Ralph Bates. Who knew?

Ralph Bates. Who knew?

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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Groovers on Manoeuvres | The rants and raves of a music fan in Swindon.

This blog has come to my attention and I think it’s one that you Swindon music lovers might enjoy:

Groovers on Manoeuvres | The rants and raves of a music fan in Swindon..


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Baila Coffee & Vinyl

Monday 14th July

So, the Saturday just gone saw me with an arrangement to meet an ex work colleague for coffee – it was really far too nice a day to be visiting coffee shops but never mind. Having seen it on Twitter, we made a plan to check out Baila Coffee and Vinyl the newest kid on the Old Town block.  According to their Facebook page they are a ‘third-wave coffee house selling good coffee and cake alongside a curated selection of vinyl.’

 I won’t lie, not being a coffee expert I had to look up the ‘third-wave’ thing. I had no idea there was such a concept. According to Wikipedia, not always to be trusted I know but I suspect on this score we are on solid ground – or should that be grounds in this case? Ha! – did you see what I did there?  It appears that the Third Wave of coffee refers to: ‘a current movement to produce high-quality coffee, and consider coffee as an artisanal foodstuff, like wine, rather than a commodity. This involves improvements at all stages of production, from improving coffee plant growing, harvesting, and processing, to stronger relationships between coffee growers, traders, and roasters, to higher quality and fresh roasting, at times called “microroasting” (by analogy with microbrewbeer), to skilled brewing.

Third Wave Coffee aspires to the highest form of culinary appreciation of coffee, so that one may appreciate subtleties of flavor, varietal, and growing region – similar to other complex culinary products such as wine, tea, and chocolate. Distinctive features of Third Wave Coffee include direct trade coffee, high-quality beans (see specialty coffee for scale), single-origin coffee (as opposed to blends), lighter roasts, and latte art.’  So now I know!

So the question on your lips might now be ‘does Baila meet these criteria?’ Well – without giving them a thorough roasting (sorry, I can’t help myself) about the provenance of their coffee etc I couldn’t honestly say. I had what I always have – which is a black coffee. It was indeed a very fine coffee, though in my humble opinion, it didn’t match the coffee at an establishment I favour in the town centre. But of course that’s just my taste buds/opinion. And, at £2.25, I thought it was a bit pricey? Or am I out of step with prices in Old Town? Perhaps. To accompany it I had a locally-made salted caramel flapjacky thing which was very tasty. But I did feel an ‘ouch’ at the over-four-pounds-bill for that and a black coffee. But, as I say, maybe that’s just me. Oh – and there was an apostrophe missing on the ‘menu’ thing on the tables. Oops. 😉 Had I got AA Editorial Services under way at that point I might have been tempted to offer them my proofreading services.

The place itself is kinda cute and funky. I think perhaps ‘hipster’ would broadly cover it. It’s all exposed light bulbs, old school desks, one black wall with ‘chalk’ decor and then of course the vinyl. There’s vintage album covers on the wall and the ‘carefully curated’ vinyl for purchase. All of which makes me smile somewhat, just because I’m of an age to have been through the old 78s, then the vinyl singles, EPs and LPs, cassette tapes, mini-discs, compact discs, MP3s and ooh back to vinyl again!

“….What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun….”  Ecclesiastes 1:4-11

It’s certainly a ‘yummy-mummy’ friendly place with a handy pram-park at the back under the stairs and an upstairs lounge with a play area for little ones.

The menu for the moment is comprised of tea, coffee, the home-made cakes/sweet treats and I believe ice-cream from Ray’s of Old Town. Sadly, for me alone no doubt, ice-cream – no matter how good it may be – doesn’t rock my world. I’d far rather some savoury offerings. Hopefully in the future.

So if you are in Old Town the place is definitely worth checking out and is something different for sure.

24th September 2014 – quick update – Baila coffee and Vinyl now have a shiny new website: http://www.bailacoffeeandvinyl.com

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The Richard Jefferies Museum & a mean cream tea

I was up at the Richard Jefferies museum again this morning. I’ve written about the place before here so this post is largely to share some snaps I took around the garden while I was up there and also to make a plea:

Over the summer months the museum is putting on cream teas in the garden and in the indoor tea room on Sundays and Mondays. I hope from the photos you can see how charming the place is. The kitchen is all beautifully organised now with neat shelves of cafetieres, mugs and vintage china. But what they really, really need now – especially with the school holidays up and coming – is someone that can give up Sunday afternoons from say, 2-5 – to really drive the teas – to project manage it if you will. Obviously this is a voluntary role but there’s a budget to pay travel expenses.  So of there’s anyone out there that’s a frustrated tea shop owner and would like to help with this, then Mike Pringle is your man. He can be contacted on: x 07768 917466

Mike and others are working hard to spread the Richard Jefferies gospel and to raise the profile of the museum so if anyone can help with this that would be fantastic. I’ve been up a couple of times on Mondays but have been frustrated by things getting in the way.  Here’s that number again: Mike Pringle – 07768 917466.



