Part Three 1970-2018
1. Semi-Detached Suburban
3. Did You Go to Eton? 1976
4. A Cold Wind Coming
5. Desk Job
6. Have You Seen the News? 1984
7. Lou 1988
8. Brown and Black in the Union Jack
9. At the End of the Day
10. Who Buggered Bognor?
11. Slow Progress 2009
12. All You Need is Tweed
13. A Land Fit for Privilege 2010
14. The Clock Beyond Repair
15. Too Soon Tomorrow
16. Dancing Round the Sun
17. The Valediction
18. Ordinary Giants
Ordinary Giants | Part Three
One of the handy consequences, from the ruling class point of view, of the pop culture revolutions of the 60s was that it was possible to redirect attention and energy away from the class struggle by presenting social tensions as being the consequence of a conflict between generations. What started as a confrontational sit-com dramatisation of conflicting political values in a domestic working class setting, Till Death Do Us Part, articulated those tensions as a generational conflict, which somehow allowed the foul-mouthed racist homophobic misogynistic working-class conservative character to become a lovable popular culture figurehead.
And for Ron and Betty, time and economics meant that in the 1960s those family Sundays and big family Christmases stopped happening, as their siblings moved away all over the country in search of better job prospects, and their parents died, and they had nothing but their only son and each other to hold on to. And we all had our own aspirations, experiences and post 60s agendas to deal with too.
You might have noticed that Ron has not really had much to say lately. That is because, despite the earthquakes of youth culture, pop culture, the confrontational politics underlying the Wilson and Heath dialectic, he kept on being focussed on identifying, as far as it was possible, the best way to educate each and every one of the children who went to the school where he was the head teacher.
I have to say, I used to watch him, and his quietly self-important suit and tie and holy Jesus briefcase, return from this struggle every day, and – however much I loved him in principle – I would vow I was never ever going to become such a petty self-important state functionary. The children he taught, of course, never thought anything but good and highly of him, I think.
But Ron is also absent because he was simply enacting choices he had made, quietly without anyone – even himself perhaps — noticing, when he was a teenager in the late 1930s. Ron was a goalkeeper. Like one of my other all-time heroes and big-time influences, Albert Camus, he opted to be the last one on the line, the one tasked with ensuring no pasaran is a reality, not just a slogan. I have, I think, always known this about Ron: he never gave up. He didn’t make a big deal of it, and sometimes he did a bit of denial, a bit of editing; but all his life, he was quietly standing on the goal line, determined not to let his mates down, determined not to let the other side, the heartless and entitled Premier division Public schooling side, get the better of his mates, his class, his kids, the urchins and ragamuffins who Citizen Clem’s government had at last admitted deserved a decent chance and a proper education just as much as the leafy well-offs who always got the named parts up till then without question, just because of where they came from.
And looking through the collection of old school reports and empty folders for that piece Ron wrote on his return from captivity in 1945 about the triumph of the human spirit even in that captivity, that he refused to include in his memoir, I found this sheet of A4 typed paper that Ron had kept with him since 1939, that for Ron, and for much of me too likewise, says it all. It is entitled Heston Congregational Church Young People’s Fellowship and Ron has handwritten “Summer 1939” beside the title. These are the parts of the text my seventeen-year-old father underlined, the values that I recognise as having stayed with him for the rest of his life:
“We believe that man can only find his true life in practical fellowship… the fellowship in which man can find himself, we believe, is based upon our nature as persons and is therefore not limited by family, sex, nation, race, class or creed, but is possible between all men. It is found where men co-operate on a basis of freedom and equality… We therefore make our stand for a society of workers co-operating in action to meet human need and to enrich our common life.”
