549

1937: Migrant Crisis

When researching the Spanish Civil War, I have continually collided with poignant political parallels to the modern day.  Some of these are positive and fill me with hope about the world we live in and others do precisely the opposite. The first conception of 549 opened with a quote from the German philosopher Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hiegel: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. This quote sits as a beating heart within our story.

One bleak parallel between the House of Commons in 1937 and 2015 has been ever conscious in my mind.

We have probably all seen images of the woman, men and children trying to seek refuge from a war torn Middle East. Images of boats crammed so full they are barely afloat; of police brutality on the borders of countries and of three year old Aylan facedown in the sand. No matter where you are right now the “Migrant Crisis”, as it’s been coined, is an ever-present talking point in Cameron’s Britain.

In 1937, humanity saw a similar crisis when Fascists overthrew the democratically elected left wing, Popular Front Party. They did so because they believed that their elitist ideology took precedent over an individuals right to vote. The events that followed lead to a devastating amount of civilian deaths.

On the 26th of April 1937, the Spanish Fascists- with the military assistance of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy - rained down 22 tonnes of explosives onto Guernica, a city filled with civilians. The death toll, widely disputed, ranges between 400 and 1600 innocent people. So disturbing were the scenes, that Guernica became the subject of the Pablo Picasso painting of the same name, which today is displayed in the Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid.

 On that day it became known to the world that the adults and children of Spain were no longer safe.

Britain’s Conservative prime minister at the time was Stanley Baldwin; a man who refused to acknowledge the Spanish peoples need for refuge. His government was a leading member of the non-intervention pact, a group of countries who refused to involve themselves in the conflict.  As far as he was concerned, this was to be the party line. When commenting on the atrocities he stated that: “the weather won’t suit them”.  The words of a true ‘diplomat.’ Miserable British weather was the least of the Spaniards concerns.

Baldwin never acknowledged the need to shelter the people of Spain from the atrocities of Civil War - but the working people of Britain did. They stood in solidarity along with journalists, unions, committees and MP’s from all of the major political parties and change happened. Change that lead to the sanctuary of 4000 Spanish Children.

In 549 we echo their requests to Baldwin to show some humanity.

In September 2015 David Cameron was asked by Amnesty International to“show some humanity”.

We can only hope that he does so. A lesson we have learned from history is that collective action and organising politically can effect change. So let us hope that, moving forward we can, in fact, “learn from history”.

Jarama: "Even the olives were bleeding that day."

The Battle of Jarama is both a pivotal moment in “549” and one of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish Civil War.

Jarama Valley was situated on a strategically crucial road near Madrid, which on 12th February 1937 was held by the Republican Army.  The valley lay on the Republican’s last safe passage between Madrid and Valencia, a lifeline that General Franco was bent on cutting off. As Franco led his Nationalist army along the Jarama River towards the capital to fulfil this aim, the Republican Army began their offensive to stop him.

The International Brigades’ British Battalion fought for the Republican side and was made up of four companies: three infantry and one machine gun. The No. 2 Machine Gun Company was comprised of 120 men, two of which were George Watters and Jock Gilmour – two of our men in “549”.

Franco’s Nationalist army comprised 30,000 men. This figure dwarfed the Republican side and meant that they were outnumbered 3 to 1. The disparity in size was not the only way in which the Republican army were inferior. The soldiers received poor training, resulting in an incohesive unit that lacked proper equipment. On a fundamental level the Republicans were bound together by a common enemy - not a shared ideology which left them vulnerable to fracturing internally.

George and Jock were two Communist miners from Prestonpans, East Lothian and fighting alongside them at Jarama were an equally diverse array of characters:

Andrew Flannagan - a young Irish brick-layer; Frank Graham – a scholar hailing from Sunderland; Albert Charleswork – a metal polisher from Oldham; George Leeson – a London Underground worker; Sam Wild – a Mancunian Royal Navy veteran and George Bright – a sixty year old carpenter; to name a few.

These were just some of the men who made up the British Battalion and fought at Jarama Valley. On the first day of the battle, the No. 2 Machine Gun Company were ordered to take a position on high ground in order to provide covering fire for the other three companies down in the valley. Led by Harold Fry, the Company reached their destination via a thirty-foot vertical ascension. Once atop the plateau, the soldiers began to assemble their Maxim machine guns only to discover to their disbelief that the ammunition they had been given was incompatible, rendering the weapons unusable. For the majority of the first day, the No. 2 Machine Gun Company became virtually obsolete – and the worst was yet to come.

The battle raged on into a second day.  When the Republicans counted their losses that morning the commander of the British Battalion, Tom Wintringham, estimated that three quarters of his men had lost their lives. As the day unfolded, the 2nd Company came under increasingly heavy fire. Seeing the damage this shellfire was doing to Fry and his men, Wintringham led a ‘fake’ charge to distract the Nationalist artillery. This move proved a tactical success – but only temporarily.

At 3pm that afternoon, a small section of the Nationalist troops began to mount an assault. Noticing this increase in action, the commander of No. 4 Company panicked and fled with his men, leaving a previously vital piece of protection to the Machine Gun Company exposed. This allowed the Nationalist troops to engulf Fry’s men and led to the capture of 29 soldiers and the deaths of countless others.

The Battle of Jarama is integral to the plot of “549”, as it leads to the death of Jock Gilmour and the eventual capture of George Watters. Unfolding in an olive grove, the battle was estimated as having casualties of up to 45,000 soldiers. One of those lost was the Irish poet Charles Donnelly who famously said, “even the olives were bleeding that day”.

 

Creative Licence vs Historical Accuracy

During the first writing process for ‘549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War’ I was struck by the vastness and complexity of a historical conflict that was merely a paragraph in my Higher History textbook. The intricacies of the politics and the particulars of each battle formed a daunting prospect. Slowly and over a period of intensive research, Robbie and I gained a firm handle on the conflict and finally began to write.

The first draft contained the story of the four miners from Prestonpans set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The narrative was very much focused on their journey, meaning that the script was a human story and not a history lesson. It soon became apparent whilst writing that our research was far from complete – we wanted to know more about our characters and their lives. We had questions we wanted the answers to, but we had a script to write and a play to produce.

This urgency meant that there were gaps in our knowledge and we filled in these spaces with educated assumptions. For example, for a moment in the third act of the play we needed a reflective pause and slower pace. There was nothing in our research indicating where Jimmy Kempton was in Spain at the time of the scene so we conveniently placed him at the Battle of the Ebro and wrote a sombre and thoughtful monologue for him.  We used the unknowns about our four miners to mould the story to what we thought worked best thematically and theatrically.

Fast forward to the second stage of development, where we have visited family members of the four miners and prominent historians. These interviews have been a fantastic resource in producing much more specific details about our characters but they have also brought new and unique creative challenges. The new depth of knowledge means that we have tiny pieces of detail building the big jigsaw that forms the play, but the drawback to this is that the story we told in the first incarnation of ‘549’ no longer works as some of the pieces don’t match.

A rudimentary example that has minor implications is the character of Jock Gilmour, played by the wonderful David Kirkwood. From speaking to Jock’s family, we have uncovered that his physical attributes were firmly placed on the ‘large’ end of the spectrum – one anecdote described his legs as perpendicular when riding his bike. Yet as it happens, David Kirkwood is the smallest and slimmest member of our cast. A fact which means that sadly, David will be immediately removed from our cast and all related promotional material.

David will of course maintain his brilliant portrayal of Jock in our next incarnation, but the example raises the question surrounding how Robbie and I balance the historical accuracy of the piece with our creative license. A more serious example concerns James Kempton. In our first script, James was portrayed as a passionate and politicized man, fighting for a cause he believed in. The truth? We now know that he travelled to Spain because he had no money – he was skint. And what’s more, James Kempton didn’t fight – he was a cook. These two facts alone create massive inconsistencies between our current theatrical narrative and what really happened.

The light these new details cast upon our story is greater than the shadow they throw upon our creative conversations. There is excitement around the laptop rather than trepidation. That said, over the coming weeks whilst ‘549’ is redeveloped there will be several tough and complex conversations around how we marry historical accuracy with creating decent theatre. The story we thought we were telling remains the same, it’s just that some of what we thought we knew has changed. The challenge now is to find a new way of telling it.

