pic: Bob Cooney in 1939 in Aberdeen – pic from “Party Organiser”
Bob Cooney was a life-long Communist and an International Brigader. A parliamentary candidate for the Communist Party, he had previously attended the Moscow attended Lenin School in the early 1930s. After Spain, where he is pictured below, Bob Cooney worked in Aberdeen, where he was highly active and very well-known.
The Party engaged in a massive campaign to deny fascism a voice in the city, under the slogan: `not a word to be heard’. A Communist rally was held in 1938, which saw 2,000 attended and at which 39 people were recruited to the Party and 18 for the YCL. By 1939, largely inspired by Cooney, the local Communist Party branch had risen from 35 to 250 members.
Three documents follow. Firstly, a 1962 script, written by Bob Cooney for a Birmingham Daily Worker rally. A detailed story of Bob Cooney’s life is reproduced after that and comes from “The Folk Mag”, a West Midlands web-based resource, edited by Bob Taberner. An appreciation of Bob follows from Neil Cooney, his nephew, after that.
Bob Cooney in his folk years in Birmingham
DRAFT OF SCRIPT FOR CULTURAL EVENT FOR DAILY WORKER RALLY ON MARCH 25th  TO INCORPORATE: THE CLARION SINGERS, IAN CAMPBELL FOLK FIVE, COLLECTION AND APPEAL FOR NEW DAILY WORKER READERS
Author: Bob Cooney
[Note there are handwritten additions to the original cyclo-styled text indicating musical interventions]
We are here to celebrate a birthday
(and birthdays are joyous occasions)
But this is no ordinary birthday
It’s a very special birthday
It is YOUR birthday and MINE
It is the birthday of all who are oppressed and exploited
A birthday for all who stand against oppression
A birthday for the engineers who marched on March 5th
A birthday for the men and women on London’s Tubes,
For the miners, the teachers, the Postal workers
For the Aldermaston marchers
For the stalwarts of Holy Loch
It is the People’s birthday!
Because it is the birthday of the People’s paper –
The Daily Worker!
Thirty-two years ago our paper was born
And those who feared the people
Those who live off the backs of the people
Who dread the day and cast them off
They who hate and fear the people could not but hate and fear
The Daily Worker!
I remember the eve of the Daily Workers’ birth
New Years’ Eve 1929.
We received a telegram! (Read telegram)
“The newspaper trade has imposed ban on paper. No wholesaler will handle it. Newsagents instructed not to handle”
Our paper depends on YOUR efforts for survival.”
So we went from house to house.
To Bill, to Bob, to Jean and Mary carrying the message
“Our paper is in danger and we alone can save it”
And in the small hours of the morning
we went to the station
All over Britain
THOUSANDS of us went to the stations
AND THE BAN WAS BROKEN
The Daily Worker was launched
Our precious baby was born – and never had a baby so many midwives!
This indeed was a miracle.
A miracle wrought by working men and women.
`We shall not be moved’
On that first day, the Daily Worker had a telephone call
It came from the Daily Herald
“Is it true that the Daily Worker will not be coming out tomorrow?
And the answer?
It will come out tomorrow
And all the tomorrows to come
The workers will never let their paper die
– But what of the Daily Herald?
Is its future so secure?
You have severed your ties with the people
To whom will YOU turn in your hour of crisis?”
History has answered that question
Odhams – Thomson – The Mirror
The highest bidder gets the Daily Herald
But cannot save it
It’s doomed – already dead!
All that remains
Is to read the Burial service!
But the Daily Worker?
A lusty fearless fighting Thirty-two!
And what a history!
1931 MacDonald Betrayal!
The National Government
The Economy Cuts
The attacks on the Unemployed
The Teachers – the Civil service
And the great Fight Back
Barricades in Birkenhead
Street Battles in Glasgow; Birmingham
The Hunger March that set the land aflame
from Inverness to Cornwall
When the lads of the Royal Navy raised the Red Flag
Solidarity – Action – Struggle.
That made the Tories reel
And there in the Front Line
Teacher – Leader – Organiser
The Daily Worker
Tribune of the People
Inspiring the People
And striking fear in the hearts of the Tories.
Fear and hate in the hearts of the Tories
And savagely they struck
They tried to break the Daily Worker
They made arrests
And Mr. Justice Rigby Swift
completed the job – or thought he had
When he sent the people’s journalists to jail,
“Now the Daily Worker will be silenced”
But the Daily Worker will not be silenced,
Its voice rang loud and clear
– And impudent as well
What do you think it said of Rigby Swift?
“A bewigged puppet of capitalist justice”
So more prosecutions – more jailing and £7,000 damages to pay.
It was meant to be a sentence of death
But the workers raised the money – and a bit beside
The Daily Worker did not die
but went from strength to strength
championing every people’s cause,
– and not only here in Britain but the whole world over
Men and women were given new hope and courage from the
knowledge that in the very citadel of their oppressors
they had a champion.
A champion that had fashioned a weapon
A million-handled sword
The sword of Solidarity
which cut through the lies and deceit?
