TWO days on and I am still finding it hard to come to terms with the death of Pete Seeger.
Okay the old buffer was 94 years-old, and his passing was surely imminent; but like Nelson Mandela of a similar vintage, his death is more than sad.
He touched countless lives singing for unions, children and presidents and ordinary working people.
He turned a Bible verse and an African chant into hit records, travelled with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and championed Bob Dylan.
He also adapted a gospel song to sing for union workers and created a timeless anthem for civil rights with We Shall Overcome.
As a singer and songwriter, Seeger led the re-emergence of folksong performance during the 1950s and was a key figure in the folk revival in the 1960s.
A multitude of artists recorded and performed his work across six decades, including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
He recorded more than 100 albums himself.
But above all, Seeger, blacklisted in the mid-1950s at the height of McCarthyism, was a radical and a true leader of dissent against what is/was wrong in our world.
Seeger made his first recordings in New York in 1940 with the Almanac Singers and the group recorded popular anti-war ballads.
But war is war, and Seeger was drafted into the US Army and was drafted to the Pacific in 1942. The following year he married his lifelong sweetheart Toshi Ohta.
In 1948, together with Lee Hays and other veterans of the Almanacs, Seeger formed the Weavers.
They quickly became one of the most successful musical acts in America.
But then came the anti-communist blacklist.
The Weavers were banned from radio and television.
As the US wide paranoia grew and with their scheduled appearances and commercial recording contracts cancelled, the group dissolved in 1953.
In the 1960s came the folk revival, and later the folk-rock boom caught up with him. Covers of songs he wrote or recorded became global hits.
The newer generation of more commercial musicians owed him a deep debt: Peter, Paul and Mary regarded themselves as the Weavers’ successors, and singers from Joan Baez and Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan have all paid tribute to him.
The 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home contains insight from Seeger, Bob Dylan and others into that legacy.
Seeger’s political activity increased after his blacklisting in the 1960s, with the challenges to liberalism and the division of the US over the Vietnam War.
Despite musical progression, Seeger remained a favourite at demonstrations, teach-ins and sing-outs of all kinds for the next 40 years.
He continued to adapt to changing situations and political issues.
In 1969 he launched the sloop Clearwater in the Hudson, beginning a 30 year campaign to clean the river, which was close to his home in Peekskill, New York, and to publicise the ecology movement.
Over the past few years he spoke out strongly against US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Through all this, Seeger endured and performed steadily.
During the inauguration weekend for Barack Obama in 2009, Seeger, on stage with Springsteen, delivered a rousing version of the Woody Guthrie favourite This Land Is Your Land.
It was an extraordinary moment in American life with the singer-rebel at the very centre.
But it was also steeped in deep irony, as like Bob Dylan before him at Bill Clinton’s inauguration Blue Jeans Bash in 1993, here was the leader of counter-culture hand in hand with the leader of the corporate world he so deeply distrusted.
And the similarities don’t end there.
At his death we have a world tangled up in blue, a world gone wrong, a world in the grip of greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, wall to wall pornography, war mongers and global murderers, a police state set fast in imposed capitalist ethics.
Pete passed on the folk protest movement baton to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 as the ‘younger generation’.
Bob may have dropped that baton a few times and the music has moved on, but others such as Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked, Ani DiFranco, Tom Robinson and Paul Weller have picked it up and tried to carry it.
But with Pete’s passing we lack a global leader… a living spirit of musical protest.
Even my own hero Bob Dylan is almost 73, and his political candle never burned as brightly as Pete’s.
Something is missing… or more poignantly, someone is missing.
We need the oxygen of a new leader to help us learn how to think and question this insane world we live in.
We live in a corporate world begging for the individual to make a difference.
Music and true word can do that.
RIP Pete… never forgotten
Christine Hamilton and Boris Becker
THIS brief encounter is a tale of two blondes and a missing book token!
It is April 2005 and I am a guest of Radio Five Live at the BBC Television Centre. I have been invited down to London for the day after being voted Five Live’s Football Fan of the Year for 2004 (a story for another blog maybe!).
It is late morning and I am due to appear for a five minute slot at the end of Victoria Derbyshire’s radio show – Victoria and her producer Ian Shoesmith had organised the Football Fan of the Year poll three months earlier.
Ian has briefed me about my short interview on the show – about the costs of inland rail and air travel – and I am waiting outside the recording studio for my turn.
The studio door opens and a tall and very familiar blonde man brushes past me, says ‘excuse me’ and smiles. It is three times Wimbledon champion and TV commentator Boris Becker. He is smartly dressed in a sharp suit and, having completed his piece for Victoria’s show is rushing off to his next appointment.
Behind Boris an equally familiar blonde-haired figure has entered the studio to be interviewed by Victoria. She is instantly recognisable as Christine Hamilton, the wife of former disgraced ‘cash for questions’ Tory MP Neil Hamilton. By 2005, Christine had reinvented herself as a TV personality in her own right. In 2002 she appeared in series one of the gross reality TV show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and in 2004 as a panelist on Loose Women.
In real life she has the same air and swagger of arrogance so often captured in her TV moments on Have I Got News for You.
Her slot on Victoria’s show lasts about eight minutes. Leaving, she brushes past me without any acknowledgement before her PA leads her away.
I am on next… I am quietly ushered into the studio and sit diagonally opposite Ms Derbyshire.
The interview is brief and our exchange is light and full of good humour.
Before we close, Victoria asks me live on air whether I have enjoyed my visit to Television Centre and whether I received the £50 book token as part of my prize for being Football Fan of the Year.
I tell her I have had a fabulous time and without a second thought add: “I think Christine Hamilton has left the book token in a brown envelope outside the studio”. There is a muffled guffaw as the show closes.
NOTE: Nine years on and the book token has still not arrived. Neil and Christine Hamilton are both now prominent members of UKIP.
Life is a journey we walk alone
A steady path
With no road home
Time is a war against the unknown
Within every bone
Strangers come and lovers go
And wounds below
Age descends as years pass by
Feet on the ground
And eyes to the sky
Mistakes count too many
Yet joys are too few
We hold on tight and enjoy the view
The stumble you see is in your eyes
To me it is a pace
As I meet the rise
The stone in my shoe has been there awhile
It eases the pain
When I climb the next stile
So join me now on this lonely climb
The hill that awaits
Is yours and mine
The cold blushes
The merciless east wind
Eyes wide on this isolated
Confusing memories of past
Stunned by the still silence
Gulls swoop and squawk like
Addled senses and bones now
Twitching feet on the muddy
Dull rumours of another
Behind the idling car does
Beneath the cold grey
Beyond a moments’ choice
To roll in pain on
Or retreat sanely
To write once more of
Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe’s granny
AS supreme middle distance runners in the late 1970s and early 1980s Steve Ovett and Seb Coe were inseparable.
Now, as subjects for this Brief Encounter, I have brought the duo together again… the encounters were separated by 15 years and in Coe’s case, his granny will have to suffice.
A bit of a tentative link, but journalists are always looking for an angle to a story!
The first part of this story lies on an Inter City train journey from Leeds to London.
It was the spring of 1977 and I was travelling home from university to see mum and dad, who lived on the south coast near the seaside town of Worthing. It was a hot day; thankfully the train carriage was only half full and I had a front facing seat to myself. But as the express pulled into Doncaster station, it started to fill up with others heading south. I glanced up to see a smart but elderly lady take the seat opposite me. She was struggling with her suitcase, so I jumped up and helped her store the case in the luggage area behind her.
As the train pulled out on its continued journey to London, I relaxed back into my seat to continue reading the paperback novel I had bought at the WH Smith store on Leeds station concourse. The lady opposite was glancing at a broadsheet newspaper and looking wistfully out the window at the passing countryside.
About 20 minutes passed before she suddenly asked where I was from and where I was going. I explained that I was a student going home for a weekend with my family. The lady asked about my university course and said she too was going home after visiting her son in Sheffield. We struck up a conversation, which lasted almost an hour and helped the journey pass more quickly. The lady told me she had been recently widowed and lived for visits to see her son and grandchildren. She said her grandson was at university at Loughborough and she saw less of him now he was away from home. She said he did a lot of running and was becoming quite good at it.
Before long the train had pulled into Kings Cross station. I lifted my rucksack onto my back and offered to carry the old lady’s suitcase along the platform. She thanked me warmly. As we said goodbye on the station concourse I glanced down at the luggage tag on her suitcase… it said simply: Violet Coe.
In 1977 Sebastian Coe was already becoming a top British 800 metre runner. Three years later he won 1500m gold at the Moscow Olympics… a feat he repeated at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
I had spent a memorable two hours with his proud granny.
