Where’s radical chic when we need it? Cowed by the media says Roger Ratcliffe

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What a shame that John Lennon chose a Montreal hotel room to write and record Give Peace A Chance rather than return to his home city of Liverpool and use the splendid Portland stone-faced Adelphi.

The single was credited to the Plastic Ono Band and released on 4 July 1969, but last week’s 50th birthday of the world’s best-known protest song was largely forgotten in the UK, while the Royal Canadian Mint at least produced an anniversary limited edition silver coin, a snip at 80 dollars a time, as a reminder of Montreal’s claim to the song’s provenance.

Some kids misheard the famous chorus and thought it was just a parental nag to eat their greens. Fortunately, though, the lyric was not “all we are saying is give peas a chance”. And to this day, wherever there is an anti-war demonstration you will hear Lennon’s words being sung.

He and his wife Yoko Ono were pioneer celebrity activists, the song part of a somewhat weird but actually very effective campaign to whip up global dissent against the USA’s ferocious war in Vietnam. They spent a week in bed at the Amsterdam Hilton’s ninth-floor presidential suite and invited the media up to witness their “Bed-in for Peace”. They then launched a “Nuts for Peace” campaign, sending acorns to
50 world leaders with a suggestion that they hold peace talks inside a giant bag. Literally nuts, yes, but it led to Lennon being awarded a “man of the decade” accolade alongside John F Kennedy and Chairman Mao.

No matter that John and Yoko drove around in a white Rolls-Royce and had a grade II-listed Georgian mansion surrounded by 72 acres of lush parkland near Ascot. “Mr and Mrs Peace”, as they called themselves, became the world’s most prominent subversives. There was even a poster purporting to show Lennon playing guitar with the Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader Che Guevara (it was a pre-Photoshop fake).

Suddenly, you couldn’t open a newspaper or magazine without seeing a famous face championing some cause, whether it was the composer Leonard Bernstein fundraising for the Black Panthers campaign against police brutality towards African Americans, or the French actor Brigitte Bardot promoting animal rights.

The journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” to describe this new fashion of stars adopting radical stances, and it became a bit of a cliché to walk up the Oscars red carpet and rage against injustice. But it strikes me we now need more of them to put their heads above the political parapet in these increasingly dangerous times.

Sadly, most have nothing to say about Brexit, or climate change, or the interminable and increasingly forgotten war in Syria, given the way that anyone who attaches their names to controversial issues gets savaged by some papers. It didn’t take long for the actor Emma Thompson to be pilloried by the Daily Mail for supporting the Extinction Rebellion protest against climate breakdown, while Boris Johnson wrote in his Telegraph column that “celebrity thespies” made him grind his teeth.

I think John and Yoko would have been at the heart of the global warming and ecological disaster protest movement. But whereas 50 years ago they were seen as loveable eccentrics, today they would be torn apart by the media.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter

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