Bringing haters to a halt

1936 saw "The Battle of Cable Street" and Edward VIII's abdication. New titles recall those at the heart of both events

By Nadia Valman, September 28, 2011
Police lead away a demonstrator from the crowd that stood firm against Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the East End

Police lead away a demonstrator from the crowd that stood firm against Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the East End

Battle for the East End
By David Rosenberg, Five Leaves, £9.99

Everything Happens in Cable Street
By Roger Mills, Five Leaves, £8.99

October Day
By Frank Griffin, Five Leaves, £8.99

Street of Tall People
By Alan Gibbons, Five Leaves, £4.99

Battle of Cable Street
By The Cable Street Group, Five Leaves, £5.00

The Board (and the JC) advised Jews to stay indoors

The Battle of Cable Street is one of the most celebrated moments in Anglo-Jewish history and, in Battle for the East End, David Rosenberg gives a compelling account of the context and controversies that surrounded it, made even more vivid by eye-witness testimony.

October 4 1936 saw unprecedented mass demonstrations at Gardener's Corner, Aldgate, and at Cable Street, to prevent the British Union of Fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosley, from marching through the streets of the Jewish East End - a move clearly intended as an act of intimidation directed towards local residents.

As Rosenberg shows, hostility to Jews in the East End had a history in the anti-immigration agitation of the early 20th century. By the 1930s, however, it had a new context in the terrifyingly rapid rise of fascism in continental Europe.

For this reason, it was the Spanish Civil War slogan, No Pasarán (They Shall Not Pass) that demonstrators chanted in East London. As the police attempted to clear a path to enable Mosley's supporters to exercise their democratic right to march, they encountered vigorous resistance from a crowd estimated at 100,000. And they did not pass: eventually the Commissioner of Police ordered the march to be called off and the "Blackshirts" were humiliated.

The Battle of Cable Street is cherished in East End as well as Anglo-Jewish memory as a day when the course of history was changed by the actions of ordinary people. But Cable Street is also significant for exposing the gulf between ordinary Jews and their leadership. While East End Jews were experiencing escalating violence from BUF thugs, the Board of Deputies and its then effective mouthpiece the Jewish Chronicle advised Jews to stay off the streets. Resorting to physical defence, they believed, would intensify antisemitism.

Frustrated, the East Enders themselves formed an alternative leadership, the Jewish People's Council against Fascism and Antisemitism. Their key move was to seek alliances outside the Jewish community, hence the crowd at Cable Street was an exceptionally broad coalition: tailors and dockers, Jews and Catholics, communists and trades unionists.

Battle for the East End is one of five books published by Five Leaves to commemorate the 75th anniversary, including the collectively produced, Battle for Cable Street. Another, by longtime resident Roger Mills, Everything Happens on Cable Street, is an exuberant and fascinating oral history of the street.

Mills's title comes from Arnold Wesker's recently revived play, Chicken Soup with Barley, which famously begins with - and is subsequently haunted by - the legendary battle. As Mills intriguingly writes, many of the subsequent histories that unfolded, in the lives and actions of the local people, "would not exist at all were it not for the Battle". It is particularly in the areas of grassroots activism in arts and education that the Battle has proved an inspiration. Mills includes the story of community publishers Stepney Books, the radical English teacher Chris Searle, the schoolchildren who went on strike when he was sacked, and the evolution of the magnificent Cable Street mural.

Also inspired by the battle are two works of fiction, Frank Griffin's October Day, first published in 1939, and Alan Gibbons's more recent Street of Tall People, a novel for pre-teens about the friendship between a Jewish and a gentile boy in the East End of the 1930s.

As we witness the latest attempt by a far-right party - the English Defence League - to intimidate East End residents, it is heartening to see that Five Leaves is fostering, for people of all ages, the memory of popular resistance.

Nadia Valman is senior lecturer in English at Queen Mary, University of London

Last updated: 9:25am, September 28 2011