Special Pleading for Fascist Daddy

Fascist in the Family: The Tragedy of John Beckett MP
By Francis Beckett
London and New York: Routledge. 2017.
(Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right)

Here is a book of deep political scholarship and heartbreaking family history. It misses being great because the author lost the plot during the many years he worked on it, and he wound up hanging his father’s story on a lurid promotional “hook,” which I’ll get into below. I assume this sensationalism was to make the biography of his beloved father more agreeable to the editorial direction of the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right, an ongoing series which is anything but pro-fascist.

The author’s initial plan was to write the tale of how his father John Beckett (1894-1964)—onetime Labour MP (he managed Clement Attlee’s first election) and sometime Mosleyite—was harassed till his death by government officials and the security men of MI5.

Some of this persecution may have been just petty revenge by old political rivals. Herbert Morrison carried a particularly massive grudge against John Beckett, for reasons going back to 1919, and too minuscule to relate. When Morrison got to be Home Secretary during the War, and John Beckett was interned under Regulation 18B, Morrison saw to it that Beckett stayed behind bars long after Mosley and other top Blackshirts were released. Morrison repeatedly denied Beckett parole, even refusing to give him medical leave for a long-standing heart ailment.

When Beckett was released toward War’s end, his restrictions were not over. For years he could not enter London, nor travel more than ten miles from home. As an ex-fascist, ex-jailbird, he was virtually unemployable. Anticipating internet activists of today, Beckett supported himself and family mainly through subscriptions to investment and political newsletters that he wrote himself. Fortunately he had a wealthy patron in the eccentric, nationalist Duke of Bedford, who lent the Beckett family a mansion to live in—at least for a few years, till after the Duke died. For a while there, John Beckett owned a boat and drove a Rolls, neither of which he really understood, being neither nautically nor mechanically inclined, his son tells us.

For the most part, though, his finances were unsteady. At one point, Beckett found himself obscure, respectable employment as a hospital administrator. But then Mr. Graham Mitchell of the Security Services, later MI5’s Deputy Director-General, put in a word or two. That scotched the hospital job. Mitchell also saw to it that all of Beckett’s mail was opened and read, even Christmas cards. He had the Beckett telephones tapped, and all conversations transcribed, including the ones where John was telling his wife he’d be late for dinner.

Why this seemingly pointless, gratuitous monitoring by MI5? Here and there, Francis Beckett tries to puzzle it out, and comes up with at least two possible answers. One is weak and weaselly: the author supposes that Graham Mitchell and his sort had got into the habit of prying into people’s business back during the War, and it was just too much fun to give up. The other answer, which the author keeps circling back to, is much more cogent and appealing. And that is this: Graham Mitchell, along with certain other brass in MI5 and MI6, was a Communist. He was the principal author of the evasive, dishonest 1955 White Paper (or “Whitewash paper” as it was called) on the Burgess-Maclean affair, in which the two British “missing diplomats” turned out to be Red spies, and slipped out of England in 1951 through either the negligence or the connivance of MI5. To put it another way, while Mitchell & company were busy preventing John Beckett from traveling ten miles from home, and were reading his mail and tapping his phone conversations, they allowed Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to drive to Southampton and catch a midnight boat to France.[1] 

The notion that Mitchell and his boss Sir Roger Hollis were Soviet moles is an old theory, going back at least to Peter Wright’s 1989 Spycatcher, and still argued persuasively by such writers as Chapman Pincher and Nigel West.[2] Francis Beckett does not pursue or fully endorse this theory, but his investigation of his father’s treatment by Graham Mitchell and MI5 certainly points to a peculiar agenda on the part of these security men. Ex-fascists from the 1930s were to be hounded mercilessly, and their communications examined meticulously, in hopes of discovering links to right-wing networks; but when it came to Red spies and Soviet assets, MI5 tended to look the other way.

Beckett’s Lasting Legacy

As for Beckett’s actual career among the Blackshirts, it didn’t go on for long, but he was a major player while it lasted. After joining Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, Beckett quickly rose to become a prominent speaker and the BUF Director of Publications (he edited both Action and The Blackshirt). He devised the BUF’s popular posters and slogans of the mid-30s, e.g., “Mind Britain’s Business” and “Stand with the King” (that is, Edward VIII).