Helped free the Meerut prisoners in India
Hade Dimitrov a household name in Britain
And turned his Nazi accusers into the accused
Hitler had a fifth column in Britain
The B.U.F. –
Officered by Mosley – Lord Haw- Haw
and others of that breed
They tried to take the streets of Britain
to smash the workers movements
To make our country ripe for Hitler’s hordes
October 1936! Mosley announced that his Blackshirts
Would march through London’s east-end
“Ignore them” said the Daily Herald
“Stay indoors” said Attlee
Let Mosley have the streets of London to himself!
“Drown him” cried the Daily Worker
“Drown him in a sea of working-class action”
And well and truly was he drowned
Half-a -Million London workers took the streets,
And Mosley did not march in London or anywhere else.
Honour to the Daily Worker which smashed the black fifth column!
By now the Daily Worker had reinforcement,
A voice in Parliament –
Willie Gallacher – a champion of champions
Who flayed the Tories in their very citadel and thanks to
the Daily Worker his words ran round the land.
In that same year – the Fascists struck in Spain
Italian – Germans – Moorish hordes
Poured in for Hitler’s dress rehearsal for World War Two.
It was all to be over in weeks
But they reckoned without the people
The people of Spain – and the people of the world
And second to none – were the people of Britain
Who used their voice – The Daily Worker?
which sounded the call to arms?
And led the way indeed as well as word
The International Brigade was born
And in its foremost ranks
Went the men from the Daily Worker –
Ralph Fox – Walter Tap sell – the cartoonist Maru, – Sam Russell –
and many others – the flyover of wording class journalism –
marching and fighting with the flower of working class youth –
and some who were not so young – that Spain – and Britain
might stay free
How could we fail to love a paper which not only taught and
Led but led from the very front line!
Ralph Fox never came back
He fell at Cordova – Maro fell at Jarama
Tap sell fell at Calaceite
They lived heroic lives – and died heroic deaths
Their names are as imperishable as the Daily Worker
(Song: – Jarama Valley?)
The defeat of Hitler started in Spain
And our Daily Worker was in the van
No time to tell of all those glorious years
When history was made and men inspired
We cannot talk forever of the past – there’s too much to be done!
Let’s hurry on
There came the war – at first the phoney war
When Chamberlain wooed Hitler’s hordes with leaflets
While arming fifty thousand men to reinforce that other
fifty thousand to be despatched by Petain – France’s traitor
to march and fight – neither for France or Britain
but for Mannerheim – Hitler’s Finnish puppet.
They never marched
The Daily Worker – Humanite – The French and British masses
exposed and fought the treachery on high.
And on the day the Mannerheim line was breached
The story that began in Peoples’ Spain was continued
Glory to the Daily Worker which saved our country from the shame
In Jan. 1941 the enemies of the people struck again
A man called Morrison now earned his niche in history
He banned the Daily Worker – and liberates Mosley!
But the Daily Worker refused to be banned
“Workers Specials” – Victory Specials” –
“Second Front Specials” – they kept on coming out – and how
they sold – and helped speed Hitler’s end.
September 7th 1942, we beat the ban.
And once again in, in factory and pit in streets and array camps,
The Daily Worker’s call rang loud and clear
“A Second Front to finish Hitler off”
T’was long delayed this Second Front – Perhaps it never would
have come at all but for this voice which spoke – and gave the
But come it did –
Just one more chapter in a glorious tale that’s not yet ended.
The war was won – it’s almost seventeen years
Since Hitler died in that deep Berlin bunker,
And yet today his agents, generals, judges
Are raised ~.gain to beat the drums of war
Worse still the very shame of Vichy
comes home to Wales with German Jack Boots
While up in Holy Loch
The foul Polaris weapon – its ugly snout aimed by Alien hands
now puts this land we love in deadly peril
But that’s not all the tale
Our paper lives and fights, no infant now – a vigorous thirty-two
which when it speaks, sends masses into action
This wind of change now blowing through our land makes ripples
spread on Holy Loch – And Yankees sleep uneasy in their bunks
The ripples spread beyond the Holy Loch
and join with ripples by Manhattan’s shore
The reverberations of dour Scottish voices join force with
voices in that far-off land
That land where Robeson sang and fought and taught.
Those ripples spread a tide that reaches Harlem whose people
seeing Nikita with Fidel – take heart, and know which side is
So round the world a band of irons forged.
The war dogs howl – yet while they howl, retreat end in their
hearts they know they face defeat.
Ten million million words would not suffice to tell this
tale of two and thirty years.
But yet more glorious years are yet to come
The day will dawn when WE’LL have rent free homes
When work and leisure both will be assured
When each will take according to his needs,
With guns and bombs by history immured.
Let’s not wait for that day but speed its dawn.
This voice of ours we call the Daily Worker must now become
the voice of Britain’s millions. Sell it in every factory and pit
sell it in every street in every town
– And while all together – as earnest of our love for this our
great inspirer, leader, pride.
Let’s give three rousing cheers, which, blending with the cheers in this land.
Assail Macmillan’s ears,
Will shake the board rooms of the I.C.I
Serve notice on the Cottons and the Cores.
Their day will soon be o’er
The people claim their own.
So on your feet your pride and love express
And for our paper give three rousing cheers.
(HIP. – HIP.)
The story of Bob Cooney’s life, from “The Folk Mag”, a West Midlands web-based resource, edited by Bob Taberner
Bob joined the Communist Party as a very young man in Aberdeen. He fought against Fascism as Political Commissar with the British Battalion of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Bob continued the fight against Fascism by joining the British Army at the outbreak of World War II and was on active service for the entire duration. After the war, he went to the Soviet Union where he studied economics at university in Moscow. He spent the next part of his life working as an engineer in Birmingham until his retirement when he returned to his native Aberdeen.
The first time I saw Bob Cooney was in the late Sixties at the Jug of Punch Folk Club run by the Ian Campbell Folk Group, a hugely popular club which packed the old Digbeth Civic Hall and had floor singers like Harvey Andrews and, occasionally, Bob Cooney. Therefore, let’s start with Ian Campbell’s memories of Bob:
As an old family friend, Bob Cooney loomed large in my life. One of my very earliest memories concerns Bob; it was a sharp, frosty evening just before the Second World War, and, as a mere toddler, I was hoisted on my Dad’s shoulders from among the feet of a dense throng of people who were chanting and singing outside a big grey building. We were all there to welcome my uncle Bob, who apparently had been staying with some lady called Ruby Slaw ever since he annoyed the other Bobbies at an anti-fascist rally. When he appeared, he was carried on people’s shoulders, just like me, only when he spoke, everybody listened and cheered.
Then there was the War, which for Bob really was the second because he had already fought the fascists in Spain as a volunteer. This time, he was not an officer, and he was fighting Nazis, and, by the time he came home, I had left Aberdeen with my family to join my Dad in Birmingham. Throughout my teenage years, I heard only intermittently about Bob, but gained the impression that in various parts of the country, in some capacity or other, he was still fighting fascism.
In the middle fifties, en route from one job to another, this living legend visited my parents. A slight, pale-ish man in working clothes, with a shy, quiet manner, he would have been amused to know the contrast he made with the fire-eating giant I had always carried in my mind. At the family�s invitation, he moved in and found a job in Birmingham (now those were the days!), and his weekend visit stretched into twenty years, during which I had plenty of opportunity to glimpse the truth behind his unassuming exterior. As an adopted member of the family, he moved easily into, and immeasurably enriched, the little Caledonian enclave that the Campbells had established among their Birmingham friends.
As a Marxist, he was active in the Trade Union and Peace movements, but it was in the clubs of the new and growing folksong revival that he found his recreation, and where he made an equally valid contribution to working class life and culture. His lifelong interest in the songs of the movement had given him a unique repertoire of American Wobbly and Union songs, Spanish Civil War anthems, British Co-op and Union songs, camp-fire choruses, and Scottish traditional songs, – all of which he sang engagingly in his warm, husky voice. And, as well as this, he wrote poetry and songs which gave expression to his lifelong loyalties and passions, and his unshakeable identification with the working people of the world.
Bob, of course, was singing at most of the major folk clubs around Birmingham. His work was at Pressed Steel Fisher in Castle Bromwich where he was employed as a tool-slinger four nights a week. One of his workmates was Mick Hipkiss, currently lead singer with Drowsy Maggie. Ivor Pearce, still a regular singer around Birmingham clubs, remembers: “Bob worked four nights and relaxed the other three nights in Birmingham folk clubs, where I used to bump into him and chat a lot to him. Of course, he was a lot older than me and I was beginning to get the confidence to get up and perform, whereas Bob was called on most nights, especially singers nights, to get up and sing a couple of songs (usually ones he’d written himself).”
Mike Turner, who was just starting to sing at the Grey Cock Folk Club, remembers: “He was very well-known and well-loved in that circle of friends which I had only recently joined. I still remember very clearly his incisive wit and his emphatic performance style, hampered though it was by obvious breathing difficulties. I probably have a recording or two of him, hidden away in my archives. I can remember at least two of his songs; ‘Washington Church’ and ‘Thirteen Nothing Five'”.
Malcolm Speake, a long-time singer around Birmingham clubs, remembers Bob as a warm-hearted man with a mischievous smile. Physically, he was short, perhaps 5 foot 7 inches, a wiry Scot from Aberdeen, but he always appeared to be larger than life when he sang at clubs. He had a shock of silver grey hair, was clean shaven and dressed casually, though, unlike most folkies, he wore a jacket. I remember Bob particularly from the Star Club in Essex Street where he was a regular floor singer. The Star Club was named after the ‘Morning Star’ newspaper which was the new name for the ‘Daily Worker’. I can remember him singing songs from the Spanish Civil War like Jarama, Jamie Foyers and There Was An Old Man And He Lived In Jerusalem. The last was learnt in Spain from an American in the ‘Lincoln Brigade’. I may even have acquired these songs from him by what is called the ‘folk process’.
Bob was a regular not only at the Star Club but also at the Old Crown and the Old Contemptibles in Edmund Street which was run by Mick Hipkiss and the Munster Men. Some of Bob’s self penned songs were very funny. I remember in particular ‘The Two Righteous Old Men’ in which two old gentlemen in their private members club world deplore the lack of morals of the younger generation with ‘their drugs and the Rolling Stones’. Al the time, these gents were getting progressively more drunk on gin, whisky, port, etc. Bob’s imitation of the upper class accent was hilarious.
Bob was interviewed around this time by Maureen Messent for her column ‘Focus on Folk’. During the interview, Bob stated the philosophy behind his singing: “”I can’t help singing and writing songs. I was brought up among that sort of music. But, in those days, there wasn’t today’s distinction between folk and other music. Our everyday songs just happened to be folk. Folk songs are simply what people sing of their lives and conditions. They needn’t sound `folky’. I wrote of what I know and I reckon these are folk songs”.
One of Bob’s favourites, though he did not write it, was the ‘Turra Coo’. And he could remember all too well the commotion that led to its being sung. `Turra’ is an Aberdonian word meaning tariff. Just after the First World War, an Aberdonian farmer who refused to pay National Insurance had his cow seized for public auction. Neighbouring farmers were so incensed by this that they turned up at the sale but kept the bidding so low that the animal was returned to its owner.
Bob also looked beneath the surface of traditional songs: If you look at the story behind the ‘Twa Recruiting Sergeants’, for instance, this looks like a rollicking recruiting song. Really, it sets out the hardships of Scots farm servants at the beginning of the century. Although farm workers belonged to what was known as the Scottish Farm Servants’ Union, they had a pretty raw deal. Instead of being paid a weekly wage, they were hired twice a year, in June and October, at what were called muckle Fridays because of the number of people they attracted to market towns. The following week’s markets were called `rascal Fridays’. Here the workers not hired the week before would offer their services at reduced rates to ‘rascal’ farmers on the lookout for even cheaper labour.
Bob, then, was a very perceptive, self-educated man. Eileen Whiting remembers: “Bob, with his sun bleached hair and soft Scots accent, was a quietly charismatic character. He never boasted of his experiences in Spain with the International Brigade, but you were always aware that he knew more than he spoke of. He was very good with a young audience. One of the first meetings I remember was when he got us all joining in the chorus of a song he had written as a counter measure to Coronation fever in the 1950s. To the tune of Funiculi Funicula’, we all carolled:
`Nark it, nark it, turn it up we say,
Nark it, nark it, queens have had their day,
The time has come, we think they are too big a luxury by far,
We’ll make the job redundant and send Lizzie out to char.’
He was always in demand at Burns Suppers when either he or Dave Campbell would give The address to the Haggis. He had much of Burns’poetry off by heart and there were good political lessons to be gleaned in ‘The Tree of Liberty’ and, of course, ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, as pertinent today as when it was written.
One of the memories I always carry with me is of Bob stilling a whole hall full of people with his heartfelt “Lass of Ballochmyle”.
“Twas even the dewy fields were green, on every blade the pearls hang,
The zephyr wantoned round the bean, and bore its fragrant sweets alang; In every glen the mavis sang all nature listening seemed the while, Except where greenwood echoes rang, amang the braes o’ Ballochmyle. It was a compound of love and homesickness that still resonates.
Many people, of course, knew Bob more through his politics than his singing. Ivor Pearce remembers: “I knew Bob through my membership of the Young Communist League in Birmingham. Bob used to come to come and lecture to us on a Sunday afternoon about Socialism and Communism. His heavy Aberdonian accent was difficult to understand, but I guess I took in some of what he was saying. This must have been about 1962-3 when I was 16-17 years old. Bob used to hold forth about the vision of a better society where exploitation for private profit was done away with and goods were produced so abundantly that everybody could take what they needed and everybody would contribute to society.”
Of his departure from Birmingham, Malcolm Speake remembers:
“When Bob retired, he had a burst of new life and enthusiasm. He decided to return to his native Aberdeen and, because he was so well loved by the folk fraternity in Brum, all of the clubs organised ‘farewell benefit concerts’. Bob enjoyed these occasions so much that he insisted on having another round of farewell concerts. After all, he was a canny Scot and people were only too willing to please.”
So Bob passed out of our lives and returned to Aberdeen, but thankfully his songs were printed and sold for a modest sum by Aberdeen Folk Club. The only existing recording of Bob is his contribution to “The Singing Campbells”, originally released on Topic Records, now available from Ossian Records.
Neil Cooney writes about “his uncle’s amazing life”
Bob was born in Sunderland in 1908, the seventh child of an ambitious Aberdeen family. His father, a cooper, had moved around the country chasing promotion. Less than two years previously the sixth child, George (Dod) had been born in Edinburgh. Father was a fit man, an athlete, a champion swimmer, winner of the exhausting Dee to Don Swim, a water-polo player of some note, and good enough on the bowling green to win the Ushers Vaux trophy in 1903. It therefore came as a total shock when months later he died suddenly of pneumonia contracted on the way home from a funeral in Aberdeen.
His widow Jane was just turned 37; she was left with seven children, none of whom were of an age to earn. It was at a time when welfare was only beginning to be debated: it was still a case of all words and no action. The right of the governing Liberal Party and the Tory dominated House of Lords both shared the view that welfare would destroy the moral fibre. She had little hope but take her brood back to Aberdeen where at least the support of relatives could tide her over the next few difficult weeks. They came by boat from Newcastle. Rooms had been found for them in Links Place: there they were soon to be burgled of what little they possessed. The children were enrolled at St Andrews Episcopal School. Jane got a job cleaning HM Theatre, with extra evening work as a dresser for the big shows. She was fiercely independent and ruled her brood with a rod of iron. Times were tough and she had to be tough to survive. Bob and Dod, in particular, often tasted the back end of the hairbrush.
In time, the family moved first to Northfield Place, then to Rosemount Viaduct where Jane, although very frail but would not admit it, was employed as a caretaker of the five blocks of flats. This entailed a lot of scrubbing and polishing, helped by the children as they grew up. The family stayed in Rosemount Viaduct until the 1950s when medical needs provided them with a move to Manor Drive, by then her daughter Minnie was virtually immobile.
Schooling at St Andrews Episcopal was fairly basic, but the children gained the necessary skills of literacy and numeracy to fit them for future life. Bob and Dod were both clever enough to reach the top of the class at eleven: there they remained until they left school at 14. The boys cleaned the school before and after classes. Each of them also served in the choir, as reluctant volunteers. They were not alone in their poverty. One fellow pupil was tempted to steal a sausage from a Justice Street butcher’s display. Unfortunately, for him, it was but the end of a huge link of sausages: he was quickly caught and brought to justice – some six lusty strokes of the birch: he bore the scars for the rest of his life. A young girl classmate remained barefoot even in the height of winter. A teacher bought her sturdy boots, which were later thrown at her by an angry father who declared that if his daughter needed boots, then he would provide them. Schooling was never boring. Bob, being younger, was let out of school before Dod but had to wait for him to be escorted home. Bob even in his youngest days was adventurous enough to prove his own capacity to see himself home: his early homecoming was enough to get them both a hiding.
The children were all given a trade. Matthew never qualified: he died in his teens. Young Jean went into service before training as a nurse: she provided the younger children with the tender loving care that her mother was unable to do. She never married, neither did Minnie who became a seamstress and spent much of her life cruelly crippled. Tom was a carpenter; he was to die very young leaving a young family. Sandy was a French polisher in the shipyards, he remained a bachelor, he spent his weekends cycling and hostelling, and he loved books and music and was an expert in Esperanto. Dod spent a few months as an errand boy for Watt and Milne before becoming an apprentice watchmaker with Gill’s of Bridge Street before moving on to the Northern Coop where he worked until he retired. Bob took over Dod’s Watt and Milne job at the age of twelve, fitting it in before and after school. His early morning job consisted of cleaning the plush carpets, usually on his hands and knees, after school he was the delivery boy carrying hatboxes to the West End. On leaving school, Bob was apprenticed to a pawnbroker.
The pawnshop was an alternative to debt. It provided the coppers required to see you through the week. Men’s suits would go in on a Monday morning and be redeemed on Saturday morning, still in the neat brown paper parcel. If the suit was needed through the week for a funeral, then the neat parcel was filled with old newspapers. Bob allowed himself to be easily deceived. He had many a laugh with the customers but he hated the pawnshop system. Poverty was beginning to anger him. He was listening to the debates at the Castlegate; it was his finishing school. He became a Socialist, and then he took the next step by becoming a Communist. He never believed that the ruling class would give in to mere arguments. It needed a revolution and that required the active participation of the people.
Stubborn, Strong and Single Minded
Bob became a speaker out of necessity – there was no one else around to do the job. He became a speaker in his teens, honing his technique over the years. His mother didn’t like his political involvement and firmly drew the line at his ambitions as a speaker. He had to stop or get out of her home – he got out for a while to escape the unbearable tension. His antics, as she saw them, were taking away from her the respectability that she had earned the hard way. She had already followed his route through the streets, scrubbing the slogans he had chalked on the pavements. How could he let her down like this?
In many ways, Bob took after his mother. Both could be stubborn, strong and single-minded. Both set themselves very high standards. Jane was perplexed that Bob had gone down the route that Sandy and Dod had already chosen. Dod was receiving letters from the House of Commons, and although he managed to intercept some by following the postie, much to her horror she discovered his dark secret. She worried that if her employers found out; she could lose her job and become homeless. Why, after the hard years of struggle to bring them up, did they disgrace her in this way? The girls were good Church going Christians, but the boys were meddling in Left-wing politics. She was black affronted. She was also scared: political tempers were running high in 1926, the year of the General Strike and Churchill’s “British Gazette” was deliberately playing the Red Menace card. “Reds under the beds?” she seemed to have a house full of them.
The General Strike was a letdown to the idealists of the Left. They felt that they had the potential for power until the TUC chickened out and called off the strike. It drove a wedge between the Far Left and the Left; it was a defining moment that the broad kirk split apart. Old comrades now put up candidates against each other. The TUC leadership lost touch with the rank and file. It was a huge disappointment to the Aberdeen Socialists who had completely controlled the city. Nothing moved without a permit or without the strikebreaking students being stopped. Aberdeen even produced its own strike newspaper. The Tory government controlled the national media with Churchill thundering about the red menace in the “British Gazette”, and a procession of Cabinet ministers hogging the microphones of the BBC.
