Re-dedication of Notts Spanish Civil War memorial

[Report originally published on Notts Indymedia. Check out that version for photos from the day.]

On Saturday July 17th Nottingham and Mansfield Trades Council organised a re-dedication of the memorial to the International Brigades at County Hall, West Bridgford.

The re-dedication was a response to the decision by Leader of the Council Kay Cutts to have the memorial rearranged and the information board removed. This was one of the first things Cutts did after taking power in last year’s council elections. It was controversial at the time and anger has persisted. The re-dedication took place on the 74th anniversary of the fascist coup which instigated the war.

Inexplicably the event was organised to begin a t 10.30am, but there were more people than I had expected given the time and the threat of rain.

The first speaker was Alan Rhodes, leader of the Labour group at the county councillor. He was not the only prominent Labour Party figure in attendance. Vernon Coaker MP and ex-MP Paddy Tipping were also floating around. One gets the impression that now they’ve been kicked out of power they’ve suddenly found their principles again.

To be fair, Rhodes speech wasn’t too bad. He set out some of the history of the memorial. Originally proposed in 1989, the city and county councils had in 1992 agreed that it would be situated at County Hall. The memorial cost £22,000 and was unveiled on 24th September 1993 by the Spanish Ambassador, at an event attended by 18 former members of the International Brrigades including trade unionist Jack Jones. Rhodes described Cutt’s removal of the information board as an “act of civic vandalism” and claimed that when (if?) the Labour Party returns to power at the authority they will replace it.

The next speaker was to have been Jason Zadrozny, leader of the LibDem group on the council, but he failed to turn up, seemingly without giving a reason. Cynics may note that as he had agreed to speak prior to the emergence of the ConDem coalition he has now decided that an attack on local Tories is not as politically expedient as it may previously have appeared.

Chris Richardson of the Co-Operative Party spoke next. He discussed how co-operators in 1936 had understood the threat posed by Spanish fascism. Their comrades in Italy and Germany had both seen firsthand the repression that fascism entailed and so the co-operative movement in UK had thrown itself into the struggle in support of the Republicans. In Nottingham donations were made to relief and medical funds and a campaign was launched to fund an ambulance to be sent to Spain.

Chris was followed by the Clarion Choir who sung an array of traditional protest songs including the Red Flag and the Internationale. There was then a message from the Spanish Ambassador which claimed they were unable to intervene in the rearrangement of the memorial, but reported that seven surviving British members of the International Brigade were recently given Spanish nationality. The International Brigade Memorial Trust also sent their apologies, reporting on their activities.

Various people then read poetry about the war written by people who had been to Spain or extracts from “Shallow Grave” by Walter Gregory. Gregory, originally from Lincoln, lived in Bulwell and after becoming involved in the Communist Party he traveled out to Spain where he was shot and later imprisoned. Fortunately he survived and would go on to write up his experiences in the 1980s. One extract was from a Brigade newspaper, extolling the virtues of saluting. This was presumably chosen as charming or somehow reflecting positively on the organisation of the Brigades. To my mind, however, it seemed like a damning indictment of where the war started going wrong as a previously broadly egalitarian revolutionary milita became increasingly hierarchical and indistinguishable from any other army.

County council worker Johnathan Swift spoke about the role memorials play in the politics of memory (OK, he didn’t use those exact words). He discussed visits to Eastern Europe where there were few memorials and the way street names have been changed according to the whims of the people in charge at any given time. Memorials connect us to our history and Swift described the decision to remove the information board as “scary” because of the parallels with the actions of totalitarian governments who were similarly interested in repressing bothersome historical references.

At this point the names of the 26 volunteers who went out to Spain from Nottinghamshire were read out. People came from the crowd and formed a surprisingly long queue before reading out the name and some biographical information about the volunteers.

Two of the last speakers were elderly ladies. Hilda Tagg was related (I managed to fail to record what her relationship was) to Herbert Tagg one of the volunteers who gave their lives in Spain. She had not known Herbert but was well acquainted with his exploits and described the effect of his death on the family. Bizarrely she felt compelled to state that she wasn’t in the Communist Party, but was in the Labour Party, “the next best thing,” although she insisted she was a socialist.

Ida Hackett was a trade unionist involved, as a representative of her union, in the local Spanish aid campaign. Despite being afflicted with a sudden burst of feedback from the sound system, she explained that she had been friends with Eric Whalley before he went to Spain and recounted a speech he had made before going that he wasn’t simply setting out to defend Spanish democracy, but to stop a second world war. Hackett emphasised the hardship experienced by the families of volunteers, but closed her speech by calling on people to continue to fight.

After a brief poem translated from Spanish, local trade unionist Barrry Donlan began the actual re-dedication. He tied this into Nottingham’s long radical history from Saxons defending their independence against the Vikings in 868AD, through Robin Hood (“distributor of undeserved bonuses”), the Civil War (1642), the cheese riots (1764), Luddism, the Reform Riots (1831), Chartism, the General Strike (1926), the fight against the Spencer Union (1936-7) and through to the Spanish Civil War. This he argued continued up to today, pointing to the many industrial struggles which have rocked Nottingham over the last 74 years.

Two wreaths were then laid by the monument. One in the colours of the Spanish Republic (red, yellow and indigo) listed the volunteers from Nottinghamshire who gave their lives in Spain was laid by Tagg and Hackett. Another in red, white and blue, carried the names of people from Notttingham who had died in air raids during the Second World War, deaths which might possibly have been avoided had the fascists been defeated in Spain. This was laid by secretary of the trades council Richard Buckwell.

At this point the event closed with the Clarion Choir singing The Valley of Jarama, a song about the Spanish Civil War. A short thank you was given by the trades council and people drifted off. The interesting question is how long these new wreaths (placed alongside poppy wreaths from last November) will survive.

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