Monday, 16 August 2010



RICHARD BAXELL'S TALK [7TH, August] on his book 'Anti-Fascistas', containing a collection of voices from British volunteerS in the Spanish Civil War, culminated in questions about such things as the 'May Days' (the suppression of the POUM & undermining of the CNT in May 1937) about 'How much the International Brigade volunteers knew?'; the execution of dissidents and deserters eg 'How widespread were these?', etc. My question was on his methodology: asking how he selected his material for inclusion in the text and how this kind of work differed from a journalistic account such as George Orwell's in 'Homage to Catalonia'?

Mr Baxell's reply was quite subversive arguing that he published what to him appeared 'poignant or what jumped-out at me'. His use of the word 'poignant' in the selection process is revealing and my Reader's Digest Universal Dictionary defines it as meaning: 'Appealing to the emotions; affecting; touching: poignant sentiment'. This was a honest reply and one that did not seek to invoke superior knowledge or some grand methodology only known to initiated into the historical community or belonging to some special interpretive community of historians. What Baxell, who also wrote the valuable 'British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War' [2004], was saying was that his editorship was intuitive endeavour, a subjective thing that was more art than science and that anyone, given a bit of time and effort could do.

How different is this response to that of an historian like Paul Preston who attacked George Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' declaring that 'I would rank "Homage to Catalonia" alongside Spike Milligan's "Adolf Hitler: My part in His Downfall", another interesting book by someone who was a foot-soldier playing a tiny part in a much wider conflict'. What the swaggering swanking historian of Professor Paul Preston's demeanour is claiming here is that he as a distinguished historian and member of the community of scholars at a southern university can embrace a level of knowledge that far surpasses that of the ordinary member or eyewitness to events: it implies that the little people like Orwell and Milligan and the rest of us cannot grasp the 'wider conflict' which will only be available to the great scholar. It is this claim to historical superiority and special knowledge that, I suppose, comes with the job of Professor at the London School of Economics and is a kind of occupational disease; which for people like Preston there is no known cure: note here that one of the best books in English on Spain written in the 20th century - 'The Spanish Labyrinth' - was authored by a man, Gerald Brenan, who was an auto-didact and no academic background of note.

The social sciences suffer from a severe inferiority complex generally and they try to make up for this by the kind kind of long-haired supercilious swaggering scholarship portrayed by Professor Preston in his remarks on Orwell and Spike Milligan. Thank God, there have been challenges within the social sciences to these superior claims by academics like Paul Preston from sociologists like Harold Garfinkel in his 'Studies in Ethomethodology' [1967]. Fortunately younger historians like Richard Baxell and the Cornish man, Louis Mates, now living up in the North East, and who recently published 'The Spanish Civil War & the British Left' about the impact of that war on the North East of England, are thankfully more modest in their claims. As a social science history and the historians have much to be modest about.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Richard Baxell Lecture on the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War

Richard Baxell gave a lecture on the British Battalion of the International Brigades (IB) during the Spanish Civil War. I posed some searching questions about desertions and executions carried out by the communist leadership of the IBs. Marty, the French Communist leader of the IBs whose epithet was "the butcher of Albacete", claimed 500 executions of members of the International Brigades. Baxell tended to evade the questions and gave rather ambiguous replies. He did, however, acknowledge the existence of Camp Lukacs run by the communist commissars and euphemistically described it as a re-education camp for deserters. The sordid history of the role of the communist leadership of the IBs has been exposed in R Dan Richardson's "Comintern Army", Radosh et al's "Spain Betrayed" and James Hopkins' "Into the Heart of the Fire".


YESTERDAY, two events took place in Manchester: one organised by the Solidarity Federation at the Town Hall Tavern was addressed by a young man from the Spanish CNT in Tarragona, Diego Delgado, and the other organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust at the Peoples' History Museum entitled Antifascistas was presented by the historian, Richard Baxell. The Cenitista meeting was in a the upstairs room of the pub and had over 30 people present. Diego spoke for over an hour outlining the history of the emergence of the CNT in Spain from the early pre-runners such as federalism to about the beginning of the Second Republic in 1931. It was a detailed, in depth, talk dealing with predecessor trade unions and federations particularly strong in Andalucia and Catalonia, up to the founding of the CNT itself in 1910. The CNT called the National Confederation of Labour was set up following the Barcelona events of the Semana Tragica (Tragic Week) in 1909. After the persecutions that followed, it was thought necessary to have a national organisation to protect workers rather than loose regional federations and it marked a shift towards syndicalism, and the general strike in the style of the French CGT.

Despite this, the reaction of the Catalan workers in Barcelona during the Semana Tragica showed the distinctive nature of the Spanish movement as opposed to the syndicalism of France, England and northern Europe. The Catalans did not succumb when the Government in Madrid called up the reserves to fight in Morocco in 1909 to war-mania like British and French workers did in 1914. The people of Barcelona were anti-war then, perhaps because of their experience of what had happened to their young men in the war in Cuba when they returned starving and suffering from malaria. The British, German and French workers in 1914, despite the advance of their respective industrial revolutions, the development of class consciousness and disciplined trade unions, flocked to fight each other when their Governments made its appeal and they did so without conscription.

