My trip to Westminster with Tony Benn


In my last blog I said I’d let you know about one of the best days I’ve ever had. It happened two weeks ago.
And In my blog In October last year I mentioned October's Book Of The Month: 'MORE TIME FOR POLITICS' – Dairies 2001-2007 by Tony Benn, in which I was stunned to read that he documents me going over to his house to record him for my album. I also said that when I studied Politics at Uni he was an inspiration and I used his diaries for research. And also that one time a few years ago I was flying down to London and I noticed that he was sitting a few rows behind me on a plane from Glasgow to London and when I got out of Heathrow I sat in the taxi and thought, bugger it, so I ran back in to one of the world's busiest airports to try and find him to say hello. Searched all over the front desks and had a look in WH Smith. No luck. So I went home.
Anyway, earlier last year I had the idea that it would be good to get somebody who I respect, and who has a great voice, to speak some words over the song 'Pay Attention To The Human'. So I got in touch with his publishers and then he called. He is a great enthusiast. He was an MP for 51 years. He has consistently campaigned for peace and he is one of the world's great public speakers. At 80+ he puts most of us younger than him to shame with his schedule. My Grandfather passed away around this time; he was also respectful of Tony Benn. I think they look quite alike. Tony mentioned that he had camped on Mull during the war. After a few emails, he said he’d write a poem. And then he did, and it is great. And now I've recorded it and it is on my new album.
I didn't tell him that when I was at Uni I wrote a poem of my own about him, called 'Tony Benn's Voice'.
I ended that blog with the thought that maybe one day I’d send it to him.
Now he has it.
I was invited by Tony for tea at Westminster and for a guided tour from him. (Well, I kind of invited myself, saying I’d always wanted to go). My dad, Kenny Macintyre, was BBC Scotland's Political & Industrial correspondent, and I’ve always had a passion for politics and debate. But not really for politicians. But Tony Is different, he speaks to people of all ages on a level that Is almost unique for a politician, let alone one of the longest serving ever. He now has freedom of the house and has campaigned all of his life consistently for peace. I was excited.
So we agreed to meet at St Stephen’s entrance opposite Parliament Square at 3.30. Andy Prevezer, my friend and pr from Warners, came along, who is also a fan of Tony’s, and Pat Pope, a friend and music photographer, as did The Independent Newspaper. It seemed Important that we be punctual. But I fancied a red wine to steady the nerves. I regularly drive by the Houses Of Parliament every Sunday on my way to play football when I’m In London and think about how I’d love to go in sometime, and here I was, ready to enter, with my political hero. We got there early. There were no pubs nearby.
3.05. Very nervous. We decided to wander over to the peace protestor Brian Haw, who has been literally camped opposite Parliament for 6 years or so, now reduced to one placard, still opposing the British Government’s policy in Iraq war. He actually features briefly in my novel and does regularly in Tony’s new diaries. I walked up and introduced myself and explained I’d written a song called ‘Pay Attention To The Human’ and that (by now) in 20 minutes I was meeting Tony Benn.
‘Sing It.” He replied, staring me intently in the eyes.
Bloody hell! I thought. I wasn’t expecting that. He had two college girls with him who were filming a documentary. Suddenly not only was he my audience but who the hell else?! Brian then sang an anti-war peace song a cappella. I explained that my song might not lend itself to this (where is that drink?!). It was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t accept that. Probably he was quite right. So I sang it to camera, as had he done. I spoke with the girls and they wanted the song for their film, which they now have. Then we shook his hand and off we went. You have to respect what he’s doing. He wore a small hat that was like a cherub on his head and his face was like leather.
At least now my nerves were things of the past. I was more relaxed. My unexpected gig over – I was ready to meet Tony. (We had also looked about for places to do the pictures earlier, Big Ben seemed too good a name-association to pass up..)
