'Heed the truth/Spoken by the youth!' Stories of political activism by young people at the Battle of Cable Street
Sunday, 19 May 2024 17:54

'Heed the truth/Spoken by the youth!' Stories of political activism by young people at the Battle of Cable Street

Published in Fiction

As young people take to the streets to protest about climate change, Kim Reynolds discusses the way political activism by young people at the Battle of Cable Street has been portrayed in radical children's literature, and urges us to 'heed the truth/Spoken by the youth'

What has come to be known as ‘The Battle of Cable Street’ was a working-class uprising that took place in the East End of London on the 4th of October, 1936. Over the decades, it has taken on legendary significance in the UK because it is credited with defining British opposition to fascism and so shaping Britain’s role in World War II. That claim is exaggerated; nevertheless, the events in Cable Street saw approximately 250,000 anti-fascist demonstrators from a great range of backgrounds converge to prevent Oswald Mosley and 3,000 members of his British Union of Fascists from marching through the largely Jewish East End of London.


Their permission to march was guaranteed by the Home Office despite the fact that it received a petition, organised by the Jewish People’s Council, carrying 100,000+ signatures against the march two days before it was scheduled. In line with that decision, while Mosley and his ‘Blackshirts’ may have been the reason for this huge and sometimes violent protest, the actual ‘battle’ was largely between the protesters and the 6,000 police – representatives of the State – who were protecting Mosley’s and his followers’ right to march. That fact combined with the multicultural nature of the protesters has become more prominent in recent accounts of the events.

This article focuses on books about The Battle of Cable Street because the subject is intrinsically radical and so serves as a bellwether for attitudes to left-wing activism. In the light of today's political activism by young people, I was specifically interested to see how far the Cable Street setting is used to help today’s readers understand themselves as activists and to believe that it matters what populations and individuals – whatever their age – do and do not do.

The political permutations of this confrontation are complicated: it was about fascism, but also about class, economics, migration and schisms within various political groupings. For the purposes of this discussion, my interest is in how the story has been told, by whom, and the fact that youth activism has to a very large extent been erased from the versions told to children. This absence is significant, since children and young people were certainly among those who opposed Mosley and their police guard. For instance, eyewitness reports and testimony from those who participated say children were encouraged to throw marbles under the hoofs of the mounted policemen’s horses.


This was evidently an effective strategy as the consequences are mentioned in many accounts, including this description given by a man who was a fifteen-year-old participant: “Suddenly, the horses’ hoofs were flying and the horses were falling down because young kids were throwing marbles.” Girls tell how they went out armed with pockets full of pepper dust to throw in the faces of the fascists. Children also climbed up lamp-posts to see over the crowds and direct the protesters to places where the police presence was weak. Two juveniles were among the 85 people arrested at the scene and a number of others had to be treated for injuries.

More than such involvement by individual children and young people, however, is the fact that a major anti-fascist rally that had been organised for the same day by the Young Communist League to raise money for the Republicans in Spain day was redirected from Trafalgar Square to the streets where the Blackshirts were scheduled to march. This means a huge youth contingent swelled the numbers present in and around Cable Street. (The YCL was the communist equivalent of groups such as the Scouts, the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades and the YMCA/YWCA.)     

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Leaflet and YCL logo. There wasn’t time to reprint leaflets so the existing ones were over-printed with instructions to rally near Cable Street.

This is far from the first time that children on the left of society had taken to the streets of Britain to demonstrate a political stance, but it was the most tumultuous. More usually their street activities took the form of pageants, tableaux, short plays and processions on political themes and subjects such as peace, internationalism and reforming the economy.


Such performances were often scripted, constituting a politically motivated subgenre of children’s literature and a form of activism. In the 1930s these were complemented by left-wing children’s publications that exhorted children to activism by celebrating the contributions of children to uprisings in the past, children’s bravery in opposing fascism at home and abroad, and encouraging them to prepare for the revolution they believed was soon to come.



Examples of radical children's stories, from Martin's Annual 1935 and elsewhere

The symbolic value of babies, children, and young people – whether as victims of neglect or the hope of the nation’s future – was fully exploited by protesters. In the weeks following the demonstrations around Cable Street, infants and children of all ages were very much in evidence in new demonstrations demanding improvements in the living conditions of the poor, such as orchestrated rent strikes in cities across the UK. These were a direct spin-off from the events in Cable Street, for the Left feared there were opportunities for the fascists in areas beset by the problems of poverty, not least of which was high rents for atrocious housing.

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Most of these activities and the texts supporting them are long forgotten, but since the 1990s, various accounts of the Battle of Cable Street written for children have been produced, and materials about the events feature in teaching materials, including those created outside the UK. For instance, FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES, a US-based organisation that aims to use education to prevent racism, bigotry, prejudice and intolerance and to explain how democracy works includes two units on the Battle of Cable Street. The compilers believe that ‘…by engaging with this history, students will think critically about the choices made by the East End community and its allies in 1936 and then consider choices available to them as agents of change in the face of prejudice and discrimination….’ In other words, The Battle of Cable Street is seen as useful to helping young people today understand themselves as implicated in the way events in the world around them play out.

The teaching units ask them to think about what they would have done then, and what they might do now. It is significant that FACING HISTORY is an independent organisation that offers materials for free and provides professional development outside the mainstream of educational systems. Since the days of student protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there has been considerable concern by governments in many countries to prevent classrooms from fostering youthful radicalism and to containing student activism (Woodman; Myers).

The FACING HISTORY units make use of historical records, including eyewitness testimony, memoirs, reportage and legal proceedings. Many of the same materials inform fictional accounts of the Battle of Cable Street for children and young people, but where the teaching materials encourage pupils to position themselves alongside the activists, in fictional accounts, the Cable Street setting is much more circumspect about portraying children as activists. Indeed, the two most recent novels about Cable Street suggest that even for those avowedly on the Left, a combination of ambivalence and constraint is affecting how far children’s books promote youthful activism.


The first of these is Alan Gibbons’s Street of Tall People. Published in 1995, it retells the events leading up to Cable Street half a century after they occurred. Gibbons is a self-proclaimed activist for the Left, so his decision to write about an incident that is claimed as a significant victory for both the Left and working people is unsurprising. What is surprising is the way this story treats the two boys at its centre as witnesses to history rather than participants. Jimmy lives in a bug-infested, run-down block of flats with his mother in a poor part of London’s East End while Benny comes from an Orthodox Jewish family a few streets away. Ordinarily Jews and Gentiles in the area don’t mix, but the boys encounter each other in the boxing ring and strike up a strong friendship. They meet each other in the days leading up to Mosley’s planned march through the East End, something of which Jimmy and the people he lives among are largely unaware. Listening to the talk among Benny’s family and friends, he picks up on their fear and also discovers that the hated rent collector, who has started dating his mother, is a Blackshirt.

The boys want to help ‘stop Mosley,’ but they arrive after the Blackshirts have retreated. This is in part because the story significantly underplays the extent of the Left’s preparations for the march. Although rumours abound, there is little evidence of an organised response beyond a woman handing out leaflets and a car with a placard urging all the locals to come out to ‘Bar the road to fascism’. At one point Benny’s older sister and her fiancée are seen manning a first aid station, but there is no mention of the Trafalgar Square demonstration or the role of young people in helping to orchestrate the resistance to the police and the fascists.

More importantly, for most of the story, Jimmy and Benny are seen as quite independent and capable. Jimmy is one of the best boxers at his club and Benny is clever and ambitious. When they finally get to the streets where the fighting is taking place, however, their youth and vulnerability become their defining features. Indeed, the book’s title contrasts their size with the real activists: ‘He saw the bearded Jews standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who’d never seen the inside of a synagogue in their lives. There were no Jews or goyim, only people; a street of tall people.’ (105)

