HOPE not hate by Julian Kossoff | Wednesday, 9 May 2012
ENGLAND, 1946. Rationing, bombsites, the war over, fascism overcome. Or nearly overcome. The images of the Nazi death camps in Europe are still fresh in everyone’s mind, but a resurgence of support for Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts has brought terror back to the streets and groups of British fascists roam the capital.
Gradually men rise up to confront them. Jews back from the war, young radicals and demobbed English blokes determined to tackle in their streets the evil they had spent six years fighting. Armed with fists, coshes and the occasional knuckle-duster, they depend above all on their spirit as a group and their bravery as individuals. And one of the bravest of them all, certainly one of the toughest, is a teenage hairdresser’s apprentice called Vidal Sassoon.
It is one of the most unlikely bits of fashion trivia anyone could imagine. Vidal Sassoon, the man who invented modern hairdressing, gave us the Five Point Cut, the Asymmetric Bob and Mia Farrow’s £2,500 haircut for Rosemary’s Baby, was a street-fighting man.
“When I came back to London after the evacuation I was 17,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a footballer but my mother insisted I get a profession. We lived on the fourth floor of a Petticoat Lane tenement building, where the smell of bagels wafted up from the bakery downstairs. The Lane was a maze of colourful humanity, people cared for one another and showed a kindness that knew no barriers of race. But then that popinjay Mosley was released from prison, where he had spent most of the war. And our lives were to change for the worse.
“Suddenly, there were fascists preaching hate on every corner,” says the cool pensioner, his voice tightening a little with anger that seems undimmed by the passage of time. “These rabble-rousers were the same Nazi sympathisers who had spent the war years in prison and were now starting up where they had left off.
“Their speeches and their literature depicted us, the Jews, as coarse, ugly caricatures with long beards and dirty finger-nails, dressed in black gabardine. And they hurled the same abuse that I remembered from the 1930s, when I was too young to do anything about it.
“I don’t remember exactly when we decided to fight back, but the pictures we were seeing from Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Dachau changed the shape of our rage.”
And so it was that the fresh-faced cockney (the measured, mid-Atlantic tones of the modern Vidal are the product of elocution lessons taken in the 1950s) signed up with the 43 Group, a crudely armed paramilitary force which began as 43 Jewish ex-servicemen and which by its peak was to number more than 1,000 Jews and gentiles, men and women.
“We had turned the cheek for the last time,” says Sassoon, “and as a 17-year-old recruit, I was proud to be involved. The men were mostly ex-servicemen. They didn’t want anything but peace, but it was disgusting that having just fought a war against Nazism, home-grown fascists were allowed to start reorganising.
A boy among hardened fighting men, Sassoon was to become one of the toughest and keenest of all the informal soldiers.
Many former 43ers remember Vidal well and his solid reputation of standing firm when the fists started flying. “To think what a big deal hairdresser he would become,” said one of the veterans. “You would never have guessed to see him there, deep in the fray.”
Inevitably the police arrested hundreds of people during the five years of organised violence and on at least one occasion the young Sassoon found himself in jail. “I’ve lost count of the number of actions I was involved in,” he smiles, “but I do remember the night we were told to go up to Kilburn [in northwest London], to break up a fascist meeting. There was a real punch-up.
We chased the Blackshirts into a pub, but we were ourselves being chased by the police. They arrested us on the spot, threw us in the back of the van and started calling us filthy foreign Jew bastards. They beat the hell out of my old friend Big Mo Levy and threw us in a cell for the night.”
At every turn, his modesty will not allow him to describe his double life as anything out of the ordinary for the time and place. “I took a few knocks, but we did physical damage to them, too. That’s what happens when there is hate.” But to show up for work, in a ladies hairdresser’s salon of all places, battered and bruised from a night’s fighting, must have been a surreal position for a young man to find himself in.
“Well yes,” he says gently, “I had to have a sense of humour. There was one occasion one morning after a particularly nasty tear-up, I went to work at the salon in Mayfair with a badly scratched face and this refined client looked at me and said, ‘Good God, Vidal, you look terrible. What happened to you?’ “Nothing much, I said. I just fell over a hairpin.”