Interview with Tony Benn: “Being an elected MP is a vocation; a crusade”

Tony Benn’s serviced apartment in Notting Hill Gate feels like something between a parliamentary office and the rooms of a university professor. In the bookcase at reception sits a purposefully-chosen selection of books that includes a copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography. Surprising perhaps, given this is the residence of one of New Labour’s most vociferous critics and Britain’s most ardent electable socialist.

Reclining in an easy chair, puffing gently on his pipe, Benn emanates the air of a benevolent grandfather; an image reinforced by his response to the question ‘how would you like to be remembered?’ (Note the avoidance of the word legacy.) “If when I died somebody said: ‘Tony Benn, he encouraged us,'” he answers, “I would regard that as the finest tribute, because I have tried to encourage people.” Teaching and encouragement, it seems, are at the very heart of his interpretation of socialism: “There are two people in society,” he says, “the rich and the rest, and you have to decide whose side you are on…

“I regard Marx as a great teacher; what he said helped people to understand what was really happening.” The gentlemanly demeanour makes it easy to forget that this expression of socialist commitment comes from a veteran politician with more than half a century of experience in the House of Commons and ten years’ worth of ministerial posts under his belt, ranging from minister of technology in Harold Wilson’s 1964 government to energy secretary in the James Callaghan’s government during the Winter of Discontent in 1978/9… Read more

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Don Paterson: rockstar poet

It’s hard to tell from the unassuming exterior and corduroy trousers that Paterson is a writer who began his career playing jazz and rock gigs. Neither is it immediately obvious he’s won every major poetry prize in the UK, including the T.S. Eliot award on two separate occasions. An OBE came in 2008, followed by the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 2010.

Glass of white wine in one hand – he excuses the choice of drink, muttering “bloody beta blockers” – Paterson adjusts the microphone and begins to read in a quiet, reflective tone, drawing the audience in with verse that ranges from the comic to the positively bleak. Particularly memorable is his recitation of ‘The Forest of the Suicides’; a poem taking inspiration from the thirteenth canto of Dante’s Inferno, written in memory of Sylvia Plath.

Paterson came to poetry through a different route. Instead of pursuing further education, he left school to focus on a career in music, and after several years playing with local rock and jazz bands in his home town of Dundee, moved to London in the early eighties. There he spent much of his time taking guitar lessons and performing with improvisation groups. Writing, it seems, wasn’t an urge that came to him until fairly late on: “that’s how it works with compulsions like this; they’re kind of wound up, ready to go. It takes a certain convergence of circumstances before it kicks in and interacts. In my case I was 21, living in London, working as a musician, and I saw Tony Harrison on television which made a big connection; I was blown away by him. The density of what Tony was saying, and the emotion of the language was very striking.” Music is still very important to Paterson; he was a central member of the jazz-folk group Lammas until it disbanded in the early 2000’s, and continues to perform on the guitar…Read on

Photo Credit: David A. Selby/ The Journal