Ralph Bates – Swindon born writer and Spanish Civil War Chronicler
Ralph Bates Swindon Writer
Some time ago, in the tourist information centre in Bristol, I saw an information sheet on a literary trail round the city. And that got me thinking that Swindon could surely have such a thing here what with Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams. No sooner had I had this thought than what should appear on my social media stream than something publicizing a forthcoming talk at the Museum and Art Gallery about Ralph Bates Swindon writer. No – I’d not heard of him either. And in his day he was rated as better than Hemingway. Who knew?
As it happened I couldn’t attend the Ralph Bates event but I was fortunate enough to know someone, a lovely lady by the name of Monica Timms, who could. And she wrote about the evening and the man it concerned.
A fascinating story not well told in Swindon
I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a fascinating story. As Monica says, here was a writer of international stature who is criminally unrecognised in the town of his birth.
About Ralph Bates Civil War Chronicler
Ralph Bates entered this world in Morse Street in Swindon in 1899. On leaving school, Bates entered an apprenticeship in the repair yards of the Great Western Railway as a fitter, turner and erector. In 1916 he volunteered for service in the Royal Flying Corps but was turned down. He did however serve as an infantryman with the 16th Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment achieving the rank of Lance Corporal.
He then returned to the GWR. but, dissatisfied with factory work, went to Paris and worked as a street cleaner. In 1923 he returned to London and married Winifred Sandford, a socialist who taught in London’s East End and they supported the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
During most of the late 1920s the couple moved around Europe. Ralph also spent some time in Spain working as a seaman and trade union agitator in the docks of Catalonia. The couple eventually settled in the Pyrenees where Ralph became a passionate mountain climber. It’s interesting to note that one of Ralph’s great-grandfathers had been the owner and captain of a Spanish tramp steamer carrying sherry and other goods around the Mediterranean. Ralph often said his first reason for going to Spain was to try and find his great grandfather’s grave in Cadiz.
His first book ‘Sierra’ a collection of short stories about the hardships of Spanish village life saw publication in August 1933. He followed ‘Sierra’ with ‘The Lean Man’ published in two volumes in 1934 – a novel about a country in turmoil. The Manchester Guardian described it as ‘a work of rich nature and of rare experiences. A book of force and beauty…All who are interested in Spain and its present conditions should read it.’
An energetic man
Bates’ energy levels were the stuff of fable. He organised unions and swam and climbed. The Spanish dubbed him El Fantastico! His need for money drove him to take up writing. He was in touch with literary comrades and friends in London. In fact, he appears to have travelled back and forth between Spain and London with London publishers publishing his books.
His first book ‘Sierra’ a collection of short stories about the hardships of Spanish village life emerged into the light in August 1933. ‘Sierra’ preceded ‘The Lean Man’ published in two volumes in 1934. This novel about a country in turmoil is the story of an English Communist agitator Surely Ralph Bates himself – who is ‘up against an overwhelmingly cruel and powerful state?’
According to the Manchester Guardian ‘It is a work of rich nature and of rare experiences. A book of force and beauty. All who are interested in Spain and its present conditions should read it.’
In their 2000 obituary to Ralph Bates, Ralph Bates, Novelist Who Evoked Spain and Then Fought Franco, Dies at 101, the New York Times wrote:
‘Almost 60 years ago he was considered by some to be one of the best writers on Spain. ”He stands out as perhaps the best informed — not even excepting Andre Malraux or Ernest Hemingway — of the chroniclers of the preceding disturbed decade in Spain,” said 20th-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, published in 1942.’
In 1936 he published ‘The Olive Field’ – a story of unsuccessful revolutionary struggles and the life of the cultivators of olive trees.
The Spanish Civil War
When the Civil War erupted he became involved straight away. Being well acquainted with the Pyrenees he guided volunteers across the passes, taking part in fighting with the militias. The International Brigades made him and he edited their English-language paper, ‘Volunteer for Liberty’. In that he wrote pieces about the war for such London journals as ‘Left Review’. His wife, Winifred worked as a nurse.
n 1937 the Communist party sent him to the USA to drum up financial support and to attract more volunteers for the war in Spain. Madison Square Garden’s held a huge rally and Bates became most popular with the American left. At such a meeting he met Eve Haxman whom he married in 1942, after divorcing Winifred.
After the 1939 collapse of the Spanish republic, Ralph Bates moved to Mexico. That provided the setting for his novel ‘The Fields of Paradise (1941).
Ralph Bates resigned from the Communist party with the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939. He settled in New York and got involved in trying to get the USA to enter the Second World War. From 1948 to 1968 he taught creative writing and other literary topics at New York University. He also came to the attention of the House of Un-American Activities Committee but refused to testify.
Bates continued to write. His last published novel ‘The Dolphin in The Wood’ (1950) appears to be based on his early years. It ends with the hero travelling to Spain.
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