Ridley Road Reviewed

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Jo Bloom’s novel begins in 1962, with the young Vivien Epstein, a 19 year-old hairdresser from Manchester, who arrives in London following the death of her father. She has taken the bold step of moving alone to the capital in order to seek out Jack Fox, with whom she had begun a relationship in Manchester, and who seems to have disappeared. Her unfruitful search reaches a climax when she appears to be faced with devastating evidence that her lover is a fascist—learned in a dramatic scene set against the backdrop of the National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square.

Vivien is subsequently apprised of the infiltration activities conducted both by her late father (having belonged to the 43 Group) and Jack—facts of which she had been all but ignorant, thus establishing her as the epitome of naïve innocence. Indeed, Vivien in some ways embodies a nostalgic ideal of sweetness in womanhood associated with mid-20th century archetypes. However, one also has a strong sense of her as one of a youthful generation on the cusp of a revolutionary decade, with its promise of new possibilities and social transformation. Vivien is a woman who shows pluck and fortitude, establishing herself to find work in an unfamiliar city, and not resigning herself to the loss of Jack. 

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The novel presents a vivid portrait of London in 1962, paying particular attention to such evocative period detail as hairstyles, dress, and crude British food—egg and chips and pies (although, it should be noted, the author’s descriptions of Jewish food are far more appealing). Seen through Vivien’s eyes, London takes on a veil of sunny optimism and novelty, and the portrayal of female camaraderie at Barb’s hairdressers in Soho is heart-warming. 

Indeed, this heartening picture of ordinary, bustling life acts as a foil to the dark seam of the National Social Movement’s fascist activity, whose horrors are increasingly exposed throughout the novel. The author’s delineation of Colin Jordan and his lieutenant Ralph—set against the fittingly depressing locale of Jordan’s dingy Victorian house in Hammersmith—is chilling. The members of the NSM are treated with authorial detachment, coming across as mask-like and lacking an inner life, rigidly upholding deference to their idol, Hitler, the perverse source of nefarious fellowship. Jack’s affectionate relationship with Henry, the young son of Ralph, constitutes the only element of humanity, and hope, in these baleful scenes. 

While Jordan and Ralph are the architects of the NSM, the powerfully menacing character of Mickey represents the lowest, bestial form of humanity, a man for whom “men twice his size” move out of the way, and who beats up a young coloured boy because violence is his raison d’être. It is upon the brute power of such henchmen that Fascism has always depended. The author does not fall into the trap of making the NSM members entirely inhuman, however. Mickey’s feeling for his disabled nephew, whom his family dotes on, and Ralph’s gratitude for Jack’s looking out for his son, make these characters human, and their heinous beliefs all the more poignantly tragic. The author shows insight, too, into the kind of social disadvantage that fascist leaders prey upon in recruitment, offering vulnerable and marginalized boys the security of a ‘brotherhood.’

The inner conflict of Jack, who had renounced a career at The Times in order to infiltrate the NSM, is treated with depth and insight, and as a character, his is the most resonant in the novel. As he is given increasing trust and responsibility by the NSM, he finds himself progressing from the relatively innocuous job of distributing NSM flyers to having to commit such abhorrent acts as painting a swastika in a synagogue. Experienced from the viewpoint of Jack, who is kept in the dark about his assignments until the point of action, the NSM’s actions are redoubled in shock value. A feeling of dread is slowly built up in the reader as to what lengths the fascists’ murderous hatred will take them. 

The reader’s fears reach an apex in one of the more powerful scenes of the novel, the clandestine NSM Spearhead training camp, where Jack delivers tins of weed killer and sees bags of sugar—the two ingredients combining to make explosives. The secretive, edgy atmosphere at the camp, the gleam of long daggers hanging from men’s belts, come across as all the more sinister for being set in picturesque countryside, which itself feels somehow tainted. It is at this point that the psychic cost of taking on a ‘false self’, which has insidiously haunted Jack, becomes impossible to tolerate, and the ensuing inner battle culminates in a tiny slip of his mask, which will prove to be his undoing. It is as though Jack’s deepest humanity has baulked and rebelled, finally breaking through his painstakingly constructed façade. Found out and victim of Mickey’s savage reprisal, Jack’s injuries seem in some way to embody the psychic devastation that he had endured.

Bloom does full justice to the courage of the East End 62 Group, which formed in response to the NSM rally in Trafalgar Square, 1 July 1962. Indeed, the novel was inspired by the author’s meeting with a Jewish anti-Fascist who had lived in the East End all his life, participating in the street battles of the 43 and 62 Groups. In the novel, the men of the 62 Group are shown not to shrink from meeting violence with violence if called to, and they succeed in sabotaging the Fascist rallies. The steady presence of their (fictional) leader, Sid, as well as his son Barry, provides the moral bedrock of the novel, the antidote and answer to social evil; it is this which buoys up enough sanity in Jack for him to be able to push past his own limits, and ultimately bring the NSM perpetrators to justice. 

Regarding the style of writing, the reader may feel somewhat jarred by the rather colloquial tenor of the narrative and the characters’ dialogue (inner and outer), particularly before the introduction of Jack’s character. The somewhat platitudinous, humdrum quality to the language is the first thing to strike the reader. However, the homely feel of the narrative is ultimately effective in reflecting the ordinary humanity of the characters, who are built up convincingly over the course of the novel—so much so that one is sorry to leave their world. 

The novel is a love story, too, which although at times comes across a little contrived, is treated with sensitivity and increasing credibility. Moreover, after a somewhat awkward beginning, the narrative builds up in pace and suspense, and does indeed become a compelling, worthwhile read, as well as a fitting homage to the bravery of the 62 Group.

Natasha Blumenthal is a modern linguist and art historian, who teaches at Hampstead School of Art. 

This article appears in the Spring 2015 Issue of Jewish Quarterly.

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson (2014)

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