SIMON MATTHEWS on a rediscovered testimony from the Spanish Civil War.
If you Google ‘Books on the Spanish Civil War’, a list of recently published histories (Paul Preston, Anthony Beevor, Hugh Thomas) comes up, headed almost inevitably by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Seemingly, nobody today remembers Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell’s 1938 account in My House in Malaga of the circumstances leading up to the fall of that city a year earlier.
From Dunfermline, and a son of the manse, Chalmers Mitchell was a significant public figure pre-1914. He was secretary of the Zoological Society of London and scientific correspondent for The Times, he wrote a biography of Thomas Huxley, and he was knighted on his retirement. Very well-known, he mixed with the likes of H.G. Wells and was regarded as a credible and accurate correspondent.
Arriving in Spain to enjoy his retirement, he was always neatly turned out, whatever the temperature, in a white tropical suit and panama hat, ensured that he dressed for dinner and kept on unfailingly good terms with a broad range of the local populace. Instead of a leisurely old age, though, he found himself dealing with the Spanish Civil War and initially busied himself translating, for Faber, the Spanish novelist Ramon Sender, notably Seven Red Sundays (1936) and The War in Spain: A Personal Narrative (1937). Then, as matters worsened, he began writing his own account of hostilities.
The book that emerged, and was published, like his two translations, by Faber, works as both an account from the front line and, rather like the 1937 equivalent of a podcast, a day-by-day narrative of the people and place where he resides. His political judgement is shrewd – he recognizes very clearly the wider threat posed by Hitler and Mussolini – and he always places whatever is happening in Spain in a context that the non-partisan reader can understand.
It is clear that he is frustrated with the official UK policy of ‘non-intervention’ which stopped the legitimate government from defending itself; clear that the legitimate government, whatever errors it made, was the only side anyone with a conscience could support; and clear too that in such a life-or-death situation, the assistance offered by the Soviet Union had to be accepted. The tone throughout is part Graham Greene with just a dash of Noel Coward… but this is a very accessible, very readable narrative, with events, dialogue and key personalities recorded fairly.
Sadly, in the end Malaga falls, and Chalmers Mitchell is lucky to escape with his life. Franco’s people equate being even-handed and fair-minded with treason and communist fellow-travelling and want to kill him out of hand. (Perhaps, though, they knew a bit more about him than he divulges to the reader? According to an entry on psywar.org ‘…Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell [1864-1945] can rightly be described as the father of modern British military psychological operations. From June 1916 until the end of the First World War, Chalmers Mitchell headed the MI7(B)4 branch of military intelligence conducting propaganda against enemy forces on the Western Front…’) Luckily, just in time, the US consul extricates him and he sails to safety on an RN destroyer.
Arthur Koestler turns up three quarters of the way through My House in Malaga. A Communist Party member in Germany 1931-1933, he was working as a war correspondent (and Comintern agent) for the News Chronicle in Málaga when it fell to Mussolini’s troops. He took refuge with Chalmers Mitchell, and both were arrested by Franco’s chief propagandist (Luis Bolín) who had sworn beforehand that he would shoot Koestler, were he to capture him.
Fortunately, it turns out that Chalmers Mitchell had also been sheltering – and feeding – Bolin’s aunt and uncle, so, rather grudgingly, no immediate execution(s) took place. Instead, Koestler was imprisoned for four months under sentence of death, before, thanks to diplomatic pressure caused by Chalmers Mitchell and others, being exchanged for a ‘high value’ Nationalist prisoner held by the legitimate government.
His version of events, which he dedicated to Chalmers Mitchell, appeared via the Left Book Club in December 1937. With a membership of 40,000 – most of whom were, apparently, school teachers – the Left Book Club wasn’t a cheapskate publisher. Koestler’s book, Spanish Testament, retailed at 10s 6d (the equivalent of around £25 at 2020 prices) and was favourably reviewed by George Orwell in the February 1938 edition of Time and Tide, without, though, Chalmers Mitchell’s contribution to the authors safety being pointed out.
Orwell’s own venture to Spain had been somewhat cack-handed. He initially approached the CPGB to enlist, but, having perused his books and reviews they declined to assist regarding him as politically unreliable. (Which, to them, he was). So, he made his own way to Spain, where the local Independent Labour Party representative directed him to POUM, a Trotskyist-Anarchist militia. Wounded after six months and shipped back to the UK, his account, Homage to Catalonia, is a much harder read than Chalmers Mitchell’s book, as Orwell clearly can’t see the wood for the trees, writing at great length about factional disputes and splits between rival anti-fascist groups in a way that is impossible for the lay reader to judge. Anyone approaching it in expectation of it being primarily a narrative about the military situation, or the local surroundings, will be disappointed.
Turned down by the Left Book Club (whose owner, Victor Gollancz judged its anti-communist tone unhelpful) it was published instead by Warburg but sold only 638 copies and quickly disappeared from view. In its aftermath, Orwell was charged with ‘rabid Trotskyism’ and subjected, in his absence, to a show trial in Barcelona. Spain was a dangerous place for writers.
At the time it seems likely that out of the three Koestler sold the most books. Based on the membership of the Left Book Club alone, Spanish Testament probably did quite well.
Back in Britain, Chalmers Mitchell had a tilt at Parliament, standing in the by-election caused by the death of Ramsay MacDonald. In the contest for the vacancy in the Combined Scottish Universities seat, held in February 1938, he ran as an Independent Progressive, but came bottom with 13%, behind the SNP. (John Anderson, of air-raid shelter fame, won the seat as the ‘National’ candidate.)
He later fell out with Koestler over Darkness at Noon, an anti-Soviet dystopia which was based, ironically, on the treatment Koestler had experienced when imprisoned in Spain. Chalmers Mitchell was dismayed, in the midst of a world war, that anyone could take such an impractical stance. He died in a traffic accident in 1945, a largely forgotten figure.
The ascent of Homage to Catalonia to pole position in books about Spain came two decades later, specifically with the appearance of a Penguin reprint in 1962. The generation of students at FE and HE in the 1960s and 70s seemed to cotton on to Orwell as a type of proto-English revolutionary socialist, a home-grown Che Guevara, and all of his back catalogue was exhumed at that point, selling in significant quantities. But his account of Spain is flawed and Chalmers-Mitchell’s superior.
With My House in Malaga now available once more via the Clapton Press, an important piece of the historiography of the Spanish Civil War period has been restored.