Thursday, December 31, 2009

Three good reads and timely

As we reach the end of the year, and not quite over the holiday mood, or the weather, I thought it might be an idea to write about three books I have been reading. If any of you have been given book tokens (do people still give book tokens? ) it might even give you ideas if you have not already got the books.

Margaret Buber-Neumann survived the most inhuman regimes in the 20th century, and witnessed what must be one of history's cruellest betrayals. A nursery nurse, appaled by poverty and injustiuce, she joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and after divorce with her first husband Rafael, son of the philosopher Martin Buber, took up with a member of the KPD politbureau, Heinz Neumann.

After Hitler took power, the Neumanns went to Moscow, finding employment in the work of the Comintern, but in April 1937 the Stalinist purge extended to the internationals. The GPU came for Heinz Neumann, and that was the last Margaret saw of him. Neumann was secretly executed, and then Margaret Buber-Neumann herself was arrested as the "wife of an enemy of the people", and sent to Karaganda, the Central Asian labour camp.

In 1940, after the Nazi-Soviet pact came into force, she and fellow-German and Austrian prisoners found themselves put on another train, this time heading west, they knew not where. Not until they reached the frontier, and saw they were being handed over to the Gestapo. "Bitterly I recalled the Communist litany: Fatherland of the Toilers, Bukwark of Socialism; Haven of the Persecuted.."

It was during the handover that she learned from another prisoner what had happened to Heinz. Then it was on to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she was fortunate enough to be found relatively privileged work, and fortunately for us survived near-fatal illness to write this account of everything she heard and saw. 'Under Two Dictators', first published in 1949, is a historic document, and its republication in 2008 was timely, when not only the Hitlerites but the latter-day Stalinists are trying to whitewash their idols' crimes against humanity and go into denial.

Margaret Buber-Neumann's sister, Babette, incidentally, was married to another victim of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the famous Willi M├╝nzenberg, creator of a host of front organisations. When the Nazis invaded France, Munzenberg, a refugee, was 'sprung' from French custody, only to die mysteriously. In 'Willi M├╝nzenberg: A political biography' (1974), Babette Gross leaves little doubt that this German Communist was disposed of as an embarrassment by the Stalinist team that had 'rescued' him. The Italian Trotskyist Pietro Tresso and his comrades met a similar fate (as described in Pierre Broue's book 'Meurtres Au Maquis') after their escape from a Vichy prison camp. Unfortunately, though its easy to find stuff denouncing Munzenberg and his work, written by anti-communists, in our public libraries, Babette Gross's book is not so easy to come by.

Harking back to days of hope before these betrayals and tragedies, Janine Booth's 'Guilty and Proud of It!' is a heartening reminder that the labour movement has thrown up something better than Labour sell-outs and Stalinist bureaucrats. Ninety years ago, the London borough of Poplar was an area of docks, railway yards and sweatshops, in the words of Edgar Lansbury, "a place where money is made and lives destroyed".

His father George Lansbury became mayor of Poplar at the head of a team of Labour councillors, including Communists like Edgar, who were determined to translate socialist ideas into real improvements and raised expectations for Poplar's working people, including those without work. They built homes, and public baths, and clinics, raised low-paid council workers' wages, including equal pay for women; and rather than cut benefits for the unemployed, they decided to withold the precept which Poplar, along with much richer boroughs, was supposed to pay fort the police. Knowing the penalties, the councillors marched to court, and to prison, where they managed to conduct council business and defy the government, backed by those who had voted for them.

This was 'Poplarism', an inspiration to those who believed they could go into politics to change things for the masses, rather than enriching themselves, and a source of ill-disguised terror for more conventional Labour careerists with their sights on peerages and bank directorships. With a foreword by John McDonnell MP, 'Guilty and Proud Of It!' is well-illustrated, detailed and yet readable, and Janine Booth, an active RMT trade unionist and socialist, as well as an East End mother, is not afraid to discuss more recent battles and whether this 1920's fight has lessons in today's circumstances.

For those who'd only seen Shappi Khorsandi Live at the Apollo or on Have I Got News for You, her appearance at Stratford Circus this Autumn to introduce her book 'A Beginner's Guide to Acting English' may have brought some surprise, as will the book itself. Breaking into the male-dominated stand-up scene and 'spontaneity' may take bravery behind the girly giggles, but there's more to it.

The book does not sit comfortably in the familiar genre of funny foreigners learning the strange ways of English life and language. Without losing her light touch, Shappi reveals the less amusing side of exile, whether the childhood encounters with racism and prejudice, or getting used as a little girl to phone calls from ferocious men threatening to kill her father.

'Baba'(Daddy), Hadi Khorsandi, a popular Iranian satirist, was delighted to see the Shah overthrown by the people in 1979. Shappi's mother had explained to the children how the Shah lived in luxury and did nothing for the poor. But when the revolution was usurped by the "men in black who never smiled", the Khorsandis became not just exiles but threatened targets for the ayatollah's death squads.

Little Shappi thought she would write to Khomeini explaining that her dad was just a nice man who made everybody laugh, and that if the ayatollah came to visit her mother would make him delicious soup. She worried about the Islamic authorities flogging a girl for not wearing correct hijab, and whether they could come to her primary school in Ealing.

Shappi knows her Iranian history, and momentarily surprised her Stratford audience with a reference to how the CIA and MI6 overthrew Dr.Mossadeq for nationalising oil. Two former US presidents had apologised "but Tony Blair just asked 'Dr.who?'

Her sympathies in the book are for ordinary people, like those who sat in the Rex cinema, in a poor district of Abadan, munching pistachio nuts and pumpkin seeds as they watched a controversial film, and were burned to death, more than 400 of them. People thought it was the Shah's secret police who had bolted the doors and started the fire. Later they learned it was ruthless Islamists who calculated it was better to let the innocent be their "martyrs".

I hope I have not put anyone off "A Beginners Guide to Acting English". It is a rich dish, mixing sweetness and spice, and if you find yourself brushing away a tear along with the laughs, well that's life isn't it? Read and enjoy!

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At 4:17 PM, Blogger white rabbit said...

Thanks for the recommendations and for a readable blog through the year - and hopefully for many moons to come!


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