Unlikely heroes

I’ve recently read a book and seen a TV programme that led to a few thoughts.  The book was “Dominion” by C. J. Sansom, a counter-factual thriller about life in a Nazi-dominated London in the 1950s.  The book starts as Neville Chamberlain meets Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax (the Foreign Secretary, and a leading appeaser of Hitler) when he realises he can no longer be Prime Minister.  In the meeting, Churchill agrees to serve under Halifax, who promptly signs a peace treaty with Germany.  The impressive aspect of the book is not the plot – a rattling-along thriller, sure – but the atmosphere of a Britain under a government of fascist sympathizers.  For me, it gave a convincing picture of how collaboration and anti-semitism can seep into the daily life of a country, almost unnoticed.  The heroes who oppose the regime do so for a number of reasons – there is one card-carrying Communist – but mostly out of an understated sense of decency.

I don’t know what I would have done in such a situation.  I’m not talking about whether I would have revealed secrets under torture, or if my family were threatened (the answer is almost certainly yes).  Would I have passed food to a hidden Jewish family, as countless Dutch did ?  Or let the resistance know of train movements or troop concentrations ?  Or stepped in to prevent a dissident being dragged off by the police ?  I just don’t know.

Come a bit closer to today, and bring in my second piece of evidence, something you may feel has no place in an essay about fascism, racism and resistance.  It was a nostalgic BBC documentary about George Formby, the music hall entertainer of the 30s and 40s.  Much of the programme concerned his cheeky songs and his ukulele, with affectionate tributes from loyal fans who still meet annually.  You wouldn’t see George as a proto-Billy Bragg, but hang on a bit.   In 1946 George and his wife/manager Beryl toured South Africa shortly before formal racial apartheid was introduced, where they refused to play racially-segregated venues. According to Formby’s biographer, when George was cheered by a black audience after embracing a small black girl who had presented his wife with a box of chocolates, National Party leader Daniel François Malan (who later introduced apartheid) phoned to complain; Beryl replied “Why don’t you piss off, you horrible little man?” and was hurried on to the next plane home for her pains. George Formby as anti-racist hero ?  There’s more.

Take Petula Clarke – a child star who graduated to being a successful middle-of-the-road entertainer, but not in most people’s mind any sort of radical.  In 1968, NBC-TV invited Clark to host her own special in the U.S., and in doing so she inadvertently made television history. While singing a duet of “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war song that she had composed, with guest Harry Belafonte, she took hold of his arm, to the dismay of a representative from the Chrysler Corporation, the show’s sponsor, who feared that the moment would incur the wrath of Southern viewers. When he insisted that they substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from each other, Clark and the executive producer of the show – her husband – refused, destroyed all other takes of the song and delivered the finished programme to NBC with the touch intact.

And then there’s Dusty Springfield – a wonderful singer but, again, not someone whose image you’d expect to see, Marley/Dylan style, on a protestor’s T-shirt.  In December 1964 Springfield’s tour of South Africa was controversially terminated, and she was deported, after she performed for an integrated audience at a theatre near Cape Town, which was against the government’s policy of racial segregation.  Her contract specifically excluded segregated performances, one of the first British artists to do so.  Tom Watson, the golfer, was no radical – a Republican and a member of the National Rifle Association – but he resigned from his local club when he discovered Jews weren’t allowed to be members, and didn’t rejoin until the practice was ended.

None of these stances are in the same order as resistance heroism of Violette Szabo or Jean Moulin.  But they show a day-to-day understanding of what is right, and a determination not to take an easy route away from it.  But they weren’t painless acts.  For example, I would guess Petula Clark was aware that her success in America was at risk from her stand.

Who do we have on the other side ?  Frank Sinatra did it his way (and collected $2m for nine days work) in Sun City, where Elton John and Queen played too.  Rod Stewart, Boney M., Status Quo played South Africa or Sun City, unworried about the fact that their careers were based on music of black origin.  And none of these people were under threat of torture, or protecting their family, or going along with established government policy.  They were people with a lot of money and mostly they went to South Africa to get some more. Bad behaviour doesn’t stop there.  There is the cadre of alternative comedians like Jimmy Carr who use accountants’ scams to avoid paying their share of tax, or Bono lecturing us about Third World Needs whilst dodging any tax he can. I could go on. Nicholas Parsons advertising Wonga.com; Barbara Windsor advertising on-line bingo. Strewth.

So why would some people, not known for being in any sense dissidents, behave well under pressure, whilst others, with an edgy reputation, behave badly.  Could it be that what matters is not some developed radical stance, no showy commitment to human rights, but an intangible built-in feeling of decency, of right and wrong.  I don’t know where it comes from – the family, I guess – but it seems to be what motivated Sansom’s resisters, and also Beryl Formby.

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