Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
I went to a Catholic primary school where I was taught by nuns. I then attended the local grammar school where I received the very narrow education typical of those dreadful institutions. I read dozens of books as a child. None of the books left any lasting impression on me--except one. I can remember being given To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as if it was yesterday.
The book is a story of a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends Tom Robinson, a black man. The setting is Alabama in the 1930s. Tom is accused of raping a white girl. Of course Tom gets convicted, but I can remember believing that he would get justice. I kept demanding explanations from my parents. Atticus is vilified by the locals for defending a black man. His children are set upon at school. They fight back. In one scene Scout asks her father if he is the 'nigger lover' that her school friends and neighbours accuse him of being. 'I certainly am,' he replies. The best answer of the lot, if you ask me.
Today I can see lots of problems with the book. Black people are portrayed as passive, but as a 15 year old the book inspired me to go to the local library where I finished up reading all about the Civil Rights Movement.
I couldn't find a number of the books that I was considering writing about. I would never lend out my next book in case I did not get it back Blood Sweat and Tears, photographs from the Great Miners' Strike 1984-1985. I often pick up this book and think that I'll just have a quick look at a few of the photos. It never works out like that. I go right through from start to finish every time. I cant think of another book that can stir up so many emotions every time I go near it. The section of photos of Orgreave is a cold reminder of the astonishing brutality of the state.
The photos of the women are brilliant---on the picket line, fighting and changing in the course of struggle. I feel sick though when I think of Kinnock and the many trade union leaders who betrayed the miners.
My next two books are both about Ireland. Firstly Bloody Sunday in Derry by Eamonn McCann. McCann gives a very sharp analysis of what happened, and is clear that this was not some one off where the paras went out of control. Interspersed through all this are accounts from relatives of 14 people who were shot. These accounts are moving in their simplicity.
I read Cruel Fate by Hugh Callaghan of the Birmingham Six in one night, unable to put it down. How Hugh Callaghan got through his 16 year ordeal is beyond me. If I wanted someone to understand what Marxists have to say about the state and prison, Id give them this book. I was overjoyed when Callaghan explained how receiving Xmas cards from well wishers kept him going. He said it rattled the prison officers. I, like lots of others, had gone round my workplace with Xmas cards for people to sign for all the Birmingham Six. It seemed a small act of solidarity. It counted.
The time at which you read a book can have a massive bearing on the impact it has on you. I read The Revenge of History by Alex Callinicos in August 1991. I was on holiday in Greece and the coup had taken place in Moscow. We got all the papers. We phoned two or three comrades. It was a brilliant holiday but we felt this massive need to he with comrades to discuss these monumental events. These events were described as the final nail in the coffin of the mess called 'socialism'. So reading The Revenge of History was the best antidote I could have found. Throughout the book Alex takes on the argument that socialism finally died with the revolutions of 1989. What really inspired me was that I felt Callinicos was on the offensive throughout the book. As if that wasn't enough, I was certainly left in no doubt that socialism is the only viable alternative, and that it is, as he says in his closing words, 'time to resume business'.