There is plenty of atmosphere in Jo Bloom’s novel set in London’s East End in the Summer of 1962.
Vivien Epstein , a young Jewish hairdresser, has left her hometown of Manchester after the death of her father and come to London in search of fame, fortune and Jack.
Jack ,a young Jewish journalist ,had visited Vivien’s father, Phil, shortly before his death to talk about Phil’s days as an organiser in the ’43Group’. Phil had been instrumental in the group’s fight against Moseley and the fascists in the East End decades before. Jack, so Vivien was told, was researching for an article. Jack and Vivien had a brief but intense affair. Jack promised he would come back for her but has since fallen off the radar.
Viv gets a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. The seedy world of Soho at this time with its prostitutes and strippers is lovingly recreated. The air is thick with the smell of hair lacquer and there are frequent references to the fashion styles and music of the time.
In fact the hit by Helen Shapiro, a young Jewish singer, became a bit of an ear worm for me when reading the book.
Vivian soon finds Jack but their relationship is fraught with danger. Jack is working undercover for the 62Group and has infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. The 62Group , like like their fore-runners, are Jewish activists working to defeat the fascists who are again openly campaigning on the streets of the East End.
Masquerading as a fascist, Jack is feeding back details of the NSM’s plans .He is finding the pressure unbearable but it is imperative that he doesn’t betray himself. The NSM are a group of violent thugs who openly boast of their hatred of Jews and Blacks.
Again, Bloom is expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and menace that surround the party. These passages read like a thriller and I found myself anxious to turn the page in order to find out what would happen next.
The NSM hold rallies and campaign meetings which the 62Group aim to disrupt. The violence of the fascists is sickening :
At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all.When a cricket bat cut through the air close by and someone screamed, he knew it was time to run, but after a couple of steps ,a hand shot out of nowhere and punched him in the face.
“No, not me -” he shouted.
He tried to stay on his feet but his attacker hit him again.He cried out, expecting another punch, but it never came. Instead a big man with heavy cheeks took hold of his attacker’s arm, threw him to the ground and kicked him until he couldn’t get up. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.
Bloom explains at the end of the book that the NSM did exist and was on the rise in the 1960s ,led by the vile Colin Jordan. Similarly, the 62Group really was part of the Jewish community’s fightback to keep the fascist off their streets. The characters and events in the book whilst realistic are , of course, the product of Bloom’s imagination.
Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December and has a wonderful cover – not that I would ever judge a book by that, of course !!
My thanks to Jo Bloom for the review copy.