I made a fascinating discovery on the Brighton Road recently.
In a recess high on the whitewashed wall between Chloe Antiques at no. 61 and Business Sales Sussex at no. 63, I spotted an unmistakable pair of “fasces” – each one representing the bundle of rods that symbolised unity, power and authority in ancient Rome, and chosen by Mussolini in 1919 to be the emblem of his fascist party.
Although both lack the traditional protruding axe heads, it’s hard to know what else they could be.
A closer look reveals that something has been prised or chiselled off between the two fasces to leave a patch of rough brickwork.
Given that Worthing was a notorious hotbed of support for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s, it occurred to me that the missing panel might well have contained the BUF’s lightning bolt and circle symbol.
But in view of Mosley’s admiration for Mussolini (he visited him in 1932 and 1933), it’s just as likely to have borne the word “DUCE.”
Whatever it contained, the panel apparently so offended the good burghers of Worthing that somebody saw fit to remove it.
I got talking to Mike Hare, at Business Sales Sussex, and he told me that a passageway used to separate nos. 61 and 63, and I immediately thought I’d stumbled on the bricked-up entrance to Worthing’s BUF headquarters.
But as the Worthing branch of the BUF (boasting at least 150 Blackshirts in 1933) was to be found at 23 Ann Street, it clearly wasn’t that.
It wasn’t the BUF’s West Sussex headquarters either, as that was at 27 Marine Parade.
The more I scrutinised the twin fasces from across the Brighton Road, the more it appeared that they were part of a far larger assemblage that must have taken considerable talent and cost to create.
From a “stepped” Art Deco feature on the roof, the structure sweeps down to a pair of buttresses (one white and one black) that appear to take its weight and presumably mark the top of the now vanished passageway.
Despite its small size, the whole construction echoes the stark monumentalism so beloved of fascist Italian architecture.
As I studied it and imagined what the passageway must have looked like, it reminded me of photographs I’d seen of the marble arch that Mussolini erected in Libya to mark the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
If the vanished panel did bear the word “DUCE,” it could have been removed when Haile Selassie, the Abyssinian Emperor, came to stay for a few weeks at the town’s Warnes Hotel in the summer of 1936.
The Emperor didn’t need to be reminded that Mussolini had just seized his country and used poison gas to do so.
Of course, anti-fascist elements in the town might have snatched up hammers and chisels and done away with the offending panel.
Less romantically, council workers could simply have arrived with a ladder and chipped it off. But why spare the fasces symbols?
If the panel bore the BUF lightning bolt insignia (presumably inspired by Nazi SS runes), it might equally well have been obliterated when the BUF was banned in Britain in May, 1940, or when Mussolini made his fateful decision to declare war on Britain and France the following month.
So how did this curious tribute to fascist Italy come to occupy the wall between Chloe Antiques and Business Sales Sussex in central Worthing?
Was it some sort of eccentric right-wing folly? Or the entrance to a BUF club where Blackshirts repaired after an evening’s drinking at The Fountain, their favourite pub?
Perhaps the passageway led to a BUF bookshop or a house where some BUF big shot lived.
I’d like to think there was a fascist-themed trattoria down there decorated with pictures of Mosley, Mussolini and the Bay of Naples.
I can just see pugnacious Blackshirts scoffing mounds of cheap spaghetti and draining straw-wrapped bottles of chianti in hearty toasts to the death of democracy.
But the truth may not be half as colourful.