The quality of the 9 p.m. Sunday night drama slot beamed out by BBC1 varies enormously. The last Peaky Blinders series, that ended two weeks ago, was as insane, surreal, enticing and unique as its three predecessors. The replacement, World on Fire, tamely bathes in nostalgia, spinning out predictable storylines about one of the last times Britain could genuinely claim to be fighting on the right side.
That’s neither here nor there. What caught my eye was the inclusion of Oswald Mosley – infamous leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) – in both dramas. It made me half-remember something my dad had said a few years back, about growing up in London’s East End.
I tend to visit him each Sunday. His short-term memory is almost gone, but he survives, alone, using hard-wired routines that guide his days. His long-term memory, by contrast, is fairly good. He loves chatting, and had talked before of watching the blackshirts marching through the Bethnal Green streets where he lived. So yesterday I asked what he could recall about Mosley.
“The marches were like a carnival parade,” said dad, who would have been anywhere between 8 to 12 years old. “Something to go and watch, breaking up normal routines, a little bit of tension and excitement in the air.”
Did you see him at any other times? “Yes, because the BUF headquarters backed onto my grandad’s back yard. My friends and I used to climb up the wall and peer over.”
Could you see much? “Not in the building, which only had a few windows. But we saw the blackshirts parading and drilling outside quite often. It was like looking at a little army.”
What did the people in your area think of Mosley? “I was young, so might not have paid much attention to that. It was obvious that some people liked him. They copied the Nazi salutes. Some Eastenders didn’t like Jews, although I was never sure why. Other people were against him. I honestly don’t remember the feelings being very strong, either way.”
How about your view of him? “You could see he knew how to rouse a crowd, get their pulses racing. He stood out. It’s difficult to find a word. The nearest might be ‘maverick’.”
When did people stop following him? “The outbreak of war. All of a sudden, you were in bed with the enemy if you supported Mosley. That finished him.”
Not sure how well that ties in with other accounts, but it’s pretty much verbatim. It was fascinating to hear.