Who was that odd-looking group on bicycles, those white-legged very English-looking people pedalling through the hectic Barcelona traffic? Why were they wearing t-shirts in the colours of the second Spanish Republic (1931-1939), with the words “¡No Pasarán!” embroidered on their sleeves?
They were 12 members of the Clarion Club, one of England’s oldest cycle clubs, and they had cycled all the way from Bilbao to be in Barcelona in time for the 75th anniversary of the October 28, 1938 farewell to the International Brigades, the volunteers from more than 50 countries who came to Spain to fight against Franco's fascist forces during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.
The Catalan media made quite a fuss about the arrival in Barcelona of this group of mainly retired school teachers and their support bus decked out in Spanish Republican and Catalan colours.
Their eight-day ride from Bilbao was a tribute to former Clarion Club members involved in fighting for the Republic against Francoism. These included the leader of the five-man Great Britain cycling team that had come to Barcelona to participate in the 1936 Workers’ Olympics (the anti-Olympics to the Nazis’ Berlin extravanganza).
When Franco’s uprising prevented those games from ever taking place three of the cyclist enrolled in the workers’ militia and were later killed in the civil war.
It was their leader, Clarion Club member Geoff Jackson, who returned to Scotland and in 1938 organised with his friend Ted Ward a fund-raising cycle ride to Barcelona. Their goal was to raise £70, but in the end they raised £300 (roughly £17,000 in today’s values). It was used to buy food and medicines for Basque women and children displaced into Catalonia by the war.
Three other club members fought on the Republican side and were killed, one at the decisive Battle of the Ebro.
The anniversary of the farewell to the International Brigades is observed every year in Barcelona, but this year it was celebrated with special warmth — because it was the 75th anniversary, because very few volunteers now survive, but also because the rise of the far right in many European countries starts to recall the atmosphere of the 1930s.
Club member Charles Gibson, also the treasurer of the British International Brigade Memorial Trust, commented: “My impression this trip is that people remember the war much more, and value very much the sacrifice of the International Brigades in helping the Spanish people defend democracy.
“In Great Britain at the moment there are more and more memorials dedicated to remembering the victims of the Spanish Civil War. It’s a chapter in history that cannot be forgotten if we are to keep fascism from rising again.”
The presence of the cyclists, along with a short performance by the cast of Goodbye Barcelona (a musical about the International Brigades presently running here), added special emotion to the commemoration, as did the speakers’ platform decorated with the banners of regiments and companies that had fought in the Battle of the Ebro.
In his address to the celebration, Joan Josep Nuet, representing the United and Alternative Left (EUiA) remarked: “These banners are still alive: the sacrifice they represent was not in vain.”
Nuet also reminded the crowd that the Francoist enemy was still lurking around. Just that week, his resolution to Spanish parliament requiring the Rajoy government to implement 2007 Law of Historical Memory by removing all Francoist symbols from public space had been defeated by the PP majority, voting without support from any other party.
Other speakers came from the political parties descended from Republic, the trade unions, the Association of Friends of the International Brigades and international associations like the Italian Association of Anti-Fascist Fighters in Spain.
Their representative summarised the meaning of the act: “Events like this are important in the struggle for historical memory, but they also provide us with cultural weapons for the struggles of the present.”