We Still Like Ike
Volume III, Issue II - Fall 2012
  • Griff Jones, I guessed he was about sixty, sat legs akimbo, palms on his knees, in a small upstairs meeting room, in the Miners’ Hall, Merthyr Tydfil, 1970. On the finger of Griff Jones’ left hand where it would have been common to see a marriage band, he wore a broad silver ring with a red facia. On the facia was etched a hammer and sickle. The peak of his battered flat cap shaded his eyes. He had the puffed-up face of an old boxer, grey stubble. He frightened me. I had come to this meeting to argue politics. I was sixteen years old, a stroppy wouldbe historian. This was the first meeting of a series on Dialectical Materialism organized by the local Communist Party.

    I had just read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hugh Thomas’s tome The Spanish Civil War. A school friend, David Jones, and I were working on a research project about Welsh valleys volunteers in the International Brigades who had fought in Spain in the 1930s. David was no relation to Griff. Merthyr was full of Joneses. David’s father Arthur Jones was a member of the town council, and a member of the Communist Party. In a town where it was almost impossible to get elected to any political post without being a member of the Labour Party, Arthur Jones won election after election in the sixties and seventies because he had  ............

  • a reputation for being incorruptible – in a world where suspect building contracts were the norm – and he was a known as a man who championed the causes of his ward constituents.

    Griff Jones sat opposite me. He was silent. As far as I know, he didn’t even glance at me. The speaker was a Dr Alistair Wilson from the town of Aberdare. Dr Wilson was fifty-seven at the time, Cambridge educated. While Griff’s tweed jacket was worn and baggy, the good Dr Wilson’s was finely tailored. He wore a pressed shirt and tie. He spoke with a refined Welsh accent and began his talk with an account of the ascent of man beginning with the making of tools – the means of production – and proceeding toward the emergence of class society and the inevitable tensions that resulted when power was wrested from the producers of wealth to serve the owners of capital. I had no argument that the class system favoured a wealthy elite but I saw the Communist Party as betrayers of the working people who had brought the Party to power in Russia.

    I was a mouthy kid. The Communist Party in Britain was miniscule. I thought its members an easy intellectual target. But I was more intellectually intimidated sitting across from the  ............

  • silent Griff Jones than I was by the erudite Dr Wilson. When the meeting was over, I was invited to the next week’s meeting to debate some more. I think the good doctor saw in me a possible convert to the cause. Griff Jones had not said a word to me. Griff was also a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. David had told his father Arthur about our project. Arthur said that he’d ask Griff if we could interview him about his service in the International Brigades. This would be an engagement with a primary informant: someone who had been in the war, not words on a page. Real history.

    That ring. I can still see that ring as if it was on my own finger right now. Some time later I saw it on a bright summer’s day at a march in the town to protest against rising unemployment. Amid the buzzing kazoos and the blue uniforms of the children’s jazz bands, the bright gleam and brazen swing of the collieries’ brass bands, the march was led by the town’s Independent Labour M.P. S.O. Davies, its Labour Councillors and Michael Foot, M.P. for the town of Ebbw Vale, who later became the leader of the Labour Party. My father, also a member of the Labour Party, joined the march under the banner of the Transport and General Workers Union with his fellow factory workers.

  • Where was I to march? Not with the Labour Party that was sure. I saw them as too corrupt, not radical enough. What was likely to cause a stir? If I were to march with my comrade-in-studies David Jones, I’d be making a statement. I lined up under the Communist Party banner with Marx on one side and Lenin on the other. Griff Jones’s fist with its hammer and sickle ring gripped the left hand flagstaff. A young bearded shop steward held the right.

    The march passed up High Street, a musical carnival on its way to Cyfarthfa Castle, once the estate of Crawshay family ironmasters, now a public park. We filed by the Catholic Church. Father Finnbar O’Leary, parish priest, watched from the gardens that my father carefully manicured in his spare time. There would be repercussions. I knew this. The next day, my parents returned from Sunday mass. Father O’Leary had spoken to them: and he wanted to know why I was marching under a Communist Party banner.

    ‘Just walking with David,’ I said, adopting an evasive desultory teenage sulk.

  • A few days later, David told me that we had an appointment to interview Griff Jones. Having seen Griff a number of times, my initial wariness had waned. Our history teacher, Mansell Richards, loaned us a reel-to-reel tape. We wrestled it up to Griff’s house. The Galon Uchaf Estate, a public housing project, had a fearful reputation worse than that of the Gurnos Estate where I lived. Griff lived alone in a two-bedroom house. He answered the door to us in flat cap, shirtsleeves and a grey waistcoat. His house had that old man atmosphere of stale food, vaguely ammoniac. Was the three-piece suite shiny brown leather? Were the photos on the mantelpiece of nieces and nephews? Was the silent television in the corner by the front window? My memory is dreamlike.

    Griff was less daunting at home. I saw him smile for the first time. We set up the tape recorder and tested it. The small bars of the sound gauge, like a spirit level, shot toward the central red danger band. The tape still exists but the only way I can tell this story is in words I’ve repeated to myself over forty years… like a haunting. You’ll see why.

  • Griff sat in one of the armchairs, his wrists on his knees, hands together:

    ‘I joined the party in the early thirties. There wasn’t many of us. Mostly miners. All in the union. This boy called Isles was one. He came to a meeting one day and said, “Hey Griff, look at this.” He pulled a piece of cloth out from under his jacket. I realised it was a black shirt. I couldn’t believe it. He was asking me to join Mosley’s Fascists.

    ‘They were having a rally on the Bont football field in Dowlais and Isles wanted me to go with him. I did go… but not with the Fascists. One of their leaders was to give a big speech. The valley’s steep there. You got a slope rising to the flat part where they’ve made the football pitch, and then it’s steep again, rising up on the other side of the pitch to the houses at the top. A load of us went up by the houses and made a big pile of bricks. We waited until the Blackshirts were all there. As their leader’s speech started we pelted them with bricks, drove them right off the pitch and down the side of the valley. After that one, there was never another fascist rally in the town.

  • ‘Not long before that, the Spanish Civil War had started. I wanted to go. It wasn’t legal of course. I had to get forged documents to get out of the country. It was arranged through someone in the party. I caught the train to London and then on to Dover. We were smuggled onto a ship by some dockers. On the other side, we were met and given railway tickets to get through France. I became friends with a boy from Birmingham. We travelled together for days in the railway carriage. Became quite close really. We got to the French border and then we met a guide to go on a path over the Pyrenees.

    ‘Franco was advancing through southern Spain. We had hardly any time for basic training. We marched about a bit and they showed us how to use a rifle. Me and the boy from Birmingham. They sent us in for the Battle of the Ebro. We were holding the line in a town that had been bombarded. They sent us in through all the rubble. The boy from Birmingham was up in front of me. He ran for cover behind a wall. The first thing I saw in action was that he took a bullet in the head. It blew the back of his head off. I can still remember how his brains were dripping down over the collar of his greatcoat.’

  • We paused at that point. Griff poured himself some tea.

    He’d gone to Spain when he wasn’t much older than I was. The thought of a clandestine journey through thirties France by boat and train with forged documents to engage in a war against Fascism seemed to me to be a beautiful romantic action, hardly tempered by the sadness of the death of the friend from Birmingham. Perhaps even made more poignant by this. It still feels romantic and poignant to me now.

    In Griff’s front room, at the age of sixteen, I remembered Orwell’s stories of the purges of Anarchists and Trotskyists by the officers of the Comintern under the orders of Stalin. I thought of how, with hindsight, this was seen not only by the Left but by all historians as a contributory factor in the defeat of the Republican forces that were overwhelmed by Franco and his German allies.

    I wanted to feel a sense of solidarity with Griff, this man who had risked his life to fight a pernicious evil that overwhelmed Europe and caused the deaths of six million Jews, not to mention the millions of soldiers killed in World War Two. I said to him, ‘I just  ............

  • read Homage to Catalonia and Orwell’s description of the purge of the POUMistas and the CNT/FAI Anarchists. What do you make of that, Griff?’

    What I expected to hear – and what I wanted to hear so that Griff and I could share this sense of solidarity – what I wanted to hear was, ‘Yes, it was a terrible mistake. If only we’d stuck together as a United Front and fought on against Franco, we could have defeated the Fascists and Spain would have been free.’

    Griff shrugged his shoulders.

    ‘Well, what do you expect?’ he said. ‘There was a revolution going on. And we had to defend the revolution. These Trotskyists and Anarchists would have destroyed it. We had to destroy them before they destroyed the revolution.’

    At some point, I turned off the tape.

    At some point, we thanked Griff for talking to us.

    David packed up the tape recorder.

  • Outside on the street, it was one of those days common to British summers: damp, cloudy, cold, a cloying sense of emptiness.

    In my bedroom, I turned once again to Homage to Catalonia:

    ‘When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this – and however it ends the Spanish War will turn out to have been an appalling disaster quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering – the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.’

    I still can’t shake the horror of that moment in Griff’s front room.

    And I’m still inspired by Orwell’s words.

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