The Selected Poems of Clive Branson

Clive Branson (1907–1944) was born in Ahmednagar, India, the son of a major in the Indian army. He studied at the Slade School of Art and exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was just 23. Five of his paintings are today in the Tate. His daughter is the painter Rosa Branson. In 1932 Branson joined the Communist Party. He taught for the National Council of Labour Colleges, spoke at weekly open-air meetings on Clapham Common and with his wife Noreen managed a Party bookshop. He took a leading role in driving Mosley’s British Union of Fascists out of Battersea, was responsible for the formation of a local Aid Spain Committee and fought with the International Brigades in Spain. Taken prisoner at Calaceite, he spent eight months in Franco’s prison camps. After he was repatriated, Branson toured Britain raising money and support for the Spanish Republic. During the Blitz he painted Battersea street-scenes for the Artists International Association. Conscripted in 1941, he served as a tank commander in the Royal Armoured Corps. He was killed in action in Burma, aged just 36.

The Selected Poems of Clive Branson brings together, for the first time, the best of his surviving poetry. Passionate and committed, it’s a first-hand account of the most violent years of the twentieth-century – Britain in the Slump, Spain during the civil-war, Fascist prisons, the London Blitz, the cultural shock of India and its poverty, the war against Japan – recorded with a painterly eye and a communist faith in the power of the people.

Cover image: Clive Branson, Self-portrait (courtesy of Rosa Branson)

Sample Poems

The International

We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the Universe
Singing The International.

I remember it so well
Waiting in the station yard
The darkness stood around still
And the stars, masses, stared.

That’s when I first understood
One is never alone in this fight.
I’d thought the ‘goodbye’ was for good
And left all behind that night.

But everything new that I meet,
No matter how strange and uncertain,
Holds something familiar that
Proves the fight is still on.

How often I’ve marched, and marching
I sang of an England unseen,
Watched the great crowds gathering
And the tramp of their feet beat in tune.

Even in the grip of prison
I joined in the singing of millions
As they wait at their wayside station
That leads to the battle lines.

I’m singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time
One man, one woman, humanity
The International our theme.

January 1940

December 1936, Spain

You! English working men!
Can’t you hear the barrage creeping
that levels the Pyrenees?

Is time intangible
that bears so audible
and visible a thing?

Can’t you hear the children and women cry
where the Fascist bomb
makes the people’s home
a tomb for you and me?

Can’t you see the gashes in the street
where our people stumble
when the city trembles?
Can’t you smell the rose held in the teeth
tighter than death?

They who lie so still
with no Cross,
only this, their courage, their faith
manures the barren earth
for new trees
to spring up the hill-side to the very sky.

That we should be insensible at such a time
Makes deafness kill and peace the bloodier crime.

June 1939

On Being Questioned After Capture: Alcaniz

I stood before my questioner who asked
‘Why leave home?
Why have you come?
Why?’ He must have guessed
‘Because he is a Communist.’

I thought of all the answers I could give
whether death is correct or whether to save
life for a rainy day
and told a lie to cheat his bullet with a word
to use a bullet afterward

On him the bigger lie – a conscript
‘volunteer’ to rape Spain where she slept
to save his own skin
he had come when he sought ‘The Leader’ on his hands and
To crush a thousand years in half an hour
To make Guernica
a wilderness.

I could wait and so could lie
for adjournment to another court
meanwhile to live on my bended knee
to make occasion for another start.
I could imitate the victor, cringe
till I and the world beyond
take our revenge.



Because it’s time for a revolution.
To end the beating-up of man by man,
To do away with the police nark, stool pigeon, assassin
Judge, gaol.

