Jun 132014
 

David Innes reviews Scotland 74, A World Cup Story by Richard Gordon.

Scotland_74_11Nah, it can’t be forty years since we crowded into a communal sitting room on a Friday night to watch Scotland take on Zaire in our first World Cup Finals tie in our living memories.
Surely this has been miscalculated by a decade or two?

Alas, it’s true, but what a thrilling time it was.

The imminent Brazil 2014 holds few attractions for many of us caught up in the excitement of those heady days when Scotland did have players we felt could achieve something when mixing with the big boys.

The author, of course, was at the ideal age to be enthused by the occasion and the build-up, as we of slightly older vintage were in 1966 (really, it’s true) and whilst Gordon is a professional journalist and broadcaster of formidable repute, it is the perceptible wide-eyed youthful enthusiasm that gives Scotland 74 its energy.

You know the plot, Scotland the only unbeaten team in the tournament, edged out on goal difference by Brazil at the first group stage, the failure to punish Zaire’s naïve fragile defence fully, that difficult Billy Bremner open goal against Brazil, Yugoslavia’s nine-goal landslide victory and its whiff of conspiracy and corruption and the still-astounding tales of the thousands who took day trips (yes, day trips) to West Germany as the excitement built.

Gordon, however, gives us a considerable backstory. Even returning briefly to Uruguay 1930 and the inaugural Jules Rimet tournament, we get Scotland’s ill-starred history of participation, non-participation, embarrassing losses and plucky failure leading to 1974.

His research is forensic, detailing qualifiers, friendlies, rowing boats, shady agents, inter-necine conflicts, post-Olympic West German security anxiety, heroes, villains and Roary Superscot. Yet this is never dull, or statistically pedestrian as Gordon writes with the enthusiasm of that 14 year old fitba-obsessed Grammar School kid.

With his professional contact book he has extracted new insights from several of the participating near-heroes of 74, whose recollections with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight are among the highlights of a lovingly-compiled book.

Scotland 74 is deserving of the attention of anyone with an interest in the exploits of the swaggering heroes of this tiny nation punching well above its weight under the spotlights of the world stage.

As someone once sang, “When will we see your like again?”

Scotland 74, A World Cup Story by Richard Gordon
Black& White Publishing
ISBN 978-1-84502-749-0
241 pages
£11.99

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Nov 082013
 

On the Eve of Armistice Day and in the year before the 100th anniversary of that war to end all wars, Duncan Harley reviews Andrew Davidson’s new book which details the story of Fred Davidson, Andrew’s granddad, who against orders, took a camera to war.

fred's war cover duncan harleyAs one raised on titles such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Goodbye To All That and All Quiet On The Western Front, I was excited at the prospect of viewing the First World War through the lens of a serving soldier, albeit a Medical Officer enlisted in the Cameronians.
The promise of a journal-type narrative enriched with over 250 original photographs seemed promising indeed.

Sassoon, Graves and Remarque had covered the genre almost a century ago in traditional narrative style. Indeed Philip Toynbee once described Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That as ‘One of the best of the First World War autobiographies’.

Sassoon, of course, paints a hauntingly- beautiful picture of his experiences in the trenches.

The narrator, George Sherston, is wounded as a bullet passes through a lung when he rashly sticks his head over the parapet during the Battle of Arras in 1917. George is sent home to convalesce, and in another rash moment, arranges to have lunch with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly. The reader is left to wonder, what could possibly go wrong?

As for Remarque, day-time television channels still show the 1930’s film adaptation of his classic novel to this day. Born on 22 June 1898, he was conscripted into the German army at 18 and spent just six weeks in the trenches before being wounded by shrapnel. He was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.

His classic narrative remains in print and a film for TV re-make was made in 1979, starring Waltons actor Richard (John Boy) Thomas as Paul Baumer and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky; it remains an unsurpassed classic.

Fred’s War has an unromantic title, probably deliberate given the rather earthy nature of the subject matter. Written by Andrew Davidson and lavishly illustrated with Fred Davidson’s actual war photographs, the narrative traces the young Fred’s path to France and his eventual return to Britain after being wounded.

