Ralph Bates

Ralph Bates

Ralph Bates – Swindon born writer

From the website of the Ralph Bates project:

‘In the brilliant constellation of revolutionary novelists of the 1930’s—Dos Passos, Malraux, Silone—only Ralph Bates is today scarcely remembered. This is unjust.  Bates, an English resident of Spain for many years, has been an American even  longer. Perhaps because he now writes principally about music, the new generation  of readers does not seem to know The Olive Field, (E. P. Dutton), his most ambitious  and most powerful novel. It is now out of print, but persevering book hunters may  be able to find it in secondhand-book shops. This truly extraordinary evocation of  Spain by one who came to it as a foreign radical must inevitably recall to us the  intensity with which Malraux attempted to assimilate his experience of the Orient to  his concept of the communist as literary hero.”                                                                                                                                                                             Harvey Swados {1}

As much as I’m an advocate of Swindon I do often despair at the stuff that  comes to light about people related to Swindon, that are not widely known, and whose associations with Swindon could be capitalised on. Now the list of such things is depressingly large but at the moment I’m thinking of literary figures.

I was recently in the tourist information centre in Bristol where there was 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 – neither of whom I knew much about until recently. No sooner had I had this thought than, in one of those curious coincidences that punctuate our lives, what should appear on my social media stream than a piece from the Swindon Link magazine publicizing a forthcoming talk at the Museum and Art Gallery about Ralph Bates. Do I now hear a chorus of ‘Ralph who’? You’d be forgiven for not having heard of this man as not too many people have. And in his day he was rated as better than Hemingway. Who knew?

Unfortunately I was unable to 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 has kindly written this post for #BAS about the evening (which sounds great) and the man it concerned.

I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a fascinating story and begs the question as to why he and Swindon’s other literary figures – and even the Betjeman connection – are not made MUCH more of. As Monica says, here was a writer of international stature who is criminally unrecognised in the town of his birth. But then so much of everything is criminally unrecognised and un-capitalised on in this town. I could sit and weep.

Thank you Monica for taking the time to do some further research and for taking notes at the event so we can learn more about Ralph Bates. It’s great stuff.

“I too am a born-again Swindonian, having moved here from Portsmouth in 1974. We arrived in Highworth with a 2 year 8 month daughter and a 3 week old son. We subsequently moved to Covingham, where we still live.

Over the years I have attended many creative writing courses and currently belong to the writing group ‘Mum’s the Word’ who meet monthly at Lower Shaw Farm. I have found myself writing about being a mother to adult children, and a Nanna, together with the occasional short story.

I also try and volunteer at Richard Jefferies Museum, where, a few weeks ago I met Angela. We chatted non-stop and she told me about a writer who had been born in Swindon. He had written about the Spanish Civil War and had been considered a better writer than Hemingway. She couldn’t remember his name. As soon as I arrived home that afternoon I ‘Googled’ writers from Swindon and lo and behold there he was, Ralph Bates.

Coincidentally a talk about him was being given at the Museum and Art Gallery, so I emailed for details, invited the daughter to come along, and duly arrived at the Museum.

What a fascinating evening. It was much more that your usual ‘run of the mill’ talk. It was entitled ‘Traveller of a Lesser Road. The life, work and times of Ralph Bates.’

Mike Yates – who incidentally had written a book about Ralph Bates which he hopes will be published at the end of the year – together with two members of the Phoenix Players, Colin Wilkins and Sally Lovejoy, gave a vivid presentation, interspersed with music from Spain, Greece and the opening music from Schubert’s Mass in F major because Ralph Bates had written a biography of the composer.

We learnt that Ralph Bates had been born in Morse Street, Swindon in 1899. When he left school he was apprenticed 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 G.W.R. but, dissatisfied with factory work, he 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 is interesting to discover 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, and Ralph often said his first reason for going to Spain was to try and find his great grandfather’s grave in Cadiz.

Ralph Bates was a man of fabled energy – organising unions, swimming and climbing. He was dubbed El Fantastico by the Spaniards. 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, and it was London publishers who published his books.

His first book ‘Sierra’ a collection of short stories about the hardships of Spanish village life was published in August 1933. ‘Sierra’ was followed by ‘The Lean Man’ published in two volumes in 1934. It is a novel about a country in turmoil. It is the story of an English Communist agitator, surely Ralph Bates, 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.’

According to the New York Times, in their obituary to Ralph Bates, 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, but also about the life of the cultivators of olive trees. ‘Rainbow Fish: Four Short Novels’ published in 1937 is set widely across Europe.

When the Civil War erupted he became involved straight away. Being well acquainted with the Pyrenees he guided volunteers across the passes and took part in fighting with the militias. He was made a commissar in the International Brigades, edited their English-language paper, ‘Volunteer for Liberty’ wrote pieces about the war for London journals, for example ‘Left Review’. His wife, Winifred worked as a nurse.

In 1937 he was sent to the United States by the Communist party to drum up financial support and to attract more volunteers for the war in Spain. In Madison Square Garden’s there was a huge rally, and he became very popular with the American left. It was at such a meeting that he met Eve Haxman whom he married in 1942, after divorcing Winifred.

After the collapse of the Spanish republic in 1939, Ralph Bates moved to Mexico and his novel ‘The Fields of Paradise (1941) is set there.

In ‘The Miraculous Horde’ the collection published in the autumn of 1939, the Spanish stories about early-1930’s trade union struggles and famous battles involving the International Brigades, on the Jarama, at Brunete, in Aragon – are considered so much better than the Mexican stories. Bates was best when writing about Spanish events. The mixed human material in the republican militias and melancholic reflections on a struggle about which the people involved felt increasingly pessimistic.

Ralph Bates resigned from the Communist party when the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed in 1939. He settled in New York and was involved in trying to get the U.S. 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 UnAmerican Activities Committee. He refused to testify.

He continued to write. His last published novel ‘The Dolphin in The Wood’ (1950) appears to be based on his early years, ending with the hero travelling to Spain.

For his last 30 or so years Bates and his wife divided their time between New York and the Greek island of Naxos. He leaves an unpublished book about the islands and a completed collection of poems.

He died November 26 2000, aged 101

There is a small exhibition of Ralph Bates books in the Museum and Art Gallery.

Surely a writer of his stature needs to be remembered in the town of his birth?”

2nd September 2014

Article in Swindon link about Ralph Bates book

Article in Swindon link about Ralph Bates book

An update with the information this image, regarding a book about Ralph Bates (from Swindon Link magazine September 2014). The website it talks about is here.  A taster from it:

“The critical period of my own imaginative life, the period of its liberation and of its impregnation with an imagery that I cannot relinquish, was spent in wandering around the vast cordilleras of Spain. Those hills, in the days when I was still a factory worker in a cramped and spectrumless town, were already in my mind. They were legendary to me, though I had not heard their tale. ”         

New Theatre & Film, New York: March 1937; Volume IV (22) No 1, p. 14.

Worth checking out I reckon!

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