Young, gifted, broke, but now recalled
The name Randall Swingler is unknown to many but, writes Nicholas Jacobs, a new biography aims to remedy that
22 October, 2020 — By Nicholas Jacobs
FEW will have heard of Randall Swingler, no matter how well the name runs off the tongue.
He was born in 1909, one of seven children from the vicarage, whose reverend father inherited a fortune of family money from manufacturing in Derby. When his share eventually came to Randall, he seems to have given most of it away to the Communist Daily Worker and to the party itself.
Swingler was an extremely gifted boy. From private preparatory school to Winchester and Oxford, he shone academically, taking to Latin when very young, writing poetry precociously. He was also a first class athlete, prone to breaking school and university records. He was also an excellent flautist.
Swingler saw very active service in a signals regiment often in the frontline in Italy. His often very political letters to his concert pianist wife Geraldine, looking forward to a new order, and particularly caustic about the officer-class, remained surprisingly uncensored.
Swingler, brother of Stephen, the leftwing Labour MP, spent – or overspent – his life writing, editing. teaching and lecturing tirelessly in the Communist cause.
Above all he wrote poetry, a tense mixture of William Blake and WH Auden, which is not to be found in any anthology, but which has a faithful champion in his biographer.
Swingler left the Communist Party in 1958, and continued to make a living through his writing, including extensive reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement. At one point, without literary work, he worked as a scaffolder.
He died aged 58, simply from overliving, overworking and overdrinking, having happily got to know his grown-up daughter, born out of wedlock, who was with him when he collapsed on a Soho street.
This beautifully written and researched biography, especially strong on the now forgotten but once very influential Communist background and foreground, will surely make an unknown name a memorable one. It is the second biography by the same author, rewritten to take account of the extensive MI5 files on Swingler.
Richard Knott’s book is no less than a study of those MI5 files as they applied to a distinguished list of Communist Party members. They include the artists James Boswell and Clive Branson, and his wife Noreen; Felicia Browne, another artist who was the first British casualty of the Spanish Civil War; the English literature scholar Margot Heinemann (partner of the poet John Cornford, recipient of his beautiful poem, Heart of the heartless world / Dear heart, the thought of you …); the artist and writer Paul Hogarth; the novelist and essayist Storm Jameson; Doris Lessing; Stephen Spender (a member of the party for only two weeks); and even JB Priestley – no party member but suspect enough for MI5 attention.
These two very rich books recreate a vanished cultural moment of personal commitment to an ideal cause which was never to be achieved. To read about those who gave their lives in this cause is still an inspiration.
• The Years of Anger – The Life of Randall Swingler. By Andy Croft. Routledge, £25
• The Secret War Against the Arts – How MI5 Targeted Life-Wing Writers and Artists, 1936–1956. By Richard Knott, Pen and Sword, £35