Robb Johnson's Official Web Site

Ordinary Giants - Notes on the Tracks

   Part One 1918-1939

   Part Two 1939-1969

   Part 3 1970-2018

Part One 1918-1939

Giants (Overture)

I noticed that often, proper musical theatre has overtures that set the mood, anticipate themes and get the whole thing in motion.

So I thought I’d have one too.

Jenny Carr’s beautiful elegiac piano playing from September’s Song was already providing a theme restated through the second part, then Saskia Tomkins’ breathtaking string quartet part for Craven Vale Hall seemed to capture perfectly the particular quality of optimism of the 1950s Welfare State, and then the instrumental parts from A Valediction – including a previous attempt at the lead guitar part discarded as being a bit too polite for a lead guitar part- seemed a good way to anticipate the album’s conclusion.

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A Land Fit for Heroes (Narrative song)

“At eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.” Prime Minister Lloyd George, speaking in the House of Commons, 11th November 1918.

The men who had to do the actual killing between 1914 and 1918 were promised variously that they would be home by Christmas, that they were fighting for God and for King and for Country, and that they would be coming home to A Land Fit for Heroes.

“What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in,” declared Prime Minister Lloyd George, speaking in Wolverhampton, 24th November 1918.

The war, however, had neither started, or ended, by accident; both events were a consequence of the failure of the politics of the European ruling class. On 23rd February 1917 a group of women factory workers in the textile mills of St Petersburg’s Vyborg District simply walked out on strike in protest against their wretched working conditions. Other strikes followed their spontaneous and autonomous example, and the idea of not doing what you didn’t want to do any more started spreading. The Russian army started going home, the French army refused to attack, the British army rioted and mutinied at Étaples, and when the German workers exhausted by the war looked like emulating the revolutionary initiatives of the workers in Russia, the ruling classes of Europe hastily organised the Armistice of November 1918. That their politics continued to fail to meet the needs of the majority of their populations is evidenced by post-war unrest like the riot in Luton on “Peace Day”, 19th July 1919, when angry unemployed ex-servicemen burnt the town hall down. The Mayor had intended to hold a lavish banquet to celebrate the signing of the Versailles treaty a month earlier. Thousands of ex-soldiers fought with police reinforcements from London, and prevented the fire service from dousing the flames, whilst singing Keep the Home Fires Burning accompanied by three pianos they had borrowed from a nearby music shop.

My dad arrived in 1922; his big brother was named Ernest, Ernie, after their father, who had spent nearly all the war serving on the western front with the 6th London Field Ambulance. Before the war, Ern senior had been an apprentice glass blower, a member of the local Mission band, and a member of the Territorial. Being a musician meant he was a valuable military asset, so was given a stretcher to carry rather than a rifle, as this meant he was probably less likely to be killed and therefore more likely to be available to play stirring marches to cheer up the troops and serenade the toffs visiting the Western Front at a suitably safe distance. After the war Ern re-enlisted in the infantry for a year, then tried to make a living as a professional musician. Ron’s mum Lilian had been in service before she married Ern. Ron was born — like Dickens’s fictionalised autobiographical David Copperfield — with a caul; less than one in 80,000 children are born with this thin membrane over their head. People used to think this signified good fortune, and that possession of a caul prevents death by drowning. My Dad never learned to swim, and never drowned.

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The Mysteries of Fulham (narrative song)

About the only thing my dad could or would remember of his childhood in Fulham was that once a year, the children made “grottoes” around their doors. He wasn’t sure why children did this, he thought it had something to do with pilgrimages to Lourdes. I found a passing reference to an old custom whereby London children built grottoes on St. James’ Day, in one of Christopher Fowler’s superb Bryant and May novels. Looking up St James’ Day I discovered that the Feast of St James the Greater is celebrated every 25th July, and moreover, in England, people unable to make the official pilgrimage to Spain (where St James is the equivalent of Ireland’s St Patrick) would make temporary grottoes instead.

That seemed a fairly slim basis for a song, so I wondered who the people of Fulham were voting for in 1922. Fulham was divided into two constituencies, Fulham West and Fulham East. Both constituencies returned Conservative, then known as “Unionist”, MPs throughout the 1920s; the song references the MP for Fulham East, who stood down in the 1922 election. Sir Henry Norris had been mayor of Fulham and also chair of both Fulham and Arsenal football clubs. His colourful career was effectively ended in 1929 when he was banned from football for life by the Football Association for various financial irregularities, including pocketing the money from the sale of the Arsenal team Bus. Fulham West briefly had a Labour MP in 1929, Ernest Spero, but he resigned the following year, just before it emerged his radio manufacturing company had debts of over £10,000 that he had tried to cover up by writing fraudulent cheques.

Finally, The Greyhound on the Fulham Palace Road later turned out to be one of London’s stalwart pub rock venues in the 1970s and early 1980s. I played there with the various incarnations of the band Grubstreet. We supported a bloke called Howard Jones there once; he had a synthesiser or two, backed by lots of old televisions, and, even more significantly, Management. We all thought he was both very boring and a bit weird (which effectively explains how dismal 80s music was because Howard went on to become one of its “stars”). We even got to headline once or twice, when the main band The Opposition never turned up.

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Pretty Maids in Tin Cans (Children’s rhyme)

After I had written Mysteries, I thought it might have been better to have presented Ron’s memory of the grottoes as a first-person narrative. Children often seem to do things they don’t apparently understand (actually, it is more the case that adults just as often do things they only think they understand). There is that tradition of children’s rhymes that develop a life of their own long after the original meaning has become irrelevant. I decided to keep Mysteries but add a children’s rhyme that would also serve as something of a chorus too.

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Slow Progress 1929 (Lilian Johnson)

By the end of the 1920s, Ern Johnson was in regular employment as part of the jazz dance band The Golden Serenaders, led by the musical clown Noni. They played everywhere, from the Sunderland Empire, through Soho’s Windmill, to Milan’s La Scala (well, my dad was sure they played that prestigious venue, but I can find nothing to corroborate this). One of the few souvenirs Ron kept from his childhood was a postcard that Ern had sent from Lapland. It was a postcard he had written to his eldest son, Ernie. Young Ernie and Ron had now been joined by sister Lily and sister Dorothy (Ern was in Cologne when his youngest daughter was born. Lilian sent him a telegram and asked what she should call the baby. Ern said Dorothy, which was the name of Noni’s wife).

At some point, the family had left Fulham and headed further west to the new expanding suburbs of semi-detached housing creeping out of London along the arterial highways and through the wheatfields, orchards and market gardens centred around small nondescript towns, parishes and villages with quaint names such as Brentford, Isleworth, Heston and Hounslow. While most of the rest of the United Kingdom trembled on the edge of mass unemployment, hunger marches and deprivation in the traditional centres of heavy and manufacturing industry, new “light industries” and stylishly modern Art Deco factories were blossoming along The Great West Road, starting with the Firestone Tyre Factory in Brentford in 1928. Five years later, the Piccadilly Underground line had been extended as far as Hounslow West.

However, bringing up four children on the wages of an itinerant musician wasn’t an easy matter. Lilian and the children frequently had to move house when they couldn’t meet the rent, even with Lil working as a cleaner, and her second son working as unpaid gardener clearing Madam’s weeds for her. Madam graciously let her cleaner have Madam’s old shoes for her daughters, which accounts, my mother insists, for the lifelong subsequent poor state of Dorothy’s feet.

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The Hang of the Door (Ernie Johnson)

This is my dad’s other great and enduring childhood memory – masterminded by brother Ernie, with Ron the dutiful, loyal, obedient and entirely subservient partner in crime, the pair of them tiptoeing every week, into their mum’s new larder, lifting up the skin of her weekly freshly-baked rice pudding, and then sucking all the milk out of that freshly-baked rice pudding with a convenient straw.

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Here Comes Mr Gandhi (narrative)

Churchill hated Gandhi with a particularly venomous, racist passion, and for most of the thirties viewed Gandhi as a far greater threat to British interests than fascism. The working class, on the other hand, were both enthusiastic and affectionate when Gandhi visited the UK in 1931 to explain to workers in Lancashire why India was boycotting British cotton. Gandhi was also in his younger years a football enthusiast.

This song was a latecomer to the album. The song suite kept growing as I found my writing following characters and developing ideas that the narrative kept uncovering. At a certain point I decided it was not going to be possible to quick fade enough songs to cram everything onto a double CD. That was actually quite a daunting and a liberating moment. Daunting because it would be expensive, liberating because it then meant I didn’t have to let anything interfere with the creative process. When I was going to record the original version of Gentle Men in 1997 I was told categorically I couldn’t put it out as a double album. Luckily I persuaded Piet Chielens, the organising energy behind the Passendale Peace Concerts, to put it out through Irregular as a double album. The great advantage about being the fiction that is Irregular Records is that nobody tells you what to do. So a triple CD was not a problem, and meant that we didn’t have to fade tracks, and as a writer, having got most of it written, I could look at the work as a whole and decide if anything needed adding or shaping. We were able to add Sam’s children’s songs Pretty Maids in Tin Cans and Dancing Round the Sun and the third version by Miranda/Betty (which might have been a whole song too, either at the end or as a slightly unreliable narrator introduction, so that’s another out-take from the suite). There was therefore space for the song about Betty’s day trip to France in 1939, and space for Ali and me to construct an overture, too, and space for this song that I hope adds a certain cheery detail and an alternative people’s perspective to the historical background to Ron’s childhood.

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Did You Go to Eton? 1934 (Mr Utterswine OBE)

Utterswine is our first fictional first-person chorus. He is the man who went to the Right school, who holds to the Right views, who is generally usually Doing All Right for himself out of it too, no-thank-you-very-much, and whose OBE always stands for Other Buggers’ Efforts. You may say: such a caricature of a character cannot exist in Real Life, to which I would answer: Daily Mail headlines don’t write themselves…

Harry Pollitt was the chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain. You will find much criticism of his devotion to Stalin and Stalinism, and not much about how he was inspired by the revolution in Russia, where for the first time, ordinary people had taken ownership of the state and the banks and factories that oppressed them. Having seen at first hand what the capitalists of Lancashire had done to the working class of Lancashire – amongst whom were his younger siblings who died in childhood – he instinctively identified with and committed his life to the Communist revolution.

Oswald Mosley had settled, after earlier stints as a Tory then as a Labour Party politician, by 1934, into the role of Führer of Britain’s very own black-shirted fascist movement, his very own political party, the British Union of Fascists. The Daily Mail, and for a while, the Daily Mirror too, loved Oswald’s Blackshirts, and ran enthusiastic articles showing happy Blackshirts happily playing table tennis, told you how you could join their party, and thought about running a competition to find Britain’s prettiest Blackshirt. Ahhhhhhhh….. Oswald talks proudly about the British “genius” for Empire, really doesn’t like race-mixing, Jews and/or immigrants, communists, and will coin the phrase “Britain First” at a “Peace Rally” in 1939. You will find a great deal of self-justification if you research him, because he carried on opposing race-mixing, communists and immigration (but supporting the state of Israel) until he died in Paris in 1980.

Winston Churchill has a veritable industry of academics and politicians justifying what a wonderful Empire-loving Great Briton he was, explaining that he definitely didn’t actually order the troops he sent against striking Welsh miners to open fire (it was later in Liverpool that two strikers were actually shot by troops, they will explain, as if that somehow makes it okay), that he wasn’t a pretty vile racist, or financially corrupt, or indeed anything else we might nowadays find unacceptable, because he was after all simply a product of his age and upbringing, which were very different to ours, apparently, and which you could also say was true of Harry Pollitt. That is somehow not so true of old-Etonian Eric Blair, maybe, who managed to be outraged that “We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies” and insisted that every line he writes after 1936 is “for democratic socialism”, or of Mr and Mrs George Formby, refusing to play to segregated audiences in South Africa and literally telling the white nationalist leader running the incipient apartheid regime there to “piss off, you horrible little man.” I might also wonder why my grandfather Ern always seemed remarkably uninterested in patriotism, Empire, racism, jingoism and all the other important British isms he had supposedly been fighting for between 1914 and 1918. But these are other stories, unlikely to interest or indeed trouble the likes of Mr Utterswine OBE.

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Holding Hands With Hitler (narrative)

It’s not just the Windsor family home-movie footage of the future king of England, Edward Windsor, chuckling at his little nieces Elizabeth and Margaret bouncing up and down as they and their mum do fascist saluting, or him and Mrs Simpson socialising with the Ribbentrops, and touring Germany and saying nice things about Hitler. For the ruling class, fascism represented a political potential that guaranteed the preservation of their status and their income. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia represented a threat to the ruling class and their established forms of government, and a potential promise to all those oppressed by those systems of government that their condition of deprivation could be changed, that their children need not die from want, or have to wear someone else’s graciously cast-off worn out shoes. In the short term, the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, with its slogan “Peace, bread and land”, threatened the very war itself, so when Sir Samuel Hoare MP, head of the British Intelligence Mission to the Russian General Staff, was transferred to Italy in 1917, he was quick to recruit the former socialist Benito Mussolini as an asset for British Intelligence interests, assisting his transformation into a right-wing nationalist politician, as a strategy to ensure Italy’s continued participation in the war, with payments of £100 per week.

By the 1930s, with much of the industrialised western world suffering the consequences of “the Great Depression” caused by American capitalism’s 1929 crisis, the new forms of social organisation that Communism and Fascism appeared to represent appeared as attractive and dynamic ways forward. Leftists like Harry Pollitt travelled to the Soviet Union and marvelled at the achievements of their Five Year Plans, and ignored, or applauded, Stalin’s murderous tendencies, while establishment figures travelled to Germany to marvel at the achievements of the Nazis and the ambition of their Four Year Plan, and likewise ignore, or applaud, Hitler’s murderous tendencies. Former British Prime Minister Lloyd George enjoyed his 1936 visit so much he called Hitler “the greatest living German” and “the George Washington of Germany”. Winston Churchill, pausing in his fulminations against Gandhi, admired Hitler’s “patriotic achievement.” Churchill was unequivocal in his opinion of the importance and nature of that achievement: “If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.” What nobody noticed at the time however, is that far from presenting a viable alternative to the failures of big business and big capital, Hitler’s rise to power was bankrolled by those interests as a strategy to preserve their continued economic and social hegemony.

