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Laughing at the Blackshirts

Boris Wild

 

My dad was always talking politics. It was politics that lost him his job in the Police force. You don't take out a writ against the Chief Constable and get away with it, now do you?  

My dad, a big six-footer, was twenty-two years of age in 1926, the year of the General Strike, and I suppose he had been in the Bobbies about a year. He'd been doing well, so my mam said: commended for going up a ladder to rescue a woman from a blazing house; broken up Friday-night fights; arrested drunks and even caught a couple of burglars but then came the General Strike. In the General Strike you had to take sides. 

In Rochdale where my dad was stationed the mill-hands and the engineering workers were solid for the strike and the unemployed were with them too. The employers and the Government were worried because they feared revolution was a possibility. "Look what happened in Russia!", they said to each other. "It's got to be stopped". In Rochdale, birthplace of the Co-op movement, the marches and demonstrations had too much public support for the Chief Constable's liking and were too orderly for him to ban them. None-the-less he ordered the police to "go in and make some arrests". My dad was detailed to the dole queue and instructed to "heave some of those bloody work-shy scroungers through a shop window and arrest them". Being a Socialist---though what a Socialist was doing in the police force you might well ask---my dad refused. He naively believed the police were there to uphold the law impartially, not break it, and besides his sympathies were with the strikers.

As if refusal to obey an unlawful order were not reason enough for them to get rid of him he also urged the other Bobbies to disobey the order and was put on a disciplinary charge for incitement. My dad was not one to be intimidated though, and a bit of a barrack-room lawyer. He took out a writ demanding the Chief Constable withdraw his unlawful command. After much interviewing and arguing, many threats and the intervention of lawyers, the order was rescinded and the charge dropped: my dad's writ withdrawn. It was a Pyrrhic victory: from that moment on they were out to get him. To avoid being "fitted up for a long spell inside" my dad had no choice but to resign from the force. He was also black-listed, though he couldn't prove it, and was not able to get a regular full-time job, anywhere, after he left the police. 

For the remainder of the 1920's and most of the 1930's my dad was unemployed. He was active with the Communist Party - though I'm not sure that he actually carried a card - and The Unemployed Workers' Movement. He got quite a name for himself in and around Prestwich for organising demonstrations and heckling at political meetings. Him and his mate Jimmy Crudeson even went on one of the hunger marches to London and he would have gone to fight in Spain had he not had two young children and a pregnant wife to support. As 'the thirties' progressed and the recession deepened towards war the poverty became chronic. My dad's only suit, the one he had got married in, went in and out of pawn each week for a couple of bob. My mother stole my grandma's rings and pawned them to buy food, then told my grandma, who had a small widow's war pension but was tight-fisted, from where she could get them back. Times were bad, bad, bad, very bad indeed. Three-and-a-half million unemployed and the only policy on offer, wage cuts. The Government said the economic recession was caused by workers asking for too high wages: it was a "load of rubbish". I heard my dad telling everyone: "Always believe the opposite of what they tell you: you'll be a lot nearer the truth". 

The local Tories called the unemployed "work-shy" but my dad was not "work-shy", he was a good worker, given the chance. He had cleared rubble, humped soil, laid turf and made a show-piece garden to our house out of nothing and he kept it immaculate. It was laid out formally like a French Chateau garden and full of flowers: mainly Stocks, Antirrhinums, Asters, Alyssum and Blue Lobelia in the formal parts and a riot of Roses elsewhere and with dozens and dozens of Dahlias in the centre-beds in the Autumn. But if you are poor even being a good worker can be a disadvantage. 

A group of Councillors and Assessors came to our house to apply the Means-Test. They refused us relief even though we had hardly a stick of furniture and no proper bedding, except a few old sheets and a pile of old coats, and no food except for a meat and potato pie my mam had made and hidden under an old sewing-machine-lid upstairs in a bedroom. At least they couldn't order us to sell anything: there was nothing to sell, but they said my dad must be earning money somewhere to be able to have such a wonderful garden. The plants were, in fact, mainly "throw-outs" from McAlpine's Nursery where my dad occasionally did odd jobs, though I suspect some of the bedding and rockery plants "fell off a lorry".   

