In 1990 I was a student in Glasgow and I had to make a film with a group of my classmates. It was the City of Culture but we decided to concentrate on the sub-culture of what was really going on in Glasgow at the time away from the art galleries and the theatres. Our film (which I have sadly lost) included a section on an anti-poll tax concert which took place in the back green of a block of flats in Easterhouse.
19 year old me with my pals at the gig
It was compered by activist and actor Peter Mullan and headlined by Billy Bragg. I won the toss to interview Billy after his set as well as man the camera during the set. Jammy.
Billy was right in there with the Scots during that year where we felt our rights were being disregarded as Margaret Thatcher's government decided to test out a new universal tax on the Scots a whole year before they introduced it in the rest of the UK. I suppose, if the Scots didn't revolt, then they reckoned they could pass it on with no problems to the rest of the reportedly less feisty paisanos in North or England and Wales.
Billy Bragg during his set, Easterhouse, 1990
Step forward 30 odd years and Billy is with us again, this time being supportive and most importantly, knowledgeable (unlike the We Love You gang) of what's really going on the Scottish campaign for independence. So I was excited to see that Billy was on the bill of my favourite outdoor festival, Belladrum Tartan Heart. And I was particularly pleased to find out that Billy was doing a Q and A in the Verb Garden speakers tent which also boasted indyref heavyweights like Lesley Riddoch and Tommy Sheridan.
I went right to the front for Billy's set. He was great. I'd have liked The Great Leap Forward but you cannae have all your favourites so I'll stop being a brat about it and settle for the Milkman of Human Kindness instead. It was when Billy started singing "The Scousers Never Buy The Sun" that I noticed a bit of a stooshie happening behind me. A chap I had been speaking to earlier who was wearing a Firefighters for Yes shirt was having bother from a security guard who was trying to take his Yes flag off him.
As Billy's set went on he used the opportunity to mention in between songs that he was told he couldn't have any mention of the referendum in his set but had cunningly placed a subliminal message on his amp. Here it is:
He then went on to talk about the referendum anyway. That's the fella! The Yes flags came out in the crowd once more. Being right at the front I could spot one security guard motioning to other security guards at the sides of the audience where the culprits were so that once again, they could be admonished and, if the person was soft enough, have their flag confiscated. More stooshies. Not very Bella, I thought to myself. The same thing happens ironically during "Take Down the Union Jack" which would be funny if it weren't so unfunny.
Billy's set finishes and I get chatting to a couple called Sophie and John who tell me that the night before they caught a security guard at their campervan about to go up on the roof to remove their Yes flag. To stop him trampling over their nice clean van they agree to remove it for him (just to put it up again later, this being a pesky democracy with annoying free speech and all). This just isn't the chilled out Bella vibe at all, I thought to myself.
I am bewildered. I flippin love Belladrum. I can understand why no Yes flags were allowed at the Commonwealth Games but what harm does waving a Yes flag do at a music festival? In the camping field I see flags with all types of messages on them, I see Palestinian flags clearly in support of Gaza, a CND flag, and others with what could be construed as political meanings. I wonder, would a Union Jack have been confiscated? I can't answer that question,as it happens, as there were none in evidence. I fully expect to find the hundreds of cars with Yes stickers in the windscreens in the carpark with gaffa tape on them obscuring the voting intentions of their returning owners. (They weren't- that was a joke, but nothing would surprise me).
Two hours later I'm sat in front of Billy Bragg and host Gary Robertson of the BBC* for the Q&A and as I get handed the mic I remind Billy of the time I met him in 1990.
"Billy, we met over 20 years ago" I said.
"Oh my god, what's coming next?!" He says to much laughter from the audience.
"I was a student filming you at an anti Poll Tax concert in a back green in Easterhouse."
"Oh, I remember that," he says.
"You helpfully told me from the stage that I'd do a better job if I remembered to take the lens cap off and I want to thank you for that advice as it has served me well."
The audience laughs again.
I continue. There is a question at the end of this, I'm not just being a daft fangirl, honest. "So we met at that turning point in Scotland's history and here we are again at another turning point and I want to ask you how you feel about the fact that during your songs you sung today which talk about freedom of speech and the rights of the people, that people in the audience were being having their Yes flags taken off them by security?"
I'll leave Billy's response to the end of the post. Meanwhile I want to tell you why my husband was not with me at that point. It has nothing to do with me openly flirting with Billy Bragg. He was outside the Verb Garden tent being told he couldn't get in unless he removed his Yes badge. He refuses and decides to make a bit of a stand. He asks the security guard to tell him why he can't wear the badge on camera. He is then suddenly surrounded by three security guards. After 5 minutes of arguing he relents, takes off the badge and goes in. He then spots Tommy Sheridan standing nearby the door with his wife Gail. Tommy is next on the speakers bill after Billy Bragg. "They made me take my Yes badge off Tommy, can you believe it?" A wee bro mo ensues as Tommy gives John a man hug. Tommy is fairly used to being surrounded by security, Meester M, not so much.
Billy Bragg finishes his Q and A and I try to run off with him before my husband gets back. Note: I did NOT pay the bouncers to detain him, the Yes badge stuff is real.
We then stay to watch Tommy who in his closing speech pointedly criticises Belladrum organisers for taking badges off people which have come in to watch speeches about the indy ref to huge applause from all the folk who no doubt had had to pocket their's until they were inside. No such luck to the folk we speak to later who couldn't get in at all because they were wearing Yes tshirts. Turns out they didn't want to go taps aff. Pesky freedom of speech getting in the way of public order, and all that.
Later on I find out that this has been the order of the weekend. Yes supporters Frightened Rabbit pull out a Yes flag on the main stage despite being warned not to go near the indy ref by organisers (don't bother checking for that on BBC Alba coverage; that bit has been edited out).
Capercaillie fit in a wee quick "All the best on the 18th, do the right thing" as they go off stage". And do you want to know what Billy Bragg said in response to my question?
He said, "Fuck them. Just keep on doing it."
You can't argue with that; it worked in 1990 too.
You can't argue with that; it worked in 1990 too.
* Note that in answer to an audience question about who was behind the confiscation of flags and badges Bragg and Robertson both say that the decision had nothing to do with the BBC.
Don't ever miss a Misssive, subscribe!