Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a reviewer for the Morning Star.

A Hello to Arms
Tuesday, 14 December 2021 16:41

A Hello to Arms

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews the latest novel from Dennis Broe, A Hello to Arms

Fresh from exposing the murderous and duplicitous Hollywood of the immediate post-war period, Harry Palmer finds his next commission broadly doing the same for California’s other boom sector of the time: aircraft manufacturing. As with Dennis Broe’s first outing for the ex-LAPD private investigator, A Hello to Arms is first and foremost a knowing homage to the classic US version of the detective genre. But it is also a respectful one, steering away from postmodernist sneering.

The author uses the required conventions: dry, if not always droll commentary, a hero teetering on the brink of earning the sobriquet ‘anti’ before that title, the over-use of coincidences ('I was in luck') and a cast of memorable and flawed characters, especially the female ones. But these fixtures and fittings allow Broe a huge degree of confidence and latitude to explore topics and develop narratives that are usually unreferenced or only obliquely noted in more traditional interpretations.

He even introduces a female Palmer sidekick, although the third person accounts of her novice investigations slightly jar against Palmer's stentorian first-person descriptions. This combination of familiar tropes seen through new perspectives also allows the reader to orientate themselves and immerse their attention in a thoroughly enjoyable story.

In this novel’s predecessor, East of Eden, Palmer found himself in a world dominated by exploitation built upon the aspirations of millions. A Hello To Arms is likewise focussed on exploitation, this time by the growing strength of the military-industrial complex and its tightening grip on US foreign and economic policy.

The lives of ordinary workers at Aerodynamics is especially dangerous and insecure, as the company looks to maintain its vast profits and beat back union organising efforts. Palmer is commissioned by Horace Williams an African-American who has been sacked from this job at the Stink Works, an especially secretive part of the complex. Whatever is going on there has impacted upon his client's memory and he is seeking compensation and some measure of justice. The sprawling interests of the arms industry are shown both in vivid descriptions of massive factory encroachments into the desert and through their embrace of the main political parties.

The novel's action is helpfully set during a series of rallies held by the Progressive Party presidential and anti-war candidate, Henry Wallace and soon Palmer is embroiled in investigating not just Williams' case but a political assassination as well. Being Harry Palmer, his manages to pick up a number of intertwined commissions along the way, further heightening the reader's sense that they are entering a moral and political maze with no obvious way out.

Broe more than hints at the impact of all this cross-stitched covert work on Palmer's own mental health as we see his downward despair into alcoholic and sex worker-infused binges. With references to contemporary 1940s culture and the blistering impact of racial injustices on individuals and whole communities , including a very personal playing out of the Tulsa riots, this novel is a mission accomplished. By being structurally true to its core genre, but endlessly extending it through a radical choice of issues and narrative backdrops, A Hello To Arms is a thoroughly enjoyable and successful literary mash-up.

A barricade of resistance: Review of From the Plough to the Stars
Sunday, 29 November 2020 14:08

A barricade of resistance: Review of From the Plough to the Stars

Published in Life Writing

Paul Simon reviews From the Plough to the Stars, edited by Jenny Farrell

This anthology is another impressive book from the Culture Matters imprint and is funded by a range of Irish trade unions and trades councils. Inspired by James Connolly's freedom call, these 49 compact works are the product of some of the most original and vibrant contemporary working-class Irish voices.

When offered such a breadth and variety of formats and topics, it is best that the reader plunges in a way best suited to them rather than following any pre-determined path. Just follow your nose for subversive ideas and punchy but lyrical writing and this collection will provide oceans of wonder.

For me this meant starting with Andy Snoddy's arrestingly titled The Radical Protestant Tradition in which the author recounts to his grandchildren the roles taken by his and others' forebears in the battles for Irish Independence. In doing so, Snoddy cleanly resets the establishment narrative that the Catholic and Protestant communities are pre-determined to be in opposition to each other.

His reference to the role of Linda Ervine's Gaelic Language classes in East Belfast hooks me onto her own life writing contribution here – Education. Here, Ervine recounts her determination, throughout an adult life initially defined by children and a violent husband and the pompous middle-class snobbery of some fellow students, to rise above her bouts of uncertainty. This is inspirational writing, charting an upwards trajectory bursting with working pride and achievement.

An adjacent piece of what the book rather limply refers to as memoir is very much of the COVID moment. In Mothering Through The Pandemic, Attracta Fahy conveys the stifling, cloying atmosphere of a room in which a mother keeps in touch with her children across the globe via video calls. The children, especially her eldest child a hospital worker in California deliberately resort to protecting their mother with the deadpan 'grand' when asked how they were doing creates a mounting sense of worry.

