In 1964 an eight year old Tommy sees his Uncle Jack weeping uncontrollably, but does not know why. Tommy grows up and we read about his schooldays, his becoming a father, his infidelities, his trips abroad with his Uncle Jack as Jack re-visits places important in his past – Barcelona, Murmansk, Auschwitz, Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), the break-up of Tommy’s marriage. All the events in Tommy’s narrative are linked to important public events – the CIA coup in Chile in 1973, the National Front March in Southall in 1979 when Blair Peach dies, the birth of his first son during the 1981 inner city race riots, the miners’ strike. All the time Tommy grows closer to his Uncle Jack and starts to understand his world-weary sadness. Tommy has money problems and marriage problems, but his job is not revealed.
Alternating with Tommy’s chatty, digressive narrative is a third person and sometimes first person narrative which follows the events in Jack’s life from 1937 onwards and in the lives of those with whom he is connected. These chapters are snapshots of other lives connected with Jack. He has served in Spain with his best mate Robbie in the International Brigades; they befriended two female Russian snipers in Spain; Jack and Robbie serve in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. The two snipers, Katya and Halya, fight at the siege of Stalingrad. Halya is captured at Stalingrad. There are chapters describing the fighting at Stalingrad. Katya survives the war. The story follows Halya’s son who is brought up by his grandparents and takes part in the suppression of Prague in 1968. He has three children: Ilya, Yuri and Olga, and we read of their experiences in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and then later at Chernobyl. Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jack re-establishes contact with Katya. He and Tommy visit contemporary Barcelona, Murmansk and Volgograd and slowly Tommy pieces together more of the past. Katya dies and Tommy returns to Volgograd to try to make more sense of the past. The ending, after all the suffering, is celebratory and uplifting. The final section of the novel reveals Tommy’s ‘job’. This sounds very gloomy, but it isn’t. All the way through a love of life and ordinary things is emphasised and there are many light-hearted moments.
This is a novel which is broadly about the fight against fascism over several decades and the oppression by governments of ordinary people. However, while the novel is unashamedly political and polemical, Tommy finds redemption – not in ideology and politics, but in people.
I’ll never forget the day I saw my Uncle Jack cry. I’d never seen a man cry before because in those days, you never did. Just didn’t happen. Unless they were all drunk and laughing. Or drunk and reminiscing and maudlin. But everything was different back then. Men were different, I suppose. Or something was. Anyway. Maybe it was just that Uncle Jack was different. I dunno.
It must have been when I was seven or eight. I remember my mum had sent me round to Uncle Jack’s butcher’s shop for some bacon and black pudding. It wasn’t just because Jack was family – everyone round our way said it was the best butcher’s shop on the Old Kent Road. It’s not there now. I walked past where it used to be a few months ago. It’s a discount booze and fags place now.
I know it was in spring for sure, because London’s plane trees had started to get that light green sheen of freshness that seemed, if you were eight, to be some sort of natural beacon of hope after a grey, wet, grinding winter. And I also had to get some hot cross buns from the baker’s. So it must have been around Easter. Now you can get hot cross buns in the supermarkets whenever you like - at any time of the year. Now. Things were different then. And stuff doesn’t stay the same forever. I thought it would. I was so convinced that some things would never change. But I was wrong. Lots of shit changes. Even shit changes if you leave it long enough. Shit comes in different colours to start with, but then it changes. Very much like life, I’ve found.