New biography of Clem Beckett, from the Wall of Death to Jarama

Post date: 24/03/2022

IBMT member and ex-journalist Rob Hargreaves has written a biography of Clem Beckett, the speedway star and stuntman turned International Brigader.

The work features the following introduction by Dolores Long of the IBMT-affiliated North West International Brigade Memorial Group and daughter of Sam Wild, last commander of the British Battalion. It has been reproduced with permission.

‘Clem Beckett: Motorcycle Legend and War Hero’ by Rob Hargreaves (Pen & Sword, 2022) is available here.

Clem Beckett, a working-class lad from Oldham, died in Spain manning a machine gun while covering the retreat of his comrades from the bloody slopes of Suicide Hill at the Battle of Jarama. Among survivors of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade on that day was my father, Sam Wild, nursing four bullet wounds as he helped evacuate injured comrades.

Growing up in Manchester in the 1940s and 50s, my brothers and I learned a lot about the Spanish Civil War from our mother and father. In this we were unusual, because for most people recollections of war in Spain were eclipsed by personal sufferings brought upon them by the Great Depression and the Second World War. History paid little heed to the fate of these volunteer warriors, and were it not for Beckett’s status as a speedway star, even I, in spite of all I was told by my parents, would probably only know of him as a name on the roll of honour of more than 500 British volunteers who died fighting for their beliefs.

Abridged and dramatised versions of Clem Beckett’s life have come down the 85 year since his death through the misty lens of folklore, to which Beckett himself, a great spinner of yarns, contributed. But with ‘Motorcycle Legend and War Hero’, Rob Hargreaves has achieved a definitive account of Beckett’s short life.

What a tale it is: motorbike-mad paperboy, dirt track superstar, jet-set aviator, speedboater, globe-trotting adventurer, Wall of Death stuntman and, throughout his adult life, dedicated member of the Communist Party.

Of Beckett’s 30 action-packed years, only four months were in Spain. Most of it, one way or another, was about motorbikes, especially his part in the explosion of dirt track racing in the late 1920s. Hargreaves takes us through the mechanics of Beckett’s speedway triumphs in some detail. Not really my thing, even though I was born in the shadow of Manchester’s Belle Vue stadium. But hold hard! His narrative is leavened by insights into the social and political context of the times, including reportage of remarkable women, who with Clem’s support, broke down barriers to take part in motorcycle sport.

Above all, Hargreaves reveals Beckett’s rip-roaring irreverence for authority; his warts-and-all decency as a human being. I commend his efforts.


Posted on 25 March 2022.

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