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Where You Can Go Depends on Where You Come From (narrative)

And meanwhile, Ron was growing up and going to Spring Grove Secondary School. My dad never talked much about what he used to do as a child, so I borrowed my neighbour Frank’s account of what it was like being a kid in the 20s and 30s in Isleworth for the first verse. Frank and Vi lived two doors down from me. Frank was supposed to have given up smoking. But when Vi wasn’t looking, and then when she was confined to the front downstairs room, he used to blag the odd fag off me over the garden wall. Vi’s visits to hospital became more frequent. Vi was a kind and gentle person, both her placid yet cheerful nature reminded me a little of Ron’s Mum. Frank told me about his childhood one Friday night, on his way back from the hospital. He had safely seen Vi into hospital again, and been told this time she wouldn’t be coming out again. So he called in to tell us this, and he had a whisky and a cigarette, and talked all about hitching a ride behind lorries on his roller skates, and sneaking into the Pears Palace of Beauty. The prestigious Pears factory had been situated just round the corner, on the London Road. Lil, Ron’s mum, had worked there too for a while, but not on public display in the Palace of Beauty, even though everyone always said what lovely soft skin she had. Suddenly Frank stopped talking, smiled and then said “I think I’m going to flake out”, and died, quite peaceably, while I held him. I dialled 999. The operator asked me to repeat what number I was dialling from. I did, and my phone went dead, and stayed dead, too. I had always had the feeling that, this being the mid-eighties, and me being a bit politically active, and going to East Berlin, like a lot of people who expressed views the state didn’t approve of, I was being slightly monitored. I had to get my neighbour the opera singer over the road to call the ambulance for me.

Vi never regained consciousness, and died on the Sunday; and, maybe 30 years later, here are Frank’s childhood memories starting a song about childhood in West London between the wars.

It wasn’t until I was looking through Ron’s old collection of papers for any clues about all the things he never told me about that I found his school report book, and learned – much to my surprise – that Ron had done particularly badly at school, usually finishing ranked in the bottom 25% of his class of 35, and one term actually achieving the 35th place out of 35. There is also a corresponding increase in absence and lateness…. I had always assumed the man who seized the postwar opportunity to train as a teacher in the newly created Welfare State education system had always done well at school, and it was only the class nature of 1930s Britain that had packed him off after his schooling ended to a future of endless drudgery as a lowly law clerk in Holborn. The RAF had recognised his intelligence and promptly assigned him to the key role of navigator in an aeroplane engaged in special operations. Even that wasn’t necessarily the straightforward case. Ron had consistently done particularly badly at maths and geometry at school, the sort of skills you might think important for a navigator making effective calculations, and his RAF report on his navigational skills graded him as generally average and unexceptional. And lastly – there was the book about Vincent Van Gogh that he kept with him for most of his life. It was a present from his parents. The illustrations weren’t quite black and white, but they might as well have been when it came to capturing Vincent’s breathtaking use of paint and colour. I rescued the book just before he threw it away a couple of years before he died. He had already ripped out and shredded the dedication “To our own little Vincent” though, which to me was probably more important than the book itself.

So how did Vincent Van Gogh enter the life, and indeed the very soul, of a boy who spent most of his Secondary School years towards the bottom of the class?

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Lou 1936 (Gladys Brown)

Gladys is our second first-person fictional narrator. She is named after my mum’s aunt, who was married to Arch. They lived in a remote bungalow in the New Forest, and to the general scandal of the rest of my mum’s family, insisted on voting Labour. I invented Gladys, and her close friend Lou, because of course, my dad was only one individual, and quite a modest one at that, who may have shared his love of thirties poetry with me, particularly the poems of upper-class renegade firebrand John Cornford, but who wasn’t on hand at or engaged in most of the significant events that characterised the class struggles of the 30s. Heston was a long way away from Berlin and Jarrow, but thanks to Lou’s command of statistics, we can maybe appreciate why seven years later the government’s Social Insurance and Allied Services report by William Beveridge talked about the absolute necessity of confronting the five “Giant Evils” that ruined the life-chances of so many individuals in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.

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Have You Heard the News? 1936 (Mr Utterswine OBE)

On Sunday 4th October 1936, Moseley attempted to march his fascists through the east end of London, taking a route that provocatively passed through working class streets home to Jewish and immigrant people. Despite a very heavy police presence attempting to force a way through for them, Moseley and his fascists were stopped at Cable Street. Again, unsurprisingly, you find quite a lot of revisionist discussion about this, with suggestions that BUF recruitment increased in the weeks following their defeat, but the fact is, when the fascists tried to march through the East End, they got stopped. No pasaran.

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The Gentlemen of the Chorus (Ernie and Ron Johnson)

It was Ernie who had first joined the Hounslow Amateur Light Operatic society, and in 1937 he took Ron along with him too. They were both Gentlemen of the Chorus in that year’s productions of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado and Trial by Jury. Before Hounslow Light Opera Society kindly sent me the the details from their archives, I had always assumed that my uncle Ernie was one of Hounslow Light Operatic’s leading lights. Family legend had it that, on losing his voice before a production, Ern immediately consulted a Harley Street throat-specialist, no less, who recommended Ern gargle with Guinness and port. Although he did get to appear as a Member of the Jury as well as a Gentleman of the Chorus once, that was as far as Ernie ever got. Indeed, two teenagers from the nondescript wilds of Heston, whose father’s income variously derived from playing in a dance band, busking, freelance glass-eye blowing and working for the Gas Board, surely stood no chance whatever against the middle-class elite of Hounslow society, let alone the crème de la crème that was and is Osterley, when it came to nabbing the plum roles. I imagine them being the ones expected to do all the tidying up after the performances, thereby missing whatever bus service there might have been running to the anonymity of Heston from the bright lights of Hounslow High Street (which at one time boasted three cinemas, the Regal, the Alcaza and the Dominion). And I imagine them walking home together, past the impressive wrought-iron gates, respectably closed for the night, leading to the neatly-kept flower beds and public tennis courts and general civic amenity that was Lampton Park, and on across the Great West Road, in companionable brotherhood, a bond largely unspoken of, Ernie the promising one, cheerfully clinging to his dream of one day winning a named part, and Ron, the other one, the not-very-good-at-school one, still loyally tagging along, but by 1937, not for much longer.

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One More War (narrative)

Fascism was very adept at using the post war reaction against war and the desire for peace as a strategy to further its own agenda. The trauma of the First World War had effectively created a culture of silence that lasted nearly a decade. The vacuum was occupied by populist diversions like Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond thrillers, that endorsed the values of “the Breed”, English gentlemen officers who found peace dull and England in need of defending against foreigners. But in 1928 two works of literature appeared that broke the silence and attempted a more realistic representation of what had happened between 1914 and 1918. In Britain, the play Journey’s End showed “the Breed” coming apart under the pressure and futility of war, and in Germany, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front provided a stark testament to the brutality and — again – the futility of the experience of war. It was one of the first books the Nazis burned. In 1933, even the future officer class itself voted against war.  In a high-profile debate at the Oxford University, the motion "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country", was carried by 275 votes to 153. Mosley was always quick to insist that the BUF would be the party to ensure another European war never happened. Through their energetic opportunism, the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union became associated with pro-fascism and appeasement. The Duke of Windsor, broadcasting for NBC radio in 1939 from the Verdun battlefields, as “a soldier of the Last War”, insisted that no country in the world wanted war. Added to the acknowledged carnage and suffering that the “Last War” had brought, there was the increased terror of what carnage and suffering new weapons might visit not only on those soldiers serving at the front line, but on civilian populations too. In 1932, the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had stated clearly: “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through….The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.” Five years later, the bombing of Guernica by fascist Italian and German aeroplanes demonstrated all too vividly what aerial bombardment could do to cities, and the man, and the woman, and the child, in the street.

