Collecting Spanish Civil War literature

(Merci, Surbouquin)

An excerpt slightly  abbreviated, from Student Magazine issue (January 1963.) Quite prophetic as almost all the books mentioned in it are now valuable, especially the Orwell. Edmond Romilly's Boadilla is almost unobtainable as a first edition and copies of his scurrilous magazine Out of Bounds are thin on the ground. Frederick Grubb, who was a friend of radio pundit Fred Hunter -whose estate of books we bought, was a poet and literary critic much admired in the 1960s.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes: they came to present their lives.
W.H. Auden: Spain.

As the 20th century has just about consisted of wars, you may ask: why pick on the Spanish Civil War as an occasion of literary interest? The reason is that, when the Spanish Fascists joined forces with the military-capitalist junta of General Franco in 1936 and rebelled against the Republic, two factors of major concern to artists and thinkers - the ‘individual’ and the ‘idea’ were given their last chance to prove themselves, in action, in this century.

The Spanish War was the last ideological conflict in modern history. It was fought about ideas. In 1936 you either believed, with the Republicans, in culture, reason, social progress and the rule of law, or you believed with the Fascists in self interest, exploitation for profit, cheap emotion, and the rule of violence. Now the artist is of all people most interested in ideas: he lives in a world not of facts (what is) but of ideas (what should be, or could be). At the same time the individual could feel, in the Republican ranks in Spain, or in the International Brigade, that his decision to fight for his ideas was a living and important thing. He was not swallowed - as he was in the two world wars - by a monstrous war-machine which destroyed his individuality. This explains the blend of informality with idealism which characterised the International Brigade in the first phase of the Spanish War (before it was taken over by the iron discipline of the Communists) and it is also the reason why many English writers enlisted in the Republican ranks.


In 1963 the book collector may enjoy himself tracking down the many volumes about the Spanish War which are still on the secondhand market. If he is also a serious reader (book collectors seldom are!) he can derive much education and guidance from the study of those books. I want to mention a few which are especially interesting.


The best piece of objective reportage is John Langdon-Davies’s Behind the Spanish Barricades (1936) which contains a stirring account of the siege of the castle at Toledo, set against a dramatic evocation of the past history of that most extraordinary of Spanish towns. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) is the work of a political expert. Orwell enlisted, actually by mistake in the P.O.U.M. ['Deviant' Marxists] militia, and his book features some graphic reporting together with a detailed analysis of the political set-up on the Republican side. The chief quality of the book is the spectacle of a fighting man whose head remained cool enough to do some useful social thinking.


A very rare book, Boadilla (1937) by Esmond Romilly, is for sheer action unsurpassed by anything in Halraux or Hemingway. Esmond Romilly was an outrageous youth. He caused a sensation in 1934 by running away from a public school and publishing, from his clandestine hideout in Soho, a scurrilous magazine called Out of Bounds, in which he attacked the Establishment in general and the public schools in particular. Romilly went to Spain not as a journalist, or even as a politician, but out of a desire for adventure. He certainly got it! His book shows, with a completely unselfconscious modesty, how an almost irresponsible activism grows into a serious, tragic, but still decent and humane purpose. The character sketches of the individuals who formed the British section of the International Brigade are brilliant; unlike most men of action, Romilly has a sense of humour; and the final battle, when the British group was practically wiped out before Madrid, is rendered with unforgettable poise and precision.


John Cornford...went to Spain as a Communist. He helped to defend the Faculty of Arts at Madrid University behind a barricade of philosphy books; he fell before Cordoba in 1937. Today he is a legend. Two of his best poems, Ode before the Storming of Huesca, and the famous love-lyric, Heart of the heartless world, were written in the trenches just before an attack. Tough, uncompromising, forceful, yet full of intelligent understanding and moral passion, Cornford’s poems are collected in the Memorial Volume (1938), which also contains his Essays, where he attacks the bourgeois method of teaching history and the fashionable ‘consenting’ pets of his day.


Julian Bell, whose poems, essays, and letters are likewise collected in a Memorial Volume (1938) was a liberal. He believed that it was vital to make a personal demonstration against injustice and unreason; even if this meant using force, that was better than looking on while barbarism triumphed. Bell, unlike Cornford, wrote beautiful nature poems - firm, formal, accurate, not in the least sentimental or effete (the son of the painter Vanessa Bell and the nephew of Virginia Woolf, he was steeped in the landscape of the Sussex Weald.) Bell’s essays are concerned with the role of the Arts in the Prosperous State of the future (a prophetic theme), with the evils of ‘enthusiasm’ - over-emotional poetry and thought which ignored real, serious problems - and with the futility of pacifism in an age of power politics. Bell produced nothing in Spain - he was killed a fortnight after arriving - but I include him here because it was the values in which he believed which led him to ‘the hot plateau beneath the night’s grave manifold of stars’.


To a man of moral intelligence - as distinct from a mere tourist - to visit Spain today is to feel that the Civil War was never settled in Franco’s favour. The Left is alive in Spain; and in the near future, it will stir. Then the English writers who fought in Spain will come into their own: they will take on a new lease of life. But the lesson of Spain, as it can be learned from literature, will outlive the restoration of democracy amoung that splendid people. In English Literature, Spain teaches us that the ‘idea’ cannot be allowed to perish in selfishness, conformity, and materialism. The idea must be fought for - not just on battlefields, but everywhere, in every way. The individual and the idea march together.

Frederick Grubb.
Life is but an empty dream,
Fill it if you can.
He who searches for himself
Is the better man.
‘Lord’ Castlereagh.

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