The brave Fred is a newly qualified doctor from St Cyrus. His war turns out to be a great adventure. A Cameronian and later an Old Contemptible, he took pictures of his surroundings using a camera smuggled to France in a medical bag.

The narrative is full of descriptive elements many of which may be based on conjecture or on fellow officers’ journal entries of the time. On Christmas Eve the following exchange seemingly takes place,

‘Tommy, Tommy why do you not come across?’

‘Cause we don’t trust you, and you hae bin four months shooting at us’

‘Hoch der Kaiser’

‘Fuck the Kaiser’

‘Gott strafe England.’

Fred’s life in the trenches is described in some detail despite the author revealing,

He never talked about the wars he fought in and the friends he lost. But he did pass down the items that now sit in front of me: three photographic albums and a set of binoculars monogrammed FCD. He also left a framed collection of medals – now replaced by replicas, the originals having been lost to the family.”

Through the diaries and memoirs of Fred’s fellow officers we learn that, following Royal Army Medical Corp training, Fred is sent to join the Glasgow-based Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) at Maryhill Barracks. He quickly equips himself with an imported Buster Brown folding camera to augment his medical kit and begins taking portraits of fellow officers posed in the doorways and streets of Maryhill.

The images do indeed tell the story of a man despatched to war complete with a bellows camera

War breaks out after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Black Hand, and in August 1914 the battalion is stationed beside the Conde-Mons Canal with orders to hold the position against the German advance at all costs.

This is actually a relief to many of Fred’s fellow soldiers who had feared being sent to Ireland to suppress the Irish unrest and defeat the Ulster Volunteers.

There follows a predictable description of the grim reality of static trench warfare, complete with blood, suffering and lice. Constant shelling, freezing conditions and trenchfoot abound. Mud, excreta and rats feasting on corpses are all around.

In terms of photographic content, this is a really interesting book. The images do indeed tell the story of a man despatched to war complete with a bellows camera. The monotone shots provide the reader with a unique insight into the day-to-day reality of what it was like to be there on the battlefield in the early part of that European war almost one hundred years ago.

The description of officers shopping for shirts and underwear defines the book well.

“Most of their kit has gone missing, cast off in the frantic retreat. Outside the railway station, they see a captured German Hussar officer marched under guard, tracked by a hostile French crowd, baying like dogs. Still no-one knows what will happen next.”

The title page proclaims: Fred’s War – A Doctor in the Trenches, an apt summary perhaps. This is after all a description of static warfare at ground zero.

In terms of historical perspective, it is perhaps a dull book. In terms of revisionist history, it says little which is new. The narrative promises much but delivers little except anecdotal diary-based material.

The strength of this book is in its images. Most have been unpublished until now and many show the same scenes then and now, a nice visual touch, allowing the reader to understand the changes in landscapes and townscapes since The Great War.

If you are a fan of the images of war, then this may be for you. If more serious history is your forte, then check out your local library in the next few months to see what else is on offer.

Andrew Davidson
Fred’s War
Short Books £25 (hardback)

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Jan 272012
 

Maggie Craig’s writing catalogue includes highly-rated and very readable insights into the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion and Red Clydeside. It was only natural then, when David Innes and Maggie met that a political discussion would ensue.

You’re obviously a radical, given the content and viewpoint of the Jacobite and Red Clydeside books.

I think the worst thing that happened to Britain was Margaret Thatcher. Someone tried to tell me that she had a human side. I said that I didn’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher as we would fall out if we did.

I wouldn’t wish ill on anyone, but that’s one grave I would dance on because she skewed Britain. I’m not at all anti-English and I hate the Scottish nationalism that is, because that’s a divide and conquer thing.

I remember when she was in power and I was a tourist guide taking German visitors around and they would often say, “I really admire your Mrs Thatcher”, and I’d think, “I’m working, I must be careful here”, but I knew I was tired when I said, “We wouldn’t have had beggars in the street like we do now before Margaret Thatcher”. If you’ve got beggars in the street, there’s something seriously wrong with your society.

