Why did you decide to write a novel about the Russian Revolution?
In the run up to the one hundred years anniversary I fully expected that there would be a rash of books about the revolution. As it approached however it was clear that apart from China Mieville’s Book, October, the book by Dave Sherry and a book by Neil Faulkner there was very little coming out and no fiction so I very quickly wrote the first part of this trilogy in ten days followed by the second one and all being well I’ll write the final part.
The revolution was one of the most important events in history, the liberation of a huge swathe of humanity. It shaped what followed, Stalinism, the Second World War, the growth of social democracy, the National Health Service and so on. It’s hard to understand our world without knowing about the revolution. I was in Russia recently and talking to young people there they too had very limited knowledge of anything before 1939.
I tell the story of the victory of the revolution but also in the later books of its defeat. The revolution in its early days had a tremendous programme of education and literacy. The Bolsheviks sent thousands out to build libraries and so on. They were concerned with education. All this came under tremendous pressure from the war and the civil war but they tried to do it while they could.
You are mostly known as a writer of Teenage or Young Adult fiction. What is your audience for this book?
I’m not sure that there is such a thing as a Young Adult!
The way that the revolution is being portrayed in the mainstream media is disgraceful. The BBC’s main programme was terrible. Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag-Montefiore were putting forward propaganda against the revolution. No serious historian should do that.
This book I hope will be read by teenagers and adults too. The problem is that the categories become restrictive. Publishers get very nervous about earthy language and sexuality, especially non-heterosexual sexuality. So this book has no compromises on the politics and the kind of language used but the main protagonist is 16 and the characters are mainly young.
They are the age of people that are becoming involved in politics now around the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. You are in the Labour Party?
Myself, my wife and my kids are all in the Labour Party; the motivation for that was the movement around Jeremy Corbyn. It’s the movement that’s important. Thousands of people, including young people, are taking from Corbyn a sense that things can be changed — that we can stand up to austerity. I think a Labour government with Corbyn is going to happen. If that is the case it will face a big backlash from the right and the media. It’s important to build the movement in the unions and around communities that will be able to withstand this.
We can have a Labour government but what happens after that has to be fought for.
What do you think that young people in the Labour Party know about the Russian Revolution?
The problem today is that the revolution is seen through the wrong end of the telescope with Stalinism as the end result. There are a large number of people joining Labour but the left outside Labour is small and divided. People joining Labour are coming into contact with ideas about socialism. We are having a two-day event in Liverpool called Red October. It will talk about the ideas in the revolution but also about present struggles. I imagine that there will be people from left groups there but the main group of people will come from the Labour Party.
We also have to tackle things like the rise of the right. In Liverpool we have seen off the EDL and National Action (NA); we kettled them in Lime St Station! That was the end of the previous wave as it were. The EDL only got small numbers and NA are banned now. The new demonstrations around the Football Lads Alliance are worrying. I think it was very courageous of people around Stand Up To Racism to try and engage them in the way that they did but BAME people and others got abuse so it all starts to come out.
The right are desperate to try and get back to Liverpool but I don’t think they will get permission to march here. If they come to the north next we need a big mobilisation; we should try and argue with them still. It’s not yet a hardened movement; we should try and split the softer ones away.
What are your plans?
I’m going to China for three weeks including Shanghai so you never know, I might write something about Shanghai in 1927 (the massacre of 10,000 Communist Party members). There is one novel about it, La Condition Humaine by André Malraux, which was written in 1933.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot