The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street in Stepney, East London on 4 October, 1936, has provoked a batch of powerful books published by the Nottingham-based Five Leaves Press.
The books celebrate the mass resistance of East Londoners, whose self-organised opposition prevented a march vaunted by Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists through the heart of Jewish neighbourhoods.
The march never happened and the story of brave street action in barricading its route and forestalling the police guardianship and protection of Mosley’s Blackshirts is told from many perspectives through these five books, with the naked events of the day and its preparations factually set down in the fifty pages of instructive, pictorial narrative and interviews compiled by the Cable Street Group in their eponymous account. As veteran campaigner Joyce Goodman remembered: ‘We never saw a fascist all that day. We were fighting the police. They were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses’ hooves. Absolute terror.’
David Rosenberg’s excellent Battle for the East End gives a gripping chronicle of the events surrounding the confrontation, describing in detail the contrary attitudes towards street-level resistance to the march by different Jewish organisations and their response to anti-Semitism. The author explains the tensions between the ‘dignified apathy’ of the well-to-do Jewish lobbies such as the Board of Deputies with its outlet the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, and the strongly democratic trade union and working class-based Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism, which together with local Communist Party branches and community organisations led the mobilisation against the march. Rosenberg’s book is clearly written and argued, full of day-to-day storytelling and is a potent addition to the historical scholarship of the dramatic events. It is also a very readable book that it extremely difficult to put down.
Perhaps Street of Tall People by Alan Gibbons will have a similar effect upon younger readers. This is a novel which tells of the experiences of two boys, one Jewish and one Gentile, who meet in the boxing ring, and despite opposition within their respective communities, forge a friendship which comes to a full fruition on the Sunday of the battle. Jimmy is struggling against the relationship that his widowed mother is making with her fascist rent collector, and Benny is trying to persuade his Gentile-hating cousin to accept his burgeoning friendship with Jimmy. The novel’s contemporary resonances are profound and it is a work ripe for classroom reading and discussion in today’s schools.
Another fictional find is Frank Griffin’s novel of 1939, October Day, which tells of the impact of the Cable Street events on a number of disparate individuals who find themselves intimately involved in the drama of the day. There is a bus conductor, an unemployed labourer struggling to maintain his family, a young homeless woman who has just witnessed a fellow vagrant’s suicide, a policeman, two young Communists and an aristocratic society woman. Griffin brings their lives together in a canvas of the struggle and his story’s effect still tingles today.
The final book is Roger Mills’ splendidly vibrant Everything Happens in Cable Street, which blends narratives of 1936 and before with subsequent stories around Cable Street and its continuous bursting history and culture. A past member of the locally-based ‘Basement Writers’ of the ’70s, Mills recounts his memories of that creative writers’ forum with the stories of film-making, community publishing, allotment building, arts industries, the painting of the epic Cable Street mural on the walls of St George’s Town Hall, the reviving of community theatre and Wilton’s Music Hall and the East London galaxy of local working-class arts that consistently and continuously characterise the culture of the surrounding neighbourhoods – yet further manifestations of the endless insurgent spirit of Cable Street, its people and their neighbours. Mills integrates it all with impressive narrative skill and a deft power of compilation in a book which radiates hope, achievement and pride.