Sunday, 4 December 2011

The James Keogh Commemoration

Adapted from the speech by Brian Bamford, Tameside TUC's Secretary's speech, given at Tameside Central Library Blue Plaque Event on the 25th, November 2011:

ON this day Ashton's Spanish Civil War hero, James Keogh, the humble son of a local binman, becomes 'A Giant among Pygmies'!

Tameside TUC believes that like Thomas Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge' in the Boer War that James Keogh of Ashton-under-Lyne in the Spanish Civil War was 'Thrown to rest' and lies 'Uncoffined in the ground'. He was left 'just as found' somewhere in the hard hills and mountains in the bitter landscape of Aragón.

As Thomas Hardy might well have said:

'James Keogh's homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.'

I came across the poem of 'Drummer Hodge' on a wet weekend in the English Lakes on a DVD of Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys': in that film the tutor Hector tells his student that before the Boer War that we wouldn't have been aware of the name of 'Drummer Hodge'; he would like millions before him have disappeared off the historical radar as an unknown soldier.

Thus so, it would have been that 'Drummer Hodge' and Jimmy Keogh's names and identities would have been lost forever on some foreign field.

Two years ago in 2009 James Keogh's sister, Clare Jackson, who passionately supported this application, and who sadly died earlier this year, told me that: 'After all these years and now, at last, people are talking about James.'

James Keogh was unaffiliated,
Uncoffined in the ground,
And until this day uncommemorated.
And yet, in Spain he will be forever a part of the 'Memoria Historica': the historical memory.

This booklet, produced by Tameside Trade Union Council is simply a rendering of James Keogh's intervention in the Spanish Civil War. The artist's impression on the front is by The Guardian artist Clifford Harper and he told me that the hills in the background may be seen both as representations of the Pyrenees of the Iberian peninsular where James' died and as the Pennine chain round here where James' was brought up.

Now I'm not a historian, I'm an electrician with a background in sociology and anthropology, but this booklet produced by Tameside TUC that pays tribute to James Keogh on the unveiling of this Blue Plaque is simply a rendering or an impressionistic account of James's intervention in the Spanish Civil War. We should also remember that history itself is not an exact science: it is not an exact science and nor should it pretend to be so.

As one of the students in Alan Bennett's film 'The History Boys' said: 'If I may speak plainly; History is just one fucking thing after another!' So if I may speak honestly this here booklet from Tameside Trade Union Council is merely a narrative, a rendering by me and Mike Harrison of what we see as James Keogh's contribution in the Spanish Civil War. This has been done by basing it on the limited evidence we have in the letters to his Mum and brothers, and the odd newspaper clipping, the information gathered from the Kew Record's Office; the MI5 files and the material of James in the Moscow Archives. It is not going to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth and it is certainly not going to be the last word on James Keogh. Indeed, if owt this is going to be the Genesis; the kick-off; the starting-gun in what promises to be a fascinating piece of research.

Thus, in unveiling this Blue Plaque Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council is leading the way, setting the trend for other towns in Greater Manchester. What we have here in the story of James Keogh is both sublime and ridiculous in the display of the tension between a working-class mother and her son: that is so typical of our North of England culture. It this we can instantly recognise things in our own lives and our own family experiences. The letters herein from James to his mother show a thirst for news from home and a deep love for his family, especially his mother.

Nobody would understand these affections better than a Spaniard and we see something similar in the poems of the Spanish Civil War poet Miguel Hernandez. Miguel Hernandez, who was born in the region of Valencia, worked as a goat herder and was, like James Keogh, mostly self-taught. But unlike James, Hernandez survived the War only to be captured by the soldiers of General Franco. In 1942, Hernandez died in the prison hospital in Alicante, near to what is now the Costa Blanca not far from tourist Benidorm.

Carlos Figueroa of the Spanish trade union the Confederación General del Trabajo, CGT (General Confederation of Labour), sent me and Tameside TUC a few poems especially for this unveiling event. One of these poems was the 'Lullaby of the Onion', which is about the mother and son relationship; it describes the feelings of Miguel Hernandez on hearing that his wife Josephina is only surviving on onions and bread:

'My little boy
was in hunger's cradle.
He was nursed on onion blood.
But your blood is frosted with sugar,
Onion and hunger.'

'I woke up from childhood:
Don't you be, waking up.
For I have a frown:
Keep to your cradle, defending laughter
Feather by feather.'

'Fly away, son, on the double
moon of the breast:
It is saddened by onion,
You are satisfied.
Don't let go.
Don't find out what's happening,
Or what's going on.'

The tragedy of James Keogh and Miguel Hernández is our tragedy, it is the tragedy of growing up and of knowing too much about the world and ultimately dying as a consequence. The others who to our knowledge went to Spain, surviving the war, from this borough include:

Daniel Albert Boon of Taunton Road, Ashton-under-Lyne.
Patrick Brady of Droylsden.
William Aubrey Brown of 60, Victoria Street, Ashton-under-Lyne.
Albert Godwin of Albert Street, Dukinfield, Ashton-under-Lyne.
James Greenwood of Gerard Street, Ashton-under-Lyne.
William Matthews of Lenford Road, Denton.
J. Russell of 25, Oxford Street, Stalybridge.
Dr. Taylor of Hyde, Cheshire.

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