As with children at the time, the boys climb a lamp post where they can see what’s going on. In practical terms this allows Gibbons to have them describe the red flags and banner proclaiming ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ The lamp post, the banners and many other details in the book indicate that Gibbons did considerable research into the events and how young people were involved, but though Benny and Jimmy are indisputably on the side of the locals, they are not marble and pepper-dust throwers and they do not use their vantage point to direct the crowds. They do, however, follow the crowd as it moves on to defend Cable Street. There they see broken glass, overturned lorries, smashed furniture, and debris of all sorts and hear from another spectator that the fighting has not been with the Blackshirts but with the police because, ‘Mosley won’t do his own dirty work.’ (106)

Gibbons makes it clear that boys their age do not belong on the streets during times of political uproar. People tell them to go home because, ‘This is no place for children’ and, ‘This could turn nasty.’ (103) Ultimately, the boys are in the way rather than helping with the action. When the police make another charge and nearly trample Benny, the boys have to be rescued by a docker and returned to their families. Far from being disappointed, however, the boys are satisfied, because not only did they see the East End come together to prevent the fascists marching, but their escapade brings their families together. The Battle of Cable Street is used not to inspire activism but to promote the virtues of class unity, inclusion and multiculturalism, and Street of Tall People does this in a very traditional way: by having children show grow-ups the error of their ways and making friendships that ignore social barriers based on prejudice and ignorance. And this, rather than political activism, is the purpose of the story.


Joan Lingard’s Trouble on Cable Street (2014) is for a slightly older audience (teenagers rather than pre-teens) and it is much more invested in youth activism. As well as showing young people successfully resisting the efforts of the Blackshirts to commandeer support in the Cable Street area, it also features young men who join the International Brigades to fight in Spain. These two strands are intertwined in ways that celebrate youthful idealism, passion and commitment without suggesting that these qualities can guarantee success.

Lingard is, of course, no newbie when it comes to writing about conflicts and how young people are caught up in them. Her Kevin and Sadie novels from the 1970s are among the few to deal with the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Catholic Kevin and Protestant Sadie begin by being staunch supporters of their own communities but their encounters gradually shift from hostile to sympathetic and eventually romantic. Their activism is on a local and empathetic level, though especially in Across the Barricades (1972) it is also caught up in the marching season and the wider hostilities. They suffer for their relationship but they are morally and emotionally strong. By extension, these qualities and their unflagging resolution are projected onto youth as a category, but not in an easy, naïve or traditional way. As a stand-alone novel featuring less immediate conflicts, Trouble on Cable Street could never accomplish as much as the Kevin and Sadie books. Nevertheless, it paints an informed and empathetic picture of young people growing up in conflicted times and making a difference. Activism here is on an individual level. It means standing up for what you believe in; being informed and educated; and committing to your beliefs in the service of others, irrespective of age, sex, nationality, religion, or ethnicity.

The Battle of Cable Street occurs in the opening pages of the book. It is used to show how volatile the situation was locally and globally. The area around Cable Street is populated with migrants. We meet the central character, Isabella, whose mother is Spanish, her best friend is Irish, and Izzie works as a seamstress for a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Nearly 16, Izzie has been working since she was 14 – like all the young people in the area who can find work. Her 17-year-old brother Will is preparing to leave to fight in Spain at the start of the book – and he is cheered by the street when he leaves for the station. The family helps a Scottish boy who came to support the Cable Street opposition before going to Spain (but dies as a consequence of his injuries) and a wounded friend of Will’s who arrives from the fighting in Spain. Essentially all the action is done by young people.

The most important action is associated with the Battle of Cable Street. Another of Izzie’s brothers as well as a co-worker are among those seduced by the promises of the Blackshirts. Izzie is pursued by one of the Mosley’s entourage, but is not taken in by his smooth manners and polished arguments. She helps expose the Blackshirts’ political aims and violent tactics, thereby discrediting the movement among her friends and, more importantly, the readers.

Although Izzie is not an activist organiser, she participates in The Battle of Cable Street and crucially, she carries on its work of opposing Mosley and trying to improve life for the people in her area. Another significant factor in the book is that Izzie and her family are committed to education. She attends night school and is eventually able to move up from seamstress to stenographer – and she plans to continue to study and rise. Her father, too, continues with his education and at home enjoys reading the classics.

