Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Historians & their Craft

Last Saturday, a Northerner addressed the 2011 Bristol Anarchist Bookfair: on the 7th May, at the invite of Bristol Radical History Group, Brian Bamford, Secretary of Tameside Trade Union Council and editor of a trade union commemorative booklet of the Spanish Civil War, gave a talk on historical methods and approaches to that conflict drawing on his own experiences of resistance to the Franco dictatorship in the 1960s. An edited version of the talk is reproduced below.

A couple of years ago an impressionistic remark in the first chapter of George Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' was challenged by a Spanish historian and this was later taken up by Jim Jump, the editor of the IBMT Newsletter. In assessing the crowds on the Ramblas in Barcelona in 1936, Orwell had claimed:
'Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no "well-dressed" people at all. practically everyone wore rough working-class cloths, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform.'
More recently analysis of film footage of Durruti's funeral, which took place in Barcelona in November 1936 the month before Orwell's observation was made, shows clearly that among the half million present at that event were many mourners wearing suits and ties, and even sombreros.

Mr Jim Jump writes that if Orwell got this small matter wrong might he not have got other things wrong?

Furthermore, the distinguished English historian on the Spanish Civil War Professor Paul Preston described 'Homage to Catalonia' thus:
'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 small part in a much wider conflict.'
Professor Preston does not say that Orwell has written a bad book, on the contrary, he says, it is 'a good book, but one that for many people is the only book on the Spanish Civil War that they read'. Crucially the problem, for Professor Preston, is that the Spanish Civil War was a far wider conflict than Orwell as a 'foot-soldier' and eyewitness could have experienced in the six or seven months - between December 1936 and the middle of 1937 - he was in the North of Spain fighting in the regions of Aragon and Catalonia.

Exotic Events & the Mundane study of Everyday Life

One of my own problems and frustrations, when, in 1963, I was involved with the young libertarians of the Iberian Federation of Young Libertarians (FIJL) and living with my wife in the Mediterranean fishing town of Denia on the Cabo San Antonio in the province of Alicante, was that I felt that I didn't know what was happening in the wider context of the rest of Spain. To find out what was happening in the Asturias, where in the 1960s the coal miners were in conflict and on strike, I had to read The Times from England at least a day or so later. In the end, I did take a fruitless trip up to the Asturias in the middle of 1963; from which I learned little because I was hitch-hiking and my money ran out before I could make any contact with the miners (we see this problem in Orwell's book: where he and his fellow fighters have to make guesses when they hear of the fall of Malaga in the South, that there has been some 'betrayal' and we see it in the journals and letters of the young communist, Ralph Cantor, in the commemorative booklet that Tameside TUC has published - often he and his mates have to guess and speculate about events).

Yet, it is not true that I knew nowt about what was happening while I was in Denia even though I had to depend on The Times and the untrustworthy Spanish local press. Regarding exotic events like the Asturian miner's strikes it always seemed like I was not in the right place at the right time and never where the 'real action' was happening, (perhaps that how it must have seemed to Orwell in April/ May 1937, when he was trying to get a transfer from his POUM contingent the North to the 'more active' International Brigade force in Madrid, when the extraordinary May Day Events broke out in Barcelona and he and others associated with the POUM had to go on the run).

It is greediness of the historian and the political activist by trying to see too much, and even our own pursuit of exotic events, that can blind us all to the mundane world under our noses. For example my boss in Denia, Juan Paris, used to say to me 'Brian you might not know the whole of Spain but you do know Denia and the surrounding Cabo San Antonio, muy bien!' The importance of this mundane fact is not to be sneezed at, because I knew all too well what it was like to live on Spanish wages, the price of bread, the cost of living and the difficulties of making ends meet; I knew what it was to experience life in a Spanish workshop and the inside of Spanish houses; to work alongside Spaniards and the difficulties of getting paid for overtime; I knew something of the problems of the immigrant Andalucian building workers from Seville, working in Denia and on the coastal sites of the Costa Blanca, and of the attitudes of the locals to these incomers; and when my wife gave birth, I discovered aspects of the world of the clinics and the attitudes of the Spaniards to this kind of situation.

This ongoing richness of everyday life as it is lived, is so often overlooked by the historian and the sociologist, just as I as a political activist was in danger of overlooking it by rushing off to the Asturias to cover a miner's strike in the Summer of 1963. It is the richness of everyday struggle of Orwell's book, and in Ralph Cantor's journal (see the Tameside TUC Spanish Civil War booklet), that gives them a vitality that is street-wise and contrasts with what Noam Chomsky has called the 'elitist bias' of the liberal historians, including the communist historians. The problem for Professor Preston and a fact he must resent, is that because it is a primary source 'Homage to Catalonia' will remain as an important document long after Preston's own historical account of the Spanish Civil War has been superseded by other histories by other historians.

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