Displayed above the bar in the West London Trade Union Club are a selection of decorative china plates commemorating the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Spanish Civil War, the Miners' strike, and other proud episodes of working class history. They are the work of East End-born Lou Kenton, a club member who died two years ago, on September 17, 2012, aged 104. As Karl Lewkowicz narrates, Lou led a life as brave and colourful as his artwork.
An example of Lou Kenton's work in later life, paying tribute to the comrades of his youth.
Lou Kenton, who died on 17th September 2012 aged 104, was the oldest surviving British member of the International Brigades. Seventy-five years earlier in 1937 he had felt compelled to help fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, volunteering to join the International Brigades in support of the Spanish Republic alongside thousands of people from around the world. Prior to this he had been at the heart of protests against the British Union of Fascists at their violent rally in Olympia in 1934, and played a considerable role in the battle of Cable Street, helping to prevent Oswald Mosley and the BUF from marching through London’s mainly Jewish East End in October 1936. This determination to resist fascism and antisemitism in all its guises was the seam that ran throughout his life.
Born in Stepney on 1st September 1908, he was the oldest of nine children, only six of whom survived. His Jewish parents had fled from the Ukraine to escape the Tsarist pogroms and, like so many other Jewish immigrants at the time, the family settled in the poor East End of London.
Lou’s father, a tailor, died of tuberculosis when Lou was very young, and at 14 years old he got a job in a paper factory in London. Here he experienced direct antisemitism for the first time and was not inclined to tolerate it: “Jews were constantly being attacked,” he said. “On my first day at the factory, I was involved in seven fights. Jews were constantly being attacked. I reacted very badly to being called a Jew bastard.”
Such formative experiences led him to join the Communist Party in 1929, which in turn inspired him to take up sports and opened his mind to another world of writing poetry and reading books. As a Fleet Street printer he played a big part in convening his trades union anti-fascist activities, founding and editing The Anti-Fascist Printer.
In 1933 he married Jewish-Austrian refugee Lilian Artner and soon became secretary of the local Communist Party branch. It was in this capacity that he was able to deploy party members so effectively in October 1936 to help frustrate Mosley’s determined efforts to march his fascists through the East End.
As he recalled, “I had a motorbike at the time and was able to whizz around the periphery of the crowd, going from section to section to warn them what was going on. We had a number of people watching the Fascists and quickly telling the crowd what was happening. We were able to get word to the majority of the crowd in Commercial Road, which was some way from Cable Street, of what was happening.”
Many of the protestors resisting the fascists that day felt that the civil war raging in Spain was a continuation of the same battle they had just fought, and that they had no option but to join the fight in support of the Republic. After attending an anti-fascist meeting, Lou, Lilian and their friend Ben Glazer came to a momentous decision:
“One evening myself and Lilian and my dear friend Ben Glazer walked along the Embankment. We walked - stopped at many coffee stalls - talking, wondering what it would be like in Spain. We didn’t finally decide until we reached a coffee stall at Westminster Bridge, opposite the House of Commons. I think we had already decided to go, but didn’t say so in as many words. I think we were deeply fearful in our hearts, but none of us wanted to show our fears. What would it be like? Would we ever come back? What if we were captured? And when we decided - how we embraced! Lilian kissed us both. We linked arms and walked almost cheerfully down Whitehall to the all-night Lyons Corner House just off Trafalgar Square for more coffee and eggs and bacon. From there we decided that tomorrow morning we would go and volunteer.”
Lilian went first, volunteering as a nurse, followed by Lou a few weeks later, who rode through France to get there on his motorbike. Lou was part of the Republican fight against Franco’s fascists for nearly two years as a dispatch rider, communicating messages and supplies between the battle fronts on his motorbike, or driving an ambulance. He was showered with affection wherever he went:
“The first time I arrived in this little village, the people embraced me and took me into their homes and gave me food.
When I got back to the hospital, they said, ‘Don’t ever do that again - they have got no food.’... I lived on grapes growing by the roadside, for days on end.”
Speaking very movingly at Lou’s funeral, his son John Kenton told of how, during his time in Spain, his father used his signature whistle to “pass safe from ‘friendly fire’ through the front lines with a bag full of letters from home and dispatches for the command. With his Cuban comrade Manuel he would use the same whistle whilst carrying the wounded to their ambulance or lorry.”
John told how his father brought the same whistle back to the family for his sister and himself to “bring us in for supper, or gather us up from countless demonstrations. Thus we could wander and yet we were never lost in a crowd.”
Having survived Spain, Lou was badly injured in a bombing raid in the Second World War and was hospitalised for two years. After the war he continued to work as an organiser for the Communist Party and, with his second wife Rafa, he helped organise trips to Eastern European communist countries. From this grew a thriving
business called Progressive Tours, which for many years was the main company to take people to socialist countries, particularly Czechoslovakia.
With the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Lou and Rafa closed the business in disgust and resigned from the CP to join the Labour Party Lou worked at the Financial Times until late into his 70s - and late in his long and eventful life he discovered a surprising gift as a potter, making beautiful and ornate commemorative pottery for organisations such as unions.
In 2009 Lou was one of the seven surviving British International Brigade veterans awarded Spanish citizenship by the then Spanish Ambassador, who gave a heartfelt speech of gratitude on behalf of the Spanish people. When he turned 100, Lou received a video message from Tony Blair congratulating him for his part in fighting fascism at Cable Street and in Spain, and Ed Miliband sent a personal message of condolence from the Labour Party conference to Lou’s funeral.
I first met Lou and Rafa in 2005 and was deeply moved by their humour and warmth, and their enduring vision of a better world. Lou Kenton is an inspiring example of how to live one’s life if we are to find that better world.
Lou Kenton is survived by his wife Rafa and their children Judy and John.
Posted: 11 September 2014 | Published in: Jewish Socialist No 65