My liaison with his rival Steve Ovett was much more straightforward.
Steve and I are the same age. We both grew up in the environs of Brighton and Hove, on the Sussex coast. In 1967 at age 11 we both began at high school. I went to the old fashioned – almost Victorian – Hove County Grammar School for Boys, whereas Steve started at the more modern and trendy Varndean School. My only brush with Steve at this time was in an inter-schools cross country race where I finished 37th and Steve probably won or came second!
Years later he became one of my two lifetime sporting idols – the other was former Brighton footballer Kit Napier – as he scorched the track to become (in my eyes at least) our greatest ever 1500 metre runner.
As the track rivalry between him and Sebastian Coe developed in the late 1970s and 1980s, my support was always 100% for Ovett. Not only was he a Brighton lad, but his anti-establishment air was the perfect rebuff to Coe’s smug arrogance, both on the track and in post-race TV interviews.
I leapt off the sofa, punching the air when Ovett won the 800 metre gold medal at the 1980 Olympics and sulked when he only took bronze at his favourite distance, the 1500 metres, a few days later.
When he retired from international athletics after his 5,000 metre gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, he was firmly established as a personal hero.
So when I was given the chance to interview him in 1992, it was an opportunity I would not miss.
At the time I was living and working in Mid Argyll on the west coast of Scotland and Steve had been invited by John Holt, the retired general secretary of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, to start a half marathon to help raise £500,000 to build a local swimming pool.
After the race, I joined Steve and John in the bar of a hotel in Lochgilphead for a pint and an interview.
Apart from a few smile lines and his rapidly disappearing hair, Steve hadn’t changed much in appearance since his glory years. He talked in detail how following his 1980 Olympic triumph, his 1982 season was wrecked by injury. When out training on the streets of Brighton in late 1981, he glanced across the road and ran into some railings at St John the Baptist Church on New Church Road and badly twisted his knee. It was a road and location we both knew well. He also talked about how bronchitis ruined his chances of any success in the 1984 Olympics.
But he was glad he had achieved so much in sport and when I asked him if he had any political ambitions like Sebastian Coe, he laughed out loud and said: “What do you think?”
He showed me his bandaged left thumb. “I did that last weekend with a bloody hammer, while renovating a cottage at our home,” he said, “That’s the limit of my ambitions! Although I am doing some TV punditry for Sky TV at the moment,” he added with a grin.
The formal interview lasted about 15 minutes before I mentioned to Steve where I grew up. We then spent another 45 minutes chatting about Brighton and Hove and mutual friends from our years as kids.
Steve was effusive and told me to pop by for a cup of tea, if ever I was passing his home near Annan, in south west Scotland.
As we shook hands to say goodbye I told him he was my hero. He almost blushed as he looked me in the eyes and said: “Thank you… but what a load of rubbish. I was born with an ability to run, that’s all, I am not different from you or anyone else in this pub.”
Born in time
But out of line
I never knew where I was heading
Along dusty lanes
Beach combed pebbles I was treading
Dark wood pain
Scarred my brain
My own faint shadow I was dreading
Back from hell
A witch’s spell
Another chance at life I was begging
Ripped right through
Who is who?
Years and happiness I was shredding
Hand in hand
And nothing planned
Grey clothed future at our wedding
Look out across the years, can you see me crying?
Your memory fades with each passing night and day
From the beginning I knew that you were lying
Your colour shifts from red to shades of grey
I see through your deceit, I know that you are hurting
Regret it covers your face up like a cape
Memories now become quite disconcerting
I still wonder how you managed to escape
I hear your angry voice, rant like a drum beat
You were protecting yourself last time we spoke
I only asked you for conversation and made it discrete
I’ve never guessed you’d hide yourself up in that smoke
I sent you my feelings in a confidential letter
But you just played at God with Abel and Cain
Ten years further on I think I know you better
But how do you live your life with all that pain?
In my earth-filled coffin I think I will remember
The venom that was howling unrefined
Now old fires they just die to a glowing ember
And anger decomposes in the wasteland of your mind
AS Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove crawls from the wreckage of his incoherent and indefensible ramblings of how World War 1 was indeed a Great War, why are we using £50 million of public money to commemorate a catastrophe, from which, in 2014, there are no survivors?
