Monday, October 22, 2007

Recalling An Old Friend..Frank Graham, International Brigade Officer and Noted Publisher

I first heard about Frank Graham when a friend and comrade of mine was researching an aspect of Labour movement history for her final year dissertation at the University of Birmingham around 1980, her description of their encounter was memorable, since it was clear that Frank still held very fast to the beliefs and principles which had informed his view of the world all his life. I suppose he was the original 'Unrepentant Communist'. I did not know then that I too would encounter this memorable individual face to face on numerous occasions both in a political context and through research undertaken with my co-author Dr Donald Watson on the Spanish Civil War and the North East of England, which culminated in the publication of 'An Inspiring Example- The North East of England and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939' (Watson and Corcoran 1996). That publication is still available for purchase via Abe Books , see link, When we heard of his death both Don and I felt that we had lost both a good friend and an irreplaceable link with the past. The photograph reproduced here is quite a rare find, and I like to think that Frank would be particularly proud of this image as he leads the North East's returning volunteers into the mass rally in honour of the returned International Brigaders in Newcastle City Hall in 1939. There has also recently appeared an article in the Sunday Times about the by now dwindling band of living Spanish Civil War International Brigade veterans...see Reproduced below in full , is Don's excellent appreciation of Frank's rich, varied, and highly successful life. Salud ! Gabriel
An Appreciation of Frank Graham ......
Frank Graham, who died in a Newcastle nursing home aged 93 on April 30th 2006, was an International Brigade soldier who later became one of the most successful local publishers in Britain since the Second World War.
Francis Moore Graham was born in Sunderland in 1913, one of five children. His father worked in a draper’s shop. Academically gifted, he won scholarships to the Bede Grammar School in Sunderland and then to King’s College at the University of London. His course – Classics – did not prove to his taste and neither did the College. He spent more time in lectures at the LSE and became active in the student politics of the early 1930s. He threw himself into anti-fascist work, including the famous fight during Oswald Mosley’s rally at the Olympiad in London, and through this he joined the Communist Party.
Money pressures forced Frank to abandon his course and he returned to Sunderland, by then a town devastated by unemployment. He was active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement in the town and helped to organise local contingents for the 1934 and 1936 NUWM Hunger Marches to London. A police report to the Special Branch on the 1936 March described him as ‘one worth watching’. He was always scathing about the more famous but ‘non-political’ Jarrow March in the same year.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Frank was instrumental in organising volunteers from Sunderland to join the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Around twenty Sunderland men served but Frank and three of his comrades from the local NUWM were the first of them to arrive in Spain at Christmas 1936. Frank fought through the ferocious battle of Jarama in January and February 1937, and in the trench warfare that followed, when British and Irish volunteers played a crucial role in preventing the fascists under General Franco from seizing the main route to Madrid and an early victory. But the casualties were enormous and Frank was deeply affected by the deaths in action of two of his close friends from Sunderland. He helped to bring one of their bodies back, in darkness, from outside the fascist lines. In April Frank toured England to speak at meetings of the various campaigns to support the Spanish Republic. He returned to the Brigade and took part in the battle of Brunete and the fighting around Villanueva de la Canada. By this time he was attached to the Brigade staff and acted as a reconnaissance officer, often on horseback, for British commanders Fred Copeman and Jock Cunningham.
He was seriously wounded at the battle of Caspe in March 1938. After leaving hospital Frank contributed to Republican radio broadcasts in Barcelona until he contracted typhoid; Sam Russell, a fellow Brigader and a journalist, negotiated his repatriation through a hostile British Embassy towards the end of 1938. On return to Britain he was a speaker at the commemorative rally for the North East of England International Brigade volunteers at Newcastle City Hall, which was attended by over 2,000 people.
The wounds Frank had received in Spain rendered him unfit for further military service and he spent the Second World War in manual jobs, including a spell as a Co-op milkman, on Teeside, where he also worked for the Communist Party. In 1945 he trained as a teacher and then taught for 15 years at Wharrier Street School in Newcastle.
Frank realised how little had been published on the history of the north east of England since the Victorian and Edwardian periods when he was teaching evening classes for the WEA. To fill this gap for his class he researched and published a pamphlet on the history of Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coast. Holy Island appeared in 1958 and sold nearly 3,000 copies in 18 months. Frank realised that there was a market in the region for scholarly but popular and accessible accounts of local history and culture. Thus began Frank Graham the publishing firm, and this, capitalised by a shrewdly-run sideline in antiques and old prints, became his full time business between the 1960s and his retirement.
The first books were on the castles, battles and town histories of the area along with a number on the social and military history of Hadrian’s Wall. But the range was always noted for width, and it included railway studies and 17 books on coalmining and the history of the mining trades unions. They included the Banner Book and Ray Challinor’s The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners. Another useful addition to local studies were the various Miscellanies he produced on social and political themes.
His publication of Larn Yersel Geordie by Scott Dobson was controversial. Some felt it just made a joke out of local dialect and culture. But it was also an extraordinary success: the first run of 3,000 copies sold out in 48 hours and a total of 81,000 copies were sold in the first year. Such successes made a number of solid achievements financially possible. These included re- publishing Victorian collections of northeast songs (some with new introductions by Dave Harker), thus preserving invaluable records of local traditions as well as unique social history resources. The unique contemporary illustrations in Thomas Hair’s Sketches of the Coal Mines in Northumberland and Durham (1844), and his facsimiles of engravings by Thomas Bewick are other examples. Frank kept works by local writers Sid Chaplin and Jack Common in print, and published the first studies of Thomas Spence. Publications included two accounts of his own experiences in Spain and a re-print, in 1975, of the official Book of the XVth International Brigade, originally published in 1938 while the war was in progress.
The books and pamphlets were generally illustrated, and to a very high standard, by local photographers and particularly artists such as Ronald and Gill Embleton. The publications received no grants or subsidies and did not take advertising. Wherever possible the printing and binding were also done in the north east - Frank saw no point in producing books promoting the history and culture of the region and then having them printed and bound in the south of England. Further, his pricing policy deliberately put most of them within the budgets of schools, libraries and tourist information offices as well as the general public.
When the firm was sold in 1987 it had published 387 titles (of which 103 were written by Frank himself) with total sales of over three million copies – a British record for local publishing.
Frank was a stalwart member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and attended their annual commemorative meetings until infirmity prevented him. His views on the internal politics of the Spanish Republic, and on the Soviet Union, remained very much the same as those he had held in the Communist Party as a young man. Like all the surviving International Brigaders Frank felt great satisfaction about the growing interest in the Spanish Civil War in recent years. He was also fortunate enough to attend memorial meetings in Spain after the restoration of democracy and experience the respect and affection in which the anti-fascist volunteers are held there. He left Vera, his wife (and former business partner) of sixty-six years, two sons and a number of grandchildren.
Don Watson
Appreciation of Frank Graham, Published in North East History (Journal of the North East Labour History Society) no38 2007


