Orwell’s boy

BARRY WINTER remembers Staff Cottman, life-long socialist and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who died last year.

Last September, after a year’s illness, Stafford Cottman died. Staff was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a life-long socialist and trade unionist. What impressed me most about him was his comradely warmth, abundant energy and self-deprecating, good humour. He never allowed defeats and disappointments – and there were many – to make him bitter.

In his mid-teens, Staff joined the youth wing of the Communist Party in Bristol. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and he was determined to fight for the republic against the fascist uprising – so keen in fact that he skipped the slower vetting procedures of the Communist Party, which was recruiting for the International Brigade, and joined the smaller ILP contingent. The ILP had close links with the Spanish Marxist workers’ party, POUM, which was based in Catalonia, and its volunteers fought alongside them.

Nicknamed ‘the boy’ because of his age (he was 16), Staff was befriended by George Orwell who was also with the ILP group. For the rest of his life, Staff loyally defended Orwell against his many detractors, particularly in the Communist Party. Orwell’s complex account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, was one of the few at the time (and for decades to come) that exposed how Stalinism, in effect, undermined the struggle against Franco’s forces.

When the Communists bloodily suppressed the POUM, the ILP contingent was forced to leave Spain. Back home, Staff was expelled from the Communist Party and his former comrades picketed his home. One day, his bemused mother looked through the window to see placards claiming that Staff was in receipt of ‘fascist gold’. He had some explaining to do!


When the second world war broke out, Staff was again eager to fight fascism. He became a gunner in RAF bomber command and here he met his future wife, Stella. After the war, he worked for an airways company and then for air traffic control at Heathrow. Not surprisingly, he became a shop steward and active in the Labour Party, and these became long-term commitments.

Staff was always willing to speak about the Spanish Civil War and on one occasion he captivated the audience at an ILP conference with his account. In recent years he must have been heartened by the film Land and Freedom by Ken Loach which, in part, uncovered the half-buried story of the war – namely, the ‘inconvenient’ fact that many people, in Catalonia at least, were transforming Spain in a revolutionary direction. That creative outburst of energy should never be forgotten – working people were running everything from the factories to the transport system, impoverished peasants collectivised the farms, communities governed themselves and, in all these, women played politically significant roles.

Staff did what he could to keep the memory of the Spanish Civil War alive, but he did much more than that. With his patience, humanity and generosity of spirit, he showed us what being a socialist should be about. In doing so, he enriched the lives of those who had the privilege of meeting him. I salute his memory.

The Imperial War Museum in London has a collection of tapes of Communist Party and ILP volunteers’ experiences of the Spanish Civil War, including Staff Cottman’s.