But what were even gold and silver, precious stones and clockwork, to the bookshops, whence a pleasant smell of paper freshly pressed came issuing forth, awakening instant recollections of some new grammar had at school, long time ago, with ‘Master Pinch, Grove House Academy’, inscribed in faultless writing on the fly-leaf! That whiff of Russia leather, too, and all those rows on rows of volumes, neatly ranged within – what happiness did they suggest! And in the window were the spick-and-span new works from London, with the title-pages, and sometimes even the first page of the first chapter, laid wide open: tempting unwary men to begin to read the book, and then, in the impossibility of turning over, to rush blindly in, and buy it! ― Charles Dickens
‘Keep this klaxon horn under your chair. If the fascists come in, give it a squeeze and we’ll be out in a flash,’ Martin Spence said to me. He was the gentle bearded Anarchist who ran the Days of Hope socialist bookshop in Newcastle and I was the teenage volunteer. It was the late 1970s, the North East was on its knees (little did we know the worst was yet to come) and I was fresh from a fateful encounter with Paul Foot’s Why You Should Be A Socialist.
Unsure what Martin was capable of should the NF – quite a thing at the time – storm in, I remember I kept a set of Yale keys on a chain in my pocket. Slipped through the fingers of a fist, so the schoolyard talk went, they were the poor person’s improvised device. As it turned out, excitement was limited to Hilary Wainwright buying up half the shop from time to time (I exaggerate only slightly) and whirlwind visits from SWP organiser Andy Strouthous who would drop off copies of Socialist Worker, talk about local strikes and, if he could, gently abuse Martin. (I remember the staff would poke their heads out of the tiny back shop and ask ‘Has “Struggle Brothers” gone yet?)
And there were the shoplifters, of course. They would carry their stolen trophies – Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, perhaps, or maybe one of Harold Heslop’s socialist realist mining novels that I’d buy for my Mam for Christmas– over to the second hand shop on the opposite side of Westgate Road. My memory is that we would trudge over – and I am always cold and trudging through dirty sleet when I think of those years – and buy the stolen books back.
But I loved Days of Hope. It was the size of a front room (think of the bookshop in the film Pride but smaller) but to me it contained worlds. And for a bibliophile – which I was beginning to suspect was the deeper me than the footballer – it was very heaven. On a slow weekday afternoon, when hours went by with few customers, I had the run of the shop.
Talking to (actually, mostly listening to) socialist intellectuals was an education in itself. Martin the Anarchist was a contributor to Capital and Class, a Green when very few socialists were, and someone who could talk expertly about the record of the Bolsheviks, and about his pantheon of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Ida Mett. There was the writer Andy McSmith, then in the International Marxist Group, later to be a fine journalist at The Independent and, later still, an aide to the Labour leader John Smith. And back then Alan Milburn was not advising capitalists how to privatise the NHS. He was a restless young man talking excitedly about the wave of sit-ins and occupations, about the potential for workers democratic planning and for taking over the factories of the ailing local multinationals.
And there, in a great long line lapping towards me like waves, were all the socialist newspapers. After plunging in many times, I decided Socialist Organiser (later the AWL), made the most sense. And so, as Jackson Browne puts it, on the brave and crazy wings of youth I went flying around in the rain. I joined Socialist Organiser (which became the AWL) on the day I arrived at Manchester University. Clive Bradley recruited me. Clive was a lovely man who was then my model of an intellectual – he would routinely best Paul Mason of Workers Power in debate, as well as introducing me to dope cake and the Doors. (He is now an exceptionally talented writer, most recently the scriptwriter for the splendid BBC series Trapped, set in Iceland.)
My reverie is prompted by an event in London on Saturday.
So I have an appeal to make. Please consider going to Bookmarks and buying a book (or as I did recently, a bust of Rosa Luxemburg, a second hand book about the history of the Central Labour College and Don Watson’s book about the National Unemployed Workers Movement in the North East, 1920-1940). Whatever takes your fancy: as Dickens says, just rush blindly in, and buy it! Those outside London could buy something online. One of the best bookshops in London, with a great second hand section, Bookmarks is five minutes from Tottenham Court Road Tube.
Look, if you don’t fancy Cliff’s four-volume study of Lenin, which I am guessing is not top of the must-read list for too many Harry’s Placers, then buy a novel, or perhaps pick up my own little book, co-authored for the TUC with Abdullah Muhsin, Hadi Never Died: Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi Trade Unions. It used to be just to the right of the till in the Trade Union section.
It is a time for elementary solidarity in the face of a Fascist attack. And it’s about books, and the monsters who would burn or trash them. Tomorrow, we can argue with the SWP (perhaps by offering a timely reminder that its members should stop trashing the bookstalls of other leftwing groups). Today, buy a book please.