Anonymous said...

A chara,

The link doesnt work for some reason?

Harry Barnes said...

Apart from hearing speeches at the Miners' Durham Big Meeting, the first political gathering I ever went to was a well attended public meeting run by the Newcastle Communist Party around November 1956 when I was 20. It was immediately after I had completed my National Service having become more seriously interested in politics by experiences whilst serving in Iraq in 1955-56. The CP meeting at Newcastle was about the Suez and Hungarian invasions and was addressed by John Gollan the Secretary of the CP. It was probably held in the Newcastle City Hall and Frank Graham could well have been involved. I later went to a small open discussion meeting run by the Newcastle Communist Party (with a dozen or so present)which Frank again might have attended - I had to dash away afterwards to catch my bus, so I never really made contact with those present. The Hungarian situation and the earlier Krushchev revelations on Stalin were always going to stop me from joining the CP. The following year I settled for joining the short-lived International Society of Socialist Studies set up around GDH Cole (whom I heard address them) and I also joined the Labour Party (to participate in an essay competition run by the local MP Mannie Shinwell, on nationalisation).

Gabriel said...

Thanks for the tip anonymous, I think that the link now up on the piece is now operational.

Gabriel said...

Thanks Harry fascinating to know you were in the same milieu as Frank and so many others. I hope uou found the piece of interest..Keep coming back!

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Have I missed the link to last week's Sunday Times (I know; I'll go and wash my mouth out with Lysol) and the item by Chris Haslam on the surviving Brigaders?

Inevitably, it adds precious little to the sum of all human knowledge, but features Paddy Cochrane and Bob Doyle, with nine others. It is a r├ęchauffage for Haslam's thriller El Sid, which, I am so sad to say, inexplicably slipped off my essential reading-list.

jim hamilton said...

im 59 years old and a former pupil of wharrier street school, frank used to teach history there, his nickname was "pompei" because he taught ancient history. he always had some intersting stories to tell us about his exploits in the international brigade ( although he didnt readily talk about it)we had to sidetrack him from the lesson but i found his stories riveting. in the years to come i read several of his books which were varied and entertaining. i met frank several times over the comming years and he would always have a chat about old times, especially his own exploits. i thought he was a highly principled man who had his own beliefs about the world and its affairs. i wrote to him in about 2003 to ask how he was keeping and he sent me a note back together with 2 complimentary copies of his remaining books. i last seen and spoke to frank in eldon square in 2003 he was in his early nineties and was still fluent was interested in discussing his former pupils. it was sad to hear of his death, he was such a stimulating man with an ispiring personality i will miss him , he was certainly one of my heros.

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