But it also demonstrated that, whatever the man in the street wanted, or didn’t want, whatever fascism said it wanted, or didn’t want, fascists by force of arms and use of modern technology, were expanding territorially in Abyssinia, Spain, the Rhineland. Not to mention trying to march through the East End. And the refugees were starting to arrive, the flesh and blood consequences of Hitler’s politics of making Germany great again.

The last verse, after the adventures with his mum’s rice pudding, is the next memory my dad shared with me. He never explained how he came to be a member of a church youth fellowship group. Trying to find out more detail now, I think it may have been of a Congregationalist persuasion. I can’t find any trace of the man who organised it, other than a painting of the Thames at Strand on the Green my mum and dad always had hanging on one of their walls. Norman Chubb was a committed Christian Socialist, a conscientious objector who wouldn’t bear arms in the coming war, but – I think – worked in an armaments factory instead. At one of the weekly youth group meetings, Ron met face to face the victims of Hitlerism. He always said how he always remembered their dark haunted eyes. I imagine that was when and why he decided, when it came to it, he would volunteer to fly.

God help us, but the bomber will always get through….

And a kinder, more gentle man than Ron I could never imagine.

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Welcome Him Home (narrative)

Cranford being just down the road from Heston, Lil was indeed there, with all the hopeful trilbies and mackintoshes, when Neville Chamberlain came back from his 1938 Munich meeting with Herr Hitler, who assured Neville he had absolutely no more territorial demands to make, so Neville threw lovely little Czechoslovakia to the wolves, even though Britain and France had guaranteed the integrity of Czechoslovakia’s borders, and flew home waving his famously blank silly piece of paper, assuring us he had just bought us all Peace for our time.

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Kitty & Me (Elizabeth Jenner)

This was the last song I wrote for this song suite. My mum’s cousin Kitty had died while my Mum was in NHS rehab at Craven Vale nursing home. Betty remembered how they had gone on a day trip from Eastbourne to France together in the summer of 1939. Betty said there had been a tremendous storm on the return journey, and they hadn’t got back until 2am. The song all but wrote itself. Initially I thought about making the storm more obviously symbolic, with its fury somehow foreshadowing for Betty the coming storm of the war. But then I decided that it was probably more poignant to have it be for my 14-year-old Mum just a bad storm, an adventure, and the funny little man handing out sweet tea (I invented him for the purpose) just a funny little man saying something about Poland. We like to think there will always be another summer next year. Only in hindsight does the future appear to have always been inevitable.

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September’s Song (narrative)

The Munich agreement confined the Czech army to barracks while Hitler sent his soldiers over the border to claim all the outer, defendable bits of Czechoslovakia, making Germany even greater again, because that was where most of the Czechs who spoke German lived. In March 1939 he simply sent his soldiers over the rest of Czechoslovakia too. In September, hardly bothering to fabricate any justifications, Hitler sent his armed forces over the border into Poland. Britain and France had guaranteed the integrity of Poland’s borders too. This time they could find no excuse not to declare war.

The first two lines of the last verse are from a poem my dad wrote about saying goodbye on railway stations during wartime. He wrote this in February 1945, the same month his aircraft J Johnnie was shot down.


Noises crashed and shadows
Splashed the station
Seconds were seas
Between unwilling shores
And waving hands
The suddenness of waves
That broke on sands
Where my unspoken thoughts
Lay close to yours

A little while
And I stood alone
The hands of the station clock
Were stone
And minutes passed
That might have been years
For time was lost
Among falling tears
And you were gone
I stood alone
And the hands of the station clock
Were stone.

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Part Two 1939-1969

Just Don’t Volunteer (Ernie Johnson)

“Now don’t forget, whatever you do, don’t volunteer for aircrew!” I can still hear my brother’s voice calling out as he left home to rejoin his unit after a weekend leave. He was eighteen months older than I, one of the first to be called up at the beginning of the war and was at that time an LAC in the Orderly Room at a fighter ‘drome’ in Kent which was taking the brunt of the German attacks on south coast airfields.

This is how my dad starts his memoir, A Navigator’s Tale. Being that bit older, Ernie was horrified at what he saw happen to those who flew, and told his younger brother to avoid active service as a flyer. Ron didn’t tell his brother he had already volunteered for aircrew, and was only waiting till he was officially old enough to be called up in order to commence training.

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November’s Song (Elizabeth Jenner)

My mum was born, also in Fulham, on 11th March 1925, and later her family moved west to Hounslow. In 1939 she was a pupil at the Godolphin and Latymer Independent Day School for Girls, in Hammersmith. The school was evacuated from London after the declaration of war. Elizabeth — “Betty” — stayed in Hounslow and after a quick secretarial course, started working in a local bank. She vividly remembered the night of Operation Moonlight Sonata, the Luftwaffe air assault on Coventry on 14th November 1940, watching the waves of German bombers passing over London. The bombing left such devastation that German Propaganda Minister Goebbels turned the city’s name into a verb used when describing the destruction of cities. The bombing started a fire storm that engulfed Coventry city centre, destroyed over 4,000 houses, and destroyed or seriously damaged over a third of the city’s factories, all engaged in production for the war effort. It is estimated that 568 were killed in the course of the night.

And there’s my mum, aged fifteen, standing in her little back garden at 24 Colwyn Crescent, Hounslow, where I would be happily playing with toy guns in twenty years’ time, watching the bombers getting through. One of the attractions about moving to a semi in the suburbs in the 30s was they all had their own little garden. Betty’s dad Harry loved his garden, and when I was young my mum and I used to enjoy a pastiche of the traditional folk song In an English Country Garden by the improbably-named humourist Cardew Robinson, so I have borrowed that tune for this song.

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Winter Statistics (narrative)

The Lutwaffe’s Operation Moonlight Sonata was revenged by the RAF’s Operation Abigail Rachel, when on 16th December 1940, on Churchill’s orders, the RAF dropped one hundred tonnes of explosives and 14,000 incendiaries on Mannheim. This was not precision bombing of military targets, this was area bombing of a city. In February 2017 I was in Hamburg, where when the RAF bombers got through in the course of Operation Gomorrah, ten incendiary nights in July 1943, they turned the entire city into a firestorm that killed between thirty and forty thousand people. Estimates vary.

It wasn’t until I was writing this song, about thousands, millions, of people’s life stories, and all the love that goes into such little gardens, being reduced to statistics where estimates vary, that I came across the statistics for the high cost of getting the bombers through. RAF bomber command suffered a 44.4% death rate, only exceeded by the losses suffered by the German U-Boat crews.

This song starts and ends with lines from my dad’s 1940 poem, about winter’s grey winds, and eyes frozen to stars, because sometimes I try to think that what poetry says makes more sense than statistics.


Winter drives grey winds
Grey horses of loneliness
Breathing chill mists
Over fields of my heart
With hooves ringing hollow
Across frosted rooftops
Grey horses ride homeless
Eyes frozen to stars.

Winter has aching
Beneath endless falling
Soft drifting of snow
And slow failing of wings
Gay singing of grasses
On ragged lips dying
Has deep sleep of music
Beneath broken strings.

Winter has high walls
To hide our lamenting
Walls of stone frozen
From fossilised leaves
Leaving no certain gap
For the breezes of pity
Shy flower of wonder
Rots under our eaves.

