Robb Johnson’s Gentle Men was originally conceived as a commission by Belgian Piet Chielens for an annual peace concert in Passendale to remember the third battle of Ypres. Both of Robb’s grandfathers had fought in WWI, but it was Piet’s research that revealed each of their respective regiments were involved in this particular battle. By whatever chance or miracle – call it what you will – both men had survived a devastating conflagration that had left a combined total of almost 800,000 dead. As an exercise in the futilities of war it sits as a prime example, with the ridge that was the objective being finally taken by the allies, but surrendered again just a few weeks later with barely a murmur, let alone resistance.
The story he tells through these songs is of two men, Ernest Isaac Johnson and Henry ‘Harry’ Robert Jenner, who had ordinary lives either side of the conflict, dubbed ‘The War To End All Wars.’ Ern was born in 1893 and Harry six years later into particularly poor circumstances that resulted in a period in the workhouse and then an orphanage with this two older brothers. When the war broke out, however, both had settled into life. Ern as an apprentice glass blower and musician attached to the Territorial Army and Harry with the Post Office. Ern’s membership of the TA saw him immediately conscripted, but as a bandsman he was assigned to the London Field Ambulance. Harry was only 15, but being tall, was taken for someone older and having had an unwelcome white feather pressed into his hand signed up anyway, joining the Post Office Rifles. When his youth was uncovered in France he too was initially assigned to medical duties.
But these weren’t the men that Robb knew and when he was born in 1955 he was the first grandchild for Harry, his mother’s father and the last of seven grandchildren for Ern on his fathers side. The opening song Grandfathers touchingly sets the scene of sweet white wine, knickerbocker glories, painting, music and of course gardening. It seems that so many men of that generation took to the simple pleasures of tending prize blooms, roses, crysanths and vegetables. Perhaps the beauty of flowers and joys of seeing them spring to life was a reaction against the carnage they had witnessed, but if so, it remained unsaid and neither man was ever very forthcoming about their wartime experience.
[pullquote]his grandfathers never spoke a harsh word about the men that they had fought against[/pullquote]Robb recalls that Harry had several books abut WWII, mostly about the escape of prisoners of war, but only one about WWI, his war. Sombrely jacketed in black with a single red poppy design on the cover, The First World War A Photographic History, published by The Daily Express, contained pictures that bore a stark contrast to the steady diet of war stories aimed at kids contained in The Victor and other such comics that Robb, like many others consumed avidly. As Robb points out, children of that generation grew up with the moral certainty that Germans were evil and the Japanese fanatical and unspeakably cruel. Yet by contrast the gentle men that he knew as his grandfathers never spoke a harsh word about the men that they had fought against.
Of course the war stories haven’t ended and Robb’s father has his own place in the continuing saga of conflict. Born in 1922, he joined the RAF in WWII, trained in Canada and was a navigator in a bomber squadron. Ronald Johnson was originally based in the Caribbean, but when posted home to England, a colleague asked him to deliver a silver necklace to his fiancé at the time. The woman in question would turn out to be Harry’s oldest daughter Betty and Robb’s eventual mother. Ronald’s bomber later flew missions over Germany and was shot down over the Ruhr in 1945. While the pilot struggled to keep the plane level for as long as possible, Ronald and half of the crew were able to bail out. Tommy Thompson’s heroics saved Robb’s father, but the pilot and the other half of the crew lost their lives that night. Ronald was posted as missing presumed killed although Betty maintained a nightly vigil watching news reels of prisoners being repatriated in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. When he did return they were married in 1946.
It’s probably telling that Robb recounts seeing The Longest Day with his dad. Emerging from the cinema after the epic, Ronald neatly punctured the glowing air of triumph that the films conclusion had served up by pointing out to his son that all of those people falling on the beaches behind the pride-puffed star cast represented real lives lost. These were the ordinary soldiers and common men, more Harrys and Erns, who made the ultimate sacrifice. In this respect Robb maybe shows he’s his father’s son, but he also followed his grandfather Ern into a musical career.