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Park Life at Lydiard

A few days ago #BAS published a guest post from Councillor Jim Robbins concerning his visit to and reflections on #Swindon splendid STEAM Museum. Now here is his report on Lydiard Park and House another of Swindon’s gems – this one well-known though sadly so many aren’t. Like the West Swindon sculpture trail to give but one example.

Anyway it’s interesting stuff for sure, I love the titbit about Henry Bolingbroke lobbying the GWR to mute the hooter as it disturbed his shut-eye. Bless! 🙂 So read on.

As before, should you wish to communicate with Jim about his posts here’s how you can: Let me know what you think of the blog, and of STEAM and Lydiard. Feel free to comment here, or contact me on Facebook where I’m ‘Councillor Jim Robbins’ or on twitter where I’m @jimrobbins.

‘After my trip to STEAM, I drove over to Lydiard Park and House, where it was sunglasses and shirtsleeves weather. However, as they had an outdoors performance of The Tempest due to take place in the evening, showers were inevitably forecast for the afternoon and evening. I’m a regular visitor to Lydiard, mainly as a dog walker and dad, so I’m well aware of the walks and the playpark, but I’m ashamed to admit that I had never visited the House.   I had a whistle-stop tour from the lovely lady on reception, and I will certainly be going back for a longer more in-depth look at the House and Walled Garden. I knew a bit about the St John family and their history, and was aware of the Stubbs paintings (which would have been worth millions!) that had had to be sold to cover the gambling debts, but I was not aware of such treasures as the Socchi table and the amazing stained glass window in the Diana room. I also didn’t know that Henry Bolingbrooke had lobbied the GWR to mute their famous hooter as it disturbed his sleep!

 The House is a hidden gem for the town, and we need to ensure that it is recognised as the excellent attraction that it is. The House and Gardens are ranked as 5th on trip advisor (with the park’s jungle attraction rated 4th) but the vast majority of the 750,000 annual visitors only visit the park and don’t go to the house.

The Park has been greatly improved over the last 10 years with the help of a Heritage Lottery fund grant, with the lake reinstalled, the playground and visitor centre improved, and the stable reopened as a cafe and the walled garden back in use.

 Plans for the future include the need for improved car parking, which would allow the park to host much bigger events. Those who remember the on-off charade of the Big Arts Day a few years ago where the event was going to happen, then was going to be cancelled, then back on which went on in the week preceding the event was all due to the limitations of the car parking on site, and the need to additional car parking on the grass. There is also talk of having one main entrance to the Park so that the ‘visitor experience’ can be managed better.   I have to say that I’m not totally sold on this idea, as I like to be able to park by the playpark if I’m there with my daughter but prefer to nip into the Church entrance if I’m walking the dog or going there from my parents-in-laws house in Grange Park. I appreciate the flexibility of the two entrances, and feel that there is a different feel from the two entrances, and wouldn’t want to lose that.

There is talk of investigating whether there is a need for some policy to be introduced around where dogs can go off the lead, to allow parents with young children to have some areas where they are less likely to be disturbed by dogs or find their picnic is interrupted by the discovery of dog poo… As a typical non-commital politician, I’d be keen to investigate users opinions on these issues before making any big decisions!

 I was impressed to find out the success of some of the income generation schemes at the Park. The static barbecues bring in over £25k every year, and I have to say that I hugely enjoyed the experience when we hired one for a family birthday. I was also pleased to discover that the Swindon branch (pun intended!) of the Jungle Park is the busiest of all of the centres that the operator runs in the country, and the Council receive a percentage of the turnover. I have to say that I always thought that it’s pretty expensive, but it seems to be around the average price for this sort of activity and the visitor numbers are testament to the popularity of the attraction. The Jungle Park and Lydiard Park and House are also in the top 5 visitor attractions in the town, at 4 and 5 respectively.

 I think that the big challenge for the Council is to ensure that the House and Park, along with STEAM, are properly funded to ensure that they stay as popular attractions, and that any attempt to increase income at the sites is done sensitively and in keeping with the heritage of the sites. I would hate for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose the great attractions that we have by trying too hard to make them pay or allowing them to die a death of a thousand cuts as we seek to save money. We need to protect out heritage and build on these real assets of the town.’


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