Did You Go to Eton? 1976 (Toby Utterswine)
Tony Benn in his diaries expresses disbelief that Tory MP Airey Neave had put in place a possible plan to have him assassinated. He was nonetheless the target of an unprecedented campaign of verbal assassination, abuse and ridicule in the right-wing press. Airey Neave was himself the victim of a genuine assassination, in the Houses of Parliament car park, apparently by the INLA, who were apparently also responsible for blowing up the Queen’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, on his yacht which was rather carelessly — given the state of play in Northern Ireland at the time — moored off the coast of Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, shadowy rightwing interest groups like The Freedom Association were quite happy to ignore the rule of law, supporting Grunwick boss George Ward in his defiance of the findings of the Labour government’s Scarman Inquiry. The Right had had enough of consensus politics; as far as they were concerned, it was high time to show all these hippies, flower children, loony lefties, trots and trade unionists who was really in charge. As the amiable, respectable, hardworking and deserving, working classist Sunny Jim Callaghan government shuffled about like a headless chicken between the IMF and the oil crisis, Toby and his chums were working hard to bring heartlessness back as a central Victorian value of a new Tory politics that felt no noblesse oblige whatsoever, and were prepared, like the American bombing campaigns in Vietnam, to drain the ocean in order to kill the fish, to destroy what was left of British industry in order to deny organised Labour its organisational base.
And why not exploit the hardwon sexual freedom of the permissive sixties by letting the workers look at tits for breakfast on page three of the newspaper we sell them? And let’s give Jimmy Savile an OBE while we’re at it.
A Cold Wind Coming (narrative)
Those twin towers by the Westway were icons in the psychogeography of punk. Fed up with pop music that was no longer theirs, no longer theirs in terms of both age and this time more importantly class, angry young men and women recuperated rock’n’roll in 1977, or thereabouts, on behalf of the people, and particularly their class and their generation. It was after all the people’s music – like traditional folk music, made by the likes of us for our own sakes, not for the sake of Court or Corporation, only with instruments to hand NOW, not those available on board HMS Victory in 18-0-fish&chips. And so it was again, determined not to get fooled again, or not even to bother much and simply prank Virgin Records for as much loot as possible. But fuck, was it exciting. There was Joe Strummer, living proof that you don’t have to settle for the horizons you’re born with, sitting up in Mick’s nan’s flat above the Westway, watching the lights on the A40 and writing London’s Burning, while down below the BORING Labour Party shuffled about like a headless chicken during The Winter Of Discontent, and the BORING National Front shambled about like a Nazi zombie looking for skinheads to infect
And the cold wind coming, imagined in Tom Robinson’s apocalyptic visions of The Winter of 79, the power in the darkness, the respectable, public school, grammar-school grocer’s-daughter-meets-Essexman kind of zombies looking for a whole nation to infect, howling like old Churchill’s ghost, howling for the good old bad old days of free enterprise, deregulation, private ownership, shareholder profits, where everything has a price, greed is good and the only morality is how much money can you make out of anything and everything, is the wind that forty years or so later will blow the sparks from the fourth floor of one of the neighbours of those twin towers, Grenfell Tower, into a flame that will dance up the cheap cladding and engulf tower and lives in a perfect demonstration of what happens if you make heartlessness the empty centre of your national politics.
Desk Job (The Man from The London Borough of Hounslow)
Ron retired in 1982, so he missed being there when the Tories came after his life’s work, with an increasing vengeance and a national curriculum designed specifically to teach children to walk on their hind legs without even thinking, and turn into turkeys who vote for Christmas when they grow up. My dad got a couple of new pictures for his walls, an illuminated scroll (or maybe I just made that bit up), and his very own leather-topped desk. I thought at the time, remembering my dad’s absolute 35 years of selfless devotion to the job: they bought you cheap, Dad. On the other hand, when I retired after 35 years, there was nothing left of local government to speak of, and I got a ukulele, which comes in very handy when I do supply teaching when there aren’t enough gigs to make the pension ends meet.
This track is bookended by spoken word conversations between guests at Ron’s Retirement Do. These were performed by some of the album’s Kickstarter supporters (there were three different Kickstarter campaigns to fund the album — one for recording, one for mixing and mastering, and a final one for manufacturing). I sent the Kickstarter pledgers a script, they recorded it on a mobile phone and sent it back to super Engineer Ali Gavan. This also occasioned one of the relatively few (for me anyway) cock-ups in the 64 page booklet that accompanies the CDs. I left off one group’s names from the credits. So to give credit where it is indeed due, James Saint-Prenderville, Niamh Saint-Prenderville and Kevin Saint performed the following dialogue:
1: Grove Park won’t be the same without Mr Johnson in charge.
2: Best head teacher ever.
3: Apparently he started teaching in 1947.
1: Best teacher ever.
2: Do you remember that story he used to tell about the donkey?
3: 1947… the Attlee government. The Welfare State.
1: I remember when we made that dinosaur with him.
2: He didn’t just teach you loads of boring facts.
3: We’d won the war, and we were going to win the peace too.
1: That dinosaur, it was as big as Stinky Bannister.
2: Yeah, Grove Park certainly won’t be the same without Mr Johnson in charge.
3: If you ask me, the whole country won’t be the same place with Mrs Thatcher in charge.
And here are the other scripts. Sometimes we didn’t use all of a script, and sometimes words get lost in the general buzz of conversation, but this is what everybody might have been saying:
Graham and Ella appeared as father and daughter, dad having also been in Nobby’s class:
1: ’Course, it was all different in my day.
2: Yes dad, you told me.
1: We was dead hard in Nobby’s Class.
2: Yes dad, I know, you told me.
1: And I was the only foreigner in Nobby’s Class, back then.
2: Yes dad, the only northerner, you told me.
1: There was me, and Tony Smith, and Tony’s girlfriend, Dawn Kershaw…
2: Yes dad, you told me, the Three Musketeers
1: ..the Three Musketeers… she was lovely, Dawn was…
2: Yes dad, you told me, the Julie Christie of Nobby’s Class.
1: … the JULIE Christie of Nobby’s Class. Course I’m not saying yer mum weren’t lovely too. It’s just she wasn’t JULIE Christie. But then… I wasn’t Tony Smith, was I?
2: Shhhh dad, speeches.
Dan and Emy are meeting up again after all these years
1: Good lord – Mary Smallpiece!
2: Stinky – Stinky Bannister!
1: No – Charlie Farnesbarnes.
2: Charlie! Of course, I’d recognise you anywhere.
1: Well I never, Mary Smallpiece. How are you doing these days?
2: Not bad, getting by. And yourself?
1: Not bad. Just wondering where the years went.
2: That’s right. Seems like only yesterday we’d be sat here in assembly.
1: He did tell a good story, Mr Johnson.
2: Yes. There was that one about the donkey…
1: And do you remember when we did Peter Pan? You were Tiger Lily.
2: Yes. And you were… Lost Boy number 12! Yes? Of course. You were ever so good… At being lost, I mean.
1: Hey, look, who’s that over there?
2: It’s Stinky – Stinky Bannister!
1: No, no, it’s that actor, the one off the telly.
2: Who? Which one do you mean?
1: You know, Ralph … Ralph Bates.
2: Really? Oh, speeches.
Chris and Dylan are investigating the council sandwiches:
1: What’s in this sandwich, Dad?
2: I think it looks like… something and chutney.
1: What’s that green bit then, Dad?
2: I think it’s supposed to be cucumber.
1: There’s something yellow in that one.
2: It’s probably cheese. Or it could be chicken.
1: Do you think Mr Johnson made all these sandwiches himself, Dad?
2: I expect the council helped.
1: Do you think there’s any Marmite sandwiches, Dad?
2: I can’t see any.
1: I’ll ask Mr Johnson. He knows everything.
2: He might be a bit busy at the moment.
1: Mr Johnson, Mr Johnson, did you make us any Marmite sandwiches Mr Johnson? Mr Johnson…
Chris, David, Gerard and Jon are reminiscing about Mr Johnson’s favourite poem:
1: Do you remember that poem, that poem about the sea?
2: Yes… about four girls going to the seaside.
3: “maggie and milly and molly and may”..
4: And one of them finds “a smooth round stone as small as a world & as large as alone”
1: maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
2: and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and…
3: may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
4: For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
3: e e cummings
1: e e cummings!
2: Never used capital letters.
4: Never used capital letters!
2: Why was that then? Was he rubbish at punctuation like I was?
1: I think it’s a political statement about identity and the human condition.
3: If it’s a choice between poetry and punctuation, I’d rather have poetry any day.
3: Nowadays it would be “Maggie sent Milly and Molly and May’s husbands off to the Falklands to get killed one day”
Andy is never forgetting a face:
Don’t tell me, I never forget a face. Stinky Bannister! … No? … Ginger Jenkins! … No? … Leslie … Leslie MacDougal… am I right? Oh…
Danny O’Shaughnessy… no?… No, don’t tell me… Zippy Cohen? … but you did play the recorder?
