Ridley Road by Jo Bloom, book review: An ambitious, but not wholly successful debut
Bloom has found an episode in London’s history that should be better known
SHIRLEY WHITESIDE Saturday 29 November 2014
A chance conversation led Jo Bloom to investigate the 62 Group, an anti-fascist Jewish organisation formed in Sixties London. Its adherents came together to fight the resurgence of fascism in Britain led, in the main, by Colin Jordan of the World Union of National Socialists.
A militant faction, the 62 Group set out to counter the propaganda disseminated by the fascists and take a stand against their violence and intimidation. Its members endeavoured to disrupt fascist meetings and even infiltrated the ranks of their opponents to discover their plans. Amazed that she knew nothing about the 62 Group, Bloom set her debut, a love story, against this dramatic backdrop.
It is summer, 1962, and Vivien Epstein, a 22-year-old hairdresser, leaves her Manchester home for London soon after the death of her father. She plans to make a new life for herself and find Jack Fox, the man she had fallen in love with in Manchester but who had suddenly returned to his London home.
Vivien finds a room to rent and gets a job in a Soho hair salon, quickly adjusting to the excitement of a city on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties. She searches for Jack Fox and eventually spots him during an anti-fascist demonstration in Trafalgar Square, only to wonder if he is still the man she fell in love with.
As lead characters Vivien and Jack lack depth. Bloom spends too much time telling the reader what her characters think and feel rather than letting their actions convey their state of mind. Her heroine’s ability to slip seamlessly into London life also feels glib – although the burgeoning jazz scene and coffee bars of early Sixties London are well drawn. The buzz around Soho and nearby Carnaby Street is palpable. But while Vivien’s transformation from a drab provincial into a stylish Londoner is plausible, the speed of her absorption into the working and social lives of the other hairdressers strikes a jarring note.
Bloom relates the history of the 62 Group – and its predecessor the 43 Group – and injects tension as she describes the organisation’s activities. Vivien’s astonishment at seeing fascism rise again, less than two decades after the end of the Second World War, is credible.
The policies proposed by people such as Colin Jordan, Oswald Mosley and the American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell are shocking. They take their hate message to the East End of London and the Ridley Road area, where the 62 Group engages with them. The running battles in the streets are frighteningly authentic, as is the despair of the Jewish community as swastikas are painted on the walls of synagogues.
Bloom has uncovered an episode in London’s history that deserves to be better known, and her research has thrown up some appalling events. She has been ambitious with her debut novel and, while it is not wholly successful, the subject matter alone makes for a thought-provoking read.