I recently went to London in order to visit my daughter and son, their partners and their children. My son and his wife Natalie had recently had a baby girl; and my daughter and her husband Irwin have a boy and a girl. It turned out for a number of reasons that I had more spare time than I expected, so with the help of a friend I got in some sight-seeing and with the help of another, attendance at quite few singing sessions. I also attended one political rally. The following is an account of those events with the least said about my family and friends since their lives are private, with the exception of my host, Jim Radford, who has a very public side with regard to political and community activism and singing.
Archictecture and Transport System
Visiting London, where I spent 30 years of my life was strange, in particular staying about ten minutes’ walk from where I had lived for about half of my time in that city. I had a sense of being an observer at a familiar place but of which I was no longer part, something like a ghost, perhaps.
Not only Kings Cross Station but the whole area around it has been redeveloped and changed so much. In the early ’90s I worked shifts as a Project Worker in a ‘wet hostel’ (one where street drinkers are permitted to continue drinking), very near to St. Pancras Hospital and about fifteen minutes’ walk from the station (if one walks very fast, which I often did to get in for my early shift). On a late shift, walking down St. Pancras Road, on my way to the Underground to head back to SE London, I would often pass a solitary sex worker or two hoping for custom. Displaying the goods on sale is a trade requirement and I felt especially sorry for them in cold or wet weather.
The area was well-known for a high level of sex work and illegal drugs – selling and buying. Four years later, after two years as a Deputy Manager in a number of hostels in other parts of London, I was back in the area again, with a different NGO, as Manager of a hostel for active drug users (most of them injecting). The area had been very familiar to me then but visiting now I could hardly recognise it. The train and Underground stations have been remodeled and an international train station connecting with the Channel Tunnel has been built. In addition the areas in front of them and to the side are unrecogniseable. A big plaza fronts the station and around the side and back is another plaza with the de rigueur converted warehouses and similar-type buildings also around the back of the station now hosting eateries and fashionable offices.
No doubt the area is much more heavily policed now in order to present a clean image for tourists and the middle class young eating and drinking there but I am sure that sex work and drug commerce continues. Perhaps much more cocaine rather than heroin or crack is sold now for the new client group. But though I was there on a weekend night, I observed many of the restaurants and winebars only half-full.
I went out to Stratford too to see the Olympic Stadium and surrounding area. I had worked in that area as a community development worker for six months and taught an adult education beginners’ class in Irish for some years there too — but again, would not have recognised the area now. Like King’s Cross, it had changed completely but unlike the former, in almost unbelievable ugliness. The shopping centre wasn’t too bad but very much of the UStater “mall” type. Apparently many people in the US spend much of their free time in such places and, indeed, there seemed little other choice in Stratford now, especially for teenagers, unless they were of the outdoor type and accessed the Lee Valley, Wanstead Flats etc.
An observation tower which is also a sculpture or “installation”, apparently, stands outside the the Olympic Stadium. It was chosen in competition but aesthetics can hardly have been one of the required features. I once saw metal girders and joists twisted in the aftermath of a very hot fire – the sculpture instantly brought back the memory.
Unfortunately that was not the only ugly construction in the vecinity: almost in any direction one cared to look, other ugly and often grotesquely-shaped buildings came into view. It was in truth almost impossible to credit that not only was I in the same country but in the same city as the work that had been done around Kings Cross.
But sadly, it was not the only place for ugly buildings. Just by London Bridge I had seen a few others and indeed could see the same ones as part of the distant skyline from Stratford too. The “Shard” is one of them, looking like some kind of unsafe rocket about to take off. Another building reminds me of one of those free-standing electric fan heaters.
Some pieces of metal fell off the Shard recently – perhaps the beginning of a suicide attempt by the building, prompted by shame – and would have killed anyone they had struck. The various companies involved, both in its construction and in renting space in it, have said that there is no danger and everything is being checked again. I’m sure that is very reassuring to people working there and to passers-by.
It occurred to me at some point that an Irishman taking photos of buildings around the Olympic arena could get into trouble, even these days — so took myself off inside the ‘mall’ to eat.
On a positive note about London other than the Kings Cross development, the new Overground system links up with much of the Underground and throws a public travel net around the city and outskirts, linking up a great many areas which were previously only accessible by using a combination of public transport systems often taking hours.
I was told about the Overground and even used it but it was some time before I noticed that both that system and the Underground use exactly the same logo design, the difference being the word written across the bar and perhaps the colour. Once one becomes used to a symbol, one no longer reads the words on it or notices anything except very different colours. That didn’t matter until the day I had to catch an Overground train at a station not organically connected to the Underground, on which I was travelling. My ticket was good for both and the Overground station was less than a minute’s walk away down the street. Seeing what looked like the same design and taking it for another entrance to the Underground station I had left earlier, I walked past it three times and once almost got on to the nearby British Rail (intercity trains) platform and wondered why everyone was giving me wrong directions!
It was going down to an Overground station in NW London that I saw a big Irish tricolour in someone’s yard, flying right next to the station.
Although I had prepared myself, I was a little shocked at how tall my grandson Kian had become. He is (of course) a very bright lad and was doing tests and making applications for different secondary schools.
Caitlin Rose, his little sister, seemed very excited to see me and I only had to look at her to make her break out in laughter. Grandad is very funny, apparently. Sadly, they have only two living grandparents now – me and my ex-wife. Their other grandfather died shortly before Kian was born and their other grandmother only recently.
Caitlin Rose was born prematurely – I dashed to London at the time and remember holding her in the palm of my hand fpr a little while out of the incubator. She did well but was later diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy – the most obvious way it affected her was that her muscles spasmed and drew the tendons in her calves and feet tight, bending her legs and putting her on tiptoe so that she could hardly walk. The condition can be aleviated but so far is incurable. But she is very competitive and determined as well as being very bright (of course). In addition, she had the SDR operation in the USA, a relatively new surgical technique, after which she improved enormously. (See this incredible footage taken about a year after the operation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6SGhuYzng8, from the blog recording her progress and others in the family and promoting the SDR operation http://caitlinroseford.com)
I didn’t get to spend much time during the day with my son-in-law, Irwin, who was busy figuring out how to plumb their new washing machine in to the waste water disposal system. I am not familiar with the closed system so didn’t offer too much advice. But later we went out to eat so I could chat to him a bit more.
We went out to a tapas restaurant not too far from where they live and I ordered the fish skewers from the menu, imagining them to be the size of pintxos in the Basque Country or chicken satay skewers one sees over here. When the skewers arrived I was shocked to see each contained three large pieces, each one the size of an individual fish portion in many expensive and niggardly restaurants, with what looked like a dagger or bayonet pushed through them, mounted on a stand.
The most surprising thing for me however was that all the staff were actually from the Spanish state1 with the exception of one from Latin America. In Dublin, I had become used to these places being staffed by people from non-Castillian-speaking countries.
In a Latin American restaurant in Camden to which a friend took me, allegedly Patagonian and with some beautiful enlarged photographs of that area on the wall, I asked our table attendant whether he knew any Welsh. There had been a Welsh-speaking colony in Patagonia, founded in 1865 and there is still some Welsh spoken there today. “Que va, hombre!” he exclaimed. “De eso no sé nada. Yo soy de Andlalucia” he concluded, smiling. (“Not at all, man! I know nothing about that — I’m from Andalucia”).
I queried some of the wines I didn’t recognise, not sure whether I wanted a glass or not, so he brought some for us to try and …. left the bottle! Of course it would have been discourteous to refuse such good fortune and, the wine being fine, we had a few glasses before he remembered and returned for the bottle. We paid for some of it, of course. I had a feeling he might have left it that long deliberately.
In a Turkish restaurant in Dalston, I wondered whether I might have a taste of a Turkish lager, which I had never previously tasted, before deciding whether to have a pint. The attendant paused and then nodded, coming back with a half-pint. I looked at her perplexed — “It’s on the house,” she said with a little smile. She was half-Scottish and half Egyptian, it turned out. I did like it and ordered some more. Turkish food is nice enough but not one of the world’s more impressive cuisines, in my experience (and I have eaten it there too, including in Turkish-occupied Kurdistan).
Stoke Newington and Dalston are multi-ethnic areas but especially prominent are Kurdish and Turkish businesses. Without a doubt however the most visible ethnic minority are the Hassidic Jews, the men with their long black coats and homburgs, boys with skull caps and side-locks. This sect is anti-Zionist and they are known, on occasion, to demonstrate against the state of Israel. However, I was shocked to learn that the women shave their heads upon marriage and wear wigs when they go out.
At the other end of London from my daughter and her family and also far from where I was staying, it was great to see my son Kevin and his wife Nat and the baby – Elora Mae. London is huge and a return ticket covering the zones on Underground and train cost nearly £10 each time. The Oyster Card they are introducing, like the Leap Card in Dublin, in an attempt to eliminate cash exchanges, makes the journeys a little cheaper but I hadn’t known about that.
I’m usually OK with babies but Elora Mae wouldn’t let me hold her for long before she started to cry. On my last visit, however, she seemed ok with me (or probably my smell) and even gave me a few lovely smiles. Smiling, by the way, as well as focusing on the face, are responses genetically built in to us. Babies do not “learn” to smile, which is instinctive programming but may learn different types of smiles, as well as appropriate times for smiling.
Songs and Singing in London
I was staying with a long-time folk and shanty singer, Jim Radford and he took me along with him to his weekly singing events. In one, an “open mic” event, I was not a little disturbed at the amount of noise in the bar in which it was held. Noise is distracting and I tend to sing louder to get over it, straining my voice and maybe also singing at the wrong pitch and key and therefore not at my best. I got more and more apprehensive as my turn to sing, indicated by the MC to me, approached and in trepidation when my turn came, went up to the microphone to sing two songs as expected. I sang Danny Farrell as an Irish (and Dublin) song unlikely to antagonise anyone there and to my relief the noise level dropped somewhat. My second song was the Pat O’Donnell Ballad, which although it involves the the “Invincibles” and the British administration in Ireland, was not too confrontational, I thought. Besides, it the story is interesting as it may be the first recorded “witness protection” operation in history, though one that went very badly wrong for the “witness” (or traitor) in question.
I was asked to sing a third song, as a courtesy to a visiting guest, I thought. Into the second line of Go and Leave Me, the silence around me became profound – so much that it scared me a bit. But I took confidence from it too. The lyrics are not bad and the air is lovely, especially in my opinion when it’s sung the US version way. It’s a reasonably well-known song about love and desertion in preference for someone richer and is one in my regular repertoire. “Regular”, by the way, might mean “sung two or three times a year”, since I don’t like to sing the same song too often and, like many other frequent singers, I have quite a few others. My host has about 250 …. I might have around a hundred, built up over years. And a few discarded along the way too.
The following week, back at the venue, I was asked to sing three songs and chose the Jim Larkin ballad by Donagh Mac Donagh (son of the executed 1916 Proclamation, Thomas Mac Donagh) and The Ludlow Massacre, by Woody Guthrie. A lot connects these two songs to one another and although in general I dislike song introductions (or “spoken sleeve notes”), I briefly explained a few of those connections before singing them.
Both the Southern Colorado Coal Strike and the Dublin Lockout/Strike began in the same year, only a month apart, although the Colorado strike didn’t end until December 1914. Both strikes involved attacks by state forces and scabs on the workers resisted, in Ireland forming the Irish Citizen Army, although many more were killed in Colorado (and in turn were killed by workers fighting back too). Evictions from company houses were a feature throughout both strikes as was general media and court hostility with open collusion between the forces of the ‘justice’ system and the employers. And, of course, both strikes essentially lost in the short term but, in the longer term, the trade unions involved, the ITGWU and the UMA, far from being broken, came out stronger.
For the third song my choice was Back Home in Derry, lyrics from a poem by Bobby Sands organised into a song by Christy Moore but to my own air. With this song I break my general rule about not singing the same song often, because I want to popularise my air with the lyrics. The lyrics are currently mostly sung to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and I thought they deserved an air of their own.
At the various events, as one would in Dublin, I heard some good singers and some bad ones and some who were not particularly good but were interesting. However the general standard seemed noticeably lower than what I would encounter in the singing circles and sessions around Dublin – I have no idea why that should be but it can hardly be due to physiological differences. Also, many read from sheets while singing, a practice rarely seen in the Dublin singing circles (although prompts by mobile or IPad are not unknown).
On this trip I heard Jim sing a number of songs and a couple I remember in particular: The Shores of Normandy, Song for Stephen Lawrence and Home Boys Home. The last of those is about horses and English rural men in WWI and based on a poem, a lovely song which I have slowly started to learn. Jim wrote the other two himself.
Stephen Lawrence was a British Afro-Caribbean youth walking home in SE London with his friend in 1993 when they were both pursued by a gang of white racist young men. Stephen was mortally stabbed and left to bleed to death. Within a week the names of the murderers were on the lips of all the young people in the area. I can personally testify to that since the daughter of a friend was attending a school in that area at that time. First the police questioned Stephen’s surviving friend, treating him as a suspect. Then they couldn’t find the culprits, they said. But it turned out that the house in which some of the racists lived had been under police surveillance for some time and was actually being video-taped inside. It was a long time before that came to public knowledge.
Eventually five men were brought to trial but the incompetence (or sabotage) of police trial preparation allowed them to escape. In a long saga of the fight for justice by the Lawrence family and their supporters, two of the five racists were finally re-tried in 2012 and convicted, receiving long sentences. In the interim the McPherson Enquiry found the Metropolitan Police force to be “institutionally racist” (which Black, Asian and Irish people had been saying for decades) and later a former undercover police officer revealed that he had been tasked by his senior officers to find material with which to discredit the family and the campaign. The Lawrence family broke up under the strain and at least one of them left to go back to Jamaica. Jim’s song contains a powerful indictment of the racist murderers and of the police.
The Shores of Normandy was written by Jim when he visited the beach that he had last seen as a teenage seaman on D-Day on 6th June 1944. Jim was a merchant seaman on a tugboat, many of which were leased by the British Navy and their crews paid merchant seaman rates (which were higher than those of the Royal Navy). Over a few evenings sharing Jim’s whiskey and tea, he told me some things about the tugs’ role. They were of great importance to Britain in the War – they accompanied convoys and towed many torpedoed ships to safety, mainly merchant marine vessels (2. After some time the tugs themselves became targeted by submarines as they were saving so many tons of shipping to be repaired and re-outfitted to go to sea once more and 24 British naval rescue tugs were sunk.
In some of the photographs of the Normandy landings one can clearly see piers being used to disembark vehicles, equipment and men. As Jim says: “Those piers didn’t drop from the sky”. (No, but death was dropping from the sky and scything across the beaches too. I thought). The piers were made of concrete caisons, hollow cubes that could float and were towed across the Channel by the tugs. When they reached Normandy they were maneuvered into position at the correct depth and the sea allowed to enter them until they sank in a line on the seabed, making a pier. All this was done under fire at least some of the time. Over a year earlier, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk had broken the Nazi advance and turned the war in East Europe, now the Sicily and Normandy Landings combined with the advances from the East towards the liberation of Western Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. The air Jim chose for his lyrics is The Dawning of the Day.
Among the events at which Jim was to sing was the launch of Confronting a Culture of Militarism by David Gee, in Housmans Radical Bookshop. The shop, a little like Connolly Books in Dublin, stores a wide variety of radical and socialist book, pamphlets and periodicals. Looking at the many different British periodicals there, I reflected how much more impact they could have if many of them were to amalgamate.
The bookshop was soon crowded, with some late arrivals having to stand. First off was what I thought an impressive monologue performance by Steve Pratt, ex-SAS and now against war, also a painter. After that, David Gee, the author, spoke – a little too long but interestingly. Finally, Ben Griffin spoke, ex-Paratroopers and also SAS but now Secretary of Veterans for Peace. Ben referred to the vilification that soccer player James McClean had endured when playing for Sunderland and Wigan, for refusing to wear the Red Poppy. (3 He spoke about a visit Veterans for Peace had made to the Six Counties of Ireland in October and how people had spoken to them about harrassment, raids and shootings by the British Army during the recent 30 Years War; Ben asked how anyone could reasonably expect someone from one of those communities to wear the Poppy? (4
Jim was plugging the upcoming Cenotaph anti-war commemoration by Veterans for Peace and sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, inviting the audience to attend the ceremony and to sing the song with them. He also sang Eric Bogle’s famous anti-war song, No Man’s Land (better known to us as The Green Fields of France, thanks to the Fureys); he sang it in full to underline what a speaker had earlier said about the Joss Stone song promoted by the British Legion, a truncated version that sentimentalised the war and ripped the strong anti-war heart out of Bogle’s song.
Although a veteran libertarian socialist activist who considers the Royal Family to be “spongers”, Jim had accepted an invitation to sing The Shores of Normandy at the Albert Hall as part of the annual “Remembrance” concert, with members of the Royal Family present. He was wearing a Red Poppy too. I argued with him about the latter but his line is that the militarists and Royals have usurped Remembrance, which was intended to mark the terrible sense of loss after WWI with so many men dead in every town and village4.
The day after the concert, on “Remembrance” Sunday, when processions march in Whitehall and lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, Jim marched with comrades of Veterans for Peace there, with a banner declaring “Never Again!” They and their supporters sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone, an anti-war song, one recited a poem strongly attacking war and its financial foundations and they laid a wreath made entirely of White Poppies with two Red Poppies inside it. (5 Their bugler played The Last Post. I’d have been there to support them and to add my voice to the song but I was already several days back home in Dublin.
Jim brought me to a music session in The Jolly Farmer pub, right next to Lewisham Hospital. I had attended sessions there when I lived in Catford, 20 minutes’ walk away, and the pub now had another name. In those years there had been three, sometimes four weekly Irish traditional music sessions in the Borough of Lewisham, none very far from one another, in which I had played percussion and sung. There had been a few in the next borough, Greenwich, too. None of those seemed to be currently functioning.
The core of the Jolly Farmer session is formed by “Flaky” Jake on accordion, Guillermo on guitar and Jim on percussion (spoons and bodhrán), with other musicians and listeners in attendance. Jake has a huge repertoire of songs from rock to cajun, including songs in French and in Spanish. Guillermo knows some of the French ones and is from Mexico. During the course of the session we heard – and often sang – Rolling Stones, Irish ballads, Cajun songs, English shanties and music-hall, Woody Guthrie ….
A few strange incidents occurred around that time in that pub. The first week, there was a man there with an undiscliplined German Shepherd dog on a leash which his owner kept yanking to get the dog to stay by him. A man entered in a wheelchair and the dog went up to him and stuck his nose in the man’s crotch, whereopon the offended man slapped the dog across the muzzle (but not too hard – the dog did not yelp but just went back to his master). The dog’s owner, who I think had not seen where the dog had put his nose, was livid and began to swear and act out how if the man were not in a wheelchair he would do this … and that …. The man in the wheelchair turned and wheeled himself out of the pub. The atmosphere continued somewhat tense for a while but eventually the man and dog left.
Later that evening, I went to the toilet and saw legs sticking out of the cubicle next to the urinal. I pushed open the door to see a man lying in there on the floor, apparently very drunk. I informed the landlady and left her to it, as she requested. Later, at a music party, we heard that after we had left the pub, there had been some kind of disturbance with a drunk breaking glasses and furniture and that the police had been called!
The house party invitation came through afficionados of the session. Attendance at the house felt strange at first since I didn’t know the people but then I realised I did know one of them, although not well, a fiddle player. And later another person recalled that she remembered me from music sessions over a decade previously. When the music and singing got going it was great and again we covered a wide range. We went through a huge range of songs and tunes with accordion, guitar, fiddle, banjo, spoons and bodhrán. In honour of our hosts, one of whom was German, I sang Mus I’ Den and The Peat Bog Soldiers combined with Hans Beimler.
The first is a German folk song of departure by one promising to return and to be true to the other in the meantime. Such songs are fairly common and we have more than our fair share of them in Ireland. Elvis Presley’s songwriters used the tune for Wooden Heart in one of his many badly-acted and badly-scripted films GI Blues. The first of the remaining two is a song that was sung by German political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps; somewhat allegorical, it was tolerated by the guards for awhile but eventually earned a death sentence for anyone heard to sing it. Hans Beimler was a German communist who was imprisoned by the Nazis but escaped and went to the Spanish state in 1936 to fight fascism there where, like many other International Brigaders, he was killed. Because of the history of each as well as because the Beimler song is a very short one, I like to precede it with two verses of the The Peat Bog Soldiers.
It happened that the “Return to Camden Festival” took place during my London visit, spread around a number of venues in the borough, including of course the Camden Irish Centre, which is where I went with a friend. I knew the Centre from a long time past, a social and welfare agency for Irish migrants run by the Catholic Church for many years and notable through much of my time in London for steering clear of politics. Of course one can never really do that and one ends up supporting one kind of politics or another. The Centre gradually secularised itself in a time of grants for ethnic minority support work but did not raise issues uncomfortable for the British state such as the unjust murder convictions of a score of Irish people in five different cases during the mid-1970s, the iniquities of the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act, nor the prevalence of anti-Irish racism in treatment by many state and local authority agencies and its wide acceptance in news and entertainment media.
Gradually during the late 1980s (or perhaps early 1990s) the Camden Irish Centre was pulled into some of those issues but in an NGO-type of way and within such parameters and re-branded itself as “The London Irish Centre” (there were by then another five Irish centres in different parts of London but none claiming to be The Irish Centre). By that time the Centre’s management was connecting itself to the Federation of Irish Societies, an organisation that infamously at its AGM in 1981, as news of the death of Bobby Sands reached delegates, failed to even table a vote of sympathy for the family of the deceased. (7
The “Return to Camden Festival” at the Camden Irish Centre seemed to be owned by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (often mistakenly called “Ceoltas”), a huge largely volunteer organisation promoting Irish traditional music, song and dance. The Centre was heaving and service at the bar was quite slow. The bar staff were all young and someone told me that they were on job schemes, all employed by a contractor who manages the catering for the Centre. It was hardly suprising therefore that they understood not one word in Irish, not even go raibh maith agat.
We sat and listened to a large number of musicians playing together, some as young as eight or nine, then peeked in at the céilí, after which we set off for the singing session. It is run by a Connemara man who sings sean-nós style, who was very welcoming and encouraging; we sat in a circle and sang (or declined) in turn. Again I met people who remembered me from music sessions or from other Irish community activity. The singing was interesting and some singers were exceptional, especially a couple of young female musicians who had to leave early to play their instruments and a few others. I heard a couple of songs I had not heard before, which is always welcome, as well as some I had not heard in a long time. But after about two hours the session came to an end; time then to get something to eat and start the journey back across the city by Underground, changing to Overground at Canada Water station. Reaching Honor Oak Park and walking up to Jim’s house, I passed by foxes twice; the London ones probably became urbanised long before their Irish cousins did.