Ern was in a band after the war years travelling and making his living as a professional musician. The Golden Serenaders were a jazz band who backed a musical clown called Noni, who was an Austrian Jew. As well as playing at London’s Windmill Theatre and touring the UK, many of their shows were performed in Austria and Italy. When the Nazis came to power, however, the touring of Europe stopped. Still, it’s highly appropriate that Robb actually plays Ern’s banjo on these recordings, albeit spruced up with a new set of machine heads.
As well as performing at the peace concert the suite of songs that Robb had composed were also recorded in 97 and the Gentle Men CD was originally released in 98. With the advent of 2014 and the centennial of WWI it seemed right to revisit the work. Rather than just re-releasing it, however, Robb judged that it could be improved. There were some things that he’d done structurally with the story that he wasn’t happy with and the benefit of subsequent performances had started to show ways in which a little tinkering and ultimately editing might improve things. Robb’s notes say that he’d rather think of this as a different production rather than a better version, but also feels that some of the stuff he’s omitted second time around actually make the story more coherent.
What adds considerably is the wonderful book attached to the deluxe edition of the two CD set. It’s limited, so you should not delay in snapping up a copy as it genuinely adds to what is a moving tribute primarily to Harry and Ern, but also to some degree Ronald too. The narrative does hold together through the songs, but reading the extensive notes and looking through the photos helps to fill the detail in. It’s a lovely thing perhaps only eclipsed by Marry Waterson’s tribute to Lal in the folk CD packaging stakes this year.
[pullquote]I think the result is breathtaking, everything I was hoping for and more[/pullquote]For the sessions this time around Roy Bailey was delighted to reprise his role as the Grandfathers, but the rest of the cast is new. Robb calls them a small Kabaret-style band of Jude Abbott, Jenny Carr and John Forrester on trumpet, piano and bass and Barb Jungr as the female voice. The sessions were further augmented by Robb’s son playing drums and Linze Maesterosa on clarinet. Robb says, “With these instruments I hoped to achieve a really good balance between continuity and development. I think the result is breathtaking, everything I was hoping for and more.” In that respect he is not wrong at all, as breathtaking it certainly is.
It’s also emotionally charged and there are a few moments likely to mist the eyes, both in the songs but also in the written word, which is equally powerful stuff. As his grandfathers didn’t really talk about their experiences I guess much of the story comes from research, general archives and what has been passed down of the family history. Robb has tried to bring out their personalities, being careful not to make them more than they were or grant them any special wisdom. Simultaneously he’s telling a much wider story that affected so many other lives and still does today. It makes a worthy centennial tribute and an emotive trigger to repeat the question of why ‘The War To End All Wars’ wasn’t that at all and the wholesale slaughter continues to this day, unabated. As Robb says, “…a military solution is a contradiction in terms.”
Our Prime Minister has apparently already called for next year to be a commemoration like the diamond jubilee celebrations that, “Captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, something that says something about who we are as a people.” Perhaps the political classes, our would be leaders, should stay the hell out of it and a genuine and sombre remembrance of the millions of lives sacrificed at their behest, the countless Erns and Harrys who never returned, is more appropriate.
[pullquote]in 1968, he confessed to Robb’s mum that he could no longer believe in the religion and the promise of an afterlife he had been brought up with because of what he had seen[/pullquote]Although family and love form an important part of this story there are no magic, happy endings. Harry was the first to die, having been wounded in 1916, spending three days unconscious in a waterlogged shell hole that was poisoned by mustard gas. It tinged his skin yellow and what the gas started, the smoking finished. Shortly before he died in 1968, he confessed to Robb’s mum that he could no longer believe in the religion and the promise of an afterlife he had been brought up with because of what he had seen.
It was almost 10 years later that Ern celebrated his golden wedding anniversary, but when his wife Lily died a short while after, he remarried a spinster, who had remained so because her lover had never returned from the trenches. Ern eventually outlived Harry by 16 years and during that time he was uncharacteristically reduced to rage and the verge of tears by the Falklands War simply asking, “Don’t we ever learn?”
But this is a story, well told in song, words and pictures of two brave men who lived their lives under the shadow of what they had seen but ‘til their dying days were never defeated by it. In that is the hope that we can all join Robb in celebrating.
Review by: Simon Holland
Gentle Men is released 11th November 2013
Order it directly from their website here