A couple of weeks ago I got an interesting e mail from Wellington-based historian Mark Derby. Derby's two great research passions are New Zealand and labour movement history. He earns a crust for the Waitangi Tribunal translating old Maori documents, and devotes large chunks of his leisure time to research projects on the history of the workers' movement and the left. Mark's e mail was related to one of these projects:Hi Scott
Work on my book on NZ's response to the Spanish Civil War is progressing well and we're still on track for publication late this year. But I haven't managed to get anyone in Auckland to check out and perhaps copy or take notes from Bob Ford's postcards from the frontlines of the civil war, held in the Auckland Museum's manuscript collection.
I have, however, managed to contact various surviving friends of Bob Ford and his wife, who came to live here during the McCarthy era. One guy recalls Ford sorting through his possessions, coming across an old revolver from the civil war, and hurling it away over the back fence. My informant says he later searched long and hard, but unsuccessfully, for this remarkable souvenir of the conflict.
Are you able to check out these postcards for me? At least it would provide a fascinating post for your website, and some good images. (Ford's ID cards and other civil war militaria are among the museum's collection. Plus he was a nephew of the great film-maker John Ford - Stagecoach etc - and took small parts in a number of his uncle's films. He was apparently very tall and good-looking, and might even be identifiable in DVD versions.)
Mark got in touch with me for the first time after I published an issue of the literary journal brief
that included a long-lost short story
by the Spanish Civil War veteran Greville Texidor. I'm keen to speed up the publication of what promises to be a fascinating book, so I called the Robert Ford documents up from the depths of the museum library’s archive last week. Inside the large wide folder handed to me by a solemn archivist I found the identity card and service booklet the Republican government issued Ford in 1937, a 'Canard de Honor' booklet the same government awarded him in 1938, and twenty-one postcards he sent home to America in 1937 and 1938.
Opening the folder in which the documents were stowed, I was reminded of a scene early in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom
, where the daughter of a veteran of the International Brigades opens a suitcase full of artefacts which have not been touched for many decades, and is suddenly thrown from '90s England into the tumultuous Spain of the ‘30s. The black and white mug shot on Ford’s identity card, the unsteady lines of his handwriting, and the faded urgent slogans of the posters reproduced on his postcards all suddenly brought his world to life. Auckland's museum is famous for the carved and painted taonga on display in its Maori Court and Pacific galleries, but many people forget that our library archive contains equally remarkable treasures.
Ford’s identity card states that he fought with the 2c Section of the Mooney Battalion of the American Company of the International Brigades. His identification number is 38758, and his enlistment date is the 18th of March 1937. His address is given as 6860 Odin Ave, Los Angeles, his unmarried status is noted, his birth date is given as 12-1-1910, his occupation is listed as cinema worker (in one of his uncle’s films?), and his organisation is given as ‘PC Anti-fascista Americano’, with ‘PC’ presumably meaning the Communist Party of the USA.
There are some interesting variations between the identity card and the service booklet. In the booklet, Ford is listed simply as a member of the ‘Brigadas Internationales’. His place of birth is listed as New York, his place of residence is Los Angeles, his profession is ‘Artista’, and his ‘Partido Politico’ is simply ‘Antifascista’. The date of Ford’s enlistment in the Brigades is given as the fifth of May, 1937, and the date of his discharge is the twenty-second of October 1938.
The same curious photo of Ford appears on both the identity card and the service booklet. Ford is hunched forward and looking downwards, with a dazed expression on his face. He has a long, angular face and a full head of hair. The white folder held a ‘Canard de Honor’ that appears to have been given to all the International Brigaders when they left behind a forlorn Republican Spain at the end of 1938 (perhaps the Republican government was too poor to mint medals, by then?).
Some of the twenty-one postcards appear to have been sent home on their own; others were clearly inserted along with letters which do not appear in Ford’s file. This makes establishing their chronology unexpectedly difficult. In some cases, individual postcards are dated and feature messages with clearly marked beginnings and endings. In other cases, though, they feature miscellaneous jottings, or what appears to be the overspill of a letter or a postcard which does not appear in Ford’s file. There are several ‘serial messages’, written over several cards. Whenever the recipients of a card are identified, they are named as ‘Bill and Nana’. Occasionally Ford asks after other family members, especially his ‘old man’.
The fronts of the postcards are all based on propaganda posters produced by the Republican government. The style of the images is various – colourful, simplified paintings, black and white cartoon caricatures, and historical paintings of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon are all reproduced alongside Republican slogans. Some of the images are famous - the ‘Los Nacionals’ painting of Franco and his henchmen in an uncomfortably small boat, for example. Ford clearly had an intense interest in the images on the postcards. He often interprets them to his readers, and several times talks about wanting to see them preserved for the future.
