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BOOKS How an Oldham working-class hero powered to Jarama

COLIN TURBETT reviews a colourful account of the life and death of communist speedway star Clem Beckett

Clem Beckett – Motorcycle Legend and War Hero
by Rob Hargreaves
Pen & Sword Books £25

SOME readers may know of Clem Beckett from the wonderful Townsend Theatre Productions 2016 tour of Daredevil Rides to Jarama that told some of his story.  

Despite its rather military sounding title this book tells a north of England story of working-class individualism and commitment to the cause of communism during the turbulent times of the 1920s and 1930s; as such it fills in the gaps of writer Neil Gore’s theatrical production.  

Born in 1907, Beckett grew up in an Oldham terraced house and had to go out to work at the age of 12 to help support his family after his father abandoned them.  

Briefly a textile engineering apprentice and then blacksmith, he became fascinated with mechanical things and began riding motorcycles at the age of 14.  

Within a year or two he and a close friend’s skills had improved to the point that they were servicing and repairing bikes as a side business in their spare time. He was also game for any challenge whatever the cost in terms of hard knocks — endemic to motorcycles that were both dangerous and unreliable.

Adored by the girls, the group of boys were acquiring a reputation for reckless adventure as they rode their bikes on the moors surrounding Oldham.

Beckett was also taken with the poverty and injustice that surrounded his life, and influenced by a socialist in his work, attended a mass meeting addressed by communist Tom Mann in 1924 and joined the YCL, remaining a party member until the end of his life.

However, the direction that brought him fame at a very young age was through motorcycle sport. In the 1920s motorcycling was dominated by the better-off and there was resistance to the hurly burly and working-class appeal of speedway when it was brought over from Australia towards the end of the decade.

Beckett was a natural and showed no fear on the sometimes dangerous tracks that sprang up in the north of England.  

Commercial interests soon took over as the sport grew in popularity and Beckett helped organise a riders’ union to defend their earning ability and promote safety.  

Blacklisted by corporate interests, he took up riding the Wall of Death at fairgrounds, and in 1932 visited the USSR as part of a British sports delegation – thrilling large crowds with his demonstrations of speedway techniques.  

In April 1932 he helped organise the mass trespass on Kinder Scout that was led by his Manchester comrade Benny Rothman.

For young communists like Beckett, going out to Spain to fight fascism in 1936 was a natural duty. At the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, that successfully defended Madrid, he was given responsibility — with fellow Communist Party member and author Chris Caudwell — for their unit’s only machine gun.

Despite their different class origins, the pair had become firm friends, and bravely covered the retreat of their comrades as their position was overrun by fascist forces.  

The pair died together after the rest of the unit had either been killed or escaped. Their bodies could not be recovered and to this day their graves, like others, remain undiscovered and unmarked.  

Back home they were celebrated as anti-fascist heroes, but soon forgotten as Europe lurched into WWII.

Not all readers will agree with Hargreaves’s ambiguous and perhaps simplistic take on the communist politics of the period, but none will doubt his service in giving us a well-researched and full account of the larger than life story of Clem Beckett.

Clem Beckett – Motorcycle Legend and War Hero will be launched with Rob Hargreaves in attendance at Waterstones bookshop, Manchester - Arndale Centre on Wednesday June 8, 6-8pm, free, refreshments available.

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