'A Man of Communist Appearance': Randall Swingler and MI5

I really didn't expect to find myself writing again about the poet Randall Swingler (1909-67). Over the last ten years I have edited a selection of his poems, written a full-length biography, provided entries for the New DNB and the DL B and published studies of his poetry, his politics, his publishing ventures and his musical collaborations. My years of Randalling, it seemed, were over. I had nothing more to say about Swingler. Anyway, it was clear that no-one was listening. The biography was barely reviewed, the selected poems ignored and all my attempts to interest BBC radio in Swingler were knocked back. A long time ago the canon of Eng Lit successfully reduced the 1930s to the works of Auden, Orwell, Woolf and – rather less plausibly – Stephen Spender. In retrospect, there was never much chance that there was going to be room for so prolific and engaged a poet as Randall Swingler. I consoled myself with the thought that it is probably the fate of all biographers to exaggerate their subject's importance. My attachment to Swingler was evidently born of too much fruitless research. After all, why should anyone be interested in Randall Swingler?

Well, Swingler's work was set to music by almost all the major British composers of his time, including Benjamin Britten, John Ireland, Alan Bush, Bernard Stevens, Elizabeth Lutyens, Christian Darnton, John Sykes and Alan Rawsthorne. He and Bush wrote Peace and Prosperity for the London Choral Union, and a radically re-written production of Handel's Belshazzar for the London Co-operative Movement. Swingler wrote the words of the chorale finale for Alan Bush's first Piano Concerto, broadcast by the BBC in 1938. He wrote (with Auden) the libretto of Britten's Ballad of Heroes. And he filled the Albert Hall in 1939 with a historical verse-pageant starring Paul Robeson and set to music by several composers, including Vaughan Williams, Arnold Cooke, Victor Yates, Edmund Rubbra, Erik Chisholm, Frederic Austin, Norman Demuth and Elizabeth Maconchy.

From the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s Swingler was the Communist Party's best-known poet, and one of its most prominent cultural spokesmen. He edited the best-selling Left Review, one of the key institutions of the Popular Front in Britain, and was involved in negotiations with Allen Lane for the re-launch of Left Review by Penguin. He published and helped edit Nancy Cunard's famous Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, selling five thousand copies in two weeks. He was a regular speaker at Party, YCL and Daily Worker meetings, taught at the Marx Memorial Library and Worker's School, and spoke at Left Book Club meetings, summer schools and week-end schools all over Britain. In 1938 he and Alan Bush edited The Left Song Book for the LBC. That year he launched his own radical paperback publishing company, Fore Publications, selling half a million books in the first year. In 1939 he was appointed literary editor of the Daily Worker; later he became a staff reporter, reporting on the Blitz until the paper was banned in 1941. He contributed several plays for Unity Theatre, including the Mass Declamation Spain, the Munich-play Crisis and revues like Sandbag Follies and Get Cracking. He was active in the Workers Music Association, for whom he and Alan Bush wrote many songs, and in the Left Book Club's Writers and Readers Group, Poets Group, Musicians Group and Theatre Guild. He wrote a new version of Peer Gynt for Rupert Doone's celebrated Group Theatre (where he was assistant editor of the Group Theatre Magazine). He and Auden were the only English poets included (with Alberti, Aragon, Guillen, Hughes, Lorca, Neruda and Tzara) in Les Poetes du Monde Defend le Peuple Espagnol (1937). In 1938 he took over the editorship of the magazine Poetry and the People, re-launching it as Our Time.

During the Second World War Swingler served with the 56th Divisional Signals, mostly with the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy. He took part in heavy fighting on the Volturno and Garigliano rivers, at Monte Camino, and on the Salerno and Anzio beach-heads. For his part in the battle of Lake Commachio, Corporal Swingler was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. The poetry he wrote about his experiences is a unique record of the war in Italy, and arguably among the greatest poetry of the Second World War.

After the War, Orwell attacked Swingler in Polemic (and included him in the list of names he offered the IRD in 1949). Stephen Spender attacked him in The God that Failed as an example of 'the dogmatic crowing of inferior talents' that supposedly turned him away from Communism and towards the Cold War positions of Encounter. Swingler, meanwhile, was editing the magazines Our Time, Arena and Circus. Later he was on the editorial board of the New Reasoner and on the founding board of New Left Review.