Winter has pale sudden
Fingers of sun haunting
Cold empty branches
Bare hedges and skies
Over fields of our hearts
Wearing grief for our winter
The chill air falls wounded
By a million sharp sighs

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A Very Nice Man in a Uniform (Ron Johnson)

Ron was sent to Canada to learn to fly. Having won his wings, he spent Christmas 1943 on leave in New York, where he was lucky enough to see Gene Krupa play drums, Gary Cooper play Robert Jordan, and Paul Robeson play Othello. He was then sent to the Bahamas where he met the young men, mainly Canadians, who were to be his crew mates in 223 Squadron. They flew anti-submarine patrols, and stood aside when requested to allow the Duke of Windsor, moved out of the way to the position of Governor of the Bahamas where it was hoped he couldn’t betray any more battle plans to Germany, to play through on a golf course.

In my dad’s small collection of papers that he had kept, I found a pastiche of Lili Marlene that he had written (although later the author’s name had been heavily inked over!), Pressing on Regardless, about characters in and around 223 Squadron. The fifteen verses start off darkly sardonic and then although still ostensibly humorous the tone becomes increasingly bitter and sarcastic. I did think about asking Swill to sing the whole song; the specific references probably meant a lot to the lads of 223 Squadron, but are less interesting to anybody else half a century later.

So I wrote this for my dad to sing instead, where the shared experience of being in uniform encouraged the idea that a more classless, democratic society could be a post-war possibility. And Lofty is there, because he was the first of my dad’s mates to die, so Ron wrote a poem for him, Lofty is Missing. Swill finishes with the first verse of my dad’s version of Lili Marlene, because soon afterwards 223 Squadron was sent back to England, and special operations as part of 100 Group, motto “Confound and Destroy”.

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Home by the Stars (Ron Johnson)

This was one of Ron’s proudest moments, 6th December 1944. His plane J Johnnie flew to Berlin, when everybody else turned back due to bad weather, carried out its mission to confound German air defences, then in worsening conditions my dad, despite being bottom of the class less than ten years ago, successfully navigated their way back to England. This is how he tells the story in his memoir:

The date and time are printed indelibly on my memory. 6th December 1944, and we were detailed to do a Window ‘Spoof’ on the Berlin area. Quite a distance for us and a first time venue. We had to climb to an optimum height soon after reaching France in order to reach the Berlin area with the minimum chance of interference. Very soon we began to experience severe icing conditions on the leading edges of the wings and the temperature dropped alarmingly. As the weather worsened our Wireless Operator picked up messages from base and other aircraft who were reporting they were aborting the mission and returning to base. Tommy, our Skipper, decided to press on however and as we had gone beyond the range of ‘Gee’, my navigation radar and radio beacons, I had to rely on DR, or Dead Reckoning. This meant that I would be navigating solely on calculations made on my chart with wind speeds and the occasional Astro shots, taken with the sextant on the stars, and reading off the resulting position from tables. Although trained in the use of Astro shots and their tables, most Navigators would rather rely on this only in emergencies. Suffice it to say that we finally reached our appointed turning point just outside the Berlin area and had carried out our RCM duties and dropped our ‘Window’ and hopefully produced a worrying resultant on the enemy’s radar. Tommy promptly turned, requested a course for home, put the nose down and prepared to ‘get the hell out of it’. Unfortunately, by this time the weather had worsened, snow and ice became a real hazard but the main trouble was that the winds had increased considerably from the west and I reported wind speeds of over 120mph dead against us.

This meant in navigation terms that if an aircraft has an airspeed of 300mph and there is a headwind of say 120mph then the aircraft’s speed over the ground or ground speed is only 180mph. The result is that the flight takes considerably longer and the fuel required is that much greater. The atmosphere aboard J Johnnie became very tense and all positions, with great discipline, remained silent to allow for only those intercom exchanges vital to the safe conduct of the flight — such as Tommy requesting a position from me, likely ETA at the coast, details of fuel readings from the Flight Engineer and any urgent messages picked up by the Wireless Operator. Tommy also urged the gunners to be even more watchful, as we would be very vulnerable if picked up by solitary enemy fighters. The time ticked away and a weight seemed to get heavier with every few minutes. We were still some half an hour or so away from the coast when the Engineer reported problems with number 1 engine and this was followed by Tommy calling over the intercom that the engine had cut out and he had been forced to ‘feather’ the engine and we were now flying on three engines. All pilots were trained to deal with this and the aircraft could fly quite satisfactorily on three engines, although it’s not the thing you would normally choose to do on operations in such appalling weather conditions. It also meant that more fuel would be used up by the remaining engines and, more importantly in such a situation as ours, there is greater stress and strain on the pilot and crew. The silence on the intercom was broken suddenly by the Mid Upper Gunner who called out “Skipper, I can see the Dutch coast and the channel dead ahead through the clouds.” Tommy began the descent and called to the Wireless Operator to alert the nearest diversion ’drome, which was Manston, of our predicament and gave them my ETA. We circled Manston and were given the emergency light to land. A final bump as the nose wheel hit the runway and we were home on English soil. Nothing could stop the hoarse cheers of relief from the crew. We had taken J Johnnie to Berlin and back in the most atrocious weather conditions. We had flown the last part of the journey home on three engines and on landing the Flight Engineer told us that number 2 engine had no more than a cupful of fuel left.

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The Girl with the Golden Hair (Elizabeth Jenner and Ron Johnson)

When Ron was about to be sent back to England from the Bahamas, someone who’d gone to the same school as Ron asked him to take a necklace to his fiancée, Elizabeth Jenner, and that’s how my parents first met. My mum says it was a very thin necklace, you could hardly see it, and when I asked her about the engagement, she’d just say that that was what you did in those days, when they asked you to marry them you said yes because you didn’t expect they’d be coming back. I think my dad thought he was the luckiest man in the world, when Betty’s dad Harry invited Ron and some of his crew mates to spend Christmas with the Jenners. They went to London in the morning, and then in the best back room at number 24, Betty and Ron decided they were in love, even though Betty’s mum wasn’t likely to approve, what with Ron being merely a humble clerk from Heston. Betty’s best friend, Rodgie, who she met on her first day at the Godolphin and Latymer school, would always recall that Betty had such wonderful golden hair. Strangers would stop and touch it, she would say, adding quickly “Different times, of course.”

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J Johnnie (narrative and Ron Johnson)

Basically, the job of J Johnnie and 223 Squadron was to confuse the German air defences, for example by making them think the bombers were in one place when they were actually heading for somewhere else. The inherent drawback to this plan became apparent on the night of 20th February 1945. This is how Ron describes what happened.

The time was about 0125 hours and we were approximately 30 miles SE of Dortmund, our height 18,000. From the reports of the crew members who were in the rear at the time, there were two, possibly three JU 88s involved in the attack. Tommy took evasive action and after the first attack we were left alone for a few minutes and as a G fix showed that we had corkscrewed 10 miles off course I reported this to the skipper and we altered course to make good our next turning position. All the time we had been weaving and carrying out our RCM duties. The second attack came within a few seconds of each other and from opposite directions and I could feel hits being made on our aircraft from tail to nose. I could hear our gunners firing: the mid-upper gunner was firing all the time, the tail gunner was forced to abandon his turret early in the combat as his clothing and turret were on fire, and both beam gunners were also using their guns. The last attack appeared to rake the aircraft from the tail and suddenly there was a violent rocking and the whole aircraft appeared to shudder. This must have been direct hits on the petrol tanks because J Johnnie began to dive out of control. The tunnel leading into the Navigation compartment burst into flames and I could smell smoke and burning everywhere. Somehow, with incredible courage and superhuman strength Tommy and Jack managed to regain control for a second and over the intercom the skipper said, still in his customary measured, calm Canadian drawl “This is the end fellows. Abandon aircraft!” The flames had reached inside the Navigation compartment and I pulled the emergency handle for opening the nose shell doors, my escape hatch, but they had stuck and only after a few desperate kicks with the heel of my boot they finally opened and I baled out. The Rear Gunner, one of the Beam Gunners and the two Special Wireless Operators baled out of the rear escape hatch where the other Beam Gunner was last seen kneeling by the open door fixing his harness. The Flight Deck was totally isolated by fire and the five crew members there had no chance whatsoever.

