Jo Bloom draws on the spirit of ‘60s anti-facist groups for novel Ridley Road

Jo Bloom. Picture: Matthew Andrews.

Jo Bloom. Picture: Matthew Andrews. - Credit: Archant

Movements such as the ‘62 Group proved an untouched and powerful subject for the debut writer, finds Ben Lazarus.

A chance meeting with a notable communist activist at a funeral inspired Jo Bloom to write her debut novel, Ridley Road. The book, which is based in the early ‘60s, tells the story of a passionate love affair set against the backdrop of the fight against fascism on the streets of London, led by the Jewish resistance movement, the 62 Group.

“I attended a funeral of one of my mum’s oldest friends,” Bloom says. “My father and I were about to leave when we were asked to give a lift to an elderly man who had a problem with his hip.”

The man in question turned out to be Monty Goldman, a notable communist activist, who stood for election for Mayor of Hackney in 2002 and 2010 and for Parliament for Hackney South and Shoreditch in 1997 and 2005.

“In the car on the way to the nearest station, he and my father started talking about post-war east London where they both grew up,” she says.

The two men discussed the 43 Group, the anti-fascist group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after World War II, as well as the 62 Group which was founded to fight the resurgence of fascism in Britain in the sixties. Whilst her father had not been a member of either group, he knew lots of people who had. And Monty had fought alongside both groups.

Bloom says she was unaware of the history of these organisations and the fascist resurgence in England during this period. By the time she got back home to Brighton, where she lives with her husband and young son, she realised that this history had never been touched upon in literature.

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“So I decided to tell the story against a love story backdrop, and to also bring in other elements of London, like the changes that were going on in music and fashion in Soho,” she says.

The story opens in the summer of 1962. Vivien Epstein, a 22 year old hairdresser, has recently lost her father and so she decides to move from Manchester to London where Jack Fox, a man she had a fleeting and passionate love affair with, is based.

Once in London, she persuades a salon in Soho to give her a job and desperately seeks out Jack.

Bloom says she made Vivien a hairdresser as her family has a history in the profession. It was her mother’s job and her cousin is the celebrity hairdresser, Daniel Hersheson, whose clients include the Duchess of Cambridge.

“I just always felt that Vivien would be a hairdresser who comes to Soho. I am sure it was just always in the air for me.”

She chose Ridley Road as it was well-known as a meeting place for fascists to hold their meetings. She consulted with Steve Silver, a journalist and researcher, who formerly edited Searchlight, the anti-fascist magazine.

“He was massively important for me from an authenticity point of view,” she says.

She studied rallies held by Oswald Mosley in Ridley Road, as well as Colin Jordan’s neo-Nazi organisation, the National Socialist Movement. One particular rally held in Trafalgar Square on July 1 1962, which led to a riot, features in a key scene in the novel.

“On my office wall I have a framed photo of a fascist meeting at Ridley Road taken in 1962,” she says.

“It was snapped during a lull in fighting, when a calm had descended on the hundreds of protestors.

“But the photo still fizzes with hostility and in the middle of the crowd, arms folded across his chest behind a policeman, Oswald Mosley stands straight-backed, chin out, defiant.

“This scene may have taken place over fifty years ago but whenever I read about extreme right-wing activity across Europe, I realise the story behind the photo, like the story at the heart of Ridley Road, is just as relevant today as it was then.”

Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £12.99 (hardback)