Ukrainian refugees in Poland | Darek Delmanowicz

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It was Christmas 1970. A series of lunchtime concerts had been organised at London’s Lyceum Theatre by what was then a still comparatively new record label - Charisma. The concerts promoted acts signed to the label, themselves all pretty new.

Maybe it had been cheaper to hire the theatre during the day rather than the evening. Or perhaps Tony Stratton-Smith, the founder of Charisma, had felt there was a young teenage audience out to be tapped. Whatever the reason, I and my girlfriend went to a couple of these concerts.

There was Peter Gabriel of Genesis with strange headgear and there was a chap with Van der Graaf Generator, David Jackson, who played two saxophones simultaneously. Stratton-Smith’s promotion worked, where I was concerned, insofar as I went to the concerts, but otherwise it met with limited success.

I bought the Genesis album ‘Trespass’, the first and last Genesis record I ever bought, and that was to be the extent of my Charisma catalogue until many years later and Peter Gabriel’s solo career.

Fortunately for Stratton-Smith, I had a friend who was vastly more enthusiastic about Van der Graaf Generator than I was. And so ‘The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other’, the group’s first Charisma album, came to be on the borrow list. There was a track on that album that I played over and over and over again. Fifty or so years on, its melancholy and lyrics most certainly stand the test of time.

Van der Graaf Generator’s singer and song-writer, Peter Hammill, has explained that the motivation for the song ‘Refugees’ was his friendship with actress Susan Penhaligon and Mike McLean. The three shared a flat. When they went their separate ways, as he has said, he was “washed with melancholia”; they were his best friends. The song, which references Mike and Susie, took on a life of its own. For Hammill, “we are all refugees, and there is no home but hope”. For anyone listening to this song now, interpreting it in light of events isn’t difficult.

The sense of melancholy is conveyed by the flute and violin at the start of the song. The lyrics begin: “North was somewhere years ago and cold. Ice locked the people’s hearts and made them old. South was birth to pleasant lands, but dry.” North is now somewhere of the present, with ice in people’s hearts. One person’s in particular.

South is pleasant lands. In the Mediterranean, an island region makes its gesture. It is only a small one, but it is heartfelt. The Balearic government’s social affairs minister, Fina Santiago, has said that “we are committed to peace”. Amen. In the meantime, there are 75 places available at the government’s two refugee hostels, if the Spanish government takes in refugees from Ukraine. A small number, yes, but every conceivable place should be offered, if the West does as it should do and allow people in regardless of permits or visas.
Hammill’s lyrics blend the four cardinal directions of the compass.

North is cold. East, at one point, comes alive “in the golden sun”. “We were at peace and we cheered.” But then, “We began to notice that we could be free. And we moved together to the West.”

The West is repeated several times. The song, in a way, is about the West. I don’t know that Peter Hammill was necessarily making a political statement - I’m unaware of him having said there was one - but you can’t help but feel that there is a political tone. The East, at the time he wrote ‘Refugees’, was locked in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Bloc. He wasn’t to know that the East would come alive in the golden sun, now blocked by the cold from the North.

The final verse, embellished by a choral treatment, is mightily powerful in its sheer sadness. Packed with the message about the West, it goes: “We’re refugees, walking away from the life that we’ve known and loved. Nothing to do or say, nowhere to stay; Now we are alone. We’re refugees, carrying all we own in brown bags, tied up with string. Nothing to think, it doesn’t mean a thing. But we’ll be happy on our own. West is where I love, West is refugees’ home.”

There is no shortage of commentators offering their views and analyses of what is happening in Ukraine. I’ll leave it to them, except to note the appalling impact on ordinary people’s lives. The people who suffer as the consequence of insanity. The people fleeing. Fleeing to the West. Away from the life that they have known and loved.

In the pleasant lands of the South, in the West, 75 places in hostels in Mallorca are the very least that can be offered - the least we can do is wave to them and help.