Gustav Regler, The Owl of Minerva, Ruth Forster & Julia Callan-Thompson

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!

About mistertrippy

Stewart Home was born in south London in 1962. His mother Julia Callan-Thompson was a showgirl and club hostess. He has never held down a regular job for more than a few months at a time. On those rare occasions when he's been forced to work, Home has taken employment as a factory labourer, agricultural labourer, shop assistant, office clerk and art class model. Deciding he didn't like working in factories as a teenager, Home pursued cultural and political interests, writing many books and participating in even more gallery exhibitions.
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21 thoughts on “Gustav Regler, The Owl of Minerva, Ruth Forster & Julia Callan-Thompson

  1. The White Colours says:

    False Monastery. Regler’s nature—his excess of pity, turning to rage when frustrated—would have given him a hard time in any society. In the chaos of Germany after World War I, it marked him for the Communist Party, which he joined with the simple feeling that “things can’t go on like this.” There is a good deal of spiritual agonizing and plain blundering before he winds his way out and comes to terms with reality. But, unlike so many other ex-Communist apologias, this is not an exercise in self-justification; Regler does not claim to have been “betrayed,” but painfully pinpoints his own moral ambiguities as a pious prisoner in the “false monastery” of Marx

  2. Various Artists were formed in 1976 by the pre-adolescent Michael K and some of his school chums. The name was fixed but those it havent been.

  3. The White Colours says:

    From what I’ve said above it should be clear that I do not view this as a book to be passively contemplated, it is to be used, its contents cannibalised and regurgitated in new forms and combinations. Although we now live in a very different world to the one inhabited by the groups and individuals this book describes, some of their tactics can be deployed just as effectively today as they were 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years ago — After all, 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 Stirnerite militias.

    Indeed,in the sixties Black Mask disrupted reified cultural events in New York by making up flyers giving the dates, times and location of art events and giving these out to the homeless with the lure of the free drink that was on offer to the bourgeoisie rather than the lumpen proletariat; I reused the ruse just as effectively in London in the 1990s to disrupt literary events. The tactics outlined here are just as effective today as they were in the past, what we need to create for our own times are new strategies to attack the ongoing march of commodification.

    The action takes place in a swamp — a secluded place, a dank,, threatening, yet pure place, untouched by the corruption of man — yet it’s a place constantly under threat from corrupt, violent men,pushing at its ( mental and physical/psychical ) edges and boundaries.

    The art is great too, with lots of good character profiles of 70’s hippies, anarchist bikers, draft dodgers, homophobic hard hats, 1950’s rockabilly gangs,hippy chicks and eccentric professors.

  4. The White Colours says:

    The White Colours was a concept created by Avant garde author and psychogeographer Stewart Home who formed “a band” which was in fact, a collective of hundreds of musicians and non musicians. It is unknown how many members formed the White Colours, since scores of people lay claim to having been part of it, and manifestos written by Home turn up all over the world, most dating from the late 70’s to early 80’s.

    Some claim that The White Colours still exist — There are rumours that an iminent reform has been planned, though it is unclear how many would be involved since the original White Colours had so many members, some of whom played, whilst some did nothing at all and never intended to.

  5. Yeah but White Colours never had any hits and we’ve had millions. Take that!

  6. P. P. Arnold says:

    Am I still dreaming?

  7. It makes no difference now.

  8. Karl Marx says:

    To describe Regler as confused is obviously the mark of someone who considers understatement to be a fine art.

  9. Danny James says:

    Soul and wine, now who could ask for more… went out today to get me a job cat says to me your hair’s too long I don’t need a slob, but I don’t care less, he don’t know where I’m at, oh soul and wine, now who could ask for more…

  10. People often confuse us with the New York punk club CBGBs, but we’d only let you join our party so we could purge you as a deviationist. We do not appreciate Otto Ruhle or any of those other figures suffering from the infantile disorder of left-wing communism you so favour.

  11. Michael Roth says:

    Just curious, was Regler part of the London boho scene at the time?

  12. Colours of White says:

    I was a member of the White Colours almost thirty years ago,and fulfilled my role by never,ever playing a single note with the band. The above poster seems to query whether they still exist — White Colours do still exist, and I am in touch with other White Colours on a regular basis.

    I do not intend to ever play music with the other members, and I am proud to be a part of The White Colours whilst doing nothing whatsoever to merit being a part of them, which of course, defines me perfectly as being an active and productive member of the White Colours.

  13. mistertrippy says:

    Regler was definitely not a regular part of my mother’s London boho scene, according to the stories I’ve heard she just met him through Ruth Forster. Ruth was very fond of my mother and apparently after my mother’s death in 1979 would chide those of her friends who frequented Collette’s Bookshop where she worked with the refrain: “You should have looked after Julie!”

    My mother was using Ruth Forster’s address in the early seventies for official correspondence, but while she may have stayed there occasionally, I don’t think she was living in Ruth’s flat on a regular basis. As for Regler, I’m unclear as to whether he just passed through London to see Ruth and others, who was of course an old comrade from the original anti-fascist resistance, or if he was actually living in London albeit it briefly. The sources for my mother being impressed by Regler are not to my mind entirely reliable – but she would have been seventeen or eighteen at the time and when I checked “The Owl Of Minerva” I discovered Regler mentioned Forster which made the story seem less unlikely. Also I can’t see any particular reason for someone making this up.

  14. Strange sense of deja vu…

    Oh no, I just read the blog twice before posting my comment, d’oh.

  15. howling wizard, shrieking toad says:

    Shrieking toad played the bongos in The White Colours.

  16. In fact, toad carries a White Colours manifesto around the cave.

    It’s a good one.

  17. Pingback: Ladbroke Grove in the 1960s with the accent very much on 24 Bassett Road… « Mister Trippy

  18. Chris Moxey says:

    I worked at Dillons Bookshop (in WC1 – now Waterstones or somesuch) and was friendly with Ruth Forster for a while. This would have been about 1971. She wasn’t a young woman then. After she left the bookshop I went to visit her at Bassett Rd. I remember her having two cats called Linda and Susan. She also had a wonderful collection of books, especially art books and was very fond of Kathe Kollwitz.

    Ruth was a fascinating person but also had a lot of sadness in her life. She told one story of jumping from a moving train to escape the Nazis and after that she couldn’t go back and so completely lost contact with her husband/partner – I can’t remember whether they were married. She had some great stories. I wish I could remember more of them. Eventually we lost touch – just because there was a lot going on, really. I don’t remember her working at Collets but that may have been before I knew her. It would make sense though, as Colletts was owned by Eva Reckitt who was a big supporter of the Communist Party – as was Ruth, i seem to remember.

    I also remember seeing Russ Henderson playing many sunday lunchtimes – at the Coleherne, on Brompton Rd. I used to go with a West Indian friend who would get very indignant at having his bottom pinched on the way to the loo or the bar (it was a bit of a gay pub at the time)