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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Alistair Hulett, 5/10/1951 to 28/1/2010

The world is actually full of decent human beings. There are also a fair amount of people who play guitar, sing, and some of them even write songs too. Alistair Hulett was pretty exceptional in both categories, and that’s what made him so very special, and so much missed now. It’s difficult to know how to say this properly, because Alistair’s integrity and dignity meant that he favoured a certain modesty about his attributes, and this was articulated through and consolidated by his deeply felt commitment to Trotskyite politics. But he was an exceptionally lovely, beautiful bloke who wrote and sang and played songs exceptionally well, beautifully. Even when he was angry, like Victor Jara, he was still always, somehow, beautiful.

So I don’t want this to be a biography, or an obituary. I want these words to be a celebration, a celebration of Ali‘s life, and song, and Life in general, because that‘s what Alistair Hulett did. You can clearly hear Life having a fine old knees-up from the word go in his early agit-punk-folk times in the band Roaring Jack. However enraged he is by the repressions that ruin our lives, even when later on he’s famously writing of suicide towns, dying miners, he is always celebrating the life force, and he’s angry because he has a clear vision of how fine life could and should be. So sometimes he’s singing those awkward, difficult, love songs that are obviously “political” songs - but also sometimes he’s singing just for the sheer joy of the song. Ally loves the riches of The Tradition, and he’s particularly proud of the Scottish tradition, because maybe that’s the one he knows best, (and that’s also pretty important to his politics too, with all those proud, detailed songs about rent strikes and John Maclean), so it’s absolutely central in his work, whether it’s his collaborations with Dave Swarbrick or in the later albums “In Sleepy Scotland” (what a breathtaking nine-minute solo version of Tam Lin - you wouldn’t wish it a second shorter) and “Riches and Rags”.

And if you met him, whether you were involved in one of the many struggles - global or local - for a better planet that Ally was part of, or whether you heard him sing in your local pub, you’ll be sure to have your own stories and special memories of what a lovely person he was. Maybe my personal favourites… Ally being mock-seriously aghast at my son being exposed to the insidious capitalist propaganda of the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine… ongoing cheery discussions about the strangely similarly sectarian worlds of left-politics and folk-politics… and him making me a peanut butter and banana wrap in the Safe House that was Ally and partner Fatima’s flat the last time I stayed there… what’s yours?

Alistair Hulett is part of two fine traditions, the struggle for social justice and the singing of the people’s songs, and so he’s still here, in those traditions that he helped move on. My favourite album - I think - is “In the Back Streets of Paradise” - what’s yours?

(You can listen to an MP3 of "Patterns", Robb's song for Alistair, here.)