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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain