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Dare Devil Rides to Jarama

Set on a minimalist stage with a cast of two, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a surprisingly successful account of the International Speedway star from Oldham, Clem Beckett, during the economically and politically turbulent 1920s and ’30s. The play’s central story – and its climax – recounts his time spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War alongside the writer, Christopher St. John Sprigg (more familiar under his nom de plume of Christopher Caudwell) with whom Beckett struck up a powerful friendship.

David Heywood makes a convincing Beckett and Neil Gore shows off his versatility by playing a number of parts from Sir Oswald Mosley to Christopher Caudwell. The play has some nice touches which (on the occasion that I was there) went down well, including a clever representation of the ‘wall of death’ with a puppet and a lusty sing-a-long to Euan McColl’s Manchester Rambler. There were many opportunities for audience participation (should you be in such a mind); such was the atmosphere, I even noticed a professor of history joining in. No mean feat.

It’s often difficult for historians at these events, particularly if (as is often the case) they are asked how accurate the production is. Often the answer is ‘not very’ though, of course, it should be remembered that the the constraints placed on fiction are rather less demanding than those placed on historical studies. It would be most unwise to take Shakespeare’s plays, John Ford’s westerns or George MacDonald Fraser’s historical novels too literally. To their credit, Townsend Productions‘ writer/actor Neil Gore and director Louise Townsend have clearly worked very hard to tell Beckett’s story as honestly and accurately as possible. I certainly think that the play does a remarkable job in explaining why so many men and women from Britain and Ireland (not to mention another 50 countries from around the globe) chose to leave their homes, families and friends to fight in a foreign civil war.

My only small criticism is that I felt the play was a little unkind to Caudwell/Sprigg. His character was something of a caricature, a bumbling upper-class twit, with the voice of John le Mesurier, yet little of the knowing, ironic humour. In ‘Dare Devil’ Sprigg rather seems to have ended up in the International Brigades, influenced by the strength of character of Beckett, whereas my impression is that ‘Spriggie’ volunteered to fight in much the same way as the other 2500 British and Irish volunteers. Likewise, in the final scene [spoiler alert], Sprigg is nowhere to be seen as Beckett, his French machine-gun having typically jammed, meets his end on the Jarama battlefield. Yet accounts from other member of the battalion fighting that day in February 1937 suggest that Beckett and Caudwell fell side by side, as inseparable in death as they had become in life. To be fair, a cast of two – one of whom needs to be operating the lighting – does rather limit one’s options.

But don’t let this small gripe put you off. Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a powerful, atmospheric production and you have the additional satisfaction of knowing that, by going, you are supporting the work of the IBMT, who helped fund it. The play is on tour around the country at the moment, with dates available up to March 2017. Catch it while you can.

 

Review of Lisa Kirschenbaum’s International Communism and the Spanish Civil War

Since the end of the cold war and the consequent opening up of the Moscow archives, fresh light has been shone on the relationship between the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and Spain during the country’s civil war. Increasingly, this has allowed a rather more nuanced, ‘warts and all’ analysis. Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion? (reviewed in issue 41 of the IBMT newsletter) is a good example of this rather more thoughtful, balanced approach; so too is this latest study by Lisa Kirschenbaum.

Though the book’s title refers to international communism, it focuses mainly on Party members in the Soviet Union, Spain and the U.S. This may limit its appeal to a British audience, which would be a shame, because many of the issues the book discusses transcend nationality such as, for example, the accounts of Communists ‘who reported, then and later, they in Spain they lived their ideals more intensely, passionately, and fully than they had anywhere else.’ (p. 10) Likewise, discussions of the now well-known problems the International Brigade command faced – leave and repatriation, the distrust of other nationalities, resentment of Spanish officers, a lack of effective communications – could relate to any of the national units.

While the author does touch upon some of the more over-arching themes of the role of the Communist Party in Spain – including a refreshing scepticism towards the old trope that the Spanish Republic was controlled by Stalin – it is the individual lives of Communists which are of main concern here. The author’s detailed discussion of notions of ‘Communist identity’ examines volunteers’ attitudes towards a wide range of issues: the impact on families back home; bravery and cowardice in battle; drinking; sex and notions of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. The author is not afraid to tackle controversial issues, arguing that ‘despite the fact that gay men served in the International Brigades, homosexuality remained for many communists presumptively fascist.’ (p. 174.)

The final section of the book turns to the period after the war in Spain, recounting the persecution of Communist Party members in both the US and the USSR. It is a deeply dispiriting story and many readers will be shocked and appalled by the levels of paranoia, distrust and persecution directed towards Spanish civil war veterans on both sides of the iron curtain: ‘labelled subversives and spies by authorities on both sides, they were harassed, tried, convicted and, in the Soviet bloc, tortured and sometimes executed.’ (p. 236)

Yet, while Stalin’s brutal and murderous regime caused many Party members and civil war veterans around the world to reject Soviet Communism, the author argues that very few of them came to abandon the cause of Spanish democracy, or anti-fascism. This is, I think, an important point to make. After all, just because the description of Republican Spain’s struggle as ‘the cause of all advanced and progressive humanity’ originated with Josef Stalin, it does not make it any less true.

