Books: History - Stormtroopers of Cable St
Trevor Grundy's mother used to see him off to school with a cheery 'Perish Judah!' Paul Sussman on the sad tale of growing up in a fascist family
Sunday 08 February 1998
Memoir of A Fascist Childhood is, first and foremost, a personal history. The son of fanatical Oswald Mosley supporters, Grundy was brought up in an atmosphere of entrenched racism and anti-Semitism, and himself became a leading light in Mosley's Union Movement of the 1950s. His story covers the period from his earliest childhood through to his eventual disavowal of fascism in the early 1960s and subsequent departure for Africa to work as a journalist.
But Grundy's memoir also serves as a fascinating social commentary on post-war Britain, as well as providing a keen insight into what makes a card-carrying fascist tick. Here lies the book's real strength. Grundy takes us deep into the psyche of an obsessive racial bigot, laying bare the processes that create such a person, and examining the delusion and confusion that cause them to remain thus. It is one of the most candid accounts of blinkered intolerance you're ever likely to come across, and as such I'd strongly recommend it to anyone misguided enough to share Grundy's childhood views. Or at least I would if I thought they'd bother to read it.
Trevor Grundy was conceived on the night of Oswald Mosley's last pre- war rally at Earl's Court. Two months after he was born, in May 1940, his father was imprisoned with Mosley, the authorities taking a dim view of his pro-German, anti-war leanings. To soften the blow of his father's prolonged absence, Mrs Grundy explained to her son that "a very great and good man called Hitler was trying to rescue Daddy and The Leader (Mosley). After Hitler won the war both would be released. Then the Jews would be for it."
Day in, day out, his mother would drill him on the iniquities of Judaism, and when most kids of his age were amusing themselves with nursery rhymes and colouring books, he was subjected to the delights of the Horst Wessel song and great fascist marching tunes. In the event of Hitler's much- hoped-for victory, he was taught to say "Wir sind Freunden," just to let any invading Nazis know he was on their side.
Such relentless propaganda inevitably had its effect. The day after he attended his first Mosley rally, aged eight, he went into school and called his friend Vilma Cohen "a Jewish bitch". When his history master asked him what he thought was the greatest battle of all time, he answered that it was the 1936 Battle of Cable Street "when Oswald Mosley marched through the Jewish areas of the East End, and where a man called Tommy Moran had knocked out 12 communists before he was beaten to the floor by Jews". By his early teens he was an active member of the Union Movement, selling newspapers and daubing anti-communist slogans on walls, and at 17 he spoke at a Union rally in Trafalgar Square, the youngest person ever to do so. The following year he passed up an opportunity to lose his virginity on discovering that his partner was wearing a Star of David.
If proof were ever needed that a bigot is made, not born, then this is it. Grundy was a product of his environment, a child warped by the prejudices of his parents, just as they in turn had been warped. Throughout his early life he struggles to reconcile the hatred he is encouraged to feel with a growing realisation that the world isn't as black and white as he has been lead to believe. "I felt sad and confused," he says on discovering that his best friend was half-Jewish. "How could this person I'd been proud to call my friend for so many years be a Jew? Weren't Jews meant to be evil? Now, I suppose, I was meant to hate him ... My head spun in confusion ... I felt my mother had it all wrong."
There are more informative books in print both about Mosley himself and the wider ramifications of the movement he founded, most notably Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale, the two volumes of autobiography by Mosley's son Nicholas. But where the latter approaches the subject from the top down, the value of Grundy's memoir is that it views it from the bottom up, offering an unusual glimpse into the twilight world of working- class fascism.
It sounds trite, and, given the misery that these people caused, possibly rather grotesque, but one of the most striking things about that world is just how amusing it is. All of its inhabitants take themselves terribly seriously. There is, nonetheless, an abiding air of farce about it all. Youth Movement meetings in Grundy's bedroom are conducted to the distracting accompaniment of farts and plops from the adjoining lavatory. His friend Derek, who subsequently drowns himself at the place on the Rhine where the ashes of the Nazi leaders executed at Nuremberg had been dumped, lives surrounded by pictures of Hitler, and thinks he's a reincarnation of the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel. The Grundys' lodger, a Union activist, is convinced Hitler is sending him subliminal messages through the radio. Like the raving neo-Nazi scriptwriter in Mel Brooks's The Producers, these are characters who want to be respected but end up looking simply ridiculous.
If laughter is one unexpected reaction to Grundy's book, another, even more surprising one, is pity. Their views might be despicable and dangerous, but in the final analysis these are small, sad, frustrated people, social nonentities attracted to fascism because it provides a sense of purpose and belonging, of focus, that is wholly absent from their everyday lives. Grundy's father is a violent, drunken, failed photographer who, after sex, always asks his mother whether he was "better than old man Lawes", her first husband. Alf Flockhart, the Union secretary, is locked up for "interfering" with young men in public lavatories. Hatred of others is simply a mechanism for deflecting attention away from their own weaknesses.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Grundy's mother, Edna. A fanatical anti-Semite and Union activist, she regards Mosley in a quasi- religious light, looking up to "The Leader" as a sort of latter-day Messiah. "I touched him," she swoons at a Union rally. "Now I've got the strength to carry on." It is she, rather than her husband, who is the driving force behind Trevor's fascist upbringing, always urging her son "not to let her down" and dreaming of the day when he will become "the Oswald Mosley of the Anglican Church". And yet when, in 1970, she commits suicide, it emerges that she herself is Jewish. Like so many bigots she merely projects onto the outside world the hatred that she feels for her own self. There is a tragedy in her vindictiveness.
This is a brave and, despite the moments of bizarre humour, an upsetting work. However, the writing occasionally verges on the sloppy and - this is not the sort of thing you often find yourself saying as a reviewer - the book should have been longer. Interesting characters are skimmed over, and not enough space is devoted to Grundy's eventual break with fascism. The process of abjuring a lifetime of prejudice must have been a traumatic one, and yet it's passed off in just a couple of pages. The fast-moving, anecdotal style, on the other hand, with Grundy simply telling his story and leaving it to the readers to draw their own conclusions, make this an eminently accessible work, not to mention an extremely important one. Practising fascists probably won't be too happy about it. Which is precisely why the rest of us should be so grateful.
8 'Memoir of a Fascist Childhood: A Boy in Mosley's Britain' by Trevor Grundy is published by Heinemann, pounds 17.99. 'Rules of the Game/Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family' by Nicholas Mosley is published by Pimlico, pounds 14.
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