A few weeks ago The Galloway Gazette was full of stories about former Whithorn resident Geordie Dickie, later known as Jack Brent, who fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War during the late 1930s and campaigned against fascism and for socialism for the rest of his life.
Jack, who died in 1951 aged 39, is remembered in Whithorn for his contribution to this struggle with a plaque outside the shop where he once worked, but his dedication to the socialist cause has polarised opinion in the town and beyond.
His supporters admire his dedication to a cause he felt passionately about, his stoicism about his physical limitations, after enduring countless operations due to serious injuries sustained in the Battle of Jarama, while his detractors say he was a deserter from the British Army whose recognition in the town takes attention away from the local men and women who lost their lives serving in British Forces in two world wars.
A book entitled ‘Good to be Alive - the story of Jack Brent’ by Stanley Harrison gives a more in depth insight into this controversial character who was proud of his roots in the Royal Burgh.
The book, published in 1954, three years after Jack Brent’s death, traces his arrival as a baby from Canada into his grandmother’s care in Whithorn. The severe hardship of that hand-to-mouth existence left a deep mark on the young George and sowed the seeds of his lifelong dedication to a communism ideology which he profoundly believed was a fairer way of life, away for the class divisions so entrenched in the early 20th century.
Aged 21 and sick of grinding poverty and the lack of prospects in Whithorn, one day he left his job in a butcher’s shop in the town, put on his best suit and ran off to join the Cameron Highlanders. But he soon realised he had made a mistake. He hated it and longed to escape. He was young and got into trouble resulting in two spells of detention in the ‘Glasshouse’ or military prison. Posted to Aldershot he was made a lance-corporal and put in charge of a clothing store, where the civilian clothes were kept. He saw his chance, stole a three piece suit and escaped to London. He then hitched back home to Whithorn with the red caps on his tail. His brother recalls in the book: “We kept him up the stairs for about a week. I gave him all the money I could give him, ten shillings. He got the bus to Stranraer and that was the last we saw of him for about ten years.”
Finding himself alone and destitute in London he got work where ever he could find it. This was the time of the Hunger Marches, the Means Test and demonstrations in every town by the unemployed. Seeing the widespread poverty in the working classes, the man now known as Jack Brent was galvanised against capitalism.
As the cloud of fascism in the shape of Hitler and Mussolini grew dark over Europe, civil war erupted in Spain when the fascist generals, led by Franco, rose in rebellion against the Spanish Republic, Jack joined the International Brigade and travelled to Spain in October 1937 to fight for democracy there.
At the battle of Jarama, Jack answered to call to help bring in the wounded and he was shot through the spine as he stooped over an injured man on the ground. From that moment, until his death, his life was punctuated by long sells in hospital and a series of operations that resulted in the amputation of one of his legs.
The book is based on much of his correspondence with friends and details his devotion to promoting the ‘fight for the workers’ in this country. He had a voracious appetite for books and knowledge and was once the guest of Communist Party in Czechoslovakia where is was installed in a nursing home for further medical treatment to ease his pain.
Despite his fragile health, Jack Brent worked tirelessly as secretary for the International Brigade in London during the Second World War and was an ardent campaigner for the release of Brigader prisoners of war languishing forgotten in jails and concentration camps in Europe and North Africa after the war ended.
Jack personality and dedication to this cause meant that many were saved from certain death by Jack and the International Brigade Association who brought their plight to the ears of the public. Year after year he championed his cause in any way he could - from standing on a soap box to selling the Daily Worker in the streets of the capital to getting signatures for his peace petition.
But his heath was failing fast and he returned to Whithorn in 1951 where he died in his sleep at the home of his brother. In those last few weeks of his life during a golden autumn in Galloway, his heart was filled with hope of converting “the lads” in the town to socialism. To his delight he got three sheets of signatures for his peace campaign but his many impassioned lectures on communism fell on deaf ears.
Jack Brent despised fascism and fought against it like may others in the last century. His socialist beliefs are shared by many but just as many disagree with his politics strongly.
And therein lies the pearl at the centre of any debate concerning George Dickie/Jack Brent - the fight against fascism, in all its forms, undertaken in many fields of conflict, gave us a society with freedom of speech to express our opinion openly without fear of reprisal.