Friday 19 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 13 - Charity Virgins

When making the Arena film, Bill and I had visited the Klaićeva Children’s Hospital in Zagreb where we were appalled to find that they were short of vital equipment. Croatia’s capital city had hardly been touched by the war, but this was an example of how quickly the infrastructures of all societies are disrupted by conflict and, as in all wars, children are most at risk. We decided to donate a ventilator to the mother-and-baby unit and to fund this from the income we’d made from our film. We then had to find ways to raise money for further aid. 
I suggested we restage my play Simple Writings, as it was about a child victim of war. I contacted Michael Walling who had directed it when it first appeared on the London Fringe in 1989. He was willing to get involved and said he’d contact Susannah York and ask her if she’d support the project. She liked the script and agreed to perform. 

On the strength of her commitment, we booked the Mermaid Theatre. Bill suggested we change the title to War Child and that we should register ourselves as a charity with those two words.

Bill was good at getting himself invited to events where we might meet those with sympathy for our work. At a music launch party in Belgravia we were introduced to Bob Geldof. When we told him about our idea he said, ‘If you want to raise money, don’t put on a fucking play. Nobody goes to see plays.’ With Geldof’s words ringing in our ears and the Mermaid now asking for a deposit, we cancelled our theatre plans and decided to organise a music event.

Bill knew the Bhundu Boys so we had something to start with. And he didn’t want to stop there. ‘What about a classical night, contemporary music, a rock night and let’s throw in comedy as well.’
Bill lacked fear and I lacked caution. Why not?

We booked the Royal Festival Hall for four nights, from Saturday, February 27th, 1993. The RFH didn’t want any money until after the booking so we took the plunge.

I wrote a letter to promote the evenings which was published in the Guardian on November 12th, 1992.1 Among the signatories were Bob Hoskins, Maureen Lipmann, Peter Gabriel, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Richard Branson, The Pogues and Max Stafford-Clark.
With contacts like these we were able to recruit the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber, Stephen Kovacevich, Peter Donohoe and the Phoenix Dance Company for the classical night. For the contemporary night, Tom Stoppard, John Mortimer, Stephen Isserlis, Joanna MacGregor and the Smith Quartet. Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Jonathan Ross, John Sessions and the Tiller Girls for the comedy night. The Bhundu Boys, The Blues Band, Denny Laine and Krist Novoselic for the rock night.

We told them they didn’t have to do much, just be there and contribute something, drawing on their particular skills. All the artists did much more than just turn up, contributing performances that made it difficult for us to squash them all into each evening’s timings. The Tiller Girls were a big hit, reformed from the 1960s dancers and most of them now in their 70s and 80s.

After the show on the last night, we organised an all-night vigil at nearby Gabriel’s Wharf. We set up a rudimentary stage and sound system and invited the Bishop of Barking, Michael Meacher MP, Ken Livingstone, Maureen Lipmann and Susannah York to speak about the plight of Bosnian children. We distributed candles with War Child logo holders which proved useful as hand warmers, since it was a bitterly cold night. Most of the audience tried to get into the small tent we’d set up for the performers.

It was a financial failure with barely a third of the RFH filled on each of the evenings. It was one of those times in life when you lie awake at night thinking, How the hell do I get out of this? Of course, there was no escape. It was like crawling through a long tunnel without room to turn back and hoping that there was an exit at the end. I would wake every morning, turn over and wish myself back to sleep to avoid having to face the day.

As we negotiated with the RFH to accept staged payments of our massive debt, Bill and I considered the possibility of remortgaging my house in Muswell Hill. I couldn’t have done this without the agreement of Renata, but the fact that I was even willing to consider it shows to what extent my life was in crisis. 

With no money and the Festival Hall chasing us, we had no alternative but to press on with our plans for the new charity. The event had given us access to the music world – promoters, managers and artists. Bill decided he would travel to Sarajevo and take music with him. 

We made contact with Brent Hansen, head of MTV Europe and one of War Child’s early patrons, and with Sue Lloyd-Roberts at the BBC. With their support, both broadcasters supplied us with hundreds of CDs and tapes. Bill started a series of trips, first to Sarajevo and later to Mostar. He visited youth centres and radio stations and distributed the music recordings. Without his willingness to make these dangerous journeys, we would not have survived. Thanks to him, War Child was seen to be doing something, and that something was original and captured the attention of the medi

In the run-up to the Festival Hall, we’d tried to get free advertisements in the papers. Much to our surprise, the European edition of Time Magazine offered us three weeks of free full-page ads. We later found out that the European Manager had confused the name of War Child with another charity which had been set up by an ex-employee of Time. He had wanted to help her and, in trying to do so, unintentionally played a leading role in raising the profile of our charity. David Warner, ex-Bermondsey paperboy, with a business empire stretching from Canada to South East Asia, was on a flight to New York when he read the ad. 

