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Politics

I suppose that in the eyes of conservative-minded people the head was pumping propaganda into us. During the war of 1939-45 I heard it said that Walthamstow Town Hall was full of conscientious objectors produced by Goodall at the Monoux School. In reality his influence was slight. The statement about the Town Hall was not true, and I doubt if the number of ex-Monoux conscientious objectors was any different from what it would have been without him. Walthamstow was a pro-Labour district, with various political factions; like other boys, I was already disposed towards some of the views the head pushed. But, although he commanded respect, his snobbishness and sarcasm made him a rather unsympathetic figure for most of us; besides the fact that other influences are nearly always stronger than school. A measure of whether Monoux was made a radical hotbed was provided when the head organised a mock election at the time of the General Election in 1935. There was great activity on all sides, and the Conservatives won.

The election was, again, an unusual event at a school then. At the outset four or five candidates were proposed at meetings held in the larger rooms. I do not remember what happened to the Liberals, but the Communists and the British Union of Fascists group soon abandoned their campaigns and threw in their lots with Labour and the Conservatives. The Labour candidate was Ben Cluff. A dedicated activist - he was often seen in Walthamstow in the evenings dashing to meetings on his bike. In his husky voice he spoke passionately about the social evils crying out to be remedied. Hills, the Conservative, had no such fervour; he was for commonsense, against upheaval, an advocate of keeping to the established order. On the day before polling two of the candidates in the real election came and made speeches at the school. Sir Brograve Beauchamp, the Conservative for East Walthamstow, and his Labour rival Harry Wallace. As at Monoux, the Conservatives won that constituency (East Walthamstow, which contained the 'select' parts of the town, was marginal, but the West side was always solidly Labour).

For those who wanted it, there was plenty of political activity. The majority of boys at school did not want it although they made their sympathies known. In the Spanish class somebody would always chant 'Arriba Rojos!' on the blackboard, to be cleaned off hastily before Dr Lloyd came in - that was for the Republicans in the Civil War in Spain. There was always support for Ben Cluff when he spoke in the school debating society on such motions as 'That the Means Test should be abolished'. But to be definitely committed, and engage in activity outside school, was a different thing. At least, it would be a distraction from working for the all important examination; more seriously, to become known as a partisan of any views except the most conventional ones could damage your chances of getting a job - and things were bad enough.

However, a few boys belonged to the Young Communist League, and others to the British Union of Fascists. The latter tried coming to school in their black shirts and ties with embossed Fascist belt - this was before the Public Order Act prohibited such uniforms - but were immediately reminded that school rules required white shirts. They persisted with black ties, since these were permitted for mourning, but the head soon made an announcement; permission did not extend to those who were only in mourning for a dead cause. (That was witty but, unfortunately, inaccurate.)

Both sections made as much noise as they dared in the school. They pinned sloganeering bills on the notice-boards by the lobbies. I remember one about the Basque refugee children who were being received in Britain as victims of the fascists in Spain; the school sent money for two of them in a home at Theydon Bois. The BUF's poster said: 'They Basque in publicity while British children go hungry'. The Fascist boys sat in the gym changing-rooms singing their anti-Jewish songs. At week-ends both factions went on marches and demonstrations which more often than not culminated in violence and forcible dispersal by the police. The boy who was the leader of the school's Fascists showed some of us the breadknife, which he carried, down his long sock under his trouser leg, in demonstrations. Another was slashed by a razor and came to school on Monday with a long stitched cut on his cheek.

About the beginning of my fourth year, meetings of an organisation called the Schoolboys' United Front were announced. Nobody seemed to know where it had come from, or who convened it; it comprised boys from Monoux and the Central schools and Central and High School girls. Of course the Communists through the YCL got it up. I went to three or four of the meetings, in the William Morris hall. People were pressed to go on demonstrations, and we passed resolutions (which, again, appeared to be already prepared) and sent them to the West Walthamstow MP, Valentine McEntee.

