14 The Spanish War (Continued!); Centro Iberico; Greek Tragedy; Haverstock Hill; The Invisible Woman; This Gun for Sale; Only Too Visible Women; Channel Swimmer in Beads; Emilienne

The Spanish War (Continued)

Travelling around Spain from time to time I found ghost towns where mass murder had taken place, abandoned by those fleeing from terror or deliberate economic privation, where only a few of the old great movement kept the flame alight in secret. All over the world one could find veterans of the struggle and their families who had fled.

Strange that these veterans, though isolated, kept a relationship, even with divisions. Slowly in the post-war years the groups in several countries were re-emerging from the obscurity into which they had been flung whether by defeat or national victory, and literally one by one getting together, slowly throwing off the bonds of the libertarian but hardly revolutionary movement that had surrounded them. As they linked up so we learned of what activity was going on and so it increased. I became inextricably involved in what some of us termed the “international solidarity movement” and others the “First of May Group”. Later, in Brussels, it came together as the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement (IRSM). I described it in the booklet of that name (Cienfuegos Press, 1976) but otherwise historians have passed it over or confused it with the middle class Marxist-Leninist and nationalist armed groups who later eclipsed it, certainly in notoriety.

Though through my contacts in Spain I had known about the Resistance there, it was usually when they were already on trial for their activities and some outside intervention was needed, meagre as it was at a time when the world had forgotten them. It was not until after the last of the most famous urban guerrillas, Sabater, was gunned down in January 1960, that I came to be in closer touch with the Resistance fighters in Spain, whose existence was passed over by the press and historians until very recently. For some years I struggled on my own, but became more closely involved because of my association with Stuart Christie, released from four years in a Spanish jail, where he had built contacts and friendships with the activists of the movement, and with Miguel Garcia, whom we brought from the obscurity of a Spanish jail to international activity.

Centro Iberico

When Miguel came to London, the Spanish Communists, who had been running a meeting place in a parish church hall in Holborn, styling it the Centro Iberico, moved out to bigger premises and changed the name to the Garcia Lorca Club. They knew how unpopular the Communist Party was after the tanks moved into Hungary, but thought they stood a chance in Spain and the dead poet couldn’t object to lending them credence. Miguel started a new Centro Iberico from there and also an International Libertarian Centre to take the place of the now defunct Wooden Shoe. It was years since there was such a thing as an international anarchist club and it was an added bonus that we retained the old connections with visiting Spanish workers that the CP had carefully built up.

I warned him about the problems of serving drink there, pointing out the acting minister was Dr Donald Soper, famously an advocate of total abstention. He belonged to the neighbouring Methodist centre and was standing in for the Anglican vicar, who had the usual small congregation. Miguel assured me, “I know priests. You don’t have to tell me, a Spaniard, about these holy fathers, as they call themselves. I will offer him a glass of wine and he will agree to everything”. Fortunately Dr Soper never came to the hall while we were there, possibly having other things to do on a Sunday, so this interesting theory was never tested.

The last of Spain’s exiled confederal families gathered there. They had made themselves quite an interesting community in London, keeping together like an extended family. The majority had settled around Portobello Road, Notting Hill, where the original CNT-MLE offices had been, though with the growth of families they extended to the suburbs. The “Centro” was able to put them in touch with a new generation arising in Spain and with Resistance activists, but the ghost of the years of ossified bureaucracy and passivism had not finally been laid, here or elsewhere.

The hall became popular with the Spanish community generally, resident and visiting, and Miguel made them so much at home that we had to have two halls, one Spanish-speaking and the other a babble of tongues. The Spanish accepted the fact that it was an anarchist centre, even those who had grown up under Franco who tried to obliterate the memory of anarchism and the Basque and Catalan tongues. It would have made him sick to hear anarchism expounded not only in English and German, which he wouldn’t have minded on the grounds they deserved it for permitting heresy, but in Castilian, Catalan, Basque and even Galician, the language of his native province which, incidentally, he hated most of all.

Visiting speakers included Jose Peirats, the historian of Spanish anarchism, and before long we were having separate meetings for gallego (Galician) speakers. When it was proposed, I remember telling them in my usual rambling way about Lloyd George at the Versailles conference who had read, or glanced at, a scientific article asserting the Galicians were the same people as the Welsh. He opposed the retaining of Galicia by Austria saying he objected to “his Welsh people” being under the domination of “Huns” not realising Galicia in Spain was not Galicia in Austria/Poland. An American woman who happened to be present told me afterwards that her parents had fled from Roznow (in the other Galicia) and Lloyd George’s mistake ruined thousands of lives when Poland took over from Austria, which made the anecdote less amusing.

Another casual visitor wanted to know more about the Angry Brigade, almost as soon as that expression was heard. It was hard to answer his questions, even if I hadn’t suspected he was a police agent. Like many of an authoritarian frame of mind, he thought it a centrally directed conspiracy, and that I was a sort of PRO to its Central Committee. He actually used terms like “political wing of your armed struggle”. Miguel said to me in Spanish, “Ask yourself. Who would want to know so much?” The visitor reddened and I suppose he understood. Would a spy have blushed? But he never commented.

It didn’t matter because all I knew and had to say was already expressed in the pages of Black Flag, and occasionally picked up by the mainstream press. From the tenor of his questions the inquisitive visitor sounded more to me like an emissary from the IRA or Sinn Fein trying to pick up allies — the “troubles” were just re-re-starting. When he did refer to Ireland he referred to the danger of fascism, and the Nazi-clerico-fascist groupings in what he called the Free State (an expression only used by diehard Republicans or diehard Tories, neither of whom recognised the legitimacy of the Republic). According to him, only our co-operation with nationalism in the North could prevent the spread of fascist nationalism. I didn’t agree with Miguel that we were dealing with a police spy or agent-provocateur but the political argument sounded dodgy.

Another not particularly welcome guest was a young German who came just as I arrived, from working late on Sunday, to help with the sweeping-up after the meeting and who, between discarding his cigarette ends on the floor while I was doing it, raved at me for my alleged support of the Baader-Meinhof ‘Gang’ of which he knew only the reported press garbage. At first patiently (for me anyway) I told him he failed to understand the clash between anarchists and Leninists that was going on in Germany. (“But I am a German, of course I know what is happening in my time” — “I bet your father never said that ” — “Ah, you are a racialist”). Somewhat hot and impatient with clearing up his dog-ends after a day’s work and answering tired old pacifist cliches I finally shouted “Piss off” and chased him out. Ted Kavanagh commented drily that it was a very witty reply and restored my good humour, but the outraged student went away to denounce me in a pacifist paper as a “middle-aged, middle-class man who only believes in violence”. To be considered “middle-class” by an earnest student when you’re a pushing broom after him would excuse a belief in violence, even if it left one or two more besides.

On the other hand there were so many wonderful people who came along that it would be impossible to try to mention them all. I felt proud to have gained so much respect and affection which more than compensated for the hatred I seemed to generate from those outside of the movement and class for which we fought.

Amongst the activists were some Irish Anarchists trying to build up a class struggle movement in Ireland and get away from the old routine of workers in the North fighting each other for the slums and routine jobs, and in the South yielding to apathy. They did great work for the Black Cross for prisoners abroad, but soon after brought down on their heads the full vindictiveness of the Republic for daring to try to break the mould of Irish politics.

Those from outside who singled me out for criticism even for matters about which I knew nothing included one Nicolas Walter. He had somehow became managing director of a firm which controlled the residual assets of the 19th century secularist movement, and seemed to have the idea he was the official spokesperson of the anarchist movement as well. However, he had no responsibility or connection with it aside from an involvement in the anti-nuclear movement and his promotion of the cult of Freedom Press. Later he took over the editorship of one of its magazines. Since the establishment of the Centro Iberico, or possibly because of the Angry Brigade, he had carried on a seemingly endlessly literary feud against me which extended to his clique. I suppose it was because I refuted his revisions of our history and distortion of our ideas and also was not unconnected with my scaring off peace-it’s-wonderful-lovers.

His colleagues Patrick Pottle and Michael Randle, members of the Committee of 100 (CND’s activists), went to prison for their anti-militarist actions, and while there got to know the spy George Blake (sentenced to forty-two years). They sympathised with his being saddled for purely international political reasons with an enormous sentence, though not his ideas, and connived at his escape, as usual, the amateurs outwitting the professionals. Twenty years later H. Montgomery Hyde, ex-Tory-MP in Northern Ireland, Intelligence expert, a Protestant champion who had a foothold in the professional atheist camp as an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association — a handy vantage point to observe the ultra-Left — exposed their complicity in a book, with the acknowledged assistance of Nicolas Walter. Ever a stickler for other people’s accuracy, Walter denied indignantly a press comment that he passed over any information to the Intelligence expert at dinner and pointed out that it was at tea. Though Special Branch had known all along who was responsible, such was the Tory backbench outcry that Pottle and Randle were prosecuted. They admitted their guilt in another book, so convincingly putting their case, not for innocence but for justification, that the jury acquitted them. But it was touch-and-go for them and on the whole it was safer to be Walter’s enemy than his friend.

Greek Tragedy

While I was working at the Daily Sketch, a wave of resistance was opening up at home which the Press tried to personalise, so as to deprecate but still justify scare headlines. Various journalists tried to pump me about Stuart’s movements. They tried contacting me in the local pub, “The Albion”. I declined to speak to any of them, getting a reputation for boorishness which didn’t do any harm when it came to negotiations with the management, and made them tread more carefully. The Daily Express was running a story about a mysterious Scot who had been imprisoned in Spain, was now into every kind of terrorist activity and had loads of money at his disposal. It would have been hard to recognise my friend at any time under the latter description.

Maureen Tomason, one of the Sketch star investigators, actually came into the copytaker’s department to ask if I knew to which country he had gone. I was not there and when she mentioned her errand a colleague of mine said politely, “His friend Stuart? You missed them by a minute, they’ll be in the Albion” — which was true. Miss Tomason stormed out of the room in rage at such a preposterous story. Young in journalism she might be but she wasn’t going to believe the Express could have invented their story about private planes at his disposal. If she had been told he was hiding in a nuclear submarine under Blackfriars Bridge it would have been within her comprehension.

Another young journalist Nicola Tyrer, just a few weeks before being made education correspondent of the Evening News, asked me if I could get him to talk about anarchism to her. I passed her name to him at lunch. As he agreed to speak to her, next day the Evening News had a scoop, an exclusive interview which revealed that the now named Scot was working on gas conversion, living in London, being harassed by the police and the story in the Daily Express was a pack of lies. The next day their rival was constrained to report there was another young Scottish Anarchist who had been imprisoned in Spain of whom no one had previously or subsequently heard, who on reading the story went off in his private plane never to be seen again.

Possibly encouraged by Nicola Tyrer’s scoop in which she had the luck to expose a rival paper’s fictions the same day as they appeared and the same week she had started, I was approached by a young freelancer named Ann Chapman. For once this had nothing to do with Stuart but, she said, “to get information on the Greek Resistance”. I was somewhat brusque. which I now regret though I am glad I did not encourage her. She said she was working for Radio London and was going to Athens, hoping for background. She had already contacted some Greek groups which I did not know. There was a large Cypriot Communist Party and Trotskyist offshoots among the Greek-speaking community in Egypt, but I knew little of them. What small amount I then knew about the anarchists’ part in the struggle against the colonels within Greece I certainly was not going to share with Radio London.

She was quite persistent. She had no idea of the danger involved in trying to find out too much in a country like the colonels’ Greece. At best she would be endangering those with whom she came in contact. As it was she went in on a cut-price budget by bus, in January 1971, without contacts, in a disturbed country, and somewhere en route was raped and murdered.

Though the murderer-rapist was found and convicted, her father would not believe in his guilt, searching always for a less banal truth. Six or seven years later he was still giving the story to investigative journalists, hoping to discover what really happened. I and others who had seen or, in my case, heard her in her last week in London were questioned by the press, which is how I got to meet her father Edward Chapman. He could not face the fact of his daughter having been raped and was searching for some political motive that would have given dignity to her death. He actually faced the convicted rapist Nicos Moundis in court but felt “convinced inside” this seedy, down-and-out character with a psychotic history including attempted rape was not the killer.

Much as I admired his tenacity and loathed the colonels, who had killed many under “interrogation” and blamed local crime afterwards, I failed to see it was necessarily so in every case of murder, or that they would invariably have done the dirty work themselves. In Hitler’s Germany, some people, even Jews, must have died naturally, by crime or for reasons other than genocide. And rape was an act of an oppressive urge no less than class interest or ideological conviction. I think Mrs Chapman came to terms with that but her husband could not. My meeting with him made me sad, but my subsequent enquiries in Greece led nowhere.

Haverstock Hill

We originally started printing Cuddon’s and so on with a Varityper and Gestelith. I could write for hours what problems that machinery caused. It fortunately disappeared when we moved and the first few issues of Black Flag were on a Gestetner duplicator, which I preferred as I could handle it and, if messy at times, it never broke down. The first issues came out quite well on it, but “Progress, Progress” insisted everyone and we moved from one self-made difficulty to another, going on to a printing press. Fortunately I had written the “Debtors Guide” and we weathered the storm for years but with one thing and another it was useful I had a large amount of paid “unworked overtime” at my professional work.

The printing press was used by Ted Kavanagh and Anna Blume in a huge basement at Haverstock Hill, after the demise of the Wooden Shoe bookshop, which otherwise was the rehearsal room of a pop group. The group were on a weekly rent from the bookmaker’s shop above, replacing a religious youth group (from a neighbouring church or synagogue, I do not know which). Their leader/parson/rabbi or whoever was concerned had leased it from the shop above when it was a greengrocer’s and the basement was virtually uninhabitable. They repaired it well but when the shop changed hands to become a bookmaker’s the guru opposed both change of user and the betting licence. As Mammon won, they either went or were evicted and the pop group took over. After a year or so it found itself no longer in harmony with the scene and Ted was left on his own.

Without notifying the landlord of change of plan and letting him think it was still the same pop group (he never appeared), we made it into the new International Libertarian Centre/Centro Iberico, an anarchist club to which came wonderful young people from all over the world as well as survivors from innumerable political upheavals.

As Miguel decided to spend his whole time looking after it and virtually cut himself off from any paid work — he was past what should have been retiring age anyway — I had the problem both of providing him with the money to live on and paying the rent of the centre as well, but it was well worth it. Later, after being granted domicile, there was no way he could have got a Spanish pension even at home (and to this day), having fought against Franco. But his case was taken up by Nancy Macdonald, who did sterling work for Spanish veterans. Though an American, she had some influential friends in Britain, and on the basis of his work for the war-time Resistance, he was given a basic pension by the UK government. It was the only case I knew where such work was recognised. I was sceptical that he would receive it. During the war, his group had co-operated in anti-Nazi work with British agents (including escapee soldiers) and he admitted in his Franco’s Prisoner the spy network taught him forgery (“the most humane craft in a totalitarian country”). He had printed passports, ration books, currency and Party membership cards even better than the real ones. Perhaps his small weekly grant related to a major feat in this undermining of Nazi occupation in France, or perhaps to a fear of his being obliged to carry out similar feats under our benign elected dictatorship.