His greatest legacy is probably his redesign for the BUF’s corporate identity, which had initially been a Mussolini-style fasces symbol, but which Beckett replaced with the lightning-bolt device that British Union organizations continued to use for decades. (It has more recently been reincarnated in America in the logo for the inter-city coach service Bolt Bus.) When BUF money ran low and tempers flared in early 1937, Beckett and his friend William Joyce bade farewell to Mosley and founded the short-lived National Socialist League. A couple of years after that, of course, Joyce fled to Germany, where he made clever broadcasts for the Nazis and gained the English nickname Lord Haw-Haw.

By then Beckett was devoting his efforts to pacifist organizations and to his own new British Peoples Party (a quasi-mainstream, nationalist, anti-war movement). For months after the start of war in 1939 he engaged in efforts with Lord Halifax, Max Beaverbrook, and several Labour MPs to advance peace negotiations. This last initiative is somewhat startling to read about, if only because the peace efforts that continued in the first year of the War are so seldom written about. Far more than having ever worn a black shirt, Beckett’s attempt to shut down a needless war may well have been his real “crime,” the reason he was imprisoned in 1940 and then monitored by MI5 till the end of his days.  

Persecution by security services has long been a major concern of Beckett’s son and biographer. Francis Beckett was once Labour Party press officer, and has a keen eye for the ways that ruthless, vengeful politicians can punish their enemies. This was a theme of his three books about the Tony Blair administration (most recent: last year’s Blair Inc.: The Man Behind the Mask, by Francis Beckett, David Hencke, and Nick Kochan). On several occasions in the mid-2000s, he used the subject of the Blair government’s new Terrorism Acts to warn about the abuses of unrestrained security apparatus.

In 2005, for example, he wrote an essay in the Guardian about his father’s friendship with William Joyce (the MI5 files had only recently been opened), but his real subject is the security state:

Should we care about the secret power of the security services, when the victims were men like Beckett, Joyce and [A.K.] Chesterton, with their unpleasant political views, their racism, and their postwar belief that the Holocaust was a myth, probably invented by Jews? Yes: we cannot demand civil liberties only for people with views we consider acceptable. It’s a point worth remembering today, as the government plans the greatest clampdown since MI5 stopped transcribing my father’s telephone calls.’

Guardian, 10 Feb. 2005 [3] 

That Odious Sales-Hook

And now we come to that odious “hook” I mentioned, with which the book has been promoted in blurbs and early reviews. Namely, that John Beckett—1920s MP, 1930s fascist, 1940s internee, nationalist, and a political writer with a decided point-of-view on the Jewish Question—was himself part Jewish. The story goes that John Beckett’s mother, one Eva Dorothy Salmon at the time of her marriage, was actually born Solomon. The author and publisher present us with this revelation (or rumor) as news, a long-hidden family secret that Now At Last Can Be Told. But true or not, the rumor is neither particularly scandalous nor even news. Francis Beckett divulged it in a History Today article way back in 1994. Stephen Dorril repeated it as fact in his error-ridden 2005 biography of Mosley.[4] Colin Holmes’s 2016 biography of William Joyce[5] neatly skipped around it, no doubt because his publisher, Routledge was about to follow it up with the Beckett book, and didn’t want to spoil the promotional buzz.

Francis Beckett seems to have first heard the Jewish bit decades ago as a family rumor. Now he recycles it yet again, in a sort of special pleading for his fascist father. Alas and alack, after all these years he has nothing really factual to add. He shows us an extensive family tree on the Beckett side—Yeomen of Cheshire, John called his father’s people—but nothing for the “Solomons” prior to Eva’s parents. The mysterious lady herself doesn’t even get a photo in the book’s family gallery. And talk about old news: this allegation about John Beckett’s uncertain origin was already current during his Blackshirt years. Sir Oswald must have heard it, and likewise with Beckett’s good friend William Joyce. As recounted in Fascist in the Family, when he was interned during the War, a gang of East End Mosleyites came up to Beckett and taunted him about it.

Is it true? We’d have to see the evidence. What we do know is that such rumors will inevitably spread in certain circles, out of pure spite or misunderstanding. They even were circulated about Mosley and his first wife, Lady Cynthia.[6] In the end you have to wonder if the Beckett story is all fig-leaf and fluff, with scarcely more substance than the old saw about Hitler’s Jewish grandfather.

