Once a vice is renounced, a delusion pricked, one looks back at it with second sight. It took the 1956 Hungarian massacre, in which Soviets deployed tanks against civilians, to budge Doris Lessing to resign from the British Communist Party. Fierce and radical, she could not resist casting some light on the leftish radicals of a new era – Thatcher’s Britain.
It is to her credit that we are engaged by the story of the dreariest, most self-centred, whiniest, galactically feckless soft cell in the history of modern terrorism. Their ‘earth mother’, Alice Mellings, a thirty-something going on nine, actually draws a measure of your sympathy in Lessing’s expert, ironic hands as she tidies and quacks her brood into line, protecting them from the real forces of fear or authority. And when the group actually manage something (the book came out not long after the IRA attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton), you just know that – like Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon – Alice will ‘take the fall’ (and, like Mary, so she should).