Sunday, September 22, 2013

Farage, Dulwich and the Hitler Youth songs

My only picture of Farage from school.
It has been reported recently that Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, sang "Hitler Youth songs" while in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at his school, Dulwich College, in 1981.

I know Farage didn't sing any Hitler Youth songs because we didn't know any. Yes, ‘we’. I was there; Channel 4 News wasn't and nor, for that matter, was Chloe Deakin (the teacher whose letter about Farage was the basis of the stories).

The letter itself was kept by Bob Jope, a teacher I knew well and admired very much, and who was the epitome of what right-wing commentators would describe as a "trendy leftie". His motives in keeping and later publicising the letter will be obvious, but he didn't hear the cadets singing in Sussex because he wouldn't have been seen dead in the CCF. He was still a good teacher though, and one who inspired creative thinking – a much-needed counter-balance to the school's more usual obsessions with Latin and rugby.

Deakin was never a friend of the CCF (and I'm more sympathetic to her view now than I was then), so it's no surprise that her hearsay report to the headmaster, David Emms, was exaggerated. By the time the story appeared in the newspapers this month, it was a report of a report of a letter reporting a report: in other words, the fourth round of Chinese whispers spread over 30 years. 
Bob Jope in November 1981, singing in a school band

The songs we sang were often racist and sexist, but none were Nazi songs. Nobody could sing in German, and anyway, where would you learn the Horst Wessel song in 1981? Look it up on YouTube? They sold some pretty questionable records in Our Price in Croydon (REO Speedwagon anyone?), but I don't remember seeing Lieder aus der Hitler-Jugend in the bargain racks. 

I'm ashamed of the songs we did sing, and I'm disappointed the teachers didn't stop us, but maybe they were consciously not rising to the bait. After all, the point wasn’t to express an opinion; it was to sing something to shock our elders, in the loutish ways adolescent boys often do. It wouldn't have been shocking if we hadn't known that the sentiments were repellent. That's probably why the Red Flag also got the occasional outing (only occasional: we didn't really know the words), because a Communist song was considered just as likely to raise the hackles of the authorities at a public school. Another song celebrated homosexuality in a boys' school where no one would ever admit to being gay. We were almost daring ourselves to shock ourselves as well as the teachers.

Nobody ever expressed these views in normal conversation; after all, we had black, Asian, South Asian and Jewish friends. There were a few racist songs in the canon, but when marching we were more likely to sing something like Yellow Bird - a cheerful song about animal cruelty that provided the title of Kevin Powers' recent novel about the Iraq war, with a rhythm much better suited to marching than Ivor Biggun's Winker's Song.

Did Farage join in with these songs? My (possibly flawed) recollection is that we all did. Did he instigate the singing? Possibly, but I don't recall him doing so, whereas I often did, despite being a left-leaning liberal then and now. Despite our political differences, Farage was a friend of mine and he appeared then as he appears now: nationalistic, right wing on social and economic issues but not a Nazi or a racist.

As an old school friend of mine commented on Facebook this week, "I don't recall him being particularly strident or offensive and I was almost the only Jew in (Dulwich) Village."

The songs we sang are irrelevant because they tell you nothing about our political beliefs now. They don't even tell you about our political beliefs then.

Why am I bringing up actions I'm ashamed of to defend a politician I don't support? Something to do with facts being sacred, I suppose.

9 comments:

  1. Dear Patrick, I think this post of yours is a good contribution to the debate. The facts are indeed sacred. But I went to a school not unlike Dulwich College albeit in the 60's. We also had a CCF. We had left wing teachers. We also wanted to rebel against the conformity and conservatism of the school institution. And we did. But I have no recollection of ever singing racists songs. My dad was Jewish. As a kid I heard people telling West Indian bus conductors 'to get back into the trees where you came from'. So my question is this: "Ok, Farage didn't sing Nazi songs. But what were the racist songs he was singing in 1981, five years after the setting up of Rock Against Racism? The same year of the Brixton Rising?" Can you recall the kind of thing? I mean the words? Just so we can get a proper idea... Seeing as the truth is sacred.

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    1. Thank you Steve. It's difficult because I feel complicit having promoted attitudes I find abhorrent now but also found abhorrent then. I hope the piece above explains how that works. The point for me is that I don't think Nigel's attitudes then are relevant now. His opinions today stand on their own merits or dismerits. For all his faults, and they are many, he is unusually clear about his political stance and he can be judged purely on that. And I find his attitudes consistent with the boy I knew. It would be misleading to document the songs we sang, because I sang them too. We sang songs celebrating the Holocaust, yet one of my best friends was Jewish. He's still a good friend. Yes, I remember the words, but as a (hopefully) more mature adult, my fingers recoil from writing them. But they were abhorrent. The atmosphere today is unpleasant, but so was the atmosphere in the 1970s in a way I don't think it was in the 1960s.

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  2. I have some sympathy with the callous stupidity at strikes all young people wanting to rebel. But songs celebrating the Holocaust? Have you ever asked your good Jewish friend what he thought of these songs?

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    1. Not directly, but he knows, and we're still good friends.

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  3. I think you're wrong to say the songs celebrating the Holocaust don't tell you anything about political beliefs. Maybe you didn't sing them with racist intent but my god it says something about the lack of any sensitivity or sense whatsoever in attitude toward those in a more vulnerable position than you. You could choose your targets from a position of privilege and you didn't flinch from picking Holocaust victims. The more I think about your explanation the more horrified, upset and angry I'm feeling. I acknowledge the certain fun of bawling obscenities - but there you have it - the knowledge of your transgression was there but none of you cared. That speaks volumes about character, and certainly informs my views of his and your politics.

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  4. I can assure everyone that young people could certainly obtain Nazi songs, including the Horst Wessel song, even in 1971. There were recordings, for example, and a German speaking friend of mine, aged 21 in 1971, was able to quote the texts, albeit with with disgust.

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    1. To be fair, your friend probably knew a lot of Germans at a time when the Horst Wessel song was widely remembered as almost the second national anthem. For those of us who had little contact with Germany, it was a mystery. I didn't even know it existed till we studied the Nazis at A-Level, by which time Farage had left the school.

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  5. I'd say that Farage's attitudes then are very relevant now - and I was there, not in the CCF in Sussex, but smoking in the woods most days with him. He seemed utterly nationalistic, self-important, pretentious, a propagandist and often one goose-step away from being racist. I thought we were laughing at him, not with him. The Rock Against Racism movement - and my own conscience - taught me that little Englanders like Farage were odious, dangerous and to be be avoided, however shiny the buttons on their blazer, or wide their froggy-mouthed smile. It's chilling and astounding how far he's got and friends complain that I didn't push him down the stairs when I had the chance.

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    1. Why be anonymous? You must recognise those woods in the picture. We surely knew each other.

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