The Invisible Woman

Despite the terrible tragedy involved in dealing with people sentenced to death or 20 or 30 years imprisonment, in the course of the Spanish catastrophe, one could still get a few laughs, believe it or not. “The coat” was one, the “invisible woman” another.

Many comrades were arrested in Spain and charged with “banditry and terrorism” so it was impossible to get the aid of Amnesty International. Their policy was, and remains, to decline to defend those accused of crimes of violence, whether they committed them or not. This meant they defended those innocent of fighting the State and only those victimised for their innocuous beliefs were helped. This included editors and publishers, scientists and philosophers, but never workers. The Communist Party raised large amounts for their own members through various front organisations but the resistance, certainly in Spain, was out in the cold.

When we started the Anarchist Black Cross and really began to help them, we got begrudging voices even among so-called libertarians saying “What about the IRA? Belfast is on your doorstep”. More money for the then few dozen IRA prisoners was raised in one local English Catholic parish in six weeks than we managed to get in ten years. The Irish pubs in Finsbury Park raised enough to have kept us going for twenty years had we the remotest chance of getting it. Fund raising for the IRA as for Amnesty International became a growth industry, employing hundreds, but we still got this niggling that our meagre funds should swell their profits instead. I never knew how much IRA or Amnesty prisoners got out of what was collected for them. Nor did I know how much ours did, as to avoid handling the funds they went direct to the person or family without intermediary.

It may be coincidental that Amnesty was run by editors, publishers, scientists and philosophers and the token trade unionist, but that is by the way. The fact remained that the Franco regime was quite alive in its latter days to international implications and always charged its opponents with “banditry” even if it was only so much as having the wrong union card. As a result Amnesty in Spain defended Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not join the army, plus a few of the Christian Democrats who happened to fall foul of the regime. But the resistance? Never! That was why we founded the Anarchist Black Cross.

When Julian Millan Fernandez was arrested on the flimsiest of charges it was at first impossible to get together a defence as nobody was allowed to see him. However, Miguel and I got into instant communication with him which totally baffled the authorities. They were constantly examining his letters for invisible ink, a false clue Miguel had dropped in his Franco’s Prisoner, when he had contacted Stuart from jail to expose prison conditions and claimed, to protect his go-between, it was through invisible ink. Contact with Millan was through an invisible woman!

It is a hardly surprising commentary on the sexism of the Spanish jailers. Millan Fernandez was the proverbial tall, dark and handsome Spanish male, and married. A short and plump American woman turned up saying she was his “novia” (fiancee). It excited unkind ribaldry among the guards, who had been told not even to let him see his wife, and they were so convinced of the facts as they saw them they never took into account that she might be the go-between.

They let the presumably infatuated, but in fact extremely courageous, woman see him every day, never realising she carried out every detail of information. His court-martial (though a civilian) should have been in secret, but lawyers briefed from outside were already there. After the trial, the prison staff must have realised they had been hoodwinked, but the guards denied all knowledge of any visitor and agreed there must have been invisible ink, except one who growled in a surly fashion that if one was kind to a crow it was sure to peck your eyes out. Every other guard in every political jail looked for a bottle of invisible ink for months afterwards but the bottle, and not just the ink, remained invisible.

This Gun for Sale

We had an Anarchist Black Cross meeting in a pub in Tottenham Court Road. The meeting was going on upstairs but (as usual in such cases) many had drifted to the bar downstairs before and during the meeting. Two men were trying to engage some of our people in conversation, recognising them as they came downstairs. It seemed suspicious so I muscled in on the conversation. They claimed to be soldiers, and looked as if they could be police. They said to me they had arms to sell. Up to then they had avoided me but I had overheard their previous conversation in which they said they were “sympathetic to anarchism” and wanted to give arms.

They spoke of a “lorry load”, as if we would have the cash, least of all in our loose change, but I shrugged off the conversation. Anyway they were glad to turn their attention to Stuart who had just come downstairs and rushed to him like a long-lost brother. It was obvious he was the one they had come to see.

He asked them if they thought he had come up the Clyde on a bicycle, which discouraged them asking further. A year later one of the “soldiers” proved to be a detective constable named Cardwell who gave evidence at the Old Bailey of how they had “arranged” to sell Stuart arms that night but failed because he was “drunk and aggressive”. Another version, not brought up at his trial, but raised with me by Scotland Yard, was that I had alerted someone “in French”. I suppose I did mention the presence of agents-provocateurs. Unfortunately we don’t have an English word.

Perhaps the reason is we have so much of the thing.

Only Too Visible Women

When the centre had established contacts in Spain, one of the most pressing demands upon it was for contraceptive fitting or abortion. It was illegal in Spain, and pregnancy for unmarried girls was a disaster. As soon as the sexually liberated got in touch with an organisation fighting oppression, that was the first thing they asked of it.

We had to accede to the demands of a steady trickle of young women who turned up at the door, with the fee for an operation and the return fare, nothing more. They never realised they had also to pay a doctor’s fee, nor had they reckoned on the extra few days’ stay required. It became a standard requirement for the Centre to find a room, and raise the extra fee, and it was embarrassing for me that I always needed to take them by car and arrange matters with the clinic. The receptionist never said anything, but I wonder what she thought seeing me coming in week after week with a different senorita.

At one time Miguel approached a socialist feminist group to see if they would co-operate, as they had many resources we lacked, as well as access to funding. They were most hostile. They claimed we were encouraging private medicine. I do not know if they expected the young women to wait until Spain had a National Health Service, defiant of the Catholic Church into the bargain, but it would have taken a lot more than nine months, and the penalties they faced for motherhood were severe.

Channel Swimmer in Beads

Following attacks on Iberian Airlines, Spanish banks and finance houses, the result of renewed repression in Spain, the Evening Standard asked me if I could arrange an interview with representatives of the CNT. They agreed, though I was always sceptical where the press was concerned, and the Standard sent along Kevin Murphy, a crime reporter and therefore qualified to deal with political matters (criminals in power were dealt with by political correspondents).

Reasoning that he was going into an anarchist club, Murphy turned up in a hippy caftan, flower power symbols, beads and the rest of the Sixties gear, somewhat out of place with his beefy appearance and athlete’s face. He was a Channel swimmer, a sporting achievement I envied.

When he came in the five exiles (four men in business suits and a woman in her fifties) looked at him oddly. “Who is this clown?” one of them asked me in Spanish. “English journalists dress this way,” I said. Murphy had a red face anyway so I don’t know if he understood.

Emilienne

Emilienne Morin came to London for two days for a funeral. Mimi, as she was known affectionately, was French but had lived in many countries in the course of a tempestuous life. However, she was not officially allowed to enter the land of the free, as the Home Office, which assumed it owned the place, had decided the security of the island depended on keeping her out. However, she managed to slip in for a couple of days, and I was asked to drive her and her friend back to Victoria Station.

Joe Thomas came round to tell me of some development in the print union, and I explained the situation. He came along with us. Typically, lack of a common language never stopped Joe chatting away, and Mimi’s friend spoke a little English. While I was parking the car at Victoria and had to leave them for five minutes, he got out of them various aspects of their life. In the flurry I had no opportunity to introduce them. After they were safely on the train, Joe told me Mimi had been in the Spanish war and in fact was secretary of the Durruti column. “Her husband was there too. I never got out of her what he did.”

I don’t know if they had been poking fun at him French style, or if Mimi just disliked talking about the past. Her life companion was Buenaventura Durruti, a legendary figure even in his lifetime and the most charismatic figure in the Civil War. Joe was quite put out when I told him, and for years after used to say jocularly to people, “This bastard let me ask Mrs Durruti what her husband did in the civil war.”

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Juan Conatz
Jan 6 2011 13:19

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I couldn't paint golden angels: Sixty years of commonplace life and anarchist agitation - Albert Meltzer

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