‘No God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through’

Sylvia Plath.

‘Every woman adores a fascist,’ wrote Sylvia Plath in ‘Daddy’, a poetic howl of filial anguish so intense it might have woken the ghost of Electra herself. 

But was she right?

Joyce Rosenthal would have begged to differ. Joyce was a Jewish schoolgirl of twelve on the 4th October 1936, and what a girl she must have been, because on that day Joyce willingly put herself on the front line of a brutal street fight.  

Early that Sunday morning, Joyce and a friend the same age headed for Gardiner’s Corner in East London. There they joined the vast human blockade of antifascists that would stop Oswald Mosley and his Black-shirted British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through Jewish communities. There were hundreds of local Jewish schoolgirls present. Later they would recount sneaking out of their houses against the express commands of parents. These plucky girls and young women armed themselves with whatever they could find that might work for self-defence; one grabbed the family pepper pot – it was all she could find – but she thought she could at least throw pepper in the eyes of any fascist who got close enough!  

It wasn’t the BUF Joyce and her comrades ended up having to defend themselves against, however. Mosley’s men, despite their swagger and intimidation, never got that far: as Joyce recalled, ‘You were fighting with the police. They were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses’ hooves.’  

For years afterwards, conversations in the East End would turn naturally to what became known as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’; and that’s what happened one day in 1940, when Joyce got chatting to a handsome young man she’d never met before. 

Or had she? As they talked, Joyce suddenly thought she recognised him: ‘Here,’ she asked, ‘Weren’t you that nutter up the lamppost?’ 

In the huge crowds at Gardiner’s Corner, it had been impossible to see what was happening; although no one can agree on the exact numbers, they could have been as many as 300,000 strong.

Were the fascists breaking through? Charlie Goodman shinned up a lamppost to give him a vantage point and, from there, directed the crowds like a young general: ‘We’re winning! Come on, forward – don’t be yellow bellies!’ 

Charlie paid a high price for his bravery. Police dragged him down from the lamppost and beat him severely as they arrested him. But now it would have an unexpected pay off. Joyce, by now 16, and photographs suggest very beautiful, knew the young man in front of her was ‘just her type’. 

She later discovered Charlie had served three months in prison after his arrest and then fought the fascists in Spain for the International Brigade. Like any sensible woman, she married him. 

Charlie was still proudly representing the best of British antifascism at the 50th anniversary commemoration of Cable Street.   

I love their story. One of the proudest days in UK antifascist history sparking a flirtation, then a life-long romance. It makes sense; antifascism is about love, and life, and humanity, against the cold nihilism of fascism.  

We see this illustrated at Cable Street: the serried ranks of fascist boot-boys, marching in step, all-black uniforms deadening individuality, versus a wildly eclectic throng of men, women and children. Communists, Irish dockers, Jewish schoolgirls, people of all ages and backgrounds, united by their shared hatred of oppression. 

Together in the streets, they sang and danced for sheer joy and relief once they knew Mosley was in retreat.  

Plath called fascism the ‘boot in the face’, and so it is, the scent of blood and fear, the assault on everything that is beautiful and tender in our hearts, our communities, our families. 

But when it comes to adoring fascists – millions of women worldwide give the lie to that. While we should note that Plath’s politics were often problematic, we have to also acknowledge poetic licence and personal demons; she was writing about her father.

Otto Plath was an utterly miserable git by all accounts, investigated by the FBI for suspected pro-German sympathies, and relishing at home the role of domestic tyrant.  

Fascism slips easily into place as a metaphor for a cold, cruel and domineering father with ‘brute, brute heart.’ It would take more work to employ it as a metaphor for motherhood – fascism has so little to do with nurture. It’s about the destruction and subduing, rather than creating, of life. 

That’s not to say some mothers aren’t brutes, or that women fascists don’t fall in love and become mothers. In fact, Mosley’s attempted march on Cable Street was part bizarre Stag Night ahead of his marriage to one. He’d scheduled his second wedding, to Diana Mitford, for two days’ time, at the Berlin residence of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was guest of honour. The groom had planned to strut in, Cock of the Walk, King of the East End, Terroriser of the Jews. 

