Spot of Bovver
And (right), Jack Spot, or Comer, with wife Rita leaving court in 1954. Spot dined out often (probably at the Cumberland) on his account of daring deeds at Cable Street, but Charlie reckoned the East End villain was not even there.
THIS time last year I was off to a meeting marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, when Sir Oswald Mosley's fascists were prevented from marching through London's East End. Aubrey Morris who was there as a teenager spoke, and Assad Rehman of the Newham Monitoring Project, involved in today's struggle against racism. That weekend I helped on a stall at the commemoration in the park off Cable Street.
A 71st anniversary is not usually an occasion, but it just so happens that I have been enjoying David Roberts' Hollow Crown, the second of his novels that I've read. Set in the 1930s with a country house murder, an upper class gentleman detective hero to whom police officers defer as "Milord", it might almost be taken as a pastiche of Dorothy L.Sayers and that genre, except that David Roberts sets his stories amid real history - the Spanish Civil War, the Abdication Crisis, the Jarrow Crusade, and the Battle of Cable Street.
With hindsight the author may give history just a little tweak, or his characters foresight. His dashing young Communist journalist Verity Browne is already doubting the Party, and whether the Republic can win in Spain, though as Joe Jacobs points out in Out of the Ghetto, the Spanish Civil War had only begun a few months before the battle in the East End. Still, Roberts' timing is real enough to have had his heroine recounting her harrowing experiences at Toledo, around the siege of the Alcazar.
Some of Roberts' fictitious characters bear resemblances to real figures, which should give the historian fun spotting them. Some real actors appear in cameo as themselves - Mrs. Simpson, for instance, and Ellen Wilkinson the MP for Jarrow (whom my Mum greatly admired). But one of them gets a mention that could almost be a deliberate howler, when Lord Edward descends into the East End with Verity:.
"Where are we going exactly?" he inquired at last.
Verity said, "Jack Spot - you know who I mean?"
"He's one of your Party's organisers, isn't he?"
"Yes, we're meeting him and other Party workers in Cable Street. I think the idea is to build a barricade to stop the Mosleyites..."
Unless David Roberts knows of a different Jack Spot to the one whom we've heard of, a crooked bookmaker and protection racketeer by the real name of Jack Comer, we must assume he has digested some dodgy research. Comer the commie is a hitherto unknown, figuring neither in books on crime nor accounts of East End communism. He is not mentioned either by Phil Piratin in "Our Flag Stays Red , nor in Joe Jacobs' Out of the Ghetto. Jack Spot the villain was a well-known character in East End pub yarns, taxi drivers' tales, and Sunday paper crime stories, though after being unseated by upcoming rivals he seems to have spent his last years quietly, taking coffee each morning with his lovely wife Rita at the Cumberland hotel near Marble Arch, and doubtless,like many an East End villain gone up West, wondering what the younger generation was coming to.
In Hollow Crown, Spot is spotted atop a barricade, waving "what looked like a chair-leg", as he exhorts the crowd to action. In Gangland , James Morton writes:
"In 1935 (sic) Spot became a local folk hero by leading a Jewish team against Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts when they marched down Cable Street in the East End. According to Spot he approached Mosley's leading bodyguard, a six-foot all-in wrestler, 'Roughneck', and felled him with a chair-leg filled with lead. It was a story on which he traded for the remainder for the remainder of his working life".
Maybe Spot/Comer, though not a political activist, did play some part in the battle of Cable Street in 1936 (though if he was there a year earlier, as in Morton's book that might explain why others don't remember him! ) But most of the fighting that day, both in Cable Street and at Gardiners Corner where the biggest crowds gathered, was against the police, who tried and failed to force a way through for the fascists. When the late Charlie Goodman, who was arrested that day, was asked about Spot by a young guy at a meeting some years ago he said "Jack Spot was not even there, he was in Birmingham that weekend".
Spot did offer protection to Jewish shopkeepers at this time, perhaps combining his loyalties and profession. He also turns up a decade later, in a slightly different role, in Morris Beckman's account of later fights with the fascists in The 43 Group:
"One evening, three large men, well-dressed in raglan coats and trilbies, came into HQ and demanded to see 'the guvnor' Their leader told Bernerd, 'Now listen -if you ever need money or the help of my lads, let me know.
He was thanked, but his offer was declined; this was Jack Spot, a notorious gangster".
Having not been born till six years and six days after the famous battle of Cable Street, I can offer no authoritative judgement as to whether Jack Spot was there or in Birmingham. I think it is fairly certain that he was never a member of the Communist Party! There are not that many real Cable Street veterans left around, but if any are out on the net perhaps we'll hear from them, or their offspring, on this topic.
Meantime, don't let my carks prevent you enjoying David Roberts' book(s), as I have, and while I'm at it, I might as well mention another book I've been enjoying, Are You Still Circumcised? , East End Memories by Harold Rosen, that's Michael Rosen's dad and Mike writes the Introduction. Harold Rosen describes going to Cable Street as a young lad with his friends. Like Lord Edward he finds himself on the wrong side of the barricade as the police charge and he is snatched into a house for safety. He then reflects from his own experience comparing notes with his friends, on how memories can prove faulty!