Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Aspiring to Freedom: 
The Promise of a Sweet Word

Sometimes there are words that reach across the years which still have the power to move. Often, if those words are accompanied by a melody, they can more easily embed themselves in the unconscious, but when prompted by an external event or an inner emotion they can rise up to the surface again.

An ‘earworm’ is a catchy musical phrase which continuously repeats in the mind long after it has stopped playing. But ‘earworm’ does not adequately describe what I’m writing about now. This is something more than that. This is a musical and lyrical phrase that bubbles up from deep in the past to come alive again in the present. What is more, that phrase prompts recall of the whole message.

Around 20 to 25 years ago, when I was still a relatively young man, I was a keen follower of the band Fat and Frantic. You may not have heard of them, but they had a large and very loyal cult following in the UK; large enough to ensure that many of their concerts sold out, large enough to propel them onto radio and TV – but not quite large enough to break their music into the mainstream charts.

Among the band’s eclectic mix of novelty, jazz-flavoured pop, gospel and ‘piffle’ (punk-skiffle) were a number of songs on the theme of social justice. You could call them protest songs. One of these was ‘Freedom is a Sweet Word’ (written by Fat and Frantic vocalist and trumpet-player Jim Harris). It is this particular song that winds its way through the years (it was first released in 1987) to circulate around my consciousness today.

Anyone who has followed my intermittent blog will know that I am particularly concerned with gaining recognition for past injustices in children’s and adolescents’ mental healthcare settings. But I also have a wider concern for justice in general. I can’t help but find myself angry on behalf of those belittled and dis-empowered within our society on whatever grounds. People can – in effect – be disabled by our society and its institutions for a whole swathe of reasons. These reasons can, of course, include mental health problems – but they also include class, ethnicity, sexuality, physical health problems, religious affiliation, and so on. 

‘Freedom is a Sweet Word’ reflects back to me, and puts into clear and concise words. some of my own thoughts and feelings on this broad subject. The song has nothing to do with mental health as such, but it resonates with what I have witnessed and experienced in a mental healthcare setting. It speaks of those who limit the freedom of others because they are fortunate enough to be ‘Barclaycard carrying members of the free’, because they have the power to exercise ‘freedom without justice’. These are the people with the means (symbolised by the Barclaycard) who can dominate and control those who are denied – or who have lost – the means. These ‘members of the free’ can absolve themselves of any responsibility towards the less free; in fact, they gain their freedom from the less free. This is because those without means are labelled as failing to use their freedom as ‘constructively’ as those with the Barclaycards.

It is certainly the case that if you were ever a child in a psychiatric institution you will know what it was like to have your freedom limited by those ‘Barclaycard carrying members of the free’. These ‘members of the free’ were the adults who made the decisions, the people with the means – doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. Some of them may have exercised their means properly and responsibly, while others may have abused their means. Together, however, they gave the institution they served power: the institution had all the power; you had none.

The difficulty with not having means and power – not having that Barclaycard, so to speak – is that it’s very difficult to claw your way up from whatever belittled or dis-empowered state you are in. But as the song says, that freedom ‘shines and glistens like a star’, and so it is still something to aspire to. Furthermore, not everyone exercises ‘freedom without justice’; there are some who know both freedom and justice, and that is why I can hear that song playing in my head and find hope in it.

Freedom is a Sweet Word’ by Fat and Frantic is released by Classic Fox Records / I'll Call You Records

Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5

For more information visit www.davidaustin.eu

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