Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, 1961)
Catch 22 is the most fundamental human tale, a man’s determination to live. Caught in Italy at the end of World War Two, American air force man Yossarian has done his bit and wants out. His one route home is mental illness but if he claims he is mad he must be sane, as you would have to be mad if you wanted to stay and fight. It is a subversive scream against the military machine, full of wild characters and satirically poignant. Heller has the turn of phrase of a close quarter fighter. Each word is hand-to-hand combat – he writes like a man fighting for his life.
The Goal Keeper\’s Revenge
Bill Naughton (Puffin Books, 1961)
I read this book of short stories at school when I was12. The tales are set in the northern working class of the 1930s. The story of 17 Oranges alone would qualify this book for greatness. Here a docker gets caught stealing 17 oranges, is locked in a shed while the police are called and realises his only way out is to eat every part of every single orange. It was the first book that I was forced to read at school that I actually liked.
Homage to Catalonia
George Orwell (Secker and Warburg, 1938)
Orwell’s personal story of being part of the struggle against fascism in Spain, the wonder and thrill of being in the place at a time when ‘the working class were in the saddle’. There is a resolute honesty to this book, as it details the unexpected boredom, the in-fighting of the Republican movement and the ordinary moments of life and death.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee (HarperCollins, 1960)
My 12-year-old son Charlie read it while we were on holiday this year and
became adamant that I would love it and should read it. He was right. It’s the
story of beacons of human decency shining through a vicious world of racism in America’s deep south, innocently told through the eyes of a young girl, Scout, caught in the maelstrom of small town ignorance and hatred. I finished reading the book on a train heading from Penzance to London; I was sharing a table with three strangers and had to duck my head away from them to hide my tears.
I became an atheist at the age of seven or eight, mainly due to the stupidity of one particularly inept preacher. But coming from a family of preachers, even today I feel at ease with church culture and reckon the Bible to be full of great stories. Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple! Samson and the fight with the jawbone of an ass! Moses and the scary snake stick! These were the first stories I heard. My mum used to read them to us at bedtime. It’s just a shame they had to ruin a bunch of good yarns with a belief in an immortal tyrannical creator.
Lowest of the Low
Gunter Wallraf (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1985)
Above and beyond any book this one recalibrated what I wanted to try and do as a performer and activist. Wallraf, a German journalist, went undercover for a year, posing as a Turkish guest worker. The subsequent story of how workers were denied basic health and safety rights, abused and treated like vermin changed the law in Germany and saw companies in the dock. The book is also extremely funny. At one point he runs a sting on a contractor who hires out illegal immigrants to clean up a fictional accident at a nuclear facility in the full knowledge that the task will kill them. It is the art of story telling combined with the righteous passion of a journalist who knows it is not enough to report the world but also to be part of the change.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Bertolt Brecht (original English translation by the Sterns and Auden, 1960)
This play changed my life. It’s a rewriting of the story of the judgement of King Solomon, where a nursemaid travels a war torn land protecting her abandoned charge before reuniting the child with his natural mother. The dilemma is: who should keep the child? I loved the story but by the end of the play I had had my opinions neatly reversed and I was stunned by the revelation that a play could change my mind.
Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, 1981)
Put aside the ‘showbiz Salman’ and photos of whatever wife he is on, likewise the ‘Fatwa Salman’, and what you have left is Midnight’s Children. The magical story of the human links that bind a dividing nation as India undergoes Partition. Hyperbole comes easily when describing my feelings about it. The writing is dazzling.
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#232: Rue Britannia ● The legacy of the British Empire ● An interview with Priyamvada Gopal ● The People’s Olympics ● An interview with Neville Southall ● Agribusiness in India ● Deliveroo’s disastrous IPO ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
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Lesley Chow argues for a new kind of music criticism that re-evaluates women musicians and "meaningless" music, writes Rhian E Jones
Laura Pidcock, former MP for North West Durham, reviews the new book by Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson in the shadow of Brexit and deindustrialisation
Luke Charnley reports on the new publishing houses getting working-class writers onto the printed page.
In this timely book, Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones explore new forms of democratic collectivism across the UK, writes Hilary Wainwright.
Magee's memoir isn't an intimate history of the Brighton Bombing. Instead, it delivers a much more powerful treatise on struggle and reconciliation, writes Daniel Baker
Judith Herrin's masterwork of scholarship provides insights into how imperialism deals with times of upheaval, writes Neal Ascherson
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