Monthly Archives: October 2021

Fascism and anti-fascism in Britain – ten novels

Standard


May be an image of ‎book and ‎text that says "‎CHILDREN of the ه SUN Max Schae The Rotters Club ALAN GIBBONS JONATHAN COE STREET OF TALL PEOPLE JO BLOOM NN RIDLEY ROAD October Day HenryWillamson Tarkathe Otternais elSpa Frank Griffin Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Editions MODERN CLASSICS Tariq ehmood While There is Light The Wardrobe Mistress PATRICK McGRATH End at Your Feet Farrukh Dhondy AFTER the PARTY CRESSIDA CONNOLLY HEARTLANI ANTHONY CARTWRIGHT‎"‎‎

With Ridley Road now on the BBC iplayer, I thought I’d post a list here of what I reckon are the ten best novels written about fascism and anti-fascism in Britain:

(10) Farrukh Dhondy, East End At Your Feet

More a short story collection than a novel; in the fifth story “KBW” [Keep Britain White] a neighbouring family is attacked by a gang of 20 racists.

(9) Patrick McGrath, The Wardrobe Mistress

On the death of veteran actor Charles Grice in 1947, his wife Joan learns that he was a fascist and a street-corner antisemite. Will she take revenge on the movement that corrupted him?

(8) Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Girls fall madly in love with glamorous and manipulative teacher. But it’s 1933 and the teacher has a crush on Mussolini and Hitler.

(7) Cressida Connolly, After the Party

Glamorous socialite Phyllis Forrester returns to England. She follows her sister Nina into a world of fascist summer camps, and wartime internment

(6) Tariq Mehmood, While There is Light

England and back. An account of the events leading up to the rest of the Bradford 12 in 1981: rude, funny, full of righteous fire.

(5) Anthony Cartwright, Heartland

Cartwright, the novelist-historian of work, Thatcherism and the East Midlands, returns to home territory for a story of the World Cup, local elections and a Sunday-league football game pitting two Tipton teams together, one of them a stooge for the BNP.

(4) Max Schaefer, Children of the Sun

In 2003, gay left-wing screenwriter James becomes obsessed 1980s-ers neo-Nazi Nicky Crane, following his career and friends through the archives and in real life. Perhaps the only ever book to have been praised by both China Mieville and Nick Griffin.

(3) Jonathan Coe, The Rotters Club

It’s Birmingham in 1976, with glam rock, the IRA and teenage Nazi Harding is doing his best A. K. Chesterton impersonation in the school elections. Ben Trotter and his friends meanwhile are exploring sex, London, and Rock Against Racism.

(2) Frank Griffin, October Day

The events of 4 October 1936 – Cable Street – shown Dos-Passos-style through such characters as the winnable but anti-political worker Joe, the policeman Harold Thurgood and a wealthy fascist with who he carries on an affair, Lady Stroud.

(1) Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Because we’ve all got a little part of Stevens in us, whether we like it or not – that loyalty to the present, to things as they are, which stops us from changing them.

With honourable mentions for the following: Alan Gibbons, Street of Tall People, PH Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters, Richmal Compton, William the Dictator, the screenplay of Young Soul Rebels (which is published as a book), Anders Lustgarten’s play A Day at the Racists (ditto), and (yes) Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road.

Ridley Road and the real Vivien Epstein

Standard

I’ve been fascinated by the BBC series, Ridley Road, and the way in which it uses the history of anti-fascism. I haven’t read the novel behind the series, by Jo Bloom, but if there is any consistency at all between the two versions of the story then plainly she was trying to do something interesting with the history, something a historian could never do. Here I’ll try to explain what.

The starting point is that there is, essentially, no good history of the 62 Group. There were a series of interviews written up by Steve Silver (here). There is an account of the same period seen through the eyes of the NSM in Paul Jackson’s biography of Colin Jordan (here). And you can pick up bits from Nigel Copsey and Dave Hann’s histories of anti-fascism in Britain.

Bloom plainly raided Silver’s work as her main source, and so you get a line of dialogue in one of the episodes describing Solly (Eddie Marsan) as owning London’s largest black cab firm. Check that against the Silver manuscript, and you’ll see that (so far) Solly is based on the real life figure of Wally Levy – an ally of the 62 Group, but by no means its key player.

I suspect the idea was to mix Levy with a more important figure in the group Harry Bidney, who had been prosecuted at various times in the 1950s for being in a gaming house, dealing in black market cigarettes, receiving stolen alcohol, and for allowing a room to be used for betting, and for prostitution. There’s probably some of Cyril Paskin and Baron Moss there too.

The series doesn’t really explain why Ridley Road was such a key site for fascist (and therefore antifascist) organising; essentially it was the border line between gentile Hackney in the borough’s south and the Jewish district in the north. In 1947-8, it saw the most intense fascist organising of any district in London between 1945 and the 1970s.

There are problems with the drama – the first episode strains for contemporary resonances, and makes Jordan seems a bigger and better-connected threat than he was. The biggest weakness, for me, reflects the shift from a novel to the small screen. In the former, it makes sense for political organising to be the work of really 2-3 key people who really gras[ everything. The real life 43 and 62 groups were larger, more democtatic – and more chaotic – than that.

By far the most interesting thing Bloom does with the story is that she raids the better-known history of the 43 Group – and takes a key episode from that and makes it the centre of her drama. To recap, what everyone knows about the 43 Group is that they were a set of Jewish ex-servicemen willing to fight a physical battle with the fascists. Through intelligence, and a willing to out-violence their opponents, they knocked over fascist platforms and drove them from the streets.

Now, this narrative is mythic in certain respects – it exaggerates the group’s success rate (which was high in 46 and spring and summer 47 then tailed off, as the fascists grew). It also ignores one or two dark episodes.

The darkest of these concerned a female infiltrator Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Like “Vivien” in Ridley Road she slept with leading fascists (not Jordan but a Mosley’s lieutenant, Jeffrey Hamm).

Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised and remained there for 30 years. There, she described her life as being “penned inside a mile of corridors, surrounded by sick, twisted, deformed, insane people; doing nothing, going nowhere, only longing with every cell of my body and mind and spirit for death.”

It is incredibly hard trying to find out what happened to Turner. I remember in the 1990s when I interviewed half a dozen members of the 43 Group – few if any were willing to speak about her. But friends of theirs would tell you stories, for example that Turner was hospitalised because she had gone into the fascists, been caught there, and beaten, and the injuries had caused the decades of ill-health that followed.

Daniel Sonnabend gives a different (and even more troubling) version of who attacked her.

What Ridley Road does, it seems to me, is take that story about Turner, turn it into myth, and cure her suffering through the medium of fiction. It presents Turner as having (well – I can’t go on without spoiling the ending) but you get the point. It takes her defeat in real life and makes her heroic.

Knowing that there were real life counterparts to the Vivien character who were there, and didn’t get out – and never got out – that’s the real story.