Archive for August 26th, 2009


Randall Swingler, leading Communist poet and victim of the Cold War in Britain

By David Morgan. From SHS Newsletter August 2009
Andy Croft, prolific poet, former lecturer and author of over 70 books on everything from Communism to football, delivered a fascinating talk on one of his self-styled heroes, the poet and editor Randall Swingler, at our May meeting.
Croft was at once deeply moving and inspiring as he used the latest archival research to describe in tremendous detail the remarkable life and career of this now sadly neglected writer, a towering figure in both literary and political circles in the 1930s and ‘40s. Croft is the author of Swingler’s biography but since that was written in 2003 much new material has emerged following the release of documents of the British security services. For M15 had Swingler tailed, bugged, generally harassed and monitored for years and this has left a legacy of thousands of secret files about Swingler covering the years from 1938 to 1955; those after 1955 have still not been released and many others have been “lost”. All in all it is something of a treasure trove.
All his meetings as a Communist speaker, his private telephone conversations and letters were held by M15 along with accounts of visitors and guests to his home. Croft told his surprised audience that even the pictures hanging on Swingler’s wall and his visits to the pub were recorded, as well as the length of his hair and his style of dress (he had the “appearance of a Communist”, one spy writes). The contents of his suitcases were noted whenever he travelled abroad. All this information is now available to the researcher, but at such cost to the man.
The inspiring talk, one of the best that the SHS has held in a long time, was far more than a celebration of a forgotten writer. Swingler was the leading Communist poet of the thirties, an editor of some innovative progressive journals such as Our Time and Left Review and a godson of the Archbishop of Canterbury to boot; but Croft also intended to open up a wider discussion about the politics of culture and public memory. He sought to examine the mechanisms by which some authors are remembered and others are cast into oblivion. Political considerations play a major part in how both individuals and historical episodes are understood. Authors can become neglected because they are not very good or because their work goes out of fashion, but Croft established quite clearly that Swingler had been quite deliberately even callously neglected; he was a good writer, poet, librettist and editor and, while his status in his time was equal to that of contemporaries such as Cyril Connolly and George Orwell, his name now hardly warrants a footnote in studies of 20th century English letters.
Rarely is he even referred to in biographies of fellow writers of the left who most certainly knew him. At random I looked at three recent biographies of writers who were Swingler’s contemporaries, Storm Jameson, Elizabeth Taylor and C Day Lewis; not one mention of him, which is exactly as Croft suggested. A victim of the Cold War when many avenues for employment became closed off to him, Swingler later became a victim of the literary convention which prefers to ignore what does not easily fit into the prevailing stereotypes. And while every single popular history of the 1930s and ‘40s dwells on Connolly’s Horizon, none ever mention Swingler’s Our Time; this important part of left history has simply been erased from the records, Croft stressed.
Swingler was forced to write under as pseudonym in the late ‘40s and suffered poverty because he could not get paid work. His career is important in itself, but it is also important because his treatment illustrates that the impact of the Cold War in Britain was as unpleasant as what happened elsewhere, Croft insisted, citing other celebrated writers and artists who were equally to become casualties of Cold War: the composer Alan Bush, who when he won a major prize for one of his compositions was ignored when the organisers realised that he remained an unrepentant Communists; the folklorist Hamish Henderson, who was expelled from Italy following pressure from the US Embassy; the novelist Jack Lindsay, whose work Byzantium was extensively attacked in the Times because it argued that Russia had a European culture.
Croft can be applauded not only for leading this highly entertaining and topical discussion, but for his courageous work in recovering the lost histories of important figures like Randall Swingler who are now far too easily neglected. If one key lesson was learned from the talk it is that writers like Swingler can still speak to us and inspire us today.


SHS AGM 2009 report

by David Morgan. From SHS Newsletter August 2009
The Socialist History Society’s Annual General Meeting of 2009 took place in the impressive and spacious library of the Bishopsgate Institute, a historic building located in the heart of London virtually opposite Liverpool St Station. We thank committee member, Stefan Dickers, for arranging this for us. Members were fortunate to be able to enjoy the special atmosphere of this venue seated beneath its stained glass domed roof and surrounded by volumes of radical history, as they took part in the proceedings.
The items of business will be familiar to any members who have attended our AGMs on previous occasions; there was little of controversy to report. Unfortunately, the AGM failed to draw a large crowd, but the turnout improved slightly for the talk by Andy Croft that followed.
As Willie Thompson, chairing the meeting, indicated, our Secretary, Professor Nina Fishman, was recovering from an operation and had said that she was unlikely to be active for a while. To cover until Nina is fully recovered, a proposal was made and endorsed by the AGM that Nina and David Morgan act as joint secretaries.
Other changes to SHS officers agreed by the AGM can be noted: Gidon Cohen, the editor of Socialist History, stepped down and was thanked for all his work in making a success of the journal especially in catching up with the publishing schedule, which had been erratic due to problems at the publishers. It was agreed that Andy Flinn, a member of the committee and editorial team, would become the new editor.
Eddie Dare was warmly thanked for his work in establishing the Newsletter as an essential read for news about the society and for adding a degree of professionalism to the editorial content. Sid Kaufman, who has assisted Eddie on the design and layout was also thanked for his work, and he indicated that he would be happy to continue doing this. The AGM agreed that Mike Squires and David Morgan would work with Sid on the Newsletter in future.
As far as members and finances of the society are concerned, Treasurer Francis King reported a total membership of 267, but stressed that we had still not been recruiting sufficient new members to ensure our long-term solvency and viability. Another 60 members were needed to achieve that, he estimated.
In terms of Occasional Papers, Francis reported that the latest title, Union Bread, concerning the Jewish Bakers’ Union, had been well received. It had been jointly published with the Jewish Socialists’ Group. The AGM agreed to a proposal that would give the society greater flexibility in publishing OPs in future, which meant that we would not be strictly bound to bringing out two issues a year.
Finally, with regard the SHS website, the AGM heard of plans to develop its content, in particular to include a section devoted to activists’ memoirs and other manuscripts that the society is not able to publish.
The existing committee was re-elected along with the officers, taking account of the changes mentioned. One additional member, Dr Laura Miller, was welcomed onto the committee.

August 2009