The Dead On Leave (Again)

Last month The Dead On Leave, my novel set in Leeds in 1936, was published. It’s out there, £7.99 in paperback, cheaper on ebook, and yes, I do think you should read it. It is – I hope – an honest picture of a city gripped by the Depression and trying to find its way in a country that’s changed and threatens to leave it behind.

It’s also about the rise of fascism, which didn’t make much headway in the country, thanks to the efforts of many good people, and a population that rejected it. Between those two things, it’s something of a mirror to the present – although the book doesn’t try to offer any lessons.

But it’s still a good read, if I say so myself. So tempt yourselves with a bit more of it…

1930s boar lane 2

‘You know people in the Communists, don’t you, Raven?’ Kennedy asked quietly as he put another match to his pipe.

‘Only one man, sir.’

‘Have a word with him, will you? See what he can tell you.’

‘Yes sir.’

*

He knew where he’d find Johnny Harris. Six o’clock on the dot and he’d walk under the Magnet Ales sign into the Pointer in Sheepscar. Harris worked at the boot factory near the bottom of Meanwood Road, operating the machine that attached the upper to the sole. He’d done it for so many years that his skin on his palms was as tough and callused as the boots he made and he’d never be able to scrub away the smell of leather.

Harris had fought in the war, Gallipoli first, then the trenches, from the Somme all the way to Armistice Day. He’d seen the very worst and come back to a promise of a home fit for heroes, words that were nothing more than lies. As soon as they evaporated into thin air he’d joined the Communists and stayed loyal all through the purges in Russia, never wavering in his belief, working his way up to local party secretary.

Raven had grown up with Harris’s younger brother, Paul, the pair of them at school together. The families lived a street apart; he’d known them all his life. But it was only in the last few years he’d had much to do with Johnny.

Harris was a tough man, loud, always ready to argue his point. He read a great deal, his back-to-back house on Manor Road crammed with books. All communist, all biased, but Harris believed with the true fervour and devotion of a convert.

He’d been one of the organisers of the demonstration against the Blackshirts on Holbeck Moor. Harris probably counted the violence as a victory. But Raven hadn’t come to argue the finer points of politics as he parked the Riley by the library at the bottom of Roundhay Road. He needed information.

Harris was leaning on the bar, his broad back to the room, savouring his first pint after work. Another half hour and he’d go home to his wife and two daughters and be a loving husband and father when he wasn’t doing party work. But this was his time.

‘Give him another,’ Raven told the barman. ‘I’ll have a lemonade.’

With a wary look at the policeman’s scarred face, the man nodded.

‘You must be on duty.’ Harris didn’t even raise his head. ‘You’d be on the pints otherwise.’

‘They’re slave-drivers.’ The drinks arrived. Raven raised his glass. ‘Good health.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’ Harris pushed himself upright. He had large hands and heavily muscled arms. At first glance he looked to be a big, dangerous man. But there was a twinkle at the back of his eye and usually a smile playing around his mouth. He sipped the head from the drink with a wink. ‘I’ll accept the beer because it’s depriving the capitalist state of money it might use to exploit the people.’

‘Yesterday…’ Raven began.

‘A success.’ Harris interrupted. ‘We sent them packing.’

‘I was there. I saw it.’

Harris grinned. ‘You didn’t go on your own time, I bet.’

‘Don’t be daft. I wouldn’t waste a Sunday. But someone else was there of his own volition.’

‘That body in the paper today?’ Harris asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Was he one of ours?’

‘Not at all. A fan of Mosley. He was a means test inspector.’

The man stayed quiet, tearing a soggy beermat into tiny pieces.

‘What are you suggesting, Urban?’ Harris asked quietly. ‘That we were responsible?’

‘No,’ Raven answered slowly. ‘I’m asking, that’s all. Have you heard anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird.’ He took a long sip, draining half the beer. ‘How was he killed?’

‘Strangled with an electrical cord.’ Raven saw the man flinch and his fingers tighten around the glass.

‘None of my lot would do that.’

‘You don’t know for sure, Johnny. We have to find the killer and we’re going to need help.’

Harris pursed his lips. It would be hard for him to help the authorities. It went against everything he believed. But if the killer turned out to be a party supporter and he did nothing to help…

‘I don’t see it,’ he said finally. ‘Not a communist.’

‘Someone murdered him. And it’s a cold-blooded way to die. Brutal.’ Raven finished the lemonade. ‘I’d appreciate the assistance, Johnny, but I’ll leave it to your conscience.’

‘You’re a bastard, Urban, putting me on the spot.’ He shrugged. ‘Let me ask a few questions, all right? But I’m certain it wasn’t any of my people.’

‘Thank you.’

1930s gipton estate

No car for the journey home today; the police would never be that generous. Probably for the best, anyway. He’d only end up with a curious crowd outside the house, staring at the only car on the estate. Jim Green, all the way down on Coldcotes Drive, had a motorbike, but he’d bought it as a wreck and rebuilt it himself.

