Few communists ride the wall of death for a living, says PETER FROST, but that was just one of the remarkable achievements of Clem Beckett.
THEY came from every part of Britain, women and men, from mines and mills, from factories and art studios, from iron foundries and hospital wards.
They were communists, socialists, trades unionists, workers, and all with but one purpose, to join with the people of Spain and many other lands to halt the march of fascism — the armed rehearsal for Hitler’s plan for world domination — and to stop it on the sun-baked soil of Spain.
They came from more than 50 countries, more than 30,000 volunteers in all — 2,500 in the British Battalion and every one of them had a hero’s tale to tell.
One of the most unusual of those tales concerns Clem Beckett.
Clem was born in Oldham in 1906. After leaving school he became a blacksmith. But times were hard for a young working-class lad in what had been Britain’s industrial heartland, then hit by the depression and mass unemployment.
Always ready to speak up for his workmates, Clem faced victimisation at work. Not one to be silenced, he first joined the Young Communist League, and later, the Communist Party of Great Britain.
His other great interest was motorbikes. As well as using his bike to explore the wonderful countryside near his home he tried his hand at motorcycle racing.
He discovered he could supplement his meagre earnings riding the Wall of Death, a daring show and growing attraction at local fairgrounds at the time.
A Wall of Death is a barrel-shaped cylinder, 20 or 30 feet across and built from rickety wooden planks. Back in Clem’s day, brave members of the public would pay just a few pennies to climb to the top of the cylinder and peer over the rim to gorp at the daredevil motorcyclists as they raced around the vertical walls performing death and gravity defying stunts — the centrifugal force being the only thing to hold them in place.
Clem’s mastery of the wall, and the fact he soon broke the world speed record, made him famous.
His talent and growing renown led to him signing as a speedway rider for London-based team White City. The fledgling sport of Speedway was badly organised and highly dangerous. Young riders were persuaded to race irrespective of their experience and many were killed or seriously injured.
Communist Clem Beckett played a major part in setting up the Dirt Track Riders Association, a trade union for riders.
Clem and his union fought to stop this lethal exploitation.
In 1929 Beckett joined forces with two fellow riders, Spencer Stratton and Jimmy Hindle, to establish the Sheffield Tigers speedway team. The riders sank their savings into establishing a new track at Owlerton Meadows.
The new venue proved popular and when Clem won the golden helmet, it was in front of 15,000 spectators.
The track is still home to Sheffield Tigers speedway team to this day.
Life wasn’t just about motorbikes. In 1932 Clem was active in the legendary Kinder Trespass, a huge communist-led protest for countryside access to the private grouse moors of Derbyshire that would lead to the establishment of our National Parks and also open the way for more recent legislation on public access to the countryside.
Also in 1932 he led a tour of both communists and speedway fans to the Soviet Union which would later develop its own sport of speedway, both on shale tracks and more spectacularly on ice.
Then — 80 years ago this summer — when the Communist Party of Great Britain helped establish the International Brigades, Clem Beckett was one of the first to volunteer.
He wrote to his wife from the front line at Jarama: “I’m sure you’ll realise that I should never have been satisfied had I not assisted. Only my hatred of fascism brought me here.”
On February 12 1937 Clem Beckett and his friend Christopher Caudwell took control of a light machine-gun post at what became known as Suicide Hill.
Christopher Caudwell was the pen name of Christopher St John Sprigg, a Marxist writer, literary critic, thinker and poet.
Christopher wrote political philosophy, poetry, novels, including detective thrillers still in print today, as well as technical books on air travel and airships.
Clem and Chris’s Republican grouping suffered heavy casualties. Just 225 out of the original 600 volunteers of the British Battalion were left at the end of the day’s fighting.
Clem’s friend, George Sinfield — later to be the industrial correspondent for the Daily Worker and forerunner of the Morning Star — reported: “Clem and Chris were posted at a vital point.”
“They faced innumerable odds: artillery, planes and howling Moors throwing hand grenades. Their section was ordered to retire. Clem and Chris kept their machine gun trained on the advancing fascists, as a cover to the retreat.”
The pair’s bravery meant the fascist advance was halted. Many British lives were saved but Clem and Chris paid the ultimate price.
Clem’s widow, Leda, wrote: “He was so fine, and seemed so alive. It did not seem possible that when, five months ago, he said, ‘So long, kid. Don’t worry’, that those would be the last words he would say to me.”
Later this year a new play Dare Devil Rides to Jarama centres on the fates of those two International Brigade volunteers, Clem Beckett and Christopher Caudwell.
It is written by Neil Gore who had such success with his previous plays The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, We Will Be Free! and United We Stand.
Dare Devil Rides to Jarama will be playing at many venues all across the country from September to December.
Find out where you can see it at www.townsendproductions.org.uk.
First published in the Morning Star 12 August 2016.