Tuesday, 15 May 2012

James Keogh's politics?

THE New Year issue of the International Brigade Memorial Trust's (IBMT) Newsletter reports on last year's Blue Plaque unveiling for Ashton-under-Lyne's Spanish Civil War volunteer, James Keogh.  It says that  James Keogh's sister 'Joyce Harrison unveiled a plaque to her brother, James Keogh at Tameside Central Library, Ashton-under-Lyne on 25 November 2011.'  The author of the IBMT Newsletter piece then writes:  'Keogh, who died in Spain at the age of 22, was the eldest of 11 children and as a self-taught socialist spent many hours in the library before giving up his tailoring apprenticeship and heading for Spain in May 1937.'

Tameside TUC researched James Keogh's life and involvement in the Spanish Civil War over a number of years, and could find no evidence that he was affiliated to any party or trade union and this was confirmed by the family.  There was certainly nothing in his letters to suggest that he was a 'socialist' or an 'anarchist' or anything else.  There is much more evidence to show what he was not politically rather than what he was:  despite being dismissed as a 'commie' on one right-wing web site up North there is a strong support that James was not held in great esteem by the Communist Party during the Spanish conflict.  The booklet produced by Tameside TUC in memory of James Keogh states that  'James Keogh like the nurse Lillian Urmston from Stalybridge were both flattered by being mentioned in dispatches in the Russian Archives in Moscow:  Lillian was in these secret files to be denounced for being "too friendly with the Spaniards" and James was accused of going "absent without leave".'   These files were compiled by the trusted Communist Party officials like the middle-class woman, Winifred Bates, sympathetic to Russia and sent to Spain to spy on the volunteers.  The Tameside TUC booklet reports:  'Some of the utterances in the files of the spies who reported back to Moscow suggest a particularly spiteful frame of mind of the kind we might attributed to the classroom creep:  the reference to Lillian Urmstone being "too friendly" or the false claim of James having a "criminal conviction" seem to be typical of this.'  As the author of the booklet remarks:  'People who write this kind of thing don't, unlike James, end up in an unmarked grave.'

Furthermore it is noted in the Tameside booklet that 'The fact that James Keogh was not a member of the Communist Party or indeed any other party or trade union, would mark him down as "politically unreliable" in the eyes of the Communist Party.'  Those people on certain right-wing websites who dismiss James Keogh as a 'dupe of the Reds' would do well to remember this spirit of independence about James as would those on the left who are keen to categorise James as 'a self-taught socialist'.  The fact is, as Orwell perceived, few people in England grasped the nature of the conflict in the Spanish Civil War where as Gerald Brenan said 'words of which most of history is made - feudalism, autocracy, liberalism, Church, Army, Parliament, trade union and so forth - have quite other meanings there to what they have in France or England.'  James Keogh may not have fully understood that even when he died, but nor do many of those of the British Left and the Right who write today.  Listening to Professor Paul Preston yesterday on Andrew Marr's Radio 4 program 'Start the Week', going on about the Civil War and crudely dismissing George Orwell's ethnography 'Homage to Catalonia', as someone who worked, lived and even had a son born in Spain, I sometimes wonder how much  Professor Preston has really grasped about the culture and nature of the Spanish people, despite his proud boast last month at the People's History Museum that he has studied Spain for some 40 years.

The printed version of NORTHERN VOICES 13, with our report on Tameside TUC's application for a Blue Plaque for James Keogh, covers all sorts of stuff others won't touch and may be obtained as follows:

Postal subscription: £5 for the next two issues (post included) Cheques payable to 'Northern Voices' at
c/o 52, Todmorden Road, Burnley, Lancashire BB10 4AH. 
Tel.: 0161 793 5122.
email: northernvoices@hotmail.com


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