3.20. Tony came walking out of the entrance and he smiled and we shook hands and I did some introductions. Off we went for the photos. I will not be able to do Tony justice, he had some great stories, which ranged from the irony of the relative size of a gigantic stature of Oliver Cromwell outside the House facing a minute one of one of his King adversaries on the other side of the road, to his Scottish-accented anecdotes about his Scottish Grandmother, tales of climbing onto the balcony of the Columba Hotel in Oban in 1940 and sitting on top of the ‘C’ in the gold lettering (when he was a boy scout and evacuated during WW2 from the London Blitz), these letters which any Islander, including me, passes every time they go home, to his witnessing of sea pilots landing on Mull in 1939 (on a trip with the Scouts) and forgetting the runway was water.
During the second photo location Brian Haw reemerged and he and Tony hugged and they chatted. He was like a peace elf floating around the seats of power. I had a photo with them both.
Then we all went into the House. Finally, I was in.
The first sign on the steps to the inside said ‘Keep To The Left’, which we had a laugh about, considering Tony’s political persuasions. He mentioned how a glass fitter in years’ past had got his words mixed up and that the large stained glass above us used to read ‘Prince of Whales’. The bombs of WW2 gave them another chance to get it right. Then he guided us down to the Crypt in the lower level, where he was baptised (Tony’s father was an MP for Leith, in Edinburgh). There, in a broom cupboard, he has erected a plaque to a suffragette, who famously hid there in the early part of the last century. I was exited to see this as he talks about it in his diaries. He even took his own drill in to apply it! The cupboard was so small that we had to go in one at a time, his plaque is on the back of the door. ‘Sometimes it’s better not to ask anyone for permission.” He said, with a glint in his eye.
This part of the House was used as a stable for Cromwell’s horses and is one of the oldest parts of the building, and dates to the 12th century I think. It was a stunning place, very ornate, having been returned from the whitewash that Cromwell instructed be applied, with arches to enter/exit: one with a sculpture of a child with a tongue sticking Out above it, the other, In. It was also the place where the royal family worshipped. I love that he modified the place with his own drill. I have a picture of the plaque on my phone. Sometimes its better not to ask for permission…
Then it was up to the main corridor and more stories, facts – most of which I will not do justice and can’t remember but it was a thrill at the time. Then Tony’s son, Hilary, a Secretary of State in the government, came bounding up. They hugged. He shook all our hands and asked what his dad was up to now, quite a nice moment really. I said I’d send him an album.
I was thinking how I’d love Tony Blair to hear ‘Pay Attention To The Human’, and ‘Death of a Scientist’ too, a song on my last album about the Dr Kelly affair. Suddenly they seemed more relevant being in here, even if only to me!
I was having mixed emotions. I thought of Tony’s diaries and how he is always non-personal in his criticisms of people. And I remember that I did write to Tony Blair after my dad died, because he said nice things about him. I think I felt a connection to this place, but the person who connects me was not here.
Walking on, now I was imagining myself in another life as being a ‘Newsnight’ correspondent. Tony showed us another plaque that he had put up for the workers of the building, and those who built it. “Recently I came in with me pinny and Brasso to buff it up. It was looking a bit tired.” He told us. “Nobody seems to recognise the workers in this way.” He added. He also pointed out a ‘fix’ in a sword on one of the statues, it having been repaired after another of the suffragettes was forcibly removed having handcuffed herself to it.
At this point we came to the main circular area that political junkies like me recognise from the news coverage of Parliament. (I used to watch the BBC Parliament Channel rather than Channel Five’s afternoon weepy movies when I was a student. That was until I became a musician…). It was great to be here. Tony pointed out that one of the saints of the four UK countries each endorse the four exits from this area, he laughed at the fact that the Scottish one leads to the bar (no time for that drink…)
Then we walked through to the lobby area outside of the main chamber. I could see the speaker through the glass in the swinging doors. I’d always wondered about this area. Here I was. There were busts of the 20th century PM’s. Tony asked if we’d like to watch the debate? This was the moment. One of the places in the world I’d always wanted to see. So up we went to the viewing area and there it all was, smaller than you’d think. Watching the debate through the glass I imagined the purple power villain was next to me. Instead, there was a Japanese student. And Tony.
