Book Review

The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell

The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell

Love and war has always been a potent mix. For women journalists trying to become accredited war correspondents,  the Spanish Civil War offered several their first opportunity to report war at first hand, from the front. Virginia Cowles, Hilda Marchant, Josephine Herbst, Martha Gellhorn and Kitty Bowler all made their way to and their name in Spain. They wrote about hospitals, children and mothers getting bombed queuing for bread and changed the agenda of war reporting. Gellhorn and Bowler both had famous love affairs while there.

But while Gellhorn’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway, which ended in mutual recrimination and divorce in 1945, has been endlessly written about,  Bowler’s passionate and poetic love affair with Tom Wintingham, although resulting in painful criticism for both at the time, has merited little mention since. This is largely because Wintringham himself, who died aged 51 in 1949, was relegated to the footnotes of 20th century British political history, a bourgeois outsider who made both the right and left uncomfortable. The Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper he was so closely involved with since its inception, ignored his death and there was only one other obituary of note in a national newspaper.

Yet just a few years beforehand Tom Wintringham was a household name in England, a popular journalist, broadcaster and campaigner for Army reform.  A public school boy, (Greshams)  First World War veteran and youthful member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he first made the headlines when he was imprisoned for sedition shortly before the General Strike of 1926. Ten years later he went to Spain and helped create the International Brigades that fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

There he met Bowler, a left-wing aspiring journalist from a wealthy American family. The balding and bespectacled Wintringham, although not conventionally handsome, was always a deeply romantic figure; the soldier- poet with something of the Byronic hero about him. According to Hugh Purcell, who has written this absorbing biography of Wintringham, while the pair were falling in love,  they were also exploiting each other; she used him to help with her journalism, he used her as unofficial secretary and messenger. This was bound to cause trouble, as indeed it did. She was branded a Trotskyite spy, a woman journalist who was too strong and too clever for her own good,  (Tom told her it might have been better for her to appear weak and stupid), and expelled from Spain. Comrade Wintringham was severely criticised for "showing levity."

However, Tom went on to lead the British Battalion at the Battle of Jarama, which resulted in 150 men being killed, most of them when he was in command  He was  wounded himself and, shortly after, typhoid and septicaemia set in. Kitty, trying to ignore her expulsion order, rose to the occasion and, although an efficient British nurse flown out  by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee in London found her "a bit insensitive", the Wintringham family recognised that it was partly Kitty’s devotion which saved his life at this time.

By the time Tom was wounded a second time - in the shoulder by a sniper's bullet - he was deeply disillusioned with the Party and in great pain. As he wrote  later: "I came out of Spain believing, as I still believe, in a more humane humanism, in a more  radical democracy and in a revolution of some sort as necessary to give the ordinary people a chance to beat fascism. Marxism makes sense to me, but the 'Party Line' doesn't."

This was his credo for the rest of his life. He returned to England, was re-united with Kitty, and expelled from the Communist Party. Yet this was the moment, with a Nazi invasion of Britain expected at any moment, when Tom’s experience and skills were put to their best use. He wrote articles for Picture Post about civil defence that were read by millions. He set up an unofficial Training School for Guerilla Warfare based at Osterley Park in West London where he taught  civilians the rudiments of civil defence including the use of  crowbars,  lengths of torn up tram lines,  milk bottles, axes, cheese cutters and home made hand grenades - the original ‘Dad’s Army’. But although 1940 became his Finest Hour, in the eyes of the War Office he was still a red revolutionary and was sacked.

Hugh Purcell has rescued Tom from the footnotes of history but, sensibly, he hasn’t put him on any pedestal either. Although clearly sympathetic to his humanity in public life - Purcell describes him as a very likeable man worthy of respect - he is not blind to his flaws in private life. At the time Tom  fell in love with Kitty he was already married with a young son as well as having a daughter by another woman whom he now brutishly dis-mistressed. This daughter, Lesley, spent her childhood in a children's home and clearly suffered considerable pain and hardship. Purcell makes a good case for Wintringham as a man of action and a man of ideas who believed that nothing worthwhile was achieved unless you were prepared to fight for it and, in his case,  prepared die for it. It is an appealing mix as several among his close friends recognised during his life.

-- Reviewed by Anne Sebba on 09/09/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0750930802
ISBN-13: 9780750930802
Publisher: Sutton Publishing
Publication Date: 23/09/2004
Binding: Hardcover
Number of pages: 256

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