This is one of the two songs I had written before starting Ordinary Giants. I wrote it to perform at a modest launch event we had for A Navigator’s Tale. It was a modest memoir, too, which I had had to nag him gently to write, but then everything about Ron was essentially modest.

The launch was held in a small old cemetery chapel converted by my friend Yusuf, an Iraqi artist, ex-communist and refugee from Saddam, into a community art space. Under a bench there was his son’s foul blood-soaked shirt in a black plastic sack. Yusuf had smuggled his son out of Iraq, paid Druze militia to get him to safety in Beirut, where they were reunited when Yusuf gave his talents to the cause of the PLO. When the Israelis drove the PLO into the sea, the two of them made it onto a ship evacuating the fighters to Cyprus. Yusuf’s beloved son survived all this, only to be knifed nearly to death by a gang of racists in Hanwell. Another story.

Anyway, Ron and I were going to do an album together the year before he died, with those of my songs that he liked best (not the overtly political ones, thank you, Robb) combined with his poems, which I had encouraged him to gather together and order and word-processed for him. At the last minute, Ron decided he didn’t want everybody seeing his thoughts, his private self, in print. But I recorded this song, and the other songs he liked, anyway. This is a slightly different version, with the last verse taken from Ron’s memoir.

I have visited the graves of those members of J Johnnie who didn’t survive the attack. They are in Venlo, Holland, next to the border with Germany. Their headstones stand to attention, comrades, side by side. Tommy’s stone is the first one you see, at the end of the row, like he’s still looking out for the other members of his crew. His courage in holding the burning aeroplane steady for as long as possible, for as far as possible, so that as many of his friends as possible might escape, enabled my dad to be one of the lucky 50%. His headstone looks withdrawn, reserved, almost lonely; it’s very simple, with little more than his name on it, and in no way does it do his story, and his resolution, justice.

The photograph on the slip case of Ordinary Giants is Ron’s Mum, Lilian, flanked by two of his crew. They are smiling. On her right there is George Graham. My dad used to say Clint Eastwood’s laconic screen character reminded him of George, and he always suspected his sister Lily was very fond of him too. George was the rear gunner, one of the lucky five who survived out of a crew of eleven. On Lilian’s left is Ron Woods. In his original 1945 report about the last flight of J Johnnie, Ron wrote:

“I should like to put on record and recommend for his fine work, Flight Sergeant Woods, R.C.A.F, our mid-upper gunner. His guns engaged the fighters all the time and I could hear them firing at each attack and even as F/O Thompson gave the order to abandon aircraft on the last attack he was still firing, although it must have been obvious to him that his position was hopeless. The gunners have reported that F/Sgt. Woods obtained hits on one of the attacking aircraft and that it broke away… His conduct at the end is deserving of high praise… The conduct of the whole crew was a credit to the Squadron and to themselves.”

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My Boy Won’t Come Back (Elizabeth Jenner)

When J Johnnie was shot down, Ron was listed as “Missing, believed killed”. Ernie was also missing; he had been shipped to Singapore to arrive just before the Japanese. It was a military disaster on an imperial scale; only much later did the family find out that Ernie was alive, that he had escaped Singapore in an open boat, and subsequently been concealed by nuns. Betty was convinced Ron was alive. As the war in Europe ground to its bitter, conflicted conclusion, my mum went to the cinema to watch the newsreel footage of the displaced and the liberated millions moving endlessly through the ruins, in the hope that she would see Ron amongst them.

And she went dancing too, because that was what you did, you danced at the Red Lion halfway along the High Street, or you danced at the Drill Hall. There was somewhere you could dance practically every night, because by then, in those days, you couldn’t be sure what was coming back and what wasn’t. Poland, whose integrity we had declared war for, was being horse-traded by Churchill for Greece with Stalin, so we could keep a close eye on the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, our short-cut to Churchill’s beloved Empire. Soon, we would be holding America’s coat while Democracy road-tested not one but two different atomic bombs on two different Japanese cities.

The conversation about cabbages and marigolds is in this song thanks to my friend Neil Smith. His father Tom was the only survivor from a training flight accident on 11th November 1944. Neil asked me to write a song about this. Tom asked his parents to write to the parents of his dead crewmates, both of whom were only sons. The letters they wrote in return talked about that year’s crop of blackcurrants. How else could you deal with such loss? The song was called Only Sons.

Ron came back a very ill man. In addition to the trauma of feeling trapped in a burning plane with the escape hatch jammed, that gave him nightmares for a decade, he was stick-thin and toothless from having spent all of April being force–marched through Germany. His kept a pencil-written record of this, that detailed how many men had to share the Red Cross food parcel each day, where they slept (on pine needles, occasionally in barns) and how their column was attacked by American fighter bombers. Ron’s memoir also records that for a while they were also guarded by “lines and lines of arrogant members of the Hitler Youth dressed in grey-green short trousers and shirts smothered with insignias and most of them carrying some kind of weapon… Somehow they presented a more menacing sight than their elders would have done and summed up for us all that was evil about the Hitler regime.”

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Attlee For PM For Me (narrative)

This is the other song I had already written a version of beforehand. Originally a song intended as a contribution to the Labour Party leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, it then grew into a Christmas single JC 4 PM for Me, a song intended to present Corbyn as a popular political figure, located positively in the general cultural landscape, which indeed is Corbyn’s status a year on. But at the time it attracted opprobrium not just from Tories (who attempted their own nasty little single) but also from outraged humourless leftists, who made clear they thought what the left needed was More Angry Anthems, not a leader located positively in the general cultural landscape.

Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed it, anyway.

Then it got a quick rewrite for the 17th of June elections, where Labour had a manifesto that located the party once again on behalf of the many, not the few, and achieved a result almost as impressive as Clem Attlee’s Labour victory of 1945. So it seemed obvious to write a version for this song suite that set out why the British electorate, first chance they got, voted out the unelected Churchill and for a Labour Party that was going to enact legislation for the many, not the few, and implement the recommendations of the Beveridge report.

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Lou 1948 (Gladys Brown)

Here’s Gladys and Lou, pissing off another Conservative landlord with their enthusiastic anticipation of the coming benefits of the Welfare State. Lou’s Arch is based loosely on my Aunt Gladys’s Arch. Aunt Gladys’s Arch went into Belsen for real, and not all of him came back. He died early, too. Years later I get accidentally booked at Ringwood Folk Club, so I do my song about my great Aunt Gladys’s bungalow, and my particular lost world of childhood, metaphor for then as against now, St Ives End Lane, and this old couple at the back suddenly perk up, and at half time tell me how fondly they remember Arch and Gladys, but particularly Arch, because the old boy, he’d worked on the post with Arch, and Arch had been absolutely no question the best union rep a worker could wish for. I was so chuffed.