This review first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

New edition of John Cornford’s Collected Writings

It’s now eighty years since the gifted young student, John Cornford, was killed fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In commemoration, Carcanet have released a new edition of Cornford’s Collected Writings under its original 1976 title: Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound. The new edition features a digitally recoloured front cover and afterwords by myself and Jane Bernal, the daughter of Cornford’s girlfriend and fellow student activist, Margot Heinemann.

The collection includes Cornford’s poems written at school, university and in Spain and letters to his mother and to Margot, leading up to the time he was killed fighting in Lopera, in the south of Spain, the day after his twenty-first birthday.

Review of Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion?

This edited volume is based upon a series of public lectures and seminars at Gresham College London delivered during 2013 and 2014. It features an introduction and two central essays by professional historians (Roderick Floud, Kevin Morgan and Nicholas Deakin) and a number of biographies, most by family members – the so-called ‘red nappy babies’ – with brief additions by Denis Healey, Peter Hennessy and Juliet Gardiner.

The book’s central premise is to critically re-examine the reasons that lay behind middle-class men and women joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. One obvious answer, of course, might be that following the Party’s abandonment of its disastrous class-against-class policy, they were no longer discouraged from doing so. Kevin Morgan’s essay, however, provides a rather more detailed analysis of, what Juliet Gardiner describes as, ‘a perfect political storm’. Clearly, the rise of fascism was crucial, but Deakin argues that there were as many different reasons for joining the Party as there were members: some practical, some philosophical. And, of course, Spain played a vital part, becoming ‘the “good cause” of the decade and one on which communists could campaign – and recruit – without inhibition, alongside other progressives.’ (p. 63.)

While many of the essays are critical in the strict academic sense, there is the sense that, twenty-five years after the end of the cold war and freed from its intellectual baggage, studies of the CPGB in the 1930s are free to adopt a more nuanced view. Yes, there is recognition that many recruits had to suspend their critical faculties in order to swallow the Party’s unquestioning support for the USSR, their philosophical about-turns and ideas of ‘revolutionary expediency’ and ‘democratic centralism’. However, at the same time there is an acknowledgement that most people became communists because they wanted to make the world a better place, and believed that the Party was the best means of achieving this. As Elizabeth Dolan puts it, writing about her parents, Mary Macintosh and Richard Clark:

It is my contention that this youthful enthusiasm for Communism, with its at that time inevitable support for the Soviet Union, far from being an illusion, or misguided or naïve, in fact helped to produce well-balanced, thoughtful citizens whose subsequent lifestyle, attitudes and values were a direct development, not a contradiction. (p. 149)

What is missing from the book is a discussion of the Cambridge spies. It’s true that plenty has been written about them already, but it does rather lead to an unfortunate feeling that there is something important that everyone is carefully avoiding. Apart from Denis Healey, that is, who cannot resist drawing a comparison between the Oxford Communists (of whom he was one) who ‘never wanted to do anything particularly for the Russians’, with those from Cambridge who ‘all spied for the Russians’. Clearly sectarianism can be just as rife in academia as it is in politics.

This review appears in the January 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

James Maley, International Brigader

Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.

In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader

James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.

James Maley, 19 February, 1908 to 9 April, 2007.

From Stockholm to Spain and Somalia

Stockholm’s La Mano
Stockholm’s La Mano

Overlooking the beautiful Swedish capital Stockholm sits a four metre high sculpture of an open hand, raised beseechingly to the sky. Entitled La Mano, this is the city’s memorial to the volunteers from Sweden who volunteered to fight for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. As a historian who writes about the involvement of foreign volunteers in Spain (and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust), I make an effort to visit the civil war memorials found in many of the cities around the world and I recently paid the Stockholm memorial a visit.

As I stopped to photograph the statue, a young couple with a small child approached. Politely checking to make sure they weren’t getting in my way, they paused to pay their respects and placed a small token next to the flowers, condolence cards and Spanish Republican colours lying at the foot of the statue. Intrigued, I asked them about their connection to a war, so far both temporally and spatially from Sweden in 2015. I thought, perhaps, they might be relatives of one of the Swedes commemorated by the statute. No, they explained in typically faultless English, they were there to remember a friend who had died only recently and not in Spain.

Their friend, I discovered, was Abdirahim Hassan, who was born in Somalia, but grew up in the Swedish capital. In his early twenties, he joined Vänsterpartiet (the Young Left) and became involved in demonstrations and protests in the suburb of Husby, which lies to the north-west of the city and has the lowest income per capita of any district of Stockholm. Abdirahim remained in contact with his birth country of Somalia, to which he seemingly felt a personal commitment.

Abdirahim Hassan
Abdirahim Hassan

In the summer of 2013 Abdirahim and other members of Vänsterpartiet travelled to Mogadishu in a mission to express their solidarity with the suffering populace of Somalia. While driving through Mogadishu, their car was attacked, probably by kidnappers from Al Shabaab. During a violent struggle, Abdirahim Hassan was shot trying to protect Stockholm’s opposition deputy mayor, Ann-Margarethe Livh. She was badly wounded in the chest but, thanks to Abdirahim’s bravery and sacrifice, she survived.

