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Jeffrey Meyers

Repeating the old lies

As a biographer, I’m often more puzzled than enlightened by personal interviews. Establishing the facts is tricky enough, and the truth can be elusive. The people I talk to may be old, in frail health, or have failing memories. They sometimes “remember” what’s been written or said instead of what actually happened, or say what they think I want to hear. They may even lie to make themselves look better. Recently, I came across a new difficulty in literary biography: ideological blindness.

I went to England last November to do research for a life of George Orwell. I had the names of two men, Frank Frankford and Sam Lesser, who’d fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Frankford, who’d been in the Anarchist P.O.U.M. (United Marxist Workers Party — Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) militia with Orwell, and who was now aged eighty-five, had agreed to see me; but I didn’t know anything about Lesser, or if he was still alive. After talking to them I realized that the two men, fighting on different fronts, Barcelona and Madrid, had in fact been intimately connected. Lesser had changed the life of Frankford, and Frankford had been searching for him for the last sixty years.

I knew that Frankford had played a notorious role in Orwell’s life. In 1937 Frankford was arrested in Barcelona for trying to sell paintings stolen from museums or looted from churches. After his release from jail with the help of an English intermediary, the British Daily Worker of September 14, 1937 published a story about him. In the article, Frankford accused P.O.U.M., and especially its commander, Georges Kopp, of secretly helping the Fascists on the Aragon front in northeast Spain and of deliberately rebelling against their Communist allies in Barcelona.

To validate the story The Daily Worker claimed that it had first appeared in the Spanish press, and then quoted Frankford’s detailed accusations: “Every night at 11 P.M. the sentries heard the rattle of a cart, and we could tell from its light that it was crossing the space between the positions on our left and the Fascist lines. We were ordered never to shoot at this light. ... Near Huesca ... one night we saw Commander Kopp returning from the Fascist lines.” Two days later, to lend authenticity to the story, The Daily Worker printed Frankford’s corrections. He now said he wasn’t so sure: “he was not certain that the carts crossed the line, nor had he himself actually seen Kopp returning from the Fascist lines”.

Frankford’s false statement that P.O.U.M. had collaborated with the Fascist forces in Aragon was repeated in a vicious book by Georges Soria, Trotskyism in the Service of Franco: Facts and Documents on the Activities of the P.O.U.M., which was brought out in London in 1938 by the Communist publishers Lawrence and Wishart. This book was used to justify the Communist extermination of their former P.O.U.M. allies in Barcelona. Frankford’s condemnation did great harm to former comrades, like Kopp, who was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, and Orwell, who was hunted down and threatened with execution. In Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell described these events from personal experience, and made Kopp the hero of his book.

Frankford’s accusations were forcefully refuted by Orwell’s article in the British New Leader of September 24, which was signed by fourteen members of the British contingent. He concluded: “it is quite obvious that all these wild statements ... were put into Frankford’s mouth by the Barcelona journalists, and that he chose to save his skin by assenting to them, because at that time it was extremely dangerous to be known to have any connection with the P.O.U.M.” The left-wing politician Fenner Brockway later verified this statement. In his autobiography, Inside the Left (1942), Brockway wrote that when “the boy” (Frankford was actually twenty-four) returned to London he came to the office of the Independent Labour Party, which was affiliated with P.O.U.M., and spoke to John McNair, who had escaped from Barcelona with Orwell: “He broke down crying and begged forgiveness. He had been imprisoned in Barcelona, and had been presented with the document to sign as a condition of freedom.”

But forty-two years later, in December 1979, Frankford repeated his accusations to Orwell’s biographer. Bernard Crick wrote:

Frankford denies that he ever broke down or asked forgiveness; says that he never signed anything, but simply gave an interview to Sam Lessor [sic] of The Daily Worker which he embellished, and he sticks to his story that there was fraternisation and crossing of the lines on occasion (which seems plausible), but he is “not sure” whether he ever thought that guns rather than fruit and vegetables ever figured in such movements, though “there are things to be explained”. (When I asked him if he was not angry at The Daily Worker for putting words into his mouth, Mr. Frankford replied: “Quite legitimate in politics, I am a realist.”)

[Bernard Crick:
“George Orwell: A Life”, Chapter Ten: “Spain and ‘Necessary murder’”]

Four years later, when closely questioned in an Arena television program of December 1983, Frankford squirmed uneasily and forced out a fake smile. He now denied that he’d ever made the accusations and insisted: “I don’t remember that ... I don’t think I ever said that ... that wasn’t true and I wouldn’t have said that.” When asked about the propriety of publishing such stories, he replied with surprising cynicism: “Certain tactics are legitimate when you are fighting a battle like this.” Not at all horrified that such statements could be attributed to him, he said, “it rather amuses me”.

On a long shot, before seeing Frankford, I called Lesser’s old phone number. Now eighty-three, he answered in a gruff, aggressive voice. When I mentioned my book on Orwell, he became extremely hostile and asked: “What the hell are you ringing me for?” I said I understood that he’d been in the Spanish War. He exclaimed that he was a Communist who’d fought and was wounded with the International Brigade, and was violently antagonistic to both Orwell and P.O.U.M..

As I questioned him about his background, he first vented his anger, then calmed down and became more friendly. He’d spent his whole professional life as a journalist on The Daily Worker. Since his brother was also on the paper, he’d reversed the letters of his last name and used the byline “Sam Russell”. When I said that his brother must have been the greater Lesser and he the lesser Lesser, he laughed and it broke the ice.

