Have you read Swindon’s most famous author?
Writer who kept his devotion to republican Spain alive in his novels
Ralph Bates, who has died in New York, aged 101, was the oldest survivor of that legendary group of British writers who gave their energies, their writings, and – in some cases – their lives to the cause of the Spanish republic in its doomed fight against fascism in the 1930s.
At some point in the 15 years before the Spanish civil war broke out in 1937, he was a communist trade union agitator and organiser in the docks and fishing industries of Catalonia, where he became a fluent speaker of Spanish and Catalan. His knowledge of Spanish working-class and peasant life would turn him into one of the Comintern’s best experts on Spain; it also gave his Spanish stories and novels their extraordinarily intimate power in realistic description.
Bates resigned from the Communist party when the cynical Stalin-Hitler pact was signed in 1939. In 1941, he settled in New York and wrote to urge the US’s entry into the second world war. From 1948 to 1968, he taught creative writing and other literary topics at New York University. Like so many Spanish war returnees, he came to the baleful attention of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. He refused to testify.
Bates was born into a family of railway engineers in Swindon, Wiltshire. Family stories about a seafaring great-grandfather, who captained his own trampsteamer around the Mediterranean and was buried in Cadiz, fuelled his boyhood dreams of adventure and Spain.
A musical child, he played the organ in local churches. He left school at a then normal early age, was apprenticed in the railway workshops, and served his time as a fitter, turner and erector. Aged 17, he volunteered for first world war service, and, after failing to get into the Royal Flying Corps (seemingly on medical grounds), served as an infantryman in the 16th Queen’s Royal West Surreys, achieving the rank of lance corporal.
Demobilised, he returned to the Swindon railway works, where he started to be drawn into Labour politics. By 1923 he had joined the Communist party. But the childhood lure of further places was strong, and he was soon off to Paris, where he had a job as a street-cleaner. Then he worked his passage on a ship to Spain, where he bummed around, surviving on odd jobs. He also got to see his great-grandfather’s grave.
Bates was a man of fabled energy – organising unions, swimming and climbing. The Spaniards dubbed him El fantastico. But he needed money, and that, he said later, was what drove him to take up writing. He was in touch with literary comrades and friends in London – indeed, he seems to have travelled back and forth quite a bit between Spain and London – and it was London publishers who took him up.
His first novel, Sierra (1933), went straight to the scenes and doings he knew at first-hand – the anxieties of a Spain oppressed in the agitated period before the civil war broke out in July 1937, by brutal policing, a bloodthirsty Roman church, and the utter harshness of the Spanish earth itself. The novel ends, characteristically, with civil guards gunning down a demonstration of republicans.
This was apprentice stuff, certainly, but Bates was speedily batting himself in as a fine, revolutionary realist. Quickly, he went on to produce two undoubted classics of uprising Spain: Lean Men (1934), about an English communist agitator – evidently based upon himself – up against an overwhelmingly cruel and powerful state, and The Olive Field (1936), a strong story of yet more unsuccessful revolutionary struggles, but with the emphasis much more on mere work, in this case life among the cultivators of olive trees.
The Olive Field will last. It stands out among the “proletarian” fiction of the 1930s as a revelatory and sympathetic inside story of people making a living at the jagged edges of survival. Rainbow Fish: Four Short Novels (1937), set widely across Europe, is far more ordinary; the shock mixture of Spanish violence, cruelty and utopian aspiration is clearly what Bates’s imagination needed to thrive on.
When the civil war erupted, he was straightaway thrown into the heat of things. Well acquainted with the Pyrenees, he guided incoming volunteers across the passes and took part in fighting with the militias. He was quickly made a commissar in the International Brigades, edited their English-language paper, Volunteer For Liberty, and wrote propaganda pieces about the war for London journals, such as Left Review. Winifred, his first wife, worked as a nurse.
In 1937, Bates was sent by the Communist party to the United States to drum up financial support and attract more volunteers. There were huge rallies in venues such as Madison Square Gardens, and he became a darling of the American left. At one such meeting he met Eve Haxman, whom he married in 1942, following his divorce from Winifred.
When the Spanish republic collapsed at the beginning of 1939, Bates retreated to Mexico. His novel, The Fields Of Paradise (1941), is set there; but even though this story of civil conflict reads like a transposition of Spanish events to the New World, it lacks the Spanish force that energises Bates’s fiction at its best.
In The Miraculous Horde, the collection issued in the autumn of 1939, the Spanish stories – about early-1930s trades union struggles, and famous battles involving the International Brigades, on the Jarama, at Brunete, in Aragon – are so much better than the Mexican ones. No one surpassed Bates for nice ironies about the mixed human material in the republican militias, or for movingly melancholic reflections on a struggle about which its participants felt increasingly pessimistic.
In one of his best Spanish pieces, Compañero Sagasta Burns A Church, published in Left Review in October 1936, Bates pays understanding tribute to the Spanish anarchist’s need to calmly burn out the signs and symbols of religious oppression; he was very ready to go along with what WH Auden called “the necessary murder” in a revolutionary cause. But he also dwells compellingly on the fatalism of anarchists – the belief that, at bottom, anarchism, “noble, just and beautiful”, is “unrealisable” and therefore doomed.
When he wrote this, Bates’s line was that, by contrast, communism was not only noble but also realisable. Soon though, he was, like so many Spain veterans, thinking otherwise. It sounds as if he was helped to his disillusionment with politics by the dawning realisation that it was perverse, communist-led infighting, of the kind he was closely involved in, that had helped lose the war. (In Homage To Catalonia, George Orwell singles out Bates for mongering untruths about the “Trotskyite cowardice and collaborationism” of men Orwell knew had died fighting the fascists.)
After his experience with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Bates continued for a while to write. There were no successors in the biography line to his rather successful Life Of Schubert (1934), but he did try again with novels. His last published one, The Dolphin In The Wood (1950), manifestly a version of his own early years, ends with its hero travelling to the Spain he had always dreamed of living in. This sounds as if it may have had a projected sequel, but no successor came.
For the last 30 or so years, Bates and his wife divided their time between Manhattan and the Greek island of Naxos, which became the sort of pastoral dreamplace that neither Spain, nor communism, had succeeded in supplying him with in any permanent fashion. He leaves an unpublished book about the island, as well as a recently completed collection of poems written there. He is survived by Eve and their son.
Ralph Bates, writer, born November 3 1899; died November 26 2000
- Valentine Cunningham
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 12 December 2000 02.42 GMT