Wednesday 11 February 2015

Trouble on Cable Street, by Joan Lingard: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Anyone who was teaching English in the late 70s/early 80s - and probably after that - will remember the name of Joan Lingard. She wrote Across the Barricades, a sort of Romeo and Juliet set in Belfast during the Troubles. Kevin is Catholic and Sadie is Protestant: they really shouldn't fall in love, but they do. It worked really well in schools: the story was gripping, it dealt with emotions deeply relevant to teenagers, and there was lots to discuss and tease out - so thank you for that, Joan Lingard!

She is still writing, and her latest book is set in the east end of London in 1936. It's an unusual combination; from Dickens on, there have been lots of books set in Victorian London featuring the lives of the working class, and there are plenty set against the background of the Blitz - but I can't think of many set in this particular time and place. Trouble on Cable Street concerns Isabella, whose mother is Spanish. She has two brothers. One has chosen to fight in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans: the other, by contrast, is attracted by Oswald Mosley's increasingly powerful Fascist movement in London.

The story sheds an interesting light on a turbulent and not particularly well-known period. We know now that fascism in England was a dead end; but it's important to remember that they didn't know that at the time. It must have been very frightening to see the Blackshirts marching through the streets and to witness the riots and the rabble-rousing speeches, particularly if, like Isabella, your mother was a foreigner and you worked for a Jewish factory owner. Isabella senses for herself the charismatic power of fascism in the person of her brother Arthur's friend, Rupert; she distrusts him, but she sees his power - and his good looks. The people she loves are in very real danger, from several different directions. By the end, no-one is left unscarred. 

The book tells us a great deal about the political state of Europe in the years leading up to the war, and it makes us feel what it must have been like to be on the streets of London in the path of a fascist demonstration. It also resonates with the present climate, where extremists whip up hatred, immigrants provide easy scapegoats, and cities have once again been scarred by riots. But at the centre of it is Isabella, strong and warm-hearted, who must negotiate a path through the danger and uncertainty and decide, as we all must do, where to place her trust and her love.

(This review first appeared on my own blog, A Fool on a Hill.)



Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for reminding people about Joan Lingard's novel, Sue. As you say, the content and emotions still resonate..

Sue Barrow said...

Thanks for this review and recommendation Sue. I've always loved Joan Lingard's books. It was her 'Lizzie's Leaving' that started me writing.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lovely review and the book sounds fab - but can I recommend Alan Gibbon's Street of Tall People about Cable St?

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