I was most moved by the retelling of the memories of a not-so-well known speaker, 101 year old Lou Kenton. Born in Stepney to Jewish parents who had fled Ukraine during the tsarist pogroms, Kenton joined the Communist Party of Great Britain after noticing the widespread antisemitism in London. In 1937, when right-wing general Franco staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Spain, Lou Kenton joined the International Brigades and headed to Spain to fight fascism.
The audio clip in the exhibition though tells us of an earlier, lifechanging moment, which perhaps turned him into a fighter against fascism. The year was 1934, and Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists held the largest fascist rally ever held in Britain at Olympia, a large exhibition hall in West Kensington. Lou Kenton and around 40 to 60 other anti-fascist activists smuggled themselves into Olympia to heckle and disrupt the meeting. Kenton describes the stirring music, black uniforms and the stomp of jackboots as Mosley and his entourage entered the hall. The anti-fascists sat separately in pairs around the hall and took it in turns to heckle as Mosley began his speech. Kenton described jackbooted stewards pulling the hecklers out as each rose in turn to shout down Mosley. Kenton turned to his comrade and asked, “Who’s first,” and his comrade decided to go first. As Kenton’s comrade heckled, the stewards moved along the row from both ends, pulled the comrade out onto the gangway and began to give him a serious beating right there in the exhibition hall. Kenton watched this and said to himself, “Right, it’s me next!” He stood to heckle, knowing the consequences.
Hearing Lou Kenton describe this brought a tear to my eye. When one is convinced that evil is upon us, one cannot sit idly by while the defenceless are carried off, one can but oppose it whatever the cost.
The blackshirted and jackbooted BUF may seem such an age away today, but its noisome stench remains. The mass of the movement’s media support was provided by the Daily Mail, which responded to the Olympia rally with the front page headline “Hurrah for the blackshirts!” The proprietor of this hate-rag, Harold Harmsworth, wrote an editorial earlier that year that said the BUF were “a well organised party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed”. The previous year, Hitler had written to Harmsworth to thank him for his favourable coverage. Oddly, the Mail has tried its best to hide all of its pro-fascist history. If you know anyone who is stupid enough to read this hate-rag, please tell them that their ‘newspaper’ was the foremost pro-fascist British media outlet before the Second World War.
After the war, released from house arrest Mosley became a great pro-European (the Right were all for it after the War apparently; Churchill even advocated a ‘United States of Europe’), and eventually stood for Parliament in 1959 with a one issue campaign on immigration. He called for the ‘assisted repatriation’ of immigrants, and flavoured his policies with scaremongering about black criminals raping white women. Mosley’s party at the time was called the Union Movement (seeing as the word ‘fascist’ was out of favour). It was a prominent local organiser of the Union Movement, John Bean, who founded the first British National Party. The BNP turned into the National Front, which after going into decline at the end of the 70s, left the way open for its members, including Bean, to found today’s British National Party, of which Nick Griffin is now the leader. The bloodlines flowing from the BUF to the BNP are clear, they belong to the same vein of fascist hate. Griffin is on the record for saying that he wanted the BNP to “put the boots away, and put on suits”, as part of a process of decoupling itself from its past and trying to pass as a mainstream political party offering an ‘alternative’ .
What would Lou Kenton, East-End Hero, do? Stand up and say, “Right, it’s me next!”