THE CRAZY OIKLET 29
The paper shop was at the top of the street and our order, after my dad died in 1962, must have looked very fishy. No doubt the Special Branch had me listed. I’d cancelled the Daily Express, dad’s lifelong paper of choice, and now took the Morning Star and the Times Literary Supplement. Plod must have scratched his head over that combo. They were delivered to the door, of course, although the shop, run by Ron Lashford, was less than 100 yards away. These days I have to walk a mile to pick up an Observer; and the TLS comes by post. Picking up the Guardian of Dec 14 2013 I learned that my old editor Bob Leeson had died.
I had just read Proust when I came across a review in the Star, around 1968, in which the reviewer admitted he’d never been able to get through the one million word masterpiece. Cheeky git! I guess, in those days, I still thought reviewers had to be authorities on whatever they wrote about – now I suspect most don’t even read the book under review.
I wrote to the Star expressing my concern at this lapse and Bob wrote back saying if I thought I could do any better then have a squint at the enclosed and send me 600 words on it in a couple of weeks’ time. It was Balzac’s Cousin Pons newly translated by Herbert J. Hunt. The yellowing cutting is still lodged in the front of my copy – more interesting now is the reverse of it which reports on a spat between the deputy leader of the party, the well-known pisshead and foreign secretary George Brown and the ultra-leftist Eric Heffer. (see below).
But I digress. Bob must have liked the review since a steady stream of books, mostly on French lit and history came my way. There were occasional side-tracks and I felt quite privileged to be invited to tackle Vol 10 of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels. As readers will no doubt recall this volume contains Engels on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 and Marx’s reactions to the events of 1848. I felt sure, since the Star was the only English newspaper allowed in the USSR, that Brezhnev himself would be reading my piece, perhaps after he’d put down Playboy and the Autocar. Bob left the Star in 1980 but I carried on reviewing for the new editor Colin Chambers. Then five years later Colin was deposed in the convulsion which was soon to destroy the old CPGB.
Bob is described as an autodidact but his older brother, Phil, (1925-2004) became a lecturer in Economics at Manchester University alongside that other Marxist lecturer Pat Devine. Phil’s obituary (by Pat Devine) alludes to the schism in the CPGB “He was clear where he stood on the issues that tore the party apart in the 1980s, in no doubt that it had to establish its independence from the Soviet Union and retain control over its daily paper, the Morning Star. But he hated the personal bitterness that this struggle produced, and maintained friendships across divides.” Colin remarks on this acrimony in his letter of 1985 (see below).
At the end of September, after nearly 20 years as Books Editor of the Star, I shall be handing over to Colin Chambers.
This will give the Book Page a new approach and also enable me to give more time to my own writing.
Colin as you knou is Drama Critic of the Star, edits "Plays and Players" and has written two books on the Theatre, as well as being a regular book reviewer.
The Page is in good hands and I am sure that the many reviewers who over the years have worked untiringly for the Star will give Colin the kind of help and co-operation I’ve always enjoyed.
I shall carry on writing for the Star Features Department, to edit Discoverers and organising the reviewing of children s books, so I expect to keep in touch with old comrades and friends, and carry on meeting new ones.
I would like to offer you a special thank you for all you have done for the Star and its Book Page. The paper has benefited from your contribution and I have benefited from working with you.
18 Statham Grove
London N16 9DP
As you may know already I have been kicked out of the Morning Star made redundant to allow the job of books editor to be combined with that of the women s editor in the interests of rationalisation! Mikki Doyle is retiring).
I had written to you earlier,and to many others like you who have helped and encouraged me and in most cases had helped Bob Lesson also but the editor intercepted the letters and stopped them being sent out. That is why I have had to resort to a more formal and uniform letter to you. To be honest,I could not face hand writing all those individual letters again,not just because of the time and energy involved but more because of the emotional stress. It is a sad time...
My reason for writing at all was to tell you that as from the end of January neither Bob nor I would have any further association with the paper and, more importantly, to say thank you for your support, hard work and commitment which made my job both rewarding and possible.
With best wishes for the future,
How We Were - the verso of my first review
It's becoming de rigueur to slag off Amazon and although I can't whole-heartedly support Jeff Bezos and his almost feudal working practices I do recall the dark days when ordering a book in a provincial bookshop was hard work. First you had to convince the ignoramus that such a book existed. In Sherratt’s in the heart of Manchester, back in the 60s, I was told to look for Kafka’s Wedding Preparations in the “marriage section” – a request for Canetti’s Auto da Fe was met with blank incredulity. It might turn up three or four weeks later, and if there was anything wrong with it’d have to go back. You might never get it. Even today a request for David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow in Manchester’s biggest bookshop - the Deansgate Waterstones - is met with a furrowed brow. We are told, after scrutiny of the database, that this work, extensively reviewed in the past month in the broadsheets will not be available until June 2014. On Amazon you can get it tomorrow for £8 off. No wonder bookshops are complaining.
So let’s hear it for the alternative bookshop – the kind of place which short-circuits the industry’s arcane, Victorian distribution process and has stuff on the shelves you’d never see in WH Smiths or Waterstones – stuff like the Oik or the Penniless Press Publications offerings, run by people who are up with the current scene. So, if you’re in the area, perhaps on a pilgrimage to the statue of Brian Clough (that’s two pissheads in one Oiklet) then make tracks to the new Five Leaves Bookshop run by Ross Bradshaw.