Friday, 21 August 2009


The last surviving World War 1 veteran was buried in England on August 6th 2009, having died aged 111. Harry Patch, born July 1898, never spoke publicly or privately about the horrors he had witnessed until he was 100, when he realised that there were so few veterans left to tell their stories. He devoted his final years to speaking about the futility of war, describing it as "organised murder". He also told then Prime Minister Tony Blair that Remembrance Day celebrations were nothing but "showbusiness". Blair wasn't at the funeral, nor was he one of the many politicians and pundits who paid warm tribute to him, and I fear that some of them hope to bury Mr. Patch's wisdom with his body.

Patch was born three months after Paul Robeson, the African American actor and singer, who despite having been one of the most famous people on the planet in the early 20th century, is probably unknown by most Americans - of any colour – under the age of 50. Robeson achieved worldwide fame selling millions of records, and for his stage and movie roles: from Showboat (in which he sang Ol' Man River) to Othello, for which he still holds the record for the greatest ever number of Shakespeare appearances on Broadway.

Another thing Robeson and Patch had in common was peace activism, which for Robeson ran in parallel with practically all his performing career. At a rally in Madison Square Garden in 1946 for example, he sang a peace song at the end of a speech in which he said:

'A year or two ago, the British Foreign Minister said, and I quote, "If we do not want to have total war, we must have total peace." For once, I agree with him. But Mr. Bevin must be totally blind if he cannot see that the absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.'

Outbursts like this cost Robeson dearly. Within a few short years, he found that most concert halls and theatres in the country had closed their doors on him, and his passport was revoked, preventing him from leaving America to perform (and more importantly, speak) abroad. The State Department even denied him permission to travel to Canada! In a spectacular show of defiance, he nonetheless held a series of annual concerts at the U.S. / Canadian border, at the aptly named Peace Arch. The first time, in May 1952, a crowd of about 30,000 turned up on both sides of the border.

This episode is recreated in my play, Call Mr. Robeson, which I'm due to perform at the Philly Fringe in September. I've already performed it in America several times over the last two years, having come in on the visa waiver program which British passport holders enjoy. (I refer to my other, Nigerian one, as my passport of inconvenience).

I fear however that the honeymoon may be over, for I find I now need a visa, because I am working. My application went in a while ago, but I have this nagging, uneasy feeling. Is it unreasonable to think that there might be a file on little insignificant me somewhere in the State Department? If only I had declined invitations from "subversives" to speak and sing at an anti-war gathering in Detroit in April 2008. Or to share a platform with Angela Davis in San Francisco last February campaigning for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Troy Davis and other black death row inmates. I was pleased to see photos of me on the web after both events. And last January, two days before travelling to the Inauguration in DC, I quietly went to New York's Union Square to stand alongside about fifteen anti-war protesters. It was there that I got my first experience of being spat at. I haven't seen photos of that demonstration on the web, but isn't it conceivable that my face was photographed from across the street and emailed to State Department?

Friends tell me that being spat at and having a State Department file are badges of honour in liberal circles (I understand that the word "socialist" doesn't translate too well across the pond these days). Robeson, who died in Philadelphia in 1976, earned several honours in his lifetime for his campaign work for civil rights, for independence movements, and for peace and friendship among nations. Patch too, amassed an impressive array of medals over several decades, even after becoming an activist in his twilight years. At his request, the theme of his funeral was peace and reconciliation, and this was reflected by ceremonial weapons being banned, and by his coffin being accompanied by private soldiers from France, Belgium and Germany.

A Nigerian girl also sang the anti-war song Where Have all the Flowers Gone? Seeing the vile criticism this particular item generated on a white nationalist website I stumbled upon, my resolve to tell Robeson's story of peace is strengthened, even if I have to sing from across the border in Canada.

Postscript: The date of re-publication (Aug 28th) is almost three weeks after this article was first written. The "premium processed" approval notification was apparently lost in the mail in the U.S. We paid for a duplicate to be sent by FedEx, and I ended up flying to Belfast with my passport for the visa, delaying my departure from Liverpool to Philadlephia. The passport (and visa) are now with me, so Philadelphia, here I come!