Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Last to Fall
(the life and letters of Ivor Hickman – an International Brigader in Spain)
by John L. Wainwright
Pubs Hatchet Green publishing
Pbck £10.99

This book’s cover displays a somewhat faded, sepia-coloured photograph of a sunburnt, handsome young man staring out at the onlooker with unflinching determination. Immediately you feel the urge to read about who he is and what he did.

The author had a long history of interest in the Spanish Civil War and had even written a film script about it. But the only facts he had to go on when he began researching this biography of Ivor Hickman was a small memorial plaque on a wooden bench outside Peter Symonds College school in Winchester with Hickman’s name engraved on it and a modest memorial to several International Brigaders in Southampton. He was determined to find out more about this enigmatic man. After a friend was able to establish contact with the two daughters of Hickman’s former wife and asking if they knew anything about him, they discovered a dusty parcel of faded letters in the attic of their old house. These turned out to be letters Hickman wrote to Juliet MacArthur, his girlfriend and later wife. Slowly Wainwright was able to piece together Ivor’s short life story.

It is a fascinating tale and a glowing symbol of the idealism and commitment which persuaded between 30-40,000 young men and women, among them over 2,300 from Britain, to volunteer to fight fascism in Spain. Wainwright writes about this key historical juncture with lucidity, imagination and insight.

Ivor Hickman was a bright student who went up to Cambridge, joining the Communist Party there, before going on to work in Manchester, in 1936, as a mathematical engineering apprentice at Metropolitan Vickers, a big engineering factory. At Cambridge his lecturers included C.P. Snow and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with both of whom he corresponded after finishing his degree. At university he also met the love of his life, Juliet MacArthur, who was studying psychology.

In that same year he married Juliet before immediately departing for Spain. His newly wedded wife was left behind, and although they both hoped she would be able to join him out there, it never happened. That, though, didn’t prevent her playing an active role in looking after refugee Basque children in Norfolk, who had been evacuated from the fighting.

His early letters to Juliet, while at university or from Manchester, are full of youthful passion and sexual desire, like those of any normal young man. His dispatches from Spain were, of course, censored, but provide a vivid picture of the harsh reality of that unequal struggle.

The cause of the Spanish Civil War captured the imagination of left wing youth throughout the world as hardly any other cause has done, before or since. They were prepared to sacrifice their lives for a cause the passionately believed in and, if the pusillanimous western powers had given sufficient support to the legitimate Spanish government, fascism would have experienced its first defeat and the Second World War in Europe may have been avoided.

All this is now ancient history, but it is does provide a vivid and salutary illustration of how some individuals time and time again can and will rise above their peers to fight selflessly for justice and a better life for their fellow human beings. Unlike today, ideological issues then were perceived as black and white: you were either anti-fascist or a reactionary; you were either a communist and supporter of the Soviet Union or an upholder of out-dated bourgeois values. It was a time when many realised that Europe was on the cusp of cataclysmic change and traditional values were being seriously challenged.

Wainwright cleverly interweaves the essential history of the Spanish Civil War around Hickman’s life. He includes interviews with other veterans of the International Brigades, including Sam Lesser (Sam Russell) the former Daily Worker/Morning Star reporter. These give added weight and colour to that war that took the lives of so many valiant comrades in the prime of their youth.

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