Because I was interested, someone took me to the Communists place in Markhouse Road one night. It was a disused small shop in the row opposite the Markhouse Road school: bare, a gathering-place more than anything else. A few young men were standing about talking, and others came in and out. Alan Winnington appeared; in his mid-twenties, dark-haired and handsome, he was obviously a leader. Two youths approached him and said they had been whitewashing slogans on walls, and he said in a loud disapproving voice: 'Nobody's had orders to do any whitewashing!' The two looked thoroughly abashed. My escort showed me the under-stairs cupboard, where various weapons lay - pieces of wood, a couple of breadknives, and sticks with doorknobs screwed on their ends.

For the next few weeks I received duplicated letters telling me where to report for meetings. I went once, to Chingford Mount; I did not know what was supposed to be happening there. Two young men whom I recognised from Markhouse Road were standing opposite the Prince Albert, but nobody else turned up and we went home. I quickly realised that I did not like the Communists much. They gave one another clenched-fist salutes and said "Comrade" in heavy voices; that put me off. I disliked the slavishness. Whereas I wanted to form an understanding of things, the idea seemed to be to note what was said by Harry Porritt and repeat it. Moreover, I had an antidote at my old haunt Knight's boot repair shop, where I went more frequently now. The talkers were only too ready to listen to my questions. When I told them about the razor-slashed boy, and Communists getting themselves arrested, somebody said: 'Well, any fool can do that.'

Nevertheless, I still listened to the Communist meetings on Saturday nights in High Street. They usually finished about halfpast eight and were followed by Labour Party meetings: on the corner of Cleveland Park Avenue, opposite the library, with crowds of two or three hundred. Winmngton spoke most Saturdays in his drawling, autocratic voice. (He was a journalist for the Daily Worker. In the early 1950s, when he was in Korea to report the war there, the British government removed his passport; later he went to East Germany. His brother Richard was the film critic of the News Chronicle.) Another speaker was Jack Rogers; there was a scrawny, humorous young man with lank fair hair and glasses; and several others. The most popular Labour speaker was Jimmy Dixon, the Central School teacher who later became headmaster.

Sir Oswald Mosley came to speak in Walthamstow too. The meeting, held at the corner of Church Hill, was unlike any we had seen before. Blackshirts stood in a circle round the platform, and police lined up in front of them, while loud-speakers carried Mosley's speech across and along the street. It was a series of bombastic declarations, with the Communists chanting and jeering and a huge crowd drawn by curiosity and the publicity given to the event. Afterwards the Fascists marched to their headquarters in Exmouth Road, and we read in the Walthamstow Guardian that Mosley addressed them 'from the balcony'. My father laughed, because we knew the place; it belonged to one of our Barltrop relatives. It was a former stable squeezed between the houses, and was used previously by a small printer -'balcony' meant that he stood in the hayloft. It was not so funny really. Part of the menace of the Fascists was this seediness, the humourless pretence of being masterful.

What was the attraction of these organisations to boys of my time, in the 1930s? For some of us it was idealism; we were shaping convictions which eventually we would hold all our lives, though not necessarily in the same form. Others were following ideas from which they would part company later, which is why I have refrained from mentioning names. One school friend of mine joined the BUF; all he would say at the time was that he hated Jews. He dropped it after he left school, and years later told me that travel among different people had altered his views a lot.

There was the genera] feeling of the time: not only the "next war" talk, but an atmosphere of flux-anything could happen. The left-wing doctrine of the thirties was that the capitalist system would inevitably collapse. Standing in the crowd round a meeting, the speaker's voice rising above the bustle of High Street on a Saturday night, there was a sense that some change was imminent and just by being there you were helping to push towards it. One other factor for us was that the political groups were a social experience, introducing us to some people who were out of the ordinary-and to girls. My BUF friend said, later, that this was one of the attractions for him. The YCL held a summer camp for both sexes. Segregated as we normally were, it added a spice to upholding the cause.