Solidarity with Kobane’s resistance to ISIS
I knew from an email notification that there was to be a Kobane solidarity demonstration scheduled for a Saturday in central London while I was there and, since this was not one of the days I was visiting grandchildren, I headed out to Charing Cross station, next to Trafalgar Square. Kobane is defended by a Kurdish guerrilla resistance organisation composed of the PKK, some Kurds within the Syrian state’s borders and the few Peshmergas who didn’t flee ISIS. There are probably some Assyrians and Yezidi involved in the defence too.
The Kurds are a huge nation of around 30 million people, spread over territory currently within the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Azerbaijan, with a sizable diaspora also in parts of the US and in some parts of Europe, notably in Germany and France. The politics of the Kurds within Turkish and Syrian borders tend to be secular and the PKK has always espoused some kind of socialism. Kobane, a town in the northern part of the Syrian state, is run mostly by Kurds from there and from the Kurdish resistance movement inside Turkey’s borders. Despite the hype about the Peshmergas (Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas), it was the PKK and Syrian Kurds who rescued the Yezidi and some other religious and ethnic minorities from ISIS in Sirjan and opened up a 100-Km long corridor to bring them to safety in Rojava (Kurdish northern “Syria”). A large proportion of these Kurdish guerrila fighters are women, perhaps as much as 30%, fighting inside their own units under the overall leadership of the PKK-affiliated organisation the YPG.
Kobane is under attack and surrounded on three sides by ISIS (“Islamic State”). The fourth side is the heavily-guarded Turkish border and the Turkish state is hostile to the Kurds, both within their own borders and within Syria. Based on ISIS behaviour to date, should Kobane fall, massacre of civilians and defenders will follow, along with enslavement of women as prostitutes or concubines.
While living in London I had been to Trafalgar Square many times for rallies on different causes that I supported (including of course Ireland, until that plaza was banned to Irish solidarity demonstrations). Nelson stands tall on a pillar there, reminiscent of the one we had in Dublin city centre until it was blown up in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising. I wondered whether I would meet people I knew, either from the British Left or from Kurdish solidarity work, in which I had been pretty active during the early 1990s (8. The area was a-flutter with various Kurdish organisational flags and some from the Turkish left, also some banners and a number of placards were on display.
Most of the crowd looked like they came from the Kurdish part of the world. The stage seemed to be taking a long time to get set up but eventually the Kurdish MCs, a man and a woman, began to announce the reason for the rally and to introduce a list of speakers to the crowd. I was suprised to hear an Irish priest, an O’Brien, I think, introduced as having been a long time active in Kurdish solidarity, although in the 1990s I had never come across him nor heard his name mentioned. I had the same reaction to a few others introduced in similar terms.
A Kurdish traditional musician, seemingly well-known, played a short percussion piece on what looked like a slim but wide bodhrán. Looking for it on Google, I would say it was the Daf, which apparently is in wide use across a number of Near and Middle Eastern regions by a number of ethnic groups. There was no song sung throughout the rally before I left.
The speakers were from a number of British Left and ethnic minority organisations, one MEP and a number of elected representatives. There was also a report from Kobane itself broadcast through speakers. Mark Thomas, a left-wing comedian, spoke emotionally on the issue. Peter Thatchell spoke strongly as well. One Left-wing woman with an English accent, in the course of her speech, attacked the SWP for supporting Islamicism in the past. The next person to speak, also a woman with an English accent, declared that she was in the SWP and that her organisation is strongly in solidarity with Kobane and with the Kurds.
Some of the speakers praised the Kobane ‘government’, saying it was secular, egalitarian, socialistic …. The speakers all attacked ISIS and called for solidarity with Kobane. Some called for British Government intervention (to drop weapons and supplies to Kobane) while others called for military intervention against ISIS. Some called for the unbanning of the PKK and some for the release of Ocalan. The PKK was declared a “terrorist” organisation by the EU years ago, a totally unjustified action by any means of definition, since the organisation was engaged in armed resistance against the attacks of the Turkish state, which is still not a part of the EU; furthermore it was not engaged in any armed action outside its part of the world and nearly all of that within Turkey’s borders. (9
Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “otch-al-an”) was the leader of the PKK when he was kidnapped in Nairobi by the CIA in 1999, taken to Turkey, sentenced to death and, after Turkey abolished its death penalty to gain EU entry, sentenced to life in prison. He is kept on an island prison – the only prisoner there, at least for 10 years. Prior to his incarceration, Ocalan had a position within the PKK that arguably went considerably beyond recognised leadership. Nicknamed “Apo” (“uncle” in Kurdish), his image was carried on Kurdish solidarity demonstrations and pickets by many Kurds in London and in Dublin.
