I first spoke to Simon Baker when he messaged out of the blue about three months ago. I didn’t really know who he was to be honest. But I had seen the phenomenal Labour party political broadcast with Sonya Ward, the Labour PPC for Mansfield, which had moved me almost to tears. When he said he was the guy behind the camera, I’ll confess to being a wee tiny bit in awe. What would an accomplished filmmaker like Simon be doing, messaging a ranty, sweary minor activist like me?
Well, it turns out that Simon had had an idea. He’d recognised that Labour had a real problem outside of the M25, that they were seen as London-centric, part of the urban elite, out of touch with the concerns of the ordinary working class people they claimed to represent. I mean, that’s total bollocks in reality of course, you only have to look at the manifesto to see that. But Simon saw that the perception of Labour was very different to the reality, and he wanted to change that. He wanted to find real Labour members and activists from across the country and let them tell their stories, in their own words. He wanted to give us a voice. And so Labour Voices was born.
And who was the guinea pig for this little idea he had? None other than yours truly. I wrote a post a year ago, about UKIP and immigration and how the ruling classes use our differences to divide us. It, very unexpectedly, went viral. I say unexpectedly, because people seemed to think I was some kind of political genius, but the truth is I wrote the bloody thing when I was half-pissed on my way to the pub. Anyway, a year later and it got shared again as it cropped up in people’s FB memories. Simon saw it and got in touch with me. “Saw your post, thought it was great, I’ve got this idea, let’s do a film.”
Yeah. Sound. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, it turns out that doing pieces to camera is utterly terrifying, but the resultant video going mega-viral is even scarier. We got nearly three million views on Twitter, and we did it, in Simon’s words, “for the price of petrol and a fish supper.”
That was Simon’s genius. He took the half-pissed ramblings of some bloke from the arse end of nowhere, and turned it into a political statement that resonated around the world. We were getting messages of support from Europe, the USA and even Australia. Right now, I’d bet my soul that activists of all stripes are preparing videos that follow Simon’s format. It was so simple, such a simple idea, but the way he delivered it made it so much more than just another political video. He firmly believed that politics is for the people, all of the people, not just the politicians, and that was the driving force behind what he did with Labour Voices. “I want to give real people a real voice,” he said to me, and by Christ he delivered on that. Not only with me, but Michelle, Aleesha, Kerena and Ali. That same idea, yet each one different, each one as powerful and inspirational as the last, each one giving a voice to people who truly represent their communities.
Fast forward to this morning, and me checking my messages to discover that this incredible human being departed this flawed and broken world at some point in the night. Ever been punched in the gut? Yeah. I’ve lost people before of course, we all have. The sudden ones are almost the worst. The sudden ones that happen to people with years left ahead of them are the absolute worst. My first thought, every time one of these good people is taken from us before their time, is always, surreally, of a line from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Mort, Death’s apprentice, is horrified that good people die whilst evil men live. “There’s no justice,” he says. And Death replies “NO. THERE’S JUST ME.”
And as with so much else, Sir Terry was absolutely correct. Evil people sit in positions of wealth, power and privilege around the globe, in perfect health and safety; and good people like Simon are whisked into the nightlands on what seems like the whim of a capricious elemental force. There is no justice.
So I’ve spoken about the work Simon and I did together. I’ve articulated, with Terry Pratchett’s help, how cruel loss and grief can be. So what now? I haven’t written a eulogy for nearly four years, and I think I was pissed for the last one. What else can I say about a man I knew so briefly?
I suppose I should talk about gratitude. I am immensely grateful to Simon, for so many reasons. His idea gave me the fabled “fifteen minutes of fame,” which everyone should experience at least once in their lives. For a week or two, I wasn’t Guy Matthews, chef, occasional drunk, professional poor person and Facebook ranter; I was Guy Matthews, that bloke from that video with the Fred Perry T-shirt who talked some bloody sense at last. Which was nice.
More importantly than fuelling my own sense of importance, was the fact that he gave me a voice. No, scratch that. I already had a voice. Simon gave me a megaphone and a mountaintop to stand on. As almost everyone who reads this will know, expressing your thoughts and opinions, political or otherwise, can feel like shouting into a hurricane. Especially in this age of social media, where your thoughts get lost in the maelstrom of debate and abuse and sheer bloody-mindedness of billions of other people, all doing the same as you. Simon’s idea cut through that and lifted us up above the storm, where the air was clear and we could be heard. I’m sure my comrades in the other LV videos would agree.
But what I’m really the most grateful for, is the privilege of knowing a man like that, however briefly. For the opportunity and the honour of working with that rarest of breeds: the person who lifts others up. Not out of self-interest, and not to serve an agenda. But for the sheer joy of it. For the love of opening the birdcage door and watching them fly.
Well we flew mate, you saw to that. And there’s no better way to say thank you than to fly as high as we can, all of us, together.
Rest in power my friend. You will be sorely missed, but always remembered.