Ralph Bates was born on November 3rd 1899 in Swindon. In his youth, he worked at a Great Western Railway factory but in 1917, he was in the British army, training soldiers to become used to poison gas attacks. After the war, he travelled widely, in 1923 visiting Spain, which he had developed a romanticised desire to visit since he had learnt in boyhood that his great-grandfather, a naval captain, was buried there.
He would more or less permanently stay in Spain on marrying Winifred, a staunch Communist, in 1930 (see separate entry). As for his own political adherence, events in Spain, even before the civil war of 1936-39 influenced Bates towards the Left and the Communist movement in particular.
In 1933, his collection of short stories, `Sierra’, appeared. The following year, his novel `Lean Men’ came out; this portrays a Comintern agent from Britain arriving in Barcelona, during the events of 1931 to liaise with the Spanish Communist Party.
When the war in Spain broke out, Bates joined the International Brigade, in a short time becoming a Political Commissar. His best-known work, `The Olive Field’ (1936), about olive workers in southern Spain brought him widespread recogniton. The novel captures the spirit of the land and people of Spain on the eve of the Civil War. Possibly on the strength of this, he was deputed to visit the United States on a campaign tour to gather support for the Spanish Republic.
Bates was briefly arrested for arms smuggling when travelling through France back to Spain in February 1937. Upon his return, he moved to Madrid and became responsible for the International Brigade’s newspaper, `Volunteer for Liberty’. During the course of more frequent visits to both the United States and Mexico over the next two years, he began an affair with Eve Salzman, who would become his future wife. Bates had simply abandoned his marriage to Winifred by the end of 1938.
Bates’ membership of the Communist Party is disputed by some, especially his later admirers, although his becoming a Brigades’ Political Commissar makes it extremely unlikely that he was not. His marriage to Winifred makes it highly likely that Ralph, too, took out a Party card in the early 1930s. It is, however, generally accepted that he was most certainly a highly active supporter during all of the 1930s.
But a pleasant life in America beckoned. His desertion of Winifred was clearly the start of a drift. But the 1939 conflict between the Soviet Union and then fascist-sympathising Finland, controversy over which was greatly stirred by the UK government, enabled him to denounce the USSR in an article for an American magazine. Bates then moved to Mexico and his `The Fields of Paradise’ was published in 1940. His break with the Left was finally absolutely confirmed in 1947, when he began a 19 year stint as professor of literature at New York University.
It was also the end of his muse. His last book, `The Dolphin in the Wood’ came out in 1950, and little more emerged as he embarked on a life of personal pleasure, being especially taken with mountain-climbing until he died in the USA in 2000.