I was in Aberdeen for the book signing at Waterstones in October. It was about 6 o’ clock and I’d parked up Huntly Street way and I passed the Cyrenians where there was a crowd of mainly men. I thought, “It’s a soup kitchen! Here in the oil capital of Europe there are people queuing up for a bowl of soup”. You wonder if there shouldn’t be a levy on the oil companies – they haven’t really done much for Aberdeen, have they? They haven’t really left any sort of cultural development behind them.

I think people don’t realise that they themselves have power. Maybe the one blessing of the financial crisis is that people who have been turned into consumers may think again. Shopping centres are the new cathedrals, and it’s almost become like ‘Brave New World’ where people just have to get the latest model of phone. It used to be that you just worked and didn’t have the money to buy the goods you produced, but now we’ve got this circle where you can buy all these goods; but do we need them all?

There’s nothing wrong with honest trade. We need oil to keep our houses powered. I don’t want to go back to candles, to that simple greeny thing. I think I’m quite anti-green and that there’s quite a Fascist strand in a lot of green thought. I went to see the Trump development.

I know people don’t like him and his ways, but I was quite impressed by the people telling us what they were going to do. I thought, “That means I can get down to those dunes where I couldn’t get down before when Menie was a shooting estate”. I’m horrified too, by how we’re being forced to accept windfarms, industrialising the countryside. It’s just people making a buck, little to do with greenness.

  I believed in that and now it’s been destroyed. Now it’s been shown to be brutal

I suppose there have been entrepreneurs who have had social consciences but then they claw their way over everyone else. I don’t know the full story of Andrew Carnegie, but I don’t suppose he was lily-white as he made his way up the greasy pole.

I do think there is a ‘zeitgeist’ thing going on, where people are saying that we ought to think about society and community. I slightly despair of the anti-capitalist protestors because they don’t seem to know what they want, what they’re in favour of. It seems a bit vague and woolly. Someone said it was irrelevant that they went to Starbucks to buy their coffee, but to me that’s an issue.

My dad was a member of the Scottish-USSR Friendship Society based in Belmont Street in Glasgow’s west end, and we would meet people from the USSR, who were probably carefully selected, and here on holiday, and they would talk about Robert Burns. Then Prague happened and things went downhill after that. I was about 17 and it felt personal. I thought, “I believed in that and now it’s been destroyed. Now it’s been shown to be brutal.”

The Communist experiment failed. You think about the Russian people, “How much more can they suffer?” because a strong man like Putin always seems to emerge in Russia and just take the country and use it. You wonder, “Is old-fashioned socialism really the answer?” but capitalism stinks, so maybe I’m as bad as the anti-capitalist protestors and don’t know what is the middle ground and what we should be doing. I’m not sure how we can use the old left and right thing any more.

I’m coming round to thinking that everybody should get some sort of a basic wage, but that’s too radical isn’t it?

There’s this dichotomy with the Scottish left. There’s a nationalism and a pride in Scottishness, but there’s also the feeling that the workers don’t have a country – but they do. The workers of Germany, for example, have lots of reasons to be proud of Germany and their own culture.

The Labour Party has moved too far away from its roots and has become perceived as an anti-Scottish party. I think Johann Lamont has a helluva mountain to climb to persuade people that they’re not. I like Alex Salmond. I think he’s very sharp operator, like when he swooped down on to the lawn at Prestonfield House in the helicopter. Someone had produced a poster with Alex Salmond as Che Guevara, “El Presidente” and you can see how that could be dangerous, so I’m angry with the Labour Party for being useless, for taking their eye off the ball.

I think people who are working class kids made good felt that the Labour Party was saying to them that they had to pay higher taxes. But they’d only just clawed their way up to a better situation, so there was to be no help to get your kids to university, that you had to do it all yourself. There’s a problem there in that the politicians themselves were in quite comfortable positions, but they were almost preaching.

