A transatlantic pilgrimage achieved its goal today when the relatives of men who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War gathered around a newly refurbished bench honouring the volunteers on Hampstead Heath.
Mariah Wilson - the grand-daughter of International Brigade member Joe Gibbons - flew in from New York and was joined by her father David Wilson from Florida. They met up with Mariah's London-based cousin, Ted Sandling - a relative of another of the men honoured, Milt Cohen - to visit the bench and to pay tribute to the courage of their forbears.
The original bench with an inscription honouring the Gibbons brothers and their comrades was in such disrepair that it was set to be removed. Heath runner Martin Plaut was familiar with the bench and wanted to ensure that well-wishers had an opportunity to keep alive the memory of this band of International Brigaders. That led to a blog here all of six years ago - which eventually caught the attention of Mariah Wilson in the US.
Until then. Mariah was entirely unaware that her family members had a memorial bench on the Heath. For her, organising a replacement bench with a slightly modified inscription became a Pandemic mission. The bench was installed in June - the story is told here along with an account of the volunteers and what befell them in Spain and afterwards. And this morning, she and David flew in and made more-or-less straight away, along with Ted, to see the bench.
They were joined by Marlene Sidaway, president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust which seeks to keep alive the memory and spirit of those who volunteered to resist fascism in 1930s Spain.
Quite by chance, as the group approached the bench today a young man was sitting there enjoying the view. He had noticed the inscription and it bore a powerful echo of his own family's experience. Alex Baro, a freelance film maker, is from Barcelona, and lost family members in the brutal Battle of the Ebro in 1938 which sealed the fate of the Republican forces.
The bench is in a wonderful, tranquil spot - looking out on the ponds and beyond towards Highgate. It's a beautiful spot for the Brigaders to be remembered.
Mariah commented: "I'd like to think Joe and his brothers, as well as Milt Cohen and Pat Dooley were all smiling down at our gathering today :)"
For all those who paid homage on the Heath today, it was a special moment!
I came across this copy in - of all places - Treadwell's, the Bloomsbury bookshop that specialises in magic and mysticism but for some curious reason has the occasional radical title too. I was attracted above all by the inscription ...
'R.R.K. from B.M.T. and D.B.T. with love and wonder. 25.xii.40' - and then in pencil by a different hand, 'given to my by Barbara & Duncan first edition and much treasured all my life', and also in pencil, at the top of the page 'S'.
Who was RRK? Why did he or she treasure this book all their life? Could this be Richard Kisch, an early volunteer to serve in Spain - or Rafa Kenton or Rose Kerrigan, whose communist husbands either fought or worked in Spain during the civil war?
And who were Barbara and Duncan who gave the book as a Christmas present with the very personal inscription and its reference to 'wonder'? I'd love to know. In the meantime, I will endeavour to look after the book in the spirit of its original owner.
The books of New York City
I'm just back from a few days in New York - an end-of-summer break which included (the first time I've ever managed this) visits to two very contrasting second-hand book dealers. Strand Books, on Broadway and 12th near Union Square, boasts eighteen miles of books, and on the top floor has a very welcoming rare book room. I picked up there this signed copy of a title by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in my view the doyen of the Beat poets and the founder of the City Lights bookshop and imprint in San Francisco. He turns 100 next March.
Ferlinghetti has signed an awful lot of books over the years and this wasn't a first edition or anything like that - that was reflected in the modest price. I'm so pleased to have a signed Ferlinghetti.
Jose Alemany was a Catalan-American photographer with close links to the Spanish leftists; Ray Valinsky was a Pittsburgh-based Communist who gets passing mention in the minutes of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities.
I asked in the rare book room if they had anything in the way of political pamphlets - nothing, it seemed. But a trawl round the shelves proved them wrong. I came across these really nice anarchist propaganda pieces from a century and more ago:
And top marks for the Strand's very apposite selection of badges - I love them almost as much as old pamphlets:
The following day I came across a very different type of book store - the by-appointment-only Jumel Terrace Books near Sugar Hill in Harlem, approximately 150 blocks north of Strand Books, It's run by an exceptionally knowledgeable bibliophile and librarian, Kurt Thometz, whose passion is for West African pamphlets, often libidinous in nature, and also extends to African and African-American literature and politics.
He's also an enthusiast for the American radical Aaron Burr, vice-president during Thomas Jefferson's first term and now destined forever to be remembered as the man who shot dead Hamilton, the guy the musical is about, in a duel. Burr once lived in a very stylish mansion just across the road from Kurt's place.
A real treat to meet Kurt, see some of his library and his wonderful brown stone house - and yes, I did buy a few items. Take a look ...
The detained Spaniards weren't all anarchists - quite a few owed loyalty to the socialist UGT, and some were Falangists. They were eventually moved to a camp near Odessa. Several who accepted Soviet citizenship were released. Most remained in the Gulag system until they eventually secured freedom in the mid-1950s. It seems that more than 150 Spaniards were at some stage detained at Karaganda - about fourteen died in detention in the Soviet Union.
A few years ago, Spanish television reported on the tragedy of the Spanish nationals who had been imprisoned in Kazakhstan - an English language version is available on YouTube:
Two years ago, a small group of Spaniards - one of them a survivor - visited Karaganda to remember the trauma and tragedy. It is one of the more hidden aspects of the Spanish Civil War. It deserves remembrance.
DANNY TOMMY JOE GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL BRIGADERS 1936-1938
PAT DOOLEY SPEAKER AT PARLIAMENT HILL EDITOR 1901-1958
THEIR FAMILY PROUDLY REMEMBERS APRIL 1980
That's the inscription on a bench on Hampstead Heath - just a five-minute stroll from Kite Hill, bordering a copse of pine trees, and looking out east to Highgate. My friend Martin Plaut came across this rather out-of-the-way bench while doing his morning sit-ups. It's in some disrepair. He's trying to contact the family to see if they would be on board for a bit of fund-raising to spruce up this rather touching memorial.
The International Brigaders were those left-wingers who went to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. More than 2,000 headed out from Britain - 500 or so never returned. I had the privilege to meet and interview a few of them towards the end of their lives. The International Brigade Memorial Trust keeps their memory and spirit alive - though this modest memorial seems to have escaped the otherwise comprehensive list on their website.
Danny Gibbons, a Scotsman who moved to Camden, was a communist and for a while the political commissar of the British contingent of the Brigades - there's a brief biographical note about him here. He was wounded at Jarama in February 1937 and was sent home to recuperate. He insisted on going back to Spain, was arrested by Franco's troops, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange involving German and Italian officers. His younger brother Tommy died in Spain, in the battle for Brunete in July 1937.
Joe (his real name was Patrick) volunteered with the American battalion in Spain - there's some details on this site. And there was a fourth brother, John Gibbons, who was apparently refused permission to join the International Brigades - according to some accounts, the CPGB leader Harry Pollitt, said with three brothers risking their lives, it would be wrong to have a fourth Gibbons fighting in Spain. He was, all the same, a very loyal member of the Communist Party and spent many years in Moscow.
Kathleen Gibbons was Danny's second wife, and her maiden name was Dooley. That may be the link with Pat Dooley - about whom I have been able to find out little. (Can anyone help?) A biography of the bohemian inter-war poet Anna Wickham mentions Pat (his real name was Lawrence) Dooley as an activist who made rousing left-wing speech at the top of Parliament Hill in the 1930s and '40s. Strange to think of this as a pitch for outdoor speakers!
I have a feeling that this blog will be returning to the story of the Gibbons brothers ...
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