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.