It must be admitted that the secret-Jew motif makes for good sales copy. So Francis Beckett and Routledge have framed their story with it, in a vulgar, ham-handed manner. The first chapter actually begins with a reference to Shylock and his runaway daughter, while the last chapter is called “Legacy of a Jewish Anti-Semite.” No surprise that reviewers latched onto this frothy sales-pitch and described the book accordingly. “Intimate View of Mosley’s Jew,” ran the kicker in the Jewish Chronicle

The good news is that this crass signaling does not disfigure most of the narrative. The second half is particularly touching and tragic, drawing heavily upon the author’s memories from the 1950s. As noted, for some years post-war John Beckett maintained his family in a state of precarious affluence, thanks to his ducal friend. After the Duke of Bedford died in 1952, and Beckett fortunes slid in straight-line depreciation. John Beckett’s political and stock-tip newsletters never brought in enough, so after selling off his boat and the Rolls and moving the family to a succession of every-more-poky houses and flats, the former MP wound up working as a uniformed security guard at a bank. This was much to the embarrassment of adolescent son Francis, by then a student at Beaumont College, a prestigious-but-failing Catholic public school whose fees the Becketts could not really afford.(William F. Buckley Jr. briefly attended this “Catholic Eton” in the late 1930s. It eventually closed and the grounds are now a conference center.) 

And it wasn’t until much later, long after John Beckett’s death of stomach cancer in 1964, that Francis came to understand the really dark secrets of his father’s career: internment, the Mosley years, the National Socialist League, the British People’s Party, the reason his father was unable to obtain regular employment.The real scandal to the story, as Francis found out years ago, is the unremitting, undeserved punishment meted out to his father and family by the secret, unnamed watchers of the security state. That was Francis Beckett’s initial theme, and he should have stuck by it.

Notes

1. As recounted in many books on the Philby-Burgess-Maclean matters (e.g., Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, 2014), in May 1951 Maclean had recently been identified as the Soviet mole “Homer,” and was about to be interrogated by MI5. Although he had been under constant surveillance, the MI5 men trailing him about were ordered off duty for the weekend, giving giving him and Burgess opportunity to slip away.

2. See Pincher Chapman, Their Trade Is Treachery, 2014; Peter Wright, Spycatcher, 1989; Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev (eds.), Triplex: Secrets from the Cambridge Spies, 2009.

3. Francis Beckett in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/10/secondworldwar.world

4. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt. 2005. Reissued 2015.

5. Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw. 2016

6. It was often alleged in the London press that Lady Cynthia “Cimmie” Mosey, Lord Curzon’s daughter, had a Jewish grandfather who’d been a department-store tycoon in Chicago. Time magazine even repeated this as fact in its 1931 cover story on the Mosleys. Chicago department-store tycoon, yes; Jewish, no. Levi Ziegler Leiter, co-founder of Marshall Field & co., was from a Lutheran family of Swiss-German and Dutch extraction.

Special Pleading for Fascist Daddy

Henry Williamson, George Orwell, and the Pigs

Henry Williamson, by Charles Tunnicliffe, 1935
Henry Williamson, by Charles Tunnicliffe, 1935

Today is the birthday of Henry Williamson (Dec. 1, 1895 – Aug. 13, 1977)—ruralist author, war historian, journalist, farmer, and visionary of British fascism.

Two rather incongruous points of Williamson’s life stand out. One is that he achieved fame with what is usually regarded as a children’s book, Tarka the Otter (originally published 1927, with a movie version in 1979).

The other is that he was a friend of Lawrence of Arabia; and that it was on his way back from posting a letter to Williamson that T.E. Lawrence was mysteriously killed in a motorcycle accident. This was 1935. The matter under discussion in the correspondence was a request by Williamson that Lawrence join Sir Oswald Mosley in a campaign for European peace. Reportedly, Lawrence agreed.

Williamson was a prolific, compulsive writer (over 50 books, including posthumous volumes). Sometimes he is described as an author whose fame was consigned to “the memory hole” on account of his fascist associations and enthusiasm for National Socialism.

But this is very misleading. Even as an old man in the 1960s, Williamson was called upon by one of his old papers, the Evening Standard, to revisit and recount the 1914-18 battlefields of the Western Front, and ten years later he was engaged to draft a scenario for a long-delayed film version of Tarka. When he died in 1977 he merited a 1700-word obit in The Times that described his great output and scarcely mentioned his “Fascist sympathies.”

Blackshirt sympathies are really a side-note with Williamson, as they are with Yeats, Belloc, and Wyndham Lewis. If he is largely forgotten today, this is not because he went to Nuremberg rallies (nobody forgets the Mitfords, after all), but rather because of the peculiar nature of his output. Apart from his war memoirs, most of his writing consists of highly detailed close observation, with little direct commentary on the world at large. (The newspaper column at the end of this article is a good example of Williamson’s work. Taken in large doses, such detail tends to become tedious.)

A good contrast with Williamson is the case of George Orwell, whose pose as “a man of the Left” was purely for literary viability in the 1930s. From his social attitudes and military bearing, to his patriotic pronouncements (England, Your England) and anti-Stalinism—even his funny mustache—Orwell was a most unlikely “man of the Left.” Yet that is how he styled himself. Orwell even shared with Williamson a fondness for nature-writing, though their differences in approach are striking, as I will come back to.

First, though, I want to say a few words about Williamson’s ruralist books and journalism. He wrote in a time when nature-writing was a popular genre, and a mainstay of daily newspapers, particularly in England, much as wine columns seem to be today. I guess these “countryman” columns in London papers functioned as “breathers,” giving tram and Underground riders a break from the usual Fleet Street headlines and Oxo adverts. And maybe editors and press-lords believed thought that throwing in a bit of farming, foxes and foliage would raise the overall tone of their newspapers.

The most famous example of these “countryman” columns is the one Evelyn Waugh made up for his satirical novel, Scoop (1938). In Scoop, a newspaper tycoon wants to hire a fashionable young novelist named Boot to cover a civil war in Africa. By mistake he gets the wrong Boot. Not society star John Courtney Boot, but his impoverished hick cousin, William.

Shy, befuddled William Boot lives in deepest Devon where he writes a column called “Lush Places,” for the vulgar London newspaper The Daily Beast. (The title has since been repurposed for an even more vulgar webzine).

We get only one snippet of this impenetrably rhapsodic column, “Lush Places,” but that leaves us gasping for no more: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”

Henry Williamson, you might say, was the real “Boot of The Beast” in Scoop. He was unworldly. He wrote “countryman” columns. He described, close-up, the behavior of the salmon and the otter, the “feather-footed vole” in the “plashy fen.” He lived out in Devon, later in north Norfolk, worked a countryman writer and farmer.

What a contrast with Orwell, who was not only a sort of war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War (for the Tribune, and in his memoir Homage to Catalonia) but made a special point of joining an eccentric faction, the POUM, that opposed Stalin but supported the Spanish Loyalists.

But Orwell’s mindset was not that far off from Williamson’s. They were near-contemporaries (Williamson: 1895-1977, Orwell:1903-1950), and Orwell too often wrote about nature and farming.

One of Orwell’s best known essays, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” is a mystical-whimsical contemplation on toad-spawning as an annual rite of spring:

Frequently one comes upon shapeless masses of ten or twenty toads rolling over and over in the water, one clinging to another without distinction of sex. By degrees, however, they sort themselves out into couples, with the male duly sitting on the female’s back. You can now distinguish males from females, because the male is smaller, darker and sits on top, with his arms tightly clasped round the female’s neck. After a day or two the spawn is laid in long strings which wind themselves in and out of the reeds and soon become invisible. A few more weeks, and the water is alive with masses of tiny tadpoles which rapidly grow larger, sprout hind-legs, then forelegs, then shed their tails: and finally, about the middle of the summer, the new generation of toads, smaller than one’s thumb-nail but perfect in every particular, crawl out of the water to begin the game anew.

I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. [2]

Orwell constantly fantasized about living in the countryside, and even talked of becoming a farmer someday. Around 1936 he got as far as living in North Hertfordshire country store beside an estate called Manor Farm—a name he borrowed some years later when he penned a fantasy about a farm where all the animals, led by smart pigs, take control and rename the place Animal Farm.

The romance of the country permeates his other fiction. In one novel after another, Orwell’s human characters rouse themselves, suddenly and unaccountably, to go tramping through meadows and hedgerows. In A Clergyman’s Daughter the title character gets amnesia and finds herself hop-picking in Kent. The superficially different stories in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aspidistra Flying both have romantic episodes in which a couple go for long hikes through idyllic woods and fields, where they marvel and fornicate amongst the wonders of Mother Nature. The middle-aged narrator of Coming for Air spends much of the novel dreaming of fishing in the country ponds of his youth, but when he finally takes his rod and seeks down his old haunts, he finds that exurbia has encroached and his fishing-place is now being used as a latrine and rubbish-tip by a local encampment of beatnik nature-lovers.