In other words, Swingler was by any measure a central figure, whose life and work should be integral to any history of the period that is not disfigured by either carelessness or by dishonesty. As an editor, speaker, organiser, journalist, critic, playwright, poet, librettist, novelist and publisher, Randall Swingler was one of the leading figures in the cultural activities of the Communist Party, in turn the organising centre of the Popular Front campaigns to mobilise London literary life against Fascism and war. No English writer worked harder to mobilise public opinion in the name of Peace, or fought more bravely to prosecute the War when it could no longer be avoided. He was responsible for some of the most imaginative interventions of the Popular Front years, and he wrote some of the greatest poetry of the Second World War. His poetry provides an extraordinary and unique record of the middle years of the century, from the romantic Communism of the early thirties, through the campaigns of the Popular Front and the years of anti-Fascist War, to victory in 1945 and the subsequent disappointments and betrayals of Cold War Europe. At the very least, he ought to be a gift for Cold War historians, because he appears to conform exactly to the easy stereotype of the 1930s gilded upper-class, ex-Vicarage, Communist intellectual, who – like the Young man of Great Possessions - gave away his inherited wealth to the Communist Party. His uncle and god-father was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson.

But you would not know that Randall Swingler had ever existed. He has been almost completely airbrushed out of the historical and literary record. He turns up in disguise as Raymond Swingler in Neal Wood's Communism and British Intellectuals. Eric Ambler, in his autobiography, also remembers someone called Raymond Swingler speaking at a meeting during the Spanish Civil War. Among the founders of the New Left there was, according to Michael Kenny, a Randolph Swingler. But that's about it. He is barely a footnote in the biographies of once close friends like Britten, Auden, MacNeice, Barker, Nancy Cunard and Edward Thompson, or in the biographies of writers with whom he clashed like Spender and Orwell. This is the kind of critical silence by which British culture defines its limits and its interests. Why should anyone be interested in a writer who has been so effectively forgotten? And yet it now transpires that a lot of people have been very interested for a long time in Randall Swingler…

MI5 have just released their files they kept on Swingler from 1936-1955. There are hundred of pages and thousands of entries (although the first volume was destroyed by fire in 1940). And there are many pages still 'retained under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958' – presumably to protect the identity of MI5's sources.

According to these files, Swingler first came to the attention of the Special Branch in 1936, after he wrote the words to Alan Bush's 'Song of the Hunger Marchers' in support of the fifth National Hunger March in February 1934 ('Remember, fellow workers, / Who earn a wage today, / That they'll throw you on the scrapheap, / When they find it doesn't pay. / All you who are employed, / Making cartridges and bombs. / We'll be marching side by side, / When the final crisis comes.') The words of the song may seem harmless enough now, but they were enough to trigger the paranoid responses of the security services and set in train a monstrous surveillance operation that was to last twenty years and effectively destroy Swingler's career as a writer.

Of course, the great majority of these files contain nothing but inconsequential trivia –the registration numbers of cars parked outside the Swinglers' house, a list of pictures on their walls, the concerts they attended, the frequency of his visits to the pub, the names of people he drank with. The files contain copies of Our Time, Unity scripts, a letter Swingler wrote in 1955 to the Halstead Gazette protesting against German re-armament, copies of his bank statements, intercepted letters, phone-call intercepts to and from the Swingler's flat, transcripts of telephone conversations to King Street, and several conversations inside King Street involving Betty Reid, Emile Burns, Bob Stewart and George Matthews. Every time the Swinglers travelled to the Continent, their suitcases were searched at Newhaven or London airport on the way out and on the way back ('Nothing of interest to Special Branch was found during the examination of their baggage').