Are you sure you’re not Stinky Bannister? You look so much like old Stinky… were you in “Peter Pan”?
Rajinder Tomkins? … Dizzy Gillespie? … Legs Diamond? … Jingle Bell? … One-Way Street? … Lucky Dip? … Sydney Harbour? … Parking Meeta?…
Graham is meditating about retirement gifts:
It won’t be the same place without Mr Johnson..
Thirty five years, that’s a very long time indeed.
I wonder what he’s getting? They used to give you a gold watch. There’s that Donovan song, isn’t there, Goldwatch Blues … “Here’s your gold watch and the shackles for your chain, and your piece of paper to say you left here sane, and if you’ve a son who wants a good career, just get him to sign on the dotted line and work for 20 years.”
Then there’s that bit in that film London Belongs to Me where Stanley Holloway retires and they give him a clock for his mantelpiece, and they say “the rest of your time’s your own”, only it stops working as soon as he gets it home.
Have You Seen the News? 1984 (Toby Utterswine)
Coincidentally, the cold wind came for the 51-year-old Brentford Firestones Factory in 1979, the same year the Milk Snatcher came for the Welfare State in general and the miners in particular. The miners had been responsible for bringing down the unpopular Conservative government in 1974. They were widely regarded as the vanguard of the organised working class. Ironically, in 1984, the year in which Orwell imagined his bleak satire on 40s totalitarianism as a dystopian vision of a police state future, often presented as a critique of The Left, the Milk Snatcher had transformed herself into The Iron Lady of The Right, fully prepared in all respects to take on the miners and their communities. Not simply as an act of vengeance, but as a deliberate imposition of political values, the state provoked a miners’ strike and was then ready to use the full power of the state to break both the strike and the communities that supported it. Cynically, Thatcher’s 1979 election campaign was dressed up with posters of long winding queues of people underneath the slogan “Labour isn’t working”. Once elected, notwithstanding their overt politicisation of the police and the media, unemployment became the Tories’ real weapon of choice in exercising complete control on Airstrip One.
Lou 1988 (Gladys Brown)
Lou had started out as just one monologue too. But without Lou’s last words, how would we remember that we didn’t all give up, and what finished Thatcher off had a lot to do with lots of us not paying her Poll Tax. And look, thinking about what the Welfare State did for us, there’s Gladys’s Stan, who went to Art school with Keef and like Keef learned how to play guitar off Wizz Jones in the bogs, still earning a living as a working musician, and his partner Phillips has found some Hungarian champagne in memory of the anarchists in Hungary in ’56, cos he knows Lou was partial to a spot of anarcho-syndicalism in her later years.
And the part of Len is played by Dennis Skinner. Another funny thing happened during the Labour Party Conference, I heard Dennis Skinner sing. I had gone to see the film about him, The Beast of Bolsover, where we learn that Dennis sings, primarily songs from the shows in old people’s homes around his constituency. Dennis comes along for a question and answer session at the end too, and my little brain suddenly has a light bulb moment. As the session is drawing to a close, I call out “Give us a song Dennis, sing us home.” After a modicum of modest reluctance, Dennis gives us a song from South Pacific. I have surprised myself by managing to record this on my phone. But then Dennis says he could sing us the song he sang at the Albert Hall on the first anniversary of the miners’ strike, and launches into I Hear Thatcher which I also manage to record. He is besieged by happy comrades afterwards, so it takes me a while to get his permission to use it. Eventually, Facebook(!!!) turns up his phone number. I leave a message. I am just coming out of the DDR Museum in Berlin, in need of a bit of cheering up, when my mobile rings. It’s Dennis. He tells me about how singing his mum’s favourite music hall song broke through her Alzheimer’s, and goes on to sing some of the favourites from his Senior Citizens setlist, and I’m singing along by the Spree, trying not to worry how big my phone bill’s going to be. We get round to the possibility of using his song on the album, and he says, well, if you think it’s good enough go ahead. We talk a bit more about singing, then the line goes dead. Dennis rings back and jokes about it probably being MI5, and I say very possibly or we might also have lost connection because I’m in Berlin. Dennis says a quick goodbye, and good luck with the recording, with due comradely consideration, and I do a little dance in the rain.