Because in the common people
We have found something much more beautiful
Than king, God or individual;
That is bad reason
To blunt the nature of our fellow men,
Their will
To climb the steep hill, strip in the sun,
Walk along the river bank, watch the water fowl, to fish
Or sit lazily sucking the juicy end of rich grass,
To take one’s girl on a pillion ride
Away from the town down to the sea side.
The writer who says he has no time to care
For the daffodil or cowslip shames
The very revolution he proclaims.
He is no better than the millionaire
Who clears the ground of trees, shrubs, weeds
To make his lawns monotonously green
Forbidden to all except the mowing machine.

Don’t insult the bugger on the dole.
He loves the taste and smell of a good meal –
Sure! – but he loves as well
Fresh air, a salty breeze and brown earth still.

It is for these, the joy of being in a man
That the factory hand is ready to risk all,
Can take what’s coming to him, and rebel.

Let every Englishman fight for this cause –
Communism is English! Freedom is Ours!


Barred, the inflexible day – cell walls
stone-flat concrete and bricks, sky out of reach,
and in chains – Thaelmann. The man built,
like the fugitive in the hay stack, the would-be clerk,
a world against oppression, war on each
past year that spreads its avalanche of dark
over the new trees, the beginning, the green success.

Only the light of invincible early morning.
Only the distinct rattle of the world
dragging fetters. Only the prison bell rings.
And keys, voices of men and warders, unlocked doors
shut like an empty plate, and the grey old
evening twilight. Night brings a poverty of stars
window bound. And the whisper of all moving.

Thoughts of You

When the edge of day’s flag is tattered
Long before hours terminate day’s end
In bitter wind,
And birds’ wings lag,
And smoke crawls softly from the power-station chimney.

When at the end of a long day’s labour
Night scrapes the clodded blade of day
Metallic clean, and engines tire,
Before this fire sleeps,
Thoughts of you drift from the still smouldering embers.

3 July 1942, Gulunche, near Poona

When I Come Back

When I come back after this long journey
(Some have claimed to return from the dead,
Hence the great temples built beside slums)
And I meet you, stranger, on the platform.
Your face I dimly remember among many,
I look for the signs I want, little gestures –
Your tiny hand, so friendly touching,
And the firm but gentle leading of your arm towards home.

Yes, it’s you alright, but even so
The long time we’ve been away makes me shy.
(So deeply susceptible is humanity
To the need for trust in someone other)
Shy because I wouldn’t tread too hard
On the rare mosaic of our comradeship
From the days when we knew each other well.
And timid because like time we haven’t stood still.

Then we will talk of all kinds of things.
But neither will take note of the words nor meaning
Only listen for the loved music of the voice
That is familiar even after so much silence.
You will prompt me to speak and I as well
With quiet applause will ask you to say again
Anything you like to prevent the return
Even a little longer of our separation.

When I am sure that you are you and no dream.
How often my longing was peopled with hollow ghosts!
And you feel confident that we are really met.
Then will we want to test our assurances;
Feel the warmth of our breathing, the softness
Of your breasts along with the movement,
Caressing and fervent holding of body
To body. To close our eyes and sleep completely.

After more words will gather meaning as we speak
Each will have much to tell of what happened
Changes in outlook, new circumstances
The foundations on which with act upon thought
We build a new life. Put into practice
The schemes we visualised on a grey London evening
And under an Indian sun meet and change and merge –
And we’ll climb up the steps where hovels once levelled the world.

Where Light Breaks Up

Where light breaks up obscurity for sunrise,
And peace accumulates the parts of storm.
Where death’s the sequence of the pregnant womb
An embryo contains the adult’s size.
Where mountain peaks hold up the moving skies
Their might is tunnelled by the invidious worm;
Where clouds pile up their cumbersome white form
The flat laborious plain of wheat-fields lies.

Women and children build up the only road
Where overhead the shells of death whine past
And cattle graze indifferent to the din.
I felt perhaps I’d understood at last
By close observance of all that nature showed
‘When life has gone, then where does death begin?’

the Burma front, February 1944


‘Smokestack has done a great service in bringing Branson’s valuable poetry back into a wider public circulation.’

The Recusant