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You’ll be a Man, my son

2010 May 20
by Paul Vallely

I learned a secret this week from a man who is one of the finest contemporary exponents of the art of song-writing. His name is Vin Garbutt and you may well never have heard of him because he is a denizen of the world of folk rather than of pop, which in today’s culture is a passport to sure obscurity. But if you ever see his name on a poster make the effort to go to see him.

Garbutt writes songs that protest against social injustice but he does so with huge empathy. His best songs are veritable cluster-bombs, full of deep emotion yet delivered with great artistry. He is also, being a Northern man, anxious to draw attention away from his own sensitivity, extremely funny, with a surreal rhapsodic line in self-deprecating humour.

When he hears a tune that he likes he writes words to it and puts them away. Later on he gets them out and writes a new tune to them.  Occasionally, he confessed, the technique fails him. He wrote a song called November Wedding to the tune of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and then discovered that it was impossible to write a better tune than Bach’s. Sometimes he starts with someone else’s words, but then finds he can’t do better than the originals. That was the case in his setting of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.

On his own Kipling can sound a bit Polonius-like in the relentless catalogue of advice that leads to his great peroration: “And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son”. But Garbutt’s tune gave new life to the familiar instruction and admonition and made it fall fresh upon my ears, with one part resonating with the memory of Gordon Brown and his two sons walking, in a chain of family hand-holding, down the road from 10 Downing Street, on their way to see the Queen. (The departing Prime Minister took the boys in to meet her, apparently).

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

It had been particularly cruel that newspapers like the Mail, Sun and Telegraph had accused Brown of “squatting” in Downing Street after the election and “hanging onto office by his fingernails”.  It was unfair because every constitutional expert agreed that it was a Prime Minister’s duty to remain in post until the negotiations were complete which would allow the Queen to invite someone else to form a government.

What made it even more calumnious was that, it later emerged, that Mr Brown wanted to go to the Palace to resign much earlier but had to remain in Downing Street at the behest of Nick Clegg who was refusing to say whether his party would chose the Conservatives or Labour as their coalition partner. Mr Clegg was craftily, it now seems clear, keeping Labour in play only so that he could squeeze more concessions from the Conservatives.

The testimony of the only outsider present in the room when Mr Clegg rang Mr Brown made that clear. Photographer Martin Argles reported Mr Brown as saying: “Nick, Nick. I can’t hold on any longer. I’ve got to go to the palace. The country expects me to do that. I have to go. The Queen expects me to go. I can’t hold on any longer.”

Gordon Brown had his faults, to be sure. But he had many virtues too. Historians will debate the balance between the two and, I suspect, decide that his chief legacy was of huge good done for the poor, in Africa and in Britain, and of an economic strategy adopted by other world leaders which prevented a worldwide recession slipping into a depression.

But what is clear already is that the manner of his going was as privately honourable as it was publicly excoriated. How odd that so many political pundits who claim to be close to the Westminster action could fail to see that. But a troubadour from Teesside could make it clear from far away.


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