Peter Hill, Damn These Out of Date Sports

Chris Farman, Valery Rose and Liz Woolley

No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39

124 pp £5.00

ISBN: 9781910448052

Oxford: Oxford IBMC, 2015

Three quarters of a century on, the Left still remembers Spain. The evidence is there, if nowhere else, in the list of those who contributed to the production of this little volume of local history: from union branches and Constituency Labour Parties to a Labour MEP, the Oxford Green Party, and the Oxfordshire branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) – as well as dozens of individuals. The Spanish Civil War has become an indispensable part of the collective memory of ‘the Left’. October 1917 and the Paris Commune belong to distinct segments of the Left; Spain, anti-fascism, and the slogan ¡No pasaran!, belong to the Left as a whole – as is appropriate, for this was the great period of left-wing unity, of the Popular Front. A confused and divided heritage, to be sure: the role of the orthodox Communists and the USSR in crushing anarchist and POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) revolutionaries even while fighting Franco, precisely in the name of Popular-Front unity, is now only denied by hard-core Stalinists. But still the tradition continues, of that brief period, from Spain to the Resistance, when the Left stood at the head of the people.

The largest section of the volume is made up of biographies of the thirty-one Oxfordshire Volunteers: from Quaker medical staff to dedicated Communist soldiers, from left-wing aristocrats to Cowley motor-workers. This being Oxford, what might be called the radical intelligentsia is well-represented: Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell); Ralph Fox and Tom Wintringham, the two founders of the Left Review; and Claud Cockburn, Spain correspondent of the Daily Worker. The brief biographies are interesting to dip in and out of and some of the characters are intriguing enough to leave this reader wanting a little more. In particular, many of them offer evidence for that well-known phenomenon of the thirties: the rapid shift to the left of so many young British members of the middle and upper classes. The ‘Postscript’ by Jenny Swanson on ‘The Challenges of Identification’ of many of these volunteers is also useful in showing the methods used to compile these notices.

But the more coherent and perhaps best section is that with which the volume begins: Chris Farman’s ‘Introduction: On the Spanish Battlefront’ and Valery Rose and Liz Woolley’s substantial essay on ‘Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War’. The effect of this is that the main value of the book is less what it tells us about the Civil War and the Oxfordshire volunteers than what it tells us about left-wing activity in Oxford in the thirties. This is of special interest to those on the Left in Oxford today, and many contemporary resonances can be found. True, no fiery Communist orators are now likely to be found speaking weekly on St Giles, like Abe Lazarus in the thirties, or making the Fellows of St John’s College ‘tremble over their after-dinner port’. The East Oxford motor works is a shadow of its former self, and there are no factory men ‘working late into the night’ to convert motorcycle side-cars into stretcher-carriers, like Arthur Exell and his comrades, before driving them down to Swansea to be smuggled into Spain under shiploads of potatoes. Nor, the last I heard, are leading Communists likely to be invited to speak at the Oxford University Labour Club.

But elsewhere there are continuities. The left-wing civic politics of Oxford, which seems to have first got off the ground in this period, with Alexander Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, standing as an anti-appeasement candidate against the Tory incumbent, has continued, with the Labour and, more recently, Green parties winning seats on the Council. The Academic Assistance Council, set up in the thirties to aid scholars expelled from Nazi Germany, still exists, as does the Council for Academics at Risk; fairly recently, it has turned its attention to the situation of academics in Syria. The Left in the University and Ruskin College struggles on: we might even see in the Oxford Left Review as some sort of successor to Oxford Forward!, the progressive magazine of those years.

One of the defining moments of this left-wing Oxford politics came in May 1936, when Oswald Mosley came to speak at the Carfax Assembly Rooms. There was a scuffle, a few injuries, and a number of arrests (on the anti-fascist side). It was only a few months ago that an anti-fascist protestor, arrested for her part in a demonstration against the National Front, was acquitted in the Magistrates’ Court. The police, it appears, have not changed the habit of giving anti-fascists a harder time in these disputes than fascists. The EDL marched in Oxford on 4 April this year, and the banners of ¡No pasaran! were once again raised to oppose them. And Oxfordshire still hosts many refugees from wars across the world, like the Basque children who settled in the county after the bombing of Guernica in April 1937. But contemporary refugees are less likely to be adopted by local families or sponsored by the JCRs of Oxford colleges, as the Basques were, than to be incarcerated in Campsfield Detention Centre for asylum-seekers, a few miles north of the city. When it comes to refugees, Britain at least has certainly grown less humane since the 1930s.

These are the points that draw attention in Rose and Woolley’s essay. We should also mention the large number of photographs, including a comic but chilling one of Oswald Mosley with members of the Oxford University Fascist Association, a sleekly murderous-looking bunch of young men. But one wishes that the authors had found space to include more original material, above all in the actors’ own words. They draw upon unpublished memoirs by the trade unionist Arthur Exell and a number of recorded interviews, as well as various pamphlets and ephemera which are not generally available. But at 124 pages, the final volume is slim; could they not have found space for more of this?

When the voices of the men and women involved in these events do appear, the tones of the period come through with much greater precision and, at times, pathos:

Hit in thigh while trying to organise bayonet charge. Damn these out of date sports. Nice wound. Two days hard fighting: done well, lost all … Love, Tom.

These lines were scrawled by Tom Wintringham, commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades, to his girlfriend Kitty Bowler, after his Battalion’s first and bloody round of fighting on the Jarama in February 1937. He led forty men on his bayonet charge; only six came back. Wintringham was the CPGB’s foremost military expert, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by war. ‘Damn these out of date sports’: as well as the wry irony, there is frustration that the fate of the world might yet depend on something as brutal and haphazard as a bayonet charge. A year earlier in the Left Review Wintringham had written in a similar vein: ‘War is also an art. It is a minor and harmful art, which in these days could be as well abandoned as the arts of necromancy, poisoning, or advertising’. But he then went on, in this article and elsewhere, to offer hard-headed analysis of how this art could still ‘alter the fate of nations and of social systems’. And so this bloody and sordid business had to be got through, if the world was to see – as Wintringham and many others of his time expected it soon would – a new era of human possibility, when war, fascism and capitalism alike would fade into memory.

Instead it is that dream which has since faded, while capitalism, war and even fascism are still with us – in addition to new threats such as ecological disaster. We will be lucky if our generation or later ones can ever fix their eyes on better things to come, with anything like the confidence and hope of the 1930s – for all its illusions and its defeats. In the meantime we know, with Wintringham the realist, that ‘out of date sports’, like war and class struggle, continue.

Peter Hill is studying for a D.Phil. in Arabic literature at St John’s College, Oxford and is a member of the Oxford Left Review’s editorial collective.

 

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