Reading: Victory songs

Tony Benn and Roy Bailey Bath International Music Festival
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The Independent Culture
"What did you do in the Eighties, dad?" is a question that many must hope is never asked. Since the election, finding someone who admits to voting Tory has become about as likely as discovering a self-publicising collaborator in Paris after the war. But while we may all be socialists now, for those of us with our hearts on our sleeves (honest!), this inspired festival booking was triumphalism writ large, and we're not just talking New Labour. When unreconstructed Lefty singer-songwriter Roy Bailey recalled the unalloyed pleasure of staying up to watch Portillo go down, he was greeted by a cheer large enough to shake the crystal chandeliers in the gloriously imperial splendour of Bath's grand Guildhall. With his finger in his ear, and Tony Benn nodding benignly behind him in open-necked shirt and braces, customary flask of tea, china mug and pipe and tobacco within easy reach, it was as if the Eighties had never happened.

The programme was both simple and inspired. Bailey would sing a song and then Benn would stand up and talk, introducing readings from an anthology of radical writings that took us from the Peasants' Revolt to the women of Greenham Common, and all tailor-made to strike a contemporary chord. When Benn recalled the dizzy elation of election victory, it was 1945 he meant rather than 1997.

Winstanley's Diggers in the Commonwealth of 1649, Tom Paine and the French Revolution's rebuke to Edmund Burke ("my predecessor", as he said, for Burke was, like Benn, once a member for Bristol), the examples of William Cobbett, Thomas Mann and Mahatma Gandhi, all scrolled by like figures in a frieze. "Just turn your mind back to 1840," he'd say, and we'd try as best we could. Bailey's marvellously evocative songs supplied the necessary emotional weight, even when he forgot the words and became victim, as he said, to Waldheim's disease.

Politically, it was very incorrect. Bailey sang rebel songs of Ireland, the Gulf War and Rosa Luxemburg (to which portions of the sell-out audience sang along word-perfectly), while Benn roped in Oscar Wilde, Rebecca West and Dennis Skinner to his popular front. Conscious, he said, of being thought "stark, staring bonkers by The Sun", Benn ended by recalling a recent six-hour delay on a train journey from Derby to St Pancras in which the resourcefulness of the passengers had provided a model of socialism in action. There will, no doubt, be many more such models to look forward to before, as Bailey's closing song put it, "We all go rolling home".

Though, for Benn, ministerial office may be more than a song away, a showcase at the Albert Hall surely beckons. As he said: "History has a way of coming back at you."

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