There was this old fellow with a big white beard who’d cycle round the town in a fluorescent Hi-Viz vest looking to all as if he was off to work. But he wasn’t. He was just cycling round town and then home to Cannington. But like everyone you see as you get on with your daily life and maybe don’t give a second thought to, there’s a back story. In this case, that fellow was my mate Dave, and he was big in the 80s. And 90s. And the 2000s. Then he dropped out and I only ever saw him ghost cycling through the streets of Bridgwater sometimes catching up with him to tell him of a meeting or an event he should come to. He’d take a note and say ‘oh, right, I’ll try to get to that’. But he never did. And now he’s died. Aged 70, and just before his 71st birthday, of complications from a stomach tumour, and that’s that. For Dave. In his time he was a singer, an artist, a bookseller, a barman, a writer, an actor, an internationalist, a political activist, Bridgwater’s leading Communist, in fact Bridgwater’s only Communist, a husband, a father and a brother. To everybody.
Dave Hanna was born in Swansea in South Wales and so Dafydd was Welsh. Although he spoke in a soft Northern accent. But that’s because he lived in Burnley in Lancashire – round about the time they were filming ‘Whistle down the Wind’ there, which he always said him and his brothers were extras in it. Then he lived in Oxfordshire and then, in September 1982, he moved to Bridgwater with his wife Tina and first son Sean.
Enemy at the Gates
I first met Dave when we were both selling socialist newspapers in the town centre. Me and my other friend Dave were selling Socialist Worker on the Town Bridge of a Saturday morning. One day ‘Trotskyist’ Dave came running up to me in a panic going ‘The Stalinists are here!’. The ‘real’ enemy had arrived – never mind the Tories who were trashing Britain at the time-and thank God that’s never going to happen again-here were the real class enemies -the Communist Party of Great Britain, selling their ‘state capitalist’ rag the ‘Morning Star’ up by the Cornhill. We went straight up to confront them. It was Dave and his mate Dave. But they were quite approachable. And didn’t once sink an ice-pick into our heads. It was the start of a long friendship and a period of Bridgwater’s socialist history where all the different factions of the ‘left’ decided to put aside their differences and just ‘get on’ with each other. This started with the Miners Support Group (1984-85) and continued with the Somerset Community Defence Campaign, it’s newspaper the Somerset Clarion and every left campaign going from the Anti-Apartheid Struggle to CND to Nicaragua Solidarity.
Dave became the secretary of the SCDC- and he had incredibly neat handwriting. Calligraphy was one of his many talents. If we weren’t collecting food outside the supermarkets for Miners families, we were picketing Barclays bank for supporting Apartheid South Africa. They had Nelson Mandela in that bank somewhere! And when the Miners strike finished and the printworkers strike started we went and supported that, taking a minibus full of Bridgwater socialists up to Wapping every Friday night to stop Murdoch trashing his workforce. Naturally we failed. But Dave had a good eye for a story and made the front page of the Mercury with an angry protest against getting the Sun Bingo card through his door. Shortly after that he made the National papers when a picture of him wearing a backpackrack full of socialist newspapers as a mobile commie roadshow at the Glastonbury festival, did the rounds.
Enter the Sheep
In the Bridgwater of the 1980’s there was nowhere more radical than the Sheep Worrying Organisation. Based in an office at Unity House, we ran a socialist theatre group, produced a magazine and put on rock gigs at the Art Centre. Dave got involved. Not only did he act in the plays -he played arch capitalist villain Henry Major in our 1986 ‘Brickyard Strike’ show and arch capitalist ‘Next Door Neighbour’ Roland Bagley in the Sedgemorons stage musical ‘Rock n Roll is Pretty Exciting’ he also played a manic Puritan preacher in the ‘Siege of Bridgwater’ show, where I gave him a whole script full of meaningless Biblical quotations for him to read out inappropriately. Which he managed. Appropriately. (Not that I’d have noticed).
As well as this he took a leading role in Sheep Worrying magazine as a cartoonist. With immediate impact. His first cartoon, satirising Sedgemoor Tory councillors as animals led to them withdrawing our grant and me instead getting labelled the ‘Most Dangerous Man in Somerset’. He followed this up with getting me sacked from my new driving job. I’d just got my dream job as a multidrop delivery driver and he gave me a James Connolly badge as a gift. Well, of course it was my own daft fault to wear it while delivering to a nuclear power station. I was sacked on the spot. That said, I’d just organised a union there and whilst I was banned from the premises Dave said he’d go and rally the troops and bring the other drivers out on strike in solidarity for me. He came back a couple of hours later saying ‘Well, they said you can keep your driving boots’. So that was that. I was blacklisted and marked up by the ‘Economic League’ until further notice.
