We’re in a time when governments once more are turning their military forces onto their own people (Libya). Did you know that the British Government did the same thing in Glasgow in 1919 in the Battle of George Square?   Glasgow it turns out was the hotbed of British socialism with workers, in a time of high unemployment, campaigning for a 40-hour week.  Prior to this – 1915 – Glaswegian women, their men all away in the trenches of World War I, raised the standard against the unfair rent hikes that were resulting in many of their kind being evicted from often extremely poor accommodation.  This was the period in which Red Clydeside was born, political affiliations to the left which still hold firm in the West of Scotland to this day.

Isn’t it surprising what you learn from reading historical fiction?

The reason I picked up The Liberation of Celia Kahn so soon after my reading of  The Credit Draper was threefold.  1)  I needed to know if that ending was for real (it was ….)  2) I was really curious to know what happened during Celia’s formative years.  In The Credit Draper, Celia simply disappears into a crowd, reappearing a few years later, a confident young woman with values not of her family’s making and 3) I received an invitation to attend the book launch.

Launching Celia by Walter J Woolfe

Off I went to visit the bookshop in which I can lose myself for a day at a time – Waterstone’s flagship store in Glasgow’s Sauciehall Street.  It was a well-attended event.  I’ve been to events at major literary festivals with much smaller audiences but then J David Simons is a local lad and his friends, family and readers turned out in force to support him.

The Liberation of Celia Kahn is a companion novel to The Credit Draper.  There are points of connection in which scenes in the first novel are replayed but this time from Celia’s point-of-view.  There  is further exploration of the  Jewish immigrant experience in Scotland alongside clever mirrorings in the structure such as the two disembarkation scenes, one at the beginning of The Credit Draper, the other at the end of The Liberation of Celia Kahn.    However, the novels are not clones and there is no need to read The Credit Draper first.  Celia is an engaging protagonist, a young girl trying to find her own life and make the right decisions in a period of intense social upheaval.  The forward momentum is character-driven and this avoids any semblance of preachiness in a story charting  the rise of Scottish socialism, feminism and, yes, birth control.  I didn’t realise just how modern people of the early 1920’s were. 

Again, isn’t it surprising what you learn from reading historical fiction?

The author – brave man – asked me if I enjoyed this one more than The Credit Draper.  The surprising answer is no. In theory the novel with the female protagonist should have had an automatic edge but I became so attached to Avram (from the very first chapter of his story) that Celia’s character couldn’t compete.  And while the political history in the second novel was interesting, I was much more fascinated by the spiritual themes of the first.  Other readers are bound to see this differently.

One thing I enjoyed immensely was Celia’s visit to the Miss Cranston’s tearooms with Agnes Calder, her socialist mentor.  It’s a venue that is still a treat to visit.  Art deco furnishings, linen tableclothes, china cups and silver cake tongs. I’ll end this review with an extract which demonstrates the lightness of touch, the depth of characterisation and the sly humour which ensures this novel entertains and informs without become “worthy”.   Celia is talking:

“There’s something I want to ask.”

“It is a person’s duty to be curious.”

“You won’t think I am being ungrateful or impolite?”

“It takes a lot to offend, Agnes Calder.”

“Well then, if you believe in socialism.  What are we doing here in this luxury tearoom?”

Her companion laughed loudly at this, a laugh which inevitably turned into a coughing fit. When she had calmed down, she was still chuckling when she flipped open the box of Woodbines  with her yellowed fingers and extracted a cigarette.

“Now that’s a very good question,” she said, lighting up.  “It shows you’re thinking.  And my answer to you is this.  Come the revolution, Celia Kahn, come the revolution and we’ll all be having tea at Miss Cranston’s”.


Additional review at Vulpes Libres