Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Billy and the bananas

On Friday evening I got to hear - and briefly talk to - Billy Bragg. On Saturday morning I encountered a large number of bananas. It was an unusual beginning to the weekend.

Billy Bragg was "in conversation." Tickets cost £3 and, as my son's a fan, I bought two. Then my son was ill with a virus. At the last minute, I asked a colleague. She turned out to be a fan and was delighted at the invitation - she'd been too late to get a ticket. "I'm going to marry Billy Bragg," she told me, as we headed to the event. "My husband says it's fine and he quite understands, so long as it's Billy."

I didn't have quite the same enthusiasm. I enjoy some of Billy Bragg's songs and was interested to hear him talk but half my reason for attending was to report back to my son.

Within two minutes' of Billy Bragg's arrival, I knew I'd made the right decision. He's quick-witted, intelligent, funny, modest and passionate about changing the world. One of the questioners from the audience asked why he didn't stand from parliament. Billy gave two answers. First, he's a singer, not a politicians. And second, he thinks politics is for ever, not just professional politicians.

I don't always agree with Billy. I can see why he thinks patriotism is important (and I'd like "Jerusalem" as an English national anthem) but I simply don't share his love of country. I love places and people but I'm not a patriot in that sense. Perhaps I felt an outsider to early in my life. And I think Billy is too optimistic - but that's a good fault. I wouldn't mind sharing his optimism.

What I share is his concern to involve people in political action and public debate. There are dangers in that - people won't always make the right decision - but sometimes the people are right and their leaders wrong. At least 1 in 50 people in Britain marched against the Iraq war and they were supported by the majority of the population. That opposition came out of public debate - but the leaders told us contemptuously that we were wrong, stupid and cowardly. On the question of Iraq, the majority was right and our leaders were disastrously, cruelly wrong.

Billy was on his way to a gig for the 25th anniversary of the miners' strike. He'd been involved in the campaign to support the miners. I wasn't. Living in London at the time, I thought Arthur Scargill should call a ballot - and that no government would ever close the coalmines on the scale Scargill suggested. I was wrong. I couldn't have done much to support the striking miners but I wish I'd done something.

On the day that Billy prepared for his gig, I too took political action - but it was more modestly expressed. I ate a banana.

It was part of an attempt to set a world banana-eating record (the most in a particular place in a 24-hour period) in support of Fair Trade. There were fairly-traded goods to try (mostly cake and chocolate) as well as games and information. Quite a few people were dressed as bananas.

I'm in support of Fair Trade. Rich countries have a bad record of exploiting poor people in poor countries, forcing them to work for low wages. Obviously we should pay decent wages rather than forcing farmers and labourers into near-destitution. But I'm uncomfortable about the way bigger companies have begun to use Fair Trade to lure shoppers away from small companies and shops. Cadbury is to start using Fair Trade cocoa in its chocolate bars, guaranteeing the minimum Fair Trade wage to its producers. But the world price of cocoa has risen so much in the recent market turmoil that it's not going to cost Cadbury anything just now.

The Fair Trade bananas which we ate for our attempt on the record were provided by Sainsbury's. Speakers thanked Sainsbury's for their generosity and the people in the square applauded. But I wonder what the small greengrocer on the edge of the square thought. Hallam's has been selling fish and vegetables for more than a century. I don't eat fish but the vegetables are good and often grown locally. They had a fine display of organic, fairly-traded bananas - but I wonder how many people bought from Hallam's when Sainsbury's was giving bananas away.

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