I think it’s been advanced before, but I’m coming round to thinking that everybody should get some sort of a basic wage, but that’s too radical isn’t it? It would also give you buying power which would help the economy. If you’re making widgets, someone’s got to be buying them.

I was talking to a woman earlier who said that she couldn’t afford to work and look after her children so she decided to give up work. I wondered when we’d got to the stage where a woman looking after her children was considered not to be contributing to society. It disturbs me that you’re expected to be out there doing some god-awful job rather than being with your kids.

Although Maggie’s only lived in the North East for 20 years, she still sometimes feels like an ‘inabootcomer’. In the concluding part of our chat, she talks about this corner of the planet, and drops a hint that she may find inspiration to write about North East Scotland.

Nov 082011
 

With Remembrance Sunday approaching fast and the wearing of a poppy being de rigueur for every stuffed shirt and empty suit on TV, Voice’s Dave Watt thinks about 11 November.  

11 November falls on a Friday this year, so the dead will have to wait until Sunday to be remembered, as the powers that be don’t seem to think that remembering them on the actual Armistice Day would be convenient.
I mean, businesses might lose a whole two minutes profit and think what a disaster that would be for our thriving economy. After all, big business interests shovel money into party funds and one and a quarter million dead servicemen and women don’t. So, balls to them.

Armistice Day on 11 November was originally meant to signal the end of The War to End Wars, back in a time when that phrase wouldn’t bring forth a cynical snigger.

In fact, on my grandfather’s medals, hanging in a frame in my hallway, it refers to The Great War For Civilisation which shows that there were politicians in the 1920s capable of coming out with the same kind of drivel as George W Bush did with his ludicrous War on Terror ten years ago.

Presumably, at some time in the future there will be a War For Straight Bananas or a War For Fashionable Sandals or something equally weird.

Hopefully, this year will not feature such irretrievable tat as the Royal British Legion inviting The Saturdays to frolic half-naked in a sea of poppies or getting the judges on X Factor to wear grotesque poppy fashion items – two tasteless frolics which inspired ex-SAS soldier Ben Griffin to describe them as ‘stunts to trivialise, normalise and satirise war’. Griffin, in fact, went on to state that remembrance has been turned into ‘a month long drum roll of support for current wars’, a point of view it is increasingly difficult to disagree with.

My grandfather joined up in 1914 in the surge of patriotism engendered by Germany illegally invading Belgium; my uncle joined up in 1939 when Hitler illegally subjugated Poland. Presumably, if Tony Blair had been Prime Minister in 1914, we’d have joined in the illegal invasion and attacked tiny Belgium as we did with impoverished third world Afghanistan, not one of whose citizens had previously done us the slightest harm.

Then again, if Tony had been in charge in 1939 he’d surely have produced some shoddy dossiers to our gullible Parliament showing how those dastardly Poles were all set to attack peace-loving Nazi Germany and that they had weapons of mass destruction concealed in Cracow and Gdansk which could be deployed within 45 minutes.

Yes, if good old Tony had been on the case then, we could nowadays watch Wellington bombers joining the Stukas strafing the women and kids in Warsaw on World at War on Yesterday – with a suitably solemn voice-over courtesy of Laurence Olivier. God, wouldn’t that make us just so proud of ourselves?

No, the bottom line is that we’re not the Good Guys helping the Underdog against the Bully any more. We’re something quite different now.

If you were wondering what happened to my uncle and grandfather in their wars, my uncle died in Normandy in 1944 after fighting in North Africa, Italy and Sicily. My grandfather survived four years in the trenches but was wounded and mustard-gassed in 1918. The mustard gas steadily and horribly eroded his lungs over the years and he eventually died in 1955 aged 56, so the War for Civilisation got him in the end.

I also had a relative on board HMS Hood when the Bismarck sank her in the Denmark Straits in May 1941. He was not one of the three survivors.