In the first work of fiction I turned to, this emotional journeying is wonderfully, puckishly inverted. In The Dodgy Box, Rachael Hegarty locates mum Debbie as she wanders further and further into an unfamiliar neighbourhood in search of a contact who will sell her a pirated decoder, allowing her family to avoid going stir crazy during the COVID restrictions.

Hegarty skilfully, almost imperceptibly, builds up the tension as Debbie's sense of threat begins to heighten in this, to her, strange environment. She's both dressed down and also keeps her eyes down from the curious glances of local residents. Yet rather than a traditional denouement or cataclysm, the author concludes with an act of both breathtaking, but also every day working-class solidarity and care. Far from being an anticlimax, this actually leaves the reader fist pumping in recognition of this eternal truth.

Back to life writing, but on a similar theme, Liz Gillis's The Liberties: We Don’t Eat Our Young Here Anymore is as close as any piece of writing can possibly get to being a clenched fist of resistance. A perennially disregarded 'other' part of central Dublin, Gillis recounts the community battles of the Liberties going back centuries against opportunistic spivs, OCD planners and others to reform, sanitise and destroy this cohesive but unacceptable working-class enclave. Her account never romanticises the people: it doesn't need to: they are heroes united in their struggle.

Victoria McNulty recalls another hero – a long dead mother – in her microscopically observed White Horses. Part of the Irish diaspora generationally settled, but not always welcomed in Scotland, her daughter recalls in the 1990s an industrious and kind woman, perplexed by the carnage taking place in her birth home of Derry. Elegiacally, McNulty conjures up Proustian wonders, from the steaming kitchen where her mother prepared the family's meals to her nervous love of the sea. The daughter, pulled back to Ireland, takes her son on a Troubles tourist trail to recapture her mother's elusive beginnings.

As unfettered capitalism and the COVID pandemic exacerbate the conditions of the working class in Ireland – and everywhere else – this book is a barricade of collective, imaginative resistance to our economic and political enemies. 

From the Plough to the Stars, ISBN 978-1-912710-36-2, £11 plus p. and p. from here.

Hollywood corruption in the McCarthy period: Left of Eden
Sunday, 02 August 2020 09:09

Hollywood corruption in the McCarthy period: Left of Eden

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews Dennis Broe's new novel

Author Dennis Broe is an international expert on film noir and an acclaimed socialist writer, as his dialectical and highly readable contributions to this website and his reviews for the Morning Star evidence.

In his first novel Left of Eden, his expansive knowledge informs his homage to past crime writers such as Raymond Chandler and to the US film workers and socialists who faced the purges of the McCarthy years of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Eschewing a self-mocking pastiche, Broe toys with the hardboiled American crime-thriller genre in the novel and, within the firmly established canon of a smart but wonderfully compromised private detective, various troubled clients, a cohort of devious criminals and plodding FBI muscle, he expands upon the political corruption at the heart of the US.

Harry Palmer, ingloriously late of the LAPD, has been hired by Democritus, a leftist film studio specialising in grittily realist tales, to uncover who is blackmailing its leading actor Jason “Gabby” Gabriel. Palmer quickly bumps up against the desperate and exploitative wings of a Hollywood culture that is bending to accommodate the growing state-sponsored anti-communism of the years immediately after the second world war. Broe adeptly demonstrates that the ecology of the US film business is an augmented version of society as a whole, with a few studio owners, themselves in hock to Wall Street, inflicting sexual and economic despotism over a dizzyingly large number of wannabe actors, mostly young women.

Palmer’s investigations see him commissioned by other clients connected to Gabriel, such that the plot eventually resembles a gigantic ouroboros, a serpent consuming itself and everything else in its way. Murder, beatings, exploitation, hidden sexuality and artistic freedoms and integrity are dominant themes in the novel and, in the hands of a less assured writer, they would surely strangle its narrative and impetus.

But Broe manages to successfully carry the whole project through to a most satisfying conclusion, thanks to compelling characterisation and clever dialogue, in which wisecracking conversations provide moments of humour, as in this exchange between Palmer and Democritus’s accountant:

“Are you honest?”
“As honest as the day is long,” I said.
“The days are getting shorter.”

Left of Eden is published by Pathmark Press, £11.66.

Relating the personal to the political: Stormlight, by Jan Woolf
Sunday, 09 February 2020 10:12

Relating the personal to the political: Stormlight, by Jan Woolf

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews Jan Woolf's latest collection of short stories

This latest collection by Jan Woolf is like a Swiss Army penknife. Each is of different length and intention but all gleam with an incisiveness that will impress even the most casual reader.

There are arguably two themes which unite this compact literary tool. The first is the presence of the political and the profound lying just underneath the surface of seemingly mundane human encounters which Woolf digs away at.The other has the writer forensically carving out the shape of close relationships, vertically between the age groups and horizontally within the same generational span.

