Roger Waters: Rebel without a pause

Daily Telegraph

13 May 2000


Roger Waters, the guiding force behind the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd, is now joining the hot debate in favour of foxhunting and keeping government hands off the countryside, says Rory Knight Bruce.

Think of Pink Floyd and what comes to mind are a hazy 1970s loucheness, Dark Side of the Moon, lava lamps, and the distinctly anti-Thatcherite tone of The Wall.

What doesn't feature is a passionate belief in the rights of country people. Yet that is the position that Roger Waters - who was Pink Floyd - finds himself in: he is in sympathy with, to borrow Tony Blair's phrase, the "forces of conservatism".

In Barbados to work on his first album in eight years, a series of live American concerts and an opera based on the French Revolution, 56-year-old Waters has found time to reflect upon the England which, under Mrs Thatcher, he did so much to condemn. Unexpectedly, Tony Blair's assault on what Waters sees as the basic freedoms of the countryside may prompt him - a lifelong Labour supporter - to vote Conservative for the first time at the next general election.

Waters invites me to his house and we sit on the verandah. He is, for the time being, fixed on a pastoral view far beyond the horizon before us. "I think all rational people agree that foxes need to be controlled," he says. "I believe passionately in an Englishman's right to make up his own mind. I am afraid that the Government has been swayed by a vocal minority."

His love of the country, of the British landscape, has been passed down to Waters from his father and grandfather. It is something he has never spoken about before. Waters is famously private and during the three days I spend with him, he resists invitations to appear on the David Letterman television chat show in America. When we go one evening to a pool bar, not a single head turns in recognition, although everyone there would know his most famous creation, Dark Side of the Moon.

They would not know the darker side of the man, the brooding about such diverse subjects as river pollution and the war in Kosovo. But now his chief concern is that the English rural idyll he grew up in is being systematically destroyed by a government that does not understand, and cares little for, anything outside the cities.

It is as if his conscience has heard the call to arms. "We all have the opportunity to make one mark on the Big Picture," he says.

As a child in Cambridge, Waters would cycle out to the countryside and go bird-nesting in the beech woods. He used to fish the tributaries of the Cam at Grantchester for gudgeon and roach "with a bamboo pole and a bent pin".

This has given him a lifelong love of fishing and the rivers of England, and he regularly fishes the Test which, he points out, would not be there without the sporting fishermen who reclaimed the river from marshland and who protect its wildlife and fish-stocks today. "I see what has happened to the rivers of my youth, polluted by fertilisers, and I see how people who are concerned as sportsmen have saved them, with no help from the Government, and brought them back to life."

As a result of the riparian owners and sporting fisherman, in which he includes the Cockney fisherman catching the Tube to the canal bank at weekends, Waters points out that we enjoy significant birdlife on the river. "From my home," he says, "I can see mallard, merganser, Goldeneye and tufted duck, as well as a profusion of coots and moorhens."

Against such sentiments, it is fascinating to hear Waters's views on Sir Paul McCartney, an avowed vegetarian and opponent of hunting, and who has, it could be argued, used his fame to promote his opinions. "He is a person of great sincerity and I respect his right to hold his views," says Waters. "However, McCartney also disapproves of horse and dog racing on the grounds that they exploit the animals.

"Maybe," Waters allows, "if Sir Paul had his way, he would ban racing and eating meat as well as hunting and fishing. A ban on hunting could be the thin end of a very thick wedge."

Waters also dismisses Sir Paul's suggestions that foxhunting should be replaced with draghunting. "Draghunting won't catch on because it's not hunting, there's no spontaneity. People enjoy foxhunting, at least in part, because it is 'hunting'. There is a quarry, that's the point. Man is a hunter. To legislate against his natural instinct is folly."

Waters's views on hunting were formed early. When he was a child, his grandparents would drive him out into the south of England countryside in their Ford Anglia to meets of the local foxhounds. "I remember seeing hunts in progress across farmland and thinking what a spectacular sight they were. I was very struck by the hunt followers on their bicycles or in Ford Populars with their Thermos flasks and a ruddy atmosphere of enthusiasm."

Waters lost his father at Anzio in 1944, when he was one, and his grandfather to the trenches of the First World War. His grandfather had been a coal miner in the drift mines of County Durham, and latterly Labour agent for Bradford; his father, a communist Christian. Both men loved the English landscape. "You could not fail to be a communist then. The children of Bradford did not have shoes or clogs but rags about their feet," says Waters.

"I'm filled with the sense that I am heir to their passion and my forbears' commitment to right and wrong, to truth and justice," he continues. "I hope I have inherited what I admire about them as men, that they had the courage of their convictions, which caused them to give their lives for liberty and freedom.

"If this legislation finds its way on to the statute book, it could create, if not open revolt, at least a bitter schism between town and country, the reverberations of which could only sour our increasingly culturally impoverished society."

This is a conversation one could be having at one of the Countryside Rallies, the first of which he attended with his family and which he found terrifically moving. The atmosphere reminded him of the Aldermaston marches in the 1960s.

Waters would regularly go to Boxing Day meets in his local market town until they were stopped because of anti-hunt protesters. "The antis' tactics were so violent that it became a threat to public order and so an important tradition was stopped by the actions of a few thugs. Is this the democracy for which my father died?"

The unexpected discovery of a poignant family memoir has reinforced his commitment to defend hunting. Last year, after the death of his father's sister, he was left a diary written by his father when he was 16. It begins on New Year's Day 1929, when Eric Fletcher Waters was a schoolboy at Bishop's Auckland, before winning a scholarship to Durham University.

On that day the young Eric left his mother's house at Copley, near Barnard Castle, where she was the housekeeper for the local country doctor, and went out on foot with the Zetland foxhounds. "It is a beautiful, eloquent account of the crispness of the air, the snow on the ground and the cry of the hounds, and how a fox was finally killed in a railway cutting," he says.

The diary, which shows the enthusiasm of teenage years and ends after a couple of months, also describes more prosaic elements of country life. "Caught the United bus to Barnard Castle. Played snooker with Jack. Won tuppence." For anyone who has lost a father when young, such scraps give immense succour and comfort. "It makes me weep to think of it," says Waters. "It has provided me with an understanding of part of the reason I feel so passionately about the hunting issue. It's not just in respect of memory for him and the sacrifice he and his father made, but the sacrifice they made for the freedom of Britain."

This vision has a strong place in Waters's philosophical outlook. He wonders, in slightly nightmarish Pink Floyd fashion, if there might one day evolve a politically correct society that permits only vegans to breed and that human canine teeth, those in all of us that represent the hunter, will be extracted to extinction. "All sports are a symbolic form of hunting or warfare. Should we ban darts because it represents a sporting side of human nature of which Big Brother Blair disapproves?"

Politics dominates Waters's conversation. Although moved by New Labour's proposed assault on the countryside, he also feels that the standard of parliamentary democracy has fallen to such a level that it is merely television politics. "There is no longer room for a Charles James Fox or Pitt the Younger to express their views at length with passion and eloquence because our attention span has been reduced to a few seconds of soundbites. Populist politics has become everything."

He also feels that attacks on the Prince of Wales for allowing his children to hunt are wrong. "He is a deeply thoughtful man who should be allowed to pursue his life, liberty and happiness in the way that he chooses." When he read about the criticisms of William and Harry for hunting, he says his reaction was that he was not sure he wanted to return to an England that was so mealy-mouthed, nasty, dishonest and incoherent. "Most of the time I ignore the papers, but a ban on hunting will not run off my back."

He believes that interference in the countryside is an insult to the farmers and sportsmen who, by and large, do their job pretty well to husband the wild and farmed animal population. "The hunting community has provided the bulwark against the forces of the market which would bulldoze the countryside flat, cover it in fertiliser and grow genetically modified wheat."

Waters is neither bucolic nor historic in his appreciation of animal husbandry. There are practices, from the transportation of live animals to the raising of veal calves and the tethering of sows in labour, which he condemns. He would support any legislation to bring these to an end. But he maintains that, in England, animal husbandry is pretty good and that without sound farming "our green and pleasant land could easily be turned into a dustbowl".

Ultimately, he believes it is the huntsmen and the country people who prevent this from happening. "We desperately need for these communities to remain intact, even those of us who live in towns, if future generations are going to have any countryside to enjoy at all."

Waters does not talk about his music, but in his 1987 album Radio K.A.O.S., he foresees a society numbed by the satellite generation that will eventually revert to the values of nature and the countryside. A Welsh choir, with echoes of the valleys where farmers and miners co-exist, concludes:

"Now the satellite's confused because on Saturday night,

The airwaves were full of compassion and light,

And his silicone heart warmed to the sight of a billion candles burning,

The tide is turning.

I'm not saying that the battle is won,

But on Saturday night all those kids in the sun,

Wrested technology's sword from the hands of the Warlords,

The tide is turning."

It is an anthem to understanding, belief and hope which could well be taken up today by those who are prepared to defend the countryside.

As I leave, passing grand houses that resemble Berkshire on a sunny day, to weave through the Bajun shanty huts, I reflect there is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England. In that field, Roger Waters stands tall with his convictions and the memory of his father and grandfather. And he is not alone.


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