Still repeating the old lies — which he may have believed after a lifetime of professional lying — Lesser claimed that P.O.U.M. had started the revolution in Barcelona behind the front and stabbed the Communists in the back. He also maintained that members of P.O.U.M. had driven around Barcelona in the ambulances so desperately needed at the front. P.O.U.M., he said, had plenty of medical supplies when the International Brigade had nothing at all. When he was wounded he had to be evacuated by ox-cart. I listened patiently to these angry assertions, hearing the bitterness of past years, and didn’t try to refute them.

Despite all his contradictory interviews, ranging over sixty years, Frankford was still eager to talk again when I turned up in 1998. I realized that I was dealing with a deaf and probably muddled old man. I had made the appointment over the phone with his wife, but he then called back to get my address so he could send me directions to his house in Wells, Somerset. The directions never reached me (the house was hard to find) because he couldn’t hear me on the phone. I arrived late and hungry. Mrs. Frankford gave me a sandwich, and poured me a glass of Spanish wine. So I struggled to eat, drink, ask questions, take notes, look at the documents he offered me and copy whatever I could — all at the same time.

Though apparently robust, the stocky, white-haired Frankford had trouble hearing my questions and his memories were clearly embellished. After discussing his background and explaining why he went to Spain, he claimed (like most other British volunteers on the Aragon front) that he was the one standing next to Orwell when he was shot through the throat and caught him when he fell. Frankford maintained that just before he was shot Orwell “was telling us of his experiences working in a Paris brothel” — unlikely, since he had worked in a restaurant.

Frankford readily admitted that he disliked Orwell because of “his attack on the English working class” in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which he had read in Spain. Orwell had been a policeman in Burma and assumed leadership of the British contingent. Frankford resented this, as well as Orwell’s belief that “everything he did was right”. He was also annoyed that Stafford Cottman (another British member of P.O.U.M.), rather than himself, had been invited to Spain for the Arena television program. He didn’t seem to realize that his role in events in Barcelona precluded an invitation.

Frankford then described his arrest, along with his mate “Tankie”, who’d served in the Tank Corps in World War I. The Spanish police saw Frankford reading an English book, suspected him of being a spy and stopped him for questioning. They found the looted items, arrested him and put him in prison. An Englishman, Sam Lesser, got him out of jail and advised him to leave Spain as soon as possible. But he didn’t know if Lesser had published The Daily Worker story and didn’t know where Lesser was — though he’d been trying to find him for a long time. When I said I had just spoken to Lesser and had his address and phone number, Frankford was astonished.

We then got down to the sticky question. Though Frankford was still a Communist, he now conceded that “P.O.U.M. was all right” and had been “badly treated during the political maneuvering and struggle for power”. Apparently contrite and eager to clear his name, though stumbling for words, he showed me a xeroxed page from Brockway’s book and admitted that he had indeed broken down and begged for forgiveness in London. The Daily Worker “twisted and changed the meaning of what I said”, he exclaimed. Pathetically, and rather touchingly, he pleaded: “Don’t blame me for anything. I never meant those things to be put down that way!” I asked, for the record, if the accusations he’d made in 1937 were true or false. “Just say, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I said. Vague, evasive, yet eager to please, he thought for a long time. Finally, he said he wasn’t sure.

I went back to London and called Lesser again. Friendlier this time, but more wary, he said that after being invalided out of the International Brigade he became a Communist Party representative, head of English-language broadcasting (i.e. propaganda) and The Daily Worker’s correspondent in Barcelona. When I mentioned Frankford’s name, Lesser said he might have known him in Hackney (a working-class district in London’s East End) before they went to Spain. But he could not recall getting Frankford out of prison and said he would surely have remembered that good deed if he had done so. When I mentioned The Daily Worker story, he asked: “Was it signed?” When I said it wasn’t, he claimed to have no recollection of writing it. Then he added: “Maybe it was true.”

What then, is the truth? Frankford said Lesser got him out of prison and he was certainly in a position to do so. Frankford’s arrest gave the Communists an opportunity to smear the P.O.U.M. and helped justify their extermination. Lesser, Barcelona correspondent of The Daily Worker, must have written that lying story. He was, it seems, both Frankford’s benefactor and betrayer.

Frankford’s accusations, refuted by Orwell, were certainly false. Brockway’s account of Frankford’s remorse (witnessed by McNair) is convincing. Why then did Frankford “stick to his story” and repeat his lies to Crick, yet retract essential parts of his statement — as he did long ago in Spain — and claim to be a cynical realist when he was really a disillusioned fantasist? Was it stubbornness, pride, bravado, or bitterness?

His uneasy recantation on television, reinforced by his guilt-ridden pleas when I interviewed him, seemed inspired by bad conscience. Was he a victim, manipulated and humiliated by the Communists he still believed in, or a Communist agent, planted in P.O.U.M. to discredit the militia? My interviews with Frankford and Lesser reveal that the political battle lines of the 1930s have endured into the 1990s. Hard-liners still believe it’s ethical to lie in the service of Communism — even when the system has withered and supporters like Frankford have begun to crack. They continue to repeat what Orwell in 1940 called “the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls”.

1999

THE END

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Jeffrey Meyers: ‘Repeating the old lies’
Published: ‘The New Criterion’. 1999.

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Machine-readable version: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2015-09-24


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