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 (https://www.23andme.com), 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pl6yl6PBlWw).

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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ6DFxWCl0U). 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn36MHFnptc).

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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iby1C7bADno). 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.