It’s interesting to think that if my three relations had survived wars and lived until now that their reward from a grateful country would be to have some pampered ex-public schoolboy Tories and Lib Dems cutting their fuel allowances by £100 this winter.

I’ll have my own two minutes silence for my relations and all the rest – the ones who came back and the ones who didn’t.

On Friday.

Photo Credits –
Row Of Crosses © Mediaonela | Dreamstime.com  
Poppy At Newe July 2011 © Elaine Andrews

Sep 232011
 

Dave Watt asks Voice readers the question …..

Which one would you let watch your pet deer while you were on holiday?

 

a)   Adolf Hitler – Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Above)

b)   Aileen Malone – Liberal Democrat (Opposite)

Jun 242011
 

In this third and final part of Bob Cooney’s amazing biography, written by his nephew – Aberdeen City Councillor Neil Cooney we learn that Bob having come home from fighting Fascism in Spain, returns to continental Europe to fight Fascism again as a gunner in the Second World War. We learn of his experiences in the war, changing attitudes towards Communism and his career as a folksinger.

On his return from Spain, his mother wept at the sight of him.

He was so thin and emaciated. For more than a year after his return he still bore sores in his arms and legs.
He had served his apprenticeship as an amateur soldier. Now the professionals conscripted him.

Conscription to W.W.2

In September 1939, the Second World War began. Bob was there as a gunner from the beginning to the end. He was sickened by the poverty he encountered in conquered europe. His eyes filled as he told of young German mothers giving their bodies for an egg to feed their bairns.

We are all losers in war. Bob was to campaign vigorously within the peace movement, but he was never a pacifist. There are times when we have to stand up and fight for a just cause.

1945 brought victory and the heady triumph for Labour in the election. Churchill with his cold-war rhetoric was dumped by the pro-Beveridge stance of Atlee. Socialism was at the front of the agenda. Gunner Cooney was deprived of his chance to help in the shaping of it by party HQ. That chance never came again although he flew the flag in the safe Labour seat of North Aberdeen in 1950 and picked up a creditable 1,300 votes.

By now he had championed a new group of friends, the squatters.

Housing was a key issue in the 1945-50 era. There had been an already acute housing shortage by 1939; wartime bombing had aggravated that problem by 1945. Nye Bevan was given the Housing portfolio as well as the Health one. Although he brilliantly negotiated a minefield of problems to set up the National Health Service, he failed to reach his housing target of 200,000 new units per year.

Shortages of men and materials made the task very difficult. The Tory jibe was that Labour had only “half a Nye” on the problem.

The Communist tag was no longer an asset after the outbreak of the Korean War

The houses that did get built, including the very popular prefabs, were constructed to a good standard, but there simply were not enough of them for all the newlyweds and their post-war baby boom.  Ever-lengthening waiting lists rendered the future bleak for thousands of Aberdeen families.

A short-term practical answer lay in organising squats in empty properties such as the old camps at the Torry Battery and Tillydrone. Bob was once again organising.

He was now a family man himself, with a wife, Nan, and twin girls, Pat and Pam. He had to be earning; he joined the building trade and was soon involved in unionising the men. These activities eventually got him blacklisted from his beloved Aberdeen.  There were no vacancies when Bob came to call. He was elbowed out of the dignity of work.

It was a particularly difficult time for him. The Communist tag was no longer an asset after the outbreak of the Korean War.

Under American influence, Commies were everywhere depicted as enemies, fifth columnists undermining the democratic process. Even the comic books had replaced the square-headed Nazi enemy with the square-headed Commie enemy. Stalin’s death in 1953 was accompanied by a torrent of horror stories about purges and gulags.

Bob’s messianic message was no longer marketable.

Folk Celebrity

He spent twenty years in exile in Birmingham where he found work as an industrial crane operator. He lodged with Dave and Betty Campbell and their close-knit family. The Campbells were old comrades from Aberdeen days. He was adopted into their family and he shared their love of folk music.

