All We Have Is Each Other, Robb Johnson's Blog

Inspirationals.— By Robb Johnson

By Robb Johnson
April 19th, 2020

Today, the UK Bodgerment, finally, grudgingly conceded that, well, yes, there had been some shortages of some PPE. My next door neighbour John hadn’t therefore been wheeling trolleys round the wards of Sussex General Hospital for the last few weeks totally unprotected, by accident, wilfulness or misuse of resources. He had been working for his usual low wages unprotected due to the Bodgerment’s indifference & incompetence. Thankfully, as a gesture of support for its front line workers, last week the Bodgerment announced they were promoting a badge for carers to wear. It says “CARE”, it’s very very small & it costs 89p. We all know we pay for our medals – my grandfather Ern paid with his hearing & my grandfather Harry paid with his lungs for their WW1 medals – but having to pay 89p for a small enamel badge because you are likely to die because for low wages & common humanity you kept on going to work unprotected is breathtaking in its contempt. Like not counting the people who die in care homes & at home, another nasty little Bodgerment tactic.

My mum, who died in January of this year, had been supported by carers in her flat for the last couple of years. These were carers from a private company, because there is no long term care provided by the NHS. My mum, being my mum, used to grumble at first that she was paying a lot of money to a company that provided her with a motley collection of “girls”, many of whom were (according to my mother) “gormless”. I think she was expecting nicely-spoken bright young things in crisp uniforms doing Something Socially Useful until meeting & marrying a nice doctor. I pointed out that the “girls” were all on as close to a minimum wage as the company (which was the only one her pensioner’s income could afford) could get away with paying, because at the end of the day, the company wanted to make a profit. Which is of course the bottom-line of privatisation – it makes the parasites in charge a nice profit for doing fuck all. Gradually, my mum got to know & distinguish the “girls”, the people, from the bottom-line service they were saddled with operating. She never liked all of them (but funnily enough all of them liked her) but she learned how badly they were paid & treated by the private care company. It made her angry, that she was paying for a service that was so often so shabby, & that so obviously exploited the women & the occasional man who turned up generally on time to look after her. It seemed to me, they were all pretty inspirational, these care workers, & for the few days before she got taken into hospital for the last time, morning wake-up care worker Penny’s care was both highly professional & deeply heartfelt. She couldn’t take time off to come to the funeral or even pop in to the wake between visits, because she has literally no time between visits. .

I suppose it is because I find ordinary people inspirational that I am a libertarian socialist, rather than the other way around. But “inspirational” is a problematic issue for libertarian socialists / anybody who’s been through the cleansing fire of punk “NoMoreHeroes!” rock. “Inspirational” figures are even more problematic within a culture where everything is not only mediated by the selectivity of organised wealth determining access to the means of production & distribution, but also by the selectivity of a highly organised media that supports the current hegemonic social organisation by reducing all discourse – including inspiration – to the spectacular paps of trivia, nostalgia & celebrity. Against all rational common sense, the media insists that Bodger is more popular than EVER now he is recovering in pampered luxury from having his life saved, he graciously acknowledges, by the NHS. His infection is surely likely to have been the consequence of his own oafish arrogance, his fondness for posturing & shaking hands in the vicinity of covid19 situations – although The Daily Mail gamely tried suggesting he caught covid19 from the EU’s Brexit negotiator.

Meanwhile, my social media gets posts pointing out Bodger & his party cheered the last time parliament voted against a pay rise for nurses, & that current Health Secretary Hancock insists that now is not the time to talk about increased pay for nurses. Presumably he thinks being able to buy your own badge should be reward enough.

My social media has also been telling me about Tom Moore, a 99 year old WW2 veteran who started out intending to raise £1000 for the NHS by doing a sponsored walk in his garden & ended up raising over £20,000,000. On facebook, Tom Moore talks about the “magnificent” NHS, & is quoted in the Guardian newspaper as telling the BBC “they’re all so brave… they deserve every penny of it.” However, once the BBC gets hold of the story, it presents a somewhat different Tom Moore from the determined fundraiser who first appeared on my facebook. He’s now someone called Captain Tom. There’s talk of a campaign to get him made an honorary Major (to his credit, Tom modestly points out this really isn’t what his walk was intending to achieve), & come the end of an article on April 17th the Beeb are using a cartoonist in Sheffield to re-present Tom as more than just as an advocate for the NHS:

Kyle Dowling, from Sheffield, was inspired to draw his own cartoon of Captain Tom by the sense of patriotism he feels he has stirred.

“This hero has fought for our country and is now fighting again for our country by raising millions for our health service,” he says. “He’s a true gent and really does put the great into Great Britain.”

The media likes a bit of upbeat wishful thinking, & happily conscripts Tom Moore into its superficial narrative:

To all those people who are finding it difficult at the moment,” he said, addressing a British public who have seen life turned upside down by coronavirus. “The sun will shine on you again, and the clouds will go away.”

Wartime references dominate the current official narrative; these are the default setting of a country that still can’t come to terms with the paradox of not having an Empire anymore but still having the nuclear missiles with which to defend it. These are also references skewed by their remembrance of outcome, rather than recollection of process & consequence. The fixed point is “victory”, the narrative-defining moment when the clouds go away & the sun shines again. We tend to prefer to forget that the UK started the war defending Poland & ended it trading Poland for continued Imperial access to India. The national memory now identifies “victory” as VE day in 1945, which in turn conveniently smooths over the remembering of how “victory” was previously the more awkward fixed moment of Armistice Day in 1918, ending a war that was always much more difficult to package, because of the manifest incompetence of its generals & politicians. What is not remembered is how in the same year the “Spanish flu” virus incubated in the festering insanity & insanitary conditions of the western front, & then went on to kill far many more millions globally than all the monstrous ingenuity of industrialised warfare had managed in the preceding four years. No-one got care badges back then, let alone medals. Bodger would have been in his element, millions taking it on the chin for herd immunity, with no bothersome having to stand in the doorway of your country residence to clap for the servant classes (except he’d also probably be dead too).

Nonetheless, eventually wars end, & so do plagues, & so do empires, & even libertarian socialists take comfort & inspiration from those who have directed their energies towards accelerating the process. When I was a student (I am old enough to have been lucky enough to have been young when in theory anybody could go to university in the UK for free) part of the English Literature degree I did involved a course called Modern European Mind. This was much more fun than George Elliot & Henry James, & pretty inspirational too, as it involved reading some seriously cool dudes. Dostoyevsky did me in, Kafka was clearly on drugs, I fell in love with Albert Camus, & I am currently re-reading Sartre’s “Roads to Freedom”, & its portrait of a society on the edge of defeat is uncomfortably currently very pertinent (he’s just written “Nothing is as monotonous as catastrophe”). But even more inspirational was the short, gruff central European dude who favoured a beret & nonchalantly lit the fuses & pointed us at the fireworks. Professor Goldstucker also used to cadge cigarettes off us, because his wife didn’t let him smoke anymore, because he’d spent a couple of years without PPE in the uranium mines when Stalinism generously commuted its death sentence to life imprisonment. Years later, it’s 1990, & I’m putting out the old newspaper on the tables so Orange Class can do painting without overtaxing the diligence of the underpaid school cleaners. Someone has sent in a recent copy of The Guardian, & I notice this photograph of a familiar short, gruff silhouette wearing a beret standing on Brighton beach. It’s the Prof, & the article says how he’s looking forward to returning to his beloved home city of Prague, now actually existing socialism doesn’t anymore. I recall the biography we cadged out of him in exchange for cigarettes, & wrote this song, “Winter Turns to Spring”.

I knew a man who nothing could dismay
Nor take away his dignity
A man who knew what two & two make, & how
Many flowers make the spring.
He saw spring crushed in 1939
Beneath the wheels of Germany,
& walked through all the falling cities somehow
Like a seed towards the spring.
Returning home in 1945
Prague was full of Russian tanks
& it was law, two twos are four, only now
It’s Joseph Stalin makes the spring.
-You have to know the difference
Between the roundabouts & swings
No matter what the distance
Winter turns to spring.
Sentenced to death in 1951
For being too much of a socialist,
Surprise surprise, old Stalin dies & somehow
Still the flowers make the spring.
& through the cold war, he studied Kafka,
& learned like Galileo
To tell as much truth as the times allow
Planting seeds towards the spring.
-You have to know the difference….
So when spring came in 1968
Wenceslas was glorious
But with the summer, the Russian armour returned
To save the people from their spring.
I asked him then
Is his last exile
How come you’re still a socialist?
Ask me instead, he said, what two & two make, & how
Many flowers make the spring.
-You have to know the difference….
Now from Prague to Santiago, Belfast to Beijing,
Underground & undefeated, winter turns to spring.