I was feeling odd all day. Mixed emotions. I think it had something to do with the fact that my dad would regularly come down from Scotland to here, to cover big political stories, and here I was and I couldn’t tell him. I even took his memorial book in my rucksack for some reason. And that feeling was never stronger than now, looking down on MP’s, some of whose houses I had sat outside waiting for my dad, and some who I had answered the phone to at home. At the Despatch Box was Jim Murphy, a Glasgow MP, he played football with my Dad. I felt oddly at home. Opposite him was a grinning Cheshire cat William Hague. I’d always wanted to see the scale of this place and here I was, bending over trying to see the Lib Dems below me, with Tony Benn beside me and looking on too. He must scare the shit out of the MP’s when they look up – the father of the house has come to watch!
4.30. We went for tea on the balcony where Tony had a puff on his pipe. He was so cool walking around the place. At various points, well, on every corner we turned really, doormen, staff, and people like Dennis Skinner, said ‘Hi Tone’, and he replied “Hi”. It was a like a political version of Madam Tussauds, except everything moved. You could feel the respect with which Tony is held, but he seemed almost oblivious; it was more like a plumber showing you around his old works. At one point we entered a lift full of people and he turned and said: “You must be wondering why I gathered you all here?!”
More puffing, talking, stories of his recollections of Mull and Oban….(he hasn’t been back but has never forgotten, he said) then the journalist asked some questions of us. I still had never really heard Tony explain why he agreed to do the poem for my album, but I didn’t want to earwig too much for fear of putting him off! It was a grand view of the big wheel and the shimmering Thames becoming reflections in the fading light. It was getting colder. I gave him my gift of Isle Of Mull Tobermory whisky fudge. (I should have known he doesn’t drink… ‘Saving it for my old age.” He said). I think I did actually know that, but was fearful of appearing like a stalker, as the song goes!). He signed his book for me and Andy, and also my album. Somehow he managed to stuff the fudge into his inside pocket along with his pipe.
4.50. Finally, he took us through to the new building, which is like an airport, all-new and with plants and trickling water features. There are portraits of famous MP’s all around it, and Tony laughed again at the fact that he faces, of all people – Thatcher! It was here that I gave him the poem I’d written for him, 10 years ago, when I was a student. He seemed flattered and asked me to sign it.
He showed us off the property. I know he was being courteous, but a bit of me wondered if that was protocol – to make sure he SEES us leaving, just incase we have a bit of the fox-killing Otis Ferry about us. I wonder if all of Roxy Music’s offspring are banned?
And then we were leaving. ‘Keep In touch.” He said, retrieving his pipe once again. I shook his hand and he shook all ours and we were out the other side. I looked at Andy’s face and he was luminous. Mine must have been too. What a day! What a man! He is unique, he’s championed peace all his life, walked the corridors of power, but he is funny and remains humble too. And now he is on the end of my album.
5.25. The temperature had dipped. Our breath now clouds in front of us. Brian Haw was still there at his post, hands in his top pockets, hat on his head. We headed to the nearest pub for that red wine.
I remember as a kid first hearing the word Parliament, and not knowing the difference between that and Government. And now I’ve been, and done, and had tea, and Tony has my poem about him.
Not a work of art, but here it is below…
(Some of Pat Pope’s photos from the day are uploaded in my photo section to the left of screen, and below is a link to what the Independent journalist will write this Friday, 22nd Feb.)
Tony Benn’s Voice
Tony Benn’s voice
spills like coal off a truck
We should all hear his voice
It should spread out for all to experience
Not the few,
the many.
Tony Benn’s voice
marches on like men from the pit
Let it march
Out over the land
Not to the few,
to the many.
Tony Benn’s voice
his tongue digs like a spade
We should all hear it
In every hole in every community
A light that shines straight ahead
Not just from one place,
from all.
Tony Benn’s voice
still bellowing
But trucks do not spill coal anymore
And men do not march or dig.
Tony Benn’s voice is our saving grace,
Our reminder that once they did.
Copyright. Colin MacIntyre