John Walsh: Tales of the City

'In 1943, Sir Oswald Mosley was released from prison to find Vidal Sassoon standing against him...'
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The Independent Online

It's one of the weirder confrontations in history: Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Vidal Sassoon, the king of post-war ladies' hairdressers. No, they didn't actually meet in person, but it seems that the superstar crimper had bloody encounters with Mosley's supporters on the streets of London in 1946.

Sassoon – possibly invoking the combative spirit of his namesake, Siegfried – was 17, working as a trainee in a London salon, when he joined the 43 Group, a band of Jewish ex-servicemen alarmed by the prospect of Mosley's return.

The Blackshirt demagogue and his wife, Diana, had been released from prison in 1943 and, after the war, his supporters tried to persuade him back on to his soapbox, preaching anti-Semitic hatred in London's East End. They held public meetings in districts with large Jewish populations and it was these meetings that the 43 Group was committed to breaking up. According to the Radio 4 documentary A Rage in Dalston, broadcast this Saturday at 8pm, the group went into battle "armed with knives and razor blades". But that's not the whole story, is it?


The scene: outside the Swanky Modes hair salon in Dalston, east London. A group of militiamen wait for their new recruit.

Del: Okay, men, the meeting's at 8 o'clock in Ridley Road. Between 30 and 40 of the bastards.

Joe: Will they be armed?

Andy: Do we hit them while they're listening to the rant, or pick'em off one by one as they come up Morgan Street?

Joe: But will Mosley's lot be armed? I mean, like, guns?

Enter Vidal

Vidal: Sorry to keep you waiting. Had to sweep up after Mrs Tomlinson's highlights. The place is knee-deep in silver foil.

Del: Good show for joining us. It'll be quite a scrap. This is Joe, Andy and Leo.

Andy: Think you can handle yourself in a ruck?

Vidal: Oh, please. If I can stand up to Mrs Gomez, when her vegetable tint's gone doolally, I can see off a few bigots.

Joe: Are we tooled up? I gotta bayonet.

Del: I gotta Stanley knife.

Leo: I gotta razor blade.

Vidal: I've got these scissors. And a razor strop. And this mirror for checking the backs of clients' heads.

Del: Frankly, Sassoon, I'm not sure how useful that will be in the field of bat–

Vidal: Of course it will. You knock the brute to the ground with it and, as he struggles to rise, you show him the mirror and he sees what a perfect fright he looks with his hideous greasy fringe.

Andy: You're a bit... light on your feet for this kind of action, aren't you?

Vidal: Don't you dare speak to me like that, or I'll scream the place down.

Leo: Have you ever been in a fight?

Vidal: Have I? Don't make me laugh. I'm known and feared all over the East End. Do you not know about the time Quentin Crisp and I broke up a pro-Nazi rally in Bermondsey Market? Emptied an economy-size can of Elnett Holding Mist on their ugly mugs. Or the time me and Raymond "Mr Teasy-Weasy" Bessone sorted out Communist plotters down Shoreditch? I thought not.

Del: Were you hurt?

Vidal: Hurt? I was livid. Not a single word in the Evening News.

Del: Time to go. And remember – Mosley may turn up in person.

Joe: How'll we know him?

Andy: Here's a recent photograph. What an evil-looking bastard.

Vidal: Absolutely dreadful. Look at that brutal back-combing. No wonder he was always complaining. A simple layered approach and some conditioning mousse would have left him much less clenched.

Del: Let's go, men. I'll lead. Joe, go with Leo. Andy, with Vidal. Good luck.

The five men move silently into action down the street. Bringing up the rear, Vidal turns to Andy and whispers.

Vidal: So... going anywhere nice for your holidays?


While we're bringing up the past, did you see that extraordinary extract from Lord Hailsham's diaries, about the attempted "kidnapping" of Alec Douglas-Home when he was PM, in the run-up to the 1964 general election. Douglas-Home was staying with John Tweedsmuir (the son of John Buchan) and his wife, Priscilla, near Aberdeen. Their house hadn't enough rooms to accommodate the PM's bodyguard so (obviously) he went into town to find a room. The Tweedsmuirs left the house for a while and, when the doorbell rang, Douglas-Home answered it. A small gang of students from Aberdeen University, whom he'd met earlier, burst in and announced they were kidnapping him. The PM meekly packed some clothes – then offered them beer and kept them talking until the Tweedsmuirs returned. The student kidnap was called off.

Just try to imagine the event if it happened now. The house would have been bristling with secret servicemen. The students wouldn't have got within half a mile of the PM, before being blown away by police marksmen. Had they encountered the great man, Mr Brown would assuredly not have offered them beer, for fear of seeming to encourage binge drinking among the young. The miscreants would have been interrogated as terror suspects for 42 days, charged with attempted kidnap and locked up for five years. Honestly, the early 1960s – a time of almost comical innocence.