Brown and Black in the Union Jack (Robb Johnson)
For me, the abiding work of art that sums up what I now think it was really like growing up in Hounslow, appeared in 1958. It was called A Sunday Afternoon at Home and it was written by the UK’s answer to Samuel Beckett, Galton and Simpson, and performed by Tony Hancock, impeccably supported by Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr, Hattie Jacques (who had also attended my mum’s Godolphin and Latymer Girls School) and Sid James (whose daughter Reina sings on this album). I remember staring out of my bedroom window on Sunday afternoons at the waste ground and the gardens of the houses that backed onto it, transfixed by tedium, watching in vain for something, anything, any sign of LIFE, well into the seventies. The place perked up no end once it started getting a bit multicultural. This song is my memories of that process, starting in 1963ish maybe with me and my mum walking up Kingsley Road to Colwyn Crescent, and carrying on till 1989, the tenth anniversary of the police murder of anti-fascist Blair Peach, and me also being the white man in Hammersmith Palais on a night out with me workmates.
And as my mate Rory McLeod, maestro of this song’s mighty ska trombone, pointed out with regard to the Bombay mix reference; fish’n’chips – that was originally a Jewish/Dutch invention.
At the End of the Day (Ernie Johnson)
Ron did indeed do cookery classes, watercolour classes, Spanish Classes (though his favourite Spanish expression was always “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”), wrote poetry and eventually, at the very start of the new millennium, when he was somewhat startled to find himself a grandfather, a memoir of what happened to him in the Second World War. His dedication read: “This handful of memories is dedicated to my wife Betty who was so certain that I would come back and has, every day of the fifty odd years since, made me eternally grateful that I did. To my son Robb for twisting my arm… Finally to my littlegGrandsons Hari and Arvin, in the fervent hope that they may never have a similar tale to tell.” His poetry is just as eloquent too, each word thoughtfully selected, carefully weighted, precisely placed and as polished as the pebbles he used to collect and tumble till they shone like something precious. He was always so enchanted by those pebbles, and shared them with any visitors; children particularly shared his unselfconscious delight in such an abundance of ordinary beauty. Just as that machine he had bought for polishing pebbles took its time revolving them round and round, Ron was a steady and steadfast workman, his poetic intelligence took its time, finding in events the raw material that he shaped into poems. There were two birthday poems – one for his sister Dorothy turning sixteen in the middle of a war, one for himself turning 70 with a walk in the park.
Tonight a thousand planes explode
The dreams of half a continent
And swiftly planned offensives load
The air with leaden discontent
While brief communiques commit
The added crime, impertinence
But when tomorrow’s daylight
Lays its flowers around her head
A sea of wondrous hours
Will surround my sister’s bed
Tonight a tight green peony bud
Will open to the sky
Its petals burst in blood-red flames
And stamened agony
Will blossom over distant towns
Traced out on maps to die
And yet my sister Dorothy
Will link arms with the sun
Reminding you that maps can lie
And pity everyone
Tomorrow she will be sixteen
And as the hours unfold
Find, mirrored in the evening stream
The far hill, and the harebell curled
Within the cupped arm of the moon
And she will own the world
And riding home on wind-blown
Raindrops, racing falling stars
Her eyes will meet and quietly own
The endless smile of flowers
BIRTHDAY WALK IN THE PARK
So this is it then
Legendary three score years and ten?
Whose arrow-sure uncompromising flights
Meet in this annual ritual innocence
Now like the brittle January air
The idea catches at the throat
Coating the unremembered sky
With snatches of half-forgotten yesterdays
While from the rim of empty branches in the park
The echoes ask
So, is it this then
Three score years and ten?
And I reply
Ask me again tomorrow
(January 28 1992)
And there were elegies too, a beautiful goodbye to his father, and a slightly bashful, deeply affectionate farewell to his brother Ernie. I always thought Uncle Ernie was one of those people whose great expectations never quite materialised, and being such a big-hearted character, I can’t imagine he felt comfortable when his conservative expectations got materialised by Thatcher. He loved jazz fiercely, though, without reservation, even more so than Ron did. He wanted Louis Armstrong playing When the Saints go Marching In at his funeral. And he would have laughed because that well-meant cassette was so well-worn, it was starting to stretch, and those saints weren’t so much marching as staggering in, at the end of a very long day indeed.
