Marking the performances of the play Dare Devil Rides to Jarama at the Library, January 2017
Clem Beckett was born in Oldham in 1906. He worked as a blacksmith, but after facing victimisation because of his trade unionism, in the late 1920s he started riding the Wall of Death at fairgrounds, and was also a famous motorcycle dirt track rider at Belle Vue in Manchester and other venues. He was instrumental in the opening in 1929 of a track in Sheffield, the Owlerton, which survives to this day. He became one of the best known of the speedway riders as 'Dare Devil Beckett', and set many world records in the sport.
In spite of the individualist nature of the sport, Clem never forgot his working class roots, and he was an active member of the Young Communist League, and later the Communist Party. In the words of one of his contemporaries: "Beneath his leather jacket beat a heart of gold. It was a heart that throbbed in rhythm with the struggle of the working people".
Seeing that younger riders coming into the sport were being exploited, in 1930 Clem was instrumental in forming the Dirt Track Riders Association, "which did great work in keeping up the pay of the lesser-known riders, and forcing shady promoters to keep to their contracts". He was also one of those involved in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932. Given this background, it is no surprise that on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he threw his energies into aiding the Popular Front government’s fight against fascist aggression.
He had set out for Spain on 12 December 1936, as a driver of part of a convoy of five ambulances bought by the Communist Party. One of the other drivers was another Party member, the writer and intellectual Christopher Caudwell, and on arrival both men immediately joined the International Brigades. They had become fast friends during their journey to Spain, and in the comradeship of war this friendship only deepened, and they became inseparable.
After the usual period of training they were soon in action in the bloodbath of the Jarama Valley of February 1937. It was there, at the Battle of the Arganda Bridge, which raged between 2nd and 12th February, that they were both killed on the last day of fighting. After a terrible loss of life in the battle, with some estimates as high as 400, it was decided there must be a temporary retreat, and Clem Beckett and Christopher Caudwell covered that retreat by staying at their machine gun position. That is the last time that they were ever seen. Their action was not in vain however, as it ensured that the brigade was able to entrench new positions; thus the fascist attempt to take Madrid was unsuccessful.
The last words must belong to his wife Leda in her speech at the Memorial Meeting of 2 May 1937 at Ardwick: “I could not understand that he was dead. It seemed too monstrous that a life such as Clem's could be broken before its time, just because he dared to stand up for his ideals and help a defenceless people in their fight for security and peace. I am only one of thousands of women who have given their best and dearest in this fight. You cannot let us down. You must never let us say, 'We gave that which we loved best, but you failed us, and our sacrifice has been in vain'. It must not be in vain".
Stuart Walsh, Library volunteer