Sylvia Riley "Winter at the bookshop, politics and poverty: St Ann’s in the 1960s" Five Leaves Publications, 2019, pp147, £7.99.
Winter at the bookshop is a warm-hearted and amusing book about Trotskyist groupings in working class Nottingham (apparently called ‘Trottingham’ in the 1960s, because it had so many Trotskyists). It is in turn funny, sad and heroic, full of persons and incidents from the left.
Author Sylvia Riley describes a time of youthful enthusiasm, of putting out leaflets on stencils (if you are not old enough to remember stencils, ask a comrade over 65), of being woken at 3 in the morning because something extraordinary has happened and a leaflet has to go out to the working class immediately. In the process Ms Riley makes some trenchant remarks about life in Britain in the 1960s - in some ways a more innocent era, but oddly a time which seems eerily familiar.
‘Trotsky’s other son’, the first short chapter, takes us into the bookshop run by the irascible Pat Jordan. Pat had been in the Communist Party “until the cataclysmic year of 1956 and that year his wife ran off with Rod” (p13) - who, it is explained, was “one of the comrades who also left the party.” His bookshop was a hub of community politics and that was where the stencil duplicator was. For years it churned out documents, political statements and a weekly news sheet.
[Pat] had the kind of personal hatred of priests and dogma that only a lapsed Catholic can aspire to ... When the church carol-singers had their collection stolen, he rubbed his hands together. “One in the eye for Baby Jesus,” he gloated nastily (p14).
He had a succession of young women come to the bookshop - ostensibly to do some cleaning. “Bonnie’s cleaning the kitchen,” he said to Sylvia Riley one day. “She’s changing everything!” To which Ms Riley replied: “Well, you’re a Marxist. You can cope with that” (p142).
A shifting group of oddbods moved in and out - it appears that Riley lived there from the time she was a teenager. Some of the details of daily life in and around the bookshop are wonderfully evocative:
For breakfast we all ate ice creams from a van, even in the winter. Breakfasting from a tub of splintery ice with lashings of butterscotch was much better than being at boring old home, eating boring old cereal before rushing off to boring old work (p9).
Pat enchanted the children who found their way to the bookshop. Especially in the hours between school and their parents coming home, he regaled them with stories like that of Trotsky’s ‘other son’. Not the one who was “murdered by Stalinists, as he lay in a Paris hospital” (p11), but the one who ran off to join a circus, who trained Mitzi, the dappled horse, to dance and curtsey (the circus performers were eventually sent to the salt mines for misleading the masses). And the one who, on his deathbed, had a conversion to Trotskyism. (The author says her faith in Pat’s stories disappeared after that.) At other times he was telling adults: “As Marxists ... we must recognise ... that nothing stood still ... you have to build upon shifting sands, because that is the only kind there is.”
The other chapters in the book demonstrate - in no particular order and without much explanation - vignettes from the life of Pat (and the bookshop).
Pat set up the International Group in 1962. The IG met every month, and the members (the bookshop’s denizens) were the lifeblood of the local Trotskyist movement. Pat had a hankering to be part of the Fourth International. As the writer explains,
It meant a great deal to him to be aligned with the organisation set up by Trotsky [who] advocated the theory of permanent revolution, which was ongoing till the end of time ... Like war in heaven, it never ceased. You stopped the struggle only when you dropped dead (p15).
Most of his political work was focused on becoming part of the Fourth International, although there already existed a British affiliate at the time (see below).
As for the Vietnam war, “Our lives were consumed by the struggle against this brutality. It didn’t look like war: it looked like an ongoing massacre” (p23). Exactly. Riley writes:
One demo ... I remember well ... We rushed to Victoria Station to catch the London train. “We’re going to the big demo against the Vietnam war” ... the ticket officer rang down to the platform to ask them to hold the train ... When we reached the platform - “Here they are!” - the uniformed staff broke into applause ... We hung from the window waving ... and the porters and staff waved back and cheered.