Second generation Ian and Lorna became leading lights in the folk scene.  Ian’s sons, the third generation, went on to take the pop scene by storm by founding UB40, just as the third generation of the Socialist Lennox family of Aberdeen produced the great Annie Lennox of Eurhythmics and, later, solo fame. Music had been a popular Socialist activity in the Hungry Thirties.

The definitive Spanish Anthem, however, was written by Bob himself for the 27th anniversary reunion of the International Brigade

Then ambitious shows were presented. The rehearsals kept the young unemployed busy. Little Alfie Howie, an unemployed comb-maker, recalled dozens of rehearsals for a star turn choral enactment of the Volga Boatmen. On the night, the rope was long, the line descending in order of size and the song was over and the curtains closed before Alfie had even reached the narrow little stage.

Bob even wrote a complete musical for Unity Theatre, but it was never performed: Fascists and Spain got in the way.

Bob himself became a minor folk celebrity, performing traditional Northeast tunes such as the “Wee Toon Clerk” and “McGinty’s Meal And Ale”. He was also frequently requested to perform his own compositions such as “Foul Friday” and “Torry Belle” or Chartist or Wobbly songs of American labour or the Spanish anthems such as Alex McDade’s “Song of Jarama” sung to the tune of Red River Valley:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama
It’s a place that we all know so well
It is there that we gave of our manhood
And most of our brave comrades fell.

Alex himself died for the cause at Brunete in July 1938.

The definitive Spanish Anthem, however, was written by Bob himself for the 27th anniversary reunion of the International Brigade. He called it “Hasta La Vista, Madrid”.  It is a prose poem that he would deliver with gusto. He reckoned, with good reason, that it was the best thing he ever wrote.

Our century had to be cleansed
So we went to Spain
Where the defeat of Hitler started……

No freedom fight is ever lost
While folk can learn
Each human mind’s an outpost
And the frontiers of freedom expand

Conquering minds and hearts
Prelude to the conquest of cities and states
Till the world will be wholly free
Then Folk will strive for higher freedoms still.

Bob even appeared on vinyl as a singer with the “Singing Campbells”. He also worked with Hamish Henderson in the epic folk collection.

When he retired back home to Aberdeen in 1973 at the age of 65, he was “adopted” by the Aberdeen Folk Club. They honoured him by publishing in 1983 a selection of his songs and poems, “When of Heroes we sing”.

That little booklet sums up his philosophy of life and the causes he so fervently supported. He was now 75 and his health was rapidly failing. His active mind kept him awake; insomnia wore him down.

He spent his last months in Kingseat Hospital, still humming his tunes and composing poems in his head.

He died in August 1984 aged 78.

He gave so much and seemed to get so little in return, yet he was happy in comradeship and lived a full life. Bob could be very shy in company until he got to know you, and then he could be quite gregarious. He could tell you jokes you had heard many times before, but he added his own little bits to milk the story for a few more hilarious minutes.

He wanted a world full of laughter; he challenged a life full of injustice. He won his fair share of battles and never shirked a challenge. The cause was always more important than personal comfort. It was a life of sacrifice in a huge effort to improve conditions for his fellow men. He didn’t always win but he did inspire others to take up the cause.

He had a rich life worth celebrating, and it duly was celebrated in the Lemon Tree with a folk night featuring Dick Gaughan. The Trades Council also organised a celebration of the International Brigadiers in November 1989. His name lives on in the Housing Association development at Berryden: not bad for a squatter and a born rebel.

Footnote:

Aberdeen Voice wishes to thank Cllr Neil Cooney once again for permission to publish this inspiring story of a fellow Aberdonian to whom we owe an infinitely greater measure of gratitude.

 

Jun 182011
 

In a time before widespread international travel, Bob Cooney would journey across continents to realise the depths of his beliefs. He would find himself at the sharp end of unfolding events that would prove to be of considerable historical significance. In the second part of the trilogy written by Bob’s nephew – Aberdeen City Councillor Neil Cooney – we learn how Bob would selflessly bring his talents and convictions to bear to oppose fascism, both at home and in Spain, and with increasing vigour, passion and heroism – to say nothing of intense mortal danger.

