Tuesday 18 March 2014

Goodbye and Thank You Tony Benn

I know I'm a little late with this, but In the same 12 months as I lost my Dad, I can't let Tony Benn pass without saying goodbye.

Both men were very similar. In the end, they even looked alike. Benn lived to 89, my Dad to 91 and both were born in London within just 3 years of one another. Both joined the RAF and fought in the second world war and both were lifelong socialists who never knowingly compromised themselves. Ever.

But there the similarities end. Benn was born the son of a Lord and politician, my Dad the son of an Irish drunk. Benn to the aristocracy and stately homes, my Dad to the tenements of Battersea and hunger. Whilst Anthony Wedgewood Benn was sent off to the prestigious Westminster school, my Dad grew up in Borstals.

My Dad lied about his age to join the RAF, just to get way from hunger and crime. Benn entered officer class and flew the very planes my father kept in the air.

How very strange to think of their lives lived in parallel, never quite colliding. Or did they? In a bizarre twist, my Dad's talent was somehow allowed to override his class and he played cricket at Lords for Surrey Colts. The borstal boy sat in curiosity as great Lords lectured him on Britishness and fair play. Concepts as alien to the little street boy who lived by his wits as stability and wealth. He often quoted the head of the MCC who warned them severely, "May I never see the day, dear boys, when cricket becomes a sport for professionals". The tough little boy that nobody loved found the whole experience strange and remarkable, like something unreal.

Meanwhile, Benn, just a few miles away, found himself at the very heart of that elite, alien world and came to reject it. How did those two men live lives so different, yet so alike? One so deprived, the other infinitely privileged who chose the same paths and ended up at the same destination?

Having lived my life with one and admired the other since I could think, I think the answer is an unshakeable confidence.

My Dad had to create his. He had absolutely no-one to shape him, so was able to shape himself. Once he decided who he was, he never ever wavered. He'd seen injustice we can only imagine. But much more remarkably, Benn had to have a mind capable of merely conceptualizing the experiences my Dad had actually lived. He could only imagine the deprivations and hardships, but gave his life to easing them nonetheless.

It was the war that sent away a generation of rich men and poor men and sent them back just men. Men that bled, men who shattered into a thousand pieces under fire, men who loved and felt fear and wanted better.

When they came back from that massacre of potential they'd learnt a great truth that progressed mankind further than at any time in history. They had learnt that when they all pulled together, just sisters and children and fathers and sons; when everyone had enough to eat and everyone had work in a common shared purpose, we were happier and healthier than we'd ever been.

We learnt that if we could spend money killing, we could spend money building hospitals and schools and houses.

The war that ripped families apart, gave birth to the UN and a promise never to repeat the brutality of the past. It gave birth to the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated generation of Britains of all time. The "baby-boomers" of today know that they saw the best years. It made us all socialists, Lord and pauper alike. For a while at least. And our greatest triumphs, our proudest moments came from the debris of that failure.

My Dad died in early May,  and at the end of June I found myself speaking on a stage at Glastonbury, invited by the equally unshakable Bill Bragg. I spoke on panels for the first two days and on the third, Tony Benn himself was a guest. I watched him from backstage, transfixed. That familiar pipe in hand, rousing the crowd to hope and believe in ways they'd only heard their parents speak about. He was old, gaunt like my dad had been. He thought through long pauses before he spoke, just as my Dad had done.

After the session, I went to the green room to get a cup of tea. Tony Benn was sitting at a table in the pretty marquee, pipe in hand. As I went to the tea urn, I recognized the girl next to me. By huge coincidence, she had stood as candidate in my neighbouring true-blue stronghold of East Worthing! It was Emily Benn, Tony's granddaughter and carer.

We did the squealy "what a coincidence" thing girls do. I gushed a bit about her awesome granddad and she invited me to come and meet him!!! You know those first moments, where as soon as a chain of events begins, you just know something magical is going to happen? You do that quick "snapshot" in your head. "Remember this, you're Billy Bragg's guest at Glastonbury, which is mind-glowingly awesome enough and now, you're walking towards TONY BENN!!!!" *breathe* *breathe* *don't forget to breathe*.

And suddenly, there he was, sitting right next to me. Anthony Wedgewood Benn! And the pipe. And he was delighted to meet ME! Emily told him all about my campaigning for sick and disabled people and how we'd taken on the DWP.

The man opposite me was very old. He was measured. He looked away at a better place just past your shoulder. Just like my Dad had at the end.

The magic held us fixed and Emily said she had to make a call and she'd leave us alone for ten minutes!!! Somehow, the rest of the marquee stayed empty. No-one interrupted to shake his hand, no-one came in. It was just me and Tony Benn and the pipe in a marquee at Glastonbury with mugs of tea. And HE wanted to know more about MY campaigning!

Still we sat there suspended, uninterrupted. He asked about my disability and I told him I had crohn''s disease. He thought for a moment and recalled someone he knew with the disease. He sympathised.

I told him about Spartacus and the campaign and the Spartacus Report and how we'd all done it together. I knew it would make him happy and that made me happy. He didn't say much for a while. I didn't know whether to babble on nervously or just sit quietly a bit. With Dad so recently gone, I'd become used to these conversations, I was still comfortable in them, accustomed to the pauses.

So I waited. After a moment he looked at me and said in that unmistakeable mumbling drawl "Yes, these assessment changes must be very difficult for conditions like yours, never the same from one day to the next." For a second, that flash of brilliance pulled me up at is it had pulled up others all his life and I saw the brilliance, the razor-trap mind that immediately went to the very heart of the issue, the heart of why I fight.

I told him how much I admired him and that he had always been my Mum's very favorite public figure. I told him how much he reminded me of my Dad. I told him I'd never forget sitting in a tent at Glastonbury with him for a few quiet moments. He was tired, watching that place just past my shoulder again, and though I had a thousand things I'd have loved to say and ask, I just sat. After a while, I asked him if he needed anything, could I get him more tea? He smiled, but seemed almost too tired to answer. Then Emily was back and I said goodbye.

The bubble burst and Dave was there and that legendary man was gone.

So goodbye "Tony" Benn. Always his own man. Always our man.


  1. Fantastic piece Sue. Hope this gets published more widely - surely Labourlist would be one place?

  2. A perfectly lovely piece, Sue, so rich and powerful, and at the same time so tender and loving, a story of yesterday and of today.

    Misspiggy is right, it should certainly be read much more widely.

  3. i knew Tony from the seventies when i met him through my father and indeed was the most oddest of people in the nicest way possible

    you can be sure we wont see the likes of him again only the likes of IDS are coming through the ranks and not one person like Tony on the horizen at all

    very sad indeed but true

  4. Beautiful piece of work loved it....

  5. Thanks for posting this Sue - a beautiful appreciation of a very special man ... of TWO special men, and the inspiration they and their shared experiences gave you, and us, that it is possible for people, however different they may be, to stand together in a common cause.

  6. How wonderful to have such a fantastic memory that you can recall over and over. I was entranced and felt as though I where there :) What a wonderful feeling.
    I agree that this piece should be seen over and over again and that millions ought to read it.
    R.I.P. Tony Benn - a truly great man and a truly fantastic politician.

  7. Tony was confident he knew that the people would get beside him on trust alone and they did his constituents were very lucky

    When i first met him in 1972 he highlighted that i should become a mp as my father was the liberal agent at the time but in those days i didn't believe i could bring anything to to the table that wasn't already there as politics in those days were although very slow there were not any oddities around you never felt threatened by anyone

    of course everything changed in 1979 when Mrs thatcher came about and now you did feel threatened i know i did and i was working in a city bank at the time

    i should have left and gone in with labour and try to get a better balance in politics plus to head off the worst of Mrs thatcher policy's but with very much regret i failed to do so and like so many people in the UK today have suffered ever since from what she started which was a road of complete selfishness and disregard for all human values of decency' and today those values that she started out with are still here in spades and at epidemic proportions that will go on to destroy the lives of millions who lives here in the coming years

  8. Now this was why you needed your new laptop Sue......almost felt like I was there in that tent with you. You're very lucky to have met the great man and I'm sure that those 10mins will be treasured forever.
    RIP Tony Benn

  9. I talked to him just after you did - as soon as he learnt I work in the NHS he told me to stop the Tories dismantling it! What a privilege to meet such an awesome man xx

  10. Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing, beautiful memory. It's left me bawling my eyes out whilst travelling home (feeling ill after a heavy day) on the bus. Don't care! Thank you, Sue. xx

  11. I've never cried at the death of a politician before. Not that I think they're all scum or anything, it's just never affected me that way. Thank you for this lovely tribute, Sue.

  12. In times of despair and pain..take comfort from the lessons learned..from your father who made you in his own image and having met such a great man to continue to inspire you. You were blessed by both for a reason Sue, NEVER doubt yourself..even when things don't go to plan! As someone famously said..'Its not always about winning..but having taken part' You do so much more than many others...and you give a voice to others that brings much comfort...Wishing Good Karma to you, to your brilliant and supportive husband..and to your children..for they too are blssed with parents to be proud of..much love Sue..to you and yours..x

  13. Magic - Thank you Sue, so very much.

  14. Sue, I value your Diary, and am grateful. So I know about your illness.
    If is conceivable (but unlikely) that you are unaware of FMT, but in case not, a recent article in New Scientist may be of interest. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129582.800-healing-by-faeces-rise-of-the-diy-gutbug-swap.html#.UympC4U22mA.
    Kind regards
    David Hirst