Jack Atkinson & The Letter That Changed My Life


Jack Atkinson, whose story is the backdrop to my song ‘No Pasaran!’, was killed at Jarama exactly 80 years ago today. He’d travelled to Spain to fight fascism, and gave his life to the cause. Tonight I want to tell his story and a little of how we came to be such firm friends.

John Joseph Atkinson was born in Hull in April 1911.

In 2009 and again in 2011 I wrote and recorded two albums under the header ‘Music From Potter’s Field’. I planned this as a series of five. The first had been set in the trenches of the First World War, the second in the aftermath. I had planned the third to be set in the Spanish Civil War, but fictional characters weren’t enough and despite the fact I had some songs written, they weren’t getting to the heart of the story.

Then my old mate Andy Wilson suggested I approach our mutual friend Giles Stevens as his Great, Great Uncle had died out there, and he might have a story or two passed through the family. I got in touch, and Giles kindly wrote me a letter telling Jack’s story and loaned me a book by Tommy James- another volunteer- who referred to him in a couple of passages. By the time I put the letter and book down I had half an album written in my head.

Giles wrote:

“Here is the book and what little info I know about Uncle Jack. He was an only child (a rare thing in Romani Gypsy families). His father was killed fighting in the First World War. When Jack was fourteen he was in Sydney, Australia fighting with armed police in the eviction wars. We don’t know how he got to Oz, only that he liked to scrap against coppers. After he fought the law he stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland, made the trip no bother and returned home. He worked as a lorry driver in Hull.”

Already you can’t help but like him. Giles went on:

“He was 6’4”, same as me (my Nana and my Uncle Tom both said he looked dead like me and was quiet like I am). He was a well-liked fella on the estate, all the kids liked him, but when he went in his local pub everyone would wonder if his mood was good or bad, as it is said he could swing cast-iron bar stools one in each hand. No power-steering on them old lorries you see. 

When he went to Spain he told Granny (his Mam, locals and family called her Granny) that he was off to drive lorries and not to fight. I don’t think anyone believed him. Just before he left Mosley and his wankers came to Park Street (Corporation Fields) which is now St. Stephen’s Shopping Centre. They got a worse hiding than at Cable Street. My family reckon Jack was at the scrap, and it is certain he would have been cos if you can be arsed to go all the way to Australia to bray ’em you are sure to cross Anlaby Road after your tea to do it.”

Totally agree.

“Granny baked a cake for Jack while he was on the way to Spain. When she found he had been killed she put it in the pantry in a tin, where it stayed until Granny died.

This is all we know really, mate. He was a very wild man, but a very good one.”

I type these words with a tinge of sadness as Giles sadly passed away before I’d finished the album, though I know he heard all but the final track ‘My Comrade and My Friend’ which I wrote in his memory. I know he’d have loved Rebekah Findlay’s fiddle on those songs, and wherever he is now, out there with Jack, I know the fascists are having a hard time of it.

Jack travelled through England by train. Five men shared a carriage, each with the same destination- Jack; Tommy James; a man called Arnold, from Leeds; and two others whose names remain a mystery. He left Newhaven for Dieppe on 6th February 1937. We know this because the security services clocked him but made no effort to detain him. From there to Paris and from Paris to the border and into Spain.

They went straight into the front line at the Battle of Jarama as the fascists threatened to take Madrid. He was killed as the British Battalion launched an attack on the Madrid-Valencia road. Tommy James writes:

“He fell before he had run many yards; a bullet through the eyes killed him instantly. When I saw Jack fall, I ran to him, lifted his head, and saw that he was dead.”

Would Jack have stayed crouched in his trench had he known what fate lay before him?

Not a hope in hell.

A comrade wrote back from the front that Jack was:

“…..eager to get at them.”

and it was noted that:

He died for a cause he held dearer than life.”

I tried to write all of this into those songs, to make sure that when I sang:

“My name is Jack Atkinson, I’m not afraid.”

That it was his voice you were hearing. I hope I got it right.

‘No Pasaran!’ has gone on to become my most recognised song. It is certainly my most requested and will probably go on to become my most enduring. I owe that to Giles Stevens for taking the time to pass on the family story he was justifiably proud of, and to Jack Atkinson, an anti-fascist hero who would climb over a parapet and walk into a storm of machine gun bullets for what he believed in.

If anyone ever wonders why I sing it the way I do, then that is why.

No Pasaran. Not ever.

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