Free Blakey My Fella


Little did I know that my monochrome ghutra, as worn by Yasser, would be huge HUGE at Paris fashion week some decades hence.

I wore it to guard against the tyranny of a Canberra winter. But mostly, I wore it for the same reasons I doused myself in patchouli. It was the livery for those Compassionate Socialists who kept vigil outside the South African Embassy.

Back in the days when Puss was a kitten and patchouli was the signature scent of The Left, I did the same thing every Thursday. I skipped school, took the bus to Canberra’s State Circle and tried, without success, to chat to the Brother whose shift I succeeded on the picket line. I believe Beloved Comrade was engaged by the Builder’s Labourers Federation. I believe he was also the most unfriendly prick I’ve ever met.

There were those, it must be said, who did not regard civility as a bourgeois device. The King-Geed Lesbians and Labour Movement aside, there were some lovely people at the gate of colonial terror. My favourite was the Land Rights Mob. I say this not out of kneejerk liberalism. They simply had the nicest manners and – if one discounts the vegans – the best pot, not to mention the most erudite loathing of Apartheid. Which is far, far more than can be said for the Comrades of the BLF, who resolutely emitted the sense that they were about to kick the shit out of an oppressor, a scab or whatever was handiest. A quality, I felt, that was hardly in the spirit of the exercise. And one brought to mind 20 years later by Amy Winehouse.

Welcome to the Concert for Mandela. Or, as Will Smith prefers to know him, "The One. The Only. The Birthday Boy."

Now, don’t get me wrong. I adore the Fresh Prince and his striking princess consort, Jada. However, "The Birthday Boy" is an inappropriate form of address to a bold soldier whose life was once disbursed in (quite defensible, I’d imagine) guerrilla attack. Call him Madiba or, possibly, Sir. But this Spear of the Nation must not hear those crumbly honorifics we reserve for dementia patients who show scant interest in life or birthday cake. Actually, no male over seven, save for Hugh Hefner, should ever be referred to as "The Birthday Boy".

Welcome to the Birthday Boy’s Bash. Although much larger than a cell at Robben Island, it was, I’d venture, just as Kafkaesque.

Of all the moments at Nelson’s birthday bash, I couldn’t decide which was the most incongruous. The talented, if reflexively self-absorbed, Winehouse certainly provided a potential winner. When Amy, almost capably, performed her hit tune about refusing a 28-day stint in a luxury facility for overpaid meth freaks, I couldn’t help but think about the almost 28 years the world’s most beloved former commie had spent in his prison cell.

Incredibly, Winehouse took her impropriety further by mentioning husband Blake Fielder-Civil. "Free Blakey my fella," was clumsily transposed into the final chorus of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. Fielder-Civil, from what little I care to learn, is a "music video assistant", which we might presume to mean procurer of crack. He’s also doing a few months’ time in the Big House for GBH. In the quaint Winehouse worldview, bovver in an East End pub is the rough equivalent of bestowing one’s freedom and youth in the struggle for human rights. Free Blakey My Fella.

We can hardly expect the fragile soul diva to connect the dots herself. But I wonder that no one had tipped her off.

"Amy, Nelson’s charity is daringly named for his prison designation, 46664. The concert bears the name of this charity, 46664. Actually, Amy, the fact of Mandela’s long, long incarceration is so imprinted on mass consciousness that we’re going to make sure that there are precisely 46664 people in attendance. So, given all of this, perhaps your plucky number about snubbing a few weeks of counselling and colonic irrigation might seem, well, just a little self-centred. Would you mind doing that tune about vomiting on Pete Doherty instead?"

Scores of beautiful pop stars paid their inappropriate tribute to a man once regarded by the western world as a criminal every bit as wicked as Snoop Dogg. Albeit with far better English elocution and without, following his separation from Uber Commie Winnie, a taste for wild, wild women.

Naturally, Peter Gabriel took to the stage. I can’t help but emit warmth toward this old codger despite those unwitting advances he has made to (a) the career of Phil Collins and (b) the CD collections of priapic old lefties who favour patchouli and World Music as methods of seduction. No matter how dire, (and they kind of all are) a particular kind of consciousness raising global concert is not complete without Peter Gabriel. This is just as unthinkable as a Diana concert without Duran Duran.

There was, inscrutably, some music that Mandela might actually have liked. Although, did he personally request the Sugababes? "After waiting patiently for him to come and get it/ He came on through and asked me if I wanted to get with him." We must presume that Madiba mistook the lyric from ‘Push the Button’ to be a declaration of duty to the ANC.

Twenty-four hours later, Winehouse was back in fine BLF form. It is alleged that she thwacked a lively fan in the head at Glastonbury. (The fan, it seems, is a sporting chap. "Not many people," he stated affably, "can say they’ve been hit in the head by Amy Winehouse." Quite. It’s an exclusive group roughly equivalent in size to the London Borough of Hackney.)

Amy is far too thin to be occupied as a professional ruffian. Moreover, her liquid eyeliner is far too errant and middle class. Nonetheless, she and my heroically unfriendly Labour thug had, albeit at different historical intervals, an accidental poster boy and a penchant for occasional unchecked violence in common. Free Nelson Mandela. And, while you’re at it, tell him that you’re not going to rehab. No. No. No.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.