The fantastic life
The rail worker who was ‘better than Hemingway’
A SWINDON railway worker described by Time magazine as a better writer than Hemingway finally has a biography.
Ralph Bates was born in a terraced house in Morse Street on November 3, 1899 and died aged 101 in Manhattan on November 26, 2000.
The two dates framed one of the most extraordinary lives lived by anybody from the town.
Bates served in World War One and the Spanish Civil War, where comrades nicknamed him El Fantastico. He was a journalist in Mexico and an English professor in New York.
Friends and acquaintances included literary giants such as Virginia Woolf, Stephen Spender and WH Auden, and Bates once delivered a rousing anti-fascist speech to an audience of more than 20,000 at Madison Square Garden.
In the 1950s, at the height of American anti-left paranoia whipped up by US senator Joe McCarthy, he was asked to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Bates courageously refused.
He was the author of 10 books and more than 250 shorter pieces, the acclaim for which included the Hemingway comparison in Time – which was echoed elsewhere.
His New York Times obituary noted: “Almost 60 years ago he was considered by some to be one of the best writers on Spain. ‘He stands out as perhaps the best informed – not even excepting Andre Malraux or Ernest Hemingway – of the chroniclers of the preceding disturbed decade in Spain,’ said 20th-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, published in 1942.”
In spite of this, and unlike fellow Swindon writers Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams, he remains almost completely obscure.
The author of a new book called Ralph Bates – Swindon’s Unknown’ Author aims to change that.
Michael Yates, 71, is a retired folklorist who spent much of his career gathering and comparing the old stories and songs of England, Scotland and the Appalachian region of the US.
He stumbled across Bates while researching articles for the journal of the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
Mr Yates said: “I started writing about art, bits and pieces in the collection and bits and pieces about Swindon.
“Then I thought, ‘I’ll write a piece on literary Swindon.
“I typed into Google ‘Famous people Swindon,’ and a list came up. It was alphabetical and the second one just said ‘Ralph Bates (author).’ So I looked him up. There were obituaries in The Guardian, The Independent and the New York Times.
“They all told the same story but each had a bit extra. I thought, ‘This is fascinating – why have I never heard of this guy?’ That’s what started it, really.”
Bates was a gifted scholar, but like many young working class Swindon men at the time, his background dictated his career, and the GWR Works beckoned.
He went on to serve in the infantry during World War One, following an abortive attempt to join the Royal Flying Corps.
Mr Yates said: “This is interesting because all the other boys on the course were from public school. He mentioned Marlborough first and said two of them were really stroppy with him, didn’t like him.”
Bates himself wrote: “I was not a gentleman and one or two courageous snobs in the Wing had let me know it.”
His biographer added: “He thought the officer class, with one or two exceptions, weren’t fit to lead anybody.
“In 1918 he went to a public meeting in London about the Russian Revolution. He was arrested for being in uniform at this meeting and spent two weeks being marched around the parade square in full uniform and pack as a punishment.
“When he came out of the war he was pretty anti the class system and the Establishment.”
Bates remained at the Works until 1930, but began travelling to Spain, a country which fascinated him. There he indulged a love of climbing which prompted him to scale the walls of the GWR’s workshops.
He later moved permanently to Spain, fought with the anti-fascist International Brigade against Franco and went on fundraising tours of the US, Canada and Mexico.
He worked as a journalist in Mexico and the US, eventually settling in New York with his second wife, Eve, and working as a professor of creative writing and English literature.
He retired in 1966 and the couple divided Bates’ remaining years between bases in Manhattan and the Greek Island of Naxos.
His books, long out of print, range from socially-conscious stories set in Spain to a biography of Schubert.
Mr Yates said: “I like them. My favourite is his last book, published in 1950, called The Dolphin In The Wood. He says in the introduction that it’s not autobiographical but it is. It’s the story of a young man growing up in a village four miles outside ‘the factory town,’ which is clearly Swindon, where he goes every Saturday to have organ lessons.
“It’s set just before the First World War. He tries to get into the Royal Flying Corps and is turned down. Then, during the war, one of his friends is killed and we discover that in fact he’s been shot for striking an officer.
“As a result of this and a few other things he decides to leave Britain because if he stays in Britain he would be ‘a dolphin in the wood’– or constantly fighting sea battles in the forest.
“In other words, he’s out of place. The title comes from a quote by the Roman poet Horace.”
Bates’ manuscripts are held by Yale University.
Ralph Bates – Swindon’s Unknown’ Author, ISBN 978-1-906641-74-0 is available from Pen and Paper in Victoria Road, priced at £6.50.
Mr Yates has a website, theralphbatesproject.co.uk, and would be delighted to hear from people with something to add to the Ralph Bates story.
A cathedral of industry
ONE of Ralph Bates’ final interviews was given to the Swindon Advertiser shortly before his 100th birthday.
We reported that his voice still had a slight Wiltshire burr, and he told us: “My hands and legs are paralysed but my brain is clear.”
Much of the conversation was about his memories of the GWR. He said: “If you were in the GWR factory you were in heaven.
“There was really only one employer in town and that was the Great Western, with 14,000 people. The railway was a kind of cathedral.”
He never returned to Swindon after leaving for Spain, although he came close.
Once, 25 years ago, he and his wife were on a driving holiday when they reached the edge of town. Eve said her husband could not bring himself to go into the town which had changed so much since he was a young man.
“She said they circled Swindon for an hour before driving off.”