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How Hackney fought fascism: Morris Beckman’s 43 Group tale brought to life in new audio tour

PUBLISHED: 16:48 03 May 2017 | UPDATED: 17:55 25 May 2017

The frontline - Sandringham Road. Photo: Alan Denney

The frontline - Sandringham Road. Photo: Alan Denney

on the record

A prolific activist’s tale of fighting fascists with the 43 Group after the Second World War is brought to life in an audio walk about Hackney’s different ‘frontlines’. Emma Bartholomew reports

Bernadette Halpin with Morris Beckman at Centerprise. Photo: Sherlee Mitchell Bernadette Halpin with Morris Beckman at Centerprise. Photo: Sherlee Mitchell

Forty years after Oswald Mosley preached fascism in Ridley Road, a new generation of activists were inspired by the Jewish veterans who opposed him.

That’s the subject of an audio tour about the legacy of radical Hackney bookshop Centerprise, which published anti-fascist Morris Beckman’s memoirs.

In 1946, Beckman and 42 other Jewish veterans vowed to combat neo-Nazi groups like Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts, who were preaching in the open air in Ridley Road and smashing up synagogues.

By infiltrating Mosley’s set, the 43 Group gathered intelligence to conduct ambushes, break up fascist meetings and attack them wherever possible – leading to violent confrontations in the Hackney street.

Bernadette Halpin who joined Centerprise as Publishing Project Worker in 1990 Bernadette Halpin who joined Centerprise as Publishing Project Worker in 1990

In 1990, incensed that the far-right was still at large in the form of the National Front movement, Morris Beckman decided he wanted to publish their story.

He approached Bernadette Colpin at Centerprise in Kingsland High Street. His dealings with the bookshop and publisher are explored in 50-minute audio tour Food and the Frontline – one of four chapters that make up On The Record’s app A Hackney Autobiography.

Laura Mitchison who interviewed Bernadette to make it, said: “Morris came in with an early draft and she loved it. It was vivid and engaging and it seemed like the screen play for Where Eagles Dare.

“He had a talent for a racy story, but he had written some things about the new communities around his old haunt Ridley Road in a way that was reinforcing stereotypes about Afro-Caribbean people.”

Centerprise in Kingsland High Street Centerprise in Kingsland High Street

By the ’80s the Jews had moved north and the area was now home to communities who often clashed with the police.

Laura said: “There was a media panic about ‘Yardies’ and there were headlines about crack cocaine – but the police at that time were being rather corrupt and taking a cut.

“Bernadette was like: ‘Hey, Morris, why don’t you be more sympathetic to this group who are experiencing some of the same problems you were?’

“Despite his initial misgivings about how Hackney had changed he was able to bridge the gap between one generation’s struggles and another.

An illustration to the Food and the Frontline story on 'a hackney autobiography' An illustration to the Food and the Frontline story on 'a hackney autobiography'

“His heyday was the ’40s but it became a manual on how to do direct action for the ’90s generation, and a cult book for people struggling against the police.”

Laura describes how she and her colleague Rosa “agonised” over whether to include the detail about Morris’ exchange with Bernadette.

“We didn’t want to tarnish his reputation, but it made the whole piece more resonant and made him a more admirable character that he had adjusted the tone of his memoir and he had been so open to change.

“He was in his 70s when he came to Centerprise but he really listened about political correctness. A lot of older people can get stuck in a particular time but Morris did stay relevant and I think part of that was Centerprise – it was a space where people from different worlds collided and could meet.

Centerprise in Kingsland High Street Centerprise in Kingsland High Street

“At his book launch, lots of young people from the anti-Nazi league came along to hear him speak and were so inspired by this story of direct action.”

The audio tour also explores other “frontlines” Hackney has had over time.

Laura said: “The ‘frontline’ always had that double meaning that it was associated with vice and aggressive policing, and also food culture and spices and hustle and bustle.

“It was a public space where people of different worlds collide, sometimes with violent unpleasant consequences, like young people clashing with the police or Morris and the 43 Group clashing with the fascists.

“But at other times it was beautiful and allowed people from different worlds to get together.

“In the ’70s based on what people have told me there was a romance to the frontline. It was a real cultural hub where you would find the hairdressers, the African record shop and recording studio.”

It was also well-known for “blues parties” where people living in St Mark’s Rise would throw open their basements. “Young people in the ’70s and ’80s would wander around Dalston listening for the beat of the bass until they came to a party house where huge custom-built speakers would play the latest ‘lovers’ rock’ soul records from the States,” said Laura. “They were semi-illegal parties, but at the time there wasn’t Caribbean music in the mainstream – so migrants created the nightlife they left at home.”

The app will available to download and the book will be launched at Sutton House on Sunday.

To attend or to buy a copy of the book email info@on-the-record.org.uk.

Find the free app A Hackney Autobiography on Google Play or the iTunes app store.

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