Some Notes on James McCune Smith

Some Notes on James McCune Smith (1813-1865), a complex character whose name is often invoked but whose work is not often discussed or appreciated.

A brief summary of what follows:
His neglect by literary scholars – parents and family – early education – acceptance in Glasgow – achievement of medical degrees and practical experience at the Glasgow Lock Hospital – scientific response to ‘scientific racism’ – emergence as a leading public intellectual and abolitionist – decrying of homeopathy as deadly quackery – the racism of the medical profession – being embraced by the Glasgow Emancipation Society – the importance of Glasgow in his developing political vision – his writing for Frederick Douglass’ Paper under the pen name of Communipaw – his elaboration of a theory of the social construction of race – disunity and oppression in USA – becoming the first black chair of a national political convention – Black nativism and Irish immigration – the whitewashing of history – his five children and their grandchildren being listed as white – the discovery of his descendants – the University’s class flight from the East End to the West End – the prejudice of Professor A C Bradley – McCune Smith’s status as the first experimental writer in the African American tradition

The official opening of the new James McCune Smith Learning Hub at the University of Glasgow, as part of a major campus redevelopment, marks an important point in the city’s history. The new Learning Hub named in his honour should make us eager to know more about McCune Smith, and there is still much to know and much to read. (1) As one recent commentator observes:

“McCune Smith was indeed an intellect with whom to be reckoned. Even though John Stauffer’s 2001 study, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, made an impassioned argument for the recovery of McCune Smith’s life and role in the abolitionist movement, in which he was a founding member of the Radical Abolition Party, he continues to be neglected by literary scholars. This neglect is particularly unfortunate given McCune Smith’s prominence in the nineteenth century: Douglass said that McCune Smith had more influence on his thinking than anyone else, and he was widely celebrated as the most highly educated African American of the nineteenth century before Du Bois.” (2)

James McCune Smith is truly a remarkable figure, a polymath and public intellectual celebrated as “the first university-trained black American physician” as well as an activist and world-changer. (3) Born into slavery on 18 April 1813 to a black mother, Lavenia Smith, (he described himself as “the son of a self-emancipated bond-woman”) and a white father, he was himself formally freed at the age of 14 in 1827 through New York’s Emancipation Act. McCune Smith later said of himself: “My mother is a mulatto, half white and half African – my father white; I am three-fourths white.” (4) According to one of his most recent biographers:

“We know Smith’s father’s name only from Glasgow University’s Matriculation Album for 1832, which lists ‘James M’Cune Smith’ as ‘filius natu maximus Samuelis, Mercatoris apud New York’ [first natural son of Samuel, merchant, New York]. This is the only known reference to Smith’s father”. (5)

Educated first at African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street in New York City, then attending evening classes while also working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, McCune Smith proved to be an excellent scholar, yet he could not get accepted to the colleges to which he applied in the States, including Columbia University. So “Smith’s abolitionist benefactors drew upon international connections in Glasgow, where the Glasgow Emancipation Society was active, and traditions were liberal with respect to university admissions”. (6)

Scotland beckoned, and McCune Smith sailed from New York to Liverpool on 16 August 1832 aboard a ship called the Caledonia. He was 19 years old. There had been other ships bearing the name Caledonia, including one that had carried would-be settlers to the ill-fated Darien Scheme in 1698, Scotland’s last-ditch attempt to get in on the act of Empire and the slave trade. McCune Smith was interested in the role of shipping in the history of slavery and on his trip to Liverpool and then Glasgow kept a travel journal recording his Atlantic crossing. It’s been said that McCune Smith’s “exploration of the ship and its tenuous relationship to the spatialized schemes of bondage and liberation in the Atlantic World began with the travel journal he kept during his voyage to Glasgow”. (7) In his journal McCune Smith laments the paradoxical nature of the American-built ship on which he sails, a vessel taking a free man from one slave-owning state to another:

“And that gathering something of the spirit of liberty from the ocean which she cleaves, and the chainless wind which wafts her along, she might appear in foreign ports a fit representative of a land of the free, instead of a beautiful but baneful object, like the fated box of Pandora, scattering abroad among the nations the malignant prejudice which is a canker and a curse to the soil, whence she sprung.” (8)

While in Liverpool en route to Glasgow McCune looked up an old schoolmate:

“Before leaving by the steamer Aliza Craig to Glasgow on September 15, 1832, Smith
called on Margaret Gill, the new, English wife of his former schoolmate and star Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who was then performing on stage in London, and they strolled together in Liverpool’s garden cemetery, an interracial activity that would have been unthinkable in the United States at that time. Thus, it was in an atmosphere of relative racial tolerance that Smith began his five years in the United Kingdom”. (9)

The “Aliza Craig” is a misnomer for “Ailsa Craig”, a wooden paddle steamer launched in 1829. Aldridge, who was a senior pupil at McCune Smith’s school, was one of America’s foremost black actors. Among many distinguished roles he famously played the part of Macbeth , challenging audience perceptions and prejudices about Shakespeare, race, and performance. (10)

In choosing to study medicine McCune Smith was both leading the charge and following in the footsteps of some exceptional predecessors:

“The medical profession was an intellectual proving ground for 19th century blacks. Other African Americans had practiced medicine before and during Smith’s lifetime, but only a few received medical degrees in antebellum America, and none before Smith.” (11)

McCune Smith graduated BA in 1835, MA in 1836, and MD in 1837. Smith gained practical experience as a medical student at the Glasgow Lock Hospital for the treatment of venereal diseases. (12) Established in 1805 “for the treatment of unfortunate females […] many of them being very young girls”, the Lock was a notorious institution. (13)

McCune Smith had a brilliant mind and was a pioneer in every sense, a physician-scholar who became “the first African American to publish an article in a medical journal and the first black member of the American Geographical Society”. (14) But he was working at a time when medicine was still a developing field and at times got caught up in speculation. According to Thomas Morgan in his study of McCune Smith’s medical practice:

“Drawing on his experiences in the Lock Hospital, Glasgow, Smith had noted that discontinuation of opium tended to lead to return of regular menstrual cycles, which contradicted contemporary texts on the subject. Although the case series proved inconclusive, Smith speculated, ‘It may also be worth the inquiry, whether opium, in skillfully regulated doses, may not be used as a means to bear women safely through the critical disturbances which occur at the “change of life”.’ Like any of his 19th century peers, Smith was bound by the limits of available medical knowledge”. (15)

McCune Smith’s enlightened education meant that he was a steadfast opponent of so-called “scientific racism”, which drew on phrenology and respiratory biology to reinforce notions of white supremacy, and he had the medical expertise as well as the anti-racist credentials to demolish the arguments of apologists, which made him “an important figure in countering notions of innate black inferiority”. (16)

“McCune Smith looked and saw clearly how white scientists’ new approach to man was willfully blind to the specificity of individuals. He could see that a black person represented through the lens of race prejudice was not a human being made of flesh, bone and blood, but ‘a hideous monster of the mind, ugly beyond all physical portraying.’ This monster, created with words and images under the protective covering of science, was ‘so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple, and to blot out shame and probity, and the eternal sympathies of nature, so far as these things have presence in the breasts or being of American republicans!’”. (17)

Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass shared McCune Smith’s commitment to hybridity over and against claims to purity:

“Racial mixture did not weaken a people or society, he said, but strengthened it. This was the idea that Douglass borrowed from McCune Smith, an idea that greatly disturbed […] many others who maintained that miscegenation was a natural dead-end and a moral abomination. Douglass challenged the status quo when he declared that the black-white hybrid drew on the best of both races and strengthened the American people. Slavery, by contrast, hindered such progress. The United States was a great nation precisely because of its ‘composite character,’ but segregation threatened to hinder the natural development of its people. Douglass recognized ethnology for what it was, a proslavery argument. Common sense lost out because too many people had a stake in race inequality; too much money was being made off the backs of slaves. ‘By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery,’ he told his young audience, ‘they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman.” (18)

Even in his own era McCune Smith was recognised as a pioneering figure, both in abolitionist circles and in education:

“James McCune Smith became the most noted Black physician to receive a formal education prior to the Civil War. He had been a student in the African School in New York, and when he decided to study medicine, he found that there was no school in America to which he could gain admittance. He finally began his study of medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland; graduating from there, he returned to America and began practicing medicine in New York in 1837. He experienced more or less free association with white physicians in that city, and served with them as one of the physicians to Colored Orphan Asylum. His medical career was sacrificed to the abolition cause, to which he eventually gave himself entirely.” (19)

McCune Smith was already a celebrated figure by the time he completed his studies in Glasgow and returned to New York:

“An editorial in the September 9, 1837, issue of the Colored American welcomed James McCune Smith back home from Europe, praising him as a sterling example of individual black achievement. ‘As it is,’ the writer asserted, ‘all things are becoming new. The people who long sat in dark- ness, now have the Heavenly light, and intend to give ocular demonstration of the fact, in patronizing Dr. Smith.’ Although there were others, Smith was already emerging as an undisputed leader of New York’s black community. He could be found everywhere, and his voice could be heard at all times, proposing, arguing, counterattacking.” (20)

McCune Smith used his voice to considerable effect, emerging as a leading public intellectual before the age of thirty:

“Full of intellectual fervor, Smith struggled to define what he called the ‘destiny’ of his people in three major documents: a lecture, ‘The Destiny of Our People,’ delivered as part of the 1841 Philomathean Society lecture series that Peter and his colleagues deemed so significant they insisted on publishing it; some seven speeches on the Haitian Revolution printed in pamphlet form in 1841; and a series of articles that appeared in the New York Daily Tribune in 1843 titled ‘Freedom and Slavery for Afric-Americans,’ rebutting claims that blacks were worse off in freedom than in slavery. In his political speeches, Smith based his arguments on the universal rights of citizenship. In contrast, in these essays and lectures, he asserted that God had endowed African- descended peoples with a special destiny: the redemption of their race, their nations, and perhaps the world”. (21)

In his lecture on the Haitian Revolutions McCune Smith made connections with Greek and Scottish precedents:

“McCune Smith delivered a lecture at the Stuyvesant Institute for the benefit of the Colored Orphan Asylum in 1841 […] Comparing [Toussaint] L’Ouverture to ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ or ‘Bruce at Bannockburn,’ McCune Smith declares these events to be necessary study for ‘every American citizen’”. (22)

McCune Smith was much more than a medic. He was a moral force for change:

“Smith was broadly involved in the anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributing to and
editing abolitionist newspapers and serving as an officer of many organizations for the improvement of social conditions in the black community. In his scientific writings Smith debunked the racial theories in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, refuted phrenology and homeopathy, and responded with a forceful statistical critique to the racially biased US Census of 1840”. (23)

Homeopathy was high on McCune Smith’s list of targets when he arrived back in New York from Glasgow:

“He was appointed a physician to the Colored Orphan Asylum of New York and became its only black Board Member. This led to an ‘Original Communication’ in The Annalist entitled ‘The Lay Puffery of Homeopathy’. The article examined the statistical claims to superiority in mortality rates at the Protestant Half-Orphan Asylum, made in an advertisement in the New York Evening Post by the New York Homeopathic Dispensary Association. Smith reviewed the asylum’s records and concluded that the statistics were contrived due to: ‘A custom of quietly thrusting away the very sick children, in order that they may die elsewhere … at least such will be a natural impression until the two-hundred odd children, sent away without record, are more satisfactorily accounted for’. This is the first ‘Letter to the Editor’ of a medical journal by a black doctor. Smith ended with a bitter statement: ‘May the regular practitioner of medicine battle against the most deadly quackery that curses the nineteenth century, in the form of Homeopathy’”. (24)

Ironically, as a sworn enemy of quackery, McCune Smith was himself prevented from pursuing his medical studies in New York due to the racism of the medical profession:

“While still attending the Mulberry Street School, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, and after class he could be found ‘at a forge with the bellows handle in one hand and a Latin grammar in the other.’ Smith had aspirations to become a doctor, but there were obstacles to overcome: U.S. medical schools proved to be just as inhospitable to young black men as were seminaries. Medicine was still struggling to establish itself as a respectable profession. All too often, the public confused regular doctors with the ‘irregulars,’ and derided them as humbugs. So physicians policed their profession with care, determined not to admit anyone who might smell of quackery. Evidently, that automatically included blacks.” (25)

Writing from his home in New York in 1843 McCune Smith reflected on the part played by the judicial system in the perpetuation of racism:

“The laws they enact in regard to us are positive proof that our oppressors are getting more and more convinced that we are men like themselves; for they enact just such laws as the
experience of all History has shown to be necessary in order to hold men in slavery. Their opinion of our manhood, then, may be measured by the severity of their laws”. (26)

Carla Peterson suggests that “what made Smith so determined to become a doctor” against all the odds may have been “the terrible ravages of the cholera epidemic of 1832 on New York’s black community”. (27) And like other critics and biographers of McCune Smith, Peterson sees the broad Scottish education he received at Glasgow as vital to his intellectual and political formation. He was embraced by the Glasgow Emancipation Society and “found the atmosphere of freedom, the lack of ‘spirit of caste,’ intoxicating”. (28) He in turn embraced the diverse array of disciplines that were open to him:

“In his early years of study he followed a general curriculum that reflected the influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought: Latin, moral philosophy, natural history, and the like. These courses affirmed principles that Charles Andrews had already taught him – the importance of inductive reasoning, of literature and the arts, of moral sensibility. But they also introduced Smith to new forms of knowledge, notably statistics. Medical courses included anatomy, chemistry, materia medica, midwifery, surgery, and botany. Smith was given practical training as well. In anatomy classes, he dissected cadavers. At Lock Hospital, he learned about treatments for venereal disease. During his yearlong infirmary clerkship at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, he might well have worked with Robert Perry, who was studying the difference between typhus and typhoid fever”. (29)

Critics credit Glasgow as a transformative site for Smith’s developing political vision. It was there that he “absorbed Scottish Enlightenment ideals”. (30) Glasgow is viewed as the making of McCune Smith:

“McCune Smith kept his head in his books and his eyes on his studies at the University of Glasgow. He was generally in class from early morning through midafternoon, and then until late in the evening he studied Latin, Greek, Logic, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, mathematics, and eventually medicine and surgery. In Scotland he established himself as an intellectual who believed that the mind and heart together represented the most effective weapons against bondage and oppression”. (31)

The place of Glasgow as a platform for McCune Smith’s intellectual growth is a thread that runs through much of the scholarship on him:

“Glasgow was indispensable to McCune Smith’s development as a writer and scholar. He thrived at the same university that had educated Adam Smith and James Watt, and where Edmund Burke had held the ceremonial title of Rector. He absorbed the intellectual legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment. And he experienced a dearth of racism, enjoying a degree of freedom unknown to American blacks. He returned to New York City with as much training and confidence in his intellectual abilities as the most erudite white graduates, and he dedicated the rest of his life to educating and uplifting black and white Americans. He became a leading abolitionist, ran an interracial medical practice and pharmacy on fashionable West Broadway in New York City, and for twenty years served as chief physician at the New York City Colored Orphan Asylum, until racist anti-draft rioters burned it down during the Civil War.” (32)

McCune Smith maintained that intellect and moral force would win the day against slavery and the racism that propped it up:

“McCune Smith […] became a charter member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society in 1833, and his white colleagues were so impressed with his intellect that their belief in innate racial equality became ‘less a matter of abstraction to us’ than ‘a present living reality.’ In his work with the Emancipation Society, McCune Smith urged ‘the physically harmless, but morally omnipotent, weapons of truth and righteousness’ in the fight against slavery, adding that if physical means were employed, he ‘would be among the first to resist them.’ Moral weapons, he felt, would prevail in ending slavery.” (33)


Back in New York, McCune Smith was a regular correspondent for Frederick Douglass’ Paper, writing under the pen name “Communipaw”.

“Smith took the name Communipaw after a New Jersey colonial settlement—reimagined by [Washington] Irving in his writings— that brought together a mixed population of Africans, Native Americans, and Dutch settlers. Smith’s Communipaw was both himself – a mixed-race individual – and his lower Manhattan neighborhood, populated by socially diverse peoples.” (34)

According to Carla Peterson, what these writers were doing was creating a black public sphere: “Communipaw’s […] columns […] following the Anglo-American tradition, read like transcripts of coffeehouse conversations”. (35)

“Later Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, with whom Communipaw would have become familiar during his years in Glasgow, propounded theories of humans’ innate moral sense, or character, from which taste emanates.38 In a series of character sketches titled “Heads of the Colored People,” Communipaw sought to give bodily form to these abstract ideas. Like the earlier Anglo-American essayists, he endeavored to reform readers by promoting examples of self-regulation, modesty, and decorum. Yet, he also acknowledged the inadequacy of the earlier models to represent the complexities of nineteenth-century Black urban life, and so invented a modern form reflective of his community’s particular historical
geography.” (36)

In an exchange of letters in February and March 1852:

“Communipaw placed his faith in the laboring classes. […] Rejecting […] racial essentialism, Communipaw elaborated a post-Enlightenment theory of the social construction of race. By reinventing himself as Communipaw, Smith signaled his mixed racial heritage as a ‘Dutch negro,’ scoffed at the idea of racial purity, and insisted that racial mingling was a historical inevitability […] Our primary purpose, he wrote, is ‘to prove the human to be one brotherhood’”. (37)

McCune Smith was committed to an inclusive sense of who should count in black society, homing in on those engaged in manual and menial labour, and one particular piece, entitled ‘The Washerwoman’, published on 17 June 1852, encapsulates his insistence that a socially exclusive approach to community leadership is fundamentally flawed, and his determination to see race and class and gender as intertwined:

“From 1852 to 1854, a case was made in Frederick Douglass’s Paper for rethinking who ought to be dignified with the appellation Heads of the Colored People. James McCune Smith provoked this discussion via a series of nine short literary sketches collected under that title, all of which focus on the lives and liveli¬hoods of assorted free black laborers: bootblacks, washer-women, news vendors, and grave diggers, to name just a few. Largely set in New York City, where the author was a black resident of considerable prestige, Heads of the Colored People had a particular urgency in the years of its composition. McCune Smith wrote the series immediately following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, during a widespread depression among black laborers in New York City who were rapidly losing jobs to white European immigrants, and amidst the endemic racism of Northern U.S. culture. In choosing these particular subjects for literary representation, McCune Smith lent an aura of dignity to the increasingly desperate economic, political, and cultural circumstances of the free black worker. The series forced a reconsideration of what types of people should be viewed as the ‘heads’ of free black U.S. society.” (38)

On 26 August 1853 McCune Smith published a short piece entitled ‘National Council of Colored People’ in Frederick Douglass’s Paper. In another of his Communipaw pieces published in 1854, Smith, equally opposed to slavery in the South and racism in the North, commented on just how disunited the United States was, and how diverse in terms of community and experience and allegiance:

“the main reason we are not united is that we are not equally oppressed. … You cannot pick out five hundred free colored men in the free States who equally labor under the same species of oppression. In each one of the free States, and often in different parts of the same State, the laws, or public opinion, mete out to the colored man a different measure of oppression. … The result is that each man feels his peculiar wrong, but no hundred men together feel precisely the same oppression; and, while each would do fair work to remove his own, he feels differently in regard to his neighbor’s oppression”. (39)

McCune Smith chaired the inaugural convention of Radical Abolitionists on 26 June 1855, “the first time in American history that a black man chaired a national political convention”. (40)

By this time McCune Smith was recognised as a leading figure and as someone whose breadth of learning marked him out as exceptional:

“Among literary scholars, McCune Smith is best known as the author of the introduction to Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), the text that cemented Douglass’s […] turn toward radical abolitionism. But McCune Smith deserves credit as a writer in his own right, especially given the wide- ranging nature of his writing and the rich cross-fertilization of art, science, literature, and social commentary displayed across his essays”. (41)


In a fascinating essay on educated black resistance to European immigration prior to the American Civil War Jay Rubin points out that McCune Smith was one of those who objected to the attitudes of the new immigrants:

“James McCune Smith, a noted black physician and political leader, characterized the Irish mark on American institutions as almost entirely physical. ‘They dig canals, grade railroads, carry bricks and mortar, fight our battles, and fill the ranks of our standing army,’ he wrote. ‘Or they go to the polls in flocks at the bidding of their priests and by force of brute numbers help Rome establish a foothold among the ruling elements of our land’”. (42)

This seems odd, given that Smith spent five years in Glasgow’s East End, the heart of that city’s Irish immigration. Smith left Glasgow just before 10,000 Irish labourers constructed the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway line between 1838 and 1842, paving the way for the railway company to buy the land on which the University stood and allowing Smith’s alma mater to flit to its new site on Gilmorehill.

Rubin acknowledges that McCune Smith’s attitude to German immigrants was different:

“James McCune Smith urged his fellow abolitionists to seek to involve German immigrants in their cause. ‘We must awaken them from the hazy dream of physical content which beams from their countenances,’ he wrote. ‘We must talk to them of liberty and justice…. We must not permit them to sleep on, nor lie dumb while chains clank, and the lash resounds, and women shriek for help and freedom.’” (43)

The attitude to the Irish is explained by a perception of hypocrisy and self-interest. Rubin observes that Frederick Douglass questioned their political commitment:

“Black leaders regarded racial attitudes of Irish immigrants as a far greater problem. Strict adherents to the Democratic Party, they were viewed as a bulwark of the slave power in the North. ‘Deaf, dumb, and blind to the claims of liberty,’ they represented to Douglass ‘the enemies of Human Freedom, so far, at least, as our humanity is concerned.’ By what hypocrisy, he wondered, could they condemn English tyranny overseas while continuing to sanction racial oppression in America […] Black leaders voiced outrage at the speed with which newly arrived Irish people acquired the notion of white supremacy”. (44)

Frantz Fanon’s view of how easily the anti-imperialist can become the collaborator is relevant here: “The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor”. (45)


In his poetic epigraph to Heads of the Coloured People, caught between the broad brushstrokes required of the essay form and the fine toothcomb of his own expertise and insight, McCune Smith writes: “Age Zographon ariste [Come, Best of Paint¬ers],/ Graphe Zographon ariste [Paint, Best of Painters],/ Best of Painters, come away,/ Paint me the whitewash brush, I pray”. (46) Rachel Banner sees McCune Smith’s appeal to the muse as a riposte to the whitewashing of a racist capitalist culture:

“Wide, flat, and made for broad, monotonous strokes, the whitewash brush is not a particularly refined tool. And yet, the paradox of producing nuanced, social-psychological portraiture of black ‘heads’ with the blunt whitewash brush makes sense in the context of these works, for the figure of the brush evokes both a resistance to a ‘whitewashed’ rac¬ist society, and an unabashed affinity for the tools common to members of New York City’s black laboring community.” (47)

McCune Smith’s views on education and history were the fruits of his own experience as well as his considerable professional expertise:

“While James McCune Smith believed in integration, he supported separate black schools that advocated a curriculum that reflected a black perspective. Having been educated in the African Free Schools in New York City, James McCune Smith believed that black teachers had more success than white teachers with black children. James McCune Smith also presented numerous suffrage petitions to New York’s state legislature and told white abolitionists that they were not suited to fight the black man’s battles, nor could they grasp his concern. In 1855, James McCune Smith joined his boyhood friend, Henry Highland Garnet, and presented suffrage petitions before the state. He participated in the Liberty Party (founded in 1839) convention and was elected chairman, an unprecedented act by Whites in electing a Black man, even among abolitionists”. (48)

McCune Smith was more than an anti-racist; he was a theorist of racism. According to one recent critic he was, among many other disciplinary strengths, an expert in the emerging field of anthropology. He was certainly someone for whom whiteness was an object of analysis and critique. In 1844 he spoke of “the facility by which colored men and women turn white in the North”:

“The keen and practiced eyes of Southern men can instantly detect the most remote admixture of African blood; and interest and pride urge them to exercise a rigid conservatism. But here in the North, the boundary line is less distinct; the colored white has merely to change his place of abode, cut out his old associates, and courtesy will do the rest – he is a white. … Of one hundred boys who attended with me the New York African Free School in 1826-7, I could name six now living – all white”. (49)

One of the issues of today – 2021 – is whiteness, its meaning and history. In this context McCune Smith’s legacy is a fascinating one, as a special issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007 devoted to his life and work pointed out:

“Smith died just months after the end of the Civil War. As early as the 1870 census, all of Smith’s five children were listed as white. Smith soon passed into obscurity. His children and grandchildren’s desire to pass as white caused the records of the achievements of their black ancestor to fade into distant memories.” (50)

But memories can fade to black and come back. Three years after this editorial was published, McCune Smith’s great-granddaughter placed flowers on what had been his long unmarked grave. The newspaper report on this reuniting of McCune Smith and his descendants is characteristic of the complexity of history and the relative paucity of black and white narratives:

“Greta Blau, Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, made the connection after she took a course at Hunter College on the history of blacks in New York. She did some research and realized that James McCune Smith the trailblazing black doctor was the same James McCune Smith whose name was inscribed in a family Bible belonging to Martignoni, her grandmother. Her first response was, ‘But he was black. I’m white.’” (51)

The report concludes thus:

“Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University who has championed equal medical treatment for blacks, noted that Smith wrote articles in medical journals and the popular press debunking notions of black inferiority that were mainstream in his time. ‘As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category,’ Gamble said. ‘I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of Dr. James McCune Smith.’”

McCune Smith had married Malvina Barnet in the early 1840s. After his death of heart failure on 17 November 1865 a distance had opened up between him and his family:

“The 1870 census noted that Malvina and four of their children were living in Ward 15, of Brooklyn. James W. Smith, the fifth surviving child, was living in a separate household and
working as a teacher. Malvina and the five children were classified as white. Their four surviving sons married white spouses; his unmarried daughter lived with a brother. To
escape racial discrimination, his family passed into white society. McCune Smith’s legacy may have gone unnoticed, in part, because his children refused to promote their father’s legacy and shunned their African-American heritage. It was not until McCune Smith’s great great great white granddaughter, Greta Blau of New Haven, Connecticut, discovered her family connection. She was taking a course in the Black History of New York City and completing an essay on McCune Smith when she discovered the name James McCune Smith inscribed in a family Bible belonging to her grandmother, Antoinette Martignoni. Together, the descendants determined that James McCune Smith was their direct [ancestor]. From this point on, they proudly promoted his remarkable legacy and their African-American heritage”. (52)

Greta and her grandmother posed with the family Bible. This was a good news story.

Frederick Douglass, who was of mixed race like Smith – he too had a white father and a black mother – spoke highly of his fellow campaigner and former correspondent in his memoir:

“Nor were my influential friends all of the Caucasian race. While many of my own people thought me unwise and somewhat fanatical in announcing myself a fugitive slave, and in practically asserting the rights of my people, on all occasions, in season and out of season, there were brave and intelligent men of color all over the United States who gave me their cordial sympathy and support. Among these, and foremost, I place the name of Doctor James McCune Smith; educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country, he came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his fellow citizens of African descent. He was not only a learned and skillful physician, but an effective speaker, and a keen and polished writer. In my newspaper enterprise, I found in him an earnest and effective helper. The cause of his people lost an able advocate when he died. He was never among the timid who thought me too aggressive and wished me to tone down my testimony to suit the times. A brave man himself, he knew how to esteem courage in others.” (53)

It is important to bear in mind that the campus on which the James McCune Smith Learning Hub now stands is not the campus McCune Smith would have known as a student. The University of Glasgow moved from the impoverished East End to the affluent West End of the city shortly after Smith’s death. It was an act of class flight in keeping with the times, and Smith, with his lifelong commitment to the excluded and marginalised, would have viewed it with suspicion. A photograph of Glasgow’s East End entitled The Back Wynd (1899), probably taken by Thomas Annan’s son, John, depicts a black child wearing a tartan shawl sitting in a ruined back court in the wake of the University of Glasgow’s decision to go West and leave the squalor of the city’s slums behind it.

For a time in recent years there was a McCune Smith Café on Duke Street, a thoroughfare near the Old College campus which would have been a regular stamping ground for McCune Smith in his student days. Sadly it has now closed. The new Learning Hub is surrounded by cafes, in a part of the city McCune Smith would have known less well, as a place of privilege.


I mentioned Smith’s friendship with Ira Aldridge and I want to end on a Shakespearean note. On 2 March 2021 the University of Glasgow published a report entitled Understanding Racism, Transforming University Cultures. A key task in tackling racism as a University is decolonising the curriculum. Sixty years after Smith left Glasgow, Professor A. C. Bradley, the celebrated Shakespearean, was appointed to a Chair at the University. On 10 November 1892, Bradley wrote to his colleague and fellow professor Gilbert Murray, saying that he found the Glasgow students to be “a set of savages whom it is a loathsome drudgery to teach”. After his retirement Bradley reflected on his time in Glasgow, “the contact with the men kept me sweeter … but I remember the grind with horror”. (54) Best known for his book on Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley had some interesting asides on Othello and race:

“If the reader has even chanced to see an African violently excited, he may have been startled to observe how completely at a loss he was to interpret those bodily expressions of passion which in a fellow-countryman he understands at once, and in a European foreigner with somewhat less certainty. The effect of a difference in blood in increasing Othello’s bewilderment regarding his wife is not sufficiently realised. The same effect has to be remembered in regard to Desdemona’s mistakes in dealing with Othello in his anger”. (55)

What reader is Bradley addressing? Saying he was of his time is hardly an excuse, since he was a professor at a University that had admitted a young man seventy years earlier who proved to be a far superior interpreter of bodily expressions than Bradley. Bradley goes further, digging a hole for himself in a further aside buried in another footnote:

“I will not discuss the further question whether, granted that to Shakespeare Othello was a black, he should be represented as a black in our theatres now. I dare say not. We do not like the real Shakespeare. We like to have his language pruned and his conceptions flattened into something that suits our mouths and minds. […] Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination and sink us below not Shakespeare only but the audiences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”. (56)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called James McCune Smith a “pioneering polyglot”: “Fluent in Greek, Latin, and French, and proficient in German, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew, McCune Smith was a man at home with the world’s major tongues; he was both a citizen of the world and a citizen of the word”. (57) Long before the interdisciplinary field of Medical Humanities emerged as a collaborative and innovative research area, McCune Smith was demonstrating the strength of the kind of knowledge exchange and public engagement so much valued today. As Gates remarks, this Glasgow medical graduate was no observer of rigid disciplinary boundaries any more than he was a respecter of racial barriers:

“McCune Smith was the prototypical black modernist, half a century before modernism was born. He argued that ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultures were mutually constitutive; he was as comfortable reading Aristotle and Virgil, Montaigne and Shakespeare, Carlyle and Mill, Byron and the Romantics, as he was reading his contemporaries Melville and Whitman. He regularly quoted and reflected upon Melville and Whitman, as well as his upon fellow black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown […] Indeed, James McCune Smith was most probably the first experimental writer in the African American tradition, a premodern postmodernist, as it were, a writer who was as fascinated with language for language’s sake as he was with content, with the essay’s capacity to influence or persuade.” (58)

With the opening of the James McCune Smith Learning Hub and the University of Glasgow’s commitment to decolonising the curriculum – which also means decolonising a whole critical tradition –the role of the humanities in understanding racism takes on a fresh importance. In this regard we have more to learn from McCune Smith than Bradley. We should certainly read more by and about this remarkable man. He was a hub as well as a spokesperson. In a short film made by the New York Historical Society Danny Glover voiced McCune Smith in a manner that suggested there might be dramatic potential in a biopic.


(1) See John Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). This was one of the flagship volumes that launched Oxford’s Collected Black Writings series.
(2) Britt Rusert, ‘The Banneker Age: Black Afterlives of Early National Science’, in Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2017), 33-64, at 51. The facts of McCune Smith’s life are not entirely settled. There is a lot of inconsistency especially in the earlier critical tradition. In a tribute published in 1945, but written earlier, the author of a brief biographical sketch states that McCune Smith was “sent to Edinburgh, Scotland”, rather than to Glasgow, but this outline of his life adds that the woman he married, Malvenia Barnet, was “the daughter of James Barnet, Grand Master of Masons for the State of New York”. A. A. Schomburg, ‘James McCune Smith’, Negro History Bulletin 9, 2 (1945): 41-42, at 42. For a more recent appraisal see David W. Blight, ‘In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual’, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9, 2 (1985): 7-25. New work on McCune Smith will transform our understanding. See for example Carla L. Peterson, ‘Reconstructing James McCune Smith’s Alexandrine Library: The New York State/County and National Conventions (1845-1855)’, in P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah L. Patterson (eds.), The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 105-122.
(3) Thomas M. Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813- 1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree’, Journal of the National Medical Association 95, 7 (July 2003): 603-614, at 603.
(4) Craig D. Townsend, ‘The Chains That Bind’, in Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 73-83, at 73. The context was a legal hearing in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act at which McCune Smith was attempting to debunk definitions of race designed to incriminate or intimidate.
(5) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 605.
(6) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 606. On the wider history of Africans and African Americans in Scotland see Ian Duffield, ‘Identity, Community and the Lived Experience of Black Scots from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid‐nineteenth Centuries’, Immigrants & Minorities 11, 2 (1992): 105-129.
(7) Jacob Crane, ‘“Razed to the Knees”: The Anti-Heroic Body in James McCune Smith’s “The Heads of Colored People”‘, African American Review 51, 1 (2018): 7-21, esp. 19-20, n.7.
(8) Cited in Crane, ‘“Razed to the Knees”‘, 20, n.7.
(9) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 608.
(10) See Bernth Lindfors, ‘Ira Aldridge as Macbeth’, in Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (eds.), Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance, Signs of Race (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 45-54.
(11) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 604.
(12) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 608.
(13) C. F. P., ‘The Glasgow Lock Hospital, 41 Rottenrow’, Glasgow Medical Journal 30, 1 (1888): 48-49. The Lock has been the subject of important archival work by Anna Forrest, librarian at Glasgow’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.
(14) ‘Editorial Dedication: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 55 (2007): 1.
(15) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 610.
(16) Lundy Braun, ‘Black Lungs and White Lungs: The Science of White Supremacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States’, in Breathing Race into the Machine Book: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 28-54, at 30.
(17) Molly Rogers, ‘Scientific Moonshine’, in Molly Rogers and David W. Blight (eds.), Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-century America )(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 253-268, at 264.
(18) Rogers, ‘Scientific Moonshine’, 266.
(19) J. John Harris III, Cleopatra Figgures, and David G. Carter, ‘A Historical Perspective of the Emergence of Higher Education in Black Colleges’, Journal of Black Studies 6, 1 (1975): 55-68, at 57. For background see Axel C. Hansen, ‘Black Americans in Medicine’, Journal of the National Medical Association 76, 7 (1984): 693-695.
(20) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Community Building: Circa 1840’, in Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press), 117-146, at 119.
(21) Peterson, ‘Community Building: Circa 1840’, 130.
(22) Ivy G. Wilson, ‘The Writing on the Wall: Revolutionary Aesthetics and Interior Spaces’, in Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby (eds.), American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 56-72, at 66.
(23) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 603. See James McCune Smith, ‘On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia’, Anglo-African Magazine 1, 8 (August 1859): 225-238.
(24) Leslie A. Falk, ‘Black Abolitionist Doctors and Healers, 1810-1885’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 54, 2 (1980): 258-272, at 260. Smith’s ‘Lay Puffery of Homeopathy’ appeared in The Annalist (1847-8): 348-351.
(25) Carla L. Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 114.
(26) Cited in Faith Marchal, ‘When Freeing the Slaves Was Illegal: “Reverse-Trafficking” and the Unholy, Unruly Rule of Law’, in John Winterdyk and Jackie Jones (ed.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 51-66, at 54.
(27) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115.
(28) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115:
(29) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115.
(30) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste: Urban Modernities from the Tatler and Spectator to Frederick Douglass’ Paper’, American Literary History 32.4 (2020): 691-722, at 701.
(31) John Stauffer, ‘The Panic and the Making of Abolitionists’, in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 95-133, at 123.
(32) John Stauffer, ‘Remaking the Republic of Letters: James McCune Smith and the Classical Tradition’, in K. P. Van Anglen and James Engell (eds.), The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 220-240, at 222.
(33) Stauffer, ‘The Panic and the Making of Abolitionists’, 124.
(34) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 701-2.
(35) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 704. For another take on the black public sphere see Willy Maley, ‘Peripheral Vision: Black Public Intellectuals and the Postcolonial Paradigm’, in Alex Benchimol and Willy Maley (eds.), Spheres of Influence: Intellectual and Cultural Publics from Shakespeare to Habermas (Oxford and Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007), 295-317.
(36) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 709.
(37) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 712.
(38) Rachel Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things: Labors of Freedom in James McCune Smith’s “The Washerwoman”‘, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 59, 2 (2013): 291-328, at 291.
(39) Van Gosse, ‘Patchwork Nation: Racial Orders and Disorder in the United States, 1790-1860’, Journal of the Early Republic 40, 1 (2020): 45-81, at 49. Gosse is one of several critics who credit his Glasgow experience as key to Smith’s progressive radicalism: “McCune Smith began his Manhattan medical practice in 1837, after earning three degrees in enlightened Scotland” (81).
(40) John Stauffer, ‘The Radical Abolitionist Call to Arms’, in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 8-44, at 10.
(41) Rusert, ‘The Banneker Age’, 51.
(42) Jay Rubin, ‘Black Nativism: The European Immigrant in Negro Thought, 1830-1860’, Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 39, 3 (1978): 193-202, at 193. See also David J. Hellwig, ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: Patterns of Black Nativism, 1830-1930’, American Studies 23, 1 (1982): 85-98; and Susan Roth Breitzer, ‘Race, Immigration, and Contested Americanness: Black Nativism and the American Labor Movement, 1880-1930’, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4, 2 (2011): 269-283.
(43) Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 197.
(44) Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 197-8.
(45) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K Bhabha (New York: Grove Press, 2004; first published 1961), 16.
(46) Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things’, 298.
(47) Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things’, 298.
(48) Haroon Kharem and Eileen M. Hayes, ‘Separation or Integration: Early Black Nationalism and the Education Critique’, Counterpoints 237 (2005), 67-88, at 76.
(49 Thomas C. Patterson, ‘An Archaeology of the History of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Anthropology: James McCune Smith, Radical Abolitionist and Anthropologist’, Journal of Anthropological Research 69, 4 (2013): 459-484, at 472.
(50) ‘Editorial Dedication: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 55 (2007): 1.
(51) ‘Conn. descendants of first African American doctor finally mark relative’s grave in New York’, The Middleton Press (27 September 2010).
(52) Heidi L. Lujan and Stephen E. DiCarlo, ‘First African-American to Hold a Medical Degree: Brief History of James McCune Smith, Abolitionist, Educator, and Physician’, Advances in Physiology Education 43, 2 (2019): 134-139, at 138.
(53) Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Conn: Park Publishing, 1881), 568.
(54) G. K. Hunter, ‘Bradley, Andrew Cecil (1851–1935), literary scholar’, ODNB. Accessed 23 April 2021.
(55) A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1905), p.193, n.99. One critic speaks in an aside of “Bradley’s nervously footnoted anxiety about how ‘the aversion of our blood’ might respond to the sight of a black Othello”, which strikes me as quite a euphemism. See Michael Neill, ‘Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello’, Shakespeare Quarterly 40, 4 (1989): 383-412, at 391-392.
(56) Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p.202, n.105.
(57) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘Foreword’, in Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith, x.
(58) Gates, Jr., ‘Foreword’, in Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith, x-xi.

James Maley’s Memories of Spain in 1937

“There was no good speaking of the menace of fascism and not going to fight it myself”.

New information about my father’s time in Spain has come to light. James Maley went to Spain in December 1936, took part in the Battle of Jarama the following February, and then spent several months as a POW. I grew up with two pictures from that time, frames cut from a newsreel from 23 March 1937 that I watched in its original format for the first time on the 27th of September this year when Tam Watters, whose father George was imprisoned alongside mine, sent me a copy. A few days later I came across an image online that must come from another newsreel that shows my father walking down a street with his comrades and fellow prisoners. I suspect there’s more material out there.

When my father died aged 99 on the 9th of April 2007 a military historian asked if he could see his papers. I had to tell him that my father had no papers, just those two photos taken from that newsreel. But I slowly became aware of an archive. On the 12th of July 2004, three years before his death, my father had given an interview to a friend of mine, Craig Curran, which was in a format I couldn’t access. Finally in 2015 Craig converted the video and I transcribed the audio with Dini Power, and posted on YouTube in 2015. My father was 96 years of age when he gave that interview to Craig. Although he was still as sharp as a tack he did wander a bit and was hard to pin down on some points. Then this year I got hold of another interview with my father, one he gave to the Imperial War Museum on Tuesday 9th of April 1991, when he was a youthful 83 years old. This was new to me. It was fascinating to hear my father’s voice from this time talking so intently about Spain to Conrad Wood, who, like Craig Curran, was an excellent interviewer, and he caught my father at a time when he had more anecdotes on the tip of his tongue.[I]

The interview was conducted a few months after my brother John and I staged a play, From the Calton to Catalonia, based loosely on my father’s time in Spain, taking the two frames from the lost newsreel as our starting-point. The thing is, John and I never thought to interview my father. We had heard some of his stories, but we knew very little about his time in Spain beyond the fact of his being there, his capture, and the images cut from the newsreel. When writing the play we drew on printed sources like Iain MacDougall’s edited collection Voices from the Spanish Civil War: Personal Recollections of Scottish Volunteers in Republican Spain, 1936-39 (1986), but James Maley’s voice wasn’t among the International Brigade members interviewed by MacDougall. In fact it was the absence of our father’s voice from MacDougall’s book that spurred John and I into writing the play. James Maley had shown a lifetime of commitment but was rarely recognised except locally. He had a habit of falling out with people and maybe this is why he never seemed to be included in rolls of honour.

I had attended an event with my father in 1989 to unveil a plaque to William Keegan, an ex-miner from Baillieston in Glasgow who had died at the Battle of Brunete on 18th July 1937, and at the civilised tea and biscuits that followed my father, still a communist, was arguing with the Labour Party members and representatives present who had organised the ceremony. One of them said, “Oh James, you’re like a bear with a burnt arse!”, which struck me as a very apt description of my father, and that line made its way into the play.

There was another reason that John and I were unable to interview my father: his mind was nearly always focused on the present and the future. Not that he never looked back, just that he was always watching the news and reading the papers, including the Beijing Review. Journalists who wanted to speak to him about Spain had to persist in order to get past Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the end Sudan. That’s why Conrad Wood’s interview for the Imperial War Museum stands out. He doggedly got him to stick to one subject and teased out some terrific vignettes.

With very few exceptions, my father never names his comrades. (There’s a passing reference to Charles “Cheeky” McCaig, from Garngad, of 1930s Glasgow street gang the Cheeky Forty). And my father never complains about mistreatment. That’s just the way he was. He recalls how he saw a man having his brains blown out right in front of him, was punched in the face himself, stuck in a cell with nine men and a dry toilet with no paper and very little to eat or drink, being infested with lice, and seeing the “death van” appear at the place where they were being held. Yet he can say he was “never ill-treated once”. That was the James Maley who would drink from the Irrawaddy River a few years later while dead bodies floated past. The James Maley captured at Jarama in 1937 and captured seventy years later in a song by Glasgow band The Wakes called These Hands.

Recalling his time as a POW in Spain he talks about being pulled up for singing republican songs on his way back from the toilet, laughs about the Capitan with the green hair, and recounts an interrogation in which he had to prove his Catholic faith by reciting “one or two of the Hail Maleys”. I let that slip of the tongue stand in the transcription. There will be other slips too – my father says he was interrogated by “Primo de Rivera” but since he died in November 1936 the interrogation is likely to have been carried out by Alfonso Merry del Val.[ii] This is a long read, but I’m glad this account is out there now. The Spanish Civil War has been fought over and sung about for over eighty years and there’s always something new to say or see or hear.

My father always spoke quickly, like a machine gun, and the transcription took time. There were 3 reels, the first two each about a half hour long, the 3rd half as long again. The first two reels covered my father’s time in Spain, while the 3rd reel moved on to his time in WW2 in India and from 1941-45. Since my father’s experiences in Spain had been recorded or reported in other ways Dini and I decided to transcribe the 3rd reel first, covering his years in India and Burma. We finally finished transcribing the first two reels this week. There were some words we just couldn’t make out no matter how many times we listened over, but we got most of it. My father’s story is just one among many, and the way he saw things in 1937, 1991, 2004 and 2007, the year he died, no doubt changed over time, as memory does. I’m glad this interview was done, grateful to Conrad Wood and the Imperial War Museum for giving my father a voice, and eager to see what others think of this account of events.



IWM 1991-04-09 [Tuesday 9th of April 1991]


Deposition no. 11947, Reel 1.

Interviewer: Conrad Wood.

Duration: 29:20


Conrad Wood: Mr Maley, Reel 1. Whereabouts were you born please?

James Maley: I was born in the Calton.

CW: Where’s that?

JM: In part of Glasgow. It’s actually in the centre of Glasgow.

CW: And what did your father do for a living?

JM: He was a corporation navvy. He worked on the streets, on the roads.

CW: Was he Scottish?

JM: He was Irish.

CW: He’d been born in Ireland?

JM: Yes he was born in Ireland. County Mayo.

CW: So were you brought up as a Catholic?

JM: Yes.

CW: And was you mother Irish too?

JM: No my mother was Scottish.

CW: And she was a Catholic?

JM: She was a Catholic, aye.

CW: Did you go to school in Glasgow?

JM: In Glasgow, yes.

CW: Whereabouts?

JM: St Alphonsus, in the Calton. Greendyke Street.

CW: Was this a Catholic school?

JM: Yes, a Catholic school.

CW: And how old were you when you left there?

JM: Fourteen.

CW: Did you get a job?

JM: Yes, selling rolls round the doors. And cakes. That was my first job.

CW: How did you come to be interested in politics?

JM: Well it goes back a long time. It goes back to when I was five years of age. I was at the pictures in the Calton and I was watching a film about the Yellow Peril, in 1913. And then in 1914 I watched all the soldiers marching away to the railway station in Glasgow, in 1914, and then I got to know that there were two ships being hurriedly built on the Clyde, war ships, and they were called the Invincible and the Inflexible, and in 1916 they sailed for the Colonial and Falkland Islands. And then during my time at school I got to realise that religion was the opium of the people, and that the Labour Party were also the enemy of the people. And when the young men came home from the first world war I heard them talking at the street corners about The Iron Heel. Although I didn’t know too much about what The Iron Heel was about I was interested in listening to them. And there was also a paper called John Bull that was fighting on behalf of the ex-soldiers after the First World War, and times were bad then. There were no jobs for the ones who came home from the First World War. Some of these men who came home in 1918 never worked except for two jobs from the dole, from the labour exchange. One was in Cumbernauld and one was in Glasgow here.

CW: When they were talking about The Iron Heel, were they talking about Jack London?

JM: Aye, Jack London. I found that out later on. But at that time I just didn’t know what The Iron Heel was about. That’s what they were talking about. Well one was Palace Riggs which was in Cumbernauld

CW: This was the job they were working on?

JM: …and the other job was the big hospital which I can’t just remember now. It’s in my mind but I can’t just remember the name of it now but they worked in that too, that was the two big jobs and they got a couple of shillings extra for working in these jobs, same with, like the unemployed schemes they’re talking about just now.

CW: So this is how you became interested in politics?

JM: I did become interested in politics.

CW: And did you join a party, or…organisation?

JM: Well, what happened was that my father died in 1929, and I’d relations in America and I went to America and the Depression was on. So I came back home in September 1931 and there was demonstrations, unemployed demonstrations taking place in Glasgow. So I joined the demonstrations and then I joined the Communist Party Tuesday 16th of February 1932.

CW: Whereabouts?

JM: In Glasgow, in eh Parkhead.

CW: At a public meeting?

JM: No what happened was, I knew if I joined this branch in Parkhead at the time I was going to have a lot of work to do. And I wasn’t just too keen on it. Then one night I couldn’t get The Daily Worker, so I went to where they met in this place and knocked at the door, and the man opened the door and said what is it you want? I said I want The Daily Worker. Oh he said come on in. I went in, sat down, that was me in. And two weeks later I was on the platform speaking.

CW: Which branch of the Communist Party did you belong to?

JM: Parkhead, at that time.

CW: Who was the secretary then?
JM: Oh…his name was…what was his name again…

CW: Doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten. But what kind of work were they doing in the Communist Party then? Was it an active branch?

JM: Well actually I was the branch. I became the branch. They werenae doing very much till I joined them and I became the speaker.

CW: So they were at a low ebb?

JM: Yes and in any branch at all, if you haven’t got a speaker you’re at a low ebb. It’s the speaker that makes the crowd at the cross. I started to speak at Parkhead Cross and from there the branch more was done, more work was done and everything else was done.

CW: What kind of membership did you have?

JM: About fifteen was usually the most.

CW: So did you take over the secretaryship?

JM: I never took… I never had any job in the communist party in my life. I just became what you call the organiser. That was all but no official…

CW: And you enjoyed public speaking?

JM: Oh I enjoyed the public speaking. I’m not saying I was good or not but in 1933, August 1933, one man came up to me at the cross, Parkhead Cross, he said he was going to stand as the ILP candidate in Glasgow, Independent Labour Party, and he wanted to know if he could speak on the platform along with me. That was it.

CW: Was there much of a black shirt presence in Glasgow?

JM: No not too much in Glasgow.

CW: So you weren’t involved very much in fighting against the black shirts?

JM: No I never saw many black shirts in Glasgow.

CW: Can you tell me how you came to go to Spain, and why you went?

JM: Well you see, being in the Communist party and being a speaker I’d been speaking about Hitler from the time he took power in 1933, January. So I was, I was like a teacher in school, I learned things by heart all the time, every move that was made, the British Anglo-German naval agreement, the march into the Rhineland and all these things, and then Austria and the Sudetenland and then the Munich agreement, it was just like something just came, so I knew what I was talking about.

CW: But you weren’t forced to volunteer?

JM: Oh no, no, no.

CW: Why did you decide to volunteer for it?
JM: Well you see there was no good of me speaking of the menace of fascism and all this sort of thing, and not going to fight about it myself. But I mean I wouldn’t ask anybody else to do something that I wasn’t going to do myself. So I volunteered and went.

CW: When did you volunteer, do you remember?

JM: Well actually it was just about, nearly the end of the year. You see well the position I was in, I was staying in Shettleston although I was in the Parkhead branch, and the MP for Shettleston had went to Spain and came back and made a big attack on the Catholic church.[iii] So it didn’t go down too well with a lot of people in Shettleston, so he went back the second time and then he came back and made a big attack on the Communist party, but he didn’t retract what he had said about the Catholic church, and by a bit of bad luck for one of the three councillors, who was himself a Catholic, Councillor Heenan, he was standing at that time for the council, and they were held at that time on the first Tuesday of November, and for the first time in Shettleston the ILP candidate got beat because of the campaign against him. And he had never mentioned Spain. And it was after that that I went to Spain.

CW: So, had you become…you were an atheist by then, were you?

JM: Well, you might as well say I was an atheist.

CW: Were you opposed to the Catholic church?
JM: No, no I wasn’t opposed to the Catholic church, well I mean I never mentioned religion, if people want to go, go, but I mean eh it be kind of hard, see when I was at school I realised that I was asked to become a priest a lot of times at school but I realised to become a priest well it wasn’t an easy job to become or do, I mean if you believed in religion then it was something you’d have to… be different from other people. I mean you’d have to be, live different from the ordinary person, whereas at the present time if I stood at the corner, I realised if I stood at the corner and watched people passing by, even where I lived I couldn’t say that’s a Catholic, that’s a Protestant. I mean there was nothing to define them, they all just lived the same. But to be a priest you’d have to live different. And that’s something, well, I wasn’t prepared to do.