One of the most effective combines both. The opening paragraphs of The Baton meander inconsequentially enough as a daughter pushes her wheelchair-bound mother through the streets of Sidmouth. Yet our sympathies shift quickly as the seemingly curmudgeonly older woman is revealed as a hardened veteran of numerous anti-nuclear campaigns.

Forced to relocate from Faslane by her daughter, she bemoans the inter-generational decline in political commitment: “I was rattling the fence at Greenham Common while you were just writing about it,” she declares.

In Polls Apart, in which a mother and daughter are attending their first counselling session, Woolf reprises this somewhat pessimistic view. The consultation is dominated by their opposing views on the country’s vote to leave the European Union. The mother articulates an evidenced and class-based Lexit position, while the younger woman more naively and emotionally castigates her decision, repeating bourgeois liberal tropes about the intelligence and motivations of the white working class. She cannot, yet, see beyond this windy rhetoric and her rage compromises the counsellor in the process.

A gentler, and one-way, communication between the generations is revealed in letter form in Dear Harry, which records the redacted thoughts of an anxious but politically astute mother as she writes to her son somewhere on the Western Front. The censor has left in the everyday comments but removed those that criticise the conflict and its origins. But, somewhere along the line, the mother’s warnings must have registered as the story ends with a footnote explaining that the recipient is Harry Patch. In describing war as “organised mass murder,” he famously snubbed Tony Blair,

In picking away at horizontal relationships, Woolf delivers pathos in Cultural Studies, where a young woman reflects on the end of her affair with a frankly insufferable postmodernist while Icarus is a comic narrative of a back marker on a ramble fantasising about a fellow walker and Voice Over bursts with humour and tension as two London Underground employees worry over the wording of a tannoy announcement as a prelude to sex.

One of the most powerful stories is also the shortest. Navaswan describes the encounter between an aged and dying yogi and brash Indian modernity in the form of man who wants to develop his cave. In the end, both achieve what they want.

Full credit to Jan Woolf for these uncompromising, moving and witty stories.

The book launch of Stormlight takes place on Friday February 28, 7-8.30pm, at Housmans bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX. Free.

Saturday, 29 October 2016 15:24

The Handsworth Times

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews a novel set in 1980s Handsworth, at the time of the riots.

This novel by Sharon Duggal of life in early-1980s working-class Birmingham during the time of inner-city rioting is defined by the greater and lesser griefs of the Agarwal family.Through their voices, the wonderful cussedness of a people and a community that will not be destroyed either by itself or by others speaks loud and clear.

The tone of loss is set early on, with father Mukesh Agarwal supping in a pub as the storms of a riot gather around him. In the mayhem of the confrontation, he helps to smother the flames engulfing a young man just before the ambulance arrives. A little later, Mukesh’s son Billy is knocked down and killed by a hurrying ambulance and, while Duggal is too good an author to suggest it’s the same vehicle, Mukesh’s devastation is complete.

As he slips into even greater alcoholic incoherence and joblessness, the other family members gravitate to different points on the compass of grief. The mother Usha, trying to wash away the stain of her loss, is obsessed with cleaning while son Kavi becomes totally nihilistic. Eldest daughter Nina escapes to university and commits the most heinous crime — she falls in love with a Pakistani man, while Kamela’s first experience of same-sex affection is shattered by violence and she retreats into the home. Anila, the youngest and most outspoken daughter, joins the dots between the family’s struggles and those of the wider community and becomes an activist in the Handsworth Youth Movement.

She, at least, confronts the wider griefs that threaten their community — the street thuggery of the still potent National Front and the vicious class struggle unleashed by the Thatcher administration’s deliberate destruction of manufacturing and the trade unions. But along with real solidarity lies betrayal and further violence and Anila must struggle to come to terms with a confusing and fallen world.

The novel accords all of these characters, with the exception of the declining Mukesh, the power of agency. Usha, no longer just a weeping mother figure, suddenly emerges as a catalyst for change. All, with the support of others, summon the energy to give voice to the community’s concerns and in doing so reunite the fraying bonds of working-class solidarity in new ways.

The Handsworth Times, utterly of a specific place and time but also universal in its themes, is a prose act of praise to the humanist spirit that will never succumb to fear and hatred. It is quite simply the most accomplished, complete and startlingly authentic novel I have read this year.

The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose at £8.99. This review first appeared in the Morning Star.

Lizzie Burns, 1865
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:46

Book review: Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea

Published in Fiction

Gavin McCrea was inspired to write this fictionalised account of Lizzie Burns by the fleeting references to her in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. Obviously, had he read the superior description of the latter’s life by John Green, he would have learnt a little more about her. Nonetheless, the relative lack of information about both Lizzie and her sister Mary, an earlier lover of Engels, provides the spaces within which McCrea has been able to imagine her voice, her body and her character in this exceptionally absorbing and satisfying novel. And in so doing, McCrea gives flesh and feeling back to not only Engels, but also Karl Marx, his family and a host of others associated with the birth of scientific socialism. These are the poster boys of our movement taken down from the banners we carry and placed firmly in the midst of their own challenges and triumphs.

