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):

Continue reading Sex, lies and irrational hedonism

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Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 2

I feel like most of the posts so far have been about Elizabeth (more of the ephemera is associated with her), but that when there is a post about Frank it is a cracker. I have described previously how I was sent the information on Frank from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). The most exciting things in this file were a photograph of a very young (c. twenty-one) Frank, and an account in his own words of how he ended up in Spain (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1 for more on all this). There were also two other main items: a “Biografía en España” questionnaire (answered by Frank in French), and an intriguing-looking three page document in German, that looks like some kind of security report on Frank by someone called Kurt.

My German is almost non-existent, so two very kind friends (Hannah and Jenny) have been working their way through this document for me over the last few months  – combining the translation of strange German documents (apparently some of the German is an unusual dialect) with various jobs and a new baby! It was a far greater task than I had first anticipated (far longer, and more intricate), and so much information has come out of it, that I have decided to break it up a bit and just post the report page by page. So here is page one, translation first (with the original – and some of my thoughts – below). Here goes:

Around 18 days ago Girling turned up in our delegation to take part in the Interbrigaden. He said that, since 10.10.37, he has been volunteering at the children’s evacuation center in Puigcerda. On his past he gave the following information:

Born in England. Studied at different universities. Then since May 1935 worked in Croydon in England in the Government Office: Civil Service Inland Revenue Department as a scribe. Girling states that this was a position subordinate to the finance ministry. He was here until December 1936. In January 1935 he wanted to enter the K.P.E. [British Communist Party – “Kommunistischen Partei Englisch“?], but left after 11 months, since he was in danger of losing his position in the civil service. After his dismissal from the service, he apparently worked as an unskilled worker in various companies.

Girling is in possession of an English passport no. 4634, issued on 15.7.35, valid for 5 years. In this passport he has various visas and visa stamps of entry and exit to France, from the time he worked in the Civil Service. He states that he went on holiday trips to the French coast. In July 1937 he went to France and joined the International Voluntary Service. Girling states that this is a service attached to the International Red Cross. He was allegedly used for building roads in Kanton Wallis [the Swiss Canton of Vallais] near Loetschental. He was there until the end of September 1937, then went to Bern, where he spent two weeks at the house of Therese Lautenburg, Bern, Falken Höhenweg 8. He states that this is a friend from the International Voluntary Service. In October 1937, he took a bus to Spain to pick up evacuated women. That is why Girling has a visa issued by the Spanish Consul in Bern. He arrived in Barcelona on the 10.10.37. He signed up at the Servicio Internacional de los Amigos Cuaqueros [“International Service of the Quaker Friends”], where he was sent to Puigcerda on October 13, 1937 to work in the children’s evacuation center. He is in possession of a confirmation on the 12.10.37 issued by this service, signed by Alfred Jakob. In Puigcerda he was mainly used for agricultural work by the Comite Ayuda Infantil [“Children’s Aid Committee”] until early January 1938. He then went to Barcelona.

In Puigcerda he met an Austrian physician, Dr. Wallis, who was married to the daughter of a Russian who is living in Barcelona, called Kleinmann. Kleinmann is the owner of a small celluloid factory and lives in Calle Provenza 82. Through the intermediary of Dr. Wallis, Girling met this little man and settled in Barcelona with him. For his time in Puigcerda he refers to the following 2 persons:

1. Friedel Funk (Swiss), head of the Comite in Puigcerda

2. Nic Carter (American), secretary of the Comite.

He first met both people in Puigcerda. Of Funk, we have nothing to complain about, but we are currently trying to inquire about him. Of Nic Carter, we were told that he was the son of an American millionaire. We have also been warned that he is an unknown quantity, with no exact details.

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 2

“She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees

There is a family story (myth?) that Christopher Hill proposed to my grandmother, and that she turned him down because he was too short (she was quite tall). I am not sure if this is true, but certainly they were great friends at Oxford – and I do remember her telling me that she went back to visit him in Oxford after she had been in Spain (and after she had met Frank). She took Frank’s brother, Harry, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford, to visit Christopher and arrived with wet feet, having been caught in the rain. Christopher mortified her by suggesting that she change her stockings in front of he and Harry; she was worried that this would give the impression that she and Christopher were romantically involved, and this would get back to Frank. I don’t think that they remained such good friends after the Second World War (I would imagine that life – spouses, children, geography, careers – got in the way), but she always took a great interest in his work: I used to be given his books for Christmas, and one of my uncles recently reminded me that she wrote to the Guardian after his death to protest against the suggestion that he had been a Soviet agent. Like my grandfather, Christopher suffered from dementia at the end of his life and I remember Elizabeth telling me that they had both had such brilliant minds that they must have burned out in some way.

The first box has quite a number of letters and postcards from him to Elizabeth (such as these Catalan postcards, sent in March and February 1939 – and including some from the mid-thirties, at which point they do seem to have been more than just friends). A lot of these are about bringing refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I wasn’t really going to include much of this at the moment (a whole other story – complete with really wretched letters: brief biographies of potential Jewish refugees, photographs, lots and lots of paperwork. I assume that some ended up in Britain, perhaps even living in Perthshire c/o Elizabeth, but some presumably didn’t – all kinds of formalities had to be gone through to bring people here). This series of letters is interesting though, and I find it intriguing that Elizabeth declares herself a Socialist (rather than a Communist, presumably), and therefore asks that any Communist refugees “keep their politics strictly to themselves” (image below). At roughly the same time Frank was also writing to her asking her opinion on Communist Party plans and statements…

Elizabeth had, out of the blue, inherited a Perthshire estate and castle in the late thirties; she tried to sell it in order to give money to Spain (possibly the Republicans somehow? possibly the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief?), but this was blocked by her family and by the family lawyers (the case ended up in court – another story that I hope to find more information about in these boxes). Instead, as a second best, she ended up housing refugees there before and during the war. These letters between Christopher and Elizabeth are largely about the bringing of Communist refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I will look out for more correspondence between the two of them about this, as it appears that Elizabeth was at first slightly reluctant (possibly due to the Moscow show trials, and the beginnings of Stalin’s purges?), and I wonder how she squared this with the pressing humanitarian side of things.

This is the first letter from Christopher to Elizabeth about this, asking for urgent help, probably from the autumn of 1938, (transcript below): Continue reading “She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees