I discovered that I had a maternal great-uncle called Urban Bowling. Great name, isn’t it? Too good to leave, definitely. I never knew him, or anything about him. But with a little imagination…
I’ve been tossing around the idea of a book set in Leeds in the 1930s. Not a Downton ’30s, but one where people struggled, where the Depression scraped at hearts and lives. And that’s the basis of The Dead On Leave. This is the beginning. There’s more, but we’ll see if it pans out into a full book. I try many ideas, but only some of them reach completion…
Leeds, September 1936
He saw the signs on the shop windows as they strode past. All so familiar. Bisto. Mazawattee Tea. Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. The names rattled through his mind as hobnails on his boots stuck up tiny sparks from the pavement, a fast rhythm on the flagstones.
He’d set off from City Square, right at the heart of Leeds, a few minutes before. He was dressed in an old suit, shiny at the elbows and seat, a cap on his head, shirt without a collar, and a glum expression on his face. He looked like hundreds of other men out searching for work. God knew there were still plenty of them in 1936. Things might be improving down south; up here the Depression still had its hands round the north’s throat.
But Urban Raven had a job, a very steady one. Detective sergeant with Leeds City Police, fourteen years on the force, working his way up the ranks. Now he was surveying the route Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts would take for their march and rally on Holbeck Moor. Two more days until it happened. This coming Sunday. Already shopkeepers were starting to nail boards over windows and people were ready for the worst. It would happen. It would definitely happen. The pressure was building all over the city. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
“It’s going to be a bloody disaster.”
“Sarge?’ The young man beside him jerked his head around. Detective Constable Daniel Noble. Clever, when he put his mind to it. All too often, though, the lad was a dreamer. Never mind, Raven thought; he’d grow out of that sharpish.
“Too many places to attack the bloody fascists.’ He gestured with an arm. ‘All they need to do is wait at the end of every street. It’s going to be a massacre. You might as well hang signs round their necks saying “Please attack me.”’
‘I thought you didn’t like them,’ Noble said.
‘Can’t stand them,’ Raven said sharply. He’d no time for anyone who liked Hitler and thought they had all the answers. Not that the Communists were any better. ‘But it’s the coppers who’ll have to clean up the mess.’
They were close enough to the moor to hear the carpenters building a stage. The sound of hammers, shouting, laughter. Paid work. No one would turn that down. Didn’t matter if you liked Mosley or loathed him.
‘Do you really think it’ll be that bad on Sunday, Sarge?’
He looked at the lad, still so naïve. He hadn’t been on the force during the General Strike, nine years before. There’d been plenty of violence back then, wading in with the truncheons and the boots to get the job done. And Noble had been too young for the Great War. Just as well, maybe; he wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. With Hitler growing more powerful in Germany, the young man might have his chance of service in a few years.
‘Bad?’ He shook his head. ‘They’ve been out painting swastikas on the Jewish businesses along North Street. Then the Watch committee dithered about whether they’ll allow the march. Meanwhile we’ve got the Communists chalking notices on every street corner about where to meet and what weapons to bring.’ Raven was close to shouting; he stopped himself before heads started turning. ‘That’s worse than bad. I tell you what, Danny boy; you’d better get ready for a pitched battle.’
‘My missus says they won’t be that stupid.’
His missus was going to be surprised, then. By Sunday night they’d be mopping the blood off the cobbles. A pair of motor cars went by, a Morris and a Jowett, a lorry close behind them. All bloody speed these days, he thought. They crossed the road and stood at the bottom of Holbeck Moor. A broad, empty space of hard earth and scrubby grass. Nowhere to hide when things turned ugly. The force was going to need plenty of coppers along the route and many more here. A fair few in plain clothes among the crowd. And even then they didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of stopping the violence.
‘They’ll all be spoiling for a fight,’ Raven said with a sigh. ‘Come on, we might as well go back. Before you know it we’ll be seeing more of this than we want.’
It was a grey day, late September on the slow glide into autumn. But there were precious few trees in Holbeck to shed their leaves. Just street after street of back-to-back houses, brick dulled black from generations of smoke in the air. Here and there, small groups of unemployed men, the future leached from their faces, stood and talked on the corners. The only colour came from the posters; they filled every empty space. Advertising sales at the shops, shows at theatres, the latest and the best. Coming attractions at the City Varieties and the Empire. Everything and anything that was here today and old news tomorrow.
Back in town they walked along Duncan Street, face all around them, moving quickly, waiting in the tram shelters. The light bulbs in the Bovril sign across from the Corn Exchange constantly flickered on and off. Once it had been a distraction; these days, nobody noticed it.
A motorcycle roared past, the rider’s head hidden by goggles and a leather crash helmet. Sometimes Raven wished he could cover himself the same way; it might make life easier He noticed how men and women glanced away quickly as they passed. Raven didn’t pay them any mind these days; after the better part of two decades, he was used to it. The people who looked didn’t even see the worst of it.
Born with the century, he’d joined the Leeds Pals on his eighteenth birthday. Training, then a posting to the trenches of the Western Front at the start of October 1918. He’d scarcely been there for two weeks, not even fired a shot, when a Hun shell exploded in a fuel dump as he was walking by.
He was lucky to be alive; that was what they told him later. There were plenty of times he doubted that, when the pain felt like a punishment for something. Months of surgery and skin grafts. Days and weeks when he disappeared into the agony.
The burns covered half his body: his chest, his arm, neck, his left cheek. He knew the surgeons had performed a miracle. He knew it. But whenever he stared in the mirror all he saw the ugly, charmless reality and it was hard to feel grateful. To feel anything at all.
Urban Raven had a face people remembered. It was a face that scared people; maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing when you were a policeman.
Raven sat in the office at Millgarth police station with Inspector Mortimer and Superintendent Kennedy. The sergeant was pointing out the most dangerous spots on a large map of the city centre and Holbeck spread out on the desk.
‘If you want my opinion, sir, the best thing would be to cancel the march,’ he said. ‘We can’t keep anyone safe. There’s a good chance plenty of our own men will be injured.’ They’d wanted his assessment of the route. Now they looked grim as he gave his report.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Kennedy told him. ‘The Watch Committee’s said it can all go ahead. Be grateful they’re not allowing the Blackshirts near the Leylands.’ To let fascists in uniform parade through the city’s Jewish area? That would have been a recipe for disaster.
‘We’d better prepare for the worst, then,’ Raven said.
‘We already have,’ Inspector Mortimer replied. ‘We’ve drafted in special constables to cover the beats. Every other man on the force will be looking after the march.’
‘And the Chief Constable’s authorized three marksmen,’ the superintendent said. His voice was low, sober. ‘But not a word of that goes beyond this office.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Men with guns? In Leeds? That terrified him more than anything.
‘According to our intelligence, Mosely’s bringing his I squad with him. They’re the hard men and they love a scrap. Most of those who’ll be marching won’t be from around here. They’re estimating a thousand, all told.’
‘A thousand? Is that all?’ Raven asked in disbelief. ‘They’ll be eaten alive. I was talking to someone I know from the Communist party, sir. They reckon there’ll be twenty thousand or more out there.’
‘Then we’re going to have our hands full,’ Superintendent Kennedy said. He was in his late forties, an officer during the war, a major, used to command, battle and sacrifice. He had an easy style, the kind of manner people obeyed without thinking. ‘Go home, gentlemen. Be ready for Sunday.’