Here’s the poem:
You were the elder
Always the older
Yours the long big brother shadow
I in the shade
Patiently waiting the call to be equal
The great “come and share”
But that never came
You were the elder
Always the older
Said, did and knew it all
Long before I
Snatched at the answers
Spellbound when those magic beans
Really made five
You were the elder
Always the older
Knew all the music
Performed with panache
I in the wings waiting
Spear-carrying onlooker always the chorus
Audience of one
You were the elder
Always the older
But the war broke the rules
And the sacred dead certainties
Knowing and doing and saying it all
No longer mattered
Never to seem so important again
You were the elder
Always the older
Until that long shadow
You in the shade
Wide chasms narrowed
Each spoke to each other
Finally filling the space between words
Now you the elder
No longer older
Still holding the answers
Wherever you are
But older or elder
Still one step behind you
I ask, am I now any wiser at last?
Who Buggered Bognor? (Tony Smith)
It got to a point where it seemed I couldn’t stop writing songs for Ordinary Giants. I had planned it out by the end of February, but soon it was like everywhere I went, everything I thought about, there was a song waiting for me that wanted to say little bit more about what was happening. Talking about how in childhood, some things appear like they have always been there and always will. Ovaltine, for example. Having goodnight beer and meaningful conversation about guitars, beer and Ron’s story midway through the initial couple of days of recording, I am noticing how absent Germans are, and John remembers the bit in Ron’s story where he surrenders to the old couple who say how young he looks, and John goes “Well, that’s your Germans song, isn’t it?”. And I thought Steve White had been just perfect as Nobby’s Class shop steward, I got to wondering, well, what would have happened to him, did state education do those little stars any good after all, and then I went with my mate Tim whose partner Doyna was in Brighton for the Labour Party Conference to see my mate Tim’s team play my mate Phil’s team in Bognor, which was our day out of choice in grandad Harry’s Hillman Hunter when I was a kid, and realised that was exactly where Tony Smith had retired to.
In the end, I thought, it will all have to be over by Christmas, and I thought I had managed to stop. Just. With seconds to spare. Well, apart from asking Swill to sing A Very Nice Man in a Uniform. By then, however, we were already pushing at the limits of a double album…
Slow Progress 2009 (Daisy Smith)
When I was a little kid in Hounslow, one of my favourite places to go was the paddling pool in Inwood Park. There was even a boating lake there too. By the new millennium they were both closed down.
This song was another late arrival. Tony’s Darren’s daughter Daisy is a fictional single mum in Heston in 2009, while Lilian Johnson had been more or less a married lone parent in Heston in 1929. Spot the difference. A 1929 Wall Street Crash, with fascism about to become the ruling class’s weapon of class war choice, and a 2008 global banking meltdown, with austerity about to replace unemployment as the ruling class’s weapon of class war choice (with the additional spectacular distraction of Perpetual War, the War on Terror).
All You Need is Tweed (Hugh “Bulldog” Utterswine)
Fascism generally starts out as farce that ends in tragedy. It is best to stop the clowns before they stop being funny.
A Land Fit For Privilege 2010 (narrative)
Irresponsible bankers, greed-is-good fundamentalists, fuck everything up really badly in 2008. The ruling class sees this not as a problem but as an opportunity, an excuse to attack and further demolish and sell off for profit whatever’s left of the welfare state. With the enthusiastic help of their tame tabloid media they cut benefits, demonise the disabled, scapegoat state sector workers and pensioners as somehow being the ones responsible for the economic disaster caused by the global banking crisis. Posh-boy Prime Minister Cameron will tell us “we’re all in this together” in 2010, but by 2015 the rich will have become 64% richer and the poor 57% poorer than they were in 2005, and by 2017 the number of rough sleepers will increase by 134%, and the number of homeless children will increase by 73% since Cameron and Clegg formed their Condem government.
The Clock Beyond Repair (Robb Johnson)
This is really such an inadequate song.