Both Izzie’s ability to act and to discriminate between causes are grounded in her well-trained and informed mind. For budding activists, this is arguably the most important lesson of all: the energy, passion and ideals of the young can be caught up in perverted causes if they lack the ability to interrogate arguments and the moral compass that distinguishes between right and wrong. Her less educated older brother becomes, for a time, a ‘useful idiot’ in the service of the Blackshirts, but he has the courage to disown them when he learns to see them clearly.


Heed the truth/ spoken by the youth

There are many books that offer this lesson, but fewer which do so in the kind of political context created by The Battle of Cable Street. Recently we have seen a resurgence of youthful activism around gun control in the USA and climate change in a great many countries. As well as reportage, it feels important that the rising generation has the chance to engage empathetically with well-informed fiction that takes them through the challenges, dilemmas, set-backs and particularly the importance of organised opposition to policies and practices that put the future – everybody’s future – at risk. 

Radical reading and radical writing: remaking children’s literature
Sunday, 19 May 2024 17:54

Radical reading and radical writing: remaking children’s literature

Published in Fiction

Professor Kim Reynolds introduces radical children's literature, and says the time has come when children can become radical writers as well as radical readers. 

Many people think of writing for children and young people as little more than a training ground for readers; something you pass through on the way to real literature. There are certainly children’s and Young Adult books that just entertain readers, but the best books are those that linger in the mind and grow with readers through life. Because it is one of the first ways in which we encounter stories and begin to explore other people, places, and ideas, children’s literature can play an important part in shaping how we understand and think about the world. This is especially true of what I call ‘radical children’s literature’. You won’t find a shelf of these in any bookstore or library, but radical writing has been around as long as children’s books have been published. In the past there have been children’s books that opposed slavery, children’s books that campaigned to stop children from being forced to clean chimneys and work long hours in factories, and children’s books that pointed to the degrading poverty and abuse suffered by many homeless children in Britain’s cities.

The tradition continues. Four years ago, the Little Rebels Book Award was created to celebrate radical children’s books. Despite its name, the Award, is not concerned with rebellious characters in children’s literature; it celebrates books that inspire readers to question the status quo and become socially and politically engaged. This is the essence of radical children’s literature: radical writers and illustrators help readers recognise that the way world is currently organised is not inevitable, and that even the youngest members of society can help to change it. They can also help bring about change by becoming radical writers.

Children’s literature is the only kind of writing to be named for its readers rather than its creators (think, for example, of women’s writing, black writing, Asian writing, and postcolonial writing). One reason for this is that in the past, children’s writers have not had the means to reach wide audiences. Digital technology, the Internet and the option to ‘print on demand’ are changing this. Whether in the form of traditional novels, such as the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini, begun with the self-published volume, Eragon (2001), fan fiction, or stories written and circulated on mobile phones, young people are producing and circulating an unprecedented amount of fiction. But how much of this writing is radical writing for an audience of other young people? To qualify as radical children’s literature, writing needs to start from the assumption that children and young people are socially aware and interested in changing society. It will then do some – or all - of the following:


- new ideas about how society could work better

- offer new visions of how society is organised, managed, and sustained.


- readers acquire the skills, ideas and information they will need to bring about progressive change.

Meaning they are

- dedicated to achieving a more stable, fair and equal society at levels of wealth, sex, class, sexuality, ethnicity and race.

They also

- feature all kinds of children and people, not just the dominant and most visible groups in society.

To achieve these aims, radical writers may use fiction, non-fiction, journalism, verse, graphic novels, picturebooks or any other genre or format, to raise concerns about injustice, inequality, or discrimination. This might be done through writing that promotes equality and peace, or discredits stereotypes, or encourages readers to become aware of the many challenges facing the health of the planet and the wellbeing of people in all parts of the world.

The winners of the Little Rebels Award provide a good sample of recent radical writing. The first Award went to Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between. This is a moving graphic novel, written and illustrated by the author. It tells the story of Azzi, a refugee girl who has to leave her country because of war. She and her family undergo a dangerous and exhausting journey to reach this country, but this is just one part of the refugee experience. They have to learn a new language and manage the systems and legal requirements of their new country. The family is not warmly welcomed by the community around them; things are no better for Azzi at school. But they persevere, and gradually begin to make progress and become accepted.