CW: What was the attitude of your comrades in the Communist party in Glasgow to you volunteering for Spain? Did they encourage you, or…?

JM: No, I never, actually I never told anybody, but there were quite a few from the district I was in joined after me, followed my example.

CW: Were you the first one in your area to volunteer for Spain?

JM: Yes, and where I lived. See although I was in the Parkhead branch I stayed in Shettleston which was just like being here and living down in Springburn and after…well what happened was this, was that although I was in the Parkhead branch in 1935, February, I moved to Shettleston, well I…I started a Shettleston branch, and started speaking in Shettleston, and for that year and a half before I went to Spain a lot got thing my too and I began to realise and after I went another half a dozen or so went. (11.17)

CW: How did you go about getting to Spain and getting yourself enrolled in the International Brigades?

JM: Oh it was quite simple. Actually when I went to Spain I left from George’s Square and there were three bus loads, three double decker buses together and they just all left George Square and right through to London, come off there and eh…

CW: Were they all volunteers for Spain?

JM: Oh yes, they were all volunteers. Just went quite simple, went to London. I went to the pictures that night, then we got the boat train to Paris and stopped in Paris, and then went through to Spain.

CW: Was this before or after Christmas in 1936?

JM: This was before.

CW: Before Christmas?
JM: Aye, aye.

CW: But in December?

JM: Uh-huh. It was quite easy going.

CW: Did you go to Communist Party headquarters in King Street in London?

JM: Well I can’t remember, I went to the headquarters in France.

CW: What happened there?

JM: Well, we just got…well whoever was in charge, got the instructions, you know, but well we just knew we were there and thingmy and we just went. I mean there…

CW: Who was in charge of the party?

JM: That’s something I couldn’t tell you now.

CW: Do you remember the names of any of the other chaps who were with you in the party?

JM: Oh aye yes, well there was some funny names, God there was some from Royston. Cheeky McCaig and some of them were real … well it was different once we got to Spain, some of the volunteered but they weren’t political. I mean, a lot of them didn’t just know, well they couldn’t have told you why they were going.

CW: So why did they go?

JM: Well I suppose some was for adventure maybe, but I mean I knew what I was going for.

CW: Do you remember the names of any of the others who were in the party who were going with you?

JM: Well see they were from other branches at that time. I would be the only one from Shettleston then.

CW: But it must have been a big party if?
JM: Oh aye, there were three double bus…well you see…well some of them came but weren’t in the party, or any party. But just had volunteered.

CW: But the group of you who were going, if they came from three buses, must have been a big group.

JM: Well they were a big group, but I mean eh, it’s like names, I never bothered much about names.

CW: And you had no trouble from the authorities?
JM: No trouble at all. No trouble.

CW: In France or Britain?

JM: No, just right through. It was just as easy as if I was going now with a passport. There was really no bother in going at that time.

CW: And how did you travel from Paris down to Spain?

JM: Just right through the same way, through Perpignan, Figueres, Albacete, into Spain, I mean there was no bother. No hassle. No walking, no nothing.

CW: And did you…you went by rail? Or by bus?

JM: Oh by rail. No, we had no bother at all in our bunch.

CW: Did you cross the Spanish frontier on the train?

JM: Well I don’t know much about frontiers but nobody stopped us, we had no trouble at all.

CW: Where did you go to in Spain?
JM: Well we went…well I need to look at the map. Perpignan then Figueres then Albacete, that’s where they all went to finally, Albacete. I think we were inside Spain…Perpignan is in France isn’t it?

CW: Yes.

JM: Then we went to Figueres.

CW: Yes.

JM: And then Albacete.

CW: Did any…

JM: Albacete was the place where they all went.

CW: Did any incidents happen on the journey? To Spain? Any anecdotes you can give?

JM: No, no…it was one of the fastest…you couldn’t have went any quicker. I mean there were no holdups. […] we had no holdup at all. It was plain sailing, at that time. I don’t know if it got any rougher after that but it was plain sailing at that time we went.

CW: What kind of reception did you get from Spanish people when you arrived?

JM: Oh, good. Good.

CW: What did they do?

JM: Well they were hospitable, you know, talking, everything else.
CW: What happened to you at Albacete?

JM: Well that was like a sort of big place where they all passed through gradually, so just in there, well, it was like the British army, we just left that to the generals, the leaders who were supposed to be leading. We got issued with uniforms, like, you know.
CW: At Albacete?

JM: I think it was Albacete we got issued. It was like a Czech uniform, you know, the khaki but the trousers had the elastic here and they just folded over the boots, like, like everything else we got rigged out.
CW: The elastic at the bottom of the trousers?

JM: Aye, sort of, trousers and elastic and it folded over the trousers, you know as if it had elastic and then it just all folded over.

CW: So they were like plus-fours?

JM: Well no, just at the bottom, they were only about four inches, or six inches of elastic. So it was just like you had elastic there and that just folded over the top.

CW: And you had shirts and jackets?

JM: Oh aye, we’d get shirts and jackets.

CW: And caps?

JM: Aye, and a cap, oh aye.

CW: What was the cap?

JM: Oh the cap, it was something like the photos here, only a different uniform, you know, and sort of a….

CW: And where did you get your arms? In Albacete?

JM: Well that’s what I’m just wondering. It was Russian rifles, you know with the thingmy and the sort of periscope sort of thing on the top.

CW: The sight?
JM: Aye, the sight. And for the bayonet. They were quite light, you know, they weren’t heavy, you know, the same as the old Lee Enfields.

CW: Were they new, or had they been used?

JM: They were new. The rifles were new.

CW: Were they good rifles?
JM: They were good enough. Of course it all depends on the man who’s using them. See I’d been in the Territorials.

CW: Where had you been in the Territorials?
JM: In Glasgow.

CW: And which unit had you belonged to here?

JM: The 58th Cameronians. So I could fire the gun, know what I mean. Some people are just natural at firing the rifle.

CW: What other training had you got in the Cameronians?

JM: Just the rifle.

CW: Had you been away to camp?

JM: Oh aye, Dechmont.

CW: To where?

JM: Dechmont Camp, Cambuslang.

CW: The camp is called Dechmont Camp?
JM: Aye, but it was in Cambuslang. It was Dechmont that was the name of the place. We called that bit Dechmont, you know. They all trained there, you know, the, all the units in Glasgow.

CW: Why had you joined the TA?

JM: Well, I just seemed to have taken a notion that it would be a good idea to join it. I just joined it at the right time. Actually I just joined it a year before we went to Spain.

CW: Had you joined it for the training, or for the money, or what?

JM: Well, you see, as they say, coming events cast their shadow before, and I knew the war was coming.

CW: Doesn’t the…don’t the Cameronians have a Protestant tradition in the unit?

JM: Yes but you see I’ll tell you…that’s right, it did, actually out of about twenty that were there that day, and past the doctor, there was only myself and a young chap of seventeen got taken in. You see what it is, I’d done a lot of walking, and eh, even, I was known by my walk.

CW: How do you mean?
JM: Well I walked down to the Daily Record office when I was fifty years of age and the article was in the papers. He didn’t mention my name but he does describe me walking in, and people I hadn’t seen for a while said to me: we read about you in the papers, I said what papers, what do you mean? I mean how do you know? They said, when they described you walking in we knew it was you. Even when I married my wife, her granny called me the wee sergeant major. I had…see I used to do 25, 30 a day. Miles. I had the walk.

CW: Were you a good shot in the Cameronians?
JM: Well I’ll tell you a funny thing about being a good shot. I was a half-decent shot, but I always knew that I could kill the other man. It’s not, see, I knew what the other person was gonnae do. That’s the main thing. I had that kind of…when I went to America, well there was somebody to meet me in Cleveland Ohio. I left New York in the train. I didn’t know who the person was, but when I came off the train it was loaded with people and I walked straight over to this woman and she said: how did you know it was me? I couldnae explain it to her but I’ve got that…

CW: Instinct.

JM: Instinct. Aye, I’ve got that. I had that in the army too. I had that in Burma too. The major told me I was the only man who knew what to do. I’ve got that instinct, that’s the main thing.

CW: So the same instinct that told you it was me when I arrived at your flat?

JM: And I came down the stairs, aye. And I knew you’d be looking at the names up on the thingmy, and wondering, pressing a button and no getting any answer.

CW: In Albacete, in your group, were there any others who’d had any military training, like you?

JM: Oh yes there was one or two who had, well there was one that had been in the Scots Guards, and then there was another man who’d been in the First World War. And he told me, he said: remember, when you go up here, everybody in front of you is the enemy. When we went into action like, you know. Oh aye there was one or two but they never had, that was the only one who had been in the First World War, he was older than the rest. But the rest, some of them had been in the peace time army, well I mean, they hadnae seen any action, real action. Just like training.

CW: What happened to you after Albacete? Where did you go then?

JM: Madrigueras.

CW: What was that?

JM: That was where we were camped, that was our training place, we were going to train there.

CW: And what month was this, that you reached there, do you think?

JM: Beginning of January.
CW: Can you describe the training you had at Madrigueras?

JM: It really wasn’t much. It was only really marching and…we didn’t really get time to train because we moved up…we were only there five weeks then we got moved, started to move up to the front.

CW: So it was just drill?

JM: Drill and that, not really much training. We didnae get much time to train.

CW: Did you get any political instruction at Madrigueras?

JM: No, there wasn’t much political talking.

CW: So what were you doing most of the time?

JM: Well just getting used to the place and the…it was a small place, you know, getting used to the Spaniards and just learning a bit of the language. And that was…

CW: Did you pick up much of the language?

JM: Well, as I told you before, the first day I was there a little boy spoke to me. I didn’t know what he was talking about but I knew what he meant and I got some food and went with him and took it to his mother.

CW: So he was asking you for food?
JM: Food.

CW: For his family?

JM: That’s right. He was asking me for food.

CW: Were they starving?

JM: Well they could have done with some food I think, yeh. Tins. I got them some army tinned stuff, you know.
CW: Did you have enough food in the International Brigade?

JM: Oh aye. We went into some of the big, what you call a public house here, and some of the Spaniards’ houses, and they all ate off the one dish, and usually it was vino they took instead of tea or coffee. And just one dish, they all took out the one dish. I mean nobody had their own thing for what they ate.

CW: So you were moved to the front because of the emergency?

JM: That’s right.

CW: Over Madrid?

JM: Aye.

CW: Can you tell me how it all happened? How you moved to the front?

JM: Well we went up in lorries.

CW: Were you in a unit by now?
JM: In a unit, aye.

CW: Which unit were you in?

JM: Well it was called the 15th Brigade. It was the 15th. I never really bothered much about units. The main thing was…the name doesn’t matter.

CW: But were you in a company?

JM: We were in a company, aye.

CW: Which company were you in?

JM: Machine gun company. The machine gun company. We had eight Maxim old Russian machine guns. The ones on wheels. You know the ones on wheels, and…

CW: Yes.

JM: Pre-war, you know, 1914.

CW: Who was in charge of this machine gun company?

JM: Well his name was…there were two of them, there was Harold Fry and Dickson [Ted Dickinson] was the name of the other one. Dickson.

CW: And were you in a platoon?

JM: Just the machine gun company.

CW: So it wasn’t sub-divided into platoons?
JM: No.

CW: So you went in lorries. Where to?

JM: Up to near the front.

CW: At Jarama?

JM: Jarama.

CW: What did you find when you got there?

JM: Well we found out…we came off the trucks and started to go forward, and after two or three hundred yards going forward the retreat was coming back and going down past us. And we were going through. There were soldiers running past us and we were going up. Actually there was soldiers out of the British battalion dropping, going up, without firing a shot, getting killed.

CW: Who were these soldiers who were retreating?

JM: Well it was other ones who’d been up there, different, well, Spaniards and there were also some international brigade who were holding the line a bit, the Franco-Belgians were away up further on than us on the right, though we didn’t know that at the time. And coming through the middle of us, Spaniards, you see the Spaniards I would say, are like the Italians, they’re not just like British or German soldiers in the fighting spirit or training or anything else, and eh…I think we made a mistake our lot was that instead of going forward when the rest were coming through us if we’d formed a line then and there, see? And tried to rally. Instead of that we went, we started to go through into a place that was getting cut, they were all coming back from. And some of our chaps actually going through got killed. Without having seen the enemy.

CW: Were these troops who were retreating panic-stricken?

JM: Well, well not actually. Just like a retreat, you know, when somebody starts to go, one part of the line starts to go then there’s a drift back, and…

CW: Were they taking rifles with them?

JM: Oh aye, they were taking rifles. Actually there wasn’t many, much heavy equipment with our side at that time. I mean we’d be about the best with the heavy machine guns, although they were old.

CW: Did these retreating troops say anything to you?

JM: Not a word was spoken. Naebody spoke. Actually we were running, we were running, but it’s something you’d hardly believe, we were running up the front line and pulling them with us.  And eh…

CW: Pulling the machine guns?

