An interview with: Dr. Brian Belton
The prolific Dr. Brian Belton's latest book is "Fay Taylour - Queen of Speedway". We caught up with Brian to find out more about both his work and Fay.
What's your background and how did you come to be a prolific speedway author?
I was born and brought up in Plaistow, East London. My dad, his dad and mum, had worked at West Ham stadium (which was about a mile down the road from where I was born - they had lived in Churchill Road that backed onto the stadium) the home of the 'speedway Hammers'. So I was kind of raised with 'tales of the dirt-track'.
Dad, Granddad and Nan all knew the riders, but particularly my Nan and Granddad; their house in Churchill Road was often a stopping off point for tea and cake (sometimes something stronger) and a sing song after events - my Grandfather and later my father would 'get gear' (hey! they lived near the docks! But also later were market traders) and sell stuff on to the riders.that is how my Nan built up something of a relationship with Fay. She'd pop round every now and then to buy 'American slacks', but sometimes just for a cup of tea.
I can't say I had a huge passion for bikes as a boy, but as a student at Burke Secondary Modern School (that boasted some of the worst educational results in western Europe) they were amongst other things good for thrills. However, bikes took up a deal of my young life. Up to West Ham closing down in 1971 I attended speedway matches along with my mates; it was a social meeting place as much as anything, and so vast that you could have some adventures just being there. We built a number of 'monster machines' that we put to trial on what was know locally as 'Beckton Dumps' - I was more of a 'part-getter' (I had lots of 'contacts') than a committed mechanic, but it was fun and I've got lots of stories about the consequences of our 'experiments' - later I got involved in 'informal' road racing - wagered races around the A406 or to Southend Pier. However, I once went for a trial at West Ham and was told in the dulcet Scottish tones of Ken McKinley, the Hammers skipper, that he couldn't make up his mind if I was more of a danger to myself or others (his actual words were a bit more colourful than this).
So, I was never going to be a professional rider, however, after some 'social mishaps' resulting from 'internecine' japes resulting from youthful district rivalries, the docklands constabulary gave me the opportunity for some 'focused thought' and that's when I first started jotted down bits and pieces about speedway. It became a sort of aside from growing up.
I was never an 'anorak', and could go months on end never thinking about speedway, but I began to write Hammerin Round whist I was in Thailand (this was in 1980 - I used a 1970 Bultaco Metralla 250 to get about on). I was in the country teaching. I became a youth worker and through my time firstly getting a degree, then an MA and finally my doctorate, I always went back to speedway (I wrote a paper on the speedway bike as social icon!). Even now, as a senior lecturer in higher education, the ethos of the track informs what I do. I train people to work with some of the most challenging members of our youth population. This often needs courage, integrity and a sense of fun but with purpose - that to me represents the best of the qualities found in speedway.
It was whilst trying to finish HR that I first met my great friend and 'metal guru' Reg Fearman. His memories and insights became a motivator for me to organise my scribbles into working books that I've always tried to make readable stories rather than blunt instruments akin to telephone books. For me if you are going to write about sporting history it has got to be about people and for people, not just a few specialists. It provides the sport with a wider heritage and something with a broader future.
I have a fascination for all things East London, particularly sport. I have now written 11 books on West Ham United Football Club, one on West Ham dogs and another telling the story of West Ham baseball team, who played at West Ham stadium in the 1930s. I have three speedway themed books under my belt.
For many years very few speedway books were published, in recent years quite a number have come onto the market. Why do you think this is?
The sport is getting popular again, but that's just part of the explanation. A lot of clubs have disappeared and the records of speedway were never kept as well as some other sports. So I think people feel a drive to make sure the history of the sport is known. However, it was part of a lot of people's youth and it is a means of looking back on that for many - like all sport, speedway offers an escape from everyday life but it was its place in industrial/working class areas that made it a focus of fantasy for many young men and some women. Hence it has a magic allure for many and memories of the track can bring back echoes of the most wonderful times in folk's lives.
However, I suppose, like myself, there is something about identity there too. Many of the speedway clubs reflected the character of the areas in which they existed and, as organisations, said a lot about the people who supported them. This, to me, is a subject of constant fascination, much more than lap times or track conditions etc.
This said, probably the biggest factor in the growth in writing about speedway is the participation of Tempus Books, that publish most speedway related material. The company has made a bit of a niche for itself in speedway and in doing so has made a market. That is positive overall, but it is good to see that a publisher like Panther (who are responsible for Queen of Speedway) is interested in getting involved. It brings the chance of doing things a bit differently and to a very high production excellence that in truth has rarely been achieved by Tempus. I'm not complaining about Tempus, they have done and are doing some sterling work and I'm grateful that they published two of my books; it is just good for our sport that an alternative in terms of content, style and quality has been shown to be possible.
Your latest book is "Queen of Speedway", a biography of Fay Taylour. What was your inspiration for the book?
