4th October; 5th October…

For Michael Rosen, mensch…

Years and years ago, I read somewhere that the towering philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was mistrustful of history as a discipline — on account of what he saw as the historian’s tendency to fantasize causal relationships between events which, in all-too-chaotic reality, were merely successive. In my own intellectual life, such as it is, I’ve been distressed by a problem vastly more basic than any that confronted our gloomy transcendental idealist. What I mean is that, as humanity’s rotten and murderous 20th century gave way to its rotten and probably final 21st, I found that, far from mythopoeically misconstruing some mere succession of ‘landmark’ events, smart and educated people all around me seemed increasingly unaware that these events had taken place at all

I won’t go on — not on this occasion, anyway! — about the ways in which my music-history teaching, such as it was, was influenced by the growing need to reintroduce a sense of basic chronology into the topics I presented; but I will draw attention to something that popped back into my memory yesterday: the fact that the ‘landmark’ event in British political history that was ‘The Battle of Cable Street’ (4th October 1936) actually took place just one day before the start of the extended ‘landmark’ event in British labour history that was the ‘Jarrow Crusade’ (5th — 31st October 1936). I stress that I’m telling the simple truth when I say that literally never have I heard anyone in my circle — and it’s a pretty intellectual circle in one or two places, let me tell you! — spontaneously draw attention either to the near-simultaneity of the two events, or to the vivid picture of mid-1930s UK life that emerges when the two are viewed side-by-side. Which latter — to some small extent, at least — is what you are going to get here.

First: fascism.

No, I’m not going to write out a history of the awful Oswald Mosley and his — yes: his! — ‘British Union of Fascists’: anyone who wants to know more about them than they currently do can look them up online. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on a few things that no-one except me ever thinks of writing about…

To start with, there is the fact that I am not the only person I know who has never quite got over the shock of discovering — and in adulthood, too! — that there had once been a ‘British Union of Fascists’ with tens of thousands of members and a paramilitary force of black-shirted hard-nuts barracked at an army-style headquarters in Central London. And not only this, but also that they marched around in breeches and shiny boots; wore peaked caps; and held their arms up at peculiar angles in Nazi-style salutes.

The first time I ever saw film clips showing this regressive lunacy spread out on the streets of Britain, I was absolutely staggered. Because it really is all there: the obsession with big belt-buckles; brigades of women lining up along with the men; some knob-head standing up in a car with a flag on the front; speeches yelled at delirious crowds while ranks of idiots hold up flags and standards… Seriously: we had it here too!

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Of course, the reason that I — and probably millions of baby-boomers like me — grew up without being taught about this stuff is not hard to guess. After Britain had fought (and beggared itself fighting) an alliance of aggressively nationalist militarized authoritarian racist states, the fact that the UK’s pre-war politics had prominently featured a party with an aggressively nationalist militarized authoritarian racist agenda was just a little too embarrassing to be dwelt upon. As a result, the ugly and discomfiting truth of the party’s sizeable public following — and its leader’s friendship with Mussolini and Hitler — was replaced by the warm and fluffy fantasy of, in essence, a 1930s ‘Dad’s Army’ Britain: a nation unequal but stable, a population bumbling but stout-hearted — and with no-one having any time at all for this ‘fascism’ nonsense…

And so the ‘memory gap’ is scrupulously maintained today — at least in public, and especially by members of the British ruling class, within which a nostalgic fondness for militarized authoritarian racism never quite goes away. What’s more, every so often a bit of it leaks out — such as when Mosley’s death in 1980 saw the masks of the elite-serving press slip just enough for a set of the most astounding (to you and I) obituaries to be published…

In case anyone is wondering, there was indeed a powerful, if fluctuating, element of Establishment support for Mosley and his gang back in the 1930s — one shameful eruption of which was the now-infamous op-ed provided by Viscount Rothermere for his ‘Daily Mail’ in January 1934…

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“… sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine…” ‘Daily Mail’, 15th January 1934. (Click for a larger and more damning image.)

