I learned a secret this week from one of the finest contemporary exponents of the art of song-writing. His name is Vin Garbutt, and you might well have never heard of him, because he is a denizen of the world of folk rather than of pop (which in contemporary culture is a sure passport to obscurity).
But if you ever see his name on a poster, make the effort to go to see him. He writes songs of protest against social injustice which are cluster-bombs of deep emotion delivered with great art-istry. He is also — being a Northern man anxious to draw attention away from his own sensitivity — extremely funny, with a surreal rhapsodic line in self-deprecating humour.
When he hears a tune that he likes, he writes words to it and puts them away. Later on, he gets them out, and writes a new tune to them. Sometimes he starts with someone else’s words, but then finds he cannot do better than the originals. That was the case in his setting of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”.
On his own, Kipling can sound a bit Polonius-like in the relentless catalogue of advice that leads to his great peroration: “And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son.” But Garbutt’s tune gave new life to the familiar instruction and admonition, and made it fall fresh upon my ears.
One part resonated with the memory of Gordon Brown and his two sons walking, in a chain of family hand-holding, down the road from 10 Downing Street, on their way to see the Queen. (The departing Prime Minister took the boys in to meet her, apparently.)
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out
tools . . .
It had been particularly cruel that newspapers such as the Mail, The Sun, and the Telegraph had accused Brown of “squatting” in Downing Street after the election, and “hanging on to office by his fingernails”. It was unfair because every constitutional expert agreed that it was a Prime Minister’s duty to remain in post until the negotiations were complete that would allow the Queen to invite someone else to form a government.
What made it even more calumnious was that, it later emerged, Mr Brown wanted to go to the Palace to resign much earlier, but had to remain in Downing Street at the behest of Nick Clegg, who was refusing to say whether his party would choose the Conservatives or Labour as its coalition partner. Mr Clegg was craftily, it now seems, keeping Labour in play only so that he could squeeze more concessions from the Conservatives.
The testimony of the only outsider present in the room when Mr Clegg rang Mr Brown made that clear. The photographer Martin Argles reported Mr Brown as saying: “Nick, Nick, I can’t hold on any longer. I’ve got to go to the Palace. The country expects me to do that. I have to go. The Queen expects me to go. I can’t hold on any longer.”
Gordon Brown had his faults. But he had many virtues, too. Historians will debate the balance between the two, and, I suspect, decide that his chief legacy was of huge good done for the poor, in Africa and in Britain, and of an economic strategy adopted by other world leaders, which prevented a worldwide recession from slipping into a depression.
But what is clear already is that the manner of his going was as privately honourable as it was publicly excoriated. How odd that so many polit-ical pundits who claim to be close to the Westmin-ster action could fail to see that. But a troubadour from Teesside could make it clear from far away.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.