By Rob Hargreaves

Pen & Sword Books. 239 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-39909-842-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In 2016 I went to Oldham to see a play called Dare Devil Rides to Jarama. A small theatre production with minimum props and two actors, it told the story of Clem Beckett, a one-time star of the speedway circuit of the 1920s and early-1930s who died fighting with the International Brigades in Spain. It was a lively evening with something of the spirit of an old-style agit-prop performance.

So who was Clem Beckett?  He was born in 1906 in Saddleworth, “an anomalous amalgam of Yorkshire villages left on the doorstep of the Lancashire town of Oldham”. Like many young people in those days he quit school early, “starting work as a ‘half-timer’ with Platt Brothers, Oldham’s leading textile engineers”. Rob Hargreaves says that Oldham at the end of the nineteenth century was “the most productive cotton-spinning centre in the world”. But Beckett soon moved on from Platt Brothers and became an apprentice blacksmith. It’s suggested that he was keen to work with horses, hence his decision to opt for employment as a blacksmith.

Horses may have been important to him, but it’s perhaps an indication of their declining relevance as various forms of road transport developed that Beckett, at the age of fourteen, was already interested in motor-cycles. A self-taught mechanic he was known as “Daredevil Beckett” and had a reputation as a “tough guy”. When he was eighteen he joined the Young Communist League (YCL) after being politicised by a socialist farrier he worked with. He also joined the Territorial Army (TA) and so gained an awareness of weapons that became useful years later. It’s difficult to know how long he remained in the TA, or how active he was with the YCL, but both involvements no doubt widened his field of experience beyond that of many working-class males of his age.

The 1920s saw the rise of “speedway riding” or “dirt track racing” as a spectator sport that could appeal to big audiences. And it provided opportunities for young men, most of them from backgrounds similar to Beckett’s, to live a little dangerously, earn some money, and possibly attract attention as star performers. Beckett’s own initial appearance took place at Audenshaw Race Course in May, 1928, riding a home-made machine. The event attracted ten thousand spectators.

Hargreaves does a good job in showing how quickly race tracks opened up around the country. There were fifty stadiums by the end of 1928, twenty of them in the Manchester area. One of the main ones was, of course, Belle Vue. With the rise of interest in dirt track racing and the opening of new venues came the advent of the Auto-Cycle Union (ACU), an organisation that functioned rather like the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and primarily represented the concerns of conservative-minded members and officials. They regulated the activities of motor-cycling enthusiasts who took part in competitions of an amateur nature, and were consequently disturbed by the fact that speedway racing brought in professional (or semi-professional) riders who were keen to be paid for putting on performances that included lots of thrills and spills.

There was also an organisation called International Speedways (ISL) which had a power-base in three London stadiums and aimed to extend it beyond them. Hargreaves says that “the growing commercialisation of speedway by ISL would soon mean that it controlled riders’ remuneration and other matters such as transfers between stadiums, just as automatically as the Football Association was able to control the pay and conditions of professional footballers”. The fact that Clem Beckett and others were responsible for organising the Dirt Track Riders Association (DTRA), a quasi-trade union which would fight for better pay and conditions for riders, soon put him at odds with the ISL and the ACU.

In the meantime Beckett’s fame was spreading. He visited Denmark and Sweden in 1929, and also made trips to Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. He had direct experiences of the rise of Fascism when he took speedway to Germany. And he spent time in Marseilles. At home he mixed with the “Cheshire Set, taking flying lessons and enjoying speedboat racing on the Cheshire lakes (or meres)”. He also attracted a number of young ladies, though doesn’t appear to have taken any one of them too seriously. What Communist Party officials thought of his activities, if they knew about them, isn’t documented.

By the early 1930s the effects of the Depression were being felt around the country, but especially in the North. Attendances at speedway events declined and tracks began to close. If people had money to spare they preferred to spend it on football matches, which had always been speedway’s main competition in terms of holding the loyalty of working-class spectators. In an effort to continue attracting the attention of audiences some riders, including Beckett, turned to the Wall of Death.

 “Motorcycle riders defying gravity by hurtling horizontally round a wooden bowl” had no sporting angle to it. Hargreaves describes it as “sheer entertainment, more of a fairground attraction”. He might have added that, from the spectators’ point of view, there was probably a voyeuristic aspect involved as they waited for a rider to come a cropper. The dangers inherent in such an activity were obvious, especially as riders attempted to distinguish their performances by “a variety of stunts and gimmicks”. A photograph in the book shows Beckett with his arms outstretched as his machine nears the top of the bowl and spectators look down impassively. More than one rider, including Beckett, sustained injuries when things went wrong and they fell.

