Interview with Clapton Press, specialists in Spanish Civil War memoirs

Post date: 26/08/2021

Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles, founders of The Clapton Press, were interviewed by Sebastiaan Faber, chair of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive (ALBA), a US-based sister organisation of the IBMT. The Clapton Press has been publishing a series of new and out-of-print memoirs related to the Spanish Civil War, as part of its ‘Memories of 1930s Spain’ series. This interview originally appeared in the online edition of The Volunteer here.

Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles both studied Spanish at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth where they met and later at Birkbeck College, University of London. They have worked  in education, translation, lexicography, and finance, and spent several years living and working in Spain. In addition to running The Clapton Press, they also continue to work as translators.

What gave you the idea to create ‘Memories of 1930s Spain’?

The 1930s was a critical decade not only for Spain but across Europe as a whole. The fight to defend the Republic was seen by many outside Spain as their first opportunity to take a stand against increasingly aggressive right-wing ideologues. It attracted a whole range of people from different backgrounds who provided support in a variety of ways. Many of them wrote vivid accounts of their experiences that have now been out of print for more than eighty years and can only be accessed in specialist libraries or at vast expense for collectors’ copies. Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell’s great book ‘My House in Málaga’, for example, has been out of print since 1938. A mouldy old copy will cost you close to £100 plus postage.

Tell me about the titles published so far.

We started by republishing four very different books from the period that were out of print. ‘Boadilla’ is a memoir by Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew, who was one of the earliest volunteers to join the International Brigade. ‘My House in Málaga’, which we just mentioned, was written by an eccentric octogenarian. Mitchell stayed on in Málaga when the civil war broke out to ‘look after his house and servants’ and became an avowed anarchist. Elizabeth Lake, the author of ‘Spanish Portrait’, an autobiographical novel, was living in San Sebastián in 1934 when she fell in love with a Spanish artist. She returned to Madrid in 1936 to pursue her research on the Golden Age poet Góngora—as well as her love affair. ‘Some Still Live’ is by FG. Tinker Jr., a US mercenary pilot who became the Republic’s ace aviator.

After we’d published these four books, Paul Preston, who Kathryn had worked for back in the days when he was first setting up the Cañada Blanch Centre at the LSE, suggested we also look at some previously unpublished memoirs. He came up with a raft of ideas and put us in contact with other Hispanists who have generously provided introductions, afterwords, annotations and reviews. So far, we’ve published four of these memoirs: ‘Firing a Shot for Freedom’ by Frida Stewart/Knight, who drove an ambulance from the North of England to Murcia (foreword by Angela Jackson); ‘Never More Alive’ by Kate Mangan, who worked in the Republican Press Office (foreword by Paul Preston); ‘The Good Comrade’ by Jan Kurzke, a German refugee who tramped around the south of Spain in 1934 and returned in 1936 to join the International Brigade (introduction by Richard Baxell); and ‘The Fighter Fell in Love’ by James R. Jump (foreword by Paul Preston and a preface by Jack Jones).

Finally, we have also continued to republish earlier works, including ‘Struggle for the Spanish Soul’ and ‘Spain in the Post War World’, two essays on Spain written in the 1940s by Arturo and Ilsa Barea (foreword by William Chislett) and ‘British Women and the Spanish Civil War’, a revised version of Angela Jackson’s classic work.

It’s a remarkable enterprise. Are you aware of similar initiatives in other languages?

We’re not aware of any publisher who has such an extensive range of 1930s publications relating to Spain that are currently in print. Interestingly, until we started doing this, it was actually easier to obtain Spanish translations of some of these memoirs than the originals in English. Renacimiento in Seville, for example, has published a Spanish version of ‘My House in Málaga’. There are also Spanish versions of ‘Boadilla’, Constancia de la Mora’s ‘In Place of Splendour’, and a whole host of other memoirs from the period, such as ‘Single to Spain’ by Keith Scott Watson.

Have you run into any unexpected challenges?

Copyright issues can be a real headache, especially in the US owing to successive changes in the law. In a number of cases tracking down present-day copyright holders has proven impossible. We have had to abandon several projects, including ‘Red Spanish Notebook’ by Mary Low and Juan Brea, which was first published in 1938 and republished in 1979 by City Lights, in San Francisco but out of print since then. Some proposals we have looked at involving previously unpublished material have turned out to be just too much of an editorial challenge.

Who are you publishing these books for?

Mostly, our readers are academics, historians and people with a special interest in the International Brigades, such as members of ALBA and the IBMT. But given the diversity of the material available, we hope to attract a wider readership over time.

How has the reception been?

So far, all the feedback has been positive. People are coming back for additional titles or purchasing several titles at once. We’ve also received a lot of encouragement from historians across the world, who see the value of bringing hard-to-access primary source materials within easy reach of a wider audience. And of course, we really appreciate the support given by publications like The Volunteer and ¡No Pasarán!, which have helped to spread the word.

The historical memory of the 1930s has been quite controversial, politically, in Spain in recent years. Is the same true for the UK?

Not really. With regard to 1930s Spain, there appears to be little awareness beyond the version of events popularised by George Orwell and Ken Loach. Many seem blissfully unaware of the parallels between some of the politics of 1930s Europe and features of present-day politics in the UK.

What’s the best title from the series to start with?

‘Never More Alive’ by Kate Mangan. To quote Paul Preston, it is ‘one of the most valuable and, incidentally, purely enjoyable books about the war’ because of its ‘sheer wealth of fascinating information and insight provided in brutally honest yet beautiful prose’ – not to mention Mangan’s keen observation and wry sense of humor. ‘My House in Málaga’ is also a great read; it unfolds at the beginning of the war and the action takes place in a city that is familiar to many.

What’s in the pipeline?

In July we republished ‘In Place of Splendour’ by Constancia de la Mora, who headed up the Republican Press Office. This is a really engaging and informative memoir that has been out of print in English for eighty years. Our new edition will have an introduction by Constancia’s biographer, Soledad Fox Maura. In September we’ll be launching the first-ever edition of ‘Wild Green Oranges’, a semi-autobiographical novel by Bob Baldock, who as a young man was one of the only US citizens to go out to Cuba and fight alongside Castro, in 1958. It’s a fascinating read!

Posted on 26 August 2021.

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