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The Parachute (Ron Johnson)

My mum has this old clock you have to wind once a week. It’s about a hundred years old. I can’t imagine anything we make now will still be working in a hundred years’ time. When I was writing these songs, my mum said that she and Ron had found the clock when they had been clearing out Aunt Gladys’s bungalow. They thought it couldn’t possibly work again. But it did. The image of a stopped, broken clock seemed a good way to talk about my dad’s situation when he returned from Germany, so I moved the finding of a clock back in time to the late 40s. I invented the clockmender, and added some corroborating factual detail. Ron was a member of “The Caterpillar Club”, an informal association of men who had to bale out of aeroplanes and whose lives were saved by their parachutes, (so it is actually a silkworm not a caterpillar motif that identifies them). Wearing the dark blue “Caterpillar” tie, with its unostentatious pattern of small, stylised silkworms, was important to him, a quiet, constant, unostentatious reminder of J Johnnie. When they were first married Ron and Betty lived in a flat above the office of Harry Jenner’s building firm on Hammersmith Grove, and I was sure that one day Ron did return from Shepherd’s Bush Market with a puppy shivering under his greatcoat as a present for Betty. Only after I had written the song did Betty say they’d in fact both gone to a pet shop in Hammersmith, hoping to buy a King Charles spaniel. Spaniels proving too expensive, they’d settled for this little puppy instead, that had been part of an unwanted litter that had been destined to be “humanely destroyed”.

But this song is metaphor anyway rather than realistic account. Getting over, making sense of, or at least coming to terms with, what happened to him during the war, particularly between the months of February and May 1945, was a process for Ron, like the growing of scar tissue.

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Nobby’s Class (Anthony Smith)

At my dad’s funeral, there were a couple of the children he’d taught in the 50s. One of them, Clive Boursnell, said “I bet I know something about your dad that you don’t know. Do you know what we used to call him? We used to call him Nobby, because his knuckles were all knobbly and bony.” Photographs of Ron after the war show him looking very thin. Look closely and you can see traces of the process taking place. Like a Dickens character, he acquires and becomes a couple of trademarks, a moustache, the pipe, so we’ll know who he is, so he’ll know who he is. In 1946, Ron marries Betty on 27th July, he’s then demobbed from the RAF and goes to college, where he takes the leading role in Edward II, and chooses not to go to Cambridge University when offered the chance. Instead, in 1947, he becomes a teacher at Lionel Road School in Brentford. His head teacher advises him that if any of the mothers invite him round for tea, he should most definitely decline all such offers.

Tony is our next fictional character, one of Nobby’s urchins and ragamuffins. Nobby’s character is fleshed out with various factual details. Ron always had an austerity-tinged reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on his wall, he loved doing poetry with kids, he cycled to and from school football matches on Saturday mornings, bringing the school kit back with him for Betty to wash, he had lost all his teeth as a result of being a POW (thank goodness NHS dentures were free at the point of demand back then), for years he would jump screaming from bed in the night when he dreamed he was still trapped in J Johnnie, and he really didn’t like the Hitler Youth.

Per ardua ad astra is the Latin motto of the RAF: through adversity to the stars.

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We’ll Be Lucky (Ron and Betty Johnson)

In 1949 Betty and Ron moved into their very own semi, newly constructed at 6 Worton Road, Isleworth, where — fingers crossed — they would live happily ever after for the next 60 years.

Betty had a thyroid condition, so wasn’t able to have children until 1955, and then only the one. That year singer Dickie Valentine’s A Christmas Alphabet became the UK’s first Christmas song to reach number one. The Korean War had ended in 1953 without the world blowing itself up, and Sir Edmund Hillary had sportingly conquered Everest on the very eve of the coronation of Elizabeth Windsor that same year. Rationing had finally ended in 1954, but not before the Tories had exploited the issue sufficiently to get Churchill returned to power in 1951. Their dismal mishandling of the Suez crisis is still eleven months away. Teddy boys wouldn’t be rioting in cinemas for another nine months, and their participation in the Notting Hill racist riots, and the temporary return from France of Oswald Moseley to stand for Parliament in North Kensington (he lost his deposit) is three years away.

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Craven Vale Hall (narrative)

And for a while, it seemed we were lucky. We would be cared for from cradle to grave. Craven Vale, a small, perfectly formed housing estate built into a dip in the side of the hill leading to the race course by Brighton Council in the fifties, had its own health centre opened in 1958, ten years on from the creation of the NHS. There was a time when every new housing estate built in Brighton had its own health centre. By 2018, Craven Vale’s was the only one still open, a brilliant rehab centre that somehow magically literally got Betty back on her feet again in February and March. Actually, there was no “somehow” or “magically” about it. It was quality care and professional hard work, something deserving of absolute respect, but instead poorly paid and under threat from the right-wing politics of greed.

4 cheers for the NHS.

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Dancing Round the Sun (narrative)

Children’s rhymes have now become children’s poetry! Significantly the anonymous protagonists now have names, possibly names with some resonance, and they have become individuals with individual futures too. Hadn’t we all, thanks to the Welfare State?

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Lou 1958 (Gladys Brown)

“Let us be frank about it — most of our people have never had it so good,” declared Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1957, even though British culture was currently infatuated with the tales of discontent and dysfunction told by writers labelled “the Angry Young Men” (and the occasional angry young woman). The same year, coal-miner’s son Nye Bevan, who as Minister of Health in the Attlee government had overseen and ensured the founding of the National Health Service, surprisingly denounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the Labour Party Conference, saying "It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”.

Meanwhile, single-mum Gladys is buying her Stan some socks, and guess who she bumps into as the first ban-the-bomb march to Aldermaston passes Shepherd’s Bush Market heading west along the Uxbridge Road?

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Bad Germans (Herr und Frau Schmidt)

Although, three years after Stalin died, First Secretary Khrushchev was able to deliver his “secret speech” in 1956, denouncing the excesses of Stalinism, this didn’t stop the Soviets from sending tanks into Hungary that same year. While the popular desire for social progress was apparently effected by Parliamentary mandates and the politics of consensus in Britain, in Eastern Europe it was rigorously enforced and policed by the policy of The Party, the politics of Marxist-Leninism, and Russian tanks. In the rest of the world, it was largely either moderated by the interests of capitalism or, when that proved unsatisfactory, eradicated by the CIA, conscripted armies, and American bombers. The favourite flashpoint of these two systems was always the divided city of Berlin, marooned in the middle of the DDR, the German Democratic Republic. In 1961, ostensibly to defend themselves further from fascism, and to stop workers absconding to the west in pursuit of the frivolities of capitalism, the DDR built a wall all the way across Berlin, thereby ensuring Germans continued to be clearly identified by Hollywood and all other forms of western thought control as the world’s leading bad guys. Even though even Hollywood has stopped routinely decimating native Americans and laughing at African Americans, if you want some villains you can mow down without compunction, dress them in field grey, give them coal-scuttle helmets, have them say “ja” and “nein” and off you go. Watching German soldiers – clearly never instructed in the tactic of taking cover – being machine-gunned in their droves in films like Where Eagles Dare or Inglourious Basterds, it makes you wonder how they ever even got as far as Warsaw, let alone Stalingrad.