As Managing Director of Regent Export, one of the largest procuring agents for the British Government, he asked himself: why hadn’t he heard of War Child?

Soon after his return from the US, David rang and introduced himself. He told us that he thought he might be able to help with our aid work and invited us to visit him at his office in Salisbury. Two days later, a black Mercedes was waiting for us outside our office in Camden Town with the registration, WAR 1

We told David that, despite our Festival Hall debut, we were struggling. We had supplied that ventilator and now Bill was visiting Sarajevo with music aid. We told him that we shared an office in Camden Town with the Serious Road Trip, young Australians and New Zealanders who went to Bosnia as musicians, jugglers, stilt-walkers and clowns. Travelling in brightly-painted trucks decorated with cartoon characters, these humorous and brave Aussies and Kiwis were bringing a lot of happiness to children. They now wanted to take in a mobile bakery to feed hungry refugees and we wanted to help them with this projec David thought it was a good idea and arranged for us to meet Andy Bearpark, Head of Emergency Aid at the Overseas Development Agency.2

I went to the first meeting with Christopher Watt of the SRT. A few days later, David Warner rang to say that the ODA were prepared to put up £250,000 to purchase a mothballed military bakery from the Ministry of Defence. There was a condition: they were only willing to give the money if it was a War Child project. I guess the SRT were too left field for them. David’s company were contracted to source additional equipment and vehicles. He was clearly a man of influence in government circles as War Child had no track record whatsoever, and the ODA had nothing to go on except his word. 

I went to Andy Bearpark’s office to sign the agreement for the quarter of a million pounds. ‘It had better work,’ he said, ‘or we’ll have that bakery out of there faster than your balls shrink in cold water.’ His rough Yorkshire threat was a long way from Yes, Minister. I left the meeting grateful that War Child’s immediate future was secured, but scared at the sheer scale of what we were taking on.

I need not have worried. In addition to our contacts at MTV and the BBC, we now had the attention of the government and behind, or alongside, them, David and Regent Export plc. Bill and I started receiving invitations to radio and TV shows which resulted in War Child receiving donations from across the country. Children sent us their pocket money and pensioners sent us stamps. One widow even sent her wedding ring because that was all she could give.

Money poured in from schools, and some of them adopted War Child as their charity of choice. Supporters ran races, baked cakes, swam lengths and organised concerts to raise money for us. We did our best to link these schools with children in Bosnia and, when travelling there, took with us letters and paintings from British schools. When we returned, we had bundles of drawings from Bosnian children who wanted these sent back in thanks. 

They were stark images of war with titles such as ‘The Day they Killed My House’, ‘My Lost Street’, ‘Wounded Children’. I remember one of a tank firing red flowers at a line of children reaching out to catch them. 

As the ex-teacher in War Child, I visited schools around the country. I found a humane concern for the children of war, sadly missing among our political leaders. One of these visits was to Maidstone Grammar School for Boys where I was invited to address morning assembly. I arrived at 8.30am, in time for coffee with the Headmast I hadn’t been told that it was Speech Day. I was dressed in jeans and leather jacket and found myself among senior staff in dark suits and academic gowns, local dignitaries and the town’s mayor, glittering with his chain. 
We filed onto the dais in front of 500 uniformed boys. Behind us was the school choir and orchestra. A religious service followed that brought back appalling memories of my own school days.
My turn came to speak.

I stuttered my way through a talk on music in war, its role as an antidote to racism and fascism. I ended with an appeal to my young audience that they appreciate the music that unites humanity and reject the music that divides, like military marches and nationalist hymns.

As I sat down to polite applause, the Headmaster announced that they would sing the school hymn, which was in Latin, and then conclude with ‘God Save the Queen’. After the hymn, the orchestra behind me began to play and the line of mortar-boarded teachers and their scruffy guest stood stiffly to attention and sang to Her Majesty. Standing mid-stage, I had no alternative but to mouth the words for the first and last time in my life as I watched smirking smiles light across the faces of the more intelligent boys. 


1 Letter in the Guardian, November 12th, 1992. ‘Amidst discussions and votes on European integration, the European state of Bosnia disintegrates before our eyes. A day’s drive from Maastricht will take you to a land of forced population movements, massacres, concentration camps, hunger and desperation. The latest estimates from UNICEF warn that, in addition to those already killed, maimed and made homeless in Bosnia, over one million children now face death from cold and hunger. All those appalled by Ed Vulliamy’s article (47,000 flee down Vietnam road, Guardian, 2nd November, 1992) might be interested to hear about the War Child project, a three-day arts benefit which will take place in London in the new year. Its aim is to focus public attention on the plight of the children of war, and money raised from the event will provide direct aid for these innocent victims.’
2 Andy Bearpark, Director General of the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC), an independent trade association representing the leading UK companies in the specialist private security and risk management sector. Previously Mr Bearpark served as Director of Operations and Infrastructure for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq.

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