The Election Man
Dr Yakub Quraishi has had an exceptional career - one-time head of Doordarshan (India's equivalent of the BBC), then - at the time I first met him - a wise and effective head of India's National AIDS Control Organisation, and now the country's Chief Election Commissioner. He has an electorate, he declares, bigger than that of every European country, all of Central America and of South America combined. He is among the most senior Indian Muslims in public life. He is also a keen fan of The Shadows and I have heard him on the keyboards - and to paraphrase Samuel Johnson (please forgive me, Dr Quraishi!): 'it's not that it's done well, it's that it's done at all'.
India's Election Commission, and above all a succession of powerful and forceful Chief Election Commissioners, have achieved what once seemed almost impossible. India's elections are now, if not model, much improved. Booth capturing, rigged electoral rolls, dubious counting - all now largely of the past. Though the hold of 'black' money, and of crime-tainted politicians, has not yet been fully tackled.
Dr Quraishi was in London principally to launch his new book, a richly illustrated coffee table volume about Old Delhi - or Shahjahanabad, to give the old city its ancient name which is now coming back into vogue.
At the London launch, Sohail Seth waspishly commented that of Old Delhi's two most famous sons, one is in charge of elections in the world's largest and most complex democracy, and the other is a former dictator hiding out off the Edgware Road. (General Musharraf was born in Delhi, though his family left the city for Pakistan when he was very young).
'Chicken Soup' for the C21 soul
The Royal Court is staging a wonderful production of Arnold Wesker's breakthrough play, 'Chicken Soup with Barley' - first performed there in 1958.
The set, the production, the performances - particularly of Samantha Spiro as the Communist matriarch Sarah Kahn (purportedly based on the author's activist aunt, Sara) - are spellbinding. It's the story, spread over twenty years, of the dissolution of a Jewish East End family, and the disillusion with the communism that they once shared. And the sharpness of the dialogue, often comic, is chicken soup for my soul.
The programme was - I've never come across this before - the play script. Remarkably good value for £3.
The play opens on October 4th 1936, the day of the 'battle' of Cable Street when communists and left-wingers stopped Mosley's fascists marching through London's then largely Jewish East End. The 75th anniversary of that landmark event will be marked later this year.
I hadn't quite appreciated how much political song there is in the opening scenes of 'Chicken Soup with Barley'. The 'Internationale' sung off stage. The household all signing Edward Carpenter's 'England Arise' - once the great English socialist anthem, but now distinctly obscure, so much so that I don't think I'd heard it sung in the flesh before. And there was another song I can't find anything about, with the chorus line of: 'For you are a worker too' - I can see why that didn't survive beyond the 1930s!
London Occasionals No. 6
The most anonymous bookshop in London. But a good one. The question is: where is it?
I popped in there this evening. I love pamphlets, and came away with three nice items. A fine Hogarth Press title by Virginia Woolf from 1939, 'Reviewing'. Graham Greene's 'J'accuse: the dark side of Nice' from 1982.
And an Isaac Foot pamphlet from 1938 published by the Christian communitarian Brotherhood Movement.
Add to that a signed copy of H. Montgomery Hyde's A History of Pornography - see below. And a nice copy of a Martin Lawrence title from the mid-1930s, Proletarian Literature in the United States: an anthology. All reasonably priced. The lot for under £40.
The pornography book, by the way, is conspicuously light on images. The frontispiece is distinctly unerotic: Holywell Street in the mid-1890s, from the sketch by Aubrey Beardsley. 'The street continued to tbe the centre of the London trade in pornography.'
Holywell Street, long gone, 'ran parallel with The Strand between the churches of St Mary le Strand and St Clement's'. That where Bush House now stands. Where I work! There's a thought.
But coming back to the question - where is this bookshop?
Alexander Baron is back in style! The first evening of this year's Stoke Newington Literary Festival included a wonderful session on the locality's most famous modern writer. Baron was brought up on Foulden Road, and borrowed from his childhood memories in his classic The Lowlife, as well as in With Hope, Farewell, and the most autobiographical of his fiction, The In-Between Time.
Yesterday evening more than seventy people crammed in to an evening meeting to celebrate Baron and his books. Not simply his novels of north London, but also his celebrated fiction giving an ordinary soldier's viewpoint of the fighting in Europe during the latter part of the Second World War.
Sean Longden - one of the speakers and a leading historian of the combatants' experience of war - said Baron's novels turned up more regularly than any others on veterans' book shelves. Baron's son, Nick, talked of a shy man, a pessimist, morose at times - but a hugely accomplished TV script writer as well as novelist. There's much more about Baron elsewhere on this site.
One of his war novels - the hugely affecting and compassionate There's No Home, set in Sicily during a lull in the conflict - has just been republished by Sort of Books. There are now five Baron novels back in print - the greatest number, surely, for many decades. And for Baron fans, of whom I am one, a real cause for celebration.
If you are an enthusiast for London novels, let me point towards the London Fictions site - where, among others, Baron's Islington novel Rosie Hogarth is discussed.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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