Instead, he had to resort to portraying himself as the victim of ‘Jews and Communists’, for what, he admitted, had been a complete humiliation. 

Humiliation was something his first wife, Cynthia Curzon, had become intimately acquainted with in her time with Mosley.

Cynthia – known as Cimmie – was just twenty-one and a wealthy society beauty when she met  him and fell under his spell. Her father, Lord Curzon, rightly suspected Mosley to be an untrustworthy cad, and expressed his doubts.  

It’s a truth universally acknowledged, though, that daughters rarely listen to fathers when handsome bounders are concerned. 

The marriage went ahead. Mosley was outraged by his father-in-law’s attempt to throw a spanner in the works and paid him back in a way that also proved Curzon was absolutely right, and more. Mosley revenge-seduced, in quick succession, Curzon’s other daughter (Cimmie’s sister) and his wife (Cimmie’s stepmother)! 

Mosley was an indefatigable adulterer. He had a London apartment specifically for his extra-marital hook-ups, and there was purportedly a special button installed in the bedroom, which he would press at the right moment, to release a shower of perfume.  

His glittering marriage quickly became a bore to him. Mosley began to insult his heartbroken wife in public.  

Despite what she had to endure, Cimmie was mistrustful of fascism, and of Lord Rothermere, the press baron who was encouraging her husband to form a fascist party. 

She threatened to put a notice in The Times if Mosley continued down that road, dissociating herself from his politics. Wives were not supposed to gainsay their lords and masters, especially when they were as vain and arrogant as Oswald Mosley. The couple began to fight constantly in public and at home, Cimmie distressed, her husband sarcastic and sneering. 

After having three children with her husband and only lover, Cimmie’s health began to suffer. Harold Nicolson (husband of Vita Sackville-West) recorded: ‘Cimmie comes to see me. She has not been well. She faints. She even faints in bed. She talks about (Oswald) and Fascismo. She really does care for the working-classes and loathes all forms of reaction.’

The brute in Plath’s poem ‘bit (her) pretty red heart in two’. Cimmie’s may well have been similarly affected.  

She died at the horribly young age of 34 after an operation for peritonitis. 

The way to Mosley was clear for the proudly-fascist Mitford. These two awful people remained married for 44 years, until Mosley’s death in 1980 – which at least stopped two homes being spoiled. Diana was such an unrepentant fascist to the end, her appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1989 was peppered with Holocaust denial and admiration for Hitler. 

We hoped – and perhaps sincerely believed – that all of this had been consigned to that famous ‘dustbin of history’. But as I write, we are seeing the opportunistic infection that is fascism once again attacking the body politic. 

We may be on the verge of a far-right government in France.

Trump, urged on by Steve Bannon, the avowed white supremacist who wants to establish a ‘School for Gladiators’ that could be modelled on Mosley’s Black House barracks in Chelsea, is down but not out; Argentina voted in the bizarre chainsaw-wielding Javier Milei, and Hungary Viktor Orbán.  

In the UK we have seen  both Tories and Labour not just refusing to stand up to the far right but actively courting their votes, vying to see who can wave the most flags and take the most callous line on  desperate refugees. 

On 1st June, fascist Tommy Robinson was allowed to rally 5,000 of the far right in the heart of Westminster, right next to the Houses of Parliament. Some of the worst of the old violent groups were there – remnants of the BNP and EDL, and the violent football firms of the ‘Football Lads Association.’

I counter-protested with Stand Up to Racism, with a wonderful band of antifascists, but we were definitely outnumbered.  

On 27th July, Robinson is holding another mega-rally right in the heart of our nation’s capital, at Trafalgar Square. 

We may be approaching our own Cable Street. Failure really isn’t an option. We need to ask ourselves: Where do we want to be able to say we were when UK fascism was beaten back once again?

Follow: Stand Up To Racism: https://standuptoracism.org.uk/ and Unite against Fascism: https://www.facebook.com/UAFpage

Please join us on the day and ask your union branch to send a delegation.

Follow Louise Raw on twitter @LouiseRawAuthor

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