Staff Cottman (1918-1999)
AFTER George Orwell managed at last to find a publisher for Homage To Catalonia, which was after a considerable time due to the grip which the Stalinist establishment had upon left-wing publishers, Staff lived with Spain looking over his shoulder. When John McNair died in 1968, he and Bob Edwards were the living connection with Orwell, the Spanish Civil War and the massacre of the Spanish Revolution. Anyone doing a bit of writing on Orwell came to see him and pick his brains; he was one of the few raconteurs I have ever known who did not embroider the stories with the passage of time. Only Wilebaldo Solano, leader of the POUM Youth in the vital period, is still with us.
I first met Staff and Orwell in the Independent Labour Party after their return. Stalin was then winding up the Spanish War and withdrawing the International Brigades as a prelude to the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Stalin and the Communist Party had not then discredited themselves with the middle-class left, and they were still the flavour of the month. We and our political groups were desperately poor, had few voices of opinion to which we could turn, and were viciously attacked by the CP at every turn. Staff had a detached courage.
Staff was the oldest son of a Merchant Navy captain with radical views (a very rare specimen in those days) who skippered a Russian oil and petrol tanker out of Avonmouth until 1933, when he was killed in a car crash when coming home on leave. He had moved the family to Bristol, and his widow Una brought up the boys in an atmosphere of artistic endeavour and Socialist philosophy.
Staff grew up in Barking under the influence of Fenner Brockway, the ILP and the Socialist Sunday School. Una never ceased reminiscing about this rich period in her life, and she compared it with her earlier experiences as a parlour-maid back in Hampshire.
When the Spanish War broke out, Staff wrote to both the ILP and the CP offering his services in the fight. He was a young, politically inexperienced lad of 17. Strangely enough, Orwell had done the same, and he had a similar response to Staff. The ILP replied first, and both of them in their various ways set off for Barcelona and the POUM, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification. There was a lesson in this, for it was not a case of the ILP having a smaller bureaucracy, but of the CP having to use Russian security clearance before volunteers were accepted for the International Brigades. To both of them at that stage, doctrinal differences meant little — fighting fascism was the lynch-pin. The CP by then had moved away from its ultra-sectarian, ‘Social Fascist’ period towards the ‘unity of the left’, and later into the Popular Front process. It looked and sounded very liberal, but such moves were dictated by Moscow’s foreign policy alignments. Politically, Orwell was even more naive than Staff at that stage. His political ideas were formed in the heat of Spanish experiences.
Franco’s revolt had broken out in July 1936, and by October the ILP was sending out medical aid and collecting for ambulances, and Brockway had made his first fraternal visit. John McNair (who spoke fluent French) took over in Barcelona and Paris, and was the liaison with the brother party of the POUM which approximated to the ILP. Its leadership initially had been Moscow-trained, but had grown disillusioned from its experiences. The penniless and indebted ILP ran country-wide meetings to raise funds for ‘the cause’. Along with the other opposition Marxist parties in Europe, it was outraged by the savagery of Moscow’s attacks upon them as ‘Trotskyists’. This they never were, but they suffered the same fate as the genuine article. The POUM would indeed have been much happier in the Brockway-Pivert ‘Two-and-a-Half International’. Its leader Andrés Nin was murdered by Stalinist hit-men, and other leaders either suffered the same fate, or escaped by the skin of their teeth. Nin was arrested in Barcelona and murdered by Russian agents, and his body was tossed out into the street. By 1976, Monty Johnson of the British CP was admitting the crime, saying ‘at the height of the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, NKVD agents were sent into Spain and carried out measures of repression against honest revolutionaries such as Andrés Nin, the leader of the leftist POUM’ (Cogito, May 1976). We now know from the revelations of the Russian agents how they in effect took over the Spanish state, and ran their own empire within it. When the war broke out in 1936, the Communist Party was insignificant in Spain, but Russia was the only source of arms, and its influence grew. The 400 tons of gold reserves of the Spanish government were shipped to Russia and looted by Stalin with exchange rate fiddles when charging for arms (see Gerald Howson and John Murray, Arms For Spain, 1998).
Staff was taken out of the POUM trenches with suspected tuberculosis. Orwell and McNair looked after him as surrogate fathers, and saw that he was taken into the POUM ‘Maurin’ sanatorium. He escaped the fate of his friend Bob Smillie, grandson of the veteran Scots miners’ leader, for ‘Young Bob’ was arrested at the Spanish border when returning from a youth conference in Paris, and died in a Stalinist prison.
Orwell recorded meeting Staff in the sanatorium: ‘... there were several other Englishmen; Williams with a damaged leg and Stafford Cottman, a boy of 18 who had been sent back from the trenches with suspected tuberculosis.’ When the POUM sanatorium was raided by the CP-controlled police, they managed to escape, and went into hiding. Orwell met them again at the British Consulate. It was time to get out of Spain. Orwell and McNair both chronicled the story of their escape (see Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia and Don Bateman (ed), John McNair’s Spanish Diary).
Staff’s political perspectives were shaped in the hard school of experience, and for the rest of his days he was an implacable opponent of the Stalinists. When he got back to Bristol, it was to discover that his ‘comrades’ in the Young Communist League there had not only expelled him as a Trotskyist, but had picketed his mother’s house with their banners, branding him as a traitor and an ‘enemy of the working class’. In 1986, John Sullivan of the WEA organised a 50-year celebration of the Spanish War. He, Staff and I were the speakers, and some of these former young CPers turned up to give him an enthusiastic welcome, for they were by now Healyite Trots! Staff laughed all the way home.
Back from Spain, Staff took an office job, and when the Second World War broke out he registered as a Conscientious Objector on international Socialist grounds. When France fell, he reconsidered his position, and he felt he had to fight Fascism. He promptly volunteered for air crew with the RAF and became an air gunner. After 50 missions, he was grounded, but met Stella, a WAAF who became his lifelong companion, adviser, conscience and, for the last four years of his life, his nurse.
When demobbed, he worked for BOAC and transferred to London Airport, where he became a leading clerical trade unionist. As the unions amalgamated, so did Staff, and he was a regular Labour Party and union conference delegate, and became a stalwart of his local Labour Party in Ruislip. He was always the hewer of wood and the drawer of water — someone had to fight in Spain, and someone had to deliver the leaflets. The man reviled as a Trot never became one, for he was the classical Social Democrat, but with an enlarged conscience. He genuinely believed in the liberal concept of the perfectibility of man — but such was his modesty, he would immediately deny the description. Staff never lost contact with Orwell, and was one of his last visitors on the island of Jura. We discussed at length with the Orwellian web of friends, and Sonia, Orwell’s second wife.
Ken Loach drew heavily on Staff’s experiences for Land and Freedom, and one of the characters is modelled on him. Nigel Williams took him out to Spain for the making of his documentary on George Orwell, and they sat on the battlefield where they had once manned the trenches, and toured Barcelona for the sites of the gunfights in the ‘May Days’.
In 1995, the Spanish government granted Spanish citizenship to those who had come across the seas and the frontiers to fight for the Republic. I applied on behalf of Staff, who was by then infirm. The Spanish Embassy referred me to the Consul, who pushed me on to the International Brigade Association in Madrid, who were ‘the accepted recommending organisation’. I wrote several times in both English and Spanish, and furnished the required details. They would never reply to my letters. There may be a George Orwell Plaza in Barcelona, but the last outpost of Stalinism is still in Madrid!
In later years Staff certainly denied Orwell’s description of him as a ‘consumptive-looking youth’, for he became rotund, hearty and a lover of contact with his friends. In retirement Staff and Stella went to live in Bath, where their daughter is a medical consultant. He rejuvenated his local Labour Party, and fought a council election at the age of 70 in an impossible ward. Such was the local respect for him that he polled a staggering number of votes.
Staff always led from the front and provided a wave of frank intellectual honesty. He was my oldest friend; we shall miss him.