Wednesday 29 March 2023

The Battle of Cable Street

I'm currently struggling with a (very) literary bestseller for adults, one so densely written - in language I've never heard anybody outside a novel use - that I'm having to set myself a fixed number of pages per day to get through it. (It's for my book club and I do always read the books we choose.) The topics it deals with are definitely contemporary - motherhood, marriage, school shootings - and definitely worth talking about. But it's the language that's defeating me, and making me almost resent the subjects it's considering.

Then I come to Tanya Landman's The Battle of Cable Street, which manages to tell a politically-engaged story about a real event in the past that has stacks of relevance for today, to tell it from the viewpoint of a child and, at the same time, to make it so readable. It's short: 109 pages. The language is crisp, vivid and accessible to all ages. I went through it in one sitting.

It starts as a sketch of life in the East End of London in the 1930s, with kids messing about and playing games. But then, when Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt followers in the BUF (British Union of Fascists) begin to make themselves heard, it gathers momentum, building in fear and tension until the battle of the title explodes in the streets, with anti-fascists taking on both the BUF and (a detail I hadn’t been aware of before) mounted police sent by the Home Office to protect the BUF!

It's a fierce and timely reminder that some struggles are never over. Or, as the narrator of the book puts it: ‘Once you defeat an evil like fascism, that should be the end of it. It took me years to realize that it’s like housework. No matter how often you clean up, the dirt just keeps on coming back.

If anybody were to ask me why children's books should be taken as seriously as literature for adults, I'd offer The Battle of Cable Street as Exhibit A.

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