In the early nineteen seventies I was interviewing exile Spanish anarchists who were living in London. Most had arrived there in the aftermath of the defeat of the Spanish Revolution in 1939 and I wanted to get their first hand impression of what had happened in Spain. Perhaps I fancied writing something afterwards although that desire doesn’t seem to have stayed as long as the experience of the interviews has. Truth be told it was going very badly. I realize now I was asking too many leading questions in a futile attempt to get them to say what I wanted to hear. I also realize some forty years after that I did not know enough about the complexities of Spanish anarchism to ask anything like the right questions (and after all this time I am still not sure that I do). There was something else as well. Something I couldn’t quite describe. A disconnect; probably on my part but perhaps on theirs as well. Whatever it was there was a lack of energy in the whole process that left me somewhat despondent and near to giving up. There seemed much better things I could do with my time.
Muttering about it with a couple of older anarchists who had been involved in Spanish support work led to sympathy and Ethel Mannin. Yes, they themselves had drifted away from some of the Spanish exiles over the years. Had I read No More Mimosa by Ethel Mannin? There was a story in there I might find useful and interesting. I picked a copy of the book up from a second hand shop in Dalston and read it.
A quick note on Mannin might be useful here. As there is with most people, I am quickly learning, there was, of course, an important New Zealand connection. In her memoir Confessions and Impressions (1930) she recounts that as a sixteen-year-old copywriter for an advertising agency she began a relationship with an artist she identifies only as “J.S.” He introduced her to the work of the freethinker Robert Ingersoll as well as the writings of Tom Paine. Together they read books by William Morris, (‘News From Nowhere” made a great impression) Peter Kropotkin, and Upton Sinclair among others. In 1917 J.S. returned to New Zealand to avoid joining the British Army. Later Mannin would send her children to A.S. Neill’s Summerhill school and go on to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1935. During the conflict in Spain she became very interested in anarcho-syndicalism, supported the CNT-FAI (she contributed to the anarchist newspaper Spain and the World) and became friends with Emma Goldman. In 1941 she wrote Red Rose (1941) a novel based on Goldman’s life and in 1944 a wonderful study of Utopian ideas Bread and Roses (1944). A wickedly funny book Comrade O Comrade or Lowdown on the Left (1944) followed and is still worth reading today for the fun it pokes at radical posturing. She would go on to write copious amounts of travel books, many novels, numerous volumes of autobiography and always maintained an interest in what we might call alternatives to capitalism.
No More Mimosa was also published in 1944. Dedicated to the Spanish anarchist Joaquin Delso De Miguel it consists of 31 short stories. The book is divided into three sections that reflect the political moods of the nineteen thirties and the years immediately following them. The first section is “Before The Deluge” while the final section is “The Deluge”. The pivotal middle section, “Thunder In Spain” reflects Mannin’s belief that the Spanish Civil War was critical for freedom and defeat in Spain lead to the Deluge—the frightening possibility of a descent into a fascist barbarism. The story that was recommended to me, and that led me to question what on earth I was doing with those interviews is called ” Refugees” and is the third story in that middle section. It’s only a few pages long and simply describes the everyday life of Spanish refugees in a “shabby, crumbling old house in one of the grimmer districts of North London” (116) where they live “in the damp cold of an English winter”. It’s a life of misery and isolation, a “completely alien life into which we have been plunged” (118). They are supported by Spanish Aid Committees but feel out of control of their lives having to justify each expense and felt stripped of all their autonomy. Their Aid liaison worker speaks cheerily of Lorca or Picasso in an attempt to find common ground with them but the disconnect between her and the exiles was achingly relevant to me and rather too near the mark. The narrator is aware that they had lived through a time when “a dream trembled on the brink of realization like the morning star” Now they are in a cold, wet London in a shabby square surrounded by bare trees living in “the yawning emptiness of the days in which there is nothing whatsoever to do, nothing getting up for, nothing to hope for” (121).
In a few descriptive pages Mannin crystallized the universal experience of political exile and loneliness. It is a wonderful piece of writing. Each sentence has its own rhythm and cadence and by the end you feel a palpable sense of the pain that permeates this awful, awful experience. It’s unremittingly bleak as only total and utter defeat can be and it put my own research into perspective. I realised that the disconnect I was feeling wasn’t just between myself and the exiled Spanish anarchists but was actually was also inside the people I was interviewing. They had actually lived through the feelings and emotions Mannin describes. For all I know they had been the role models for her story. Some of them had become quite successful in financial terms but struggled to find inner contentment and acceptance. They were disconnected from themselves. I realized that the process of exile had been as corrosive as the joy of experiencing the rays of the “morning star” had been exhilarating. Spain wasn’t a symbol to them. It was their life. Exile meant the end of nearly everything they had known. The loss of everything that had been ingrained in their lives and had made them who they were. Some of the people I was interviewing knew that and had difficulty reconciling who they had become with who they had been. A terrible protective dignity became their defense against a world that had cast them adrift. To describe all that—their complexities, contradictions, confusions—in a historical narrative that could encapsulate all that and not allow them to become ciphers was more than I was capable of. I knew that immediately. Now I think that perhaps a historian with the empathetic and epic narrative skills of E P Thompson may have pulled it off but I certainly couldn’t have. It was a chastening experience.
Today the writings of Ethel Mannin, introduced to radical ideas and actions by an (as yet?) anonymous New Zealander, are little read. For me though, back in the seventies, her beautifully crafted short story taught me that the writing of history sometimes wasn’t enough. Literature could do the job much better than I (and dare I say others?) ever could. On reflection that bothers me less and less as the years go on.
Originally published in the December 2013 Bulletin of the [Aotearoa - New Zealand] Labour History Project http://www.lhp.org.nz/?p=912
[moved to https://lhp.org.nz/2013/12/16/labour-history-project-bulletin-59-december-2013/ ]