To me, at least, it is actually quite difficult — by which I mean impossible — to look at Oswald Mosley with anything more than slightly baffled contempt. Not only has ‘ranting moustachioed demagogue‘ become a seriously toxified brand post-1945, but the fact that I can understand what this one is saying makes him even more ridiculous: literally nowhere in anything I’ve ever seen or heard from Mosley has there been the slightest indication of intellectual weight.

Plus, I used to watch ‘On The Buses‘ — after which I have never been able to take seriously any British would-be authority figure who wears a black peaked cap and a black jacket…

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Oswald Mosley as we remember him. “I ‘ate you, Rab Butler!” (I write that joke knowing that no-one except Neil Clark will get it…)

Which brings me to Sunday, 4th October 1936 and ‘The Battle of Cable Street’. That day, Mosley and his crowd set out on a deliberately intimidating and inflammatory march through the ‘Jew-ridden and communistic’ streets of London’s poverty-stricken East End and — even though they had the violent support of the police (Gosh! How surprising!) — were stopped by the people of the borough…

Newsreel here:

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Your daily reminder that *the police are not your friends — and never will be*…

“They shall not pass!”

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… and indeed *they didn’t*.

The other thing I want to bring up in connection with British fascism, Mosley variety, is that it wasn’t only in its love of uniforms, rallies, marches, flags, bully-boys and racism that it resembled Austro-German fascism, Hitler variety. It even shared some of the Nazis’ crappy music

In a few of these postings, I’ve had occasion to mention — and, indeed, ridicule — the Nazi ‘Horst Wessel Lied‘, whose moronic musical and conceptual contents are, you will remember, as follows:

The flag on high! The ranks tightly closed!
The SA marches with calm, steady step.
||: Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries
March in spirit within our ranks. :||

Clear the streets for the brown battalions,
Clear the streets for the storm division!
||: Millions are looking upon the swastika full of hope,
The day of freedom and of bread dawns! :||

For the last time, the call to arms is sounded!
For the fight, we all stand prepared!
||: Already Hitler’s banners fly over all streets.
The time of bondage will last but a little while now! :||

The flag on high! The ranks tightly closed!
The SA march with quiet, steady step.
||: Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries,
March in spirit within our ranks. :||

What readers are far less likely to know is that the song’s plodding (and apparently borrowed) tune was adopted by the British Union of Fascists and — equipped with a strongly related set of dumb-ass lyrics by Blackshirt and Mosley loyalist E. D. Randall — was re-aborted as ‘Britain Awake!‘ (or ‘BUF Marching Song‘)…

Comrades, the voices of the dead battalions,
Of those who fell that Britain might be great,
||: Join in our song, for they still march in spirit with us,
And urge us on to gain the fascist state! :||

We’re of their blood, and spirit of their spirit,
Sprung from that soil for whose dear sake they bled,
||: ‘Gainst vested powers, Red Front, and massed ranks of reaction,
We lead the fight for freedom and for bread! :||

The streets are still, the final struggle’s ended;
Flushed with the fight we proudly hail the dawn!
||: See, over all the streets the fascist banners waving,
Triumphant standards of our race reborn! :||

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s the proof…

Now, I’m no literary critic — as you know — but I do want to say eight things about this shockingly inept re-write of an original that already had absolutely nothing going for it.

