Colin MacIntyre remembers Tony Benn
- 14.03.13 -
Colin MacIntyre (AKA Mull Historical Society) has allowed Xtra Mile to re-publish his personal remembrance of former MP and politican Tony Benn, who passed away today. Colin considered Tony Benn a friend, as well as a long-time inspiration. Tony Benn's voice, reading one of his poems, was used on a Mull Historical Society song 'Pay Attention to the Human'.
Remembering Tony Benn - a friend and collaborator
who encouraged young people
"We the people" they all say
But do they treat us thus?
Or are we units in a game they play
Men, Women, Black and White
Rich, Poor, Young, Old, Straight or Gay
Defined and safely filed away
For Pollsters, Salesmen and MPs
To be bought or bribed to make them rich
Or Enemies who must be killed
People are made of flesh and blood
with hearts and minds and hopes
and fears, and all just want a Life
Which we must nurture to survive.
We have the power to end the world
We have the power to save the world
The Choice is ours: It is a Moral Choice
To work together in both Peace and Love
We must break Free and be ourselves
There lies the hope for all the human race.
(Poem By Tony Benn for the CM song 'Pay Attention To The Human' Copyright. Tony Benn 12/2/2007)
Like many this morning, I am sad that Tony Benn has passed. I wasn't old enough in the 1970s to know anything about what he said or didn't say then, but as I grew up I always admired something about him and his writing from afar. My late father, Kenny Macintyre, was BBC Scotland's Political and Industrial Correspondent for many years and so I acquired an interest in politics and politicians during my teens and by the time I was studying politics at university in the late 90s, I often used Tony Benn's books for reference. I actually liked the guttural sound of his voice back then as much as I appreciated how passionately he utilised it. Whether you believed in his politics or not, you knew he meant it. I never imagined I would get so close to it. He even inspired me to write a poem about his voice back then.
I'll say a bit more about my experience of eventually (unbelievably) going on to meet him in his home, and recording that voice for a song of mine, but the articles in The Independent and The Telegraph from the time also more than do that job for me. Here, I just want to say a bit about how he made me feel and the effect he had on me.
These articles were published after I was lucky enough to spend a day in the great man's company at Westminster, along with Andy Prevezer, my press officer (who also appreciated Tony Benn) after Tony agreed to contribute the above original poem to one of my songs, 'Pay Attention To The Human'. I had always wanted to go to Parliament (in some ways, as a kid, the House of Commons chamber was a place I wanted to experience as much as I did the Glastonbury festival fields) and so to have a tour of the place from one of its most illustrious members was a special treat. He showed us the plaque he installed in honour of one of the Suffragettes in a basement broom cupboard in which she had hidden in protest, and we learned from him where Cromwell had once stored his horses, and also got to watch a live despatch box debate with him. I could see on that day that he still had a child's enthusiasm for the place, and all it encompassed, as much as I did seeing it for the first time. Some of the photos from that special day we had with him are documented here.
Really, I was just an admirer and had taken a punt to email his publisher, wondering if he might want to be involved in contributing his voice to my song. The teenage student - no doubt still in me somewhere - couldn't quite believe it when he called me directly to discuss it. And so off I went to his house in Holland Park and was greeted first by his bellowing voice instructing me to just come in through the open door, and during my stay recorded the poem he wrote for the song, which, reading it now, and also hearing the many tributes this morning, I realise encompasses in twenty-odd lines much of what he believed in. He was interested in hearing my story and he told me something I will never forget: that he learned everything he knew from listening.
Of course, I was nervous at first (I had earlier dived into a bathroom in a neighbouring restaurant to compose myself) and so spoke a dime a dozen, but in fact pretty soon I was feeling completely comfortable. I spoke to him of my grandparents and their war experiences and he was interested to hear about them. He actually reminded me facially and in his manner of one of my grandfathers (who as it happens always enjoyed Benn on Question Time, etc). He told me he had been evacuated to the port town of Oban (which looks on to Mull) during WWII, and had in fact visited my home island of Mull in the 1940s - he remembered sitting there on Tobermory town clock. I realised this was meant to be, as the symmetry was astonishing, in that the song he was to contribute to actually began with what I hoped was a chilling chime from the said clock. He didn't want any paying for his contribution, he just wanted to help.
As I left I wished I could tell my father and grandfather where I had been. What struck me most though, and went on to do so throughout our notes and emails that followed over the intervening seven years or so, was his art of speaking to the younger generation as though we were on his level, as though he might learn as much from us as we could from him - that was his appeal. He was an encourager. Champion of the underdog. That says more to me than politics or politicians.
A year or so after seeing him in his house, I discovered our meeting had made it into his published Diaries of 2001-2007 'More Time For Politics'. I was bowled over. I recall now that I cycled by his home one day and stopped to knock on his door to say hello (and in truth to try and get the book signed), but unfortunately it was not he who answered - it was his erstwhile builder. Tony was out at the time, he said. And anyone who has read his diaries knows that, between the politics and protestations, he more often than not documented his having the builders in to repair stairs and whatnot, so maybe it was fitting enough.
The last note I sent him was to introduce him to Mary's Meals, a charity I am involved with, and again he replied and asked for more leaflets that he could distribute within his new home.
I'll never forget his warmth and generosity. And he lives on in the young.