Raven had to wait for one of the Lance-Corporal trams, half-dozing as it clanked along York Road.

No lights on at home, but there was the smell of cooking in the kitchen. A note on the living room table read: Gone to the pictures with Gladys. Your tea’s in the oven. At least there was food, he thought. And some peace and quiet.

He ate, then left the plate in the sink. Kettle on the hob to make a cup of tea, staring out over the garden as he drank. There was too much to think about on this case. All they had was a jumble of pieces. He couldn’t even see all of them yet.

Maybe Johnny would come up with something. If there was even anything to find. Perhaps a bobby going through the list of Benson’s claimants would find a man so torn by guilt that he confessed. Right, he thought as he looked into the growing darkness, and they’d see pigs flying over the Town Hall in the morning. This was going to be slow and difficult and it was going to be painful.

1930s albion street

The Dead on Leave (1)

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The Dead On Leave

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.’

The Battle of Holbeck Moor (A Leeds Story, but a true one)

We had the word well ahead of time. It was in the newspapers, gossip all through the pubs. On the walk to work in the morning, men would be talking about it. The Blackshirts are coming. Bloody well let them come, I said, and we’ll show them what Leeds is about.
I knew why Mosley wanted his fascist scum here. Jews. We have plenty of them, and good people they are, too. A lot of them have moved out to Chapeltown now, them as has some money, any road. But you’ll still find plenty down in the Leylands, the ones who haven’t made a bob or two. Take a walk out along North Street and look at the names over the shops. Do nobody any harm and they work hard, the way a man should.
The Watch Committee spent the week hemming and hawing. Mosley and his gang wanted to have their march right by the Leylands. That’d be a recipe for disaster. Bad enough as it was, with swastikas and slogans painted on the windows of Jewish shops during the night. The fascists said it wasn’t them as done it, but we all knew the truth. Too scared to show their faces and try it in the day. Nowt like that had happened since the riots back in ’17.
Now me, I was a Communist then. I’m not today, not since the war when I heard about what Stalin did to his people. But I hated fascists with a bloody passion. I knew what was coming with Hitler; anyone with half a brain did. And I didn’t want it in my country. Definitely not my bloody city.
Finally them as are supposed to lead us told Mosley and his lot that they couldn’t go near the Leylands. Not that they couldn’t march, mind you. They could still do that, just not there. Once that order was out, we started making our plans. They were planning a big rally on Holbeck Moor, a thousand or more of them. Probably some supporters, too. We knew what we had to do. We were going to make the bastards wish they’d never heard of Leeds.
Didn’t take much to put the word about. A nod here, a little natter in the pub of an evening and we knew we’d have a crowd. At first we thought we’d line the route out from town, but that was only going to be a waste of time. Better to meet them up on Holbeck Moor where they were going to have their rally.
Now, maybe that was the right decision and maybe it weren’t. I heard later that there were plenty of Blackshirts down Meanwood Road. Too bloody close to the Leylands for my liking. Happen we should have had a few of our lads there.
Of course, the party officials talked to the people from the Labour Party. The way I heard it is that the Labour bods spent most of the meeting sucking on their pipes and making sympathetic noises before saying they wouldn’t take part in the protests. Soft as bloody butter, the lot of them. Not that it would stop plenty of folk as voted that way. They’d be out there. You give in to fascists once and next time they want a mile more.
The weather was good that morning. Sunny, warm, not much of a hint of a breeze. The 27th of September, 1936. We were all in a good mood as we traipsed up to the Moor. I was going to be a good laugh, and if w few heads got broken, well, it was no more than they deserved, as it?
Half a dozen of us went from our street. I was with Stan. He was a pipe fitter, a strong lad. We’d been mates since we were boys. Went to school together, primary and on. He bought it during the war, out in Burma. All his wife got were a medal. I daresay his body’s out there still, somewhere in the jungle.
The closer we got to the Moor, the more noise we could hear. I’d expected plenty of people, but now like that. Thousands upon thousands, and not enough coppers in view to keep order. Which was exactly what we’d hoped.
Stan gave me a big grin and opened his hand to show some knuckle dusters.
‘You’d better watch out,’ I warned him. ‘The rozzers catch you with those and you’ll be up for having an offensive weapon.’
‘Nay,’ he laughed. ‘Come on, Roy, I’m not bloody daft. Any chance of that and I’ll drop them.’ He was a big lad. Topped six foot, shoulders on him like a bloody barn. He didn’t need anything. Just his fists would do enough damage. But he had his ire up, same as the rest of us.
There were runners out, bringing messages on the march.
‘They’re on Calverley Street,’ went around, then ‘they’ve crossed over the river.’
It was going to be a battle, but we were all in a good mood. Laughing, joking, some singing and chanting. It was like being at the football in some ways. But not others. Plenty of the lads had organised well. They must have spent every evening scouring the moor, because they had a big arsenal of stones for us to throw.
‘Stuff ‘em in your jacket, lads,’ one man cried. He had a battered bowler hat on his head and a muffler wrapped round his throat, never mind that it was a beautiful day. ‘Once they arrive you know what to do.’
There was a mood of anticipation. A celebration. We were going to enjoy ourselves and chase the bastards out of here. The Blackshirts had some supporters already up on the more, a couple of thousand and more, but we easily outnumbered them ten to one. They didn’t look too happy but they didn’t dare back down. Not now, before their precious leader even showed his face. But you could see it, they were scared. They knew they were going to get a pasting.
Some of them were hard lads. That was all right. We had ammunition. When someone’s chucking rocks at you there’s not much you can do but duck and hope for the best. And I reckoned that among the stones the boys must have taken up half the cobbles in Holbeck. Oh yes, we were going to make the buggers hurt.
‘They’re coming!’ The words ran around the crowd. We were all craning our necks to see. Then I spotted them, like a thin river of black, moving slowly. The noise grew as they grew closer. A few cheering, many more of us yelling out insults.
They’d built a podium, a stage of sorts, for him and a few of his cohorts. We waited until Mosley took his place, his little army in front of him, gathered loyally. As soon as he moved forward to open his mouth, we struck up The Red Flag, a huge chorus of voices to drown him out. It wasn’t planned, it felt natural, but we sang as long and loud as Welshmen at one of their Eisteddfods.
As soon as it died down, the stones started. They arced over our heads and we watched them come down. One of them hit Mosley and made him move back. That brought cheers and a few more rocks.
Some came back at us. It was bound to happen. A few or our lads were bleeding, but it was never an equal fight. It was a Sunday, and this was our church. The coppers couldn’t do much. They tried to keep some order, but they wanted to have their heads down, too, and I can’t blame them.
I’d lost sight of Stan in the crowds. He’d waded forward as soon as he could, yelling and screaming, his blood up. God only knew what he’d end up doing.
There were missiles flying backwards and forwards, people crying out. Whenever Mosley tried to speak, The Red Flag began again to drown out his words. It was a good way to feel strong, Communists, Jews, good people from all over Leeds gathering to tell the Blackshirts what we thought of fascism here. We didn’t want owt to do with it.
A stone hit me on the shoulders, hard enough but no damage done. I picked it up and tossed it back. When I looked around I could see everyone had the fire in their eyes. We were here to do a job and we weren’t going to leave until it was finished.
Another stone hit Mosley in the face and he fell. Good luck or good aim, I don’t know. But we cheered. It gave us heart and we began to push forward.
‘Get ‘em on the run, lads,’ someone shouted and we all laughed. But we all moved forward anyway.
I’ve no idea how long it lasted. It just seemed like moments but it must have been a lot longer. I was too young to have fought in the war but it must have felt like that. Time seemed to speed up and slow down at the same time. It was like electricity was going through me, I could have shocked anyone I touched.
A couple of times I caught the toff’s voice, but as soon as anyone heard it we began singing. Sir Oswald, that was his title. Should have been hung for treason. We weren’t about to give him much of a chance. Rubbish like his doesn’t deserve an airing.
Finally he gave up. This was a battle he didn’t have any chance of winning and he knew it. He lined up them as supported him and they began to march away as if they’d won something. But they’d got nowt.
We jeered and shouted until we were hoarse and they couldn’t hear us any more. We’d bloody won. Men were laughing their heads off, full of victory. We’d send them off with their tails between their legs. Someone passed a hip flask around and we all had a nip. It burned on the way down but by God, it felt good.
It was in the newspapers the next day. Well, a few of them. The local ones, which said there’d been thirty thousand on the moor. I don’t know if that’s true; when you’re part of it you can never tell. Certainly the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen. Biggest I’ll ever be part of, I’m sure of that. Most of the big dailies didn’t bother to cover it. After all, we’re the north, we don’t matter. Funny, though, they were quick enough to write up what happened down in London a week later. The battle of Cable Street, they called it, when all those Cockneys and Jews down there told the fascists what they thought of them.
Up here, the magistrates bleated in the press about public order and how terrible it had all been. Stood up on their hind legs and said their piece. But there were only three people arrested. It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of candidates to be nicked. Three. It was just a token.
When the three of them appeared in court, all they got was a slap on the wrist. Someone must have had a word – send them down and there’ll be riots. There would have been, too. It was the wisest thing they could have done. The only thing. We’d made the whole bloody city tremble. They might not have shown it, but the council was scared. The law was terrified.
But by God, we showed them. And good on them Londoners for what they did, too. It was a lovely feeling last year when we made our way back off the moor, comrades together. The Battle of Holbeck Moor, someone named it. And that’s not bad. But it’s not quite the truth. It wasn’t a battle, it was a rout. A complete bloody rout.
Historical Note: The Battle of Holbeck Moor did happen in 1936. The Watch Committee did refuse Mosley permission to march by the Leylands, but a thousand Blackshirts did go out to Holbeck Moor to hear him speak, where they were met with plenty of protesters. There was plenty of violence, and Mosley was hit by a stone. But it’s true that in the end only three people were arrested, out of an estimated crowd of 30,000, and the sentences given were very light.