For Orwell, fauna and flora are never just interesting specimens by themselves. They are always somehow political and anthropomorphized, tied up with human associations. Toads having sex are like tiny people performing The Rite of Spring. The wild is a place where you can escape to make love safely, far away from the eyes and ears of your landlady or The Party (although Winston Smith does worry that there may be microphones hidden in the trees!). Despoiling your fishing hole is a Bad Thing not because of pollution or dead fish but because it insults your inner picture of the world.

In his abbreviated career, Orwell remained very much the urbanized literary man, never the countryman. He saw natural phenomena as things that had to be justified and rationalized in a utilitarian way, so they could fit into his world view. Or at least have some literary usefulness.

For Williamson, literary usefulness was pretty much beside the point. He received commissions and royalties from his columns and books, but basically he earned his living from the soil. For him, toads were toads and pigs were pigs. This was reality, and the important thing about his little piggies was that they were starving and needed to be fed, or else they would die.

Here, then, is a Henry Williamson column from the Evening Standard, early 1940. He is describing a scene on his north Norfolk farm. The column is followed by its then-worldly (but now extremely obscure) adjoining headline. Williamson’s agony over his hungry piglets describes a situation that could very well have occurred a millennium before.

Cold Comfort

Come with me into the open air this afternoon, and help me saw up logs for the hearths in the farmhouse below. It’s frosty, the pipes in the cow-house are frozen. 

Take this Norwegian saw, with its razor-thin serrated band, which will cut through a two-inch green bough in four strokes – or would, before someone used it for four-hundred-year-old oak posts. 

It’s pretty hard work, you say, using it now? Well, carry on, it will get you warm, anyway! 

Half an hour later, we are warm and glowing, although when we touch the blade of either saw with a finger, it sticks to the steel. That will tell how keen the frost is. 

It’s as cold as it was in the High Pyrenees, years ago with old Kit, when we climbed up all day stripped to the waist, and skied down at night, when the stars were flashing and the frosty snow-flakes glinted in the flashes of Sirius. 

Down there, before a typewriter, one shivers, although a rug is round the knees; out here, it’s grand, and the pile of logs grows higher. Forgotten for the moment are the problems of farming: the delay in delivery of the deep-digger plough; the pigs below which are being fed on sugar-beet tops and crushed oats, because there is no proper food available. 

Twenty-four little pigs – and for weeks I have not been able to buy any proper food for them. I can’t send them to market, either, for the market is closed to ‘stores’, owing to swine fever in the district. 

The food-merchants tell me they get supplies only with the greatest difficulty, and then in small quantities. 

Meanwhile my little pigs are half-starved, and I only hope that the R.S.P.C.A. won’t prosecute me for cruelty. 

However, let’s forget it for a while and saw some more wood. And when the arm is tired we’ll enjoy the view. Isn’t everything quiet? The gold of the sunshine seems frozen, immingled with the frosty air; hardly a sound. 

Even the sea is silent on the distant sands, where the geese wait until twilight to come in and feed on the clover in the fields. Let’s hope they leave some for hay next summer. Shoot them? You’ll be lucky to get within two hundred yards of them. They have sentinels out, watching with raised heads. 

Twilight comes suddenly, with purple-red afterglow of the sun hiding coldly behind the frosty fog creeping up the valley with still layers of cottage chimney smoke. The nip comes back to ear and finger-tips. The old car slithers over the rimed grass, drawing the trailer. And suddenly five airplanes roar overhead, low, from their vigil across the North Sea. One lags behind, the engines spluttering. It lurches through the air, so low that we can see one of the crew be- hind the crystal dome. 

Are they very cold in there? They fly on, and we go down to the farm to look at the little pigs. This is the age of endurance – for a better future, we hope.  

Wednesday, 17 January 1940  

RUMANIAN MAGINOT LINE BUILT SECRETLY
ALL KING CAROL’S IDEA

IS A HUGE TANK TRAP

Notes

1.  http://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/hw-and-the-first-world-war

2. Originally published in Tribune and The New Republic, 1946. Collected in In Front of Your Nose: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 4. New York, San Diego, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  1968.

Henry Williamson, George Orwell, and the Pigs