Why was this the case? Well the difference of Spanish history and national characteristics must have something to do with it, but the strong establishment of an anarchist culture with its capacity to educate workers, create initiatives and build solidarity must also have been a big factor. The northerners were well disciplined and possibly better educated, in the German case profoundly so, but they lacked the Spanish and Catalan spirit of anarchism.

It was noticed that Diego finished his talk in 1931, and thus missed out the developments of the CNT under the Second Republic and in the Civil War. This might have presented some difficulties because these periods involved problems for the Spanish CNT and later a compromise of principle during the Civil War; though it must be said we left the meeting at 2pm to go to the Antifascistas event and these matters may have been raised during question time.

The Antifascistas event was bigger possible 200 strong. Richard Baxell who wrote an history of the involvement of the British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in 2005 was now promoting the booklet 'Antifascistas' published jointly by the International Brigade Memorial Trust & Lawrence & Wishart. His talk, I suspect, was more valuable to people with some knowledge of the Spanish War than the book which looks like the Spanish Civil War for beginners. He broke with the usual nostalgic narrative of these events to present a series of ethnographic accounts by participants and volunteers in the war. This was at once more colourful and realistic with the kind of brutal trench talk and banter on powerpoint that marks so much of everyday life as it was lived on the front during that war. We discussed afterwards the need to get away from the old romantic presentations of this war and give more lifelike accounts by people who took part using. There has been far too much historical glossing by people like Paul Preston, who will next year no doubt be bringing out further editions of their old histories of the Spanish Civil War to co-inside with the 75th anniversary of the start of that war.

Saturday, 7 August 2010


Rousseau vs Voltaire; Whittaker vs Douglas?

The other week I had an email from Dave Douglass, the famous NUM militant who has just published his memoirs of the Miners' Strike of 1984-5, who said he was not willing to review our booklet 'The Workers' Next Step' – a discussion document considering the modern day issues surrounding ideas put forward almost 100 years ago by the South Wales Miners' Federation in their 'The Miners' Next Step'; Dave said he was not willing to review the booklet because of a contribution by Rachel Whittaker, the anarchist environmentalist and conservationist. Both Dave and Rachel support a body called the Northern Anarchist Network. Dave, now a retired miner living in South Shields, believes in clean coal and the NUM; while Rachel from Shropshire rejects this, supporting campaigns like the Climate Camp.

In a way this dispute fought out some years ago at a NAN conference reminds me of the 18th century dispute between Rousseau and Voltaire. This year has seen two serious earthquakes – one in Haiti and the other in Santiago in Chile – and it was the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 that led to the famous quarrel between these great two thinkers. Voltaire wrote a poem on the Providential government of the world. Rousseau replied: 'Voltaire, in seeming always to believe in God, never really believed in anybody but the devil, since his pretended God is maleficent. Being who according to him finds all his pleasure in working mischief. The absurdity of this doctrine is especially revolting in a man (Voltaire) crowned with good things of every sort, and who in the midst of his own happiness tries to fill his fellow-creatures with despair, by the cruel and terrible image of the serious calamities from which he is himself free.'

Rousseau saw no reason to make a fuss about the earthquake and thought it a good thing that a few people should get killed now and then. Besides, the people of Lisbon suffered because they lived in houses several stories high; if they had been dispersed in the woods, as people ought to be, they would have escaped uninjured. One wonders, reading this, if the people living in shacks and shanty towns in Haiti and Chile fared better than those in the big houses? Is modern living bad for us? Should we return to the woods from whence we came with Rachel Whittaker? Or should we, with Dave Douglass, huddle round the fireside stoking the cinders? Should we invoke Rousseau with his implied classical anarchism and return to the wilds, or should we stop indoors and enjoy the comforts of modern living and the enlightenment with a more liberal-minded Voltaire?

In 1755, Voltaire replied to Rousseau's essay 'Discourse on Inequality', in which Rousseau had argued that 'man is naturally good, and is only by institutions made bad'. Voltaire responded thus: 'I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it...'

Do we don our woolly jumpers from Oxfam and retreat to a farm in the mountains of Iberia with Rachel Whittaker in the spirit of Rousseau? Or do we jump in Dave Douglass' scrappage-scheme car and visit Beamish Museum with its drift mine colliery?

Meanwhile, our NV publication 'The Workers' Next Step' languishes on the bookshelves almost unwanted: Dave Douglass won't review it and the Peoples History Museum, which happily stocks Northern Voices and sells our Spanish Civil War booklet like hot cakes, has rejected it. Housmans bookshop in London has said the poor reception may have something to do with the Lucien Freud illustration of a 'Benefit Officer Sleeping' on the front cover and the lady at Bookcase at Hebden Bridge said she didn't expect it to do as well as our Spanish booklet. Another explanation may be that, since the defeat of the miners, workers are no longer fashionable in our post-modern world.

