IBMT member Stuart Walsh reviews ‘Fighting for Democracy: The True Story of Jim Higgins (1907-1982), A Canadian Activist in Spain’s Civil War’ by Jim Higgins and Janette Higgins (Friesen Press, 2020). This review originally appeared on the Working Class Movement Library blog.
I have just finished reading this, and can warmly recommend it to everyone interested in the Spanish Civil War, and congratulations to Janette Higgins for a great editorial job in getting her father's manuscripts into publishable form. Born in London in 1907, and orphaned at an early age, Jim Higgins had a hard upbringing, and from an early age had a hatred of injustice, which he always fought against, as evidenced in his role in getting a sadistic teacher at Ardwick Industrial School in Manchester the sack for beating the boys in his charge. He could also show a grim sense of humour, such as when being fired on while having a 'welcome cup of coffee' on the Aragon Front, which he puts down to ‘a certain lack of understanding between us and the fascists’.
What I especially like about his account of his time in Spain is that, while never losing sight of the big issues that were being battled out, this is emphatically his own story, and his part in the wider conflict. Many war memoirs are marred by attempting to tell the bigger story; the better ones like this one stick to the author's own experiences. Precise details of chronology and politics can be mis-remembered or altered in the light of hindsight, but memories of a particular moment of fighting really are imprinted on a soldier's memory, as of this experience, again on the Aragon Front, where he and his comrades are engaging with five fascists on a hill in front of them:
I remember how I wiped the sweat from my eyes, how I drew the gun down to see that the barrel was not plugged, how I snapped back and pulled the belt through - ejecting a shell to be sure the gun was properly loaded - how I adjusted the sights for the short range, and how I ensured the tripods were free. I remember these actions as though they were yesterday.
The pioneering oral historian of rural England, George Ewart Evans, said of the farmworkers whose lives he so illuminated that precise details as to political events, or even personal life events like weddings, were often mis-remembered, but ask a farm worker what it was like to use a scythe, or plough a field, and these are remembered with a precision that comes from having done the same action hundreds or thousands of times. It is similar to soldiers' recall of actions like this, events that were so intense that they are burned on the memory, and this is why an account such as this is so valuable in giving us the feel, and terror, of battle as it was lived.
As the sub-title says, this is an account of 'A Canadian Activist in Spain's Civil War', but it also covers his early years in London and Manchester, and his life until 1960, which is in itself a serious contribution to the social history of the period. The book is rounded off with a short epilogue by Janette of his last years until his death in 1982, ending with a moving evocation of the unveiling of the Mc-Pap memorial in Ottawa in 2001, where: ‘I was surprised to find myself overcome with emotion. As I wept, I felt a strange release that my father was at peace. Finally, it was recognised, in a symbolically significant way, that he and his comrades had done the right thing’.
Indeed they did, and thanks Janette for bringing his story so successfully to fruition.
Published 8 October 2020.