Mary Kenny: Book Reviews. From the Literary Review

Fascist in the Family: The Tragedy of John Beckett MP. By Francis Beckett. Abingdon: Routledge. 388 pages. £16.99

Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Life of William Joyce.

By Colin Holmes. Routledge.

494 pages.


A partnership between Joyce and Beckett might suggest an alliance between two epic Irish writers, but this Joyce and Beckett concerned William Joyce and John Beckett: ejected from Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, they together formed the National Socialist League in 1937, a farcical enterprise which, deservedly, swiftly fizzled out. Beckett thought Joyce too far gone in his mad anti-Semitism – you can say that again – and yet John Beckett retained a certain personal loyalty to the man who became notorious as “Lord Haw-Haw”, and sent him a kindly letter just before his execution for treason in 1946.

Beckett is described by his son Francis as “a racist and an anti-semite, but not a bad man” and this account of his life prompts the reflection that ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner’. Beckett’s young life was hard – his father was swindled in a financial scam – so John’s education finished at 14. He served in the First World War and experienced Passchendaele. The sorrow and the disillusion wrought by 1914-1918 changed many a heart, and John emerged into the post-war world burning with “righteous anger” against those who had seemed to profit from carnage while good men died. He was instrumental in founding an ex-soldiers’ organization that became part of the British Legion, joined the Independent Labour Party, sat on Hackney Council, and in 1924, became the youngest M.P. elected to the House of Commons, for the constituency of Gateshead.

Beckett seemed to have a brilliant future before him. Clement Attlee was virtually his best friend and the young Barbara Castle “hero-worshipped” him. (John was successful with women – in a complex personal life he had three wives – and Mrs Castle may have been an inamorata, but she became guarded on further questioning about their relationship.) Yet Beckett, radical and idealistic, an inspiring speaker and an energetic organizer, nonetheless had within him some self-destructive streak which would spiral his career downwards.

The context of the times are neatly woven into the narrative. Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour administration was weak, the poor still seemed to be sidelined, and by the 1930s, the world financial crisis was driving young people towards extremist politics. Communist Party membership was increasing, and, with the rise of Mussolini in Italy, so was Fascism. Beckett visited Italy and was impressed.

A more prudent individual would have sensed that, aside from the odium of Mosley’s politics (though he, too, had once been an idealistic young man) tangling with the BUF was a political cul-de-sac. But Beckett had lost his seat anyway, and his inherent recklessness drew him on. He went to work for Mosley’s BUF initially for money, but it was yet another staging-post in a journey of bad judgement. The theatricality – he had a show business career at one point – might also have appealed.

Beckett was, or became, an anti-Semite. It was, then, (as perhaps now) not unknown on the Left, associating “Jewish power” with money. Yet John was half-Jewish, through his mother, Dorothy Salmon, a family secret he never disclosed. He adored his mother, but that did not restrain his prejudices – though the inner conflict might, psychologically, have contributed to his self-destructiveness.

He spent the Second World War years in prison under Regulation 18B, and emerged “more than a little mad”. Under the patronage of the loopy Duke of Bedford, he ran the British People’s Party, and lived in ducal accommodation with his third wife, Anne Cutmore, and their three children. In his last years Beckett worked as a night security guard, and yet, he never quite lost his sense of enterprise and resilience: he was always starting new schemes, some of which were at least temporarily successful. He was an able financial tipster, and launched the idea of unit trusts. Not altogether surprisingly, he ended up a Roman Catholic, and his last friend was an Irish priest, Father Brendan, who wept copiously at Beckett’s death.

Francis Beckett’s poignant and compelling biography is the story of a family, as well as a political history. It’s rich in a range of detail, from the glimpses of appalling social norms – in the 1930s, a girl of 8 is sentenced to be birched – to the strange galere of personalities who fetched up in the casserole of public life. Herbert Morrison emerges as deeply unpleasant and Hugh Dalton as a schemer. It’s astonishing to learn that Colin Jordan, founder of the British National Party, had an academic double first.

Beckett was indeed fortunate in his third wife, Anne, who endured much for love. The author’s childhood with ‘a fascist in the family’ was certainly irregular (including a ghastly Jesuit school), and yet, he loved his parents, and felt wholly loved by them: the crooked timber of humanity can yield unexpected outcomes.

Professor Colin Holmes is one of the leading British experts on Fascism and anti-semitism, and he has been working on a political biography of William Joyce for some time. The very detailed source notes in this book alone make it a definitive document within an academic genre, and it is evident that his contextual knowledge is vast. He presents Joyce – surely, rightly – as having a narcissistic personality disorder. It all started, Holmes claims, with William being spoilt by his mother (as Hitler and Stalin were). Joyce’s anti-semitism was seriously diseased, and like all of Haw-Haw’s biographers, Holmes speculates about its roots. It was a form of paranoia often attached to people who had come down in the world, as the Joyces had done, imagining that Jews were always richer, cleverer, more successful.

Prof. Holmes is especially knowledgeable about the intelligence, espionage, counter-espionage and surveillance which were part of Joyce’s life before he ever went to Germany. Joyce’s closest friend John Macnab emerges as a much darker character than earlier witnesses had described (Macnab’s family still live in Spain – their archives might be revealing). He gives less weight to Joyce’s trial, which is still, among lawyers, contentious. Last year on Radio 4, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson called it “an act of sheer vengeance” by the Crown.

He might have made more use, perhaps, of Joyce’s letters and diaries from prison, held in a private archive but now out of copyright. They are mad and bad, yet sharp and humorous, with a savage touch of James Joycean word-play.

Prof. Holmes suggest that it was an Irishwoman who slashed Joyce’s face, not as he always claimed, “a Jewish Communist”, but the evidence doesn’t seem strong: the street brawl in question certainly was between Communists and Fascists.

Some terrific nuggets also emerge. Philip Larkin’s father had a little mechanical bust of Hitler which “spoke”; Tom Sharpe’s father was a member of one of the nutty “Aryan” pre-war English groups; and Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson were contracted to do a movie about Joyce and his second wife Margaret – pretty, flakey, alcoholic – with a script by Terence Rattigan. It was never made – impossible to put Joyce into a movie – but what a cast! ENDS.