Utopian Thinking: News from Nowhere on the Power of Literature

As the general election approaches, it will be impossible to avoid the ambush of political soundbites and slogans. The Skinny talks to radical bookshop News from Nowhere about the link between politics and language – and the fate of independent bookstores

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 06 Mar 2015

As you stroll down the bohemian oasis of Liverpool’s Bold Street, it is impossible for your eyes not to be drawn to the bright rainbow painted above the bookshop News from Nowhere. Symbolising both unity and diversity, as well as being the emblem of the gay rights movement, the rainbow serves as an apt introduction to the famous radical bookstore. Inside, there are bookshelves with labels such as ‘Dirty thieving bastards’ and t-shirts on sale with Karl Marx proclaiming, “I told you this would happen” and “Bollocks to the bedroom tax.”

The bookshop is a women’s co-operative; all of the workers have equal status and pay. At the shop’s core is a commitment to social change and development; it stocks literature that provides an alternative view to mainstream culture and debate. “We’re all directors,” laughs Mandy Vere, the longest serving co-operative worker of the bookstore. “We wanted to show that women could run a business. For a long time we’d have people coming in saying ‘where’s the boss?’ as soon as they saw a woman at the till.”

News from Nowhere has been at the centre of progressive bookselling since it opened in 1974. “At the time, the books that we wanted to stock were not available in mainstream bookshops,” observes Vere. “It was a revolutionary time – the feminist movement was just starting and there were civil rights movements. Radical bookshops were very much centres for those radical ideas through literature and information about campaigns. The bookshop was the centre for all the things going on in Liverpool, at the time, throughout the militant years (including the Falklands War, Thatcherism and the period of the riots and uprisings in Toxteth). It was always a hotbed of revolution, radicalism and campaigns and, to some extent, we are still that.

“I’m talking a lot about the politics here, but the books are obviously integral because books are power and books are information,” Vere continues. “If people can’t read, or don’t have access to literature, they are impoverished intellectually, politically and socially. Yes we have access to information now from the internet, which is absolutely brilliant, but nothing will ever completely replace books.”

Vere describes the bookshop as a haven that provides “intellectual and cultural sanity” amid a chaotic world. She is aware that the bookshop’s reputation often precedes reality: “Sometimes people are aware of the bookshop and have always had an impression of us as being very militantly lefty, or that we’re a bit scary. When people actually venture into the shop, they find that we’re actually quite normal and there are a lot of books here that they like. It’s all about openness, information and ideas. We hope that people will find something to laugh at when they come in as well. It doesn’t all have to be serious.”

The bookshop’s name is taken from William Morris’s novel of the same name (a utopian book which tries – not altogether successfully – to align the creation of a future socialist state with a return to a medieval, pre-industrial past). Vere refers to a quote by Morris; he said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a “lovely thing to think about,” she says. “What do we need in life? We need bread; everybody needs a roof and the physical necessities of life, but we also need roses, we need beauty, we need art and culture. That’s what the bookshop is about: the politics of culture and the culture of politics. The point where those intersect is where News from Nowhere lives and it’s often very much on the edge. We aren’t the centre of anything. We’re always considered a bit wacky and off the wall – if not positively subversive and dangerous, which we love to be thought of [as].”

Debate among literary academics and readers continues to rage as to whether political writing can ever be considered in the same vein as literary masterpieces, given that works such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Lewis Jones’s Cwmardy seem to lack a floridity of language and ambiguity that supposedly characterises prize-winning, critically successful literature. Orwell wrote about the division between politics and literature in his essay Why I Write: 'In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues.'

"That’s what the bookshop is about: the politics of culture and the culture of politics" – Mandy Vere

Mandy and Bob at 100 Whitechapel, 1977

Vere similarly depicts the separation of literary and political writing as arbitrary. “I could give you a list as long as my arm of beautiful, wonderful novels that have real political content,” she says. “I mean 'political' in its wider sense about society and how we fit into that. Our bestselling novel is The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. That’s the bible of the labour movement in Britain; trade unionists recommend it to their friends. It probably isn’t a literary masterpiece in terms of the way it’s written. It’s a bit turgid and it could have done with a bit of editing, but it’s a really important book and people still read it.

“We can all read crime, thrillers and fantasy books, but the books that you remember are the ones that really touched you, that had some depth to them. Or, that opened your eyes up to a different culture and way of looking at the world, and I think that those are the important ones.”

The plight of independent bookshops is widely acknowledged with the number dwindling to fewer than 1000. In 2013, the Booksellers Association created the Books Are My Bag campaign where celebrities, including model Lily Cole and TV personality Dawn O’Porter, attempted to garner support for indie booksellers. Is independent bookselling, in the current climate, as difficult as it seems? Vere is optimistic about the future of independent bookshops, but laments their demise. “The rise of Amazon is the biggest threat to independent bookselling,” she says. “It is a terrible indictment of the UK; the UK’s book trade has been the envy of the world for hundreds of years.

“Liverpool’s radicalism is one of the reasons we’ve survived. People rally around because they feel that it’s their bookshop. It’s almost like it’s not our shop – it very much belongs to Liverpool. Amazon will fail. They have become too big for their boots. Anyway, we are a women’s co-op and we are the real amazons. That’s our phrase: shop with the real amazons.”

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Visit newsfromnowhere.org.uk for information about all of News from Nowhere’s events this month