Clem Beckett was a champion speedway rider who throughout his all too short life put his political and trade union values ahead of fame or monetary rewards.
On 12 February 1937 he made the supreme sacrifice while manning a machine-gun at the Battle of Jarama. He was killed fighting Franco’s fascists alongside fellow communist Christopher Caudwell – journalist, poet, Marxist philosopher and novelist (using his real name Christopher St John Sprigg) – with whom he had forged a strong bond of friendship despite their contrasting backgrounds.
Born in Oldham in 1906, Clem became a blacksmith on leaving school and his radical politics were forged in the hardship and discrimination he suffered during the 1920s. He was saved from unemployment and poverty by his unique skills as a speedway motorcyclist and rider on the ‘Wall of Death’.
He began his speedway career in 1928 at Audenshaw, when dirt-track racing was in its infancy, and he was soon the leading rider of his day. By the end of the year he held 28 records in the sport. When he won the Golden Helmet at the Owlerton Stadium, no fewer than 15,000 spectators watched him. His presence was in such demand that he would often have to hire a plane to fly to three different events in a single day. His fame spread across Europe. In 1929 alone he raced and gave displays in France, Germany, Denmark, Yugoslavia and Turkey.
But at the height of his fame, angered by the growing exploitation in the sport, particularly the rising death toll among untrained youngsters, he formed a union for speedway riders, the Dirt Track Riders’ Association. He also wrote an article for the Daily Worker headed ‘Bleeding the men who risk their lives on the dirt track’. In doing so he earned the enmity of the promoters of the sport, the Auto-Cycle Union, who promptly blacklisted him.
Undeterred, he became an exhibition rider, inaugurating the Wall of Death in Sheffield, in which he defied gravity by driving a bike horizontally around a circular wall. In 1931 he toured the continent, including Germany, where he witnesses the rise of fascism, and in the following year he visited the Soviet Union as part of a British Workers’ Sports Federation delegation.
But blacklisting had made life difficult for him, and on his return he took a job at the new Ford factory in Dagenham, where he hoped his interest in mechanics could be put to use. He only lasted two weeks as he was one of the first to try to organise a union in the plant and to publicise the unsafe working conditions in the factory.
During this period Clem was also active in the campaign to gain access to open spaces in what is now the Peak District National Park and took part in the famous 1932 the Kinder Trespass.
His passion for mechanics and engineering led him to set up a motorcycle sales and repair shop on his own account in Oldham Road in Manchester.
But, despite all the success, celebrity and wealth his dare-devil exploits won for him, Clem remained loyal and committed to his working-class origins and socialist philosophy. So, when in 1936 General Franco launched his fascist uprising against the Spanish Republic and Britain refused to sell arms to the Popular Front government, he offered to become part of the International Brigades.
In November of that year he set off to join the anti-fascist forces, in which he was in turn a mechanic, ambulance driver and machine-gunner. He explained why he had gone in the most simple terms and honest way in a letter to his wife: ‘I’m sure you’ll realise that I should never have been satisfied had I not assisted.’
Beckett died in the fighting in the River Jarama valley south-east of Madrid, where Franco tried unsuccessfully to cut the main road to Valencia, which was the capital’s life-line. He was one of 150 members of the British Battalion to be killed.
His friend George Sinfield said: ‘As his section was ordered to retire, Clem kept his machine-gun trained on the advancing fascists, acting as cover to the retreat. The advance was halted but Clem lost his life.’
Clem’s widow Leda captured the spirit of the man: ‘He went to Spain to face death because he loved life.’ He had lived just 31 years.