Bob missed most of the 1931 crisis because his life had entered a new phase. In 1930, he packed in his job as a pawnbroker’s clerk in order to devote himself full time to politics.

It was a brave decision, his new job carried no wages but it did give him an opportunity for further education.

He spent thirteen months during 1931-32 in Russia, studying by day in the Lenin Institute, working by night in a rubber factory.

There he picked up an industrial throat infection and spent some time in a sanatorium. It left him with huskiness in his voice that became part of his oratory. Times were tough in Russia but good in comparative terms with the destitution of the Tsarist era.

Bob found a thirst for knowledge that was infectious throughout Russian society. Even grannies were going back to classes to learn the skills to make their country prosperous. There was even time for a glorious holiday down the Volga. It charged up his batteries for the tasks ahead. He was not short of work when he returned in 1932.

There was a lot of heavy campaigning to do, to mobilise the unemployed and to organise the hunger marches. He travelled from Aberdeen to Glasgow and Edinburgh speaking at open-air meetings to campaign against unemployment, to rally public opinion against the iniquitous Means Test, which robbed the poorest of their Dole as well as their dignity.

Fascists in Aberdeen

Out of the turmoil of the Depression came the strange phenomenon of the British Union of Fascists. Oswald Mosely, its creator, had served in both the Tory and Labour camps before forming his Blackshirts. He was copying the style of Mussolini and was both influenced and funded by Hitler. His area Gauleiter for the North was William Chambers Hunter, a minor laird by inheritance.

He had started off life as plain Willie Jopp but now he had pretensions of power. Aberdeen was targeted as his power base and he recruited and hired thugs from afar afield as London to help him take over the city.

Bob and the others decided to stop him.

There were pitched battles, arrests, fines and imprisonment, but they succeeded. Fascism was not allowed to take root in Aberdeen. Those who deny the free speech of others did not deserve free speech themselves.

Aberdeen has a tradition of fairness. No trumped up laird was going to destroy it. Bob emerged out of these pitched battles as a working class hero. He displayed his undoubted courage as well as his often under-rated organisational skills. It wasn’t enough to stand up to the Fascists, you had to out-think them and outnumber them and run them out of town.

The first Fascist rally organised for the Music Hall, to be addressed by Raven Thomson, Mosely’s Deputy, had to be cancelled half an hour before it was due to start.

The Fascists eyed the Market stance as a key venue. It had become a working class stronghold. The key battle was to take place there.

Chambers Hunter pencilled in the evening of Sunday 16 July 1937 for his big rally. The workers would be caught out on a Sunday in the height of the holiday season. He miscalculated. The grapevine was finely tuned; and Bob addressed a crowd of 2,000 at the Links at 11a.m. They vowed to gather at the Castlegate in the evening. The Fascists duly arrived with their armour-plated van and their police escort, their amplifiers and their heavies.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave immense aid to the Spanish Fascists

As Chambers Hunter clambered to the roof of the van, the workers surged forward, cut the cables and chased the Fascists for their lives. The Castlegate was cleared by 8 p.m. Bob was one of many arrested, and served four days for his efforts.

A young Ian Campbell, later of folk music fame, remembers sitting on his father’s shoulders watching Bob being carried shoulder high on his release from prison. He also remembers how the crowd went silent as Bob addressed them. It was Bob’s last speech in Aberdeen for a long time because within hours he was on his way to Spain.

In Spain in 1936, the army revolt triggered the Nationalist Right-wing attack on the democratically elected Republican government. Despite the terms of its Covenant, the League of Nations opted for a policy of  “Non-Intervention”. Eden and Chamberlain were quick to agree, even though such a policy guaranteed a Franco victory.

It provided a precedent for our later inaction in Austria in the spring of 1938 and Czechoslovakia both in the autumn of 1938 and in the spring of 1939. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave immense aid to the Spanish Fascists. Stalin’s Russia gave much more limited aid to the Republicans. International Brigades of volunteers were also formed to aid the Republic.