1) These lyrics may give the impression of having been produced by a bored 12-year-old cribbing some verses he’d found in the belief that no-one would notice. (When I was a kid, a lad in my class did precisely that — hence ‘Dick the paper-boy blows his nails‘. Yes, really…). However, these verses were in fact produced by an adult with intellectual pretensions: if, for example, you look through the January 1934 issues of Fascist Week — I’m not making this up, you know — you’ll see that No. 11 carries an article by the same E. D. Randall under the title ‘The Flame of Fascism: Discarding Selfish Futilities of Individualism‘. This intolerance of even moderate individualism is one of several ideas that British fascism seems to have derived from Mussolini: in his 1928 autobiography, for example, ‘Il Duce‘ wrote that ‘The citizen in the Fascist State is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity.’ For — and as expressed by Mosley himself — ‘a nation emerges organised in the divine parallel of the human body as the name implies. Every organ plays a part in relation to the whole and in harmony with the whole‘. Such a statement clearly aligns this strain of British fascism with the various interlinked philosophical and intellectual traditions collectively known as ‘bollocks’.

2) See how things keep going wrong with that first line’s very opening? The German original, if the word be permitted, screws up by getting people to sing ‘Die Fahne hoch…’ (‘The flag on high…’) to a musical line that goes, uh, downwards; Randall’s own infelicity is to use that long fourth note for the first syllable of a word that has a second syllable still to come:

Comrades, the voiiiiii–(*ahem*!)–ces of the dead battalions

3) For all his ability to construct articles with wordy titles, Randall is revealed in the second line to be a political pillock who pays no regard either to imperialism or to class. The majority of ‘those who fell that Britain might be great‘ were actually the unlucky foreigners whose land and treasure the British imperial conqueror had come to steal — while the members of the British military who died during these acts of international crime and mass murder had in fact given their lives so that Britain’s ruling elite could become the wealthiest the world had ever seen. Not much there for a member of the working class to be singing about, you might say. Let’s come back to that later.

4) There’s another screw-up in the third and fourth lines. Whereas in the German version the song simply moves to another non-thought, in Randall’s re-write the third and fourth lines are meant to complete the statement begun in the first:

Comrades, the voices of the dead battalions
[…]
join in our song [etc.]
[…]

The trouble here — the distension of a nugatory utterance apart — is the verse-ending repetition: the stuff that doesn’t work particularly well as the third and fourth lines (and comes to a firm conclusion with some dribble about ‘the fascist state’) is hopeless when pressed back into service as the fifth and sixth lines. (And, no, I’m not allowing anyone to pretend that the repetition cleverly turns the final lines into an imperative — ‘Join in our song, you!‘ — because it doesn’t.)

Comrades, the voices of the dead battalions,
Of those who fell that Britain might be great,
Join in our song, for they still march in spirit with us,
And urge us on to gain the fascist state!
Join in our song, for they still march in spirit with us,
And urge us on to gain the fascist state!

5) Me being me, I hear the start of the second verse against a background that is the start of the first — and it is very obvious that Randall didn’t. For whereas his fourth note in the first verse was three whole beats long in order to connect with the second syllable of ‘voi-ces’, his fourth note in the second verse, set to a monosyllable (‘blood’), vanishes like snapped elastic

We’re of their blood (two… three…), and spirit of their spirit,
Sprung from that soil for whose dear sake they bled,
||: ‘Gainst vested powers, Red Front, and massed ranks of reaction,
We lead the fight for freedom and for bread! :||

6) Yup: in Verse 2, political idiocy — or is it dishonesty? — is back in a big way. Those references to ‘blood’ and ‘spirit’ are mere hypnosis words: they are presented as if they refer to things real and profoundly meaningful; but in fact they are vacuous, and employed to put everyone in a state of verbally narcotized acquiescence. Similarly with the reference to ‘soil’ … whose role, however, is not only to narcotize, but also to erase all awareness of class (again). The fact that landowning in Britain has historically been very much a minority activity is nowhere emphasised — encouraging ordinary people to forget that the ‘soil’ to which they fancy themselves spiritually wedded is actually someone else’s property: those who ‘bled’ did not do so for some mystical ‘connectedness’, but for some bloated parasite’s straining waistband.

7) Incidentally, can you also see how Randall can’t set words for toffee? Observe how his insensitivity to the effect of dotted rhythms leads to an enunciatory car-crash towards the end of that line:

[…] that — soil ———– for — whose —— ‘deresayk’ — they — bled —–,

(“Mummy, what’s a ‘deresayk’…?”)

8) Mind you, it’s in the third line that Randall’s ability to pile up multiple examples of ineptitude in one place really shows itself. I count four.

First, there’s that hilarious ‘Gainst — a poetic, literary abbreviation at once over-refined and prosodically desperate.

Secondly, what the hell is ‘Red Front’ supposed to mean to a British fascist of the 1930s? In the Weimar Germany of the 1920s, ‘The Red Front‘ (Die Roter Front) was a communist newspaper, while the Red Front Fighters’ League (Roter Frontkämpferbund) was a street-fighting paramilitary group connected with the German Communist Party (KPD) — and thus a literally mortal enemy of the actual Horst Wessel (1907-1930); but none of this is likely to have signified enough to the average BUF member for him — or her! — to want to sing about it.

Thirdly, Randall’s incompetent word setting means we hear ‘redfront’ crammed into a musical space so tiny that I’d guess plenty of the song’s original hearers had no idea what they were hearing.

And, fourthly, note how Randall doesn’t even spot when he’s done something worth keeping. Literally the only thing of any interest in his first verse is the way its pre-cadential subdominant-harmony bifurcation of the song’s melodic line — some singers going down to the submediant degree while others leap all the way up to the subdominant; the two producing a resonating minor sixth — creates an appropriate ‘plural’ effect for those who ‘still march in spirit with us’. And in the third verse the same musical effect is heard in connection with ‘the fascist banners waving’. Yet, in Randall’s second verse, he follows closely the nitwit third line of the first German verse — with the result that this powerful, positively intensifying musical effect is attached to the ‘massed ranks of reaction‘!

‘Strewth!

 All right; that’s enough of that.

Now: The Jarrow Crusade

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(see top right hand corner…)

[Text still being written…]

— Pause to find out whether Michael Rosen will accept the dedication…

MD

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4 thoughts on “4th October; 5th October…

  1. Absorbed by your piece. I am interested in Mosley because I remember the resurgence of National Socialists in North Kensington in 1962. I remember their shop front painted in blue – it’s a vivid memory; Later in 1960s it was boarded up as a protection against being, once again, targeted. I was member of Young Socialists (SLL) during my teens & remember blood running cold going past the shop front and have the place explained to me as part of the resurgence.

    I remember hearing about Battle for Cable Street and the huge number of people who came to support Jewish Community – Irish Labourers and ordinary members of the public! The Communist Party both Jewish & non Jewish organised defence of Jewish Community who were supposed to be elsewhere on another march in central London, but switched to East End when cry went up. 1930s Establishment sent in their “troops” to savagely beat Jews & gentiles alike trying to defend themselves from Mosley & his bunch of thugs. It was members of Communist Party who were arrested, beaten up, sent to prison to do hard labour, not Mosley and his thugs. Nothing changes.

    What I found very interesting is the community along with help of Communist Party realised that the way to change life in East End for the better was to organise their community and make it a better place to live for everyone including those who were members of the Fascist Party. Facist Party did nothing to help its own members and Board of Deputies showed no interest in what was about to happen to members of its own community merely told them to stay in their homes! Hmm

    Maybe I am barking mad, but it seems clear to me that we are entering 21st Century version of similar events. Only this time we have Far Right groups working alongside, what some consider as, Far Right Pro-Israeli supporters. Their common aim it seems is the problem of “Muslim Community!” Tory Party moving so far to the right now, that it lies waking minute but its MSM “mouthpiece” say nothing; People/Charities being “gagged” from speaking out against DWP actions against the most vulnerable; Estimates that over 100k people have died resulting from PIP Tests; The continuing of the Windrush folk being targeted by this government. DWP now working in harmony with DVLA and very disturbing accounts coming out from African-Caribbean Community about being wrongly attacked by DWP. Haven’t we seen this stuff before? Are we all asleep?

    Like

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