It was not possible for me to construct anything like a narrative of Ford’s experiences in Spain from the postcards. The ‘story’ they tell is discontinuous, and dwells more on the exigencies of the weather, the slowness of the mail, shortages of cigarettes, and other petty miseries of a soldier’s life than on the great events that were taking place in Spain in 1937 and 1938. The mail of the International Brigaders was of course subject to censorship, and Ford at times hints broadly that there are many things he cannot talk about. Ford appears to have been based in or near Madrid, but there is no clue in the cards themselves as to what role he played in the epic defence of the city in 1937-38. He does describe a bombardment which landed on Madrid in one card, but this occurred when he was off-duty.
We do get some fascinating glimpses of Ford the man, even if we don’t learn much about Ford the soldier. In a letter written on February the 4th, 1938, he tells us that Madrid is a ‘small town’ but that he likes it very much. There is one problem, though:The Spaniards will never get used to my size. They turn around in the street and stare at me. But what can I expect
Putting this remark together with Ford’s very odd pose in the photo on his identity card, I can’t help but feel that he was abnormally tall, and rather sensitive about it. If Ford appeared as an extra in some of his Uncle’s famous films, then it might not be too difficult to pick him out!
Ford appears to have begun a serious relationship in Spain: in one of the postcards he responds to questions about when he will return from the country by saying that, even if the war were not a factor, he would not return for some time ‘for personal reasons’. His view of Spanish society appears to have been positive – ‘the Spanish are a swell people, and once we have finished with the fascists it will be one of the best countries in the world’ he says in one card.
Ford’s spelling is very bad, his language is informal, and his sentences are often ungrammatical. He uses colloquialisms like ‘swell’, often begins his sentences with conjunctions, and almost never uses abstract nouns. He doesn’t, in short, write like an intellectual (some would say this is no bad thing, of course!). Ford clearly does have a strong interest in visual art, but his interpretations of the postcards he sends are not especially sophisticated. There are no allusions to either the modernist painters who influenced the new propaganda art or the Old Masters like Goya who painted some of the classic images on the postcards.
What can we say about Ford’s politics? In a letter of March the 4th, he talks about the visit of Paul Robeson to Spain, and laments the fact that he did not get to see the great singer performing for Republican troops. Ford goes on to praise Robeson:I am glad that he came to Spain. I believe that he is a communist, and if that is true it is a good thing. We need men like him in the revolutionary movement, as he is both popular and intelligent.
In another letter home, Ford asks about a family member or acquaintance, whose name is unfortunately not legible:Are the folks still Maine? If J[ ? ] is back what is her latest ideas [sic] on Spain? Does she still think we are a gang of priest killers? I don’t think there is much use in talking to people like her. She has a lot of funny ideas that she’ll never get rid of.
Ford was clearly a courageous and deeply committed man, but I’m not sure if we can say he was especially politically sophisticated. Several times he tells ‘Nana’ and ‘Bill’ that he doesn’t need to inform them about general events in Spain, because they can read ‘the papers’ in America. We know, of course, that media coverage of the war in Spain was intensely political, and papers often neglected to cover important events because of their ideological positions. Ford’s advice seems, then, a little naïve. I don’t think that a very ‘ideological’ Communist would have such a sanguine attitude towards the ‘bourgeois’ media!
But I don’t think that the fact that Ford wasn’t a great writer or political theorist makes his postcards uninteresting. The fact that he wasn’t a Hemingway or a George Orwell perhaps means that his observations are more in tune with the viewpoints of the International Brigades rank and file. And I think Ford's interpretations of the meaning of the images on the postcards he sent home are important because of their contemporaneity. They aren’t the much-removed analyses which some PhD student cooks up in a research library – they are the thoughts of a man in the thick of the action. They show us the ideas that a young American was prepared to cross the world, fight, and potentially die for seventy years ago. That's why I've been happy to transcribe Ford's messages and send them on to Mark Derby. A historian who is immersed in his subject is often able to see the significance of even a trivial observation or quirk of expression, and to construct a narrative where others see only a confusion of random details. After decades in storage, Mark Ford's passionate and enigmatic postcards from the front deserve to be read again.
There's no denying, either, the widespread fascination that the Spanish Civil War continues to arouse amongst people who know the conflict only through books and films. After I came downstairs from the library archives I got into a conversation with a Basque couple who had decided to sneak in a visit to the museum before the end of their holiday in New Zealand. They had been fascinated to discover a place called Basque Park near the centre of Auckland, and wanted to know about the origins of the name; rather than fall into an embarrassed silence, I started raving on about Robert Ford's postcards. I told them about one card in particular, which showed the Republican flag overlaid with the banners of the Catalan anarchists and the Basque Country, in a display of anti-fascist unity.
I told the Basques how I'd momentarily mistaken their flag for a Union Jack, before remembering that their country had been a key part of the struggle against Franco and fascism. The Basques were amazed to learn that a museum in New Zealand held such a rare image, and even more amazed and impressed to learn about the young Kiwi men and women who defied their own government to travel across the world to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930s. Fortunately for me the visitors forgot all about the puzzle of Basque Park, pulled out a little video camera, and insisted I repeat the story of Robert Ford and the Kiwi connection with Spain's war on film.