And if we honour the fallen Allied soldiers of the 1914-18 conflict, will we do the same for the German soldiers or indeed the dead of the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Boer War, the battles of Bannockburn and Culloden or the dead from the English Civil War, Agincourt, Crecy or even the Battle of Hastings?
Where does logic and reality stop and politics and propaganda begin?
And does Gove really know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme?
The reasons given for this year’s World War 1 commemoration is that we must remember our dead. “They died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget.”
As a child I remember sitting on my Great Uncle Jack’s knee as he told me tales of the Somme and the mud, horror and death. He showed me the 11 inch scar on his back where a German sniper had almost taken his life as he crawled back to his trench from no man’s land. And he also told me of his older brother Bernet who died from typhus fever in the trenches at the Somme, like many thousands of his compatriots.
I have my Uncle Jack’s pencil written letters from the front – and from hospital – at my side as I write this blog.
There was no glory, no heroism, just the mechanised slaughter of millions of young working class men.
As World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen wrote: ‘the poetry is in the pity’.
One example of the mindless killings occurred on the 24 and 25 September 1915 when the 4th Black Watch was decimated at Loos.
“Haig had ample warning that an unprepared attack by two untrained divisions was unlikely to succeed. And so the stage was set for a repetition of the charge at Balaclava. For the set-piece attack of the 11th Corps was as futile and foredoomed as that of the Light Brigade. There had been 12 battalions making the attack, a strength of just under ten thousand, and in the three and a half hours of the actual battle their casualties were 385 officers and 7,861 men. The Germans suffered no casualties at all.”
Little wonder the Germans called the battlefield “Leichenfeld (field of corpses) von Loos”.
Perhaps in war, it’s the names that count. Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s Cathedral or Les Invalides. The soldiers were simply dumped into mass graves.
At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped back to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled by their unsuspecting farmer sons. No posthumous glory for them.
It is perhaps easier to believe that the names will “live for evermore” even though hundreds of thousands of World War 1 British and French and Germans and Austrians and Irishmen in British uniform and Hungarians and Indians and Russians and Americans and Turks and even Portuguese have no graves at all.
The last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Brussels by the Germans for rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, are inscribed on her monument beside the National Gallery: “Patriotism is not enough.”
In the four years of World War 1, Britain endured 658,700 fatalities, 2,032,150 wounded and 359,150 men missing in action. This adds up to total of over three million casualties from one side alone.
Add to this the four million fatalities from the German side and other civilian deaths, the total death toll was in excess of 16 million. About two million deaths were from disease and infection.
No glory, just death and suffering.
Historian Phillip Knightley wrote that during the war: “More deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth”.
When war broke out in 1914, it did so to flag waving and patriotism. Men were promised honour, glory and a conflict over by Christmas.
This was the Great War, to end all wars!
These were times of great social inequality and disenfranchised boys from the poorest communities could, for the first time, be useful. The army offered food, clothing, camaraderie and the respect of the nation.
Enlistment was a collective endeavour – many battalions were made up of men from the same villages. They joined together and died together.
There was no way out. Not to join was cowardice – a treacherous act which would bring shame upon their family and nation.
And they would be fighting against an identifiable evil.
The British propaganda painted German Kaiser Wilhelm as the devil incarnate. The Daily Mail of 22 September 1914 portrayed him in separate reports as a “lunatic”, “madman”, “barbarian”, “monster”, and “modern Judas”.
The German soldier raped, mutilated and tortured. Stories of Hun atrocities in Belgium were front page news despite there being little proof of their occurrence.
The Times of 8 January, 1915, stated: “The stories of rape are so horrible in detail that their publication would seem almost impossible were it not for the necessity of showing to the fullest extent the nature of the wild beasts fighting under the German Flag.”
This was the absolute necessity of conflict; ironically the same necessity that Michael Gove now points to as he rewrites the history of the war and instills his own propaganda.
Cambridge history Professor Richard Evans accuses Mr Gove of gross oversimplification: “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-1906.”
Unlike Germany – where male suffrage was universal – 40 per cent of those British troops fighting in the war did not have the vote until 1918.
“The Kaiser was not like Hitler, he was not a dictator… this was not Nazi Germany,” he added.
So when we read about the heroism of all those dead men, when we pause to consider their sacrifice we should remember also a propaganda system which romanticised and demonised, misled and obfuscated.
As Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1916, said: “If the people really knew the truth the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”
And what they don’t know, can’t hurt, can it, Mr Gove?
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!
An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
October 1917 – March 1918