After Ocalan’s capture he declared that the Turkish government should engage in peace talks with the Kurds, that the PKK were not seeking immediate independence but some kind of regional autonomy. Furthermore, he declared that his own release was a necessary prerequisite to carry this process through. This is not too disimilar to the position of Arnaldo Otegi, of the Basque independence movement’s leadership, also of the Sortu party and of many of their new allies since they renounced armed struggle and ETA declared a “permanent and verifiable ceasefire”.
Ocalan’s change of tack surprised many on the Left; I don’t know how the PKK’s own followers reacted at first but soon they were issuing statements along the same lines, (although they have given no hint of intention to disarm). That position of the PKK and of Ocalan explains to me the relatively sudden interest in them within much of liberal and Left quarters. The other factor is the Left and liberal fear of ISIS and the fact that the only coherent and effective defence of Kobane and the rescue of the Yezidi in Sinjar is and was carried out by the PKK, not the “Peshmergas” loudly praised by the Western media (but only mentioned by one speaker at the rally) or by the US, imaginatively claimed by some media.
The “Peshmergas” are Kurds and guerrillas, but of the tribal factions of Bardani and Talibani within Iraq’s borders. On one occasion years ago, they cooperated with a huge Turkish military operation against the PKK by attacking them simultaneously from their side of the border. During the war of the Western states against Iraq around Kuwait, the Peshmergas followed the call of the West to rise against Sadam Hussein; the Western powers then left them to be slaughtered by the Iraq military. During the Western powers’ invasion of Iraq, the peshmergas formed war bands that as well as attacking the Iraq military, looted the Iraqi hospitals, museums, commercial enterprises and people’s homes. At times they even fought among themselves and there were many accusations of murder of military and civilian prisoners, kidnapping for ransom and even of rape. Among much hype, some moved to the rescue of the Yezidi in Sinjar but most quickly withdrew after armed contact with ISIS, totally abandoning the Yazidi, although Sinjar is within Iraq’s borders.
Many speakers at the London rally denounced Turkey for their indirect assistance to ISIS by harrasssing PKK guerilla reinforcements trying to get through to reinforce their Kurdish brothers and sisters in Kobane. Some alleged more direct assistance to ISIS and called for the NATO and the EU to pressure Turkey into ceasing their obstruction of reinforcements for Kobane. Some spoke against Assad and one for him but mostly neither he, his government nor the war there were discussed.
I recognised not one of those speakers present as having been active on the Kurdish issue in London back in the early 1990s. This would be understandable of younger people who had not yet become politically active then, perhaps – but the others? No, Thatchell and others like him had not been. Back then, the PKK had been in armed struggle against the Turkish regime and was being looked to by national liberation activists around the world. But Turkey was – as it is now – an ally of the West, a member of NATO, so the EU did not want to attack it for its widescale abuse of human right among the Kurds, although it considered Turkey too unstable to admit it to the EU. The Left organisations were campaigning on other issues and had no time – or perhaps tolerance – for Kurdish solidarity.
But now that that the PKK has indicated a willingness to enter a “peace” process, they seem to have many friends in left and liberal quarters than they had before. They may even end up, like the Abertzale Left of the Basque Country and like Gerry Adams and Co. of Sinn Féin, having lots of capitalist and imperialist friends too. Some may say that is one important reason for entering a “peace process” but the problem seems to be that in order to keep those new friends on board one has to abandon so much of the goals about which one’s movement was that it becomes something very different, the goals hugely reduced and arguably bringing not peace but co-opting of resistance and a deferment of struggle, probably to another generation (as happened in Palestine, after Arafat’s and Al Fateh’s agreement at Oslo).
One or two of the speakers called for Western armed intervention to assist Kobane, most notably Peter Thatchell, who called for NATO intervention. It was noticeable that this call garnered hardly any applause from the crowd, as distinct from calls to pressurise Turkey to stop trying to block the PKK sending reinforcements to the beleaguered Kobane and for the EU to drop arms to the Kurdish resistance. The London Kurds seem to be quite politically sophisticated and know that NATO is far from being a friend of the Kurdish people. I expressed some of my opinions to a Kurdish couple in their 30s or early 40s and they indicated agreement, particularly the man, who confided many of his own opinions. After hearing about a dozen speakers, I shook hands with the Kurdish couple and bade them farewell, taking a similar journey back to my friend’s house as had Jim Connell, while writing The Red Flag in 1889.
