Amid the rise of fascism in Sixties London, one woman searches for her lost love…
“A vivid, cinematic and exciting debut” – RED magazine ‘Book of the Month’
Summer, 1962. Twenty-year-old Vivien Epstein, a Jewish hairdresser from Manchester, arrives in London following the death of her father. Alone in the world, she is looking for Jack Fox, a man she had a brief but intense love affair with some months before. But the only address she has for him leads to a dead end.
Determined to make a new life for herself, Vivien convinces Barb, the owner of Oscar’s hair salon in Soho, to give her a job. There, she is swept into the colourful world of the Sixties – the music and the fashions, the coffee bars and clubs.
But still, Vivien cannot forget Jack. As she continues to look for him, her search leads her into the fight against resurgent fascism in East London where members of the Jewish community are taking to the streets, in and around Ridley Road. Then one day Vivien finally spots Jack, but her joy is short-lived when she discovers his secret. . .
Why I wrote Ridley Road
One August afternoon some summers ago, my dad and I gave a lift to an elderly man called Monty whom we’d met at a funeral. I took my place in the back, and on the drive to the nearest station, listened to them share memories of their early life in post-war East London. But when they mentioned something called the 62 Group, I pushed myself forward and heard about the Jewish community’s street resistance to fascism for the first time.
Even then I knew I would write about it. This was a tale that hadn’t been told before in literature; how, fewer than two decades after Hitler had been defeated and awareness of the atrocities against the Jews in World War II had begun to penetrate the mainstream, British fascism was rearing up again. But now it was opposed by the 62 Group – a band of brave, passionate men who took matters into their own hands and spent the sixties fighting fascism on the streets. These were ordinary men, driven to defend themselves against the wave of hatred in order to ensure a safe life for their families and the Jewish community.
“Cyril Paskin leads the 62 Group into action against the Greater Britain Movement on Kerbella Street, off Brick Lane (1964). Credit: Searchlight Magazine.”
I also learnt about the 43 Group – the thousands of men and women who took direct action to confront fascism after WWII and who were a key influence on the 62 Group. But it was the 62 Group that really spoke to me. How could I resist the draw of writing a story against the exciting backdrop of the early sixties in Soho and Hackney? Besides, it also gave me the chance to delve into my parents’ history – they were both nineteen in 1962 and had stories to share. On the one hand was the anti-Semitism, the fighting and bitter conflict. On the other, coffee bars, clubs and dancing; music and fashion on the cusp of change.
The main characters came to me quickly. Twenty-year-old Jewish hairdresser Vivien bravely moves from her hometown of Manchester to London following the death of her father. Jack, the object of her affection, is often in danger and struggles with his choices. And finally Stevie, a childish, charming, frustrated out-of-work musician. All three of them, I soon realised, would come to figure themselves out during that summer.
On my office wall I have a framed photo of a fascist meeting at Ridley Road taken in 1962. It was snapped during a lull in fighting, when a calm had descended on the hundreds of protestors. But the photo still fizzes with hostility and in the middle of the crowd, arms folded across his chest behind a policeman, Oswald Mosley stands straight-backed, chin out, defiant. This scene may have taken place over fifty years ago but whenever I read about extreme right-wing activity across Europe, I realise the story behind the photo, like the story at the heart of Ridley Road, is just as relevant today as it was then.
Brighton, May 2012
I have worked as a freelancer in the communications
field for the past fifteen years with a focus on arts
publicity and e-learning. I also contributed to the
book review section of Time Out, London for a few
years. Prior to this I lived and worked in Prague and
New York. I live in Brighton with my husband and son.
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" Bloom has uncovered an episode in London’s history that deserves to be better known, and her research has thrown up some appalling events…the subject matter alone makes for a thought-provoking read "
" A vivid, cinematic and exciting debut "
" Well-researched, convincingly evocative of an exciting era and covers events of which most people will have little awareness. It’s also a timely warning against the dangers of the insidious rhetoric against people of a different race or nationality, which is rearing its ugly head again "
" A stirring story of the darker side of the 60s "
The 62 Group were a real organisation, as were the two fascist groups mentioned in the novel. It’s a little-known aspect of Britain’s history and it brings a great deal of drama to Bloom’s story, as well as social interest. These are unpleasant and shocking politics to explore, but they are handled well. At the lighter end of the social history scale, Ridley Road also conjures a great picture of Soho’s early-Sixties jazz-and-caffeine buzz.
The tumultuous 1960s is the setting for Jo Bloom’s insightful novel Ridley Road – an exploration into an important, interesting and crucial narrative in British history, the Jewish community and fascism that hasn’t yet received due attention in fiction… Readers too are likely to have their eyes opened by this fascinating novel, which although fictitious, obviously takes inspiration from real contexts and situations. While the love story draws readers into the novel, it is the growing tension and drama of the political and social contexts that make this a really gripping read.
This is a superb debut from Jo Bloom. Brilliantly researched, informative, shocking and extremely moving I can’t recommend this novel enough.
The contrast between the innocence of Vivien and the hatred and evil of the fascists, combined with the strength of feeling and bravery of those who fought against it is startling and makes for compelling, and enlightening reading. Ridley Road contains an important story, very well told by an excellent author who writes so well. Her characters are rounded and well developed, the sense of place and era are very real and the plot is full of surprising and shocking twists and turns. A great novel, I enjoyed this one very much.
An exploration of a fascinating slice of British history all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story. Bloom handles the tensions within her story well but what lifts her book above the crowd is its context. Her novel grew out of a lift given to an elderly man she’d met at a funeral she’d attended. Listening to her father and Monty talking about their memories of the 62 Group, she became fascinated by what they were saying, researching it for several years before writing Ridley Road. It’s a tribute to Bloom’s lightness of touch that her story is so absorbing.
Bloom captures the vibrant ’60s London scene brilliantly: the music, the clubs and the fashions… Bloom blends the facts with the fiction to create a fast-paced story which is part-romance and part-thriller.
Ridley Road is a really interesting and thought-provoking read. It is a work of fiction but it is inspired by true events – fascists really did try to make a comeback less than 20 years after the end of the Second World War. If you like books set in the sixties, this is definitely worth a look; there are a lot of novels set in London in this period, but Ridley Road felt like a story I hadn’t come across before. I’ll be looking out to see what Jo Bloom writes about next.