Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 28 May 2016

The archaeology of working class writing : Part Three  – Ralph Bates

Here’s a quiz question for you – name three famous people from Swindon. There’s a few more than you might think:  Ian Fleming, Desmond Morris, Julian Cleary, Richard Jefferies. OK, so it’s not all good news – Gilbert O’Sullivan, Dianna Dors and Melinda Messenger. I have to confess that I didn’t know most of these came from Swindon and I was personally only able to come up with the band XTC.

What I didn’t say, and as far as I can see no-one says, is Ralph Bates. Although Bates seems to have slipped into complete obscurity, it wasn’t always so. By the late 1930s serious literary critics were comparing his work favourably to that of Ernest Hemingway and he moved in some of the most important literary circles, making appearances in the books of George Orwell and Malcolm Lowry.

Bates, who is now regularly cited as one of the key figures in the development of working class or proletarian fiction, started his working life in the engineering factories of the Great Western Railway before enlisting to fight in the First World War. However, it was when he began to travel in Spain at the end of the war that his writing career began to take off. After several years of doing transient part time and casual jobs he wrote his first book of short stories called Sierra and in 1935 his first novel, Lean Men.

Bates’ sympathy for the poor and his developing left wing political perspectives – both clearly expressed in his writing - really came to the forefront with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. There seems to be some question over whether Bates ever formally joined the Communist Party but he undoubtedly became an important part of the CPs organisation fighting for the Republican cause. Michael Yates writing about Bates in his pamphlet, Ralph Bates: Swindon’s Unknown Author suggests that Bates was a hardline Stalinist  and rather difficult person to deal with – something he subsequently blamed on the influence of his first wife, Winifred, who he parted from at the end of the war.

His 1936 novel The Olive Field was probably his most famous and widely read book and again sets out his views on the Spanish situation. The critical notices for the novel, especially in America, were outstanding and he was hailed as the heir to Robert Tressel and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. When the Spanish Republic fell he moved to live in Mexico and began the process of renouncing Communism – the Soviet invasion of Finland prompting him to see the ideology as a destructive force. This didn’t mean a complete move toward the Right however and he found himself more aligned with a progressive but essentially liberal agenda.

He moved to live in the United States where he married Eve and continued to champion progressive causes. He made his living by writing for various literary  magazines and became a Professor of creative writing at New York University. During the McCarthy communist witch-hunts, Bates’ Communist associations led to him coming under scrutiny  and although he was sequestered to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee he steadfastly refused to testify.

His final significant publication was a form of autobiography called A Dolphin in the Wood in 1950 which was something of a culpa mea or confession about his past and his life as a committed activist.

Although he lived to be 101 Bates didn’t write anything significant after the experiment in autobiography but he did spend the rest of his time enjoying his hobby of rock climbing which he moved to the Greek Island of Naxos to pursue more fully. He returned eventually to Manhatten where he died in 2000.

Despite his colourful life and high renown as a writer, Bates’ work has spent plenty of time out of print. Paperback copies of The Olive Field can be bought cheaply but just about everything else is hard to find and pretty expensive. If you see any of his books, grab them while you can.


Terry Potter

May 2016