The People’s Bookshop
Dave’s second son Danny was born in November 1984 and within a matter of months they were both regular visitors to the Sheep Worrying offices being recorded as such in our ‘Sheep Worrying Workbook’ (which I still have…..).
Dave was a devout reader of everything. Like many socialist missionaries he believed reading was the key to knowledge and knowledge was the route to socialism. So along with Glen Burrows they opened a Socialist bookshop. ‘Unity Books’ was based in Unity House in Dampiet street. I drove him up to London to stock up with a lifetimes supply of lefty books and newspapers to sell to the eager left leaning consumers of Bridgwater. Except they weren’t that eager.
After a while the days in the shop seemed to get longer and so we’d quit at midday and go to the pub. And he’d give away the books.
It was time to get Dave involved in music. He was a brilliant singer. Especially of Irish ballads. But what I needed was a bass player. So I taught him the bass. VERY basic bass. We started off easy, with my band Red Smed and the Hot Trot Smash the System Boogie band. He played tea chest bass. One string, a broom handle and a motorbike glove and you can’t go wrong. And then we moved on to a proper bass and got proper gigs. At this point Dave’s nerves got the best of him and ‘stopping Dave doing a runner’ was the opening act to every show. ‘Proper’ bass player Stuart Croskell remembers “I always liked Dave’s joke about suffering from Pre Minstrel Tension before he was about to perform on stage (probably because YOU had coerced him into doing something with 5 mins rehearsal). “
Singer Elaine di Campo adds “I remember a few of us walking or should I say stumbling home with Dave from the Labour Club one evening, and him singing Danny Boy/Come out you black and tans etc and what a tremendous voice he had, full of passion and expression. I shall always remember that as you were lucky to catch Dave singing!”
We managed to make Dave do an album – so he’s on record. The cassette album ‘Songs for Swinging Communists’ was recorded one drunken evening out at a studio (maybe it was a studio, maybe it was a derelict brickworks) out at Dunwear. Dave brought a bottle of Jamesons and I brought a bottle of Bush Mills. So we had all of Ireland covered.
Gamble Your Giro
In fact drinking was a big unifier with Dave and the mid 80s morass that was Thatcher’s Britain saw an upsurge. A few of us went out for an evening and played ‘Gamble your Giro’ -luckily we were all experts in some field or other and so we toured the pubs playing the quiz trivia machines, then when we’d got enough we went on a pub crawl. If we didn’t, we went home. Stuart remembers “Most of my memories of Dave are to do with drink & the consuming thereof. I remember once he spilt some generic Eastern European white spirit hooch on my shoes at a party & it stripped the colouring off the leather. Not so bad, you’d think, but we’d just drunk half a bottle of the bloody stuff. “
The ‘Fash’ Come to town
In November 1986 Ireland came to Bridgwater and we were both in the thick of it. Bridgwater’s MP Tom King was Northern Ireland secretary and the Ulster Unionists weren’t happy with his role in the Anglo-Irish agreement, which was a botched attempt by the Tory government to try to solve the ‘Troubles’ over there. So they decided to hold a march through Bridgwater. Trouble was though that the British Fascist groups of the day were trying to latch on to the Unionist cause and we knew they’d be doing the same with this event. And they did. The march was organised by NF candidate Brian Green and in fact another NF candidate for a parliamentary by election in Mid Staffs was also on the march and was arrested . We organised a counter protest and, inevitably, were outnumbered 4 to 1. A fist fight broke out on the town bridge. A photo of Dave angrily facing off against a Unionist leader was on the front page of the Clarion. By the end of the march most of the Bridgwater towns people had joined us and we weren’t outnumbered any longer.
Ken Keable, Secretary of the Somerset Branch of the Communist Party, wrote “Dave was long-standing member of the Communist Party and strong supporter of the Morning Star” .
In fact Dave was a strong, principled and devoted Communist. All his life. He once said to me ‘you’ve got to be consistent’. Which made sense. But in 1989 his world was rocked when Communism in the Soviet Union and East Europe collapsed. Consistent as ever Dave didn’t ‘have a rethink’ he headed off to Cuba, last surviving bastion of Communism, and worked there as a ‘Brigadista’ (International groups of workers from around the world) in the fields and on the building sites.
Lifting the Velvet Curtain
In the 1990s the world was different. The Cold War had finished and Dave must have taken this hard as the inevitable ‘world revolution’ looked further away rather than closer. In Bridgwater we set up the first ‘post cold war’ twinning with the former communist Czechoslovakia. And ‘we’ included Dave. He took on the role of treasurer of the ‘Bridgwater Czech-Slovak Friendship Society’ and joined us on our first expedition over there. This was basically a minibus full of 10 of us – mostly musicians, exclusively socialist and especially keen that beer was 10p a pint.
Dave stayed involved and never once tried to preach communism to the Czechs (good plan Dave) but was the most hospitable of all of our hosts. We’d home host bus-loads of visiting Czechs free of charge in those early days. Dave and Tina would always take 2, sometimes 4 and sometimes more. Jana Hubena, who came with one group from our twin town Uherske Hradiste recalls “Dave was one of the very first people who I met in Bridgwater where we were very warmly received and he was always very friendly, very empathic, interested in other people, always cheerful and ready to buy a drink and to say a kind word.”
The Anglo-Czech Friendship Society that Dave had helped to set up went from strength to strength and many Brits took the chance to visit the former Eastern Bloc. Adrian Fraser recalls “I remember when me and Andy Pole went to Czechoslovakia in 1992. Dave turned up at the bus station in the early hours of the morning with 2 carrier bags and said he had had enough of Bridgwater and was coming with us! I asked him what was in the bags and he said “everything I need”. We chatted for a while and then the bus arrived. Andy and me were just about to get on when Dave said ” what am I doing? I can’t just leave everything and go to Czechoslovakia” then he gave us the bags and told us not to look in them until the bus left! I remember being very confused. So Dave waved us off and the bus left on it’s way to London. When we looked in the bags they were full of food for our journey!! That’s the sort of man Dave was.”
But it wasn’t always plain sailing – once on a visit to Prague, after we’d made contacts with British Communist exile ‘Ken Biggs’ who produced a pro communist magazine ‘Postmark Praha’ Dave fell victim to a bit of state surveillance himself. Our friend Tanweer Ali , who lives in the Czech capital, recalled “We were all sitting by the Charles Bridge when suddenly Dave noticed his bag had gone. The next day in the same place this tram driver turned up with the bag and returned it to him. All the contents were still there…except for one set of Communist newspapers… I found the story very amusing but I am not sure if many other people would.”
A Club of Unity for All
For many of the visiting Czechs (and the also visiting locals) Dave was best known as the barman in the Bridgwater Labour Club. A club that never closed. Often, because Dave would just keep it open and fall asleep on a seat there. You could always get a drink at the Labour club when Dave was there . Unless you were Andrew ‘Wildman’ Napthine. One of the original pioneers that had come on that first trip to Czecho with us Wildman had decided in fact to move over there. On each occasion that he came back he was noticeably wilder and wilder. He recalls one such return “I had drunk a bottle of absinthe that evening…I’d been thrown out of Arts Centre, kicked out of the Fountain and so I went to the Labour club. After I had told everyone that I loved Tony Blair and them, Dave and Adrian lifted me up, took me to the door, and threw me down the steps and would not let me back in again.” I remember Dave telling me at the time that it was ‘for his own good’.
Dave remained solid and reliable for the many visiting East Europeans who, after 2002, came legally to work in the UK. Michal Kapavik from the Czech Republic said “Such a supportive guy who had helped me so much when I came over. That’s so sad, I hadn’t seen him for ages but he’s always been very helpful to Czechs.”
Dave was a popular barman with a great sense of humour. Regular customer Alexia Bartlett remembers “We were talking about tattoos. Warning me against choosing the wrong design, he said: “How would you feel with a bloody great Eagle across your back? A bloody great budgie!” My mouth dropped open. Dave Hanna? Massive Eagle tattoo? His words were followed by a quiet snuffling of amusement – the way he always laughed – then he simply turned back to the bar, and took a gentle sip of his pint. I never did get a tattoo, and I never did find out if he had that bloody great budgie. God bless you, Dave. Xx”
End of an Error
When the Labour club closed down it was the end of an era. During that time Dave moved in to the flat below me on West Quay. There was me, him and old hippy Jeff Reed on three floors of bonkerdom. Jeff would be playing his reggae all day, Dave would be playing the Wolfe Tones and I’d be trying to get my Eddie Cochran heard above it all. Then one day the river wall outside collapsed. I’d just moved to another place and Jeff had died. So it didn’t affect us. But Dave had to be evacuated. After a stint in the YMCA he got a place in Cannington. And that’s where he lived the remaining years of his life. The wall came down in November 2011. That’s a long time ago. There was no Labour club, no sheep worrying, no communism. Dave could relax and enjoy his family. Sean, Siobhan and Danny, his books, his memories. Now he’s in ours. His ex wife Tina says “His death leaves a pall of sadness over many of us, most of all his lovely children.”
And for me I’m disappointed with myself. It’s so long since I had a proper talk with him. You always think there’ll be time. Then one day, there isn’t.
I wrote a song once called ‘Don’t you Marry a Communist’. Atilla the Stockbroker played it at his wedding. In fact I wrote it for Dave. Here it is.