My friend Jim Radford and his long fight for peace and justice

Jim Radford in the Jolly Farmers in Lewisham
Jim Radford in his local, the Jolly Farmers in Lewisham. Photo: Paul Stafford (of the Lewisham Ledger)

The youngest British D-day veteran, Jim Radford tells in his song The Shores Of Normandy of that cold grey day off Arromanches beach. He wrote it upon returning 25 years later and seeing children building sandcastles where he last saw bodies and blood and guts.

At age 15, out of Hull on his first trip to sea, a cabin boy on the Empire Larch tugboat, already Jim had lost his brother Jack to a U-boat torpedo. His brother Fred was on the deep-sea rescue tugs, as was Jim to the end of the war.

I first saw Jim – who died in November aged 92 – in 1968, at a protest outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. We – Americans Against the War in Vietnam – had manoeuvred our “tank”, built on a minivan, into the square until captured by police. I looked over and there was another minivan against the glass doors of the embassy. The driver was Jim.

He told of his many times in jail, notably in Brixton after disrupting a church service in Brighton at the Labour party conference. He had stood up and demanded of Harold Wilson that he stop providing Agent Orange to burn children in Vietnam.

I next met Jim a couple of years later in our campaigns in the Borough and Bermondsey against homelessness. I was fighting the tenements’ landlords and Jim was standing with the squatters. Ron Bailey’s Penguin book The Squatters features Jim. He later became warden of the community charity Blackfriars Settlement. The occupation of the Centrepoint building was a notable event organised from our side of the river, his late wife Jenny among the schemers. Jim had served 10 more years in the navy and was fleet boxing champion. He remained fit, doing a thousand curls a day until ill.

But Jim had begun his housing campaigns with demobbed sailors with no place to live. He led the occupation of vacant military houses in Kent by veterans’ families. Jim was on the Committee of 100, a founding member of CND and led the singing each Remembrance Sunday at the Whitehall Cenotaph for Veterans for Peace UK. American Veterans for Peace sponsored his trips to sing at its jamborees in Chicago and Santa Monica. In Los Angeles Ross Altman introduced Jim as the top folksinger in Britain – modestly denied by Jim but worth his chuckle.

‘In Los Angeles he was introduced as the top folksinger in Britain – modestly denied by Jim but worth the chuckle’

The Shores Of Normandy hit No 1 in the UK download charts after the 75th anniversary. Jim awarded his royalties to the Normandy Memorial Trust to help build a memorial at Gold beach. Decorated with rows of medals, Jim sang his song twice at the Royal Albert Hall and in Normandy, all live on BBC TV.

The BBC had previously filmed Jim’s Song For Stephen Lawrence, about the murder of a local black boy by a racist gang in Eltham. It was broadcast the night of the murder verdicts. Bloomsbury Press featured this song in the launch of Untouchables, Laurie Flynn and Michael Gillard’s book about racism and corruption in Scotland Yard.

We have sung together at Black Lives Matter rallies over the past four years. We sang at Christmas for Julian Assange when he was protected by the Bolivian embassy, and for Chelsea Manning at Trafalgar Square.

In 2015 France made him a member of the Légion d’Honneur in recognition of his role in liberating the country from the Nazis.
In the folksong culture Jim was best known as a shanty singer; my favourite of his is The Merchant Seaman. In the UK and Canada he sang at many shanty festivals. After many years Jim invited me into folksinging and we have sung at many festivals together. He was regularly with his friends in the weekly Folkmob in Greenwich.

Jim was always first in to sing in his local, the Jolly Farmers in Lewisham. I am honoured to have a list of songs he gave me to learn. Our band, Jim Radford and the Jolly Jammers, had been singing via Zoom or in Ladywell Park every week since lockdown, later joined by his daughter Joanna, her daughter Rowan, and her singing and dancing daughters Scarlet and Lottie.

Jim is also survived by his sons Ben, Tom and Steve, who served with me on Southwark Trades Council. He leaves six more grandchildren, six more great-grandchildren, together with 11 more by marriage – 30 known descendants.

Jim was warm-hearted with a ready smile and laugh, and we all agree that he sang best in the key of Jim. We reckon he knew 2,000 songs by heart, a big heart. Many women adored him.

Jim was fierce for justice and fair play. His truth goes marching on.

This article appeared in Folk London 311, February-March 2021