In late 1961 my mother – Julia Callan-Thompson – moved across London from a one room bedist at 101 Barnsbury Street N1 (Islington) to a two room pad on the top floor at 24 Bassett Road W10 (off Ladbroke Grove). Both the basement flats beneath her at 24 Bassett Road had interesting occupants. In one was the Trinidadian drummer Russ Henderson who led the first steel band to play on the streets of London, and later had a hand in setting up what became known as the Notting Hill Carnival. In the other was a refugee from Nazism called Ruth Forster, who I’ve been told was a Jewish bookseller and a member (or a former member) of the Communist Party. Forster apparently threw extraordinary parties and among the many amazing people my mother allegedly met in her basement flat over the coming months and years, another former Communist Party member called Gustav Regler made perhaps the greatest impression. If my mother did indeed meet Regler, then this must have been in either late 1961 or sometime in 1962, since he died in New Delhi in January 1963.
Regler was a confused man from a German Catholic background. He was born in 1898 and wrote many books, the overwhelming majority of which have never been translated into English. A World War I hero of sorts, he travelled to Berlin in 1919 to join the right-wing militias. After serving the cause of reaction in the German capitol, Regler moved on to Munich where he abortively involved himself in defending the Bavarian Soviets, but the revolution was viciously snuffed out. Next a good marriage resulted in Regler becoming a wealthy businessman. However, feeling oppressed, he abandoned his wife and young son to become an impoverished writer. A committed Stalinist by the time the Nazis ascended to power, Regler became a German exile in Paris from where he very actively participated in the anti-fascist struggle. Regler later claimed that visits to Moscow led to his disenchantment with Bolshevism in the mid-thirties, although this didn’t prevent him from assuming a position of authority within the Stalinist controlled International Brigade in Spain.
During the Spanish civil war Regler befriended the American novelist Ernest Hemmingway and appears to have held himself aloof from the acts of sabotage carried out against the Republican cause by some of his Bolshevik comrades. Regler didn’t actually break with Stalinism until after Franco’s fascist triumph in Spain and the forging of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Following internment in a French concentration camp and then a period of exile in Mexico, he returned to Europe in 1957. All of this is recorded in his autobiography The Owl of Minerva. Ruth Forster is mentioned in passing towards the end of this book as the girlfriend of Walter, a former German artillery officer with progressive political views, who was imprisoned in France with Regler. Part of a letter Forster sent to Walter is reproduced in The Owl of Minerva and Regler makes it clear that she’d taken part in the underground resistance to Nazism in Germany and had been imprisoned for these activities in 1937. How she got away from Germany isn’t recorded. The text of her letter does, however, reveal that she was greatly enamoured by the poetry of Rilke.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes no sense!