As I say, I've always known about Fay...I think the stories my Nan and Granddad told me about her really inspired me to find out more. There's a lot of material that there just wasn't room for. I liked the fact that she did something that was seemingly impossible. It's hard for us to put ourselves in her shoes. Realistically her immediate family were really at a not so well off middle-class level and she was fated to become a housekeeper, probably in her father's home, taking the place of the servants her family had called upon in better days for them. But she broke the barriers made for her as a woman by society and broke track records while she was at it. That was impressive to say the least.
But it had a cost and I guess that in the end that is what the book is about; the price. At the start of my work on Fay I wanted to find out and then to show others what it takes to do what she did. I'm not sure a speedway book has tried that before - it is a big ask I suppose. In many ways my book on Bluey Wilkinson prepared me for it though (I'd been collecting material of Fay for about 8 years prior to the publication of Bluey Wilkinson). Displaying the records and saying what happened and where are good to know, and I hope that's all in the book, but knowing how and why a rider like Fay did what she did is what makes the likes of her really interesting to me. It is also something that anyone who reads the book can take into their own lives. In the end, that has got to be the underlying meaning and purpose of sport; sheer admiration has its limits - if we can grow from the knowing something about the lives of others that is a true gift from them to us. But for that to happen we needed to try to get to know Fay as a person and not only as a rider - I think we were lucky that she left so much material to enable us to do this; that is a lasting generousity.
What was the most surprising discovery you made when researching Fay's story?
There are so many. I think how good she was hit home. I'm not saying she was a great rider, but in a way it was amazing that she became a rider that was so good. Her first tour of Australia was remarkable. For sure, her machine was technically close to the best of its type of the planet, but I don't think that diminishes her achievement.
My research into other female riders was also quite revealing. They have as a group for so long been passed off as 'gimmicks' or 'side-shows' but some were very good and their stories of how they developed their skills are heartening. That is probably another book though.
Of course, Fay's family background is intriguing. At one time or another she claimed to be Irish, English, British and she would also work hard to get American citizenship later on. But her background is almost archetypal ex-pat; she was a child of Empire and I think struggled with that. The way her politics formed is also a bit staggering from where we are now. Some of her writing is enough to make anyone with any kind of sensitivity to anti-racism cringe.
Do you think Fay's success was something that could only have happened in that era, or could she have enjoyed similar success if she'd come along a few decades later?
I think what made her impressive is that she did what she did in the era she did it in. Literally everything was against her. To say society was sexist at that time is to state the obvious. That she is not given the credit she deserves now probably tells us that we have not gone as far as we might think, but it is something of a pity for her and women riders in general that females were banned from the speedways so early in the sport's history. She was an example to others and women were coming through the ranks to challenge her, all over the world.
Fay matched men like Ron Johnson and others in the late 1920s, some of these blokes were still around in the 1950s. That being the case it is hard to make an argument that she couldn't have stayed with them. However, if women had made a history for themselves on the dirt-track up to the 1950s, I think it is a pretty safe bet that there would have been women around as good as Fay and probably better. World War II put a lot of women on bikes and there is little doubt a fair few liked to go fast. I think Fay, to have gained or maintained a standing in speedway, would have had to become a better rider had women been racing post-war.
The book makes use of Fay's personal letters and memoirs. Did you ever feel uncomfortable reading them and did you consciously leave out incidents or details that you felt should be kept out of the public domain?
There is always going to be a feeling of 'should I be doing this?' looking through the letter of others. Her own writing was something she wanted published; it was a huge disappointment to her that it never happened in her lifetime. But overall, I think she would have approved of my work. Writing about a time that is foreign to most of us is a bit like an aetiological exercise. You dig up something and not to show it is a type of censorship; how would I know what Fay wanted to be seen and what she wouldn't? How can I tell what the reader will think if I hold something back on purpose? You can't please all the people all of the time, so in the end I wrote the book I wanted to write. Critics will say I used the material badly or well, but for me the point was to use it with an honest intent and consider the reader; in the end they are the most important person. I tried very hard to make the book reflect Fay's own writing and style and give a feeling of the time she was expressing herself in, but there is also a duty to the reader as well as the subject in these things. It is important that history gets a realistic view of Fay, certainly if we are to learn anything from her life.
Having said that, I made a determined effort to be as sensitive as possible in terms of Fay's personal life. This was particularly hard for me given her political views. I had a close relative who suffered terribly in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, my family saw out the blitz in London, my uncle, himself a Gypsy, played a part in the liberation of the concentration camps, my grandfather was one of those that was sent to destroy the hard water producing capacity of Germany in Norway. I'm a life-long anti-racist and have written books on the dangers and evil of racial and ethnic categorisation.
For all this, we all speak strongly with the aid of insight and in retrospect. There are strong reasons, to do with so many considerations, why Fay felt an affinity and sympathy for Germany. Some of these I hope are explained in Queen of Speedway and that my future work will also help in this respect.
