The prospect of meeting George's family had me slightly anxious to say the least. We had written a play about their father and our only contact thus far had been over email.
I was about to meet the family of the man who boldly fought the fascists in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, by creating a “disturbance”, which swiftly broke into a riot. I was about to meet the family of the man who had never left Scotland until he decided to travel to Spain, embarking on an eight hour trek over the Pyrenees to fight for a cause he believed in. I was about to meet the family of the man who was held as prisoner of war for almost two years, only to fight the facists again in WW2. Frankly, I was honoured.
The meeting place seemed obvious: the Prestonpans Labour Club. A working men’s pub in the heart of the town where the story of ‘549’ begins. Coincidentally, the club is also my old place of work. Hector, Jack and I each bought ourselves a pint of Tennents and sat down to wait. At that point, I realised I didn't have a clue what any of George’s family looked like.
After five minutes of waiting, watching the door and pint sipping, in walked four men, one wearing a T-shirt that stated: “No Parasan”, a common battle cry of the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. "You shall not pass". There was instant an understanding from both parties; we were all in the right place.
The t-shirt worn by Tam, one of George’s sons, was purchased in Berlin from members of the German International Brigade memorial trust. The anti-facist movement is strong across Europe and there are stories like "549" from all across the word.
Through our conversation we found out that George didn’t believe in war without a just-cause and was not a fan of the poor working conditions and pay that came with working in the mines. He forbade his sons from ever going to war without a cause and from ever working in the pits. The next two generations of his family would become miners regardless.
One of George’s sons tells us about the fascist treatment of trade unionists in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930's. This made me think of Thatcherism in the 1980's.
HIs family told us about the loving and supporting relationship George had with his wife and how she encouraged his involvement in the war. She stood by him. Throughout the conflict, she went door to door collecting money to “aid the lads in Spain.”
That night we bought a second and third pint and became absorbed in a story about one of George’s fellow prisoners. A man who broke down in tears; begging for his life. He was about to be put to death at the hands the fascists. Refusing to let this happen, George stepped in, offering to take his place. He was told he had only a day to get his affairs in order. Only a day to prepare for death. George was saved only by his nationality and the political significance that it held during the conflict. We were moved to hear of his bravery and selflessness in what must have been a terrifying situation.
We discovered that George had a common phrase when speaking about his time in Spain: “We didn’t fight for medals – we fought for our beliefs.”
On this night, the family shared with us George's colourful adventures. He was story teller, a friend and a family member. A caring, kind-hearted and articulate man. A politically engaged Communist from Prestonpans, who wore a badge with the symbol of a clenched fist until the day he died.