Monthly Archives: May 2014

A history of protest: Bishopsgate Institute and the London Radical Bookfair

rad_bkfairThe London Radical Bookfair took place on Saturday and I was hyped to go, sure it would be a stimulating experience. I wasn’t wrong.

Bookstalls sold reduced-price publications on all manner of engaging topics relating to socialism, communism, anarchism – and just about everything else in-between. Plus I got my thrilled mitts on two knock-off Chomsky books, which I’m very excited to get stuck into.

The first talk I went to was the most absorbing as it was about the history of the Bishopsgate Institute library archives. I must confess I hadn’t even heard of Bishopsgate Institute until a few weeks ago. But I discovered that its library is home to a rich, significant collection of protest and campaigning materials, with over 20,000 books and pamphlets about labour history alone.

Surprisingly, this institution, which has become such a stalwart for radicalism, was initially opened by the Church and started life as a small lending library. In 1905, however, things really changed, when George Howell became librarian and his collection of anarchist, socialist and communist literature was taken in. Over the years, thanks to donations from various crucial radical campaigners, it’s become a hive of leftist reference materials. The librarian Stefan Dickers’ animated and impassioned commentary really helped in bringing the past of the library to life.

Definitely worth a visit. I’d love to go there again and spend some time browsing the undoubtedly fascinating literature on offer. I strongly urge you to do the same.

Have a gander at Bishopsgate Institute’s online catalogue



‘A story so subversive and dark it blacks out the Florida sun’

sex-lives-siamese-twinsIrvine Welsh discussed and signed copies of his rather disconcertingly titled latest novel, Sex Lives of the Siamese Twins, on Monday at the Southbank Centre – and I was lucky enough to be seated in the front row.

The book focuses in on two seemingly polar opposites – Lena Sorenson, an overweight, seemingly over privileged girl who emanates a put-down upon, desperate and victimised aura – and Lucy Brennan, a fitness trainer and overachiever who imposes a strict daily regime upon herself. As unlikely as it seems, the worlds of these two collide, through a compelling, dramatic opening event that pulls them together.

In discussing the novel, Welsh pinpointed that, in American society (but equally, I’d argue, in Western society as a whole): ‘the pursuit of happiness is so elusive…we tick the boxes of consumerism but yet are still not happy’. Both Lena and Lucy have deep-seated depression and anxiety issues because they are products of a society that itself ‘isn’t comfortable in its own skin’. They are obsessed with food: with Lucy, this takes the form of extreme self-denial and endless calorie counting, while no matter how much junk Lucy eats, she can’t seem to fill the emptiness of her life.

The two characters become more and more isolated from others, and as a result Lucy’s relationship with Lena becomes more and more twisted and extreme as the novel progresses.

I thought I was simply going to dip into the book when I started reading it on my way back from the signing but have found myself unable to stop. I found something lacking in 2008’s Crime, Irvine’s only other book set in Florida. But The Sex Lives of the Siamese Twins is Welsh back on full form, as blackly witty and disturbingly funny as ever.

Don’t expect the novel to be a love letter to America in any sense – as the blurb so aptly puts it, it’s ‘a story so subversive and dark it blacks out the Florida sun.’

Order The Sex Lives of the Siamese Twins


My nerdy face meeting Irvine

On a side note, getting my book signed by Welsh turned out to be more of an experience that I’d bargained for, thanks to the cheeky imp who accompanied me (yes, that’s you, Dina). As I met Irvine, all starstruck and shy, he said ‘it’s getting hot in here’ and I politely smiled as was proper.

However, Dina jumped in and sang, in an off-kilter (and off-key) fashion: ‘it’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes’. Horrified that she’d made such an unbecoming outburst in front of one of my intellectual idols, particularly as she was singing that cretin Nelly’s song, I muttered ‘no, don’t do that’, clearly directed towards Dina.

However, I later realised that this was probably misconstrued by Irvine – he may have thought I was addressing him. So it’s a very real possibility that I offended my idol. I blame you, Dina. Thanks. You and your mad ways.