Why I wrote Ridley Road
One August afternoon some summers ago, my dad and I gave a lift to an elderly man called Monty whom we’d met at a funeral. I took my place in the back, and on the drive to the nearest station, listened to them share memories of their early life in post-war East London. But when they mentioned something called the 62 Group, I pushed myself forward and heard about the Jewish community’s street resistance to fascism for the first time.
Even then I knew I would write about it. This was a tale that hadn’t been told before in literature; how, fewer than two decades after Hitler had been defeated and awareness of the atrocities against the Jews in World War II had begun to penetrate the mainstream, British fascism was rearing up again. But now it was opposed by the 62 Group – a band of brave, passionate men who took matters into their own hands and spent the sixties fighting fascism on the streets. These were ordinary men, driven to defend themselves against the wave of hatred in order to ensure a safe life for their families and the Jewish community.
I also learnt about the 43 Group – the thousands of men and women who took direct action to confront fascism after WWII and who were a key influence on the 62 Group. But it was the 62 Group that really spoke to me. How could I resist the draw of writing a story against the exciting backdrop of the early sixties in Soho and Hackney? Besides, it also gave me the chance to delve into my parents’ history – they were both nineteen in 1962 and had stories to share. On the one hand was the anti-Semitism, the fighting and bitter conflict. On the other, coffee bars, clubs and dancing; music and fashion on the cusp of change.
The main characters came to me quickly. Twenty-year-old Jewish hairdresser Vivien bravely moves from her hometown of Manchester to London following the death of her father. Jack, the object of her affection, is often in danger and struggles with his choices. And finally Stevie, a childish, charming, frustrated out-of-work musician. All three of them, I soon realised, would come to figure themselves out during that summer.
On my office wall I have a framed photo of a fascist meeting at Ridley Road taken in 1962. It was snapped during a lull in fighting, when a calm had descended on the hundreds of protestors. But the photo still fizzes with hostility and in the middle of the crowd, arms folded across his chest behind a policeman, Oswald Mosley stands straight-backed, chin out, defiant. This scene may have taken place over fifty years ago but whenever I read about extreme right-wing activity across Europe, I realise the story behind the photo, like the story at the heart of Ridley Road, is just as relevant today as it was then.