The Go-Ahead for Spain

‘And if we live to be a hundred
We’ll have this to be glad about
We went to Spain!
Became the great yesterday
We are part of the great tomorrow
HASTA LA VISTAMADRID!’

– Bob Cooney

 

Bob had pleaded for months to go to Spain but the Communist Party kept stalling him, saying he was too valuable at home in the struggle against the Blackshirts.

In the spring of 1937, he set off from Aberdeen but was again stopped by party HQ. It wasn’t until the Castlegate victory that he eventually got the go-ahead from Harry Pollitt, the party’s General Secretary. Bob had argued that he felt hypocritical rallying support for the Spanish people and urging young men and women to go off to Spain to help the cause, and yet do nothing himself. Thoughts of Spain filled every moment of every day – the desire to fight for Spain burned within him. He later reflected that participation in Spain justified his existence on this earth. Spain was the front line again Fascism. It was his duty as a fighter to be there.

Bob was 28 when he left for Spain, getting there via a tortuous route; a tourist ticket to Paris, followed by a bus to Perpignan and then a long trek across the Pyrenees to Barcelona and beyond. He got five weeks basic training at Tarragona, a small town close to the modern resort of Salou.

There he was given his ill-fitting khaki uniform, strong boots, a Soviet rifle and a food bowl. He was appointed Commissar (motivator) of the training group. He was offered officer’s training but refused. He had promised Harry Pollitt that he was there to fight, not to pick up stripes.
Bob eventually was promoted to the position of Commissar of the XV (British) Brigade. The Brigades were integrated with local Spaniards. Bob, to lead them, had to learn their language. They soon caught on to his wry sense of humour.

His first action was at Belchite, south of the Ebro. He always said he was afraid to be afraid. He told his men never to show fear, they weren’t conscripts, they were comrades and they would look after each other. He had to prevent their bravery descending into bravado. There were some who vowed never to hide from the Fascists and to fight in open country. This would have been suicidal and such romantic notions had to be curbed.

Bob served in two major campaigns. The first was at Teruel, between Valencia and Madrid. The Brigade was drafted in to hold the line there in January 1938. Paul Robeson, the great singer, dropped in to greet them there: Robeson was heavily involved in fund-raising for the Spanish cause. The XV Brigade held their line for seven weeks before Franco’s forces complete with massive aerial power and a huge artillery bombardment forced them back.

Conditions were hard, supply lines were tenuous and the food supply was awful. Half a slice of bread a day was a common ration. His next great battle was along the Ebro from July to October 1938.

On a return sortie to Belchite, organising a controlled retreat through enemy lines, he was captured along with Jim Harkins of Clydebank. Another group on the retreat distracted their captors and Bob and Jim fled for cover. Sadly, Jim later died at the Ebro.

Just over 2,400 joined the Brigades from Britain, 526 were killed, and almost 1,000 were wounded. Of the 476 Scots who took part, 19 came from Aberdeen. The Spanish Civil War claimed the lives of five Aberdonians, Tom Davidson died at Gandesa in April 1937 and the other four at the Ebro. Archie Dewar died in March 1938, Ken Morrice in July 1938, Charles MacLeod in August 1938 and finally Ernie Sim in the last great battle in September 1938.

The final parade of the Brigade was through Barcelona on October 29th. They were addressed by the charismatic Dolores Ibarruri who had been elected Communist MP for the northern mining region of the Asturias: she was affectionately known as La Pasionara. She told them:

“you can go proudly. You are legend. We shall not forget you”.

It had taken the combined cream of the professional forces of Germany, Italy and Spain almost three years to beat them. They had every right to be proud. Barcelona fell to Franco late in January 1939, Madrid falling two months later.

Dont miss the third and final part of Neil Cooney’s account of his Uncle Bob Cooney’s amazing story – when we learn that  Bob Cooney has barely time to reflect on the events relating to the Spanish Civil War before joining the fight against Hitler and the Nazis.