Illustrating the International Brigades

Post date: 28/03/2023

Artist Josh Knowles is producing a graphic novel that tells the story of his grandfather, International Brigader Leslie ‘Les’ Starr, to be published this year. He is interviewed here by IBMT Executive Officer Ajmal Waqif.

Artwork depicting the anti-fascist clashes in Manchester's Cheetham Hill area in the 1930s. British Union of Fascist supporters, brandishing far-right Action newspaper, face off with local Young Communist League members with copies of their newspaper, Challenge, Les Starr among them. (Art: Josh Knowles)

Tell us who you are and what you do.

I’m an artist and illustrator interested in the connections between pop culture, mythology and social history. I grew up in Manchester with my mum and older brother. I’m currently working on a graphic novel about my grandfather, who served in the International Brigades in 1937-38.

How did you first find out about the history of the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War?

I first learnt about them through my maternal grandfather, Les Starr. Although he didn’t talk about it much, we all knew he’d gone to Spain to fight the fascists. I certainly didn’t hear about it at school or on TV – just bits and pieces in conversation and pop culture references. 

I’m learning a lot now that I’m looking for the details. I’ve found the more I know the more there is to know.

Les Starr before departing for Spain.

Tell us about your grandfather: What is your connection to him and his life?

Les was an imposing but benign figure in my childhood. He was stoic and serious but not scary – he didn’t talk that much to us as kids – that was grandma’s role. Though in the background, he looked after us all. He wasn’t really one for the limelight, although he was well recognised when we were out and about. He loved his garden and playing cards with friends. He was an ordinary unassuming man but went through some extraordinary hardships and challenges through tough and changing times.

From a Jewish migrant family, Les was one of six children. He started work at 13. Both his parents died by the time he was 16. There was no NHS or welfare state at that time and there was mass unemployment due in part to the Great Depression. He was fighting Mosley’s Blackshirts on his doorstep. Then he volunteered to fight Franco in Spain. He returned home to marry an Irish girl and settle down, only for the Second World War to break out, turning his life upside down again. After all that he just wanted a quiet life with his family and friends in a place he could call his own.

I wanted to record Les’s experiences to preserve our family history. As time went on it occurred to me it was also a reflection of a bigger story, the rapid and volatile shifts in the social and cultural landscape of the early to mid-20th century. It’s also a story that carries a strong and specific identity: Jewish, Mancunian and working-class.

I finally began the writing process in late 2019. I started out with a handful of family anecdotes and letters, a cigar box of old documents, some photos and a couple of audio recordings.

Since then I’ve met with historians and visited various library archives. The Northwest Film Archive has 1930s film footage and documents regarding meetings and demos Les attended in Manchester (where he was arrested more than once). I’ve had guidance from IBMT members Mike Wild, Tony Fox and Michael Crowley amongst others. The Manchester Jewish Museum is also supporting me to finish and launch the novel.

I only wish Les was alive now so I could ask him more questions. We only talked of his past briefly when he was alive. I know he was connected to the Cheetham Branch YCL Challenge Club. He arrived at Albacete for training in September 1937 (after his cousin Edward Starr had fought and returned home following a gas attack on Suicide Hill during the Battle of Jarama). He completed training and joined the Transmissions Brigade on 17 September 1937.

I don’t think Les was a natural warrior or ideologist, but in my mind his commitment to travel to Spain was heroic in itself. He volunteered to endure the hardships of travel, military life and war. When I look at the bigger picture, I see an impulsive but unsure young man, trying to grow up and find his way in life against wave after wave of fascist aggression and socio-economic hardship. He did what he could to fight back, protect his place and people and lived to tell the tale.

What made you want to represent your grandfather’s story and his time in Spain in the form of a graphic novel?

I’d like to understand more about his experience in Spain as a Mancunian in a foreign land, fighting a war in a language he didn’t understand. 

Why is it important to continue to remember the International Brigades and their legacy? 

I want to communicate how older generations fought so we could have a better life. It’s important to value the things they made happen, such as workers’ rights, the welfare state, social equality, a more democratic and diverse social landscape.

It’s hard to comprehend what our parents and grandparents lived through and the strength in spirit they had to stand up for their rights. Times continue to change and if we’re not mindful we’ll lose the stories of sacrifice and heroism that connect us collectively to this ongoing journey to democracy, equality and human rights. If we lose sight of the history we may lose the future too. It’s up to all of us to tell the stories, protect and build on those hard-won rights. Les stood up to fight for the things that make life better for everyone.

Illustrator Josh Knowles at work on the graphic novel in his studio.

Posted on 29 March 2023.

IBMT logo

Support our work

You can support the IBMT by joining us or affiliating your union branch – see details and membership forms here:
menuchevron-up linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram