“We’re keeping what’s gone before alive.”
Often as not with these blogs, I get to reflect on the interview it accompanies, but today I’m thinking why worry – it’s all there in the podcast. The obvious love of fatdan’s John and Danielle – for each other, for their work, for the story of Brendan Behan, for the songs.
Why add any words to that?
So instead here’s a story of another Behan.
Brendan’s brother Brian in Brighton was something of a tongue-twister: a life summarised with alliteration. Of course, Brian was more than just a silhouette, reduced to the dimmest of detail by the light of his brother’s fame. Brian had colour and substance of his own. He wrote plays, songs, poems, called strikes as a union leader, caused mayhem as a theatrical prankster.
And once he tried to bring down the British government.
More or less. It was Parliament he had in his sights, rather than any particular party (though these were the last wheezing years of the Major majority). And he didn’t simply want to overthrow, his desire was to destroy.
As Brian argued it, democracy could only be served by bringing the two Houses to an end and replacing them with either the Swiss system – referenda on all matters, large and small – or the judgement of a reasonably honest computer.
“Failing that, Dougie,” he’d tell me, “all decisions should be left to the only honourable individual in the country – namely me.”
Truth be told, Brian’s motives were not entirely pure. He had a play to promote: The Begrudgers – a take on his brother’s clash with poet Patrick Kavanagh – was due to premiere at Battersea Arts Centre and plays run on electricity: they need a decent plug.
Then there was the joy in mischief.
To this end, one Friday found Brian stood outside the gates at Westminster, alongside John O’Donoghue – he also of this parish – clad in a t-shirt emblazoned with the initials S.I.D. and singing “Shut it down, shut it down – for God’s sake shut it down.”
Sadly – as noted above – this took place on a Friday, when all MPs were safely making their way to their constituencies or their mistresses in pursuit of traditional weekend duties. So Brian and John’s manful protest was noted only by a number of bemused Japanese tourists, a one-man film crew (yours truly) and several inevitable pigeons.
After forty minutes, Brian declared that the message had got across and we made our way to the nearest pub.
It was said that the Marxism of the Behan family owed more to Groucho than it did to Karl and there may be something in that. Certainly there are as many doubters of the vigour of Brendan’s revolutionary fervour as there are its proclaimers. But neither Brendan, nor Brian, (nor Dominic for that matter) could be said to have left anyone without an opinion, particularly when declaiming their own.
So it is perhaps strange that Brendan’s body of work – praised and feared as it was in its time – should appear to have been so roundly ignored (Shane McGowan aside) in recent years, until now. Of course, there’s the centenary to mark, 100 years since the big man’s birth, but the flurry of activity around his memory seems to suggest more than simply another anniversary in another year.
At a time of outrage and division, when the talk is constantly of cancellation and censored opinion, perhaps we need to be reminded of an age when subversion wasn’t always without its pleasures. When conviction could also be balanced with comedy and compassion. When you could make your work seriously without having to treat yourself with the same lack of humour. When there was fun to be had in provocation for both provoker and provoked. When truth could be found in playful debate. When there was joy in mischief and in song.
Or maybe it’s because he was so bloody good.
Either way, here’s to the songs of Fatdan and of Brendan, Son of Dublin.