Born Eric Alfred Edney in Wooton Rivers, Pewsey on the 5th February 1907, the son of a farm labourer, he would always describe himself as a country boy from a village in Wiltshire and never a former pupil of Marlborough, a major `public’ school situated near to the village school from which he won a scholarship. He would have been a direct contemporary at Marlborough of Antony Blunt, the art historian, and Louis MacNeice, the poet, both of whom were linked with Communism in different ways. But Eric’s wide-ranging reading at school led him to Communist ideas and that solidified into a deep commitment that would last him till his death.
After leaving Marlborough at the age of sixteen, with excellent examination results, he worked first for the Post Office. He volunteered to serve in the International Brigades ruing the Spanish war and arrived there in January 1937. After being wounded on the Ebro, he worked first at the British Battalion’s post office and was then a political commissar.
As well as being a life-long Communist Eric Edney was an internationalist, a remarkable linguist and a fine journalist but perhaps he will be best remembered as a poet. His epic Spanish Civil War poem `Salud!’ appears in many anthologies and is still a popular choice at International Brigade celebrations and memorial meetings. He also authored the poem `The Battalion Goes Forward’.
Eric was a firm believer in the maxim coined by the 1912 International Workers of the World women textile strikers in Massachusetts – “Give us bread but give us roses”. Even in the harsh and arid conditions of Spain, he begged or borrowed gramophone and records to organise classical music events for his International Brigade comrades. He recalled that the most popular music requested by the young volunteers were pastoral works by the likes of Vaughn Williams and George Butterworth bringing the atmosphere of cool green English meadows to the blood stained baking sands of Spain – memories of home. Eric was repatriated from Spain in 1938 and, whilst there, added fluent Spanish and Catalonian to his catalogue of languages and, in later years, enjoyed demonstrating, in the nicest possible way his vast vocabulary of Spanish oaths, curses and swearing.
Eric was a volunteer for Mass Observation at some point in the late 30s, a social research movement initiated by a network of Communist literary activists that later morphed into a marketing research body. It has even been suggested that he (identified as an `IBA poet’) was a “musical assistant” in Bulawayo. But he was certainly working for the National Unemployed Workers Movement from 1940-2, when attempts to conscript him into the army were resisted by Wal Hannington. His precise war work is unclear.
Although he married in London in 1942, the relationship did not long survive. He and a former British nurse in Spain, Patience Darton (see separate entry), met at an International Brigade Association social event shortly after the end of the war in 1945. Later, Patience and Eric had a son, Robert, together.
Probably co-existent with his work with the NUWM, which dissolved formally in 1946, and extending beyond this, Eric worked for the Communist Party’s organisation department, being responsible for aspects of the 1948 congress.
He was soon acting as the press and publicity agent for the emerging government in the Soviet occupied zone of Germany, which would become the German Democratic Republic. For a time, the family lived in eastern Germany. Eric was also long associated with the International Brigade Association journal, `Spain Today’, and was its editor for most of the 1950s.
He was then asked him to work in Beijing as a journalist for the Communist Party of China at the Foreign Languages Publishing House. He loved the Chinese people and, of course, had soon mastered both Mandarin and Cantonese and a smattering of several other Chinese dialects. He worked on various English language publications.
In later years Eric had a fund of stories of China under Mao Zedong. One he loved to tell was of his arrival in China where his Editor welcomed him and explained that working conditions in the People’s Republic were far better than in capitalist Britain. For instance, Eric would have no less than 59 days holiday a year. Eric expressed thanks and a little surprise. The Editor explained – one week’s holiday in summer and every Sunday off.
He remembered the campaign to eliminate the sparrow – the birds were accused of stealing the grain harvest. Once the sparrows had gone it was realised that they did sterling work eating harmful insects. Then there was the campaign was started to eliminate the fly. Quotas were set. Each worker, peasant, schoolchild and even fraternal foreign journalist had to produce ten dead fly corpses each morning. The resourceful Chinese workers soon realised that the only reliable way to meet the targets was a captive fly breeding programme!
More serious was Eric’s involvement in the initiative known as ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom.’ Mao announced that criticism of the Party and the State was to be encouraged. The main media for such criticisms were ‘big character wall newspapers’ and Eric participated; producing a number of constructive, well thought out but critical articles. Soon however Mao reversed the policy. Critics were arrested, persecuted and punished. Many were jailed. Eric’s treatment was very harsh and was to affect him for the rest of his life.
He eventually returned to England a changed and disappointed man but still with an unshaken faith in Communism, a great love of the Chinese people and huge admiration for their massive achievements. Till the end of his life he signed all his written work with a Chinese character printing block and red Chinese ink.
Back in Britain he continued his work as an international journalist working with the Soviet news agency Novosti Press on various publications including Soviet Weekly and Soviet News. He was also a correspondent for the GDR news agency, Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst.
His interest in languages – like his Communist principles – never faltered and in later years what spare time he had after reading and listening to recordings – and mentoring others in literature and music – was spent mastering all the native languages of the British Isles and becoming fluent and able to swear and curse impeccably in Manx, Cornish, Gaelic and a further handful of such rarely heard tongues.
On a personal note, I worked with Eric for many years at Novosti Press in London. Over those years, he introduced me to the music of many little known but wonderful English composers and much great literature. His knowledge was encyclopaedic. In a Betjeman poem, I came across what was to me an obscure reference to Lupin Pooter. (This is a character from `The Diary of a Nobody', a once very popular comic novel, Lupin being the son of a lower middle-class clerk with social aspirations. The unconscious gaffes and snubs given out by `inferiors', such as tradesmen, that forms the staple humour in the book, has given rise to the now obscure adjective `Pooterish', meaning to take oneself far too seriously.)
Eric soon explained all and next day arrived with a copy of the funniest book in the English language – I read it still and have passed it on to many others – and always with fond memories of my old comrade and friend Eric Edney. (On his death, the Morning Star carried a brief obituary on July 4th 1989.)