The Azzi family

Azzi’s story is the story of refugee children across the centuries; sadly it is as topical today as it was during crises such as the Great Depression and the Holocaust. Sarah Garland did not just write a story based on news reports, however. She did considerable research, interviewing adult and child refugees, reading memoirs, talking to teachers and others who work with refugee children. This is an important feature of radical writing: it must be based on reliable information and informed world views and told powerfully so that readers want to find out more. In this case, the comic-strip style illustrations help establish setting and convey the stress and alienation the characters feel without the need for too much description, meaning the book is able to be understood by readers of different ages.

In 2014 the Little Rebels winner was Gillian Cross’s After Tomorrow. This novel cleverly turns the familiar perspective of the refugee story on its head to give those who are lucky enough only to have been spectators of refugeedom some sense of what it might be like. The novel is set in a not-too-distant future in which all the banks have crashed and the UK has become chaotic. Food is desperately short, and bands of thieves raid homes, stealing whatever food there is. Violence is ubiquitous. After one such raid, Matt and his family decide to join the other refugees who are fleeing to France in the hope of finding a better life. Just as they are leaving their mother has to stay behind and this begins a series of separations and challenges that test the family in every possible way. The point of the book is not to create fear, but to make readers think about economics and ethics; about why we are so dependent on banks and how quickly a society can descend into lawlessness. It also asks readers to think how they would want to behave if they were similarly tested. It does this by requiring those of us who normally feel protected from the crises in other parts of the world to recognise that without addressing some fundamental aspects of culture, we too could be forced to seek refuge in another part of the world.

Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis was the 2015 winner. This radical text is concerned with mental illness, animal welfare and the plight of child carers and children in care. It tells the story of Scarlet, who looks after her mentally ill mother and a younger brother who loves birds but struggles with people. Eventually Scarlet is placed with a foster family who understand that she is still the lynchpin of her family. Birds weave the book’s multiple storylines together and provide a moving backdrop for a story that focuses attention on the courage, loyalty and competence of children. As Scarlet Ibis shows, some children are already changing their worlds.

A very different kind of book is the most recent winner of the Little Rebels Award. This is the picturebook, I am Henry Finch, written by Alexis Deacon and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz.

Henry Finch

Instead of focusing on politics or social issues, I am Henry Finch is a deceptively simple looking book that can be enjoyed by even tiny children even though it explores the relationship between thinking and identity in some very sophisticated philosophical ways. It asks questions about how we think and how we know we think and how we can change ourselves through thinking. Henry has been living his life as one of a mass of finches who all do the same things all things at the same time in the same way. Sometimes they disappear inside the belly of The Beast. And then Henry starts to think – and to become aware that he is thinking. With thinking comes responsibility. He takes on The Beast and for ever changes finch life as all the other finches discover they too are individuals with their own desires and aims.

Given the many serious problems that are currently affecting how we live: conflicts, global warming, unemployment and the instability of global finances, it has rarely been more important for the rising generation to be well-informed, to learn new skills, and to be prepared to help with the work of making the world safer, fairer and more sustainable. Each of the Little Rebels winners – like all radical children’s literature - assumes that readers want to be challenged intellectually, emotionally and politically. Creators of radical children’s literature recognise that young people are citizens with abilities, responsibilities, and problems, and they aspire to help them make the most of their potential. Logically, then, they also believe that children have something to say. The power of digital media means that children and young people can now have their say. The time has come when children and young people can be radical writers and illustrators as well as radical readers.


Readers - and children and young people they know - are invited to respond creatively to this article. Send in your stories and illustrations to us and we will publish the best ones.

 Azzi in Between is £6.99 and I am Henry Finch is £5.99 from Letterbox Library, www.letterboxlibrary.com, which also stocks many other fine books for little rebels. Letterbox Library also run the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children's Fiction on behalf of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB). You can keep up to date with all of the award news here: https://littlerebelsaward.wordpress.com