Friday 26 July 2013

In memory of Walter Gregory

Tomorrow, in Nottinghamshire, trades unionists, members of the International Brigades Memorial Trust and others will rededicate the memorial to those Nottinghamshire men who fought in the Spanish Civil War. The Labour Party, swept back into power in May, is making good on a promise to replace the memorial taken down by the outgoing Tory regime. In a act that left a nasty taste in the mouth the Tories - during their one disastrous term - almost immediately got rid of the memorial at County Hall to those who had gone to fight fascism in 1936-1939. One really wonders what side the Tory leadership had been on.
The old memorial was a little inaccurate - it listed sixteen who fought, but recent research has brought the number to twenty-two. Because of the illegality of journeying to fight in Spain, confusion over people's names (some used pseudonyms) and over where people lived prior to the war the inaccuracy is understandable, but Barry Johnson and others have now produced what will remain the list of record.
Among those who fought was Walter Gregory. Five Leaves published his book, The Shallow Grave, in 1996. The book has long since sold out, but I think it likely we'll do a new edition next year. Walter's book was edited by David Morris and Anthony Peters and is thought to be one of the best memoirs of the period.
Walter was a mild-mannered man who spent most of his life working in the Co-op after service in WWII. After he retired he moved to be near his family in Grantham, and took up bell-ringing! At his funeral, the vicar - having talked about Walter's years in the labour movement and his time in Spain remarked that his enthusiasm for bell-ringing was only matched by his incompetence at it! Cue for hundreds of people to fall about laughing.
Walter came to write the book following an evening class on the Spanish Civil War that he attended, as a student. During one class, not having mentioned his own background previously, he brought out his old, battered mess-tin and a souvenir CNT (the Spanish anarchist trade union) flag - both now in the Imperial War Museum. The teacher asked him to take over the class!
Walter's book was first published in hardback by Gollancz and we published it in paper in 1996. It sold well and Walter started doing a few events to talk about the war. I was fairly new to publishing at the time and know we could have done more with the book, though it did sell out in good time. It was a great pleasure to have known Walter, who was good company. He was honest about the failings of the Republican side. As a weapons instructor he was sad that he was sending men out to fight not well enough armed, not well enough trained. He also knew that the graffittid answer to - "Dondo Nin?" (where is Nin? the leader of the POUM group) - "Ask the fascists" was a shocking lie. Nin had been murdered by the Communists. He was also a great admirer of the CNT, though critical of their discipline.
I won't go on. Read the book when it re-appears.
Of the others, I also knew Lionel Jacobs. Lionel had been a tailor in London prior to the Civil War but moved up here after the war, where he became active in the Trades Council and a fairly hard-line Communist. The last time I met him was in the Jewish care home here, whose workers were bemused at the steady stream of political people who visited Lionel. Shortly before his death Lionel said to me that "he would do it again if he had to!" and we parted, him giving me the clenched fist salute, and the word "Salud!" - the Republican greeting.
Appropriately, Walter's book was dedicated to Bernard Winfield of Nottingham, who was killed at Teruel on 20 January 1938.

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