this  took a toll on Reimann. “It was a damned hard blow, and it took me a long time to recover.”

Reimann was regularly visited by the Stasi. She had spoken up for writers who had been persecuted by the State and was not surprised when they turned up at her door. Forced to sign a statement of secrecy and adopt the code name “Caterine”,  she agreed to pass on “legitimate complaints about errors and inadequacies to the Stasi so they can take remedial action.” Reimann  refused to name names,  but she still believed in the socialist state. “When compared with capitalism, it represents a higher development, a progression of mankind.”

brigitte 2

But  when her husband is imprisoned she has to  call on the Stasi for help,  whilst knowing that there will be a price to be paid.  It is not clear from the diaries what this is,  as she continues to rail against the authorities and is given a job working in a refinery,  as well as being a writer in residence.

With her second husband, Daniel,  Reimann moves to Hoyerswerda, a new town,  to take up their jobs in the refinery. They are expected to work in the laboratory,  as well as taking  on responsibility for a group of workers in a workers writers’ circle. She says; “The plant is starting to squeeze their money’s worth out of them. We’ve been reading manuscripts, giving receptions for writing workers, having hour long discussions; now we’re style-editing a brochure.” This is on top of working on the shop floor,  including  grinding valves which seems  to bring her more satisfaction. “Felt wonderfully strong in overalls and with dirty hands-a new feeling, slightly exuberant.”

Reimann confesses to being “middle class”, no doubt  brought on by working side by side with manual workers. Inspired by her time there she writes a classic of socialist  realism  Arrival in Everyday Life,  the story of three young people who postpone their studies to work in a plant in Hoyerswerda.

But her successful career is dominated by the  politics of the Cold War. Her brother escapes the country, the Wall goes up,  and the political atmosphere for writers depresses Reimann. The diaries are revealing for her continued affairs with men and her failed marriages – she marries four times – excessive drinking and much personal unhappiness. She died  in 1973 of cancer, aged just 40.

My copy of I Have No Regrets did not include an introduction,  and so I do not know who agreed to publish the diaries.  Maybe they should have been edited as I did feel the reader was given too much information about her love life.  I felt sorry for her that she had no close female friend with whom she could have shared the doubts and depressions of her life. Reading the diaries without being able to read Reimann’s novels is also a problem and hopefully the publishers will  now consider publishing them.

Buy it for £19.99 here




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