Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. In what I like to think of as our more enlightened times it’s easy to forget that casual anti-Semitism was rife in British society but there it was in all its ugliness. Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road explores this theme through an area of history I knew nothing about – the 62 Group, which grew out of the Jewish East End, set up to combat Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement.
During the summer of 1962 twenty-year-old Vivien decides to leave Manchester heading south in search of the man she knows as Jack Fox, a writer who spent time closeted with her political activist father just before he died. She’s lonely and bereft, wanting to change her life and convinced that what she and Jack shared might lead to love. She soon finds a job with a Soho hairdresser and becomes a favourite with its colourful clientele. Her search for Jack proves fruitless but she finds herself drawn into an anti-fascist group, attending a National Social Movement rally in the hope of finding him there. What she sees shocks her – swastikas, anti-Semitic banners, racism of every persuasion, and violence. Then she spots Jack but can hardly believe her eyes: he appears to be a fascist. What follows is an exploration of a fascinating slice of British history all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.
Bloom handles the tensions within her story well but what lifts her book above the crowd is its context. Her novel grew out of a lift given to an elderly man she’d met at a funeral she’d attended. Listening to her father and Monty talking about their memories of the 62 Group, she became fascinated by what they were saying, researching it for several years before writing Ridley Road. It’s a tribute to Bloom’s lightness of touch that her story is so absorbing – sometimes research can sit rather clunkily in a novel. Her portrayal of life as an infiltrator is particularly convincing. It’s a chilling read at times but lest we become too complacent, comfortably reminding ourselves that Ridley Road is historical fiction, let’s remember the mood music currently played by all our political parties and that one of them has recently gained two seats in Parliament based on an anti-immigration platform. Sounds like a warning bell to me.