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21 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:09pm

Billy Bragg’s Diary: My Hyde Park soapbox, Frank Zappa’s hologram and boyhood war games in Barking

By Billy Bragg

In the past year, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park has been the scene of rowdy confrontations between Islamists and the supporters of Tommy Robinson, arguing over who has the right to speak. However, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May, the atmosphere was calm as people milled about listening to orators talking on a variety of subjects. I was there to speak about my new pamphlet, The Three Dimensions of Freedom. The traditional site of freedom of expression was the ideal spot to test my argument that free speech alone is not a sufficient guarantor of freedom. In the past, veracity was the baseline for debate, but recent years have seen a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, replacing the principle of free speech with the right to dissemble. With my soapbox, a sturdy, collapsible worker’s stepladder, I spent 25 minutes addressing a small crowd, making the case that the recent rise in populism is caused by our failure to give equality and accountability the same respect that we give to freedom of speech.

The illusion of noodling

In his 1989 autobiography, Frank Zappa fantasised about sending a hologram out on tour. At the London Palladium on the evening of 14 May his dream was realised with The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa. This multimedia event featured musicians who played with Frank before his death in 1993, performing live in front of screens displaying cartoons and stop-frame footage in keeping with the scatter-brained lyrics of Zappa’s material. The man himself – or the hologrammatic re-creation of his image – appeared for four songs, his vocals and guitar solos lifted from original recordings. Initially the life-size figure seemed overwhelmed by the set, but as the evening drew on, it became another part of what was an incredible show. Much more of a celebration of Zappa than a tribute act, the audience lapped it up. I can’t imagine it could work for every artist – the big pop shows these days require a much greater degree of interaction between the star and audience, and onstage performers. However, if you’re a fan of prog rock – long, noodling guitar solos played standing stock-still with a bit of studious head nodding – I can see how it might appeal.

Stand up and be accountable

Theresa May has fired the starting gun for the race to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, with the favourite a man whose commitment to having his cake and eating it puts a question mark over his willingness to act responsibly. Wherever you look, it seems a bullish refusal to be held to account is infecting our politics. Carl Benjamin doubles down on his rape threat to a female MP; Nigel Farage avoids answering questions about his beliefs; and Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt seeks an amnesty for crimes committed by British soldiers on duty. Probing questions are dismissed, human rights undermined. The catalyst for this behaviour is, of course, the president of the United States, who is so unconcerned about the consequences of his actions that he believes he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and still rely on his supporters to vote for him.

Knocking at the gates of tyranny

Several radical movements have sprung up in resistance to the notion of freedom as impunity: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demand greater accountability from us all. But for the precariously employed, time-poor citizen who no longer feels their voice is heard in Westminster, only a new electoral system that ensures every vote counts can deliver the benefits of accountability. Social media has supercharged freedom of expression, giving everyone a platform from which to state their views, but this one-dimensional notion of freedom has led to polarisation and frustration at the lack of real change. Trust is at such a low ebb that voters are willing to back politicians who reject social norms, believing this to be a sign of strength in a world where they feel their sense of security is constantly undermined by changes beyond their control. When authoritarian leaders seek to separate democracy from accountability, they are pushing at the gates of tyranny. And with populists slated to make gains in the European elections, it’s time for all of us to get on our soapboxes in defence of truth and justice for all, no matter where they come from.

Vietnam in Barking

To the Design Museum in London with my son, Jack, to view “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition”. We had a long-running debate when he was a teenager about whether Kubrick was the greatest film-maker of all time, but he now seems to have come around to that point of view. What we couldn’t agree on was which film was his best. Jack is a big fan of movies about the Vietnam War, so favours Full Metal Jacket, the battle scenes of which were filmed at the derelict Beckton Gasworks, near where I grew up in Barking. The plant was decommissioned in 1976 after natural gas replaced the town gas that Beckton had been producing since 1870. Kubrick sent in a demolition crew to make the buildings look as if they had been hit by tank shells, added a few palm trees and Beckton stood in for the Vietnamese city of Hue. The last hour of the movie recreates the long and bloody battle that took place there in 1968.

Playing soldiers on Bonny Downs

As a child, I had played war games on Bonny Downs, adjacent to the old gas works. Neither urban nor rural, it was a barren edgeland between the A13 and the River Thames, where there were no park keepers to stop us throwing stones, climbing fences or jumping streams. Jack was impressed that his favourite Kubrick film had been shot where his dad used to play soldiers, but I don’t think he believed me when I claimed that the battle scenes from Spartacus were filmed in the park behind his grandma’s house.

“The Three Dimensions of Freedom” is published by Faber & Faber

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This article appears in the 22 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake

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