Star critics Paul Simon, Ian Sinclair and Steve Andrew on the reads that have impressed them this year
Four of my five books of 2014, as has been the case in previous years, look backwards for their material. It is as if the current contradictions of capitalism and the possible socialist responses to it are still too challenging for authors to tackle directly.
Ajay Close’s Trust is set 30 years ago as the great miners’ strike is unfolding. Although Lexa works for a regional merchant bank, she is a working-class socialist and so is the butt of the predominantly boorish company culture.
Her disillusionment with her chosen career is exacerbated as she befriends an NUM official she thinks is seeking to save a private colliery from asset-strippers commissioned by her firm.
The whole work is like a slowly clenching and rising fist of anger as Lexa sees the damage being done to mining communities and vulnerable women, in particular by Establishment class warriors.
Also with a specific regional location is Gareth Thomas’s A Welsh Dawn, a more uplifting account of the reawakening of that nation’s political consciousness. Using imagined conversations between real figures, Thomas adroitly reveals both the efforts of the Council of Wales to gain more autonomy from the duplicitous Macmillan government and zeroes into some very private stories of his fictional characters as they grapple with their Welsh heritage and the need to accommodate themselves to the dominance of English language and culture.
The work’s main character, solicitor Dafydd Williams, emerges as the epitome of — and a tribute to — those hundreds and thousands of working-class Welsh people whose determination and sacrifice secured them greater control over their own affairs.
As its title suggests, British Story strives to colonise a much broader terrain of land and history. Michael Nath’s book achieves this with an audacious, encyclopaedic tour of the often violent and always edgy relationship between the English, Welsh and Scottish nations.
Nath is equally adept at providing satellite views of events such as the country’s railway network or the tactics of football hooliganism as he is in zooming down to specific and sadly little-known details of our socialist forebears.
Hence the reader learns about the Plebs’ League, Arthur Horner and the communist village of Mardy and the mysterious WWII “stoplines.”
Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom is set in the latter years of the Soviet Union. In it an unnamed woman, mute except for reflections on her troubled recent past, is joined in her railway carriage by an outsized male traveller. He is an incredible, seemingly semi-mystical, but all too human teller of stories.
Liksom draws out the aching contrast between the increasingly claustrophobic interior and the wide expanses of the taiga viewed through their cabin window.
As the train travels eastwards the weather is beginning to change. With a conscious homage to Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw, the coming spring reflects changes in the woman herself and the coming betrayal of the Soviet Union by those charged with its defence.
The only book set in the present day shares some of the cramped intensity of parts of Liksom’s novel. In Confessions of a Terrorist by Richard Jackson, two men confront each other across a table in an airless, bland interrogation room.
One, the “Professor,” is a thoughtful, well-informed but angry Islamist fighter. Michael, the other, is a more cautious, emotionally neutral and narrowly legalistic British intelligence officer.
Written in the form of a redacted transcript, virtually the only voices are of these protagonists. Within this simple framework, Jackson offers the reader an experience far more compelling than a mere piece of recorded bureaucracy.
By the end, the author has more than adequately demonstrated the meaninglessness of the word terrorist as generically applied to those facing Western military might.
Like her 1999 book No Logo, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism v The Climate (Allen Lane) is set to become a generation-defining manifesto, radically altering the political debate on the most important issue of the 21st century.
Her central argument is that we have climate change back to front — it’s about capitalism, not carbon. Of course, our contribution to rising carbon emissions is resulting in a very real danger to ordered human society but the central problem is the deregulated capitalism which came to dominance in the late 1980s.
It is this growthist and privatisation-obsessed economic system, built on excessive consumption, that is tipping us over the cliff into dangerous climate change.
And it’s the corporate control of politics and media that has made it very difficult to make the kind of change that is required to make the planet safe for future generations. As Russell Brand summarises: “Today humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.”
A large portion of the book focuses on possible solutions, many of which, says Klein, “have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.”
Klein has little time for colluding with big business, so-called billionaire climate philanthropists like Richard Branson or techno fixes like geo-engineering. Rather, she argues “only mass movements can save us now,” urging all existing activist movements to join together in the fight against climate change.
This Changes Everything is essential reading for anyone interested in the wellbeing of the planet and everyone and everything on it.
If you are wondering whether activism achieves anything I would also recommend the inspirational Here We Stand: Women Changing the World (Honno Press).
Edited by Helena Earnshaw and Angharad Penrhyn Jones, the book is made up of interviews and contributions from 17 women activists who have made the world a better place by non-violently protesting about issues as diverse as Israeli aggression, road building and Welsh language rights.
Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster) is a central text of what commentators are now calling fourth wave-feminism.
Accessible, witty and full of facts and impregnable arguments, all women and men interested in challenging the dominant culture which is so “steeped in misogyny and the objectification and subjugation of women” should read this book.
Over the past few years a number of books have been published about the history of the Communist Party in Britain, with some OK-ish and others nothing short of dire.
All too often the tendency has been to argue that the party was a foreign import that never had any impact and that where individuals did achieve something this was almost in spite of them being communists rather than because of it.
British Communists: The Untold Story by John Green (Artery Publications, £12.50) was one of my favourite books of 2014 because it stands in complete opposition to all of this.
Despite never having, for example, the mass electoral success that it wanted — although even here critics have gone way overboard — the CPGB and indeed its successor the CPB has had an influence on British society out of all proportion to its size.
Green covers every angle from the role of communists in the peace, labour and anti-fascist movements to less well-known contributions in arts, culture and lifestyle.
With guest chapters penned by Andy Croft and Graham Stevenson, it’s a wonderfully inspiring story about a party many have been keen to write out of history altogether.
As someone who survived the Great Depression and was a veteran of the second world war, 91-year-old Harry Smith looks at present day society and doesn’t like what he sees.
And indeed, what is there to like when one witnesses growing danger from right-wing groups, greater inequality and ongoing corruption along with attacks on the NHS and the welfare state?
Harry’s Last Stand (Icon Books £8.99) is a moving exploration of the world Smith and his generation managed to create and the threats posed to it today.
Less a lament and more a call to arms, its abiding message is simply one based around the core values of decency, respect and commitment that we can use to unite the many in order to defeat the few. The choice is ours.
Fathomless Riches by Richard Coles (Orion Books, £20) tells his story from rising to fame as a member of The Communards in the 1980s.
Coles (right) was active on the left and also well into drugs and sex but eventually he decided to give all of this up and became a vicar instead. This is very much his story about why he did so. Witty, honest and — no pun intended — irreverent, it is very much a personal and at times heart-breaking account about what it was like to be gay during the period with a bit of pop-world gossip thrown in as well.