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Book launch at the London Welsh Centre

L to R: IBMT patron and former UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, Richard Baxell and Hywel Francis M.P.

On Monday 17 September 2012, the London Welsh Centre hosted an event to launch the 2012 edition of Hywel Francis’ study of the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Miners Against Fascism and my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors.

Chaired by the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaff, it was a great event, well organised, well-attended and well-received. Many thanks to Lynne Walsh and the London Welsh Centre. It was great to spend the evening chatting to Hywel Francis over a glass (ahem) of wine, for he knew many of the Welsh volunteers personally.

Sadly the evening was overshadowed by the sad news of the death of former International Brigader Lou Kenton. ‘He was’, said Jim Jump, the Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, ‘a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, a lifelong trade union activist, a fighter for progressive causes and a gifted graphic artist.’

Blenheim Literary Festival

Blenheim Literary Festival September 2012

On Friday 14 September 2012 I joined Paul Preston and Lydia Syson, the author of the teen novel, A World Between Us, to discuss fact and fiction in the writings on the Spanish Civil War as part of the literary festival held in the glorious surroundings of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock.

Th panel was expertly chaired by cultural historian Christopher Cook, director of the BBC documentary, Return to the Battlefields, which followed a group of British International Brigade veterans as they returned to Spain – many for the first time – in 1985. He clearly knew what he was about and asked a number of interesting and searching questions.

Unfortunately, I inadvertently blotted my copybook by revealing the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls during an explantion of how I had first became interested in the subject. Apologies to anyone whose reading was spoiled! After the customary book-signing we discovered that sitting among the audience was the first four minute miler, Sir Roger Banister. He bought a copy of Lydia’s book, which was rather nice.

Thanks to all involved – particularly the well-informed and enthusiastic audience – for a successful and enjoyable event.

Christopher Cook

Paul Preston

Lydia Syson

Radio Four’s War of Words

Discussion with John Simpson on George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Broadcast on 10 August 2012 as part of Radio Four’s series, ‘War of Words’, in which John Simpson tells the stories of the correspondents who reported on the Spanish Civil War.

The entire series of five episodes is currently available on BBC iPlayer: War of Words

Unlikely Warriors published on 6 September 2012

Described as ‘a rich and unflinching oral history’, Unlikely Warriors is a comprehensive account of the Britons who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

The book tells the story of the the ordinary British men and women who were forced to make an extraordinary choice. Drawing upon numerous memoirs, amny of them unpublished and interviews and documents held in archives in Britain, Spain, America and Russia, this book tells the story of the fight against fascism in Britain and Europe from 1932 to 1945.

Published by Aurum Press, a hardback edition is available from all good bookshops at £25.00 or less.

Due to space limitations, the book will be published with an abridged bibliography. There is a full bibliography for Unlikely Warriors here.

There are reviews reproduced here and there are others on Amazon.

Review of Elizabeth Roberts’ ‘Freedom, Faction, Fame and Blood’

My review of Elizabeth Roberts’ new book appeared in the Journal of Contemporary History, October 2012, vol. 47:4, pp. 889-891.

The ‘methodologically challenging’ study by Elizabeth Roberts is a comparative study of the experiences of three groups of ‘soldiers of conscience,’ British men and women who risked, and often lost, their lives fighting in ‘a far-away country,’ during the Greek War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War and the Russo-Finnish War.

New edition of Tom Wintringham biography published

The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:

The last English revolutionary

When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.

The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.

The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.

The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’

Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.

Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.

Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.

Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’

Antifascistas to have new Spanish edition

Antifascistas is to be translated into Spanish and published by Piedra de Rayo. The new Spanish edition will include a bibliography listing many of the works now available in Spanish on the British volunteers. It is planned to launch the new edition on 15 February 2013 at CAUM in Madrid, to coincide with the Jarama march weekend.

Proving to be a popular read, the book was co-written by Richard Baxell with Angela Jackson and Jim Jump, based on the IBMT’s successful exhibition of the same name. The English edition is still available from the IBMT at a very reasonable £10.00.

