Autobiography - To Revolution Singing
By elsie katz
To Revolution Singing
I knew it when I was fourteen, I know it now and I can back it up with quotes*, we go to revolution singing. Onwards, like Christian soldiers. Forward to revolution!
I went to a Youth Movement when I was young. Unlike the Girl Guides, which I also went to, girls and boys met together. We all wore one optional uniform, a deep blue ' Movement shirt' over our t-shirts and trousers.
Our organisation was called Habonim. It is Hebrew for 'the builders.' Our motto, translated into English was 'call us not children, call us the builders.' On Sunday afternoons I took the Tube to Finchley Road and walked for twenty minutes to the headquarters where our group met. We also had a winter camp for five days and a summer camp for a fortnight each year. We learned songs in Hebrew, English and other languages, Israeli dancing, and a team game played with a basketball where we caught people out by throwing the ball at their legs. We had socialist discussions each week where we worked through issues in our group. If we all arrived in Utopia, for example, by suddenly getting marooned on a perfect desert island how would we sort out likely trouble in Paradise? What would we decide if, for example, if some of us were hardworking and others bone idle? Would we all get the same rations? What if a person wished to write poems, paint pictures, create driftwood sculptures or play guitar, did this count as work in the same way as the essential labour we would need to carry out to give ourselves food, shelter warmth and safety?
I learned what freedom politics is from the gospel song O Freedom:
O Freedom, O-oh freedom, O-oh freedom over me
And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.
The second verse started Black Liberation, the next Women's Liberation, the next Gay Liberation. Then back to O Freedom to round the song up.
It never entered my head to doubt or disagree with any of this. I still agree with the lot!
The songs, yes it is the songs that stay with me the most. From all corners of the world. From all eras of revolution. In Spanish we sung of the Fifteenth Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (Viva la Quince Brigade). In Italian we learned about the, um Italian revolution. Probably an old one as the lyric after the Red Flag (Bandiera Rosa) had a cannon in.
Avanti popolo, per il canone, revolutione, revolutione
And at the end of both verses; the shout-out chorus.
Viva Marx, viva Lenin, viva Mao Tse Tung!
We did not learn detailed history to go with the songs (I joined at 10 and left at 14 which was a pretty usual path). We did learn about South Africa at first hand from Stephen Kitson. Stephen was my age and was brought up by his North London grandmother. His father, David Kitson was a white South African engineer who was thrown into prison for 20 years for joining in a protest against apartheid. His mother Norma was a journalist who campaigned for the release of David and the rest, including Mandela, and for an end to apartheid.
Stephen's explanation of South Africa in our discussion session was straightforward.
'In England a rich person will say; I've got a big house, a big car and central heating. In South Africa a rich person will say; I've got a big house, a big car and Blacks.' Meaning Black servants.
That simple? Because it is. To me politics is simple, it is about joining a group of people who are trying to make the world a better place and getting on with it. Although it is not a paying game my head holds many good memories of my radical activism. My involvement with the student left at The University of Stirling at the end of the seventies and start of the eighties. The South London Anarchist Centre a couple of years later. Then Faslane Peace Camp,(started at the same time as the Greenham Common Women's peace protest), near the American nuclear submarine base in Scotland. Then as the single mother of a small girl, my contribution to the Edinburgh Women's Liberation Newsletter,which gave me for several years a much needed home for my poetry, short tales, opinion pieces and book reviews. It gave me additional identity. As well as being a wee wifie** on the dole I was a published writer. Read by friends and by new people who came up to me at women's gatherings and told me they liked my work.
To me the thing that is complicated is apathy. Why are the English so quiescent? I can understand it when someone is ill as I have in the past experienced times of debilitating depression. But to be like that all the time? I don't get it.
When I was 14 I quit Habonim for the commercial Babylon of Minys, the synagogue youth group. I put on make-up, took the Tube the other way to Harrow on the Hill and met my friend Reva Gilbert for an evening of discoing in hotpants. Us girls lined up and did the dance moves to Spirit in the Sky. It was better odds here for a spotty four-eyes to 'get off with' and then 'go out with' a boyfriend. I did. If I had stayed with Habonim till 16 I would have become a youth leader. Too daunting a prospect for me as I was shy. If I had followed my path in Habonim right to the end I would have emigrated to Israel and been placed on a kibbutz. Full circle in a way since my parents, initially from Eastern Europe met and soon after wed on a kibbutz in the Negev desert. But by 1971 the times they were a-changing.
What revolutionary songs do we have in the mainstream today? The best seem to be 'internal' where the songwriter describes their emotions in a way we can all relate to and this often reflects an unease with our circumstances. It all connects. Lou Reed's lyrical and beautifully understated 'Pale Blue Eyes' where he is still bedding his ex although she is married is radical in its own way. I love the way he takes his time and slowly builds the mood. Ian Dury's Spasticus Autistcus was written from the heart. Ian when five contracted Polio, after swimming outdoors and drinking infected water. Four years in children's hospitals followed,. isolated from all he knew, plaster casted from the hips down and strapped up to the painful appliances that doctors then genuinely believed would make people with disabilities normal. I like Eminem too, he's a baddie and good at it! 'Know your enemy.'
What music do you like? And, as we say in Devon 'where to?'.
* On the power of song or thereabouts:
Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed - Lenin
I want a revolution I can dance to - Emma Goldman (anarchist and feminist)
Why should the Devil have all the good tunes - General Booth, Salvationist
** wee wifie. In Scotland not always a married woman, simply means a female older than a wee lassie
(I wrote this piece 2 years ago and have posted it here before. Not so sure now about that line 'why are the English so quiescent?'. Interesting times....)