By Sylvia Riley

Five Leaves Publications. 151 pages. £7.99. ISBN 978-1-910170-66-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

For those who don’t know, St Ann’s is a district of Nottingham. It was, in the 1960s, run-down and due for demolition. But at the time it had a thriving and varied community which, despite the drawbacks of sub-standard housing and a lack of social amenities, had a certain amount of vitality. Reading Sylvia Riley’s colourful account of her years in St Ann’s reminded me of the area of Preston where I grew up in the 1940s and early-1950s, and in which my parents were still living in the 1960s. I don’t want to romanticise life there. It had obvious limitations, and there was plenty of low-grade snobbery, drunkenness, minor crime, disputes between neighbours, and other problems. But it left its mark on me.  

Riley’s experiences in St Ann’s, and especially in and around a small, back-street bookshop run by Pat Jordan, clearly left their mark on her. I’m tempted to suggest that the bookshop was like many others which sprang up in the late-1960s and early-1970s and were usually referred to as “alternative” , stocking radical newspapers, “underground” press publications, political pamphlets, and poetry and novels that traditional bookshops mostly ignored. They sometimes claimed to be  “community bookshops”, but it’s questionable how often the general community used them. But Jordan’s business in a building that had seen better days, appears to have pre-dated these sort of shops, and if it contained political material, had it alongside comics, “men’s magazines”, popular paperbacks (westerns, romances of the Mills & Boon variety) that could be taken out on loan, and other reading matter.

Most towns and cities had, in the 1950s, little second-hand bookshops tucked away in odd corners which largely catered to working-class readers. They were also places where you could pick up some slightly offbeat items, such as the afore-mentioned “men’s magazines” then flooding in from America with titles like Rogue, Swank, Cavalier, Nugget and Gent. They aroused the ire of the local puritans, and sometimes the attention of the local police, though they seem innocent by today’s standards. A few pin-ups were scattered among the pages of short stories, cartoons, and articles on sport, jazz, and films. When I discovered that the stories were frequently by quite well-known American writers I began to prowl around the shops to see what I could find.

The Beats were beginning to attract attention and fiction and articles by and about Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and others, were spotlighted in the magazines. It amuses me now when I see copies of Swank for sale at high prices on Abe Books. It had four issues in 1960 which had special sections of Beat writing.  I treasure my copies, bought despite the disapproval of my then-wife, and the doubts of the friends who didn’t believe that literature of any consequence could appear in such a context, and that I wasn’t getting the magazines for the pin-ups. I wrote an article for The Guardian in 1963 under the title, “Pin-Up Lit.”, which pointed to the interesting writing appearing between the breasts and buttocks. 

The difference between the kind of shops I’ve referred to above and the one run by Pat Jordan is that he was a political activist. A one-time member of the Communist Party, he’d left in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Uprising, and had become a Trotskyist. His bookshop wasn’t just somewhere to pick up a bit of light reading, it was also where he had a duplicator (remember those?) on which he ran off copies of a publication called The Week, a newsletter giving the Trotskyist perspective on national and world events. Riley says: “Typed and duplicated, it consisted of small articles and snippets from a variety of sources: the usual papers like the Guardian and the Financial Times, and in addition, a wide circle of people built up over time sent in snippets from various sources”. She also recalls that relevant items were taken from radical American papers like Militant and the Spartacist. The Trotskyist world was a tiny one and before the days of the Internet the best way to keep in  touch was with a magazine or newspaper of one kind or another. I suspect that, in some ways, they were like many small poetry magazines, exchanging issues with each other, and their readership largely limited to the people who wrote for them and a scattering of fringe figures and oddballs who clustered around miniscule political parties.

As an avid surveyor of both political and literary little magazines, and a sometimes contributor to a few of them (Workers Opposition, The Industrial Worker, to mention a couple of the political ones, though I wrote poems, book reviews and articles for Tribune for thirty years so I suppose that identified me politically), I was always intrigued by the way in which the Trotskyist papers often seemed to be at odds with each other. Factional fighting on the Left was (and is) nothing new, but the Trotskyists appeared to thrive on it. Riley lists a baffling number of groups that forever split and re-formed under different names: International Group, International Marxist Group, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Socialist Labour League, International Socialists, Socialist Workers Party. There was a period when I tried to keep up with the parties and their publications, but eventually gave up from sheer exhaustion. The prose in them was often as hard to read as many of the poems in the little literary magazines. Are any of them still in existence? There are few outlets for such publications these days and it’s almost impossible to find them in what bookshops still survive.

Theory has never been of much appeal to me, and Trotskyists interested me more than Trotskyism. I’m not sure if the same can be said of Sylvia Riley, but her memories of Pat Jordan come alive when she writes about him and some of the other people who appeared, disappeared, and otherwise hung around the bookshop. Students, activists, drifters of undefined political persuasions, and the local people who popped in to use the telephone, buy or borrow a book, tell their troubles, or in winter just keep warm. Winter at the Bookshop isn’t just about Trotskyists and Riley has colourful descriptions of streets and pubs and the people to be found in them. She worked at various jobs, including as a GPO switchboard operator, so wasn’t just mixing with politically-likeminded people, and has warm appraisals of others she met. From that point of view, Riley quite rightly emphasises that the Sixties were not quite as “Swinging” as later, starry-eyed commentators have tried to make them out to be. If you lived in an area like St Ann’s, with its poverty and friction, you experienced a different kind of Sixties. Pop music may have had an impact, but not much else.

I enjoyed reading Winter at the Bookshop. It took me back to a time when many people were active in one way or another. They sometimes seemed eccentric by comparison with people I lived next door to, or worked with, and I used to wonder what eventually happened to them. Very few seemed to stay around for long, whether in politics or poetry.  There was a boom in little poetry magazines and poetry readings, and I recall taking part in the Poetry 66 gathering at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham at which around forty poets read their work. There was also a concert of poetry and jazz at the Nottingham Albert Hall. If memory serves me right these events were organised by Stuart Mills and Martin Parnell of the Trent Bookshop, which opened in 1964. Riley doesn’t mention them,  their shop, or the magazine, Tarasque, they published, perhaps because the political had preference in her thinking in those days. But in saying that I’m in no way denigrating her book. It’s lively and anyone wanting to know what life was like for some people outside London in the 1960s can read it for both information and pleasure.