Oswald Mosley: Memories of an unrepentant fascist

Writer Hugh Purcell remembers encounters with Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, whose last letter was a complaint to the NS.

Grandiose ambition: Mosley, pictured here in 1936, held sway over sections of working- and upper-class Britain long after the end of the war. Photograph: William Davis/Hulton/Getty Images.
 
Researching the position of the New Statesmanon the Cuban missile crisis, I came across a paragraph in a London Diary about Oswald Mosley written by Malcolm Muggeridge in August 1962. He had just interviewed the former British fascist leader for BBC Television and his impressions were dismissive:
 
“He struck me as being an earnest, rather humourless man; a bit of a bore, but in no way abhorrent; just rather dreary, like a Jehovah’s Witness, or one of those figures one meets in out-of-the-way places who produce a cyclostyled plan for world government which they have sent to Adlai Stevenson, Mrs Roosevelt and the late Duchess of Atholl.”
 
Saint Mugg was wrong, quite wrong about Mosley. He was both charismatic and dangerous. His eldest son, Nicholas, stood by him until the general election of 1959, when he watched his father’s campaign for the Union Movement in North Kensington degenerate from exciting new ideas about European socialism into the usual rabble-rousing over race – in this case, the repatriation of West Indians. As he wrote, unforgettably, “I see clearly that while the right hand dealt with grandiose ideas and glory, the left hand let the rat out of the sewer.”
 
Muggeridge’s BBC interview had not been broadcast because Hugh Carleton Greene, the director general, was so aware of the malign influence of the man that he vowed “Mosley will only appear on the BBC over my dead body”. It is worth noting, too, that in 1962 the Union Movement was at the height of its popularity, with as many as 15,000 sympathisers.
 
I got to know Mosley in the last few years of his life, beginning with a chilling encounter at the hubristically named “Temple de la Gloire” on the outskirts of Paris, where he lived with his wife, Lady Diana (née Mitford). I was doing research for a BBC radio documentary on the notorious Olympia rally of 1934 and I hoped to record Mosley reciting the opening lines of his two-hour speech. He needed no second bidding. He knew them by heart. I crouched in a corner, imagining the Nuremberg rally scenario as described by Philip Toynbee, who had been there:
 
“Olympia was nearly full – tier upon tier of the curious and the enthusiastic, and the enthusiastic in great majority. In every open space, at the end of every row, stood black-jerseyed stewards with hands on hips, complacent and menacing. The seats had been full for many minutes before hidden trumpets sounded a fanfare, and the Leader strode into the arc-lights. He was flanked by four blond young men, and a platoon of flag-bearing Blackshirts followed in their wake . . . Sir Oswald had stood at the rostrum for at least two minutes of this din, before his own arm rose, formidably, to command silence.”
 
The old Sir Oswald (he was now 80) stood defiant at the other end of the room, seemingly suffused with the power of his oratory. His eyes, ice blue with age, glared round the room as if roaming the huge, tiered amphitheatre of Olympia. He bellowed:
 
“This great meeting, the largest ever gathered under one roof in Great Britain, is the climax of a national campaign in which audiences have assembled in every great city of this land . . . This movement represented here tonight is something new in the political life of this country, something that goes further and deeper than any other movement this land has ever known.”
 
Then he paused as if anticipating what happened next. I eventually learned exactly what had happened next, because days before the broadcast I was contacted by the self-titled archivist of the British Union of Fascists. Had I heard the whole Olympia rally on disc recorded at the actual event? No historian knew this existed. I hurried to a flat in Southgate in north London, bought two 15- inch discs for £40 and presented them to the British Library Sound Archive.
 
The “Battle of Olympia” was a set piece of fascist violence provoked by communist heckling, storm troopers against guerrilla fighters. It misfired, of course. The left-wing journalist Fred Mullally said: “It was like seeing the beast unchained coming at you with red claws and snarling teeth. That night Mosley must have lost thousands of potential sympathisers.”
 
He did. Lord Rothermere withdrew the support of the Daily Mail, right-wing Conservative MPs kept their distance and the Night of the Long Knives in Germany three weeks later linked British fascist brutality irretrievably with Nazi killers. Olympia was the beginning of the end of fascism in Britain. “Blackshirt Man” and “Rothermere Man” were incompatible.
 
Mosley did not see it like that. Could he, he asked rhetorically as he showed me round the Palladian-style garden, have done more to keep Britain out of the Second World War? And what was the point of going to war over Poland, particularly as the real enemy was Soviet communism? He must have rehearsed these arguments to himself many times over the years, starting in 1940 as he sat in Holloway Prison.
 
He was hurt to be called a traitor. He told me that although he had opposed the war, if Germany had invaded Britain he and his fellow fascists would have fought the foreign invader “with all that is in us; we must never surrender an inch of British territory”. Indeed, he had fought bravely in the Great War. Had Hitler conquered Britain in 1940, he went on, then many politicians would have collaborated, beginning with the former prime minister David Lloyd George. High treason, he argued rightly, was attempting to overthrow one’s government, but could not apply after that government had been overthrown.
 
We ate in the garden under a hot sun: Sir Oswald and Lady Diana, Lord and Lady St Just, who were connected to the Guinness family into which Diana Mitford had first married, and me. Their faithful Irish butler, Jerry, waited on us. My discomfort increased at the end of the meal when Lady Diana turned her steady gaze on me and asked, out of nothing, “How many Jews do you think perished in the war?”
 
At least I had the presence of mind to answer: “The estimate is about six million.”
 
“Ah,” she said and, after a pause: “Would you like a swim?” She pressed a bell under her foot and summoned Jerry. “Please bring a pair of Sir Oswald’s swimming trunks. They will fit Mr Purcell.”
 
He did so and offered them to me on a silver salver. This was obviously my chance to escape. Before I disappeared through the bushes towards the pool I noticed that Sir Oswald had a slight smirk on his face – or did I imagine it? – as he helped himself to the Napoleon brandy.
 
I met the Mosleys several more times over the following four years. I must have been on a list of journalists whom they invited to their flat in Chelsea to hold “conversations”. Afterwards we would be supplied with a broadsheet elaborating Sir Oswald’s thoughts on matters of the day. He no longer saw himself as a Man of Destiny – presumably he had passed his white charger to Enoch Powell – but he did think he had ideas to contribute to the public domain. Here was a leader who had been an heir apparent of both the Tory and the Labour parties half a century earlier but who was now an outcast in his old age. His frustration channelled a still abundant physical and mental energy. “Obviously,” he once said to me, “like other Englishmen I am ready with my compatriots, wherever they may be, to serve our country.”
 
One of his favourite “conversations” was his design from the 1960s of a new European socialism. His 1962 “Declaration of Venice”, signed with a number of far-right Italian, Belgian and German politicians, proposed a common government for Europe elected by a free vote and covering foreign and fiscal policy. This noble ambition had a unique extension to the African continent. Sub- Saharan Africa would be divided in a true “apartheid”, two-thirds black and one-third white. The black nations would provide raw materials to Europe and serve as a market for European manufactured goods. This system of autarky (a favourite fascist concept) would allow Europe to pull out of world markets and be self-sufficient.
 
And then there were “the rats let out of the sewer”. I remember a party, held at the Eccleston Square Hotel in Victoria, London, by the Action Party (successor to the Union Movement), in honour of Mosley. It must have been in the late 1970s, just before his death. Now frail and slow, he smiled wanly and extended his hand. Mosley always flattered his followers, however racist and belligerent they were, and there were plenty there that night: beery meat porters from Smithfield Market who had not long before marched on parliament in defence of Enoch Powell, and neo-Nazis of the National Front.
 
Oswald Mosley died on 3 December 1980. His final message to the British people appeared in a letter to the New Statesman written only a week earlier. It was about the Olympia rally. Mosley had taken exception to an article in which the former lord chancellor Gerald Gardiner had compared the violent ejection of Socialist Workers Party members from the Tory party conference that October with Olympia – “an assault which nothing can justify”. The NS printed Mosley’s letter in a box under the introduction: “Throughout his life he [Mosley] was intent on persuading people that their view of history was mistaken.”
 
Oswald Mosley was cremated at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I was producing his obituary for BBC Radio 4 so I went along with the late Colin Cross, the author of The Fascists in Britain. Arguably, journalists have no place at funerals and as usual I felt out of place in Mosley’s company. It was, however, a historic gathering of Europe’s fascist remnants, perhaps the last. Looking at the signatures in the book of those paying their last respects, I noticed Adolf von Thadden, a one-time chairman of the Deutsche Reichspartei, and Giorgio Almirante, the former Italian fascist and leader of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) in its early days. From the UK came the ever-faithful Jeffrey Hamm, guardian of the Mosley flame, and the Bailey brothers, the acceptable face of East End fascism since the 1930s.
 
If we had expected a phalanx of old fascists guarding the coffin and communists shouting abuse at the gates, we were mistaken. It was a sombre, low-key funeral. Colin Cross, who had enjoyed a good Parisian lunch, brought me down to earth from the uplifting strains of Fauré’s “In Paradisum” by muttering in a loud voice: “At least he hasn’t been strung up by his heels.”
 
We left by a side entrance.
 
***
 

Mosley’s last letter, 26 November 1980

To the Editor of the New Statesman

Sir,

In your issue of 21 November there was a reference to my Olympia meeting. The simple facts have often been published without disproof. The largest audience ever seen at that time assembled to fill the Olympia hall and hear the speech. A small minority determined by continuous shouting to prevent my speech being heard. After due warning our stewards removed with their bare hands men among whom were some armed with such weapons as razors and knives. The audience were then able to listen to a speech which lasted for nearly two hours.

  Yours faithfully,

                           Oswald Mosley.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.