Protest: Stories of Resistance
Published by Comma Press 6 July 2017
464pp, hardback, £14.99
This is a fascinating book, full of facts and figures about British protest movements from the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 to the anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2003. It also gives voice to some of the lesser known protests over the centuries.
Each author was asked which protest movement they would like to write about in order to be paired with an expert, to learn all the salient facts. The authors then wrote a short story, bringing the history to life not with usual famous people from their era, but with ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary times. Each short story also has an accompanying essay by the expert, to put the events in context and explain the wider ramifications. As a structure it works well, lending breadth and depth to the fictionalized version of the protest and illuminating the reasons for the events.
There is a distinguished roster of authors, including Kit de Waal, Alexei Sayle, Kate Clanchy, and Frank Cotterell-Boyce, and the time frame is chronological. While this is an easy book to dip in and out of, reading it from page one onwards rewards the reader with an overview of the history of British protests, and a sinking feeling as the same issues come up again and again. The poor and dispossessed often protest to their lords and masters about their harsh living conditions; kings and the nobility burden their serfs with extortionate taxes; a legal system is skewed towards the rich and powerful; and men and boys are forced to go to wars they did not start or understand.
Highlights include Sara Maitland’s ‘The Pardon List’, about Wat Tyler and the Great Rising of 1381. A woman defends her looting and destruction at the Savoy Palace, insisting she has done nothing wrong and has no need to beg for pardon. Professor Jane Whittle’s essay explains the background to the rising, and the fact that a lot of the rebels were reasonably well off craftsmen and town dwellers and not a horde of ignorant peasants.
Laura Hird writes one of the longer pieces in the book, the excellent ‘Spun’, about the Scottish Insurrection of 1820. Sixteen-year-old Andrew White, a real person, gets caught up in the excitement of protest, only to be brought down to earth as the movement is outflanked by the military and the protestors are soon on their way to prison in Stirling Castle. Dr Gordon Pentland of Edinburgh University writes about the reasons for the insurrection which burned bright and fast.
There are so many good short stories and accompanying essays here, it is difficult to leave any unmentioned. Tales by Frank Cotterll-Boyce on Venner’s Rising, Maggie Gee on the Night Cleaners’ strike, Martyn Bedford on the Battle of Orgreave, and Joanna Quinn on Greenham Common are all thoroughly absorbing and enlightening. Protest is an important collection highlighting the history of dissenting voices in the UK. It teaches rather than preaches and should be required reading for many of our current politicians.
Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett
LAURA Barnett follows up her best-selling debut, The Versions of Us, with a tale about Cass Wheeler, a singer-songwriter who found worldwide fame in the 1970s before mysteriously retiring from public life. Barnett fashions Cass as a kind of British answer to Joni Mitchell, with her ethereal voice and folk-influenced music. The story takes place over one day as Cass listens to her old albums to prepare her choice of songs for a greatest hits album, a primer for her return to making music. She wonders whether her incredible success has been worth the sacrifices she has made. With every track, she is thrust back into her past. Most of the chapters open with the lyrics to a song that Cass has written, the story of her life in music. In fact, Barnett has collaborated with Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams to write the lyrics and music, which have been recorded and released as a soundtrack to accompany the novel.
Francis, Cass’s beloved father, is overjoyed by his daughter’s birth in 1950. Her mother, Margaret, is less than thrilled, seeing her as “… a small, damp-headed creature, ugly and mottled, screwing up its face against the light”. Margaret is a cold and withdrawn woman who escapes her unhappy marriage by taking off for Canada with a new lover in tow. Francis is broken by his wife’s desertion and the young Cass feels betrayed and abandoned. Through this, Barnett subtly foreshadows Cass’s own dilemmas as a wife and mother, and her secret fear that she will fail the people she loves most.
Music is Cass’s saviour and she forms an intense professional and personal partnership with Ivor Tait, who brings the best out in the shy teenager. Together they head for Swinging London and form a band, Vertical Heights, writing songs, gigging in pubs and clubs, and travelling around in a ramshackle van. With shades of A Star is Born, Cass is offered a record deal as a solo artist. The rest of the band feel betrayed, none more so than Ivor whose drinking spirals out of control. The clichés continue as Cass and the reluctant Ivor set off on a punishing touring schedule, filled with grubby dressing rooms, and the obligatory alcohol, drugs and groupies. This section of the novel is too long, treading water rather than progressing Cass’s story. The saving grace is Barnett’s expressive descriptions of Cass becoming lost in her music. “No place but this place, no time but this time, and she is nowhere, and everywhere, diving and swimming in this pool of sound.”
The music, fashions and social mores of the 1960s and 1970s are colourfully depicted, with Cass and Ivor caught up in a whirlwind of writing music, recording, and touring. Cass does take time out to have their daughter, Anna, but the pressure to return to work leaves her exhausted and constantly feeling she is short-changing both her child and her music. Meanwhile, her relationship with Ivor is in tatters. He is still furious that Cass was picked out for stardom while he has had to stand in her shadow.
The singer spreads herself too thinly as she tries to be a good daughter, wife, and mother, while staying true to herself and her art. Broken by a tragedy, she stops making music altogether. She is, she says, an ‘Ex-mother. Ex-daughter. Ex-wife’. Poignantly, she also considers herself an ‘ex-musician’. At its heart, Barnett’s novel examines the compromises women make in order to pursue a fulfilling creative and personal life. She offers no easy answers but Cass does eventually find a measure of forgiveness and peace.