Ms Riley goes on: “I could cry when I think what has happened to our darling old railways. They served the British nation ... and travellers came before profit” (p33).
In the Labour Party chapter, Riley comments that, although they were called Trotskyites (“the ‘ites’ revealed the hostility” by those in power, she notes), she and her friends from the bookshop canvassed for the Labour Party:
We felt it was important to have a Labour rather than a Conservative administration - it made a difference to working people. Of course, eventually... the Labour Party stopped winning elections. And, the more difficulties it got into, the more it witch-hunted (p48).
Her description of a Labour conference she attended ends as follows:
Labour conferences were not the manicured PR events they later became ... they were fierce ... Some delegates had been waiting a year to verbally savage certain MPs ... The MP for Grimsby, Austin Mitchell, reputedly sent a holiday postcard back to his constituency: “Wish you were here. The blood’s lovely” (p56)’
Because she was unsure of her ability to speak before a group of fellow workers in the then Union of Post Office Workers, Pat advises her: “Yes, you must go. You’ll find it easy. Just talk to them ... They learn in struggle ... they no longer feel the passive plaything of ongoing forces. They have at least some control over their lives” (p63).
On the other hand, there were those like Ellis Hillman - a “nice little man ... who ... as well as being in the Fourth International (and) a Labour councillor [was] a member of the Flat Earth Society” (p71).
After several years of discussion, it was agreed by the Fourth International in Brussels that the IG should merge with the Revolutionary Socialist League - the official representative of the Fourth International - to become the International Marxist Group. So Pat’s lifelong desire was finally achieved.
The splits in the Trotskyist movement are also delineated, starting with the Pabloites. Riley describes how the RSL - later known as the Militant Tendency - gained control of Liverpool council. She comments: “Then ... they were expelled from the Labour Party. This is what their loyalty achieved. There were no more loyal members of the Labour Party than Militant” (p72).
Relations between the different groups were often fractious. After one rather “rancid interchange of documents”, Pat snarls: “They’ll be with us on the barricades sure enough - those bastards will be right behind us, stabbing us in the back” (p72).
Other personages on the left have short, pithy characterisations. In the chapter called ‘Early days - London demos’, we learn that “Tony Cliff was a househusband … he stayed home and wrote documents and looked after the baby... he made us a spaghetti Bolognese before we left” (p31). We hear later of comrade Cliff - but nothing whatsoever about his politics.
But comrade Cliff did not make it to a particular summer school. He was on holiday in Israel and was “detained at the border, by Israeli military authorities, wanting to register his children for national service, although they were quite small and living in London” (p75). Isaac Deutscher came to speak to this summer school and commented: “I’m a fan of Trotsky, but I don’t like Trotskyists.” Fortunately, everybody laughed (p75). Then there was Tariq Ali, who had a “wonderful name” and was a “wonderful guy” (p144).
Ms Riley describes the planning of a new board game, based on Snakes and Ladders, called The Struggle: “You have just read the Communist manifesto and you now have your feet firmly on the road to socialism. You can move up to the next area of struggle”; “You have failed to support your union’s heroic industrial action. Go back to the beginning.” Finally there could be: “Well done! You have achieved the dictatorship of the proletariat. Welcome to the Workers’ Paradise.” Or, alternatively: “You will make your fortune marketing this board game and will abandon fighting for the revolution” (pp120-21).
The last chapter, entitled ‘The split’, tells of troubles within the Trotskyist movement in “Trottingham”. And yet, as Sylvia Riley writes, “... perhaps it should be seen as part of the natural world, for a seed splits as it has to, in order to disperse” (p146). We are also told that Pat worked for the Fourth International until his “spectacular fall from grace” - unexplained further.
Many more incidents and people weave in and out with very little explanation and absolutely no follow-through. On the other hand, Winter at the bookshop is easy and great fun to read and, in the process, the reader gains some kind of insight into what life was like in the Trotskyist movement in 1960s Britain.