Herr and Frau Schmidt are the invented names of the couple whose cottage Ron, frozen and exhausted, found after being shot down. They let him sleep, gave him coffee, and sent for the police. Wouldn’t you? What else could they do?

This song has behind it, talking to itself in the shadows, the voice of Karl-Heinz Gispert, the father of my 1970s German Exchange partner and lifelong friend, Hans Karl. When Karl-Heinz had sometimes had a couple of glasses of Rotwein more than usual, he would ask, rhetorically, why it was always die böse Deutsche who got the blame for everything. He’d point to the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians in Eastern Europe, the British in their Empire, and ask why they were not accused of butchery, oppression and military criminality. He’d been born in Worms. Worms had had a leather factory. The RAF bombing made him deaf in one ear. Yes, he’d been in the Hitler Youth. Everybody had to be. Yes, he’d seen Jewish people being thrown out of their homes, their possessions hurled through windows, and done nothing. Wouldn’t you? What else could you do?

This year I visited the Museum of German Resistance in Berlin. It wasn’t all decent upper class Prussian officers finally getting round when it was too late to trying to plant a bomb next to the mad bastard. But from the word go, once the big business interests and the old upper class ruling elite, not just in Germany but in the Western Democracies too, gave Hitler and all his other mad bastards the green light, they were utterly merciless.

So Herr and Frau Schmidt let Ron rest, gave him coffee, and called the police. Wouldn’t you?

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There’s Always Ovaltine

I remember Kennedy being shot, and Churchill dying. Both events seriously disrupted my evening’s television. I particularly remember being cognisant of the reverent solemnity surrounding Churchill’s death. It was an opportunity to varnish the accumulating legend, that it was Churchill’s rhetorical facility with phraseology, about finest hours and the British Empire lasting a thousand years, rather than my dad and his mates flying into the inferno every night, let alone the Red Army battering their way from Stalingrad to Berlin, that had prevented the German Reich from lasting a thousand years.

I was also starting to be cognisant of a disjoint between the world my parents aspired to live in and my experience of growing up and into the 1960s. The world my parents aspired to was rather like a museum. When I got to visit East Berlin in 1987 and Ilmenau and the former DDR in 2000 I got the impression that, consciously or not, the DDR had tried to return Germany to how it was before 1933, emphasising German antifascism, the organisation of The Workers, pretending that the chaos of Fascism had been an aberration. For my parent’s generation, the intention of the fifties seemed to be a similar conscious attempt to pretend the chaos of the war had been an aberration, with no lasting harmful consequences, only the added bonus of decent schooling and healthcare for all as a just reward for all that regrettable blood, sweat and tears business. We were having to call the Empire the Commonwealth now, but that was as far as we need to go in revising our national identity, surely.

And on a superficial level, the war was everywhere… war stories turned into war films, there were war comics and war stereotypes, all telling us who we were, rewriting… editing… censoring and varnishing our past and, if we let it, our present too, with our heroic Churchillian self-satisfaction. We beat Germany in two world wars and a World Cup.

But then, there was The Teenager, that postwar phenomenon, that had such unexpected energy and creativity. Soon, despite the entertainment industry’s best efforts – ranging from indifference to patronage – this was an energy and creativity that seemed beyond all existing control. Working class kids, and lower middle-class kids happy to pretend they were working class kids, were synthesising a new culture out of thin air, or at least out of the attitudes of the disenfranchised and the rhythms of black working class culture anyway. It was exciting, but it could also get a bit bewildering, like when those berserk stroppy, screaming big girls sat behind me threatened to stab me at the Twickenham Odeon Saturday morning pictures special showing of A Hard Day’s Night.

You could always hope for the best, like your mum and dad, and have another cup of Ovaltine. But increasingly, I didn’t want to.

In 1965 I was going to church parades on Sundays. By 1975 I was going to The Winning Post to see Motörhead and Dr Feelgood on Sundays. I missed David Bowie at the White Bear in Hounslow (nearest pub to Harry’s 24 Colwyn Crescent too) but saw the Tom Robinson Band there. You definitely can’t say fairer than that.

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All You Need is Love (And Comprehensive Schools) (narration — possibly by Pauline McCartney)

I also remember watching the Beatles sing Hey Jude on television for David Frost in 1968. My granny, who had died the year before, had bought a copy of With the Beatles because my younger cousin Dan liked to dance to the Beatles. And there it sat, with its sharp, cool, sardonic razor sharp black and white cover, incongruously amongst my gran’s collection of John Hanson and Drury Lane musical LPs, next to the piano you could pedal to play old music hall songs, in the very back room where Ron and Betty first officially fell in love twenty years ago. David Frost – once just Frost, the sharp, cool, sardonic razor’s cutting edge of early 60s late night satire, now transformed into David Frost, colour TV media personality. It was just before my grandfather died. The whole family watched it. I think “perplexed” generally describes the largely silent response of the silent majority.

All those young people, some of them very obviously Not White too, singing deliriously along. So was this what J Johnnie died for? I never asked my dad. I think he might have said: well, yes, partly. Peace and love? Yes, partly. But emphatically not for a place at the middle-class table for the lucky few, and slightly better servant accommodation for everybody else. My dad – unusually – refused to do what my mum wanted, which was to send me to the boys-only equivalent of the Godolphin and Latymer school she had attended. Instead I took the 11 plus like everybody else and – unlike everybody else, obviously – ended up at Isleworth Grammar School, the local holding pen for the crème de la crème of local adolescent males. Meanwhile, as a committed member of the teaching profession, and probably as both a quiet socialist and the kid who always came bottom of the class, every chance he got, Ron was a convinced advocate of comprehensive education. Because arbitrary selection and a place at the table for the lucky few – the possibility of social mobility for some and fuck off and die in a gutter for the rest of you – is the wrong way to run an education service and the wrong way to run a society. My dad used to go on these education conferences at Easter at Oxford university. One year he came back enthusing about a film he’d seen there, Kes. It was about a boy who lived up north and – errrm — a kestrel, and compared to the attractions of the films by Sergio Leone that I was deeply entranced by at the time, I didn’t think I would be rushing off to see it. Only when I was working my left wing way through KEN LOACH!!!! did I realise how eloquent it was, particularly the bit where the PE teacher insists on being Stanley Matthews or whatever, and the kid, who is good with kestrels but useless at football, gets put in goal where he whiles away the time by doing amazing gymnastics on the crossbar, only of course this isn’t what the teacher is looking for, is it?

I think it was comprehensive education that really was the issue that galvanised the Right, the Utterswines, into active reaction. Comprehensive education- even more than the NHS, which has a certain agreeable sentimentality and a certain self-interested logic attached to it – refutes on a conceptual level all the arguments of privilege and entitlement. It insists all are worthy of equal consideration, not just when they are ill, but in order for each to develop their potential with equality of access and by implication equality of value.


Ah. But you also need more than adequate funding, and professional independence from central government’s politicking agenda, particularly if that government happens to be riddled with public school toffs who think state education is just training the chimpanzees to work for peanuts.

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Part Three 1970-2018

Semi-Detached Suburban (Betty Johnson, with Ron Johnson)

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.

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Goalkeepers (narrative)

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

(January 1945)


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?

(July 1993)

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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…

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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
Sea-borne swooping
And dipping of unimaginative grace
And beauty

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
Pen-scribbling shroud
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

(June 1945)

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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?

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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.

(See Youtube video of this track.)

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Ordinary Giants (Robb Johnson)

The encore.

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