Monday, 2 August 2010


Tenant Steve Fisher has become something of a bête noire to his landlord New Charter Housing Trust in Tameside. In June we reported on Mr. Fisher's abortive attempts to become a tenant director of New Charter Housing Trust. Mr.Fisher, aged 53, who has lived at his current address for 26 years, had been told by John Arden, Director of Business and Assurance that his nomination was unacceptable because he was considered too 'adversarial'. For the last 2 years, Mr. Fisher has also been banned from entering New Charter offices and he's prohibited from speaking to any New Charter staff, other than John Arden, his go-between to New Charter.

Last week Mr. Fisher received a rather strange and perplexing letter from his go-between, John Arden. Writing to express how much New Charter valued his commitment in addressing Anti-social behaviour in the area where he lived, he then went on to add:

"I wish to inform you I have received some complaints of concern about the way in which you may have been gathering the information submitted to us. There is a perception that you are standing at your bedroom window, for long periods of time, staring at adults and children whilst they are present in their home or garden space.These complainants have expressed feeling very uncomfortable by your behavior (sic). I am aware that you have used binoculars to gather information which may also be seen as excessive and an intrusion of privacy....I must encourage you, however, to avoid placing yourself in a position where you may be singled out and place yourself at risk."

In his letter John Arden, says that he is also concerned about 'warlike' comments made by Fisher and that New Charter always encourages a 'cohesive, friendly community, promoting unity and understanding in the positive endeavors (sic) of all residents'. Pass the sick bucket! Mr. Arden then ends by warning Fisher: "A 'warlike' attitude within the area, where there are many children is undesirable in assisting the needs of an evolving community and, indeed, is contrary to the purpose of the assistance you have afforded. I trust....I will not receive further complaints in regards to your conduct."

It seems that dealing with New Charter, on the subject of anti-social behaviour can be quite perilous and hazardous for those who are prepared to stand up and be counted. One is never quite sure what side of the street New Charter are standing on! No doubt those pre-simian life-forms who engage in anti-social behaviour to wreck the lives of others will derive great consolation from the words of Mr. Arden.


THE DAILY MAIL has just reported that a branch the Budgens supermarket in North London has been selling the hindquarters of grey squirrel for months. The animal-loving fraternity of Fascists are already on the warpath condemning this imaginative move. I use the term 'Fascist' deliberately because as you may well know there are a lot of Jews living in North London, who would enjoy the lean meat that the grey squirrel provides. Not only that but that other persecuted group the Gypsies, who also enjoyed the hospitality of Hitler's Nazis, are known to eat squirrel. Hence, the persecution of squirrel eaters could have deep roots.

There are reasons other than those of ethnic identity to eat squirrel: as I perused my Daily Telegraph on Saturday I spotted Robin Page's column entitled 'Seeing red about grey squirrels' in his Country Diary. Mr. Page expresses his irritation at British conservation bodies for failing to 'come clean' about 'this [grey] alien from North America - egg eater, fledgling destroyer and tree damager.' He says that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is 'bemoaning the fact that in 16 of Britain's overseas territories, alien species were causing havoc to indigenous wildlife.' According to him there are 3 million grey squirrels in Britain: the other week I was at Formby near Southport in Lancashire, where there was serious decline last year in the red squirrel population owing to a squirrel-pox virus spread by the grey squirrel.

The Telegraph is offering a recipe for Braised squirrel claiming: 'The Victorian delicacy is back on the menu' –

The grey squirrel has been described as 'a rat with good public relations'. However, Northern Voices suggests that the best squirrels for good eating are available in the autumn when they have been stuffing themselves on a strictly vegetarian diet. This means that we can safely run a recipe for squirrel in the coming issue NV12. The reason we can safely adopt squirrel as a northern dish without losing our regional identity is that as I understand it the front half can be fed to Willy Eckerslikes' ferrets and we can use the hindquarters ourselves.

The Yorkshire Post & the alien Beef Curry

LAST WEEK, the Yorkshire Post ended its 'deliciously yorkshire' series of ten recipes with a liquorice Cake from ProperMaid. What troubles Northern Voices is that its No.6 recipe card was Aberdeen Angus Beef Curry from Cedar Barn Farm Shop & Cafe, Pickering. Now while Mandy & Karl Avison at Cedar Barn may claim that they are 'dedicated to fresh wholesome food sourced as locally as possible' and that they 'provide their own free range eggs ...... and the beef is home-reared Aberdeen Angus', is it really authentically Yorkshire to offer us a beef curry? Aberdeen being north of Northumbria and curry having colonial connections usually associated with the Indian sub-continent. It hardly meets Chris Draper's standards of regional authenticity as expressed in his review of Northern Tea Time Treats in the current issue of Northern Voices.