Tom Blackmore: Peace and freedom in song
By Chris Cooke | Published on Tuesday 12 August 2014
Edinburgh-born David Maxwell Fyfe was a lawyer and politician in the mid Twentieth Century, perhaps best known for being a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials, and as one of the architects of the European Convention Of Human Rights that followed the atrocities of World War II. His is a fascinating story, and one all the more interesting to explore, as the human rights he and his collaborators set out to protect in the 1950s are still routinely questioned today. And that story is indeed explored, through poetry, prose and song, in ‘Dreams Of Peace And Freedom’, a Fringe show conceived by Fyfe’s grandson Tom Blackmore. We spoke to Blackmore to find out more.
CC: Let’s start with the man at the heart of the piece. For the uninitiated, tell us a little more about your grandfather David Maxwell Fyfe?
TB: He was a successful lawyer and politician, who “with no advantage of wealth, station or influence”, as he put it, became Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor. He once wrote of himself “I would describe my role as that of an actor given a small walking-on role in a mighty drama: few people may notice him but he sees a good deal” Though he took centre stage in the 1940s, first as a UK prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and then as a champion of the European Convention of Human Rights.
CC: So he played an important role in shaping the principles of human rights of today?
TB: Yes, in that together with a handful of European colleagues he drafted the ECHR, and made sure that it was made law by the then new European Parliamentary Assembly and Council Of Ministers. It was a very simple list of rights and freedoms, upheld and interpreted by an international court. But there was a lot of opposition to it, and there still is. But having studied the evidence of terror, death and murder at Nuremberg, Fyfe was convinced that something needed to be done to make Europe safe.
CC: Where did the idea come from to create a show around Fyfe’s life?
TB: About fifteen years ago I was contacted by a firm of solicitors in the City of London to say that they had unearthed a number of boxes of my grandfather’s papers. These included the letters exchanged between my grandparents when he was at Nuremberg. Although principally love letters, they also told the story of the trial. These inspired various projects using these papers, including this show.
CC: In addition to Fyfe’s letters and speeches, there’s a musical element here, choral works based on the poetry of Rupert Brooke and James Logie Robertson. How do those fit into the mix?
TB: Both poets were important to my grandfather. He admired Brooke’s ‘War Sonnets’ as a schoolboy and cited Brooke’s ‘The Solider’ as he drew his summarising speech at Nuremberg to a close. Brooke’s poem reads “Sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day, And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven”. But Fyfe concluded that these aspirations “are not the prerogative of any one country, they are the inalienable heritage of mankind”; he strove to offer all nations Brooke’s “English Heaven”. ‘Non Semper Imbres’ by James Logie Robertson was also an important poem to Fyfe and his wife, Sylvia, during the trials. As he wrote in August 1946: “It rather captures our mood at the moment”.
CC: Tell us about the music. What form does it take, and how was it conceived?
TB: It is a song cycle of three-part harmony for the female voice accompanied by piano. It is written, and in my view quite brilliantly, by my long-term collaborator Sue Casson, and was inspired by our daughter’s years in the Southwark Cathedral Girls choir working with Stephen Disley.
CC: Is there a narrative to the piece? Are we following Fyfe’s life story in chronological order, or is it more structured around his themes?
TB: We loosely follow Fyfe’s life through to the drafting of European Convention. I have pared down the words to those that, I hope, most resonate with today.
CC: So is there an underlying message you’re are trying communicate, about Fyfe or the human rights causes he shaped and promoted?
TB: I am not a human rights activist, I am a storyteller who feels lucky to have been handed this story to tell. However, it is striking how the subject of human rights is bathed in silence, the bleak silence of those whose material interests will be undermined by the freedom of others, and the uneasy shuffling silence of those who believe that keeping their heads down will prevent the worst of the savaging of our rights. History teaches that keeping quiet never works. So we are making a little gentle noise.
CC: The European Convention that Fyfe championed so much has come under some new criticism in recent years. How do you think Fyfe would have responded to that?
TB: I don’t think that he would be surprised that international human rights have got under a lot of peoples skins, that was the point. He would be astonished at some of the resulting freedoms. And appalled at present plans to abandon the still comparatively new apparatus of freedom. The European Court needs constant reform, as do all meaningful institutions, but for the UK to leave it would be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
CC: Is the Edinburgh Fringe a perfect place for this production? Both in terms of Fyfe’s connections to the city, and also the appetite amongst its audience for shows that cross genre boundaries.
TB: I love the Edinburgh Fringe and have been bringing new work here since 1978. Some find an audience, some do not, but despite its constantly changing form the Fringe remains a home for the new, in a fabulous setting. This is exemplified by Hartley Kemp’s work at C. For Maxwell Fyfe, this is a homecoming. He was born and brought up around the corner from Lutton Place, where C have taken on the beautiful St Peter’s as a venue. We will only know if it is warm homecoming at the end of the festival!
‘Dreams Of Peace And Freedom’ was performed at C south at Edinburgh Festival 2014.