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
THE correspondence between "the English degenerate" and "the most dangerous woman in America" must be one of the most unlikely associations in modern history.
Where is the common ground between these two? Cowper Powys was writer of vast mythical novels, a mixture of Tolkien, Proust and Dostoyevsy, whose autobiography has been described as "the work of a voyeuristic, sadomasochistic and pornography-addicted fantasist." Golaman was the fearsome Red Emma, the implacable voice of early 20th century anarchism, who was first imprisoned and then expelled from the US for her impassioned activism in the cause and then left Russia, disillusioned by Soviet Bolshevism's increasingly totalitarian progress.
There is, however, a fascination about that lost form of communication, the letter, especially when the exchange is between two such disparate figures against a background of momentous politically historical times - here, the Spanish civil war.
Goldman, virtually the self-appointed propagandist and fund-raiser for the Spanish anarchists, finding herself marooned in a Britain largely oblivious to her fame or notoriety, turned for moral and practical support to Powys, whom she had met in earlier days when he led a more active life as a touring lecturer in the US.
Like Tolstoy, Powys considered himself a "spiritual anarchist" and he is clearly flattered by the attentions of a powerful woman whom, however, he shows no temptation to meet again face to face.
His letters are embarrassingly effusive in his admiration although, as the correspondence develops, he does chance some tentative criticism of Goldman's theories.
While recognising that the "money power of capitalism" will use its economic strength to annul the "theoretical liberty" that it allows, Powys wonders how Goldman's anarchists "will work it all out when they are … in power."
History is the bonding agent between two romantics from very different mindsets - one the self-obsessed individualist, the other dedicated to internationalism - but both equally devoted to the elusive cause of freedom.
This expensive little book is worth reading - public librarians note - if only to remind us of how far that cause is in present danger.