David Birkett is an old publishing colleague. Indeed, back when Five Leaves was a rather junior twig he was part of Troika, a repping agency for Five Leaves and many other independents. He moved on to Zed Press, then Capuchin Classics/Stacey before taking a turn at the other side of the counter as a bookseller in Hitchin. He also runs a book blog, from which this is lifted, by permission: http://dlbbookblog.blogspot.co.uk.
I've just read Utopia, kindly provided by Five Leaves Publishing for this review. This Nottingham-based press has a diverse list, but among its specialities are books which discuss the relationship between people, societies and the land (particularly from the perspective of progressive politics) and Jewish studies. You have to love a publisher with Rock 'n Roll Jews in its backlist.
It is no surprise, then, that Utopia's main focus is on how relatively small communities have articulated and attempted to realise various concepts of a fair and just society. These communities include the Moravians, various Back to the Land settlements in Essex, Israeli Kibbutzim and the radical Liverpool bookshop, News from Nowhere.
The book, following its 2011 predecessor, Maps, comprises a number of articles by various authors, with old, new and archive material mixed happily together. The News from Nowhere chapter is for me, (perhaps because of my bookselling proclivities) the most remarkable and inspiring, describing as it does the phenomenal courage, indomitable persistence and commendable idealism of the various personnel who have guided this outlet from the humblest of beginnings to its present status as a flagship institution in the city, never having sacrificed their principles en route. My jaw grew ever slacker as I read about how the Nowhere people struggled against financial crises, environmental problems and - most alarmingly - physical attacks by extreme right-wing thugs. The necessity to clear up after arson attacks, secure and remove steel shutters around a building and sleep on the premises to fend off further raids rather puts my reluctance to tidy the Transport section into perspective.
This is not to say that Utopia neglects the theoretical and ruminative aspects of it subject. The first essay - Let's Talk Utopia, by Mike Marqusee, is a clarion call to the effect that only by striving for better and even ideal societies can we make progress, and Utopias of the Nineteenth Century, by Marie Louise Berneri, is an older piece which, with an admirable combination of erudition and readability, maps out the scope and limitations of the relevant philosophers and social commentators from that era.
In fact, one of the great strengths of this book is the variety in tone, style and genre of its constituent parts, ranging from scholarly pieces, exceptional travel writing (Homeland by Chris Moss), songs and poetry, with not a dud piece of writing among them. As with any good anthology, there are charming little outcrops of fact and anecdote: Shelley being shot at by deranged Welshmen; the word 'nostalgia' having been coined 'in order to identify the mental condition of Swiss Guards separated from their homeland' and an offhand reference by Macaulay about an envisaged future New Zealand tourist viewing the remains of London Bridge becoming a common trope in nineteenth-century literature.
My utopian version of this book would have included an index, but I was thoroughly satisfied, stimulated and educated nonetheless.