The action alternates between London in 1870/1 and Manchester in the 1860s. In the former, Lizzie and Engels are establishing themselves, with varying degrees of success, in Primrose Hill so as to be nearer to the Marx family and the centre of the nascent International during the tumultuous times around the rise and destruction of the Paris Commune.

The mood progressively darkens, not only because the Engels’ household becomes the target of state agents and brick-wielding thugs, but also due to Lizzie’s declining health. In the earlier period, there is an equal sense of tension, but in this case largely confined within the domestic sphere as Lizzie’s ambiguous and at times downright suspicious attitude to Engels and his treatment of Mary is played out. Engels comes across as being genuinely concerned with both of them, but all too frequently distracted by his wider work and relationship with Marx.
The Lizzie created, or maybe more accurately re-created, by McCrea is an expression of her class and nationality’s growing sense of their own subservient situation.

‘Mrs’ Engels emerges as a no-nonsense Sancho Panza to her partner’s Quixote. She is better by far in dealing with the nuances and stresses of straddling two quite distinct social worlds, although this didn’t extend to building a mutually respectful relationship with her domestic workers – wonderful Moliere characters both better with the back chat than with the breakfast. Whilst only tangentially interested in the fate of continental revolutionaries, Lizzie maintains her old Irish contacts and involves herself in providing a safe house for those involved in the daring but ultimately failed attempt to rescue two Fenian freedom fighters, Kelly and Deasy, from their fate at the hands of British justice.

Purists might dislike and recoil from descriptions of Engels’ penis or Marx’s carbuncles, but McCrea re-creates such a detailed sense of turbulent times and turbulent people that the reader is engaged and enthralled by both the personal and revolutionary worlds colonised by his characters no matter what. Lizzie Burns emerges from it all as a working class woman to be admired and loved, not only because of her loves and friendships, but because of her unsentimental courage and determination to build a better world.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.

Book review: A Very British Ending, by Edward Wilson
Thursday, 10 December 2015 19:32

Book review: A Very British Ending, by Edward Wilson

Published in Fiction

I confess: I was always going to be personally, professionally and critically supportive of this engaging and intriguing novel. For between all the various British, American and Soviet spies who populate this book, the real hero is……Harold Wilson. I’ve had a soft spot for the maligned (maligned that is by right-wingers and ultra leftists) Labour Prime minister. After all, it was the Wilson government whose education reforms gave me, a working class boy, the chance to go to university. I ended up at Wilson’s old college and recall as a truculent undergraduate almost literally bumping into him in the mid-1980s as he was led around the college grounds by the then Principal. He looked both ill and ill-at-ease.

Edward Wilson’s novel interweaves fictional characters within the fabric of reported history to show how Wilson the politician, at that point the President of the Board of Trade, was a marked man the moment he delivered Rolls Royce engines – in return for food and timber – to Stalin’s embattled country in the 1940s at the behest of Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps. The CIA – and the bourgeois elements in the British secret services - needed a fall guy as a lever to tighten their growing grip on the right-wing of the Labour Party. From then on, Wilson was the subject of a continuous surveillance and destabilisation campaign. No wonder he was paranoid. The Cold Warriors in the West were indeed always out to get him.

Through the eyes of William Catesby, a fictional and utterly sympathetic left-wing British agent, the plots to stymie Wilson and the socialist wing of the Labour Party are exposed in all their duplicitous and serpentine detail.
The relentless campaign to undermine Wilson (codenamed ‘Oatsheaf’ in CIA records) reaches a peak as he refuses US requests to send troops to Vietnam and the book suggests that his subsequent resignation in 1976 was the result of a ‘soft’ coup d’etat, with tanks and troops discreetly positioned near to airports and key areas in Westminster should muscle be needed to back up the media and political campaign of hatred.

Author Wilson does for his namesake what DM Thomas does for JFK. For just as the latter’s Flying into Love humanises and quite possibly sentimentalises the 35th US president, so this novel shows Harold Wilson as a good and decent man, beset by rogues, traitors and the combined might of the military-industrial complex.
Catesby is a spy who can never shake-off his moral mantle and so once Wilson has been removed he finds himself alone and vulnerable on the Suffolk shore to await his fate.

Edward Wilson himself is a most assured writer; adept more than most in this factual/fiction genre combining first rate characterisation and depth that entwines itself around real and supposed events. This is a fantastic read and a prophecy, should one be needed, of how the Reaction will intervene if the Labour Party ever elects a socialist as its leader this coming autumn. Best start preparing the militias now.

This is an edited version of a review first published in the Morning Star