Monday, December 11, 2006


I don't often recommend the Granny Herald - if you can't guess why, read this - but last Saturday's issue included a detailed and sympathetic account of the life and death of Griffith MacLaurin, who was one of six Kiwis killed fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. A bright kid who had been sent up from the colonies to Cambridge University, MacLaurin died during the desperate defence of Madrid that also cost the lives of John Cornford and the astonishing Christopher Caudwell, who would forty years later become the subject of one of EP Thompson's finest essays (scroll down and open in pdf). Like those better-known victims of Franco, MacLaurin was one of a generation of intellectuals who became convinced of the case for socialism and the need for active anti-fascism in the 1930s. The Herald's Peter Clayworth describes the transformation with a remarkable absence of sarcasm:

He joined the University Conservative Association on his arrival at Cambridge and his bright manner, sports skills and friendliness allowed him to mix easily with the upper-class types.

His tutor, James Wordie, a veteran of Shackleton's Endurance expedition, instilled MacLaurin with a desire to travel and a visit to Germany in 1933, soon after the Nazis took power, profoundly changed Griff's world view. MacLaurin, who spoke German and French, spent four months in Freiburg. His experience made him a staunch anti-fascist and the impact of the Depression on working people led him to question capitalist economics. MacLaurin made a thorough study of socialist literature and joined the very active Cambridge University Socialist Association.

When he graduated in 1934 he taught mathematics at secondary schools in Glasgow and St Peter's in York. It was was his social life rather than his socialism that landed him in trouble and MacLaurin was sacked from St Peter's after a drinking session. By this time, he had joined the Communist Party and considered politics more important than teaching or studying mathematics. Returning to Cambridge, he set up a successful radical bookshop, which was highly regarded by publisher Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club.

MacLaurin's time in Officer Training Corps meant he knew how to handle a machine gun, and in late 1936 British Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt asked him to take his expertise to Spain, where it was in short supply. MacLaurin fought alongside Cornford and other British members of the International Brigade during the battle for the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Madrid. Holed up in old lecture theatres and reading rooms, the Republican troops used the classics of Western philosophy to block windows and top up sandbags. The tomes of Kant and Hegel were supposed to be particularly useful, on account of their bulk. During lulls in the fighting, the Republican troops would read some of the philosophy that was lying all around them.

On November the 9th MacLaurin was killed just outside Madrid, trying to cover a retreat across the parkland of Casa del Campo. A few months later Cambridge students would establish the Cornford-MacLaurin Fund to raise money for medical aid to the Republican forces. Clayworth notes the lack of recognition MacLaurin has received in his home country:

He and a comrade-in-arms, New Zealand-born Steve Yates, were killed in November 1936, the first of thousands of New Zealanders to die while fighting fascism. Although MacLaurin was an outstanding student at Auckland Grammar School and Auckland University College and went on a scholarship to Cambridge University, his name is not on the rolls of honour of these institutions...

The MacLaurin Chapel at Auckland University is one of the many memorials to our New Zealand war dead. It was built by Griff MacLaurin's cousin, dairy industrialist William Goodfellow, in honour of his own son, Richard MacLaurin Goodfellow, who was killed in World War II.

But although his cousin Richard is honoured for the part he played in fighting fascism, Griff MacLaurin and his International Brigade comrades have no memorial in New Zealand.

While we're on the subject of the Spanish Civil War, my mate Adrian Price wants to pass on a plug for Pan's Labyrinth, a new movie which focuses on the remnant Republican forces that waged a guerrilla war against Franco into the early '50s. Like Griffith MacLaurin, the Spaniards who fought on against fascism long after the fall of the Republic have not received enough recognition from historians.

Set in 1951, Pan's Labyrinth has already gotten the big ups from Brit bloggers Richard Seymour (he of Lenin's Tomb) and Adventures in Historical Materialism. The film hasn't been released down here in Gondwanaland yet, but Adrian is lucky enough to live in High Wycombe, the cultural capital of the world, and has sent on this preview:

Saw Pan's Labyrinth last night - you guys should check it out, it's well done. Dark fairy tale set in Spain 1944, a Fascist Captain hunting resistance fighters. Very gory though. That was my only complaint - some of the violence was over-the-top cartoony but gross, chainsaw massacre stuff. Otherwise, really good

Remember, Adrian hasn't been wrong about a film since Ghostbusters, which managed to a) scare him silly and b) turn him 'ligious, in quick succession [he was only seven, wasn't he? - ed].


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For more information on the handful of exemplary NZers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, check out the latest (just released) issue of (of all things) NZ Geographic.
Then wait for the book on the same subject from Canterbury University Press.
In the mean time, send any further information on the subject to me, the writer of the first and editor of the second.

Cheers, venceremos,

Mark Derby

4:58 pm  

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