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The Personal Column

Bush fires

How powerfully songs can hit you in the heart and make the impact that politicians struggle to achieve with their leaden delivery and faux sincerity. Thus Margaret Thatcher and her protégé young master Blair spring to mind.

Songs, however, can almost leap from the radio such are their intensity.

Elvis Costello achieved this with ‘Oliver’s army’ – the best song to have emerged from Ireland’s modern troubles – and his heartbreaking response to the Falklands War, ‘Shipbuilding’.

Both these songs, though, had been foreshadowed by Kate Bush’s ‘Army dreamers’ and when I first heard this song on Radio 1 in 1980 (I later bought it) I was transfixed.

Transfixed, not only by her lyrics but by how her words were punctuated by the sound of rifle bolts being pulled back ready to fire:

What could he do? Should have been a rock star

But he didn’t have the money for a guitar

What could he do? Should have been a politician

But he never had a proper education

What could he do? Should have been a father

But he never even made it to his twenties

What a waste

Army dreamers

Ooh, what a waste of

Army dreamers

This is a most beautiful song set seductively in waltz time and whenever there’s a news report of coffins arriving at Wootton Bassett, I am reminded of this verse:

Tears o’er a tin box

Oh, Jesus Christ, he wasn’t to know

Like a chicken with a fox

He couldn’t win the war with ego

On the day of Thatcher’s funeral there was a musical event held in the Star Anise Café here in Stroud – one replicated all over the country I hope.

Anyway, a couple of musicians and 50 or 60 people gathered to sing and affirm that there is such a thing as society and there are many alternatives to a regime of unfettered competitive individualism.

There was no evident triumphalism at her death and her name was hardly mentioned. Instead, a spread of songs, ranging from that hymn of the American Depression ‘Buddy can you spare a dime’ (lyrics by Yip Harburg who also wrote ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’) to The Jam’s ‘Going underground’, via Bob Marley’s ‘Get up, stand up’, and The Specials’ ‘Rat race’, were sung with undeniable emotion.

Lamentably there were no songs written by women that I recall. We sang ‘Shipbuilding’ of course and Leon Rosselson’s ‘Diggers song’ but passed on ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’.

I’m sorry ‘Army Dreamers’ was missing, and it remains an undersung song I think. When it was released it created a bit of a stir – which combatively continues yet on the net – as to its meaning: an attack on the military, a hymn to the common soldier, a lament for military mothers, a thinly-veiled call to pacifism?

Take your pick, but whatever meaning you choose Kate Bush’s beautiful creation is a fount of love, compassion and no little anger:

Mourning in the aerodrome,

The weather warmer, he is colder.

Four men in uniform

To carry home my little soldier.

‘BFPO’

Army dreamers

‘Mammy’s hero’

‘BFPO’

‘Mammy’s hero’

Our little army boy

Is coming home from BFPO

We’ve a bunch of purple flowers

To decorate a mammy’s hero

Mourning in the aerodrome

The weather warmer, he is colder

Four men in uniform

To carry home my little soldier

(What could he do? Should have been a rock star)

But he didn’t have the money for a guitar

(What could he do? Should have been a politician)

But he never had a proper education

(What could he do? Should have been a father)

But he never even made it to his twenties

What a waste

Army dreamers

Ooh, what a waste of

Army dreamers

Give the kid the pick of pips

And give him all your stripes and ribbons

Now he’s sitting in his hole

He might as well have buttons and bows

Ooh, what a waste of all that

Army dreamers

Army dreamers

Army dreamers, oh