Thursday, March 29, 2012

Yes, I Think It Would Be A Good Idea

Tony Benn & Roy Bailey
St George's Bristol
29 March

I am guessing that one or two of the congregation at St Georges on Thursday night already knew what Ghandi said when someone asked him what he thought of Western civilisation. A lot of them had probably heard of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers. But when Tony Benn tells an old political story, you clap anyway. I wasn't quite clear if we were clapping the actual passage from Soul of Man Under Socialism which he read out, or the sacred name of Oscar Wilde, or Tony Benn, national treasure. It didn't really seem to matter.

I can't remember when Tony Benn became a national treasure. In the 80s, the smart thing to say was that there were only two decent politicians, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, the honest commie and the honest fascist. There may be something in that, in as much as they both regarded saying what they thought as more important than advancing their political careers. Although Benn worked pretty hard at advancing his political career, as well. If he had succeeded in replacing Dennis Healey as deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, as he very nearly did, then the whole political landscape of 21st century Britain would probably be exactly the same.

He's very frail now: he had to be helped onto the stage, though he stood up to speak. The idea was that he would do some political readings and tell some political anecdotes; and Roy Bailey would sing some protest songs in between. The whole thing was meant to add up to an informal history of the radical movement in England. Bailey's opening number was a powerful rant about English school history lessons, somewhere between "What Did You Learn In School?" and "1066: And All That." The songs were meant to reflect what Benn had been talking about, so if Benn spoke about the Peasants Revolt Bailey would sing "With Ball and Tyler, Wraw and Lister, Grindcobbe and Jack Straw"; if Benn spoke about the Diggers and Bailey would (of course) sing "In 1649, to St George's Hill..."  But fairly rapidly, this format broke down and Benn just talked and Bailey just sang songs. It worked just fine. 

We probably already knew that his mother thought that the Bible was the story of the conflict between the kings, who had the power, and the prophets, who preached righteousness, and that he decided when he was very small which side he wanted to be on. We'd also heard the one about the women who tied teddy bears to the fence outside Greenham Common (which contained enough weapons to blow up the whole world several times over) and were sent to prison for a breach of the peace. He would wound up his section ("that's all I have to say to you...") straight after the interval, leaving Bailey to fill the second half by himself. It wasn't clear if Benn was too tired to carry on, or had merely lost his place in his notes. I think this meant that Bailey had to resort to standards he wouldn't otherwise have sung, but he knows one or two protest songs so this was hardly a problem. He had to work quite hard to persuade the audience to join in. (His slow, thoughtful World Turned Upside Down is just as valid as Billy Bragg's electric one or Dick Guaghan's snarled one, but harder to sing along to. In the interval a local choir, possibly the Roving Blades, sung Ye Diggers All Stand Up without any provocation at all.)  But with a bit of prodding, the Bristol culteratti were persuaded to agree that wherever workin' men are out on strike, Joe Hill was probably at their side. Rosselson was well represented, of course, not only "World Turned Upside Down" but also a very touching "Palaces of Gold". (I couldn't place the very touching ballad about the old man who lives as a recluse because "they say that in his younger day he loved another man" but it sounded Rosselsonian to me.) So was the aforementioned Robb Johnson: we had the repetitive, rabble rousing "Medals Bloody Medals" and a more thoughtful piece about Vic Williams, the soldier who became a conscientious objector during Blair's war, which I felt summed up the political message of the evening rather well. 

The enemy ain't the other side wherever they draw the line
The enemy is the ruling class who draw the bloody line

I've been at revivalist meetings. They usually involve a good looking but learned preacher talking for an hour and half about the second chapter of Nehemiah, with references to the original Greek. And I'm not sure why everyone complains about preaching to the choir. The choir aren't necessarily particularly religious, they just joined up because they like singing. Benn's beliefs become progressively narrow as he gets older: he reads from Utopia and the writings of the Diggers about how there should be no private property and how everyone should share everything and how real wealth would be not having to worry about the future because the state will take such good care of you when you get old. He gets a big laugh by saying that crazy ideas like giving women the vote were once dismissed as "Utopian". He assures us that Cromwell solved the house of Lords by making a law that said "The House of Lords shall no longer meet, either here or anywhere else". Everyone agreed that war was a jolly bad thing. Nelson Mandela was included on the list of non-violent protesters. I don't know if everyone in the audience was really a pacifist communist. I don't know how Oliver Cromwell would have got to to abolish the house of lords and the royal family if he'd been a pacifist. I don't know if there is really any hypocrisy involved in swearing allegiance to the Queen and then trying, democratically, to replace her with an elected head of state. I'm not sure that the army is the best career to go for if you are a conscientious objector. It didn't actually seem to matter terribly. 

Benn was pleased that the concert was taking place in a former church because the progressive movement has been bound up with religion from the very beginning; whether we are talking John Ball and the peasants' revolt, the conscientious objectors who felt that they couldn't be warriors and followers of the Prince of Peace and the Diggers who talked about a creator-of-reason rather than the traditional Christian God. But this doesn't prevent Bailey finishing the evening by belting out the violently anti-religious (and very good) "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus" to thunderous applause.

In his last illness, a male nurse told Bernard Shaw that he had to get better because he was a national institution. "You mean an ancient monument" snapped Shaw. Well, quite.