Ron’s decline started just before the century ended, in 1999. Each time he went into hospital, a little less of him came back. One time, something went so badly wrong, he was put into emergency care, wrapped in silver foil. I took him a handful of concerts. He opened his eyes, and said “I love you so much.” But we had gone past the point of ever getting better. He slumped into me suddenly at Pizza Express in Richmond, and I thought this is it, it’s ok, this way I can see you through, but it wasn’t, and the ambulance came and Ron eventually woke up again. Possibly too much cheese, they thought. It was a slow, sometimes humiliating decline, but the ambulance paramedics, the nurses, most of the doctors, the urologist were all as quietly cheerful, stoically heroic in their own way as Ron was in his.
I was there when Ron thought about it and said thank you, but no thank you, when the doctor offered him another painful procedure and possibly a few months more. Ron told him that he had been in the RAF. The doctor said Ron had certainly outlived Hitler. And Thatcher, I added. Ron nodded and smiled. When we visited him and he wasn’t interested in the Brentford score, I knew there would not be long left. I sat in our little garden, and looked at the stars. They were very clear. Then, 3am Monday morning, the phone woke me up to tell me Ron had died.
We carried his coffin into the crematorium to the soundtrack of The Great Escape.
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Too Soon Tomorrow (Ron Johnson)
When my mum had had her hip replacement Ron had reluctantly gone into a nursing home for a fortnight. There was a lift to his room, but Ron hated lifts, and refused to enter their metal enclosure, because they reminded him of the feeling he had of being trapped in J Johnnie (so it was heroic when he rode with Meeta up to the maternity ward in Southall hospital at midnight when Arvin arrived a good five weeks earlier than expected). “It’s just like being a POW again,” he muttered. I pointed out that I was pretty sure the Gestapo didn’t favour Axminster carpeting and watercolour landscapes on their walls. It will be a chance to write some poems, I suggested helpfully, handing him a new notebook and a nice pen. And he did. He wrote what turned out to be his three last poems then. And I wanted Ron to have the last word here, so this song is overwhelmingly composed of lines from two of those poems, and from the poem he wrote for J Johnnie in 1945.
Sleep now my love
No longer shackled to the pain of years
Turn in the bed
Without the ever present
Need to waive away
Those unrequited tears
Sleep now my love
Where very soon
Our outstretched fingers
Meet, touch and hold
Bridging the gap
To all those yesterdays
(1 March 2012)
High curved white wings
Cutting the morning air
Carry the screeching
Fierce proud power
And dipping of unimaginative grace
Then, I remember George,
Flash of colour
White of wings
Outside the kitchen window
Calling to collect from you
His daily crusts
At the open kitchen door
(6 March 2012)
Who loved life
Just as much as I
Nor wished to fight
Or fighting wished to die
How shall I tell of you my friends?
What songs shall satisfy
My heart? What verses
Penetrate the crowd
Of platitudes when crude
With drooping laurels your simple dignity?
The stars were lost in cloud
The night I left you
Four miles high
Above the German mountains
Falling from the sky
Like flaming Autumn leaves
There was no time to say goodbye
Familiar voices heard
Above the engine’s roar
Our flying kit flung carelessly
Across the crew room floor
Are murals for my inner walls
Point, counterpoint of war
And so for me
You did not die
Because the corn grew tall
Where you passed by
And you loved living
Every bit as much as I
Dancing Round the Sun (Betty Johnson)
The children’s rhyme that became a children’s poem here becomes a lullaby, a handful of memories, some you might recognise, some you might not, dancing round the sun. Aren’t we all?
The Valediction (Ron Johnson)
They thought that we were beaten, but we were only broken. We can put things back together again, in time, with our love for one another.
It took them forty years before they were able to start to attempt to dismantle the peace Ron’s generation had fought for, or as Thatcher rather apocalyptically liked to put it, to turn back the tide of socialism. Then it took another thirty years before it was manifest the politics of privilege and greed does nothing but fail the many in order to enrich the few, and the entitled politicians spewed out by social and economic elite couldn’t run a corner shop, let alone a country.
In 2015, as if by chance, Jeremy Corbyn and the ghost of Citizen Clem became elected to the leadership of the Labour Party.
So in 2018, this is Ron’s ghost, the human spirit, still singing (Click here for video)
Ordinary Giants (Robb Johnson)