Sex, lies and irrational hedonism

Looking for something vageuly new year-ish to post this morning, I came across this curious, gossipy letter (about the sex lives and sexual politics of Communist Party acquaintances) and I can’t resist sharing it – despite the poor image quality, and a few words that I can’t quite work out.

I’m not sure which year it’s from – my vague guess would be 1936 or 1937, and I can’t work out who any of the people mentioned are (Rosemary, Tom and David), nor who “Nobby” (its writer, from Bristol) is. The letter seems to be responding to one from Elizabeth on the subject of the sex lives of Communist Party friends. The chief question seems to be whether Rosemary and Tom’s activities should be classed as “irrational hedonism” – and whether they should be considered “on a par” with David, the villain of the piece (what on earth had he been getting up to? – possibly a divorce, as a “correspondent” is mentioned).

Most interesting are the hints at an ongoing discussion between Elizabeth and Nobby on gender equality amongst Communist Party (and Labour Party?) members. We are often told of how badly the left has historically treated its own women and it sounds like this is something Elizabeth was grappling with even then – realising perhaps that “equality” didn’t extend to women (Nobby quotes a previous letter of Elizabeth’s: “equality of sexes seems to have no meaning to this crowd”). I think (although obviously biased) that the points which seem to indicate prudishness on Elizabeth’s part are in fact a response to this question of sexual/moral double standards – and the poor treatment of various women. Elizabeth was by no means a prude (as I know from my own experience, and as various other letters attest), but she would certainly have had a problem with women being treated callously by men acting in the style of “nineteenth-century seducers”.

It all reminds me of a similar letter dating from Elizabeth’s time at Oxford – again apparently repsponding to her complaints about a lack of gender equality amongst Labour Club members there. I’ll post it if I can find it – and will post more on Rosemary, Tom and the Jack of Hearts (David) if I discover more on them. Meanwhile, here it is – Nobby to Elizabeth, 12th August, 1936 or 1937 (images of original letter below):

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“We, the undersigned”: Oxford Aid for Spain

This open letter (transcript below) about the provision of medical aid to Spain is as interesting for its signatories as for its content: Lascelles Abercrombie (poet and literary critic),  James Leslie Brierly (law professor), Alexander James Carlyle (minister and historian), Robert Ensor (poet, journalist, historian, etc.), G. F. Hudson (historian), Gilbert Murray (classicist, internationalist, etc.) – an eclectic mix of an older generation of Oxford liberals. I’m not sure exactly when it dates from – probably 1936 or 1937 (the same year that Gilbert Murray’s son, Basil, was killed in Spain) – or if an ambulance was ever sent to Spain from the Oxford students (though there was a Scottish Ambulance Unit). Equally, I don’t know if Elizabeth was involved in the drafting of this letter, or the Oxford University Spanish Democratic Defence Committee that is referred to – this was all a year or two after she had left Oxford, so possibly she just had a copy as an interested party.

I can’t help but compare this to various efforts to help Syrian refugees at the moment – although the idea of university students funding an ambulance is hard to imagine.

1937 poss - AID FOR SPAIN - Oxford Ambulance etc

Continue reading “We, the undersigned”: Oxford Aid for Spain

Conference planning, 1930s style: “The Christian Attitude in Politics”

A curiosity: did this planned conference on “The Christian Attitude in Politics” ever happen, I wonder?

The writing is Elizabeth’s – and, despite the messy scrawl, the plans look fairly well developed. I would imagine that this dates from Elizabeth’s time at Oxford (so c. 1933-1936; there is a reference to the Oxford University Fascist Association), and is perhaps linked to her activities with the Labour Club there.

The conference, and mix of speakers, sounds fascinating – but I can’t help but think of it all in terms of family psycho-drama as well: before his death in 1920, Elizabeth’s father, Robert Aytoun, had been a Presbyterian minister (and Professor of Old Testament Literature and Religion) and this attempt to examine religion through a political lens seems in some way to be a product of the stark difference between her family’s religious background and her relatively recent (although ultimately permanent) loss of faith. While Elizabeth had declared herself an atheist when still at school, her mother and sisters remained firmly (although perhaps not particularly devotedly) believers. Many a letter from the late 20s and early 30s attests to Elizabeth’s mother’s “disappointment” at this atheist stance, and Edward Cadbury even wrote to her on the subject, lamenting the contrast between her life and her parents’ “lives of service”.

See below for a transcript, and links to more information on those involved.

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Continue reading Conference planning, 1930s style: “The Christian Attitude in Politics”

Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1

Frank - picture - 1I can’t quite get over how young and dreamy a c. twenty-year-old Frank looks in this photograph. It is the main image of him from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). I was sitting in the library a few days ago when an e-mail arrived (from Fraser Raeburn – an Edinburgh PhD student working on Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War) with copies of the various documents held in this file. I hadn’t seen this photo – or any of the other material – before and my heart actually skipped a beat.

The file isn’t huge – but all of the information it contains is new to me (including an intriguing document that looks like a security report on Frank, in German, simply signed “Kurt” – more on this once translated). Most exciting is this, an account of how Frank ended up in Spain, including his involvement in politics before going there. It contains so much interesting (to me) new information that I don’t know where to begin… Here he is in his own words, with my thoughts below:

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1