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The volunteer who fell in love with Spain

Tony Fox reviews ‘The Fighter Fell in Love: A Spanish Civil War Memoir’ by James R Jump, edited by Jim Jump, foreword by Paul Preston and preface by Jack Jones (The Clapton Press, 2021), available hereAn IBMT member and educator, Tony Fox lives in North-East England. This review first appeared on his blog here.



Book cover and portrait photo of James Jump.

I have become a bit of a Clapton Press junkie, mostly because my primary focus for some time has been on the accounts and memoirs of the volunteers for liberty, and this is what Clapton Press have done so well. The first was ‘Firing a Shot for Freedom’ by Frida Stewart  which I reviewed in September. ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’ is the fourth Clapton Press book I’ve purchased.

With an impressive foreword from Paul Preston, the leading authority on the civil war, and a preface by Jack Jones, this book raises expectations before we even get to the first chapter. It is produced by Jim Jump, the son of James R Jump, and current Chair of the IBMT. With these aspects I fully anticipated something special, and I must admit this book exceeded these high expectations; it is very special in a number of ways. It goes without saying that the impressive cover is eye-catching.

By their very nature memoirs are unique, they have strengths and weaknesses simply because they are one person’s perspective. As they are written after the events, this means the person has reflected and begun to formulate their interpretation. This gives us the greatest strength of good memoirs, they are a first-person account, a personal account. James Jump’s account of his time in Spain is one of the finest; as a journalist his prose is detailed and entertaining, he has an eye for amusing anecdotes and colourful enrichment, which makes the reading a joy.

Reading through I loved the subtle way he introduced anecdotes, for one I’ll point you towards Lynne Walsh’s review in the Morning Star, mainly because she scooped me with one I intended to highlight: ‘There always seemed to be a toddler at the end of the column who fell over and burst into tears or who had to be reprimanded for his slowness. It was just like our training.’ (page 83)

There’s a dispute as to what makes a memoir great; should it be mostly reflective or reportorial. Most memoirs are balanced very much towards the reflective, as they are looking at critical formative moments, showing how the personality was formed. War memoirs on the whole very generally tip a bit more towards the reportive side as formative events require context, and the reflection tends to come after the crucial events.

In ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’, it feels as if there is very little explicit reflection, which means that it reads very much like the interviews I have listened to, where the volunteers recall the events sequentially; James Jump was interviewed but the recording is not generally available, therefore this is the first opportunity for most of us to hear his story in his own words, and he can certainly tell a story well.

Although unique, the vast majority of memoirs from the British volunteers follow a familiar pattern; they volunteer, travel to Spain, are trained rapidly and are then thrust into the fighting. Some like David Marshall and Esmond Romilly witness the early stages of the conflict, many like Bob Cooney, Johnny Longstaff and George Wheeler witness the latter stages of the Spanish war. James’ memoir falls into the latter group. He arrived in Spain in November 1937, when the XV International Brigade had already developed from a ‘people’s volunteer militia’ into the primary shock troops of the Republican Army – James was joining disciplined efficient soldiers.

Where ‘The Fighter Fell in Love' diverts from the memoirs previously published is in the role James is given. As a journalist with language skills he was appointed an interpreter and paymaster for the Battalion, keeping him away from the fighting lines for the first few months of his time in Spain. This makes the memoir so rewarding, for the context is familiar but the story is fresh. In other accounts this experience is mentioned only in passing; for example the 18-year-old Johnny Longstaff spent a few months behind the front lines, and was then allocated to a company as a runner. This fresh insight into the operation of the Battalion is wonderful. It shows the war in a different light; we get a fuller picture of the conflict, which is enriched by the author’s wonderful narrative.

I was particularly struck with the description of the train journey he had to undertake when the Battalion records had to be evacuated in April 1938. I was fully immersed in the journey, frustrated by the speed and lack of progress, I could almost feel the time dragging, although reading it was far from tedious, as James’ sharp eye for detail enlivens the narrative, to the extent that I felt as though I experienced the journey alongside him, the mark of an outstanding prose.

