Monday, 10 October 2011

Once More With Feeling?

I wrote last week about my dismay at finding my children didn't know the words to the Red Flag; Rab said he used the tune as a lullaby to his kids when they were small. & this set me thinking about the role of emotionally charged symbols - be they musical or flags or whatever - in the passing on of political and moral perspectives. 

Let me share another anecdote.

This summer I went to the funeral of a man I hadn't seen for the best part of 20 years. He had been General Secretary of the old Communist Party of Great Britain and, in the 1980s, I was a lowly rank and file member in the same branch as him. I simply wanted to pay my respects. 

There was a fair crowd at the funeral. A lot of faces I half recognised and one or two much missed friends. We were all much older than my mind's eye recalled us being, some very much older it seemed to me. A certain amount of shuffling around went on as, first, the forty somethings gave up their seats in the overcrowded hall for the sixty somethings, and then the sixty somethings gave up their seats for the eighty somethings. Most funerals are like that I suppose.

Anyway, we had the speech from the Son-who-is-a-Professor on his father's personal and political life; we had the (rather beautiful) acappella Burns ballad from the Grandson-who-is-the folk-singer ; and we had the warm appreciation from the (non Communist) woman who had worked with him on pensioners’ campaigns after he retired. I braced myself for the final moments, certain that I was going to find it unbearably sad to hear these gathered extinct volcanoes of British Marxism warble uncertainly through the Internationale for one last time. Somehow the sound of their ageing larynxes were going to confirm the passing away of my youthful hopes of socialism.

But Gordon, or his family, had thought of that. We didn’t end on the Internationale,nor on The Red Flag  or Bandiera Rossa . We ended on Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World'. An expression of hope and confidence in our fellow human beings’ capacity for wonder now and in the future, not a ritualistic reminder of a past world fought for and lost by the greyheads in the hall. It's taken me a few months to fully appreciate what a good decision this was.

Those old songs - like the Red Flag and the Internationale - are for teaching the children so they don't die and so the kids have an imaginative window into how the generations that came before them saw the world.  

The sentiments they were meant to contain need to be passed on in other ways as well though. & any tradition which is  something more than merely a tradition will find new ways of capturing the here and now and a contemporary sense of the  socialist possibilities pregnant in the future. Because, for all the fact that music or flags and banners can't represent a politics in its entirety, we do need to be moved and reassured and warmed at an emotional level - but by a vision of hope for the future, in words and images and melodies that speak to where we're going, not where we've been .   


  1. I wish I could express myself better, so that I could say something more than this is wonderful.

  2. And for the second time, what Phil said. Wonderful. I think it might be my age but stuff like this makes me want to cry... in a good way.