The Spanish Civil War exerted a powerful influence on our imagination as students in the 1970s, possibly because it was so well documented by the many writers who either fought or were premature anti-Fascists, as they were branded in the McCarthy years.
We knew all about Hemingway, Dos Passos and Orwell, even about Esmond Romilly running away at the age of 17 to join the International Brigades. I was particularly enthralled by the mad romanticism of this gesture because he went on to marry a Mitford. I concentrated less on his being invalided home suffering from dysentery as one of the two surviving members of the British Battallion.
What I don’t remember knowing anything about was any New Zealanders who fought on the side of the Republicans, or about those who supported Franco from the other side of the world.
That gap has been rectified by the publication of Kiwi Companeros, which was launched last night at the Auckland City Library. It was published by Canterbury University Press, not that you’d know that because it wasn’t mentioned once, but I must not be bitter. This is Auckland after all and the rest of the country doesn’t exist.
In fact Auckland is so important it has to have its own Bill in Parliament, a Bill that kept Phil Twyford, who was supposed to launch the book, in Wellington. Rodney (first name only necesssary) had also postponed a meeting with some people sitting behind me because he was detained in the house under urgency.
Further assiduous listening in to other people’s conversations lead to hearing that good old Christchurch question “where did you go to school” but this being Auckland he wouldn’t have a bar of it and skilfully steered the conversation onto the clubs he belonged to at University – tramping and Labour. What a combo.
The crowd was a self-confessed bunch of old lefties (I may have spotted a Mao cap in the crowd and that’s not something you see every day) and they did the book proud. It is an amazing story, of how men and women came from the ends of the earth, antipodes to antipodes, to fight for their ideals while others placed themselves firmly on the side of Franco.
Having just come from a session featuring two writers who had written historical fiction for Young Adults it was interesting to hear Mark Darby, Kiwi Companeros’ editor, echo their thoughts on history. History is not only the past, it is the present; it is consciousness of the past and it is real remembering. And as we were reminded at the beginning of the evening, libraries help people not to forget.