JM: As fast as we could go, running like the hammers of hell. And eh…we went as far as we could go and then we stopped and dug in a bit, and we could see the Franco-Belgians beginning to getting up, coming back and falling down, and coming up and coming back, and eh we just had a cross-fire right across us, then, and to try and help them, although we couldn’t actually see who they were retreating from. We knew that was the position but we held them up for quite a while you see.

CW: Where did you dig in? Were you on a hill, or a valley?
JM: In a valley. It’s only well, you see, you couldn’t choose any place. We didn’t get time to choose where we dug in.

CW: Were there any trees round you?
JM: Oh aye there was trees, there was trees.

CW: What was it, an olive grove?
JM: Aye an olive grove, what they call olive groves.

CW: Did you see the enemy?

JM: Never saw the enemy. We only saw…we only actually…I never saw another man in the battalion except…



Deposition no. 11947, Reel 2.

Interviewer: Conrad Wood.

Duration: 29:08


CW: Mr James Maley, Reel 2.

JM: Right.

CW: If you could repeat what you were just saying?

JM: Well actually, I never saw another man in the battalion once we’d moved doon and round into our position.

CW: Did you move up in the daytime, or the night time?

JM: It would be the afternoon.

CW: So by the time you dug in, it was dark?

JM: It was getting, aye.

CW: When you were digging in, were you under fire?
JM: No we weren’t under fire.

CW: When did the fire resume?

JM: Well, we could hear the firing on both sides of us, but the only ones we ever saw were the Franco-Belgians on our right. They’d be about 150 yards further on, on our right, a good distance away, but we were, we could see them plain enough, and we seen them getting up, falling back, down, up, falling back, slowly retreating. So we turned our machine guns on an angle right across in front of them. So firing at that range, in order for to slow down the ones who were chasing them, though we couldn’t get a right view of them. Just a cross-fire. But everything after that on the first day was an awful lull, as if there was nobody in the place. And we were there and we wondered what was up but we stuck there where we were. We stayed there and then we started to get shells down again. But the first morning, the next morning, they came up with food, some of them. It was big bowls like apple jelly and, like ham and that, and they told us that they were trying to form a line further back. So we stayed where we were. And it would be like a pantomime. We never actually saw all the day on the Saturday another soldier. Everything deathly quiet, until Sunday we got up now and again to go further back behind some of the olive groves to do a thingmy. And then we could hear the firing. And I went myself, but you’re sitting down and under a tree and the leaves were falling on top of me because they were starting to shoot then.

CW: You mean when this man went to the toilet?
JM: I…I…

CW: You saw him?

JM: Or me, me too. If anybody went to the toilet they would see them then and they would start to fire. Rifle fire. And the leaves were falling down on top of me, but you were just doing it and crawling back into the little trench we had dug. But then the shelling started after that. But we stuck where we were because we knew we had a good field of fire, but what we didn’t know was that they were coming on both sides of us they were coming through.

CW: You were in danger of being outflanked?

JM: Well we were outflanked. We could have removed but with staying where we were in a way we held up the through advance in front of us. And then we got captured on the third day, surrounded, but we heard when we were in prison that they had formed a line further, a good bit further back they had formed a new line.  They’d … more international brigaders had come up to stiffen the Spaniards.

CW: How many of you were there in this group that was being surrounded?
JM: 28.

CW: Who was in command of you?
JM: Well there was Dickson and Fry. We got captured and eh they lined us up and eh Fry and Dickson had what you call the Sam Brown so they pulled Dickson, Dickson got pulled out first and the two Spanish soldiers on the other side stepped forward and, eh, blew his brains out.

CW: Did you see it?
JM: Oh aye, it was like somebody just doing that. With somebody’s forehead, just doing that and opening it. Aye. Eh … somebody spoke and I heard a voice saying ‘Don’t shoot, they’re English.’ They thought we were Russians. With the uniforms. At first. And eh, Fry, only for that Fry would have been shot too, we would all have been shot one at a time.

CW: They said that in Spanish, did they?

JM: Aye, somebody shouted ‘English’. They heard us. Aye. English. Ingleses. In the line. Or else we’d all have been shot. But eh after that eh, the Moors came on horseback and eh they put our hands behind our back and they tied them with sort of wire, you know.

CW: Who captured you? Was it Spaniards? Or?
JM: Spaniards, but Moroccan troops came on horseback. They were there too but it was Spaniards had captured us.

CW: Do you know what unit of Spaniards captured you?

JM: I couldn’t say, no. But I know they were Moors.

CW: The Spanish troops, were they Foreign Legion, or … Carlists, or what?

JM: Well see, the uniform I don’t know what the Carlists, well they could be Foreign Legion, but eh the Moors eh were on horseback. They were the only ones on horseback and they got the job of taking us back behind the lines and away.

CW: So you hadn’t been bound until the Moors bound you?

JM: The Moors bound us. They came off their horses and lined us up and hands behind the back.

CW: When they captured you, how did it happen. Can you describe it?

JM: Well we just found them at our back.

CW: With rifles.

JM: Hmmm. They had actually, that was the only time we saw the Spaniards on the other side. They had come through the flanks on each side. We were only 28 men in a wee group, and as I said,  the olive groves was a big huge place. Everybody had moved back.

CW: What was their manner towards you when they captured you?

JM: Well the Spanish…the Moors were making gestures with…they had these wee sort of sabres, wee sort of curved, that they were going to cut the privates off us. Aye. [laughs]

And eh…I didn’t know what this one said to me but he punched me right in the face, aye he punched me right in the face.

CW: Why do you think he punched you?
JM: I think it was because I didn’t understand what he was telling me to do.

CW: What do you think he was telling you to do?
JM: That’s what I don’t know. If I’d known I would have.

CW: So … when the Spaniards captured you, what was their attitude towards you?
JM: Well they were going to shoot us. They were gonnae shoot us one at a time. We were lined up, oh aye, it would be one at a time but Dickson was just unlucky that he got shot. Blew his brains out right in front of us. And of course Fry would have been next.

CW: Were they shouting at you?
JM: Well you know how people just shout. But what the hell they were saying I couldn’t…

CW: Were the Moors amused when they threatened to castrate you?

JM: Well I don’t know.

CW: Were they laughing, or…

JM: Well I think they might have been trying to frighten us mostly, you know.

CW: Did they harm anybody?

JM: No, I think we were lucky in the sense that any other group being captured that wasn’t English, British, would have had a rougher time. I think that’s what saved us, that we happened just to be British.

CW: Why do you think they should have given better treatment to British people?

JM: Well maybe Britain had been with the policy of non-intervention would be more liberal, you see.

CW: So when the Moors took you away were you dragged behind the horses?
JM: No, we just walked behind one another and a horse, one horse behind each one’s back. They were right up against your back the men on horseback so you hadnae time to look around ye. It was one of those cases where you were going as fast as you could because the horse was at your back with the Moor on it, going as fast as he could, so you were going … each one…

CW: So you had to run, did you?

JM: Well we were trot … wur … wurnae.

CW: How far did they move you behind the lines?

JM: Well it was hard to say in distance when you were captured like that … See, everybody thinks different. We were taken to a place called Talavera de la Reina. Talavera de la Reina. Aye.

CW: Yes, I’ve heard of it.

JM: Have you heard of it?

CW: Yes.

JM: Aye.

CW: What happened to you there?

JM: Well we were nine to a cell. And eh, it was one big dish of food. And we all ate out of it with our hands. And there was a wee toilet in the corner that you couldn’t flush. And you couldn’t wash your hands. And there was no toilet paper. And the nine of us ate with our hands out of that dish all the time it came in. There was nothing to drink, it was a thick, a sort of mass of whatever it was, but we all ate off our hands. Hands were … which proves you can do a lot of things when you’re hungry.

CW: Did you get dysentery?

JM: Well I never had anything wrong with me once.

CW: How big was the cell that you were in?

JM: It was just an ordinary prison cell. Same size as we’ve got here in Britain.

CW: Were you ale to lie down?

JM: Well, we were lucky because amongst the nine of us there was a South African Jew and he looked like a Moor, because the first day we were captured, about an hour after it the door burst open and two Moors came in with revolvers in their hands and they were looking at this South African Jew and they were saying to him “Moro, Moro. Moro, Moro”. He said “Naw, naw. South African Jew”. [Laughs] He was coloured. He looked like … well they thought he was a Moor. Well we all lay at night-time down and he lay down and we all lay down with our heads on his body. [Laughs] He was a kind of big burly chap, dark, and we all lay down like kittens with the cat. [Laughs] That’s where we lay, there was no beds, no nothing, just the floor. So, I think we were left to it.

CW: Were there any beatings?

JM: No, what they tried … two or three times they’d come in and throw wide the door, smashed open, and the Moors with the revolvers in their hands, you know, trying to frighten us, it was mostly intimidation, you know, but we got used to that.

CW: How long were you kept there?

JM: Well I couldnae say, but a couple of weeks.

CW: Were you interrogated?

JM: We got interrogated when we went to the next place. The next place was a … like a big … it had been a farm. It was a big barn. And in this there would be about a hundred men. Most of them were young Spaniards. And then there was our twenty-seven. There were two Germans. Dos Alemanes. And one Frenchman. And one Britisher who we didn’t know was British at the start, who had come off … he’d been on a ship, a merchant ship. And he’d got off at Spain and he was shouting to hell … he was saying to hell with Franco. [Laughs] And he was there too. It was after that we got interviewed in that place with Primo De Rivera.[iv]

CW: You were interrogated by Primo De Rivera?

JM: One at a time.

CW: How did you know it was him?

JM: Well that’s who they said it was.

CW: What did he look like?

JM: Oh, aye, it’d be hard to say. But he asked us what religion we were too. That was one of the questions.

CW: What language did he …?

JM: What religion we were.

CW: What language did he speak in?

JM: Oh English.

CW: Was it good English?

JM: Oh aye, aye. Aye. Oh aye, I could understand him.

CW: Did you tell him what religion you were?

JM: I just said Catholic. I’m a Catholic. So he asked me to say the .. the … one or two of the Hail Maleys and that you, I done that. I could say them. So that satisfied him.

CW: Can you remember what else you were asked?

JM: Oh, well [coughs] They asked me about this and that. You know, regarding the war and that you see but after he’d listened to me speaking I heard him say to the other ones who were there he knows F.A. He knows nothing. You see I gave him … see, you can know a lot of things and you can know nothing about the war, but you could be tortured for something you don’t know. Whereas I can give the impression that I don’t know.

CW: So you deliberately gave the impression that you…

JM: That I was stupid. That was …
CW: Were you ill-treated in the interrogation?
JM: No, no. No. No, no, no ill-treatment. That’s one thing I will say, I was never ill-treated once in the … I couldn’t complain, no.

CW: Were any of the others ill-treated?
JM: Naw.

CW: Why do you think that was?

JM: I think it was because we were British men, you know. I think if we’d have been some poor maybe Germans who had been politicians they’d have done something….
CW: What was this place where Primo De Rivera interrogated you?
JM: Well I can’t just remember the name of this place. It was a farmyard and it had been a big ba… we were in this big barn that held quite a few. It was one big barn where you’ve got boards from here to there right round it, about four feet out from the wall right round the barn. And there was, there was hens in the yard like, you know, in the farmyard.
CW: Was this place very far from Talavera de la Reina?

JM: And that’s what I couldnae … see when you’re traveling in a strange country you just cannae tell how long you’ve been on the …

CW: Did they say to you what was going to happen to you?

JM: No they never mentioned that, they never mentioned anything at all.
CW: What did you think was going to happen to you?
JM: Well, it never bothered me. But I tried to cheer up some of the rest. You know, and some of them got worried, but I was single and … well I knew what I was there for and I didn’t expect any good treatment or bad treatment.
CW: What happened to you after this interrogation?

JM: Just came back to the … the big barn. And then another one would go. Just went one at a time.

CW: And then after you’d all been interrogated what happened then?

JM: Well, we got a fright one time. The big van, there was a sort of death van. And it came this time and eh, we were all up and we were talking about making a go for it out the door, going to the door and saying “latrete” [?], and when the guard opened the door, when he was outside the door, we were going to make one rush. [Laughs]. But eh, it passed by.
CW: So there was one barn where they were executing people?
JM: No, well there might have been some of the young Spaniards getting taken away, you see, there was … thing.
CW: What happened next?

JM: Well after a while we got taken then to a big prison, Salamanca. Which was a real prison. And that’s where we were there for a while.

CW: How long were you at Salamanca?

JM: Oh, a few months. And then, see…
CW: And what were the conditions like there?
JM: Oh they were better there, they were better. You see in April 1937 we heard that there had been a big battle at, eh, Guadalajara. And the Russian planes had done that and the Italians had suffered a big reverse. And there was some talk later on that there were some of us … some of us going to be exchanged for some of the Italians. Aye. But we saw the British Consul before that, came to see us. How things were.
CW: What impression did he make on you?

JM: Well he just wanted to know if things had been … what we needed and how things were and that, you know, just a … turn-up.

CW: Was he of any help to you?

JM: Well see, we don’t … he could have been help, although we don’t know it. He could have been a help and … because we never saw him … It’s like a man coming to visit you and he goes away and he maybe gives … sees them above you again on the Spanish side and sees that there’s that wee bit of talking.
CW: Did conditions improve after he’d been?
JM: Oh aye, they were a bit better.
CW: In what way?

JM: Well the hygiene and everything else was better, you know.

CW: You said that it was better at Salamanca. In what way was it better?

JM: It was a real prison, you see. The other ones weren’t real prisons. Likesay, the one we were in, the big barn, we had to go out to the street with the big barrel, and put the suction down the well, in the street, and then bring up the water and the water was like, it smelt of petrol and that, you know. And then, in the big barn, with the hundred men, the Spaniards, including ourselves, we had a big, big drum, which was used for urinating in. And it lay there all night till the following morning, and two Spaniards would come in, guards, and carry it out, to empty it. And then the food would come in, in a big drum, for the whole lot of us. And we’d line up with our plate, and get it filled up. And in the morning you’d get what you called a loaf of pan, and that was for to do you for the following morning. But I’ll tell you what we could do. The Spaniards themselves, some of the soldiers, they didn’t have good footwear. I’m talking about the other side now. And we had got these good army boots. So some of them started to sell their boots – to the Spaniards [Laughs]. Oh they got, aye. And so they could buy something. Well I kept mine as long as I could. And then…

CW: Why did you keep them as long as you could?
JM: Well, my feet, good, then I decided one time I’d have a feast. And I sold mine. And I sat down one night to a big plate and it was filled wi goat’s milk and roe eggs. … And I ate that. […] I ate that. And then you could also get orange marmalade, maraca. See, you could use your boots that way. I mean actually the Spaniards could have took the boots of us. [Laughs] And gave us nothing. I’ll admit that was honesty, on their side. I mean the guards, they could have took the boots off us, what could we have done? Naw, that’s wan thing, I’ve never complained. I would never complain aboot being … aye, aye.
CW: What was the attitude of the guards towards you? Did they make any anti-communist remarks?

JM: No, no, no, no they never made any remarks, except at one time in the big barn, I’d went out, the toilet outside was like a big, I don’t know what it was but it was a big round place with an opening, and it was a lot of stones with a gap between them, and the smell of that stuff they put into a place and that was this condes [?] fluid or whatever ye call it …

CW: Yes…

JM: … the whole thingmy. Well that was where we did wur needs. And it was just a big, big thingmy and … It was bigger than this room, that, roundabout and two bricks, two loose, two bricks, two loose, and that’s what you used for the toilet. And the smell that came up from it was that condes [?] stuff they put doon it would have overpowered ye. And then down in the yard there was the hens and the geese, well I was coming back one time from the toilet and the guard was at the door and I, without knowing it I was singing the Spanish songs [Laughs]. And I juts, I got to the door. [Laughs] I looked, and he’s looking at me. He probably thought I was mad. [Indecipherable], he says. And jist no thinking. Aye. Naw but they … The Capitan was a laugh, he had his hair dyed green.

CW: He had what?
JM: His hair dyed green. It was green. Aye, the Capitan. Naw, I had a lot of good laughs in Spain, aye, a lot of good times tae, even as a prisoner.
CW: What were the Spanish songs which you learned?

JM: Whit? Oh, Bandiera Rossa, and then there was that other one, da-ra-de-diddly-di-da-de-dum-de-diddly-dum-de-dum-de-diddly … I’m not a marvellous singer, jist….

CW: Do you remember the words of it?

JM: Aye a wee bit. Ah cannae jist mind ae them noo. Aye, jist a … [indecipherable] Naw, good times.
CW: Coming back to Salamanca prison, em, you said that you were there a few months.
JM: Hmm, hmm.
CW: What condition were you in by the time you’d finished there?

JM: Oh I was always in good condition. I kept myself, I told ye, I kept myself, with all my walking, aye he was fit, pretty fit.
CW: So you weren’t sick.

JM: Naw, I was never sick. Naw.
CW: Did you have lice?

JM: Lice was the only thing we had in the barn. Where the farm was you used to waken up through [coughs] [indecipherable] … You’d  lie down, ye see we had wur uniform. The only thing we had on was still wur uniform, all the time, we never had them off.  And this barn, down each side of the barn and along the top was boards that came out to about five feet, boards out from here to there, right up the sides, round the back, and down the other side. Well we lay on that wi our legs, feet, half off it. Well ye’d waken up through the night wi somebody standing above ye. Lying next to you. And you just felt up the legs of your trousers, and your trousers off, hundreds a lice.
CW: And did you still have them in Salamanca?

JM: Naw. No, but well we had … We didnae hiv the lice, in Salamanca.
CW: How did you get rid of them?

JM: Well, I jist … well … we killed them actually, but we … See wi lying on the boards, the boards were never swept or nothing. The boards were dirty. They were never swept or never cleaned but the other one was a clean prison. We didn’t have the lice in Talavera de la Reina. Course it was a lovely cell, just the stone floor, and nothing else.

CW: Who else was in the Salamanca prison apart from the British International Brigaders?

JM: Oh, I never seen anybody … I never saw anybody else, for-bye our own crowd when we were there.
CW: No Spaniards or foreigners?

JM: Well they might have been there but I never saw them.
CW: How did you come to be released from Salamanca?

JM: Well we got out … We got word we were being exchanged … Well as far as we know we got exchanged for some of the Italians. And we left there just quite simple, quite easy. We never had any bother leaving there. We came right through … Aw well Burgos, Valladolid, and right through to Irun. And from Irun we got off there and we lined up and we marched across the bridge. And Christ I could walk tae. They were telling me tae slow doon, the Spaniards, but I was going like the hammers of hell in front. And when we got halfway across the French met us. That was from Irun into Bayonne.

CW: Do you know the dates that you got out of Spain?

JM: Oh it was July. I was actually … It was July ’37. So actually we were only five months in prisons altogether. And we went out just the same as … Actually, the only thing … See … It’s like everything else … I realised the difference when I went into the British Army. I’m not saying that the officers were geniuses but it was more of a … disciplined at the start. Whereas the Spanish thing … It might have got better after we … we left and as the other ones came in but at the start there was none of them had the experience of real warfare. Or anything like that, you know, whereas in the last war, although the First World War was finished some of the generals and that had been in the First World War and had that experience and the accoutrements and the organisation. That was the difference.

CW: Did you have to give an undertaking to the Franco authorities that you wouldn’t go back?

JM: Yes, we were fingerprinted. And eh, actually, there was a couple went back. When I came home, I was asked to go to London to do a bit of speaking. As a speaker, you know.
CW: Who asked you to do that?

JM: The Communist Party. See, me being a speaker, but I didn’t go to London because, eh, the one I was going to go wi… to London with … I didn’t fancy him too much. While we’d been in prison. And eh…
CW: What was the problem with him?

JM: Well he’d been trying tae make out that, well, we’d been sort of kidded on when we went over there that our side was winning [laughs]. And I told him that if our side had been winning we wouldn’t have been going over there. Told him we only went because we were needed. But that’s how things go. But I did all my own speaking where I lived. In Shettleston and that. I mean I believe in speaking locally. If everybody does their own place then …
CW: What kind of speeches did you give?

JM: Well, why I went to Spain, Help for Spain, and the situation of the war and … that even if we didn’t win we could delay the war …till, eh, delay … make the war in Spain last longer to give us more time to get ready when it did come.

CW: But did … When you were giving these speeches in Glasgow, eh, did you raise the question of other people volunteering to go?

JM: No. I’d leave that to themselves. So there was half a dozen at last volunteered for Spain.
CW: But did they come to you and say “Look, I’m thinking of going, eh, what advice do you give me?”

JM: Naw, they never came, they jist went. Ones actually you might not have thought would have went, but they went.
CW: What would you have said to them if they had asked about advice about the …

JM: Well it’s hard to give the advice to people who are going to a war. I mean, what can you tell them? You can only tell them that they’re fighting…

[Reel 2 breaks off here]


Transcribed by Willy Maley & Dini Power, and completed 6th November 2020.


[i] The Imperial War Museum had by the early 1980s completed an initial project on Spain: “Thirty-five interviews with British volunteers who fought with the International Brigade and with informants who served in other capacities during the Spanish Civil War”. See Conrad Word [Wood], ‘Ten Years of the Department of Sound Records of the Imperial War Museum’, Oral History 11, 1 (1983): 9-12, at p.10. The interview with James Maley was among a later batch.

[ii] See Daniel Gray’s excellent book on the Scottish International Brigaders, Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2008), p.62. Alfonso Merry del Val published a pamphlet in July 1937 entitled The Conflict in Spain: Communistic Misstatements Refuted (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1937). I have not yet been able consult this work but imagine it will be of interest.

[iii] John McGovern, Why Bishops Back Franco: Report of Visit of Investigation to Spain (London: Independent Labour Party, 1936).

[iv] This is likely to have been Alfonso Merry del Val.

Daddy Made Me A Communist

In 2005 I chaired a session of Glasgow’s Book Festival, Aye, Write!, entitled “Franco, Glasgow and Anarchism”. I was interviewing Stuart Christie, author of Granny Made Me An Anarchist. This was a new single volume version of Stuart’s 3-volume memoir, the other two volumes being General Franco Made me a Terrorist and Edward Heath Made me Angry. It was exciting to get the chance to meet Stuart, not just because I was an admirer of his remarkable story but also because both he and my father had something very significant in common: both men had been imprisoned for fighting Franco, thirty years apart. James Maley was captured with comrades of the International Brigade at the Battle of Jarama in 1937 and served time as a POW in Salamanca. Stuart Christie was arrested in Madrid in August 1964, aged eighteen, and charged with being part of a plot to blow up the Spanish dictator at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium during the final of the Generalissimo’s Cup. The penalty, had it been carried out, was death by garrotte, which involved slow strangulation by an iron collar, topped off by a bolt through the back of the neck.

Stuart recounted that while awaiting trial he was given some dog-eared Agatha Christie (no relation) paperbacks to read. Somebody had a sense of humour. And as I found, he has a great sense of humour himself. Billed in the blurb for this brilliant autobiography as “Britain’s most famous anarchist”, he is also one of Scotland’s funniest and fiercest political commentators. Granny Made Me An Anarchist is infused with the spirit of John Maclean, Matt McGinn, and Billy Connolly, a great Glasgow story that offers a superb overview of twentieth century – especially post-war – Scottish radicalism. It’s an explosive tale full of patter and polemics that offers sharp insights and angles on twentieth-century activism across the generations. And Christie’s fascinating story, like the long struggle it is part of, remains urgent in its relevance today.

Stuart, as an anarchist, has always been critical of the role of the Communist Party in Spain, and for obvious reasons highly critical too of Stalin and the Soviet Union. He and my father would not have seen eye-to-eye on a few things. But appearances can be deceptive, as can affiliations, including party membership. Stuart and my father both shared an antipathy towards the British state. And neither was sectarian in their political outlook. My father took no prisoners in arguments, but nor did he assume someone was in the right because they talked the talk or wore the right badge. Likewise Stuart is a no-nonsense activist and intellectual who can spot a fraud or a state agent a mile off. And he doesn’t feel the need to include the rank and file of the communist party in his condemnation of Soviet history.

When he reviewed Daniel Gray’s book about the Scottish volunteers for Spain, Homage to Caledonia, in 2009, Stuart demonstrated characteristic generosity of spirit. It would have been easy for him, given his strong anarchist sentiments, to call out the communists as dupes or stooges, as some anti-communist commentators are wont to do. Instead, rather like Orwell at the end of Homage to Catalonia, the book whose title Daniel Gray borrowed, he was able to see the ordinary heroes behind the bigger political frame. Orwell, in a passage critical of the Communist Party, had written “Please note that I am saying nothing against the rank-and-file Communist, least of all against the thousands of Communists who died heroically round Madrid … those were not the men who were directing policy”. Stuart took a similar tack when reflecting on the commitment and sacrifice of men like my father: “The selfless men and women who fought in Spain for the idea of liberty against the reactionary priest-, gun- and prison backed, medieval ideology that was Francoism are the forgotten dead and a now-dying generation to whom we have an obligation of remembrance”.

In 2011 I organised a one-day colloquium at the Mitchell Library to mark the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, an event which drew together relatives of International Brigaders as well as Scottish actors, writers and filmmakers to discuss all aspects of the struggle, from volunteers for liberty to support for refugees. Speakers included award-winning poet and novelist Jackie Kay, as well as Mike Arnott, author of Dundee and the Spanish Civil War, and Chris Dolan, author of An Anarchist’s Story. The event was called “Fighting Fascism, Fighting Franco”. Stuart was the only speaker there that day who had actually fought Franco in his own lifetime.

At the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 I found myself on the same page as Stuart. While the Communist Party line was anti-independence, Stuart saw that the breakup of Britain was in the best interests of the working class. That same year, on the 50th anniversary of his arrest, Stuart’s story was featured as part of the BBC World Service series “Witness History” in an episode entitled The Plot to Kill Franco.

In 2016, when I edited a collection of essays on Scotland and the Easter Rising, Stuart contributed a chapter detailing how his own family history was woven into the fabric of that anti-imperialist insurrection. In an echo of his reading of the Spanish Civil War he contrasted ordinary heroism with the politics of complicity and compromise.

