Recess Reading

Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football latest book reviews of reading with popular culture including music, travel, food and history, all with a bit of politics thrown in. 

The silly season? For the Westminster bubble it would be hard to identify a month in the year when ‘silly’ isn’t too soft an epithet to describe what most MPs get up to, supposedly on our behalf. But with Parliament in recess the commentariat like to spread the idea that politics is taking a break too. A politics reduced to the Cameron v Miliband knockabout is something plenty of us can’t get to the beach quick enough to escape from. A broader definition of politics, one that engages with the everyday, the popular, the cultural is something that subverts and is the starting point for a political summer books list that would liven up any reading to be done on the beach, or anywhere else for that matter.

One of the sharpest critics of popular culture is surely the inestimable Paul Morley. For those of a certain age we began reading him in the late 1970’s in the then vital weekly fix that was the New Musical Express at the height of punk , and after that post-punk too. In his new book The North Paul returns to his geographical roots, mainly though not exclusively in the North-West, with a sparkling account rich in history and insight to bring light to a region traditionally regarded by those down south as a bit on the grim side. How England Made the English by Harry Mount in part helps us to understand that North-South divide with an entertaining guide to the biases, attitudes and sometimes prejudices too that construct Englishness. However the best way to understand ourselves, north, south or thereabouts is via how we are regarded by others. Philip Oltermann’s superb Keeping Up With The Germans helps us to do that via what remains our most important international relationships in terms of defining Englishness via sport, history and politics. Just the book for any holiday read as the race for the sunloungers commences, arf! arf!

Providing an alternative soundtrack for the seasonal break two very different music books. The Frontman by Harry Browne is a splendidly vicious polemic against the do-goodery of U2’s Bono which starts out with the best of intentions and ends up providing a cover for the status quo (as in the state of the world rather than the ageing rock band.) A more hopeful account of the agitational mischief music can provide, and a near-perfect read for those whose travels are taking them more to the far-flung than the nearest beach, is Peter Culshaw’s Clandestino. This is the story of Manu Chao, a one-man band mix of world music and anti-globalisation providing the sounds for demos and protests from Latin America to New York via Barcelona and Rome. Not as big a name as he deserves to be here, this book helps connect us to his world-wide impact, part road trip, part biography, all of it a joy to read.

Or alternatively a graphic novel type history of the finest piece of radical poetry ever written? Masks of Anarchy by Michael Demson uses this most accessible of forms to provide a fascinating, and uplifting, history of Shelley’s masterpiece, easy-to-read and sure to inspire.

For many part of the fun of being on holiday is trying out a different cuisine. Food and taste, is a rare feature in the politics of change, its potential however is revealed in all its culinary glory by the amazing cookbook The Gaza Kitchen by Laila El-Hadded and Maggie Schmitt. Each recipe is placed firmly in its Palestinian context, richly illustrated , incredibly informative of life in Palestine via a perspective few had previously thought of, the food that is cooked there. Transform your own cooking habits as a tool that combines good food and practical solidarity, what a grand and novel proposition.

It is just the kind of idea I imagine appealing to Rob Hopkins author of The Power of Just Doing Stuff. A book that details how small acts can accumulate to produce huge change. Localised, do-it yourself politics that can make a real difference to both individuals and communities. Mike Rustin’s latest contribution to the After Neoliberalism Manifesto has its origins perhaps within the ambition of a grander narrative yet rooted in a vital analysis of the key role of human relations for the progressive project there are a variety of connections to this localism too. Read Mike’s chapter as a free download here. Perhaps though rather than narratives, grand or otherwise, joining the local to the global, we should be looking instead at how the internet is transforming how we do, or should be doing, our politics. Untangling the Web by Aleks Krotoski is a highly readable account of how the world wide web is affecting our lives, our work, relationships and communications. Just the book to read when sorting out your vacation wi-fi connection. Traditional favourite holiday destinations from Portugal,Spain and Greece have been at the epicentre of anti-austerity protests which in large measure cannot be divorced either from the impact of the 2011 Arab Spring. The best available analysis of how these disparate versions of resistance represent a new version of oppositional politics is presented in two books by social theorist Manuel Castells. Networks of Outrage and Hope and the edited collection Aftermath. For an original insight from a younger generation, pack JD Taylor’s Negative Capitalism a breezy yet angrily creative excavation of domestic resistance after the Winter 2010 anti-tuition fee protests.

