Ordinary Giants – the story

Ordinary Giants is a story of the life and times of Ronald Walter Johnson, a family history of England since the First World War. Ron was born on the 28th of January 1922, in Fulham, West London, the second son of Ernest Isaac Johnson and Lilian Johnson, née Brice.

Ern and Lil had been married just over four years earlier, during a Zeppelin air raid. Ron, 5’10” tall, volunteered for the RAF when the Second World War was officially declared in 1939, and then worked as a teacher in the state education service, created as part of the post-war Welfare State. The Welfare State was the British response to the global demands for change, social progress and social justice, that had become increasingly insistent with the crises and failures of capitalism and imperialism signified by the catastrophes of the twentieth century’s two great “world” wars.

Ron became a father when I was born Christmas Day 1955. He retired as a head teacher in 1982, and died on the 19th of August 2013, in Brighton General hospital, just over three years into a new age of austerity imposed by a government ideologically opposed to social justice, social progress and to the Welfare State’s commitment to state provision and state responsibility.

When I was writing these notes, I kept coming across arguments, or perhaps more correctly, excuses, that people in the past should not be criticised for expressing ideas and opinions now held to be unacceptable. These arguments and excuses insist it is not possible for us to escape the conditioning of our historical and social context. I am not convinced by this; even accepting a materialistic model of development by economic determinism, there need to have been people whose thinking wasn’t limited to the horizons of their birth, who were therefore committed to change, who believed it was and is plain Wrong to burn women as witches, men for their gay sexuality, that it was and is plain Wrong to deny people the vote, to deny people their human rights, wrong to to keep slaves, wrong to scapegoat Jews, Muslims, public sector workers, the disabled… otherwise how would we have arrived at where we are now? My dad would sometimes talk about something he called “the human spirit”, that he believed was a innate and irreducible inclination towards those positives usually shorthanded by words like love, justice, kindness and generosity, that is independent of and resistant to social and political determination. People imagine better worlds, and people can and do make choices. Those choices are supported and enabled by the information we receive, so that was why, I think, Ron was so committed to the idea of the importance of education, as a practical social strategy for developing and strengthening that human spirit. This commitment to the values of love, justice, kindness and generosity can be seen in the trajectory of Ron’s generation, all those ordinary lives born in the shadow of the First World War. These individuals collectively fought against fascism, the last desperate strategy capitalism resorts to when it is otherwise failed and exhausted, but also they fought and worked for the creation of a better world, a new society, a society characterised by ideas of humanity and equality, love and peace

For my father, perhaps more than any other photograph, the central image of his life is the picture of the crew of the World War Two Liberator he flew in, J Johnnie. He wasn’t defined by it, but it characterised much of who he thought he was, and he carried the quiet pride and the terrible trauma with him in pretty much equal although, as the years passed, largely unseen measure, forever after. My grandfathers carried the mud of Flanders forever after; my dad had to work out how to make sense of the scars caused by bomber command’s infernos. My grandfathers found they had been fighting for something ultimately shabby and hollow, as the narrative of King and Country shifted through a war to end all wars, to a Land Fit for Heroes, and patently none of it was true. So they retreated to their gardens. With their example in mind, the majority of Ron’s generation were determined to win not just a war, but the peace as well. Not all of them, of course, just as not all of Britain, or France, or indeed Germany for that matter, had been immune to the rhetoric of fascism. But enough of them were, to ensure post-war Britain was a place they felt had been worth their fighting for, and it took the elite, the old order of privilege, hierarchy, selfishness and spite four decades before they were again able to attempt to turn the clocks back with their Victorian Values.

Ordinary Giants is dedicated with love and respect to my dad, and the generations referenced in these songs, and their aspirations and achievements. When the sky was falling, they kept the sky from falling. They worked together, as the crew, as the team, as the union, as the school, as the NHS, for the well-being of all, and towards a new democracy that would be characterised by ideas of humanity and equality, love and peace, where people would be priced not as commodities but valued for their own innate, inherent worth, beyond the price of any money.

Robb Johnson


The crew of J Johnnie

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