This was a day for memorable speeches and performances. As in 2016, we were again doubly honoured this July by two important organisations.
First, we were thrilled to again be invited by the organisers of the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) to perform three songs at their annual commemoration in honour of all those who went from Britain and elsewhere to fight Franco’s fascist forces. Then, later that day, we were similarly pleased to perform again for the Refugee Tales organisation, an outreach project of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group inspired by the experiences of those held in immigration detention at Gatwick and which campaigns for the end of indefinite immigration detention.
The IBMT event happened at lunchtime at the IBMT memorial to those who travelled to Spain to fight in the second half of the 1930s which is located in Jubilee Gardens, close to the London Eye.
This event is always emotional and well attended. Speeches this year were given by Len McCloskey of the UNITE union, Tosh McDonald of ASLEF and, movingly, Herminio Martinez, one of 4,000 Basque children who were evacuated from Bilbao and brought to Britain in May 1937 following the indiscriminate and criminal bombing of market and other towns in the Basque country, most famously, Guernica.
We sang three songs, Ewan MacColl’s Jamie Foyers, our own song Only For Three Months about the evacuation of the Basque Children, including Rob’s father and uncle aged 5 and 7 respectively, and the battle song of the British volunteers, The Valley of Jarama. Other music was provided by the excellent Maddy Carty whose beautiful, silky, vocals delivered strong political messages and deservedly won great plaudits from the large crowd gathered.
We usually stay on after this event for a pub lunch and a chat with other members of IBMT. However, this year, we needed to be on our way pretty sharpish to get to Walton-on-Thames for our second performance of the day.
Each year, over the course of a number of days, the Refugee Tales project walks to Westminster from a location outside London in an act of solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and immigration detainees. Working directly in collaboration with those who have experienced the UK asylum system, the organisation takes Chaucer’s great poem of journeying, The Canterbury Tales, as its model and invites established writers to tell a series of tales of the refugees’ experiences on the way. Through this sharing of tales, the project gathers and communicates experiences of migration, seeking to show, in particular, what indefinite detention means.
This year the planned walk was from Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed, to Westminster and we had been invited to perform on the first evening of a five day walk. The event took place at the Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre in Walton on Thames.
Rob and I arrived in the town in good time and took the opportunity to have a little walk around and grab a bite to eat before repairing to the Arts Centre. Once inside the Riverhouse we met up with venue manager Nigel Greenaway who was organising the sound for the evening (and many more things besides). We were able to have a good sound check with Nigel before many of the walkers began to arrive. Not long after the sound check, we met up with the Refugee Tales organisers and, soon after that the theatre begin to fill..and fill..and fill. In the end, there was not an empty seat in the auditorium and the atmosphere was electric.
It was both an intellectual treat and an honour to share a platform that evening with award winning author and Man Booker Prize nominee Neel Mukherjee, who presented The Soldier’s Tale, internationally renowned poet Hubert Moore who read from his own work, and star of theatre, film and TV, actress Sorcha Cusack, who was an excellent MC for the evening..
We were also most powerfully addressed by a young man, Ajay, who had been helped by dedicated activists to move from living on the streets of Kathmandu to starting a university career in the UK. His moving testimony of resilience in the face of immense hardship, multiple setbacks in both Nepal and in the UK, and his experiences of being placed in indefinite detention in the UK could fill a whole shelf of books. One can only wish this dynamic and driven young man every success in his future life. What an asset he must be to those around him and to wider British society which he is keen to contribute to.
I’m pleased to say that our own performance seemed to go down well and we were warmly applauded and received many kind words after the event closed.
Many thanks to the organisers of both the IBMT annual commemoration event and the Refugee Tales for their invitations for us to perform. As well as the thrill of participating in these important events, we also learned a huge amount about many things through the course of the day.