I always look forward to the latest Philip Hensher novel, not least those which are set in Sheffield, a city I love, such as the Booker nominated ‘The Northern Clemency’ and his last, ‘The Friendly Ones’
Mr. Hensher’s latest novel, ‘A Small Revolution in Germany’, is based in Sheffield (the centre of what was once dubbed ‘The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’) with scenes in East Germany and Berlin and cuts across from the Thatcher years to the current day. In essence it is a meditation on ideals and whether, how and why these principles which have invigorated our teenage years are diluted or discarded with age.
It is 1982 and 15 year old Spike lives with his Civil Servant father and attends the local comprehensive school where his search for meaning brings him in line with a merry band of self styled revolutionaries: Percy Ogden, the outspoken group leader, Tracy Cartwright, who quotes Russian anarchists (“I love, love, love Bakunin … He’s my god”), Mohammed Ahmed, in flight from a life “among the grocers, the mosque”; Eric Milne, “who had been told by a master that he should take up sprinting, for no other reason than that he was black. Injustice was strong in him.” and James Frinton, son of a pub landlord father and a depressive mother who self-medicates with Eartha Kitt videos. The group soon merges with an older Trotskyite ‘Spartacist League’ and becomes engaged in advancing the revolution through minor acts of civil disobedience. One awakening leads to another and via the League’s meetings in Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill he meets Joaquin, a refugee from Chile, who becomes his lover and lifelong partner.
“From now on I resolved to devote my life to the liberation of the urban proletariat.”
And therein lies the heart of the novel: Spike thoroughly believes these theories and takes them into his future, whereas others – the loudmouths, the protestors, the rest of his group of socialist ‘warriors’ – quickly shed the convictions of their youth, proving Spike’s belief that there is often “so much difference between the espousal of principles and the living of lives”. Percy Ogden has become a journalist, Kate is a lauded poet, Milne a peer and QC, and James Frinton is Home Secretary and a Tory to boot.
Spike, on the other hand, lives quietly as a lecturer and trying his best to stay true to himself, tested, not least via a trip to East Berlin which tries him both politically and personally, and while Spike is proud to have stayed true to his young self, doubt does creep in: “I had kept my principles. I had remained what I was, a boy.” Have the others simply grown up or have they sold out for power and success? Must principles be extinguished to achieve success?
Hensher is great on the travails of growing older while staying politically engaged, not least on clashing with modern thought:
‘We are not old farts. We keep up with stuff. We like an argument. We were both expelled from the local LGBT group, as it now calls itself, for shouting at a man in a dress who called himself a lesbian. When the chair told us we had to leave, Joaquin, thinking he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, punched the man in the dress who called himself a lesbian. He came with his wife; he had told two real lesbians to sit down and shut up. We are now rather the heroes of the real lesbians. Not that they have heroes.’
…and watching peers leap-frog into positions for which they hold little merit:
‘Ogden has ‘come out’ in print a year before, saying that the time had come to ‘admit’ that he was homosexual. It was as if he were a criminal in the dock, facing a bundle of new evidence. His standard fare as a columnist was ecological tragedy, predictions of catastrophe when Britain left the European Union, and the urgent need for a new party, occupying the middle ground of UK Politics. It seemed utterly footling to us. Even more absurd were his occasional ventures into sexual politics, taking on the new role, at fifty three, of an undisputed leader of ‘queer politics’ as he called it. We definitely didn’t call it that. This was one of those weeks. It began, ‘It’s time that gay guys like me took the lead, and drive the disease of transphobia from queer politics, where its got no place at all, and never did.’
There is an anger in this book, not at any political position per se (although some might see it as an attack on the left’s romantic belief in revolution) but rather at politics in general and the modern disease of our politicians and commentators believing in nothing but themselves and their individual betterment.
‘A Small Revolution in Germany’ is a thoughtful, intelligent novel which said a lot to me about my generation and what the future might mean for us (I am approximately the same age as Hensher). I would be interested to see how younger people would view it, those who have – for better or worse – grown up in a world dominated by spin and self aggrandisement, and for the simple fact that while the novel spoke to me it isn’t a novel I actually enjoyed, lacking as it does, the quite down-to-earth humanity of my favourite Hensher, ‘The Northern Clemency.’