For this year’s Len Crome lecture a number of historians were brought together to discuss George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937. This is the first of four lectures, which features a lecture and discussion of George Orwell and the British Battalion in Spain.
I was very pleased to be invited to participate in this year’s Aye Write book festival in Glasgow, in conversation with the immensely likeable Chris Dolan, author of a biography of the Scottish anarchist Ethel MacDonald. Obviously an old hand at this type of event, Chris skilfully asked some leading questions about Unlikely Warriors, before handing me over to a what proved to be a very well-informed audience.
One of the most interesting discussions was provoked by a member of the audience asking whether it is was now time to stop romanticising the civil war and the involvement of the International Brigades. Now it’s certainly true that the involvement of some 35 000 volunteers in the defence of the Spanish Republic has long been seen as the left’s ‘last great cause’ and there has sometimes been a tendency to play up the glory and play down the horror. The authors of some early studies of the British in Spain have not unreasonably been described as ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered’.
Personally, I have always agreed with Orwell’s assessment that ‘war is bloody’ and have come across little in my study of the British in Spain over the last twenty years to counter this view. The volunteers went into battle often with the most perfunctory training, weakened by a persistent lack of sleep and debilitating stomach complaints. They soon discovered that their lack of weapons could not simply be remedied by courage alone; on several occasions during their time in Spain, the battalion was effectively annihilated. As a review of Unlikely Warriors in the London Review of Books noted, ‘the story has a tragic monotony. Every page of Baxell’s book has some reference to how depressing, dispiriting or tedious something was.’ Hardly surprisingly, a culture of heavy drinking developed among the volunteers in Spain and there were all too frequent instances of insubordination and desertion.
This does not sound very romantic or glorious. But it should not be forgotten that, despite the conditions – not least the constant risk of a violent death – the British Battalion fought on in Spain for twenty months. As Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues in his review of Unlikely Warriors, it is about ‘capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’ The story of the British involvement in the Spanish Civil War may not always be romantic. But if it isn’t heroic, I really don’t know what is.
Over the last ten years, the hugely successful annual Len Crome lecture series has seen a number of academics from Britain, Spain and America deliver keynote lectures on their particular areas of expertise, at the Imperial War Museum in London. A collection of the first ten lectures was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 2010 as Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War. However, the closure of the Imperial Museum in 2013 for refurbishment forced a re-think.
The decision was helped by this year being a major George Orwell anniversary, marked by a number of programmes on BBC radio 4, including a radio dramatisation of Orwell’s famous account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. Consequently, it was decided to bring together a number of historians to discuss Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and, in particular, the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937.
The event was held in the Manchester Conference Centre, on 2 March 2013. Chaired expertly by Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern Europen History at the University of Sheffield, the four speakers and their papers were:
Richard Baxell: George Orwell and the British Battalion
Paul Preston*: George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
Tom Buchanan: Homage to Catalonia; its reception and impact
Chris Hall: Not Just Orwell; the Independent Labour Party Volunteers
*Sadly Paul Preston was unwell, but he very kindly allowed his paper to be read out by a proxy (IBMT Secretary, Jim Jump).
For those who missed what was a very successful and popular event, the four lectures will be placed online and a short video of some of the highlights will be available on Youtube. In the meantime, Marshall Mateer has put some material on the IBMT’s Flickr site and Lydia Syson, author of A World Between Us, has written an account of the day on her blog.
The generous support for the International Brigade Memorial Trust from the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen continues. After a very successful event at ASLEF’s national conference in Liverpool last May, I was invited back by the District Council Number One to give a talk at their December meeting, in the Marx Memorial Library in London.
My talk outlined the experiences of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and why the conflict continues to be relevant. Not surprisingly, the continuing legacy of the war featured strongly in a detailed and wide-ranging Q&A which followed the talk. Topics raised included the role of the Spanish monarchy in the 1930s, the ‘civil war within the civil war’, the British government’s policy of appeasement, fascism in contemporary Spain and how to ensure that the war and the contribution of the volunteers from around the world does not get forgotten. The discussions continued over beer and a curry in nearby Exmouth Market.
Many thanks to all for the generous donation to the IBMT, to Steve Richardson for his invitation to talk at the meeting, to John Callow for providing the venue and to Perry Calvert for chairing and acting as my impromptu agent. I’m glad to say that I returned home with considerably fewer copies of Unlikely Warriors than I had arrived with. Happy Christmas reading to all!
The weekend of 20-21 October was a busy one.
On the Saturday I was privileged to give the annual lecture to the Basque Children of ’37 Association, often known as the niños, on the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Britain. In front of at least one of the original children, family members and other historians, I discussed the differing experiences in Britain during the Second World War of the children and the former British volunteers in the International Brigades. The highly knowledgeable audience ensured that there was a great discussion after the lecture. Thanks to Natalaia Benjamin for organising the event and Manuel Moreno for his exuberant chairing. A transcript of the talk is available via academia.edu.
The Sunday saw a trip to Hungerford’s book festival to publisize my latest book Unlikely Warriors. Also present at the event was David Boyd Haycock whose I am Spain, published this month, looks at the more intellectual volunteers for Spain: Orwell, Hemingway etc. It was a well attended event, with another fully engaged audience. Thanks to all who attended and the Hungerford bookshop for organising it.
On the Thursday and Friday evenings of this week I attended two events, in two very different settings. The first was a tour of Aldgate and Whitechapel, an area famous for its robust response to Sir Oswald Mosley’s BUF Blackshirts in the 1930s, as part of a book launch for Lydia Syson’s teen novel. The second was a lecture and discussion I took part in, alongside Jim Jump of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and cambridge post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dacia Viejo Rose, held in St John’s College of the University of Cambridge. The two events were only an hour away from each other by train but, to paraphrase the title of Lydia’s book, there was – and is – a world between them. The link between the two areas was, of course, that they were both the home of a number of Britons who served with the Republican Government’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Lydia’s novel A World Between Us opens in London’s east end on 4 October 1936. It was then the home of Britain’s largest Jewish community and was virtually under attack by the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. On Sunday 4 October, a huge anti-fascist rally was organised, which prevented Mosley’s Blackshirt thugs from marching through the area. As Lydia recounts, the experience was formative for a number of men and wome who would confront Mosley on the streets of London and Franco in the trenches of Madrid.
Cambridge, in a very different manner, was just as formative, of course and more than thirty men and women who served in Spain had studied at the university. Probably the best known, John Cornford, was killed in Spain, the day before his twenty-first birthday. Many thanks to Cambridge University’s Communist and Hispanic Societies, who jointly organised the latter event.
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.’
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.
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
On 14 May 2012, Richard joined local historian Danny Payne and Clarion cyclist and IBMT treasurer, Charles Jepson, in Liverpool to talk to the ASLEF annual conference. Danny and Charles talked about the role and legacy of British trade-unionists in the Spanish Civil War, before Richard drew on his forthcoming book, Unlikely Warriors, to deliver a lecture on the reasons behind the Manchester volunteers’ motivations and experiences in Spain during the spring of 1937.
Many thanks to General Secretary Mick Whelan and organiser Colin Smith for a great event, and to all who attended for their kind words and generous donation to the IBMT.