James Maley's memories of Spain

Post date: 09/12/2020

James Maley (1908-2007) was an International Brigade volunteer, trade unionist and Second World War veteran from Glasgow. This post was written by his son Willy Maley, after he came across a recording of an interview his father gave to the Imperial War Museum in 1991. It discusses James’ politicisation and his experience in Spain and beyond. Willy Maley has transcribed the entire interview, the introduction to which has been reproduced with permission. The transcript can be found on his blog here.

James Maley (first from right) in a Nationalist prisoner of war camp, from a newsreel frame dated 23 March 1937.

New information about my father’s time in Spain has come to light. James Maley went to Spain in December 1936, took part in the Battle of Jarama the following February, and then spent several months as a POW. I grew up with two pictures from that time, frames cut from a newsreel from 23 March 1937 that I watched in its original format for the first time on 27 September this year when Tam Watters, whose father George was imprisoned alongside mine, sent me a copy. A few days later I came across an image online that must come from another newsreel that shows my father walking down a street with his comrades and fellow prisoners. I suspect there’s more material out there.

When my father died aged 99 on 9 April 2007 a military historian asked if he could see his papers. I had to tell him that my father had no papers, just those two photos taken from that newsreel. But I slowly became aware of an archive. On 12 July 2004, three years before his death, my father had given an interview to a friend of mine, Craig Curran, which was in a format I couldn’t access. Finally in 2015 Craig converted the video and I transcribed the audio with Dini Power, and posted on YouTube in 2015. My father was 96 years of age when he gave that interview to Craig. Although he was still as sharp as a tack he did wander a bit and was hard to pin down on some points. Then this year I got hold of another interview with my father, one he gave to the Imperial War Museum on Tuesday 9 April 1991, when he was a youthful 83 years old. This was new to me. It was fascinating to hear my father’s voice from this time talking so intently about Spain to Conrad Wood, who, like Craig Curran, was an excellent interviewer, and he caught my father at a time when he had more anecdotes on the tip of his tongue.

The interview was conducted a few months after my brother John and I staged a play, ‘From the Calton to Catalonia’, based loosely on my father’s time in Spain, taking the two frames from the lost newsreel as our starting-point. The thing is, John and I never thought to interview my father. We had heard some of his stories, but we knew very little about his time in Spain beyond the fact of his being there, his capture, and the images cut from the newsreel. When writing the play we drew on printed sources like Iain MacDougall’s edited collection ‘Voices from the Spanish Civil War: Personal Recollections of Scottish Volunteers in Republican Spain, 1936-39’ (1986), but James Maley’s voice wasn’t among the International Brigade members interviewed by MacDougall. In fact it was the absence of our father’s voice from MacDougall’s book that spurred John and I into writing the play. James Maley had shown a lifetime of commitment but was rarely recognised except locally. He had a habit of falling out with people and maybe this is why he never seemed to be included in rolls of honour.

I had attended an event with my father in 1989 to unveil a plaque to William Keegan, an ex-miner from Baillieston in Glasgow who had died at the Battle of Brunete on 18 July 1937, and at the civilised tea and biscuits that followed my father, still a communist, was arguing with the Labour Party members and representatives present who had organised the ceremony. Of them said, ‘Oh James, you’re like a bear with a burnt arse!’, which struck me as a very apt description of my father, and that line made its way into the play.

There was another reason that John and I were unable to interview my father: his mind was nearly always focused on the present and the future. Not that he never looked back, just that he was always watching the news and reading the papers, including the Beijing Review. Journalists who wanted to speak to him about Spain had to persist in order to get past Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the end Sudan. That’s why Conrad Wood’s interview for the Imperial War Museum stands out. He doggedly got him to stick to one subject and teased out some terrific vignettes.

With very few exceptions, my father never names his comrades. (There’s a passing reference to Charles ‘Cheeky’ McCaig, from Garngad, of 1930s Glasgow street gang the Cheeky Forty). And my father never complains about mistreatment. That’s just the way he was. He recalls how he saw a man having his brains blown out right in front of him, was punched in the face himself, stuck in a cell with nine men and a dry toilet with no paper and very little to eat or drink, being infested with lice, and seeing the ‘death van’ appear at the place where they were being held. Yet he can say he was ‘never ill-treated once’. That was the James Maley who would drink from the Irrawaddy River a few years later while dead bodies floated past, the James Maley captured at Jarama in 1937 and captured seventy years later in a song by Glasgow band The Wakes called ‘These Hands’.

Recalling his time as a POW in Spain he talks about being pulled up for singing republican songs on his way back from the toilet, laughs about the Capitan with the green hair, and recounts an interrogation in which he had to prove his Catholic faith by reciting ‘one or two of the Hail Maleys’. I let that slip of the tongue stand in the transcription. There will be other slips too – my father says he was interrogated by ‘Primo de Rivera’ but since he died in November 1936 the interrogation is likely to have been carried out by Alfonso Merry del Val. This is a long read, but I’m glad this account is out there now. The Spanish Civil War has been fought over and sung about for over eighty years and there’s always something new to say or see or hear.

My father always spoke quickly, like a machine gun, and the transcription took time. There were 3 reels, the first two each about a half hour long, the third half as long again. The first two reels covered my father’s time in Spain, while the third reel moved on to his time in WW2 in India and from 1941-45. Since my father’s experiences in Spain had been recorded or reported in other ways Dini and I decided to transcribe the third reel first, covering his years in India and Burma. We finally finished transcribing the first two reels this week. There were some words we just couldn’t make out no matter how many times we listened over, but we got most of it. My father’s story is just one among many, and the way he saw things in 1937, 1991, 2004 and 2007, the year he died, no doubt changed over time, as memory does. I’m glad this interview was done, grateful to Conrad Wood and the Imperial War Museum for giving my father a voice, and eager to see what others think of this account of events.

The interview transcripts can be read here.

Willy Maley is co-writer of ‘From the Calton to Catalonia’ (1990), a play about working-class Glaswegians involved in the Spanish Civil War, and a professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Glasgow.


Posted on 9 December 2020.

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