- Alun Howkins:History, Plays and Songs
I must have first met Alun around the end of the sixties or the beginning of the seventies – early in the life of History Workshop, as well as fairly early in my own (I would have been about nine, my brothers Mick and Dom seven and eleven); and he is at the heart of all my early memories of the movement. He was always one of our favourite adults, warm, engaged and humorous, and with a great zest and energy about him. Alun, broadly speaking, was great with children – I realize with shock that he can only have been in his early twenties. He was the obvious choice to play the wicked overseer in a play I wrote about rebellious factory children at the Children's History Workshop in 1972, when I was ten. He was also the centre of the folksong evenings that accompanied workshops all the way through the seventies, and were my favourite part of the weekends. For me Alun was History Workshop, in a real sense; he embodied that early HW ethos – democratic, imaginative, innovative and egalitarian, making space for all voices, in plays and song, young and old – and also its gregarious, communicative and creative practice of history.
The kick Alun clearly got out of being the wicked overseer had another lease of life a few years later, in the mid seventies, when (at a slightly complicated moment in a number of adult lives) Dom, Mick and I were dividing the week between several parental households, but living most of the week with Raphael Samuel in Spitalfields, and for a while Alun was part of that household too. I may say that my memory on this can hardly be reliable, because as I remember that year we had both Alun and Michael Ignatieff living in the house at the same time as Raphael and the three of us, and on a purely physical level I can't see how that would have been possible. But Alun was definitely there enough to be a significant figure in the poster wars that erupted between the adults and children in the house, with both sides claiming to be hideously oppressed and exploited by the other. Documentary evidence suggests that Alun may have been the founder of the notorious National Union of Adults, with its memorable slogan 'Agitate, Organise, Repress'. The adults got a lot of subversive fun out of occupying the position of the oppressor for a change.
A large part of the joy of evenings with Alun during that decade was that they meant singing – at History Workshops, with Raph, and even more with our mother Anna Davin, always up for a song. Thinking about the many songs I heard Alun sing during that period, and the many I learned from him, I'm struck now by what his songs said about his politics. He did of [End Page 318] course sing the radical songs of the time – stirring chorus numbers that everyone could join in, like Joe Hill, The Blackleg Miner, The Union Maid, Red Fly the Banners-O. But the political songs I hear most directly in Alun's unforgettable voice expressed not just radical principles but poetry, and a powerful identification with the loss and damage suffered by working-class – especially rural – people over the centuries. Songs like The Dalesman's Litany, with its sombre refrain 'from Hell and Hull and Halifax/Good Lord deliver me', commemorated the loss of the rural home, and every time he sang it was a reminder of the human costs of industrialization and of the domination of the landed gentry. Then there were the anti-war songs like Dancing at Whitsun, The Gay Fusilier (Marching through Rochester), and that other take on Waltzing Matilda, The Band played Waltzing Matilda; these expressed a bitter awareness of the price paid by ordinary people for wars that were none of their own. These were songs that were poignant and poetic, rather than rousingly radical. And I think that also echoed Alun's intense sense of the ways that qualities of poetry and reflectiveness had historically been refused to the working class (repeatedly...