Satirical illustration of man in Union flag shirt pushing piano and pianist off white cliff.
Illustration by Chris Tyler.

Brexit is already hitting British musicians very hard, with the prospects of touring through Europe made so difficult in future as to be generally just not viable.

With its usual vindictive and perverse attitude, the current British “Vote Leave” government (for that is who they are) even provocatively refused an EU proposal for reciprocal bilateral exemptions, preferring to prevent British musicians any mobility rather than allow the vital cultural exchange of allowing European musicians to visit us here.

Hard to imagine a more philistine attitude toward human cultural exchange and expression. So much for the once popular dismissal of such outcomes as “Project Fear”.

During the four-and-a-half decades of Britain’s membership of the EC/EU I frequently enjoyed working in European countries, with various gigs in Norway, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Slovenia and Greece as well as on a Mediterranean educational cruise ship, which visited many countries.

At one point in those halcyon days I spent a whole summer performing a residency at the Holiday Inn hotel in Gibraltar. As a “British Overseas Territory”, the pubs closed at 11pm, which was when my nightly job also ended.

The bars in Spain, however, were open several hours longer, so I enjoyed a nightly walk across the balmy airstrip, with its warm levant winds via the strait. Freedom of movement, indeed. The first Spanish town one comes to after a 15-minute walk is not the most salubrious of the area, but I loved every moment I spent in La Linea that summer, which left me with many a tale to tell.

Jumping forward to the dying days of this half century of integration, I played a concert of my own in Berlin in the autumn of 2016, in a beautiful art gallery’s gardens near Lake Tegel, run by an eccentric Italian woman. She introduced me as “a very special visiting pianist from Britain, so may I present to you, our very own…Mr. Brexit”!

Faced with some understandably frosty gazes from the assembled modern Berliners, I had to work hard to win the crowd over, after such an introduction. My cosmopolitan repertoire helped, and we spent a delightful afternoon.

As for modern German music, I am reminded of a practical joke I once played, many moons ago. In the mid-1970s, my brother Gary and I were big fans of Kraftwerk. I had got my first electronic keyboard when I was 14, and was playing around with the sounds and electronic beats a year later, when a plan occurred to me.

I made my own electronic music album all in the style of Kraftwerk, and put it on to a blank cassette tape. (Bizarrely, one of these teenage ersatz Kraftwerk tracks had an ending which was almost identical in every way to the ending of David Bowie’s “Seven Years In Tibet”, produced 20 years later for his Earthling album.)

I took this to my older brother, with the excited news that someone at school had lent me this rare and unauthorised bootleg copy of the next album Kraftwerk were working on. I had it for just one night, before it had to be returned, and would he like to hear it? Of course he would.

He was duly convinced and impressed…until some of the final tracks carried increasingly obvious clues. One was an only half-disguised electronic rendition of the Sirtaki dance from Zorba The Greek. The final track suddenly featured me, singing “What A Swell Party” from High Society, in a German accent and with the lyrics comically altered.

My brother and I were both activists for the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the SPGB, so I sang “Have you heard of the SPGB? They want to change society! Oh, did you ever, what a swell party this is!” How I wish my brother were still with us to share this joke again now. He died in 2016, suddenly, unexpectedly, at just 58. He left a wonderful legacy of work in the fields of law and education. Our early musical evolution was shared, as was so much else.

We also lost, last year, a dear friend and colleague, Mike Pentelow, who edited the Fitzrovia News for many years. Since he had been a committed member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, or CPGB, and since the SPGB and CPGB were implacably opposed to one another in their political objectives and principles, we had some enthusiastic though very amicable political debates, but Mike always had the humour, humanity and decency to find common ground and to discuss with curiosity and positivity. He always called me comrade.

January 2021 saw the 60th birthday of my pal Suggs, of Madness. Hard to believe a decade has passed since I played for his 50th birthday party, at Wilton’s Music Hall. That led to me touring with him as on-stage pianist for his one-man autobiographical theatrical show. We also did a charity show around that time at Soho’s French House, raising funds for Soho Parish School and the African educational charity, Ubuntu. It was all brilliantly organised by my dear friends Eddi McPherson (Suggs’s mum, who we very sadly lost in 2018), Lesley Lewis and Georgie Sutcliffe. I suggested to Suggs that we include Jimmy Cliff’s great song from 1969, Many Rivers To Cross as I thought it would suit him, and indeed it did.

Regarding the line, “Wandering I am lost, as I travel along the White Cliffs of Dover,” Cliff stated: “That came from the number of times I crossed the channel to the continent. Most of the time it was France but sometimes it was Germany. It was a very frustrating time. I came to England [from Jamaica] with very big hopes and I saw my hopes fading. And that song came out of that experience.” Which brings us back to Brexit, and how it will prevent British artists touring Europe in future. That, plus the current effects of the pandemic, makes Jimmy Cliff’s 1969 song, and our innocent performance of it back in 2011, all feel so poignant and immediate:

Many rivers to cross
But I can't seem to find my way over
Wandering I am lost
As I travel along the white cliffs of Dover

Clifford Slapper’s biography of Mike Garson, “Bowie’s Piano Man”, is available here. His album, Bowie Songs One, is available here.

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