After the Strike collapsed, the jubilant Tories extracted every ounce of revenge for their victory. New anti-Trade Union legislation was rushed through. The Unions were to be further weakened by the Depression. Unemployment had been high since the Great War; our heavy industries suffered badly from foreign competition. We couldn’t compete with the price of Polish coal, our factories were screaming for re-investment; even British companies chasing bargains abroad bypassed our shipyards. Chancellor Churchill’s 1925 decision to go back to the Gold Standard was a mistake of the highest order, making our exports far too expensive. The killer blow came with the shock waves of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Unemployment soared and the Insurance Scheme could no longer self-finance. The traditional Treasury answer was that the problems would eventually sort themselves out; we simply had to weather the storm. In the meantime budgets had to balance and we had to save our way out of the crisis. This meant cuts in spending, cuts in benefits and cuts in public sector salaries.
In 1931, the Labour Cabinet split over a proposed cuts package and resigned, leaving the renegade Ramsay MacDonald (“Ramshackle Mac”) to hold on to power by forging an alliance with Baldwin’s Tories in the National Government. Bob slated Labour for abandoning the poor. The Communist candidate in Aberdeen North in 1931, Helen Crawford, gave Wedgewood Benn a torrid time in the ensuing election campaign that saw the largely anonymous Conservative Councillor Burnett of Powis romp home in Aberdeen North, a seat that had been a Labour stronghold for the last five elections. The National Government produced a vicious cuts package that provoked a wave of anger that culminated in a rather polite naval mutiny at the Invergordon base. Among the 12,000mutiny participants were Sam Wilde and Bill Johnstone who later served with valour in Spain. The mutiny triggered a run on the banks and forced the Government, in panic, to come off the Gold Standard and devalue. It was the best piece of economic management that they ever produced.
Bob missed most of the 1931 crisis because his life had entered a new phase. In 1930, he packed in his job as a pawnbroker’s clerk in order to devote himself full time to politics. It was a brave decision, his new job carried no wages but it did give him an opportunity for further education. He spent thirteen months during 1931-32 in Russia, studying by day in the Lenin Institute, working by night in a rubber factory. There he picked up an industrial throat infection and spent some time in a sanatorium. It left him with huskiness in his voice that became part of his oratory. Times were tough in Russia but good in comparative terms with the destitution of the Tsarist era. Bob found a thirst for knowledge that was infectious throughout Russian society. Even grannies were going back to classes to learn the skills to make their country prosperous. There was even time for a glorious holiday down the Volga. It charged up his batteries for the tasks ahead. He was not short of work when he returned in 1932.
There was a lot of heavy campaigning to do, to mobilise the unemployed and to organise the hunger marches. He travelled from Aberdeen to Glasgow and Edinburgh speaking at open-air meetings to campaign against unemployment, to rally public opinion against the iniquitous Means Test, which robbed the poorest of their Dole as well as their dignity.
Fascists in Aberdeen
Out of the turmoil of the Depression came the strange phenomenon of the British Union of Fascists. Oswald Mosely, its creator, had served in both the Tory and Labour camps before forming his Blackshirts. He was copying the style of Mussolini and was both influenced and funded by Hitler. His area Gauleiter for the North was William Chambers Hunter, a minor laird by inheritance. He had started off life as plain Willie Jopp but now he had pretensions of power. Aberdeen was targeted as his power base and he recruited and hired thugs from afar afield as London to help him take over the city. Bob and the others decided to stop him. There were pitched battles, arrests, fines and imprisonment, but they succeeded. Fascism was not allowed to take root in Aberdeen. Those who deny free speech to others don’t deserve free speech themselves. Aberdeen has a tradition of fairness, no trumped up laird was going to destroy it. Bob emerged out of these pitched battles as a working class hero. He displayed his undoubted courage as well as his often under-rated organisational skills. It wasn’t enough to stand up to the Fascists, you had to out-think them and outnumber them and run them out of town. The first Fascist rally organised for the Music Hall, to be addressed by Raven Thomson, Mosely’s Deputy, had to be cancelled half an hour before it was due to start. Then they tried hit and run tactics at unadvertised venues but were rapidly chased off as news of their arrival was spread by an army of runners who rounded up the workers. The Fascists eyed the Market stance as a key venue. It had become a working class stronghold. The key battle was to take place there.
Chambers Hunter pencilled in the evening of Sunday 16 July 1937 for his big rally. The workers would be caught out on a Sunday in the height of the holiday season. He miscalculated. The grapevine was finely tuned; Bob addressed a crowd of 2,000 at the Links at 11a.m. They vowed to gather at the Castlegate in the evening. The Fascists duly arrived with their armour-plated van and their police escort, their amplifiers and their heavies. As Chambers Hunter clambered to the roof of the van, the workers surged forward, cut the cables and chased the Fascists for their lives. The Castlegate was cleared by 8 p.m. Bob was one of many arrested, and served his four days. A young Ian Campbell, later of Folk music fame, remembers sitting on his father’s shoulders watching Bob being carried shoulder high on his release from prison. He also remembers how the crowd went silent as Bob addressed them. It was Bob’s last speech in Aberdeen for a long time because within hours he was on his way to Spain.
