Ridley Road by Jo Bloom: Fascism and anti-fascism in the ‘60s East End

Ridley RoadCarnaby 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 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.

16 thoughts on “Ridley Road by Jo Bloom: Fascism and anti-fascism in the ‘60s East End”

  1. lonesomereadereric

    The subject matter, as you describe it, makes me really want to read this. Interesting what inspired her to write it. And it does seem like a timely book.

    1. Yes, the proof came with a letter prefacing the novel explaining how Bloom had come to write it. I hope it was kept in the finished copies. How lovely it would be to consign all that hatred to history but I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to do that.

  2. Interesting to hear about the 62 Group and the background to this book. I think it might do well at the library (and your review will be very useful if anyone asks me about it!).

  3. I have to admit that I wasn’t attracted to this book in the slightest (the so-called Swinging Sixties does nothing for me) and based on the cover I had thought it was a romance, but your review has made me reassess my first impressions. The whole 62 Group things sounds completely fascinating…

    1. Yes, I agree with you about the jacket, Kim. It was Bloom’s letter which prefaced the novel in the proof (not in the finished copies, apparently) that made me want to read it and while the loves story may be the hook for some it’s the historical context that makes it such an interesting book.

  4. An interesting anecdote about how she stumbled across the story and sounds like a fascinating, insightful and perhaps even an important account. Sometimes it feels as though have blind spots regarding our own history, all the things that get washed under the carpet. I don’t know that things change significantly, there is just the perception that that is so and now that we such a transparent age, it can seem as though it is much worse.

    1. I’ve always taken a ‘things are getting better approach’ and many things have – clean water, free education then leaping ahead to gay marriage, to name but a few – hence my ‘more enlightened times’ comment but it seems that we’ll always have extreme prejudice of some sort or another as we were all reminded so graphically yesterday.

  5. What an interesting book this sounds! But then your reviews seem to make me want to read every book you do! Will be looking out for this one, though. I love novels that really get down into the cultural context.

    1. Ah, unlike 10:04 this one’s all about context rather than the writing! Fascinating slice of history, and not one I knew anything about.

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