The pace of the narrative is perfect, neither rushed nor padded with surplus material. The pace does alter once James is allocated to a rifle company and joins the front line companies at the camps near Vilaseca, where the Battalion prepared for the Ebro offensive. We get a real feeling for the camaraderie of the men; throughout James Jump tells of the little stories where groups of young men interact. Take for example Lynne’s example in the Morning Star review: ‘Ever the newspaperman, Jump livens up the orders of the day, which he translates. He and fellow clerk Jose select passwords and counter-passwords to amuse their comrades, so Generalísimo requires the response hijo de puta (son of a whore).’ (page 65)

It was near Vilaseca that James helped Sam Wild, an anecdote which just screams authenticity. It is a small matter which all would find amusing at the time, and is little more than that. However, it demonstrates how personal this memoir is. The exchange would be virtually meaningless in an historical account of the events, but here it is a reflection of the personalities. James Jump was allocated to an all Spanish company, he was the only foreigner in the unit. 

‘The next morning Captain Sam Wild, commander of the British Battalion, came on a tour of inspection. He was accompanied by Bob Cooney, a red-faced Scot who was political commissar of the Battalion. They conferred with my company commander and I could see that they were finding it hard to communicate. I strolled over to the group and said to Wild and Cooney: “Do you need an interpreter, comrades?” They admitted that they did, and I managed to get them over the language barrier. Then Sam Wild turned to me. “Gracias, camarada. You speak very good English.” “That’s hardly surprising”, I replied, “since I am English, I’m from Merseyside.” “Then what the bloody hell are you doing in this unit?”’ (page 108)

I love these little stories, the personification brings so much to the story, and fleshes out the characters, making it easy to identify with the men. It is from this point that the narrative changes in character; as he enters combat the narrative becomes much more familiar, but with the prior story and the excellent prose the most familiar aspects are told from a different and original perspective; the assault on Hill 666 particularly stands out.

Johnny Longstaff’s account of Hill 666 is especially harrowing. It isn’t graphic – it is so emotionally charged it chills the bone, enhanced by the fact that it is audio testimony. We can hear how much it is affecting him. James Jump’s account is less harrowing, but just as emotional, maybe because he tells it in such a straightforward manner.

I have little doubt that ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’ is one of the premier memoirs produced by British Battalion volunteers; it is one of the few based on a diary kept at the time, but it is the quality of the narrative that makes it stand out.

The clarity of the story, and joyful prose make this memoir one of the foremost produced, however there is an additional element which makes this memoir very, very special: at the end of each chapter Jim has provided a poem written by his father. James Jump wrote several books and textbooks on Spain and Spanish. He was also a prolific poet and his poems appeared regularly in Tribune during the 1980s.

The superb title poem ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’, was previously unpublished, as were four of the other 20 in this book. The poems alone would warrant a stand-alone publication. Jim was the editor of ‘Poems from Spain’. I have a special interest in poetry for and from the Spanish Civil War; not only because I’m honoured to assist Bob Beagrie (see ‘There’s Wally’) and David Marshall holds a special place in my heart, but there is just so much high quality poetry.

The addition and positioning of the poems is inspired, as said. The memoir would be outstanding without them, and the poems could stand alone, but combined they raise this publication to a monumental height. The narrative provides the context to the poems in a subtle way which does not detract from the individuality of the poem itself. Also the poems add an emotional maturity which cannot be provided in any other way. The positioning allows the reader to pause and reflect at the end of each chapter, which enhances the experience. As a reader I could comprehend what James was saying in a deeper way, because the poem made me reflect, pause, take time to think before plunging into the next narrative stream.

The last time a novel literary technique had such a profound effect on me was when I experienced Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ‘The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War’. She casts aside the usual chronological narrative of an autobiography, literally  throwing the reader into the middle of his chaotic story, and then following threads and ideas without ever returning to the start point. Lucy’s autobiography was acclaimed as The Times autobiography of the decade in 2013.

I feel that ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’ is comparable to this; it is like no other war memoir; it has stunning aspects which supplement each other. It is a work of art, it is one of the finest memoirs I have read; it is a collection of beautifully crafted poetry, and it is a fitting commemoration to a fine man and his comrades who volunteered to defend the liberties of Republican Spain. Individually these elements make it special, but these are combined in such a beautiful synergy that this publication deserves recognition beyond those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War.

I think it is fitting to leave the last words to James himself. Here is the first stanza of the title poem ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’:

'I went to Spain to fight for a cause,

to defend a people’s right

to fair play and just laws.

I went resolved to fight.

I fought

and fell in love with Spain.'

 

Posted on 8 April 2021.