Talking With The Taxman About Poetry

Billy Bragg, Speaker's Corner, 31/01/10

Never interview your intimate ideological heroes – you’ll only make an arse of yourself. But with @billybragg standing next to me at a freezing cold Speaker’s Corner, it was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass by. You only get to make an arse of yourself once with your ideological hero.

Billy was at Speaker’s Corner as a timely reminder for his campaign to withhold income tax payments in protest of the publicly owned RBS still paying out bonuses to bankers.

It’s an issue that holds considerable resonance with me. Twenty-five years ago and it would have been withholding payments to the Treasury in protest against the increase in nuclear proliferation. How times have changed. The Cold War may be over, but the Class War struggle still continues. All under the name of a New Labour government as well.

It’s rare to hear any sense coming out of Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday morning. Bill took the wise strategic move to situate him well away from the religious freaks spurting out their bile and bigotry.

A crowd of a coupe of hundred gathered to hear Bill take to his stepladder (oh yes!) shortly after one ‘o clock to read out some notes. Even as firm flag waver for all things Boy Bragg, I approached the event feeling cynical. It’s easy for the rock star to take the £100 Treasury fine for non-payment, not so easy for a freelancing blogger / photographer with no monthly fixed income.

I was expecting a five-minute media friendly speech, repeating the message that Bill has been putting across so strongly online over recent weeks. I’m greatful to @markrock and the wonderful @audioboo for having recently upgraded my account to longer than the five minute package: half an hour later, Bill finished speaking and we were left pondering what was in effect a rallying cry taking in the past twenty five years of his political struggle.

Defeating Thatcherism, electing a Labour government and then back to where we started with right wing politicians still trying to defend the free market as an excuse for inequality. You break our legs and we say thank you when you offer us crutches.

Answers weren’t given, apart from the personal gesture of withholding your taxes. It seemed more like a rally cry of despair, wondering what the past quarter of a century has all been about. The Miner’s Strike, the pulling down of the Berlin Wall and electing a mixed race President of the United States. Yet still we have a party of the people (pah!) prepared to pay out million pound plus bonuses to bankers who are responsible for the collapse of the economy.


Bill received a round of applause, and I experienced the exact same feeling of some twenty-six years previous when Billy Bragg boarded the counter at Selectadisc, Market Street in Nottingham, and bashed out three chords whilst shouting out:

“If you look the part you’ll get the job
In last year’s trousers and your old school shoes
The truth is son, it’s a buyer’s market
They can afford to pick and choose.”

Phew – rock ‘n roll.

A few more media appearances and then a general mingling with supporters followed. Mark Thomas was also in the crowd; the pop star and the comedian, now taking on the publicly owned bank. How the hell did it come to this?


I hovered around with my iPhone, wanting to doorstep Bill for a brief @audioboo. I’ve interviewed millionaire rock stars in a previous life and have been blasé about it. I thought they were all tossers and wasn’t at all intimidated.

But Billy Bragg, in the cold light of day at Hyde Park? My hand hovered as I tried to press the start button on my audioboo app.


I think I just about got away with it. Bill spoke of how he felt alienated by the current political system with no choice come the ballot box in a couple of months time. Nu Labour has “failed to turn the back the tide of Thatcherism.”

I can only write about what I know and what I see happening around me on a local level. Here in Lambeth and we have a Labour led administration that is allowing the private sector to run our schools, talking of a “financial tsunami” in the local health service and yes, privatising leisure centres.

What the hell have the past twenty-five years been all about?

The crowd slowly drifted off to the pub, and I cycled through Hyde Park, playing back my brief audio flirtation with my ideological hero. I’ll be paying my taxes before midnight (needs must) but will wake up on Monday morning, still ready for the fight.

The trouble is I don’t know who exactly I’m fighting now.

12 thoughts on “Talking With The Taxman About Poetry

  1. Hi, i dont know if youve heard of us, but i am the organiser for Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council, really inspired by your use of new technology and would really like to have a chat with you about how this could be used to communicate with exisiting and potential trade unionists. Would you be up for a chat? I can come to Lambeth?

  2. Well done, Onion… I was way too nervous to go and up and say, ‘hi’ – it was cold and my daughter was in a strop! Will bring choccies next time!

    Greta piece.


  3. Great piece, lived in Lambeth many years ago in a past life [Acre Lane] but just to comment on your last line – that is the struggle we face and which makes it probably one of the hardest in history. Neo-liberal capitalism has managed to ‘individualise’ everyone, and in turn diffuse themselves [the corporations] into ill-definable bureaucracies, so that in effect we no longer have the luxury of an easily identifiable ‘target.’

    Some analysts are of course calling this faceless machine the ‘Other.’ This means that people who want to oppose it and improve our society, need to be very well organised, with this clearly in mind. These are radically different times from in the past, we’ve just been too numbed by consumerism to realise it. Until perhaps now.

    Congrats again on your piece, and you met Bill! I am jealous 🙂

  4. Hi Jason,

    I have been talking to Billy Brag about using the audio from his speech to make a piece of music to distribute the message further. Billy said he will contact you and let you know he has given me permission to use it, please could you let me know the easiest way for you to get an audio clip to me?



  5. Hi Mark

    How very kind to be asked if the audio can be used. Of course it is fine to do this – I think it was an incredibly moving speech, that needs a wider audience (plus I reckon technically, the copyright remains with Billy!)

    I’ve sent an email.

    Many thanks


  6. Jason, fantastic article – you’ve articulated what I can’t about why we were there and how we felt ( 3 of us in your pic – one only 11, possibly not as passionate as I…). I also was far too shy to actually talk to anyone there – but will be back again this Sunday…

  7. Cheer’s for this. Sharing with a few friends alas, who could not get there. Hearing in full away from cold, and eck it was cold there. Great work, catch some more audio this Sunday?

  8. Hi, enjoyed your piece, I went to hear Billy at Speakers Corner too. Good speech, and while not a hugh crowd (it was never likely to be) very successful in generating publicity for his campaign.

    The more people hear of it the more it will gather support I think, and something has to be done. The argument that we have to pay millions to keep the great “talent” that ruined RBS and the economy in the first place, is laughable. It is a disgraceful gravy train, pure and simple, and at our expense too.

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