JD Taylor impresses because he acutely juggles originality with an awareness that the ‘new’ is always as much rooted rooted in history as the present. There is absolutely nothing wrong, in fact everything right, about uncovering those who resisted in the past provided we don’t become the prisoners of our history. Granite and Honey, the biography of East End Communist MP Phil Piratin, is just the kind of book to provide a history that matters. The journal Twentieth Century Communism is an unrivalled source on the history of the communist tradition, meticulously researched, a joy to read, the latest edition is themed round Local Communisms, ranging over experiences in Germany, France, Spain, Canada, the USSR and elsewhere. The dissenting tradition within Communism date back to its origins, friends and foes alike were too easily fooled into thinking that a monolithic politics could extinguish a more plural culture both within and without. Paul Gordon’s Vagabond Witness accounts for the ideas and ideals of one of the most important figures in dissent communism, Victor Serge. Socialism from Below by Dave Renton is concerned with a different tradition, the SWP variant of Trotskyism/Leninism yet his recounting of the potential for a more libertarian version of Marxism has a relevance and appeal way beyond the party members he may be writing for in the first instance. Yet this is an era which demands perhaps a deeper rupture in these varied versions of the radical tradition. McKenzie Wark’s earlier work The Beach beneath the Street remains the seminal account of The Situationist International. His latest book The Spectacle of Disintegration continues the story into the post 1960s. The Situationists’ originality was at times overstated, however this should not be allowed to obscure their splendid revolt against the orthodoxy and dogma that revolt can produce every bit as much as its erstwhile opponents.

A very different reading of history is provided by the anniversaries of World War Two. But it is a gross error, too easily committed by many on the Left, to dismiss the potential for an anti-fascist reading of these moments too. Dambusters by James Holland is one pointer towards that opportunity. This most famous of bombing raids took place in 1943, the year too of the Red Army’s victory at Kursk, in Italy the rising of the partisans, and the securing of the Atlantic Convoy lines of supply by an heroic, and largely unarmed, Merchant Navy following the defeat of the Nazi U-boats.

It is fascism that provides the common theme for my pick of the summer novels. Pereira Maintains by Portuguese author Antonio Tabucchi is short enough to almost qualify as a novella, yet in its 195 closely-plotted pages this is a book that depicts the frighteningly casual way in which prejudice, authoritarianism and brutal state power can mould a gradual descent into fascism. It is a book set in pre-war, and supposedly neutral, Lisbon, Laurent Binet’s HhhH takes the reader to the horror that was the misrule of occupied Czechoslovakia commanded over by Himmler’s number two, and architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich. Written as a contemporary fictionalised account, Binet provides both context and impressive detail on the eventual assassination of Heydrich. His account of the mealy-mouthed appeasement that had condemned Czechoslovakia to the fate Heydrich was to inflict on this country is hugely effective. It is this period that also provides the backdrop to easily the most imaginative novels of my pick, CJ Sansom’s Dominion. Others may have tried to imagine a Britain occupied by Nazi Germany but nobody has come close to Sansom’s political insight and crafting of a plot to describe what a Britain that had sued for peace after Dunkirk might have looked like. A stunningly brilliant book, though quite what the final two pages of the afterword denouncing the SNP is doing there I must admit remains beyond me, however not enough to spoil the enjoyment of this fantastic book.

And the book of the quarter? It just has to be Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. The very best investigative journalism reveals the scale of Britain’s secret police agents operating within the anti-racist, environmental, animal liberation and other movements. Reads like a thriller yet never loses sight of the political consequences of what these agents were getting up to and what their actions mean for our understanding of the right to protest. It is rare for a book of this kind to combine such great writing, revelation and popular impact. A read more than enough to liven up any summer, spent on holiday or otherwise.

Mark Perryman

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