The decline in interest in dirt-track racing, together with the numerous injuries he had suffered, were not the only reasons for Beckett having to look for other sources of income. He wrote articles for The Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, about the state of speedway racing and the exploitation of the riders by “promoters” and the “sport’s administrators”. The main focus of his attack was the ACU, and it represented, in Griffith’s words, “a professional suicide note”. Beckett found himself blacklisted from appearing at ACU-registered tracks.

The Depression had hit the North badly, but there were areas of the country which were booming. Beckett and a friend headed south and obtained jobs in the Ford factory at Dagenham. His employment there didn’t last too long. Not accustomed to working to the timed conditions of a production line, nor to the controls asserted over workers’ behaviour, Beckett soon tangled with a foreman and was dismissed. Drifting back North he opened a motor-cycle sales and repair shop. I’m compressing his activities and the early Thirties saw him visiting Russia and taking part in the famous Kinder Scout mass trespass. It was largely a Communist Party-organised event, though involving many non-communists, and the police targeted and arrested known local communists like Benny Rothman. But Beckett wasn’t among them.

In 1934 he was in Denmark and it’s hinted that he may have been acting as a Party courier, carrying messages and cash through intermediaries either to or from Russia. He also developed a relationship with a Danish woman called Lida who is described as “mysterious” and was a Communist and most likely a courier for the Party. Beckett married her and she came to live with him “over the shop” in Miles Platting. Hargreaves, noting that “From the accession of Hitler to the German Chancellorship after 1933, it would have been too dangerous for messages between King Street (Communist Party HQ in Britain) and Russia to go through Northern Germany. The route through Denmark would be all the more vital”, Beckett and Lida made several visits there in 1935 and 1936.

When the Spanish Civil War started in July, 1936, and the call went out for Communist Parties in various countries to raise volunteers to fight for the Republic, Beckett was one of the first to enlist in the International Brigades. The general situation was that Franco and his Nationalist fellow-conspirators had the advantage of leading an army which included the Spanish Foreign Legion and regiments of Moorish troops. And although a Non-Intervention policy had supposedly been agreed to by most countries, Hitler and Mussolini supplied men and equipment to the Nationalists. The only countries willing to provide the Republican government with arms were Mexico and Russia. Little of quantity or quality came from Mexico, and the Republicans paid heavily, in more ways than one, for what they received from Russia.

Beckett headed to Spain in late-October, 1936, ostensibly as part of a British Medical Aid convoy. It was while this was being prepared in London that he met and became friends with Christopher Caudwell (Christopher St John Sprigg), a Marxist writer, literary critic, and intellectual. Hargreaves suggests that their friendship was perhaps not as incongruous as it seems. Beckett’s range of experiences travelling throughout Britain and Europe may have set him apart from many of the British working-class volunteers in Spain.

His time with the British battalion of the Fifteenth International Brigade was not without incident, and at one point he was arrested and accused of “disaffection”. Hargreaves says that it was probably because of his “general irreverence towards the political commissars and Party propaganda…..It was as natural for straight-talking Clem to criticise battalion command as it was to ridicule the ‘old-fogeys’ of the Auto-Cycle Union”. And, as his encounter with an overbearing foreman at Dagenham had demonstrated, he wasn’t likely to take kindly to petty rules and regulations. The charges against him were soon dropped and he returned to his unit.

When the British battalion moved towards Jarama in February, 1937, Beckett and Caudwell were in charge of a French Chauchat machine-gun, a left-over from the First World War. At some stage during the battle they were providing covering fire for troops who had been ordered to withdraw, and found themselves isolated. They both died when their position was over-run by Moorish infantry. Hargreaves provides a more-detailed account of what happened and also notes that their bodies were never recovered.

The Party promptly hailed them as heroes, and claimed that Beckett had written to his wife to say, “I am sure you’ll realise that I should never have been satisfied had I not assisted”. Her account was that his last words to her were “So long, kid, don’t worry”, which sounds more like what “Daredevil Beckett” might have said in the circumstances.

Writers and academics still argue about what happened in Spain during the Civil War, and no-one who has read about it in histories and memoirs would want to deny that many mistakes were made, and that the motives of some of those supporting the Republic were not always pure and simple. But I’ve always thought that the majority of the volunteers in the International Brigades deserved the high praise given to them. 

Rob Hargreaves has written a detailed and lively account of Clem Beckett’s life and activities. His participation in the Spanish Civil War was only one relatively small, but significant part of it. Hargreaves supplies a great deal of information about his involvement in dirt-track racing, along with informative portraits of some of his co-riders, their backgrounds in the social conditions of the 1930s, and much more. His book has a great deal to offer in terms of its broad range.