The Red Flag, written by an Irishman in London
Although he had lived in the area for decades, Jim was not aware that Jim Connell, the author of the communist anthem The Red Flag, had been living nearby for many years and had in fact been on his way to his earlier address, also in SE London, by train from a Trafalgar Square demonstration, via Charing Cross, when he began to compose the song. Jim Connell was from Kells in Co. Meath and a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation and later of the Independent Labour Party. He put the lyrics to the Jacobite air The White Cockade. For some reason it began to be sung to the air of Tanenbaum, a German Christmas hymn, which upset Jim Connel: “Ye ruined me poem!” he stormed.
I knew a good bit about this because the Lewisham branch of the IBRG, of which I was Secretary, had been in correspondence with a local history employee of the local authority about putting a plaque on the house. The plaque had been the council employee’s idea but we had influenced the wording (10) and in 1989, the centenary of the writing of the song, attended the small unveiling ceremony outside the house. A little-known MP called Gordon Brown had spoken and never once mentioned Jim’s wish for a free Ireland or the war then going on in the Six Counties, so I felt obliged to jump up on a garden wall and in a short speech, supply the missing information. There were no police present and I was not interfered with although the applause was scattered. The event and the fact of my speech was covered in the Irish Post soon afterwards. A half-hour before I was to catch the train to Gatwick Airport, Jim drove me to Stondon Park and I found the house and photographed it and the plaque (and also Jim in front of it, for his own album).
It would probably be another year before I would see my kids, their spouses and my grandchildren in the flesh. Of course, there is always Skype ….
Waiting for either the number 16 or 41 bus home from Dublin Airport, I noted the inadequate shelters from weather, the general lack of Dublin information and the tatty state of the one map of Dublin that someone had thoughtfully sticky-taped to one of the shelters. Even the Bus Átha Cliath timetable for the 16 route was tattered and flapping in the breeze. Ireland, I do love you but sometime you disgust me too.
I arrived home to find that in delaying paying my Eircom bill, they had without notice cut my ability to reply to emails but strangely the Facebook connection continued. I got some money together and paid my bill.
A chríoch/ Ends
1 I don’t like to say “Spain” as the term is objected to by people in a number of nations within the borders of that state, some of which want total independence and to create their own states.
2 Despite this, 2,426 ships of the British Merchant Marine were sunk with 25,070 men killed, including of course many Irish but also others from the British Commonwealth and many Chinese. In 1942 a special camp for merchant marine seamen prisoners was built at Westerimke ten miles north of the German port city of Hamburg. Around 5,000 men, including 2,985 from 211 British ships, were interned at this camp commonly known as ‘Milag Nord’.
3 McLean, from Derry, said that if the Poppy were just to commemorate the dead British soldiers of WWI and WWII, he would wear it. But as it was not, and in memory of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he could not do so. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2826306/I-m-not-anti-British-wearing-poppy-act-disrespect-people-Derry- born-footballer-James-McClean-says-anger-Bloody-Sunday-decision-shun-poppy-embroidered-shirt.html
4 One wonders whether the footballer is aware of John Maclean (24 August 1879 – 30 November 1923), Republican Communist from Glasgow who was jailed in 1918 for “sedition” due to his anti-war activities and force-fed while on hunger strike.
5 I have written my reasons of disagreement with this line in an article, published in the Rebel Breeze blog: https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/the-blood-red-poppy-remembrance-or-war-propaganda/
6 Video: Veterans for Peace at the Cenotaph, Remembrance Sunday 2014 (Jim Radford, white-bearded, wearing mariner peaked cap): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t34dnIabsGw
7 There had been many pickets and demonstrations in Britain to try to save Sands’ life and those of the nine hunger-strikers to die subsequently. The 1981 Hunger Strikes had a huge effect on the Irish community in Britain, breaking the terror stranglehold of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the neglect of the Federation of Irish Societies was answered by the formation of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. See https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/how-to-silence-an-ethnic-community/
8 Including a trip in a small delegation of trade unionists in the early 1990s across much of the Kurdistan lying within Turkey’s borders.
9 From Wikipedia: “…NATO has declared the PKK to be a terrorist group; Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and fields the group’s second-largest armed contingent. Closely tied to NATO, the European Union—which Turkey aspires to join—officially lists the PKK as having “been involved in terrorist acts” and proscribes it as part of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. First designated in 2002, the PKK was ordered to be removed from the EU terror list on 3 April 2008 by the European Court of First Instance on the grounds that the EU failed to give a proper justification for listing it in the first place. However, EU officials dismissed the ruling, stating that the PKK would remain on the list regardless of the legal decision. Most European Union member states have not individually listed the PKK as a terrorist group.” Three Permanent Members of the EU Security Council list it so but the remaining two, Russia and China, do not.
10 We had not been told that the words “Labour Party” would be affixed and only noticed it on the plaque much later.