Monday, 14 May 2012

The 43 Group Catherine Johnson

I had intended to write about Liza Picard's brilliant London history books, wonderful fact filled, accessible books that bring London to life in a million little ways. But Vidal Sassoon's death last week reminded me of another, even more incredible and blog worthy book which some of you may not have heard of. Of course you've heard of Vidal Sassoon, hairdresser to the stars and he did write the foreword yet this book is not about hair, in any shape or form.  It's a book I go back to at least once a year, a book that tells a story as thrilling and just as far fetched as fiction but based on the streets of my city and starring outrageously brave young people. I love it so much I can't tell you how many copies I have leant out and never got back and if the end doesn't hold up you can forgive it anything because the story is so damn good and it is, of course, true.

I loved it so much I wrote a story set in this time, with a gang of kids fighting fascism and listening to Jazz in London in 1947. Sort of Hue and Cry with Nazis.  It is, sadly, one of my unpublished *cough* masterworks that has never seen the light of day.

It is a story I sort of heard snippets of from my Dad, a tailor who came to the UK in 1947 and worked in the East End for years alongside Jews and Poles and Communists, a story that made me think that when I went to my secondary school in Hampstead Garden Suburb I would find a gang of girls ready to man the barricades and yell !No Pasaran! This was, alas, sadly not true. In 1974 the Maccabbi Youth Club was a place where the girls went to meet boys and not to plot the downfall of the National Front.

Hang on, let me go back to the beginning. 1945. World War Two has just ended, Victoria and Alexandra Park in London and many others across the country are still POW camps for German soldiers (some of these men won't be going home for two years or more). Our boys and girls are coming home, working class kids to bombed out East London, tired and happy to be back but maybe just missing the excitement and danger of war.

Britain was economically bumping along the bottom, there would be rationing and making do and mending for ages. And in Bethnal Green and Hackney Oswald Mosley's Union Movement were on the streets shouting against Jews (they would move on the black immigrants in the 50s). On soapboxes at Ridley Road Market and opposite the German POW camp in Vicky Park they shouted hatred. In schools they organised meetings and rallies.

Our boys and girls just back from fighting the Nazis were furious. What had been the point? The government at the time pursued a policy of leaving well alone. But the 43 Group, forty three mostly young men, mostly Jewish, decided to fight. It began with fistfights at fascist meetings - some of these guys were ex commando - but the group grew into something bigger more successful and more subtle; there were operations with undercover agents and the destruction of fascists literature and leaflets. There was even a network of London black cab drivers ready to ferry group members anywhere at short notice.

                                         Mosley speaking in the street in Dalston 1940s

Vidal Sassoon wasn't an ex serviceman, but he joined the 43 Group at the end of the 1940s and wrote the forward to Maurice Beckman's fabulous book. It's called The 43 Group, I hope you can still get it. But you're not having mine.


14 comments:

Josh Lacey said...

It's a great book. As a fascinating counterpoint, have you read Trevor Grundy's Memoir of a Fascist Childhood?

Caroline Lawrence said...

I want yours!

Catherine Johnson said...

Yes Josh, it makes an interesting companion piece. But what I love about Maurice Beckman's book is the energy and everything-in-possible atmosphere.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Good for Sassoon and all those who had and have the courage to stand up and fight prejudice and hatred. I had no idea. Thank you for this, Catherine!

Susan Price said...

I always liked an account I read of how Moseley's Blackshirts had got used to silencing any protests at their open-air meetings by beating up the protestors. But when they tried it on in the North-east, with a crowd of left-wing miners, they found themselves on the wrong end - or righteous end, perhaps - of pickaxe handles. Which had been hidden up sleeves. Protest was duly heard.

click here said...

Such a massive movement. A big history to look back.

Catherine Johnson said...

Susan, I never knew about the miners! Many thanks.In London after the success of the 43 group the blackshirts threw potatoes studded with razor blades at any left wingers trying to shout them down. And people say the world is more violent now!

Linda B-A said...

Did you catch the recent documentary on Vidal Sassoon? I wasn't going to watch it but became fascinated by the man's drive and energy. It must have taken incredible courage to pit yourself against razor-studded-potato-carrying fascists in the absence of government action. You're right about violence - then and now. It reminds me of the answer my grandad gave years ago when I'd moved down to London and I told him how scared I was of the gangs of skinheads near to my digs in North London. He just laughed and said, you should have seen the razor gangs in Sheffield when I were a lad...Great post, thanks.

adele said...

Coming late to this but will tweet it again tomorrow. Excellent post about a marvellous sounding book. GOod on Vidal. I always knew he was ace!

Ann Turnbull said...

My dad used to inspire me with stories of the anti-fascist solidarity in East London - great stuff! I'd love to read this, but a second-hand copy on Amazon costs over £60 - you should have hung on to your copies, Catherine!

H.M. Castor said...

A brilliant post & the book sounds fascinating... I hope someone will reprint it! Thanks, Catherine.

Catherine Johnson said...

Sixty pounds!!!! Unbelievable, someone should reprint it Five Leaves maybe? I still have one and maybe my son, Adam, has another....

Leslie Wilson said...

I have a copy, which cost less than that, you just have to hang on and keep looking. I do so want to read your book, Catherine, can't you put it on Kindle?

Eddy Rushton said...

How people can heap praise on such a poor book I'll never know, the book is a fantasy, many of the incidents never happened, there are so many mistakes you would need another book to mention them all. Admiring gangsters who razor slashed and coshed British ex-servicemen is sick.