For the young Swedish couple I encountered in Stockholm, La Mano has become a personal memorial to their young friend. They believe that Abdirahim’s motives for joining Vänsterpartiet and travelling to Somalia were the same as those that, nearly eighty years earlier, had inspired men and women from Sweden – and around the world – to leave their homes and families and fight to save the Spanish Republic. The volunteers were from different times and different continents perhaps, but the actions of Abdirahim and the International Brigaders were nevertheless an expression of one and the same thing. They called it solidarity.

Abdirahim Hassan, political activist, 1989-2013.

The Long View

Jonathan Freedland, presenter of BBC Radio Four’s The Long View
Jonathan Freedland, presenter of BBC Radio Four’s The Long View

On 30 July 2014, I joined Usama Hasan, Shiraz Maher, Meirian Jump, Judith Kravitz-Lesser and Samuel West for an episode of Jonathan Feedland’s, The Long View. Somewhat controvertially, the programme examined similarities (or not) between British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and for Syria today.

The programme was recorded on Thursday 24 July 2014, on location at 1 Litchfield Street WC2 (formerly the office of the International Brigades’ Dependents’ Aid Committee), the Marx Memorial Libary and at the monument to the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War in London’s Jubilee Gardens.

You can find out more about the programme, and listen to it, here.

La Place du Combat

In the centre of Paris, three kilometres north-east of the Louvre and just east of the Canal Saint-Martin, lies an apparently nondescript intersection of six streets, the Place du Colonel Fabien. Named in honour of the ‘militant Communist and member of the French Resistance’ killed in 1944, the junction’s only feature of note (metro station aside) is a large curved glass building, built during the 1960s, judging by the fairly brutal architectural style.  This is the modern headquarters of the Partie Communiste Francais which played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when it acted as the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades.

The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris
The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris

Between October 1936 and the summer of 1938, some 35 000 men and women from around the world made the journey to Spain to join the Brigades, with as many as 2500 of them coming from Britain and Ireland. Initially, volunteers made their way to Spain independently (though this required money and, crucially, a passport), however following the decision by the Communist International (the Comintern) in October 1936 to organise international volunteers, the role of the national Communist Parties – in particular the PCF – became crucial both in the recruitment of volunteers and getting them to Spain.

Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades
Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades

The process of volunteering was straightforward, though had to be carried out in secret. Those in Britain wishing to go to Spain would make contact with their local Communist Party who, assuming they were seen as politically trustworthy (Trade Unionists, members of the Party or other left-wing political organisation), would forward them to the Party’s head office in London’s King Street. Here, further checks would be made on their political and military background, and applicants would be given stern warnings that they may well not return. Those accepted and wishing to continue would then travel onward in small groups, trying (usually fairly unsuccessfully) to maintain a low profile, making their way by train to a port (usually Newhaven or Dover), then by ferry to France and on to Paris.

Here, in the PCF offices in Place du Combat, the volunteers underwent further checks and were given a medical examination. The British representative in Paris was the French-speaking Charlotte Haldane, (known by the pseudonym ‘Rita’), wife of the renowned scientist and ardent Republican supporter J.B.S. Haldane and mother of a volunteer in the British Battalion. Her job was to partly process the incoming volunteers, but she was also instructed to confiscate volunteers’ excess money in order to, as she put it, ‘avert the danger that any of the volunteers should get drunk, start brawls or become involved in them, or be lured into the neighbouring brothels.’ Instead, each volunteer was provided with ten francs daily pocket money (food and lodging were provided for free).

The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien
The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien

From Paris the volunteers would travel south and over the border into Spain by train, until volunteering was made illegal in January 1937, after which the usual route was to be smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees at night, which involved an exhausting and hazardous climb of some twelve hours.

Those that actually made it to the border were then taken the short distance to Figueras by lorry and put on a train to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers were divided up by nationality and language. British volunteers were sent to their base at the nearby village of Madrigueras where they were given rudimentary military training, before they joined their comrades on the front-line.

Few would escape unscathed.

Myths of the International Brigades

The article appears in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America, Volume 91, Issue 1-2, 2014.

Abstract

Ever since the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, myths and misconceptions have surrounded the International Brigades, the volunteers from around the world who came to the defence of the Spanish Republic. Their creation, composition, and role in the war itself have all been hotly debated, with critics arguing that the International Brigades were primarily a ‘Comintern Army’, a tool of Soviet expansionism, in which any form of dissent was ruthlessly eliminated. Therefore, the discipline problems and consequent heavy-handed responses from the I.B. leadership are often seen as politically rather than militarily driven, despite the manifestly demoralizing nature of the war. Yet while a small number of volunteers were undoubtedly brutally treated, there was a much greater tolerance in the Brigades—certainly within the English-speaking battalions—than has often been suggested.