More recently, I have had fairly regular contact with Stuart as part of  “Pertyck Cooncil”, an informal gathering of friends with common artistic and political interests. He brings gravitas but also a light heart that has carried him through some tough times. Stuart seems to have inherited his granny’s “apparently unending resources of wisdom common sense, level-headed practicality, energy and ability”.

I never had a granny like Stuart’s, a fiery character who inspired him and filled him with a passionate sense of community and a deep loathing of injustice. I suspect my father’s mother, who died when I was ten, could probably have given Stuart’s granny a run for her money. But it’s her son, my father, whose politics helped make me who I am, so I can say “Daddy Made me a Communist”. And in fact I wrote a wee poem after he died, aged 99, in 2007, with that very title borrowed from Stuart’s inspiring memoir:


Daddy Made Me A Communist
(after Stuart Christie)

Not because he was a fully paid-up
Card-carrying member of the CPGB
From the hungry thirties
Till the walls came tumbling down
And yes, beyond the beyond
(He never left the far Left)
A lifelong activist, International Brigader
Ex-POW in Spain, soapbox speaker
From Glasgow Green to Govan Cross
Who had his little helpers posting
Leaflets through letterboxes
On doors scarred by more names
Than a phonebook
Into closemouths dark as cellars
He drove us with cries of:
‘Start at the top landing!’
Dogs dogged our faltering footsteps
Through the tenements of youth
Nor because he had us
Into dialectal materialism when other kids
Were into Daleks and Maltesers
Or took us to the Socialist Fellowship
On Fridays, making us miss Mike Yarwood
Impersonating Wilson and Heath
With a wig and false teeth
Or filled the house with left-wing papers, pamphlets,
Patter, raging at the news, the government, empire, monarchy
Authority in all its shapes and shadows
The walls and bars of social norms
A teetotalitarian intoxicated by ideology
High on the craic of his Irish father
Stuck in that wild red neck of the woods
That we called home, bereft of hope
But thinking back, that was solidarity
That handclasp for a broken stranger
Hunched in a doorway
The way his father hunched on his arrival
A hundred years or more before
Despairing, defiant, clutching his collar
Yet I remember him walking
Himself one of nine, later sole survivor
Father of nine, father of mine, provider
Not sole, but solitary, pacing
In solitude through streets paved with gum
Carrying The Morning Star
In a hand that would move hot coals around
The fireplace like chess pieces while we pleaded
‘Use the poker, Daddy!’
Stepping, striding, whistling
Bunnet pushed back, eyes aglitter
As the evening star stared down
On dead-end lives of misery and mess
And I wish I had been, not son
Or seventh child, as was
But comrade, friend, supporter
Of a living cause.



Portraits and Prefaces


Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces was published 20 years ago. I first heard of it as work-in-progress in the summer of 1998 when I received “a begging letter”, as he put it, from its beleaguered author. Alasdair said he was literally begging various writers and academics to help him complete the book which he was contracted to produce for Bloomsbury and had been working on for a decade. It was to be “THE BOOK OF BOOKS” in that it brought together prefaces to their own work by great writers throughout history: “Mostly the mighty dead whose copyrights have lapsed.” Alasdair had a great sense of humour and in calling The Book of Prefaces “A BOOK FOR TODAY” he added “Only the rich and illiterate can ignore our anthology. With this in their lavatory everyone else can read nothing but newspaper supplements and still seem educated.” The idea of the book was to give a history of literature, specifically great books, in the introductory words of their authors.

In his letter Alasdair attached a list of works that still required entries. Payment for help was to comprise a portrait by Alasdair. Who could refuse such a request? I had just finished lecturing on two writers on the list, so I wrote back saying I would be glad to take on William Wycherley and William Congreve. I drafted two critical contributions on those two 17thcentury Restoration playwrights. As overall author of the volume, Alasdair reserved the right to edit these pieces as he pleased, and in the event he completely rewrote my entries.

In my lecture I had challenged the view of Restoration comedy as frivolous “Fun with Wigs”, to quote the title of a 1995 David Baddiel documentary on the subject. My lecture used contemporary documents, the writings of John Milton and the work of Michel Foucault to suggest that these Restoration dramatists were not reactionary fops. For me there was continuity between Milton’s divorce pamphlets of the 1640s and the plays of Wycherley and Congreve: both were critical of the institution of marriage.

When it came to the contributor’s portrait I told Alasdair that there was really no need, thinking of how precious his time was, but he absolutely insisted. I was duly booked in for the afternoon of Friday 4th of December 1998. I can be precise because Alasdair dated the portrait. I had imagined a sitting for a portrait to mean staying still for an hour or more, a thing I found almost impossible to do, but Alasdair allowed me to relax and chatted away, asking me questions while he was drawing. We shared stories about Glasgow’s East End back in the day. Alasdair grew up in Riddrie, and my father – who was a lot older – was raised in the Calton. I remember Alasdair seemed a bit wheezy and I asked him if he had an inhaler. He said yes, but he didn’t like to overuse it. I told him I puffed away on mine whenever I felt a wheeze coming on. I couldn’t imagine sticking to the recommended dose if it meant being breathless. Alasdair laughed; he obviously had more sense. We talked about Glasgow, Irish and Scottish literature, and Scottish independence. I suggested to Alasdair that what he was doing was telling a story about literature through prefaces. I said I was interested in Jacques Derrida, a philosopher who was fascinated by the marginal texts that framed major works. Derrida was writing a history of philosophy through prefaces and postscripts and minor texts that shone a light on larger ones. I felt Alasdair was engaged in the literary equivalent. He was curious when I made the comparison, but remained resistant to Derrida’s approach to literature, which he considered to be too theoretical.

Alasdair made two versions of my portrait, one tinted and one black and white. I never realised at the time that the portraits would appear in the book. When The Book of Prefaces was finally launched in 2000 it included an “Index of Helpers” and a section entitled “Portraits of Contributors” with 21 postage-stamp sized images, most of them done especially for the book, although he had made a couple earlier, such as Archie Hind’s in 1970, and Elspeth King’s in 1977.

The dustjacket described this unique volume as “A Short History of Literate Thought in Words by Great Writers of Four Nations from the 7th to the 20th Century Edited & Glossed by Alasdair Gray Mainly”. The publisher’s blurb included a paragraph on Alasdair’s little helpers: “While Alasdair Gray has chosen and edited all the prefaces and written most of the commentary, he has been assisted by some thirty authors who have also written commentaries. These include James Kelman, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Bernard MacLaverty, Liz Lochhead, Roger Scruton and, indeed, Virginia Woolf.”
I can’t speak for any of the other contributors, not having seen their original submissions, but although I’m credited with “glosses on WYCHERLEY’S THE COUNTRY WIFE and CONGREVE’S THE WAY OF THE WORLD” the entries themselves are entirely Alasdair’s. I found it interesting that he chose to focus more on biographical information and on what seemed to me a quite conventional way of seeing these writers – as conservative rather than subversive.
The original portrait is drawn on the cardboard backing for a pack of Marks & Spencer recycled paper. In characteristic Alasdair fashion he annotated the portrait around the frame with the words “WILLY MALEY FRIDAY 4.12.1998. This is the original drawing, untinted since I suspect that colour would obscure the purity of the line: or (if not purity) clarity…”

I never got dressed up for the portrait, it being just a headshot, but I had on an old sweatshirt that was a rich red colour and Alasdair remarked on it. When it came to making the tinted version Alasdair took the rich red colour out of the sweatshirt and put it into the background.

The Book of Prefaces is dedicated “TO PHILIP HOBSBAUM POET, CRITIC AND SERVANT OF SERVANTS OF ART.” In that case, I must be a servant of a servant of servants of Art because, as Alasdair’s helper, I was helping him, as critic, to help the artists whose work was gathered in the book. It is the most eccentric and most interesting project I’ve been involved in and the one where I feel I was paid most handsomely for the least labour.


23andMe and Me

Like many people I have an interest in genealogy and over the years I’ve tried without success to get further back in the family tree on my father’s side.

My father died aged 99 in 2007 and along with a Scottish cousin I tried to track down his Irish relatives. The family lore handed down by my father was that they came from Mayo and had all left Ireland to go either to Cleveland, Ohio, or to Glasgow around the 1890s. As far as I knew, at some time in the 1890s three O’Malley brothers – Michael, John and Edward – had come to Glasgow and three sisters had gone to America. One of the brothers, Edward, aka Ned, was my father’s father.

But other than this, the scraps of information I had were thin. I knew the dates of my paternal grandfather’s life (1871-1929). I knew that my father had gone to Cleveland to stay with one of his aunts, Mary (O’Malley) Collinton in January 1930, supposedly as the advance guard of another emigration. The Great Depression that began in October 1929 cast a shadow over his stay in Cleveland and after two years my father decided he’d had enough and came home. He lost touch with his American cousins. As far as I’m aware he never went to Ireland and had no contact with the Irish side. I know that my grandfather, Ned, had been in Ireland in the summer of 1929, because after my father died I saw a letter from one of the Ohio aunts dated December 1929 that mentions that fact; but I never had the chance, or the sense, to ask my father if he’d ever gone to Ireland. All the things you don’t think to ask till it’s too late. Some relatives came over to Glasgow for my grandfather’s funeral in November 1929, but all I had apart from those fragments were unanswered questions and trails that ran cold.

Then in the summer of 2017 my wife persuaded me to take a DNA test for an ancestry service called 23andMe (, suggesting it could open up new leads. She had done the test herself a few months earlier and it had enabled her to trace relatives on her mother’s Dutch line, as well as the Irish-Scottish line of her father, with some interesting DNA traces from other parts of the world dating back two or three centuries. I was pretty sceptical at first, mainly because £149 seemed like a lot of money just to get some spit tested. I didn’t know much about the science of it so I couldn’t really see how it might help me track down relatives across a century and two continents.

Anyway, I took the test, and the results have been a revelation.

There’s an option that allows you to connect with DNA relatives, i.e. those who share some of your DNA, and almost immediately I connected with Dominic, a third cousin living in Galway. It didn’t take long to establish that Dominic’s mother, Eileen, is my second cousin. Our grandfathers were brothers. Eileen’s grandfather, John O’Malley (1860-1942) was the older brother, but had outlived Ned by 13 years. Eileen, who was born in 1935, has memories of her grandfather up till the age of seven, whereas my own grandfather had died 31 years before I was born. We met up in Galway and exchanged stories, looked through photographs, filled in blanks. I heard moving details from her childhood, such as the memory of her grandfather singing “Two Little Girls in Blue” to her. Eileen’s mother and grandfather were O’Malleys, but if I had tried to search for her through her maiden name or married name I would not have found the link. The DNA connection enabled me to hook up with not just Dominic and Eileen but also dozens of other relatives in Ireland and America who had done the 23andMe test. I now know that some male relatives went to Cleveland in the 1920s or earlier, and that means some O’Malleys there are relatives, whereas before I thought the names had all changed. And interesting stories continue to emerge: for example I learned that Robert Emmet O’Malley, awarded a Purple Heart in 1966, was a cousin of my father’s (

I’ve swapped book suggestions by email with a cousin who lives in the States whom I’ve never met nor seen a photograph of. I don’t need to know too much, but it matters to me to know that the family who left that little Irish homestead in the 1880s and 1890s is scattered across the States, and that some are still in Ireland, since one of those three brothers who went to Glasgow ended his days in Mayo. I’ve been able to visit that homestead twice now and each time I’ve been able to learn more of the family history that I thought was lost ( I wish I had been able to talk to my father about this. If only I had asked him more questions when he was alive. My new-found cousin Eileen never saw my grandfather Ned, but she listened to his older brother John sing and speak, and meeting her really made me feel I’d got closer to my father’s father. There’s a 1929 recording of that song that my grandfather’s big brother sang to his granddaughter. Coincidentally, it’s a song about love and loss, brothers and sisters (

It has to be said that not everybody is comfortable with the idea of DNA testing. There are companies out there that give it a bad name by making outlandish claims. People worry that the information gathered could be abused, especially the medical information that it can yield; or they worry that it encourages people to see others primarily in terms of race and identity, when we need to be very wary of defining or classifying groups of people. But it has enormous potential to do good. It stands at a fascinating intersection of science and the study of society and politics. For those of us whose families were forced to migrate for reasons beyond their control, for example the impoverished Irish or African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, it gives us some insight into where they originated before they were moved, and about the social impact of colonialism, famine and war. As Professor Rick Kittles points out, the analysis of markers that show genetic mixing and population movement can allow us to deconstruct social and political ideas of race, rather than reinforcing them ( It can also enable us to make connections with long lost relatives and get a clearer sense of the history that made us and the stories that tie us together. Finding evidence of these connections can lead us to greater understanding, to surprises and occasional shocks. It can fill in some of the gaps in the narratives that get passed down through generations, and put us within touching distance of our ancestors. For me above all it’s the identification of living relatives I thought I’d never know that means most.

To anyone who has been stumped by their family tree I would recommend taking the leap and getting your DNA tested by a reputable company. My tree now has many more branches than it did before and every month or so a few new branches get added, and all thanks to 23andMe.