Friday, 12 June 2020
My thoughts on Slavery and statues
There is a saying that it is 'up to you to get yourself an education' (for those of us from the era of punk rock and rock against racism, a very important part of our heritage) and that was just what I did back then. I was extremely fortunate in that I had a teacher beyond parallel, who paid me for the privilege. In the autumn of 1984 my band The False Dots had split up. I then suffered a bout of severe ill health that gave me a long period in hospital and time for reflection. I realised I'd taken some wrong turns, and if I wanted to achieve anything I needed to start putting some hard graft into what I wanted to achieve. So I bought myself a TASCAM 244 portastudio and vowed that I would do one hours guitar practice and song writing a day. In the early part of the year, I started looking for collaborators to get the project back on the road. I did what musicians did back then and bought the Melody Maker to find some musicians to collaborate with. In early April, I saw an advert that said something along the lines "Jamaican poet seeks musical collaborator for project". Having long been a fan of Reggae and having written a couple of bad cod reggae songs, I thought this may be an opportunity to actually make some proper music in the genre. So I called the number and got chatting to the poet. I explained that I had a portastudio and played guitar. He asked if I could compose music, I said yes. He then suggested I come over for a 'proper chat'.
So it was that I ended up at a small flat in Notting Hill. I had preconceptions. I'd been to several squats around the area, so when I entered I was surprised. The flat was spotlessly clean and full of books and all sorts of memorabilia. The only place that was untidy was the table, which was strewn with books and writings. The air was heavy with the smoke of sacred herbs. The poet was a small man in his 50s. At the time I was 22, a lanky punk rocker. The poet said that before he could work with someone, he had to make sure they were the right person. He asked me what I knew of slavery and history. My response was "nothing really, I didn't study history". He looked perplexed. He asked how I could not be interested in history. I replied that it wasn't that I wasn't interested, it was that I found learning about English kings mind numbingly boring. At this he laughed. I went on to say that as my dad was Australian and a former RAF bomber pilot, I preferred oral history from people who had been there. He said "But how can you talk to the ghosts?". I realised that this was going to be an interesting conversation. I said "Where my dad came from, the aboriginals would speak to their ancestors in dream time?". He laughed and said "It is not just them, our ancestors are with us all of the time, we just choose not to listen". We chatted for a couple of hours and then he said "Look, I want to set some of my poetry to music. Nothing complicated, just an acoustic guitar". I said "I can bring the portastudio here and some mics and we can record it, how many songs have you got". He looked affronted "I don't have songs, I have stories". This surprised me. I thought of stories as books, and spoken stories as a sort of naff Jackanory type of idea. So I said "So how will this work?". He then said "You need some education". We agreed that at the weekend, we'd buy a go as you please pass for the Underground and the buses and he'd 'educate me'.
On the day, I turned up at his flat. We set off and he took me on a tour of the statues of London. At each one, he'd stop and recite a poem and tell me the story of the person and how they made their money. As well as being a poet, he was a very accomplished historian. These statues I'd walked past every day, fine, resplendent in their tailored coats, benevolent smiles, were evil men. They had spread untold misery in exchange for great riches. These men had stolen the lives and futures of millions. Then we visited various buildings, and the dark history of them was also explained. One of these was Guys hospital. I can remember asking "Is Guys hospital a good or a bad thing?". His response was fascinating "Does the devil ever give his gifts for free?". He explained that for a man of untold wealth, these trinkets were simply purchased to garner public approval, so that the slavers could convince the gullible public that slavery was in their interest. As we continued our journey, I realised that London was built on the proceeds of a very evil trade. I started to feel quite sick, but realised that I was learning something that few were aware of.
At the end of the tour, we went back to the poet's flat and finalised the deal. I'd bring the portastudio and my acoustic guitar and we'd record the stories. He'd pay me £50 and I'd give him the masters. We would do it the following weekend and it would take as long as it would take. The following weekend, I turned up. I realised that his poems had a beat of their own, after a couple of lines, I'd get a simple chord pattern and he'd be off. We'd rehearse each of them a couple of times and then record them until we were happy. There were around 20 of them. We started at around noon and by about 9pm had finished. Each one, a story of a place we'd been the previous weekend. As he said the words, I simply shut my eyes, strummed the chords and listened. I was transported somewhere. I realised what he meant when he said that our ancestors were there with us all of the time. I popped on the 52 bus and headed back to Mill Hill. I had a couple of pints, but couldn't wait for the next day, to listen through, do some overdubs and finish the job.
At noon, the next day, I turned up. I was as ever welcomed and given a cup of tea. As I listened to the work, I realised that it was really something monumentally special. It was something of great importance. I hadn't asked the poet what he wanted to do with the recordings. I assumed he had a record deal. His answer shocked and saddened me. He explained that he had cancer and he had wanted to record the stories for his children and grandchildren. He said it was a very personal thing. I was quite shocked by many aspects of this. I was deeply distressed that he had not got long to live. He said "We are just passing whispers, don't be afraid of death". I was also quite upset that his amazing work would never reach a wider audience. I asked him whether he'd consider doing 'something with it'. He responded "Margaret Thatcher thinks Mr Mandela is a criminal, Great Britain is not ready for this, it would only cause trouble". I asked if Great Britain would ever be ready for it? He said "Maybe, when you are an old man". I'm now 57, probably around the age that the poet was then. The time is now, but sadly I don't have his recordings. That was not part of the deal.
About six months later my Mum called me. She had had a message from the poets daughter, I had been invited to the funeral. I'd never met the daughter, but I called her back and told her I'd be honoured. I wasn't prepared for what happened. At the funeral, and this was the first time I'd ever had an experience like this, they played one of the stories the poet had recorded with me. I have never seen such a scene, everyone descended into tears. Playing recordings of people was not something I'd seen done at a funeral before. What was quite bizarre was that I was transported back to the room where we recorded the work. I realised that there was a whole subtext in the story. It was a message to the family. It started with the words "One day I will no longer be with you, but I will be by your side, and you will never be alone". I hadn't realised the true meaning.
Now we are in the year 2020 in lockdown, with BLM matters making the front pages. I had a dream about the poet last night. We were in his flat, we were just chatting, but our subject of discussion was the current protests. He was saying "I am deeply troubled, when all of the statues are gone, when all of the names are changed, who will be there to remind us of the dark soul of this city?". I realised that without the statues, the go as you please tour we took on a sunny April Saturday in 1985 would have meant nothing. The plaudits and accolades on the plinths, which formed the key part of many of his stories would be obliterated and us white, middle class people could live happily in the pretence that the City of London was built purely by the work of our forefathers hands, rather than the lives and futures of the millions of slaves and their descendent.
My view is that these disgraceful statues should be left in place. There should be huge signs added, explaining the misery and the heartache that the person on it caused. But it goes further. The history of slavery and the great crimes of these people should be part of the national curriculum. School children should be given the same tour that I was given. I will leave you with the words that the Poet told me when I asked him how we can start to make things right. "You are an intelligent young man. Until people like you learn the truth, nothing will change. When you walked in that door you told me that you had no interest in history. I think you do now, now that you have had it properly explained to you".
God Bless you my friend, wherever you are now. Of all my teachers, you were the greatest.