My friend Roy Bailey used to sing this song. Roy also worked arts centres & festivals with the inspirational left socialist ex-Labour MP Tony Benn; Tony would talk about radical history & Roy would sing radical songs. Tony told Roy that “Winter Turns to Spring” was his favourite song. I got asked to sing this to close yesterday’s video broadcast “Stay in for Labour”. It’s a twice weekly internet gig that’s a combination of comedians & “ordinary”, quietly inspirational, left-labour activists coming to terms with the current state of the post Corbyn Labour Party. A recent report indicates that certain key elements of the Labour bureaucracy did indeed deliberately sabotage Corbyn’s leadership every chance they got, particularly during the 2017 election campaign. There was unsurprisingly a deal of anger & frustration in yesterday’s programme, so this song seemed again particularly pertinent. “It’s about endurance,” I said.

What I didn’t say was that this was written 30 years ago, & in the meantime spring has turned to summer & then autumn, & fuck me, before you know it, it’s looking like winter again. On returning to Prague, apparently the Prof never did get to get a square named after his beloved Kafka. As as an old 68er, (he had been the chair of the Writers Union & Dubcek’s private secretary) he was politely welcomed then effectively sidelined & ignored in the bright, shiny new democracy, as an unwelcome ghost from an unwanted past. Now – Prague’s definitely Cool, but my Czech friend Stania who lives & works in Brighton refuses to go back to the Czech Republic even for a holiday because she says the president is a racist drunk, & my friend Alena, who lives & works in Prague, shakes her head at me & says nobody wants to hear anything about socialism, even libertarian socialism, in Prague any more. In 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of the Prague Spring, I found one display of photographs in the window of the offices of a newspaper. In 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I found a street art installation – more photographs basically -& a nearby pop-up shop selling a small range of dull souvenirs. I can usually be relied upon to buy a t shirt at gigs & museums, but even I passed on this.

When eventually wars end, as do plagues, & as do empires, it’s not necessarily in the way we hoped they might. But then – that’s also true for the bastards at the top; in 1914 the Tsar didn’t anticipate having his Winter Palace occupied by Bolsheviks three years later, & Churchill & his caste of moribund privileged ninnies certainly didn’t want to see the end of World War 2 leading to the collapse of Empire & the establishment of free health care for all, pop culture & comprehensive schools.

So we continue to stand in our doorways every Thursday night at 8 o’clock to clap for the NHS & our other key workers, like my mum’s morning carer Penny,still doing the underpaid essentials, mostly without PPE. & the desperate, dismal Bodgerment & its craven, sycophantic media, will do its best to catch up with this & recuperate our solidarity. They had one go at promoting a “clap for Bodger”, once, too. Our street was silent. The Daily Express had to print a photograph the next day that was actually of a street clapping the NHS.

They haven’t tried that again. The hard evidence still suggests, when the ordinary processes & organised distractions of civil society are suspended in their operations, common sense prevails & we value our workers more than our leaders.

Robb Johnson has worked as a classroom teacher by day and a songwriter by night since 1980. As a songwriter, he has received widespread critical acclaim:  “one of this country’s most important songwriters (no argument!)” (fROOTS), “An English original”(the Guardian), “one of our best singer-songwriters ever” (Mike Harding), and his songs are covered by many singers. “Gentle Men”, Robb’s family history of World War One is a particular career highlight. In 2016, PM Press in the US released “A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands”, a 5 CD career-retrospective. In 2018 Robb released “Ordinary Giants”, a 3 CD song suite based on his father’s life and times – the 1930s, the fight against fascism, the creation of the post-war Welfare State and the reaction of Neo-liberalism.

Check out Robb’s music below:

A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands: The Damage to Date 1986-2013

The Liberty Tree: A Celebration of the Life and Writings of Thomas Paine

No Gods No Masters: Live in Concert

Back to Robb Johnson’s Artist Page