Saturday, February 09, 2008

Book of the Month

This isn't a new book, it was published in 2004, but it's a book I wish I had read forty years ago and qualifies as my book of the decade, never mind book of the month.

Why Spain and the International Brigade should have such a hold on the Welsh Left is something of a puzzle. Only a handful of the 150 or so Welsh Brigaders belonged to the Labour Party, the overwhelming majority were Communists. Apart from a sympathy with the Basques and Catalans, Plaid Cymru pursued a neutral policy during the Spanish Civil War, indeed one or two of it's leaders were pro-Franco, at least in private. Yet today both Labour and Plaid laud the Brigaders as if they were secular saints. Pacifists, too, cherish the militants, seemingly oblivious to the dreadful atrocities committed by some of the supporters of the Spanish Republic, mainly against priests and nuns. A puzzle.

Rob Stradling's book is the product of deep academic research, yet at the same time it is highly readable. Unlike Hywel Francis' influential but hagiographic Miners Against Fascism, Stradling tells it like it was. Here we read about the desertions and the probable executions of Welsh Brigaders. The driven commissar Billy Griffiths is the Rhondda's own Yezhov, happily pressing for the death sentence on his "butty" the tragic Alex Cummings. No wonder Griffiths' memoirs remain unpublished by an academic establishment who prefer to see things as they should have been, not as they were.

Hundreds of thousands of Welsh men and women fought on the side of democracy against fascism in the Second World War, and they rather than the Stalinists of the International Brigade deserve our unqualified admiration. It's said that Billy Griffiths found religion in later life, yet the truth is that his Communism was just as much a religion as anything found in a chapel. Maybe that is the answer to our puzzle, the continuing religiosity of many on the Left.

A Radnorshire connection? Nothing obvious so far ........ a motor sport connection? Well the memorial to the 34 Welsh International Brigaders killed in Spain was placed at the South Wales Miners Library in Hendrefoilan House, Swansea, the boyhood home of that "best type of amateur competitor" Sir Clive Edwards.

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