With Fates Conspire by John Taylor Caldwell

“Mr. Aldred called the Labour Party a crowd of crooks and the Tories a bag of tricksters. He said he had spent his life trying to sweep away the rubbish of capitalism.”

With Fates Conspire: Memoirs of a Glasgow Seafarer and Anarchist is the second volume in John Taylor Caldwell’s 2-part memoir, and this volume picks up where the first left off. John Taylor Caldwell is sixteen years old, poverty-stricken and living in Glasgow. In With Fates Conspire, Caldwell describes his life on the cruise ships, and the appalling work conditions he suffered. Employed as a bellboy, Caldwell worked incredibly long days, mostly on an empty stomach, and was subject to the rigorous hierarchal system established by the cruise line employees. Not even given utensils with which to eat meals, Caldwell and his fellow bellboys were the lowest beings in the ship’s pecking order. Working an average of 16 hours or more a day, seven days a week, Caldwell spent years on various cruise ships, ever mindful of the fate of the bellboys on the Titanic. His voyages took him far away from home, to New York, Barbados and Havana. And on some of his trips, he haunted the bookshops, even spending a little of his paltry wages on books.

Caldwell’s time between voyages was problematic. His family’s unstable home life was horrific, and his irresponsible father had a tendency to sell his son’s belongings the minute he left on another sea voyage. Caldwell is, then, rather rootless and solitary when he finally meets anarchist Guy Aldred. In 1934, Caldwell joined the United Socialist Movement and soon he became part of the circle surrounding Aldred.

Apart from the odd sea voyage, between 1936 and Aldred’s death in 1963, Caldwell worked consistently in Glasgow assisting Aldred. After reading With Fates Conspire, it’s clear that Caldwell admired Aldred, and it’s also quite clear that this was not reciprocated. Caldwell doesn’t complain about how he was treated by Guy Aldred, Guy’s companion Jenny Patrick and Guy’s close friend Ethel MacDonald, but after reading the book, my impression is that in the Aldred circle, Caldwell was not treated as an equal. While Ethel MacDonald apparently treated Caldwell quite well (he lived in her home for some time when she went to Spain as a journalist to cover the Civil War), the same cannot be said of Jenny Patrick. There’s one rather distressing episode in the book when Caldwell finally has a public speaking engagement and Jenny Patrick is horribly rude (she makes noises and picks at her teeth while Caldwell speaks). Now since this is one of the few visions of Jenny Patrick we have, it certainly doesn’t give a good impression.

Personal details about Caldwell are startling absent from this volume. At the conclusion of With Fates Conspire, we have no idea if Caldwell had any sort of relationships outside of the Aldred circle, or if he ever loved. After the details of life on the cruise ships, the book concentrates squarely on Caldwell’s life with Aldred. Caldwell describes Aldred’s troubled relations with Emma Goldman, division within the Glasgow anarchist scene, and Aldred’s problematic relationships with Walter Strickland and the Duke of Bedford.

Caldwell also describes Aldred as an “avid anti parliamentarian” who “took part in postwar parliamentary elections six times.” Now no self-respecting anarchist would be seen near a ballot box, let alone run for election. According to Caldwell, Aldred used the ballot box to “expose the farcical and false nature of parliamentarism,” and on the slim chance that Aldred was elected, he promised that he would not take his seat. Although it’s obvious that Caldwell did not approve of Aldred’s political activities, for this section of the book, Caldwell acts as an apologist of sorts for Aldred’s political involvement as he attempts to explain and justify it for the reader. For this reader, at least, Aldred’s political activity remains problematic. The Aldred group, in my opinion, spent too much energy and too much money (and let’s face it, they didn’t have it to waste) on this so-called “propaganda device.”

Caldwell died in January 2007, and with his death, we see the passing of an age. We should not judge Aldred too harshly; so much has changed since Aldred’s time. We should read Caldwell to remind ourselves of a vital episode in anarchist history and also to remember that we are best served by forging bonds between anarchist groups rather than severing connections due to ideological differences.

Finally, my copy of With Fates Conspire has a copyright date of 1999, but its content stops in the early 70s (although the final chapter does describe working on Come Dungeons Dark, the biography of Aldred in the 80s and 90s).  Aldred died in 1963, but With Fates Conspire, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly Caldwell’s memoirs, doesn’t explore the post Aldred years. I know, no let me rephrase that, I’d like to think that Caldwell led an interesting, rich and full life post-Aldred. But if he did, there’s no trace of it here. This modest author instead hardly even mentions the final 4 decades of his life.

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