Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

My favourite books

Dave Carr is a staff nurse at UCH and Middlesex hospital and branch chair of Unison. He was sacked last year but reinstated after a union campaign

Books became a revelation in my last two years at Hackney Downs School. In an effort to help counter the racism that plagued the school at the time, our A level syllabus was split quite evenly between traditional 'English' and African and Caribbean literature. I can't remember much of the 'English' element of that course but the African and Caribbean work remains as fresh and relevant as ever!

Ngugi Wa Thiongo's Petals of Blood, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka's brilliantly scathing and funny The Lion and the Jewel, and Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood (with a description of a six week rail workers' strike in Senegal in 1946-47) lifted up a veil of bullshit that was my understanding of the role of the imperialist powers in Africa. 'The sun never sets on the pink bits', was replaced with a comprehension of the damage done by the Western capitalist expansion from a black and socialist perspective.

You could see the effect these books had on the black kids in my class. A sense of pride permeated the school coupled with an excitement about the books we were reading. This probably contributed in some small way to our multiracial Sunday expeditions in the school minibus down to Brick Lane to bash the Nazis!

I owe Hackney Downs quite a lot really. At the same time as we were reading this dynamic African literature I was embarking on a politics course and the books I then began to read had an equally profound effect on me.

Petals of blood

I always felt that what I read in the papers and saw on television didn't quite fit in with my experience of growing up in Hackney. 'Work hard and you do well'--that's what you're told. Well, my Mum and Dad are still working hard and they have barely enough to make ends meet. The books I began to read helped me to understand the shitty society I lived in.

Reading Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society and E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class was like a discovery for me. I remember thinking, 'So that's how the bastards get away with it.' I felt real excitement reading Daniel Guerin's Fascism and Big Business as I understood the role big business played in financing the Nazis. Chris Harman's The Lost Revolution, which I read much later, gave me an understanding of how the working class can move, and I read it with genuine angst as the mistakes made led to the lost revolution and ultimately the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

I also started to discover a tradition in my reading--a Marxist tradition, one that allows us to learn from the mistakes made by our comrades in history, but also to learn from our successes. I think that's why reading Ten Days That Shook the World was so inspirational, a fire in the belly book.

I love books that are about resistance. I 'discovered' a book on the great dock strike of 1889 by Terry McCarthy. I read it in one sitting. It was better than any thriller! But after reading this book to its victorious conclusion, I remember feeling angry because so much of our class's history is hidden from us or marginalised by the dominant ruling class ideas--ideas that dictate what our kids are taught or not taught in school. At the time I knew nothing about the Chartists and little about the struggles to set up the trade union movement.

Chanie Rosenberg's book, 1919:Britain on the Brink of Revolution, was a revelation, as was Tony Cliff's The General Strike 1926. Both are packed full of inspiration about the courage of our class when we fight, and the problems with our leadership in those struggles--all still relevant today.

That's why I realise just how important books are. They are ideological weapons, but they are also a source of our history, our tradition. My last book, The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky, shows just how brilliant our tradition can be. That's the kind of tradition I want to look to. That's why I'm a socialist.


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page