Reviews from Amazon:

‘Clearly a labour of love, this book is packed with information, photographs, posters and artefacts, and details of the battles they fought. It’s a must, even if you’ve already read Preston et. al.’

‘Not much to say when something is so perfectly realised. Does what it says on the cover and then some. Not for the faint at heart (especially the photo on page 36) but a stunning memorial to a period in European history that should not, cannot be forgotten.’

 

IBMT annual commemoration in London

On 7 July 2012, the IBMT held their annual commemoration to the British and Irish volunteers volunteers at the national monument in Jubilee Gardens, London. Many who attended thought it to be one of the best ever annaul meeting. The presentation by Almudena Cross of a Spanish Republican flag to the British veteran of the International Brigades, David Lomon, was very well received, as did the appearances by performance poet Francesca Beard and the musical acts Na-Mara, Ewan McLennan and Paco Marín.

The above video of the event was put together by Marshall Mateer for the IBMT

Review of Angela Jackson’s For Us It Was Heaven

The following review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter, issue 32, Spring-Summer 2012, p.10.

NEARLY twenty years ago, Angela Jackson, then beginning the research for her doctorate, conducted an interview with a woman who, many years before, had worked as a nurse in Republican Spain during the civil war. The story that Angela was told that day by her eighty year old interviewee, Patience Edney (née Darton), became an important part of a ground-breaking thesis. It also led to a well-received book which, like this one, was published within the Cañada Blanch series on contemporary Spain.
The publication of this biography of Patience thus brings Angela back to her beginnings and, perhaps understandably, is the cause of a certain amount of reflection by the author. In many ways the book is a personal account of Angela’s relationship with Patience and the process of researching and writing. As the author acknowledges, it is not always an easy task to write about someone that you are close to, requiring the ability to ‘tread carefully the path between hagiography and hatchet job.’ This, in the main, the author manages well, despite her obvious affection for her subject.
The opening chapters portray Patience in the years before Spain, where we learn about the development of two important and long-standing features of Patience’s life: nursing and left-wing politics. Born into an upper middle-class family, Patience decided to train as a midwifery nurse at University College Hospital in London, where she was also introduced to progressive politics by the illustrious scientist and dedicated Communist, J.B.S. Haldane.
The story of Patience’s time in Spain naturally forms the central part of Angela’s portrayal, for Spain always had a strong hold on Patience’s heart. She had been training when the Spanish Civil War broke out and was persuaded to go out to Spain to nurse the British Battalion’s former commander, Tom Wintringham, who was dangerously ill with typhoid. As anyone who has read Angela’s Jackson’s previous works will know, a nurse’s life in war-torn Spain was not an easy one and this biography presents a clear picture of the impossible conditions under which the Republican services were forced to operate, where hospitals and ambulances were deliberately targeted by the Nationalists. Yet, despite the long hours and near exhaustion, there was still the opportunity for love and it is here that Angela’s close relationship with the subject allows us particular insight into Patience’s life in Spain. Uncovered through her personal letters, we hear how she fell in love with and married a young German International Brigader. Soon we realise why Angela refers to Patience’s grief and her fortitude: her new husband was killed on the Ebro in the summer of 1938. Patience didn’t mention him again, nor did she visit Spain, for another sixty years.
In the 1950s, following the Second World War, Patience turned her efforts towards Mao’s China, carrying on the work she had begun in Spain. While there are accounts by other Spanish veterans who went on to work in China, such as Nan Green and David Crook, this is not an area that has been widely written about, so I found this section particularly interesting.
The concluding chapters return the story to Spain. In 1986 Patience attended the huge Homanaje in Madrid, accompanied by her son, Bob, named after her German former husband. The book’s last act is genuinely moving, for Patience did not survive her triumphant return to Spain: ‘To Die in Madrid’, read Patience’s obituary in El Periódico. In a last salute to Spain, Freiheit!, the song of the German Thaelmann volunteers, was sung at Patience’s funeral. It is a fitting conclusion, both to her extraordinary life and to this engaging biography.