After the Board refused us money and my dad's dole was cut things got desperate. My mam was six weeks behind with the rent and hadn't told my dad. There were debts at the butchers and the grocers and the coalman was refusing to deliver. We had to tell the doctor's man my mam was out when he called on Friday. The clothing club lady and Michaelson from the shoe shop had to be content with sixpence instead of their weekly half-crowns. It was a good job our Ernie and me were on free school-dinners.  

One afternoon my mam came and collected us from school. She was carrying our Arthur in her arms. She took us round to the house of Councillor Mrs. Keitch who had been to our house for the Means-Test and begged her to give us some money for food. I remember the glass porch and the red geraniums and the warmth coming out through the door from the carpeted hallway. Mrs Keitch handed my mam a shilling. My mam looked at it in the palm of her hand saying: "I've three children to feed. Is that all you can give me!" On the way home my mam bought a loaf with the shilling from a horse-drawn Co-op van and a pot of jam from Bellhouse's grocery shop. She bought an Evening Chronicle and five Woodbines for my dad from Whittaker's newsagent's. My dad was furious with her for going begging to Mrs. Keitch but he smoked the fags. I remember him saying he would rather steal than beg for food from "that bloody lot".   

My dad worked hard on the garden. I used to help him, emptying the grass-box from the mower or picking up privet clippings. When he'd done he would say to me: "By God I'm whacked out". But that didn't stop him talking politics. He used to stand, leaning with his back against the front garden gate, looking admiringly at his work, fishing for the always fulsome compliments of passing neighbours. Once engaged he would discuss the political situation with them, or rather, use the opportunity to air his knowledge of current affairs and his left-wing views. My mam would say to us: "He's on his soap box again", but he was always interesting, and he knew a lot about Russia.         

Once the war started people from Prestwich Labour Party came to our house for advice and to discuss the war and the Russians with my dad. I used to think he knew Stalin personally the way he used to talk about him. It was all Joe will do this and Joe will do that and don't let them kid you. When finally Germany attacked Russia he said to Cecil Davis, the Labour Party Secretary: "Don't worry. Old Joe'll soon sort Gerry out". He said it with such conviction you'd have thought he'd been on the 'phone to Moscow the night before.

One thing puzzled me though. My dad knew and got on with practically everyone on Polefield estate, if you discounted my mam; I couldn't understand why he wanted to put somebody called the Bourgeoisie up against the wall, or hang them from the ladder cross-bars on the lamp-posts on Bury Old Road. And Moseley's Blackshirts were destined for a similar fate. I remember once being very frightened when I was about four years of age. A small, black van with a loud speaker on the top and a white circle on the side, with a zig-zag flash like lightning inside it, stopped outside our house and some men got out. My dad was doing the garden. He walked down the path to the gate with his spade in his hand and started shouting something about Spain at them. Two of the men came running over, shouting and swearing, and one of them punched my dad in the chest. My dad shouted: "Don't you bloody try that on with me!" and swung his spade at him but the man jumped out of the way and the two of them ran back to the van. My mother ran down the path shouting "Harry! Harry! Come in! You'll get yourself killed!" I was very frightened and started crying and I put my arms around my dad's leg and held it tight. "Bloody fascist cowards!" my dad shouted. The men shouted something back and got into the van.  

But the van wouldn't start. The engine whirred and wheezed a bit but didn't fire. Another whirrrrer, whirrrrerh, a couple of loud bangs, then another, and then, nothing. They had to get out again and push it. My dad just stood at the gate laughing, ha ha ha ha! And laughing, ha ha ha ha ha! And though I was still shedding tears, I started laughing too. They were still pushing when they reached the main road.