The thoroughness of the police and intelligence apparatus involved make these files a potential gift for any biographer. In late 1939 and early 1940 Special Branch reported Swingler speaking on nine occasions at Communist Party meetings in various parts of London, as well as meetings at Hampstead Town Hall, the University of London Socialist Society, Marx House, Lambeth Town Hall, the Workers Music Association, Parliament Hill Fields. In January 1941, Swingler and Hilda Vernon were speaking at a meeting in Sheffield to celebrate the Daily Worker's eleventh anniversary. The Special Branch officer in the crowd reported that they 'sailed fairly close to the wind' in their speeches. Two days later the Daily Worker was banned. The files contain a rather good two-page précis of a talk Swingler gave in 1947 to Hampstead CP branch on 'Education for All or Culture for the Few'. The confidence with which Special Branch dated Swingler's membership of the CP from November 1935 suggests they had good reason to do so. I did not previously know that Swingler worked for Malcolm McEwen in the 1941Dunbarton by-election, producing a twice-weekly 'by-election special'. Or that Emile Burns asked him to write a verse-pageant for the centenary of the Communist Manifesto in 1948. Or that in 1951 he was elected to the Publications Panel at the foundation meeting of the Authors World Peace Appeal. But on the whole, these files tell us rather more about MI5 than they do about Randall Swingler. The security services seemed bizarrely preoccupied with the length of his hair and his style of dress. 'A man of Communist appearance'; 'untidy brown hair'; 'he has the appearance of a communist'; 'wears his hair very long and unkempt'; 'Bohemian type.' There is a long correspondence in 1941 when Swingler broke some ribs in a car-accident, thus delaying his call-up ('let me know as soon as possible what exactly is the present position, as I am under the impression that, although it is some little time since SWINGLER received his calling up notice he has managed for one reason or another to avoid actually joining his unit'). And another longer, paranoid correspondence from late 1953 when Swingler got a temporary job fixing motorbikes at an army motorcycle depot ('we should be glad if you would let us know whether this man is likely to come into contact with work of a secret nature…')

This is the record of a bloated and secret bureaucracy, collecting information of anyone they chose to decide was a 'threat' and moving easily and unaccountably between excessive surveillance and a grotesque breach of civil-liberties. Of course, a great many of Swingler's friends were also on MI5's books; his files are endlessly cross-referenced to files on people like the composers Alan Bush, Georg Knepler, Bernard Stevens and Christian Darnton, the opera singer Martin Lawrence, the actress Anne Davies, the artists Paul Hogarth and John Banting, the novelist John Sommerfield, Swingler's wife Geraldine, her sister Mary and Mary's husband Paddy. But it seems likely that the Swinglers' friendship with the artist Michael Ayrton persuaded MI5 to open a file on him too. And MI5 were running a file on Swingler's brother Stephen a long time before he was elected to parliament as a Labour MP.

It is clear that MI5 were not looking for anything, simply amassing information. And of course they never found anything. There are no dead-letter drops or secret rendezvous with heavily built Russians. In fact they showed a curious lack of interest in Swingler's visits to either Czechoslovakia in 1953 or Romania in 1954. Swingler knew he was being followed in the early months of the War, when the Communist Party was following the Comintern's 'Imperialist War' thesis and preparing for illegality. And as a well-known Communist he was not surprised to find so many doors closed to him after the War. But he can never have suspected the scale of the secret operation mobilised against him, its thoroughness or its relentlessness.

For example, in 1940 MI5 placed a mole among Swingler's circle. 'Conquest' was a Party member, who reported directly to Roger Hollis about Swingler's involvement in the People's Convention, specifically the Committee for Arts and Entertainment. In the mid-1950s they had another 'reliable source' known as 'F.4' who obtained a list of members of the CP Writers Group 'in very delicate circumstances'. The same source reported on Artists for Peace meetings in early 1956 ('the usual waffle about demonstrating the positive aspects of peace').

When Swingler was called up in September 1941 he was placed under 'special observation' in order 'to see whether he is making any attempts to engage in subversive propaganda or activities'. This required monthly reports ('Is he known to hold Communist, Fascist, Nazi or I.R.A. views?') from his increasingly exasperated CO. On one occasion he reported to the security services, 'This man is well educated, and is of a high standard of intelligence. He was selected early in his training as the “Senior Soldier” of the squad, and has come up to expectations. He takes a keen interest in current affairs, and while admitting that his views are “Republican” his conduct has never called for any adverse criticism.' A few months later, however, he was obliged to report that 'during the monthly reading of the Army Act, Secs. 4-44, and subsequent discussion [Swingler] wanted to know why communism and not fascism was connected with sedition'. In October 1942, the security services placed an embargo on Swingler applying for a commission 'until such a time as we are fully satisfied regarding his loyalty'. In 1944 Swingler applied to join the Intelligence Corps. Despite another glowing report from his CO, his application was blocked by MI5.

In 1948 Swingler applied for a staff job at the BBC, writing scripts for the European Productions Department. The chairman of the Appointments Board recommended that they employ him:

'I can only say that Swingler entirely convinced the Board of his present personal integrity… He seemed to us to be a completely honest man without any desire to hide anything about his political past. On other counts he struck us as being extremely well-qualified for this particular post, more especially as he had for some time been contributing successful scripts to European productions as a free-lance.'

The week before the interview, however, the BBC were sent a brief note from a Major Badham reminding the BBC that Swingler 'has continued to be a Party member and has been active as a lecturer and propagandist in the Communist cause'. Swingler did not get the job. And his career as a free-lance script-writer was over. Although he tried submitting scripts under pseudonym, they were rejected. On one occasion two rejected stories did the rounds of BBC producers accompanied by an internal memo explaining that 'John Arkwright' was really Randall Swingler. A script about clowning was rejected by both the Home Service and the Third Programme, despite support from Constant Lambert, who wanted to write the music for it. A suggestion by the Talks Department that Swingler might be used as a poetry reader was turned down without explanation.

In 1949 Swingler and Christian Darnton submitted an opera, 'Fantasy Fair' to the Arts Council's opera competition/commission. Although the judges never saw either the score or the libretto, it was rejected. In 1951 the adult education courses Swingler taught for London University were 'investigated' and closed down. Neither incident is mentioned in Swingler's MI5 files, suggesting that by then British cultural institutions understood their Cold War responsibilities. For these were the years in which prominent Communists were expelled from British cultural life. The TLS used a review of Jack Lindsay's Byzantium into Europe to call for the banning of Communists from the universities; Thomas Russell was sacked as managing director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the actor Alex McCrindle was sacked from the cast of the radio-show Dick Barton; the poet and folk-song collector Hamish Henderson (who had personally accepted the surrender of Italy from Marshal Graziani) was expelled from Italy where he was working on a translation of Gramsci's prison letters; by the early 1950s Montagu Slater (who had written the libretto for Britten's Peter Grimes) was obliged to write under pseudonym. Swingler did not publish anything after 1950.

Compared to the treatment of the Hollywood Ten or Zhdanov's attacks on Ahmatova and Zoschenko, all this may seem harmless enough. But these were the years in which the security services were allowed to define what and who was in 'the national interest', and what and who represented a threat to 'national security'. The British State was conceded powers to determine the limits of public debate and the extent of participation in that debate. The road to Guantanamo Bay may be said to have begun in the late 1940s, with the systematic removal of Communists, first from public life and then from public memory. The security services ensured the first, British cultural institutions the second.

By the early 1960s Randall Swingler was already air-brushed out of the picture, unemployed and unemployable, unpublished and unpublishable, occasionally reviewing for the TLS (which in those days was anonymous) and working as a farm-labourer in deepest Essex:

   The little distant voices of the evening
   Get lost under the huge impassive movement 
   Of continent and cloud, or the seamless blue
   Of a disinterested sky.
   Climatic armies taking up position
   To launch tomorrow's weather have no time
   For the individual griefs, the frightened child,
   The just discovered lovers parted forever.
   Terror, defiance, scorn or simple longing
   Under historic night are the rabbit's scream
   The bull's incarcerated groan, the bird's whisper,
   Each lonely creature moaning in its sleep.
   Stay quiet, and exercise what love you may
   To infiltrate the stirring soil, or knit
   The roots of some few grasses. Do not look
   For anything but anger from the sky.

Andy Croft