Pauline Fraser reviews ‘Firing a Shot for Freedom: The Memoirs of Frida Stewart’ with foreword and afterword by Angela Jackson (The Clapton Press, 2020). This review originally appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 1-2021, published in January 2020 and available online here. Members receive three issues of the IBMT magazine a year, therefore, to receive your copy on time, join or renew your membership here.
Frida Stewart’s memoirs, ‘Firing a Shot for Freedom’, give a gripping account of many of the momentous events of 20th century history up to the end of World War Two. Born in Cambridge in 1911 to a well-heeled and well-connected academic family, Frida enjoyed a sheltered and privileged childhood. Her ‘vague interest in politics’ was sharpened when she visited Frankfurt in 1928, witnessing the ‘poverty and unemployment’.
Back in Britain, Frida completed a violin course, but ‘what...was a mere musician...barely on the fringe of socialist activities to do?...I was enormously enthusiastic and ready for anything – the more arduous the better – that combined music and some form of contact with the industrial proletariat!’ she wrote.
The answer was to take a job organising music and drama in Ancoats. While in Manchester she travelled to the Theatre Festival in Moscow, and ‘felt I’d had a glimpse of a new world...After Moscow, Manchester seemed very grim.’
In 1936 Frida visited France with her father, where she was keen to witness the achievements of the country’s Popular Front government first hand, but ‘a few days after [we] got back from France the news broke: there had been a military coup against the democratic government of Spain...’ Aid Spain committees sprang up, but Frida had taken a job in rural Yorkshire, where she felt far removed from the action.
However, she ‘soon discovered that York was by no means as dead-alive as first impressions suggested, and...there were many individuals both in the local Labour Party and in the Quaker community who were as keen as anybody, anywhere, to help.’
In summer 1937 Frida was asked to drive an ambulance to Almería where there were two hospitals for refugees fleeing the bombing of Málaga. Frida had two regrets: causing her parents anxiety and leaving just as plans were finalised to bring 4,000 Basque children to Southampton.
Once in Spain, the ambulance was diverted to Murcia where Frida helped feed starving refugees and assist at a newly-established children’s hospital. She ‘felt bound to go as often as possible to the International Brigade hospital [the Pasionaria] and visit the severely wounded in the wards.’
Frida ‘longed to go somewhere that [she] could be of more use to the war effort’, but was persuaded she should ‘go back to England and do propaganda for Spain – tell ’em the truth, make ’em wake up, and send us arms.’
Before leaving Spain, Frida cadged a lift to Madrid. ‘I was horrified by the desolation of the streets in the quarters which had been bombed in the raids of 1936, or consistently shelled, where every house had a gaping wound in its side or roof, or was gutted by incendiary bombs.’
‘Over and over in Spain people expressed astonishment and bewilderment that the British and French would not sell the legal Spanish government the weapons it so desperately needed. ‘As for the leaders of the British Labour Party, they knew the full extent of the evil, and spoke fair words about helping Spain, but did next to nothing.’
Back in England, Frida took a job visiting the Basque homes and fundraising ‘by organising meetings...and concerts at which the children themselves could perform.’ When Spain fell to Franco, ‘we simply could not take it in: the disaster of the Republicans’ defeat in March 1939.’ Frida volunteered to go to the refugee camps and ‘persuaded the authorities that I might be of some use in interviewing the refugees and in fetching them out of the camps.’
‘At Argelès, she ‘was absolutely sickened by the immensity of the problem...scores of little makeshift shanties which the refugees had erected out of old blankets and stick and bits of tin as protection against the bitter east wind.’ ‘The ones that came out of the camp were all too few, and they had to have a personal invitation to enter the United Kingdom, along with a guarantee that they would not become a charge on the taxpayer.’
On her way home via Paris, Frida called at one of the two Spanish refugee organisations that were still functioning. ‘On the spur of the moment I volunteered to come and work for them.’ Early in 1940 Frida left for France, in what was to prove the most difficult and dangerous part of her life. Trapped in Paris after the fall of France, she watched, horrified, as the Wehrmacht, bristling with the latest weaponry, made its triumphal parade into the capital.
On 5 December, all British women were rounded up and interned at Vittel. Helped by French workmen, she escaped to Vichy France with room-mate Pat, and thence back via Spain, Portugal and Ireland, to Portsmouth. Finally home, she broadcast on the BBC Foreign Service in French, German and Spanish, to tell the world about the resistance.
This is where ‘Firing a Shot for Freedom’ ends, but historian Angela Jackson, whose patient and painstaking work as editor has brought the memoirs to publication, picks up the threads. ‘For Frida.this meant almost another 50 years of continuous activity’ whether in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the anti-Vietnam War movement, travels to China that led to her joining the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, opposition to the Greek Junta or the Pinochet coup.
In 1992 her faith in socialism was restored by a visit to Cuba. Sadly, she died at the age of 85, shortly before the historic 60th anniversary International Brigade reunion (Homenaje) in Spain.
‘Firing a Shot for Freedom’ is a roller-coaster of a memoir, and while Frida’s account of her involvement in Spain is central, her eye-witness account of other historic events is likewise compelling – highly recommended.
Posted on 6 April 2021.