The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Patience Darton was one of over 50 British nurses who volunteered to go to Spain during the civil war. She arrived there in March 1937 to nurse Tom Wintringham, commander of the British Battalion at Jarama, through typhoid.
After some other postings behind the lines, she finally got her wish to nurse in hospitals near the front. There she worked ceaselessly, in appalling conditions, to help save lives and ameliorate suffering. Darton remained in Spain until the withdrawal of the International Brigades in October 1938.
It was in Spain that she also met and fell in love with the German-Jewish brigader Robert Aaquist, whom she married.
But she was soon to be widowed when he lost his life at the Battle of the Ebro. In little more than 18 months, this life was over.
The letters between the couple, only uncovered after Darton’s death, chronicle their growing love in a time of war and must rank with the most poignant ever written.
But this love did not exist in limbo. “Her love for Robert was bound up with the fight against fascism,” Angela Jackson comments.
“We - the International Brigaders - were so fortunate,” Darton said in an interview. “We were so lucky that the Spaniards let us go to their country. We were so fortunate to be with people who were committed to such a just cause, people who were really fighting against fascism.”
Darton passed on the knowledge of hospital organisation and surgical techniques she had gained in Spain to nurses during the second world war.
From 1954 to 1958 she worked in China, for the Foreign Languages Press, putting Chinese English into a more readable form. There she married International Brigader Eric Edney and gave birth to her only son, Bob.
If there is something of an anti-climax in those long post-Spain years it is partly because, on Angela Jackson’s own admission, she had failed to ask Patience as much about her time in China as she had about Spain.
But what could match that intensity of living and loving that she had found in Spain?