Clive Branson was also a poet

Post date: 21/09/2023

JIM JUMP reviews ‘The Selected Poems of Clive Branson’ edited by Richard Knott (Smokestack Books, 2023).

International Brigader Clive Branson is best remembered today as an artist rather than a poet. Five of his paintings are in the Tate Gallery’s collections. A self-portrait is on the cover of this first anthology of his poems. 

Several of his paintings and drawings were a highlight of the Conscience and Conflict exhibition about Britain’s artistic response to the Spanish Civil War at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery in 2015. Among them was a remarkable series of sketches of fellow British Battalion prisoners of war.

Branson arrived in Spain on 16 January and was captured at Calaceite in Aragón in the spring of 1938. He spent the next six months in prison camps at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos, and Palencia. The latter camp was run by the Italians and conditions were much less harsh than at San Pedro. The authorities even allowed him to sketch, paint and write poetry. 

In a prisoner exchange with Italian soldiers he left Spain on 24 October later that year, crossing the frontier on foot at Irún-Hendaye with other members of the battalion. They were jeered along the way by a crowd of Franco supporters giving the fascist salute. 

Clive Branson in British Army uniform in the Second World War.

Before going to Spain Branson lived with his wife Noreen in Battersea, then a working-class district of London. Both were from wealthy backgrounds and had been privately educated. 

Noreen worked for Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, while Clive dedicated himself to party activities. He sold the Daily Worker at factory gates and at Clapham Junction station, campaigned for Aid Spain and helped International Brigade volunteers passing through the capital.

As Richard Knott recounts in his introduction, Branson had wanted to go to Spain much earlier than he did, only to be told by Pollitt that his talents were needed at home.

On his return from Spain, ‘his political certainties as strong as ever’, as Knott puts it, Branson continued the anti-fascist fight during the Second World War. He joined the British Army’s Royal Armoured Corps. Aged 36, he was killed in action in Burma in 1944 during a tank battle with the Japanese.

For first bringing Branson’s poetry to public attention we must thank Valentine Cunningham, the Oxford English professor who edited the 1980 ‘The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse’. He included nearly 20 of Branson’s poems in a section headed ‘Prisoner’. Only two of them had been published before, both of them more than 40 years previously in left-wing journals.

‘Prisoner’ is also the title of one of the sections in this new compilation, for which we must now thank Richard Knott and Smokestack Books. They have collected more than 70 of Branson’s poems, a large proportion of them about the war in Spain or inspired by his experiences in it.

The fact that Branson’s poems remained out of print for so long says more about the prevailing aesthetic ethos of the Cold War years – when politically committed poetry fell out of fashion – than it does about the quality of his verse.

Clive and Noreen had one child, Rosa, who became an artist. She was aged nine when her father died but long remembered the painting lessons he had given her. In 2011 she donated a large mural-style painting dedicated to the International Brigades to the Marx Memorial Library in London. It hangs in the meeting room on public view, next to the British Battalion banners brought back from Spain.

The International
Clive Branson

But everything new that I meet 
No matter how strange and uncertain, 
Holds something familiar that 
Proves the fight is still on.

That's when I first understood 
One is never alone in this fight.
I’d thought the ‘good-bye' was for good 
And left all behind that night.

But everything new that I meet 
No matter how strange and uncertain, 
Holds something familiar that 
Proves the fight is still on.

How often I marched, and marching 
I sang of an England unseen, 
Watched the great crowds gathering 
And the tramp of their feet beat in tune.

Even in the grip of prison 
I joined in the singing of millions 
As they wait at their wayside station
That leads to the battle lines.

I'm singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time
One man, one woman, humanity 
The International our theme.

January 1940

This review appears in the 3-2023 issue of ¡No Pasarán!, which is available here. Jim Jump is the IBMT Chair and the editor of 'Poems from Spain: British and Irish International Brigaders on the Spanish Civil War' (2006).

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