Your book hints that a second volume of Fay's story may follow. Do you have any firm plans to progress that?
Yes, I am in the process of writing it. It includes the legend of Fay's last speedway encounter - not in Southampton, and after 1930 - in Germany...characters like Baroness Fern Andra and Ilse Thouret, the Nazi secret weapon, and what was billed as the women's world championship are involved.
The book covers the years from 1930 to 1945 and includes details of Fay's car racing career and unpublished details of her Fascist connections as well as her consequent committal to internment alongside the likes of Diane Mosley - wife of Oswald, mother of Max.
How to Order 'Fay Taylour - Queen of Speedway'
The book can be purchased from http://www.panther-publishing.dsl.pipex.com/FayTaylour.html for £16.99 (plus p&p).
This article was first published on 17th August 2006
"Brilliant! I've read the book and it was great...maybe Brian should write one about his life...sounds as if it would be almost as interesting as Fay's"
"A very interesting item, but one small question? Why are the colours incorrect in the book "Hammerin` Round"? The front cover of the book is Claret and Blue, and one of the chapters is called "Claret and Blues". While I accept the point being made in this Chapter is of Claret being the Wine of Success, and the Blues to point out the problems in the 1930's, this would mislead anybody who is unawre of the SPEEDWAY COLOURS as opposed to the FOOTBALL COLOURS. Sorry to get the Anorak out, but, West Ham first rode in a plain White Jacket, then Blue and Red halves before these were reversed and the world famous crossed White Hammers were added. These colours finally ended up with the words West Ham and London on them in the Dave Lanning era of the late 60's. Also included in the times of Lanning, were an attempt to race with the West Ham football jerseys (these were Claret and Blue) over the racing leathers, these were soon disgarded as being too hot to wear during racing, plus an attempt at wearing the high coloured jackets as worn by road workers was also soon kicked out (Dave Lanning was definitely of the same stock as Johnny Hoskins, trying anything to get the crowds to come and watch the Hammers!) There was a second type of race jacket in the thirties, which showed seperate Hammers with a number between them. There has been some disagreement over these colours, but at no time has anybody ever said they were Claret and Blue (or has Doctor Brian found something we have all missed?) On the subject of Hammers, they originally come from the crest of West Ham Council, and are two differnt Hammers which are crossed. One is a Railway Hammer to represent the Railway Works at Stratford, the other is a Shipbuilders Rivit Hammer which is for the Thames Iron Works who were at Canning Town. Final point on the colours, Claret and Blue were the House colours of the TIW, and it is for this reason, as West Ham United Football teams roots are in the firm's club side, that they adopted the colours and are also known as both the Hammers and the Irons. Finally, yes this is item does have a ending! The books Brian has wrote are fantastic, and both my copies of Hammerin' Round and Bluey Wilkinson are well read and have been recomended by me on the local Newham Council history website, plus his latest book on the Baseball Team has already produced some interest and questions have been asked on how to obtain it."
Sorry to get the Anorak out, but, West Ham first rode in a plain White Jacket, then Blue and Red halves before these were reversed and the world famous crossed White Hammers were added. These colours finally ended up with the words West Ham and London on them in the Dave Lanning era of the late 60's.
Also included in the times of Lanning, were an attempt to race with the West Ham football jerseys (these were Claret and Blue) over the racing leathers, these were soon disgarded as being too hot to wear during racing, plus an attempt at wearing the high coloured jackets as worn by road workers was also soon kicked out (Dave Lanning was definitely of the same stock as Johnny Hoskins, trying anything to get the crowds to come and watch the Hammers!)
There was a second type of race jacket in the thirties, which showed seperate Hammers with a number between them. There has been some disagreement over these colours, but at no time has anybody ever said they were Claret and Blue (or has Doctor Brian found something we have all missed?)
On the subject of Hammers, they originally come from the crest of West Ham Council, and are two differnt Hammers which are crossed. One is a Railway Hammer to represent the Railway Works at Stratford, the other is a Shipbuilders Rivit Hammer which is for the Thames Iron Works who were at Canning Town.
Final point on the colours, Claret and Blue were the House colours of the TIW, and it is for this reason, as West Ham United Football teams roots are in the firm's club side, that they adopted the colours and are also known as both the Hammers and the Irons.
Finally, yes this is item does have a ending! The books Brian has wrote are fantastic, and both my copies of Hammerin' Round and Bluey Wilkinson are well read and have been recomended by me on the local Newham Council history website, plus his latest book on the Baseball Team has already produced some interest and questions have been asked on how to obtain it."
"Hey Mr Belton, can you suck up to the Aussie's a little more in your book 'Hammerin Round'. My Grandfather Colin Watson hardly gets a mention in your book but he showed them all a clean face at the end of a lot of races. Nice pictures of Fearless and Stone though not one picture of CW being one of the standard bearers of leg trailing. I guess you can only put so much in a book, but West Ham, the east end and Colin 'Coy' Watson go hand in hand."
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