The Dubliners' 'The Old Man' -- remembering war through the eyes of a working man

November 10, 2015

Remembrance Day is marked in Commonwealth nations on November 11 -- to commemorate the end of the bloodbath that was World War I. As a commemoration of fallen soldiers, it is overshadowed in Australia by Anzac Day -- but is a far bigger deal in Britain.

In Britain, the alleged lack of depth in a bow made by Labour's anti-war leader Jeremy Corbyn at a Remembrance Day event was front page news. Irish footballer James McLean, playing for English Premier League side West Bromich Albion, has also received death threats for refusing to wear an official Remembrance Day red poppy -- that McLean is from the northern Irish town of Derry where British soldiers infamously murdered 14 civilians in 1972 appears to count for nothing.

Pro-war politicians and often-hysterical media -- on Remembrance Day in Britain and ANZAC Day in Australia -- demand "respect" for the fallen as a means to push a blood-stained nationalism to justify fresh wars. In other words, they offer those who died in wars pushed by politicians and the corporate media in the past no respect at all -- just cynical exploitation.

But there is another way to remember those who fought and died in wars -- remembering it as a tragedy and waste of life, whose promises of "freedom" and progress vanish when the firing stops. That is the tale told in "The Old Man", written by Scottish folk singer Ian Campbell. Set in the last part of the 20th century, an old working class man from Britain towards the end of the 20th century looking back over a life punctured by bloodshed in war and poverty and struggle in peace.

The song was recorded in 1979 by Irish folk band The Dubliners, sung by legendary gravel-voiced singer Ronnie Drew. Beginning with the death of the narrator's father at the turn of the 20th century in the Boer War, it travels through World War I and then the hardships of the 1926 General Strike, Great Depression and the rise of fascism.

Not ever the defeat of fascism in World War II brings respite -- the old man's American-born-and-bred grandson is sent to fight in Vietnam. Living on a meagre pension, the old man bitterly concludes his whole life feels like "one long bloody war" -- before insisting there must be change.

It is a fine way to remember those who've died -- along with Jeremy Corbyn's response. At an official event, the new Labour leader paid his respects to all who've died in wars from all sides, then read Wilfred Owen's famous World War I anti-war poem "Futility".

At the turning of the century I was a boy of five
Me father went to fight the Boers and never came back alive.
Me mother was left to bring us up, no charity she'd seek,
So she washed and scrubbed and scrapped along on seven and six a week.

When I was twelve I left the school and went to find a job
I took the royal shilling and went off to do my bit,
I lived on mud and tears and blood, three years or thereabouts
Then I copped some gas in flanders and got invalided out.

Well when the war was over and we'd settled with the Hun,
We got back into civvies and we thought the fighting done,
We'd won the right to live in peace but we didn't have such luck,
For we found we had to fight for the right to go to work

In '26 the General Strike found me out in the streets,
Although I'd a wife and kids by then and their needs I had to meet,
For a brave new world was coming and I taught them wrong from right,
But Hitler was the lad who came and taught them how to fight.

My daughter was a landgirl, she got married to a Yank
And they gave my son a gong for stopping one of Rommel's tanks.
He was wounded just before the end and he convalesced in Rome
He married an Eyetie nurse and never bothered to come home.

My daughter writes me once a month, a cheerful little note
About their colour telly and the other things they've got.
She's got a son, a likely lad; he's nearly twenty-one
And she tells me now they've called him up to fight in Vietnam.

We're living on the pension now, it doesn't go too far
Not much to show for a life that seems like one long bloody war.
When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry
I'm not sure how to change things, but by Christ we'll have to try.

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