I HAVE written often enough in these pages of how the arts are so broadly marginalised in a culture which prioritises commercialism and control, but there’s more, and worse.

In one sense, the arts look after themselves, at deeper levels than governments know. They survive and reform, renew themselves and find ways to deliver their nourishment. But people suffer from ignorance and obfuscation.

Liars and noise get in the way.

It’s a political priority to keep the minds that keep other minds alive out of circulation. Death is better for business. And that’s politics.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been tracking the story back through social media and Twitter, to the “War on Terror” from 9/11, 2001, to racism in Australia in the 1980s. But there’s another essential moment in the last century that is still, but only just, within living memory.

A new book brings into the light.

Our Fathers Fought Franco by Willy Maley (Luath Press) is a series of accounts presented by one generation drawing four lives from the immediately preceding generation to the forefront of our attention. In an era when politics and media seem designed to desensitise people and make us feel cynical about what’s most essential, this book is an antidote.

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Reading it reminds you of the lasting value of care, the common sense of passion, the balance of what’s right and must be fought for in this world, and what’s wrong, and needs to be opposed.

In his introduction, Maley writes this: “Untold stories continue to emerge about the Scots volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Compiled in the tradition of collective biography, Our Fathers Fought Franco traces the extraordinary journeys of four members of Machine Gun Company No 2 of the British Battalion of the International Brigades.”

These are the stories of James Maley, Donald Renton, George (Geordie) Watters and Archibald Campbell McAskill (AC) Williams, who went to Spain and fought against Franco and fascism, were captured together at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and “ended up being held together as Prisoners of War in Franco’s jails.”

They’re told by their adult sons and daughters, Lisa Croft, a former library assistant, writing on behalf of her mother, Rosemary Nina Williams, who was born when her father was imprisoned in Spain, and for her aunt, Jennifer Talavera Williams, who is named after that Spanish jail’s location; Maley, professor at the University of Glasgow and co-author with his brother John, of From the Calton to Catalonia, a play based on their father’s experiences in Spain in 1937; Jennie Renton, an Edinburgh-based secondhand bookseller, publishing freelancer, and editor of the journals Scottish Book Collector and Folio for the National Library of Scotland; Tam Watters, formerly a coal miner at Bilston Glen Colliery, an amateur photographer, camera sales adviser and one-time Scottish weightlifting champion.

The National:

They each have their own stories but here their dedication is to the stories of their forebears, giving them life again. It’s worth noting that all royalties from the book are to be donated to the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) which “keeps alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who fought fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939”. 

In the introduction, Maley says this: “All too often the characters in accounts of the International Brigades are frozen in time, their lives beyond Spain reduced to a blank page.

“Instead, this book tells of the hard road these men took to Spain, from their political education and engagement in the 1920s and early 1930s to the risks they faced as volunteers for liberty, and follows these four lives before and after Jarama.

“Their story is told in their own words, in the words of family and friends, through newspaper reports, stills cut from newsreels, interviews, letters, diaries, historical accounts, anecdotes and memories.

“It is illustrated throughout with images and documents, including a unique piece of testimony – the secret notebook kept by AC Williams during his imprisonment.”

The poet Pablo Neruda called those who came from all over the world to fight Franco “the bright ones” and Hugh MacDiarmid, in his poem The Battle Continues, calls out: “Honour forever to the International Brigade!”

They rang true. Is there more than one man

In a hundred thousand anywhere else

Of whom it is possible to say that

Courage and honesty

Are the foundations of his nature?

It is very rarely that a man loves

And when he does it is nearly always fatal.

The fire of life woke and burnt in these men

With that clear and passionate flame

That can only burn in those whose hearts are clean.

You will be remembered when your foes are forgotten.

On the one side the

People; on the other

The vain titles and vicious wealth

Of a worthless few.

Chartres versus Versailles!

Versailles, symbol of the “model of kingship

In our civilisation” – vast, ornate,

Magnificent, overpowering, wholly unconnected

With the real life of the nation, sterile always

As it is silent and empty now,

Trivial, ephemeral, dead.

Nobody remembers what kings reigned in France

When the people of the Beauce were building their cathedral,

And their days, like all life,

Knew poverty and ignorance and oppression and suffering.

But the living force and beauty in the minds and souls of many men

Created in their work a vital beauty.

So today hope lies in the free and many-sided

Spirit of humanity against any one-man domination.

Beyond the meaningless dead splendours of Versailles

The glowing beauty of Chartres Speaks imperishably through the ages.

MacDiarmid’s poem praises the indomitable spirit of those men who went to fight against fascism in Spain, saw its rise in Europe, implacable, growing, through Hitler and Nazism as well as Franco and Mussolini and others, and yet stood against it, undiminished and brave.

In his foreword, Daniel Gray tells how: “The tenement doorways of Scottish cities whisper ghosts’ names as you pass. Here lived the Robertsons, declare letters engraved on wizened green buzzer plaques, the Patersons and the Crollas too ...

"Most have disappeared… Whatever their state, it is an enjoyable, diverting pastime to glance at them and speculate as you walk on by – was FRASER a friend of THOMSON? Did NOWAK and DI ROLLO swap stories of immigrant life?