In Spain in 1936, the Army revolt triggered the Nationalist Right-wing attack on the democratically elected Republican government. Despite the terms of its Covenant, the League of Nations opted for a policy of “Non-Intervention”. Eden and Chamberlain were quick to agree even though such a policy guaranteed a Franco victory. It provided a precedent for our later inaction in Austria in the spring of 1938 and Czechoslovakia both in the autumn of 1938 and in the spring of 1939. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy gave immense aid to the Spanish Fascists. Stalin’s Russia gave much more limited aid to the Republicans. International Brigades of volunteers were also formed to aid the Republic.
The Go-Ahead for Spain
‘And if we live to be a hundred
We’ll have this to be glad about
We went to Spain!
Became the great yesterday
We are part of the great tomorrow
HASTA LA VISTA – MADRID!’
Bob had pleaded for months to get to Spain but the Communist Party kept stalling him, saying he was too valuable at home in the struggle against the Blackshirts. In the spring of 1937, he set off from Aberdeen but was again stopped by Party HQ. It wasn’t until the Castlegate victory that he eventually got the go ahead from Harry Pollitt, the Party’s General Secretary. Bob had argued that he felt hypocritical rallying support for the Spanish people and urging young men and women to go off to Spain to help the cause, and yet do nothing himself. Thoughts of Spain filled every moment of every day; the desire to fight for Spain burned within him. He later said that participation in Spain justified his existence on this earth. Spain was the front line again Fascism. It was his duty as a fighter to be there.
Bob was 28 when he left for Spain, getting there via a tortuous route; a tourist ticket to Paris, followed by a bus to Perpignan and then a long trek across the Pyrenees to Barcelona and beyond. He got five weeks basic training at Tarragona, a small town close to the modern resort of Salou. There he was given his ill-fitting khaki uniform, strong boots, a Soviet rifle and a food bowl. He was appointed Commissar (motivator) of the training group. He was offered officer’s training but refused. He had promised Harry Pollitt that he was there to fight, not to pick up stripes. Bob eventually was promoted up to Commissar of the XV (British) Brigade. The Brigades were integrated with local Spaniards. Bob, to lead them, had to learn their language. They soon caught on to his wry sense of humour.
His first action was at Belchite, south of the Ebro. He always said he was afraid to be afraid. He told his men never to show fear, they weren’t conscripts, they were comrades and they would look after each other. He had to prevent their bravery descending into bravado. There were some who vowed never to hide from the Fascists and to fight in open country. This would have been suicidal and such romantic notions had to be curbed.
Bob served in two major campaigns. The first was at Teruel, between Valencia and Madrid. The Brigade was drafted in to hold the line there in January 1938. Paul Robeson, the great singer, dropped in to greet them there: Robeson was heavily involved in fund-raising for the Spanish cause. The XV Brigade held their line for seven weeks before Franco’s forces complete with massive aerial power and a huge artillery bombardment forced them back. Conditions were hard, supply lines were tenuous and the food supply was awful. Half a slice of bread a day was a common ration. His next great battle was along the Ebro from July to October 1938. On a return sortie to Belchite, organising a controlled retreat through enemy lines, he was captured along with Jim Harkins of Clydebank. Another group on the retreat distracted their captors and Bob and Jim fled for cover. Jim later died at the Ebro.
Just over 2,400 joined the Brigades from Britain, 526 were killed, and almost 1,000 were wounded. Of the 476 Scots who took part, 19 came from Aberdeen. The Spanish Civil War claimed the lives of five Aberdonians, Tom Davidson died at Gandesa in April 1937 and the other four at the Ebro. Archie Dewar died in March 1938, Ken Morrice in July 1938, Charles MacLeod in August 1938 and finally Ernie Sim in the last great battle in September 1938.
The final parade of the Brigade was through Barcelona on October 29th. They were addressed by the charismatic Dolores Ibarruri who had been elected Communist MP for the northern mining region of the Asturias: she was affectionately known as La Pasionara. She told them “you can go proudly. You are legend. We shall not forget you”. It had taken the combined cream of the professional forces of Germany, Italy and Spain almost three years to beat them. They had every right to be proud. Barcelona fell to Franco late in January 1939, Madrid falling two months later.
On his return from Spain, his mother wept at the sight of him. He was so thin and emaciated. For more than a year after his return he still bore sores in his arms and legs. He had served his apprenticeship as an amateur soldier. Now the professionals conscripted him.
Conscription to W.W.2
In September 1939, the Second World War began. Bob was there as a gunner from the beginning to the end. He was sickened by the poverty he encountered in conquered Europe. His eyes filled as he told of young German mothers giving their bodies for an egg to feed their bairns. We are all losers in war. Bob was to campaign vigorously within the peace movement, but he was never a pacifist. There are times when we have to stand up and fight for a just cause.
1945 brought victory and the heady triumph for Labour in the election. Churchill with his cold-war rhetoric was dumped by the pro-Beveridge stance of Atlee. Socialism was at the front of the agenda. Gunner Cooney was deprived of his chance to help in the shaping of it by Party HQ. That chance never came again although he flew the flag in the safe Labour seat of North Aberdeen in 1950 and picked up a creditable 1,300 votes.