 

 

Meeting The Family of George Watters

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.

James Kempton's Imprisonment

After the fall of the Spanish Republic the military files of the International Brigade where smuggled out to the soviet union. These files have recently been released as an online public archive, which can be found here (http://goo.gl/Sln7Bd). It was in this archive that we discovered a shocking revelation about James Kempton – that his own side jailed him for ‘desertion’. 


Communism: A Dirty Word

A word that somehow sat wrongly in my subconscious. Communism made me think of some sort dystopian, George Orwell style apocalypse. Barren, freezing cold wastelands in Russia and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea.

For me it was a dirty word like some sort of nightmare. When I closed my eyes communism felt grey. All the people with the same clothes, same houses, same money… same faces.

Then, to my disbelief when starting the ‘549’ research process I discovered George Watters and James Kempton’s, two of our central characters were Communists. This inspired me to investigate the political ideology of Communism and ask myself “What is Communism really about?”

I gave myself the task of reading the very dense looking Communist Manifesto, penned by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels in 1848. Something I was apprehensive about to say the least.

As I started to read the Communist Manifesto my bleak misconceptions started to melt away and a newfound romanticism for a Communist utopia replaced them. The cover of my copy stated: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, Unite!” Reading the cover upon finishing, I had an epiphany – I got it. George and James were Communists by principle. They didn’t believe in the Orwellian dystopia I had concocted in my imagination, but in a world where working people would be treated as equal with the ruling classes.

Being a member of the Communist Party relied on a real faith in democracy and a genuine belief in the collective power of people. It was this collectivism that brought men from over the world together to fight against the evils of Fascism. While it would be wrong to say that Communism was the dominant ideology that brought these people together, it was certainly up there: 476 out of the 549 who went to fight in Spain were members of the Communist Party. In 1937, the Communist Party only had a membership of 2318 in Scotland. They offered a massive contribution that must not be forgotten.

Communists made one of the great stands against Fascism in Britain, from rioting at the British Union of Fascists party meetings in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; to speaking out against the ideology in Party run publications such as the Daily Worker, which were circulated all over Scotland. And George and James were there. There on the frontline selling the papers; there causing the riots; and there standing on soapboxes giving speeches in their town centre. It was this unity and organisation that aided the defeat of Fascism in Britain as a mainstream political movement and to the successful deployment of so many of their members to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War.

“Working men of all countries, unite!”

3 Gilmours, 2 Kemptons, 14 Dicksons and 14 Watters

In July this year, we sat down to begin to think about ‘what next’ for ‘549’. Following the success of the initial sharing we wanted to return to the original story and make sure no question was left unanswered about our four miners. What did they look like? Who really were they? Why did they travel to Spain?

Somebody somewhere knew the answers. And we wished to seek them out.

We started the old fashioned way: with a phonebook, a pad and a pencil. We searched the names of our four miners through the phone book. In the catchment area of Prestonpans alone we found: 3 Gilmours, 2 Kemptons, 14 Dicksons and 14 Watters. Our process of cold calling began, although we would like to think we were as warm as we possibly could have been. 

The first success we had was a lead on a relation to James Kempton, who was initially convinced that we were wind up merchants. After some convincing of our credentials, this woman turned out to be the daughter-in-law of James Kempton – and this turned out to be the first of many successful revelations.

Following these phone calls we began to arrange meetings with these relatives over the months of August and September. Intermittently we met the relatives of our four miners in cafes, pubs and their own homes to talk about their lineages, lives and loved ones. What emerged from these meetings was an extraordinary amount of depth and detail about our character’s lives that we would never have uncovered otherwise. We literally couldn’t have made it up – and our first draft is proof of this.

 On a serious note, it is immeasurably important to us to have the families support and input, and from this point onwards their integration into the project is paramount. We plan to remain in close contact during our writing process which will culminate in a private sharing of the script with our actors in Prestonpans.                  

We feel privileged to be entering the second phase of ‘549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War’ with this unique kind of endorsement and contribution – and it gives us as writers and directors of the project both an added weight of responsibility and a sense of proud gratification.