“Not so many streets from mine is one such square plaque. J RUSSELL, it reads, and it belonged to an International Brigader. Strolling by this one, at 18 Edina Place in Leith, I do not have so many gaps to fill or flights of fancy to board. I know that one day in 1937, RUSSELL stepped down from this communal entrance, turned left and then left again on to Easter Road, and went to fight in Spain.”

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Just such an ordinary act of walking from the front door, out into history, is commemorated and vividly evoked in this book. It’s an attitude towards the impositions of political history showing us that things can be done.

These men treated the word “impossible” as seriously as the stonemasons who built Chartres cathedral, “with plumb-line and knotted rope”.

Maley concludes his introduction with these sobering and pertinent words: “Spain proved to be a defining moment for the Left, a struggle marked by heroism and sacrifice, but also scarred by sentiment and sectarianism.

“The communists, anarchists, socialists and republicans from different countries who fought Franco held very different views and at times political differences spilled over into bloodshed. Unlike Germany and Italy, in Spain the fascists won, and Franco stayed in power for nearly 40 years. Why?

“Partly because the anti-communism that was so central to fascism was shared by many former colonial powers. Churchill hated communism as much as Hitler. But empire is a dimension that is often overlooked.

“According to Paul Preston, the Spanish Civil War was a colonial war in which the right coped with the loss of a ‘real’ overseas empire by internalising the empire … by regarding metropolitan Spain as the empire and the proletariat as the subject colonial race.”

This book traces the experience of four young working-class men from Glasgow, Portobello, Prestonpans and Portsmouth. As Maley says, their experience “seems ever more important today, in a world where fascism remains a threat rather than a distant memory.”

The individual accounts are also uncoverings of the past, resolutions to mysteries, as Maley illustrates in the opening of his chapter: “My father, James Maley, died aged 99 on April 9, 2007. On seeing his obituary, a military historian contacted the family and asked if he could have access to his papers before they were deposited in a library.

“He was surprised to learn that the only physical records of his time in Spain were two photographs, frames taken from a 1937 newsreel.

“My father rarely wrote anything down and when he died his papers consisted only of a passport from January 1930 when he emigrated to the USA. But in a way he left something of more lasting value than documents. On July 12, 2004, three years before his death, he gave a filmed interview to Craig Curran.

At 96 years of age, he was still as sharp as a tack.

“It wasn’t until 2015 that Craig converted the film to digital format and it was posted on YouTube. Dini Power transcribed the audio that same year, so there is now a written record. In 2019 another interview surfaced, audio only, one that my father had given to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on Tuesday, April 9, 1991, when he was a youthful 83.

“This was part of an emerging archive. It was fascinating for his family to hear their father’s voice from this time talking animatedly about Spain to Conrad Wood who, like Craig Curran, was an excellent interviewer, and managed to catch him at a time when he had more anecdotes on the tip of his tongue than in Craig’s film.”

And so we begin. The story of James Maley’s life is intrinsically fascinating. He grew up in Glasgow, tried emigration to the United State for a year, but returned and witnessed the working-class protests and their suppression and then defied the Catholic Church to fight against Franco in Spain.

Coming to political maturity in the 1920s and 1930s, James’s decision to go to Spain was surely the outcome of hard reason and conviction and a clean heart, rather than any romantic idealism. And his son’s account is admirably dispassionate and unsentimental – which is not to say it isn’t full of feeling.

But the emotions are good: unlike almost anything in the mass media-enhanced public political world, this book is also a compendium of goodness in various forms of articulation.

This is James’s own explanation of his decision: “I was a labourer, just a general labourer, and when the Spanish thing came up, I recognised right from wrong. This was the first time there had been an attempt made by working-class people to take power and they were being attacked. And I was a member of the Communist Party, and I volunteered along with the rest to go to Spain.”

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Naive? Hardly. A man who had been through what he’d been through already had a fair idea of what was at stake, for himself and the family he came from. And yet he still considered it worthwhile. He saw bloody murderous fighting before he was captured at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

Later that year there was a prisoner exchange and he returned to Scotland. He didn’t stop. Fighting fascism was the priority. He wanted to enlist when the Second World War began but was blocked since he was a communist and had been in Spain. However, when Russia entered the war, it became possible, and he was posted to India and Burma.

After the war, he returned to Glasgow and married Anne Watt.

He worked as a railway track layer, she as a shirt cutter, and together they raised a big family.

When two of his sons wrote the play noted above, From the Calton to Catalonia, it centred on James’s experiences. Produced in 1990, it was effectively an exemplary working-class counterpoint to the bourgeois Glasgow European City of Culture celebrations that year.

James’s memories were stirred. In 1996 he returned to Spain and was interviewed there for BBC Radio. He was the oldest surviving combatant of the International Brigade.

Maley writes: “The death certificate gave his occupation as ‘Builder’s Labourer (retired)’, but that was only his final waged employment. He had done so much more. When James was interviewed by Craig Curran in 2004 his last words were ‘I’m a soldier.’ He was. There was always a war on for him, with the class war the most constant conflict.”

I have given only a sketch of James Maley’s story, from his son’s account – the book gives more detail and is much more compelling and moving than I’m able to suggest here.

Next week I’ll introduce other stories of other lives from this book and this era which is now only beginning to slip away from living memory. The stories are worth pausing on and thinking about.

They insist that we look beyond the boundaries of what’s around us every day. There’s more. The dead will always demand this of the living, “Los muertos abren los ojos a los que viven.”