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Socialist Review, May 1994

Penny Kay

My favourite books


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Penny Kay is a socialist from Manchester. She and Rhetta Moran have been charged under the Public Order Act for throwing eggs at Virginia Bottomley outside Trafford hospital.

I left the Labour Party as a student in 1971 to join IS, the forerunner of the SWP. I remember a comrade suggested I read Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism – A Study in the Politics of Labour. I can’t pretend I read it all, in fact I can now admit I only read the first few pages. But the first two sentences have stayed with me ever since: ‘Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour.’ A pretty good starting point if you want to explain Labour’s appalling record.

A book I did read to the end – but don’t pretend to completely understand – is Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, a fascinating study of the 530 million year old fossils of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. His basic project is a total reinterpretation of the place of these important fossils in history.

Much of the book is therefore a detailed re-examination of the fossils themselves. If you want a different kind of detective story this is it.

I can remember my excitement as a child reading Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. Girls as well as boys had adventures on Wild Cat Island, messing about in boats.

Years later I was amazed to discover Ransome had not only visited Russia at the time of the workers’ revolution in 1917, he had written sympathetic interviews with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders.

Arthur Ransome in Revolutionary Russia is a boxed set containing the two books he wrote about the Russian Revolution – Six Weeks in Russia and Russia in Crisis – with an inspiring introduction, as always, by Paul Foot. Arthur Ransome was in Petrograd during the 1917 February Revolution. Unfortunately – surely every revolutionary’s nightmare – he returned to Britain on holiday in September and so missed the October Revolution! He managed to return on Christmas Day. As he rushed around Petrograd, often in great danger, during the February Revolution he recorded:

‘I do not think I shall ever be so happy in my life as I was during those first days when I saw working men and peasant soldiers sending representatives of their class and not of mine. I remembered Shelley’s, “Shake your chains to earth like dew, Which in sleep had fallen on you. Ye are many – they are few”.’

Unlike his fellow liberals Ransome saw that the real democracy of the workers’ council – the soviet – was a thousand times more democratic than the constituent assembly (parliament). Delegates to the rough and ready workers’ councils were directly elected and recallable and therefore responsible to the workers.

Mike Rosen is another writer with the same unsentimental closeness to children’s lives as Ransome. His amusing poems about children’s hopes and fears are brilliantly illustrated by Quentin Blake. Mike is also a broadcaster and active in educational and anti-racist campaigns (he contributed to the Anti Nazi League education pack, Fighting the Nazi Threat Today).

Last year we went to a north Manchester synagogue to hear him read from his new book of poetry, You Are, Aren’t You?, published by the Jewish Socialist Group and Mushroom Books. His wit gives way to anger at the hypocrisy and cruelty of the capitalist system worldwide in his recent political poems, such as Holocaust Denial:

‘Vultures cackled over our corpses:
their old dreams had taken shape:
we were carrion at last.
Vultures scoured and cleaned,
tidied up the carnage,
wanting no leftovers.
Vultures are looming now,
they hover over high-rise wrecks
and hungry queues,
hunting bodies,
screeching, “Corpses? what corpses?
We’re pretty boys!
Pretty boys!”
Parading as parrots,
they don’t fool us –
because we are the leftovers,
the ones that poison vultures.’

Jew and gentile, black and white, together we can smash the Nazis!

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