By now he had championed a new group of friends, the squatters. Housing was a key issue in the 1945-50 era. There had been an already acute housing shortage by 1939; wartime bombing had aggravated that problem by 1945. Nye Bevan was given the Housing portfolio as well as the Health one. Although he brilliantly negotiated a minefield of problems to set up the National Health Service, he failed to reach his housing target of 200,000 new units per year. Shortages of men and materials made the task very difficult. The Tory jibe was that Labour had only “half a Nye” on the problem. The houses that did get built, including the very popular prefabs, were constructed to a good standard, but there simply was not enough of them for all the newly weds and their post-war baby boom. Ever lengthening waiting lists rendered the future bleak for thousands of Aberdeen families. A short-term practical answer lay in organising squats in empty properties such as the old camps at the Torry Battery and Tillydrone. Bob was once again organising.
He was now a family man himself, with a wife, Nan, and twin girls, Pat and Pam. He had to be earning; he joined the building trade and was soon involved in unionising the men. These activities eventually got him blacklisted from his beloved Aberdeen. There were no vacancies when Bob came to call. He was elbowed out of the dignity of work.
It was a particularly difficult time for him. The Communist tag was no longer an asset after the outbreak of the Korean War. Under American influence, Commies were everywhere depicted as enemies, fifth columnists undermining the democratic process. Even the comic books had replaced the square-headed Nazi enemy with the square-headed Commie enemy. Stalin’s death in 1953 was accompanied by a torrent of horror stories about purges and gulags. Bob’s messianic message was no longer marketable.
He spent twenty years in exile in Birmingham where he found work as an industrial crane operator. He lodged with Dave and Betty Campbell and their close-knit family. The Campbell’s were old comrades from Aberdeen days. He was adopted into their family and he shared their love of folk music. Second generation Ian and Lorna became leading lights in the folk scene. . Ian’s sons, the third generation, went on to take the pop scene by storm by founding UB40, just as the third generation of the Socialist Lennox family of Aberdeen produced the great Annie Lennox of Eurhythmics and, later, solo fame. Music had been a popular Socialist activity in the Hungry Thirties. Then ambitious shows were presented. The rehearsals kept the young unemployed busy. Little Alfie Howie, an unemployed comb-maker, recalled dozens of rehearsals for a star turn choral enactment of the Volga Boatmen. On the night, the rope was long, the line descending in order of size and the song was over and the curtains closed before Alfie had even reached the narrow little stage. Bob even wrote a complete musical for Unity Theatre, but it was never performed. : Fascists and Spain got in the way.
Bob himself became a minor Folk celebrity, performing traditional North East tunes such as the “Wee Toon Clerk” and “McGinty’s Meal and Ale”. He was also frequently requested to perform his own compositions such as “Foul Friday” and “Torry Belle” or Chartist or Wobbly songs of American labour or the Spanish anthems such as Alex McDade’s “Song of Jarama” sung to the tune of Red River Valley:
There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama
It’s a place that we all know so well
It is there that we gave of our manhood
And most of our brave comrades fell.
Alex himself died for the cause at Brunete in July 1938. The definitive Spanish Anthem, however, was written by Bob himself for the 27th anniversary reunion of the International Brigade. He called it “Hasta La Vista, Madrid”. It is a prose poem that he would deliver with gusto. He reckoned, with good reason, that it was the best thing he ever wrote.
Our century had to be cleansed
So we went to Spain
Where the defeat of Hitler started……
No freedom fight is ever lost
While folk can learn
Each human mind’s an outpost
And the frontiers of freedom expand
Conquering minds and hearts
Prelude to the conquest of cities and states
Till the world will be wholly free
Folk will strive for higher freedoms still.
Bob even appeared on vinyl as a singer with the “Singing Campbell’s”. He also worked with Hamish Henderson in the epic folk collection. When he retired back home to Aberdeen in 1973 at the age of 65, he was “adopted” by the Aberdeen Folk Club. They honoured him by publishing in 1983 a selection of his songs and poems, “When of Heroes we sing”. That little booklet sums up his philosophy of life and the causes he so fervently supported. He was now 75 and his health was rapidly failing. His active mind kept him awake; insomnia wore him down. He spent his last months in Kingseat Hospital, still humming his tunes and composing poems in his head. He died in August 1984 aged 78.
He gave so much and seemed to get so little in return, yet he was happy in comradeship and lived a full life. Bob could be very shy in company until he got to know you, and then he could be quite gregarious. He could tell you jokes you had heard many times before, but he added his own little bits to milk the story for a few more hilarious minutes. He wanted a world full of laughter; he challenged a life full of injustice. He won his fair share of battles and never shirked a challenge. The cause was always more important than personal comfort. It was a life of sacrifice in a huge effort to improve conditions for his fellow men. He didn’t always win but he did inspire others to take up the cause.
He had a rich life, worth celebrating and it duly was celebrated in the Lemon Tree with a folk night featuring Dick Gaughan. The Trades Council also organised a celebration of the International Brigaders in November 1989. His name lives on in the Housing Association development at Berryden: not bad for a squatter and a born rebel.