I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam…
With these lines opened the bitterly sarcastic reaction to the televised horrors of the Vietnam War by British poet, playwright and performer Adrian Mitchell.
He first read his best-known poem, called To Whom It May Concern (also known as Tell Me Lies), to thousands of anti-war protesters who flocked into London’s Trafalgar Square on the afternoon of Easter Monday 1964. As Mitchell delivered his lines from the pavement above in front of the National Gallery, angry demonstrators in the square below scuffled with police.Mitchell, who died on 20 December 2008 aged 76, occasionally updated the poem to take into account the subsequent wars and resulting tragedies in places as far apart as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine.
“It is about Vietnam, But it is still relevant,” Mitchell said in 2001. “It’s about sitting faithfully in England while thousands of miles away terrible atrocities are being committed in our name.”
As Michael Kustow wrote in an obituary in The Guardian: “Mitchell’s original plays and stage adaptations, performed on mainstream national stages and fringe venues, on boats and in nature, add up to a musical, epic and comic form of theatre, a poet’s drama worthy of Aristophanes and Lorca. Across the spectrum of his prolific output, through wars, oppressions and deceptive victories, he remained a beacon of hope in darkening times. He was a natural pacifist, a playful, deeply serious peacemonger and an instinctive democrat.”
The one time journalist and television critic was fired by The Sunday Times (UK) for reviewing Peter Watkins’ 1965 anti-nuclear TV film The War Game. Its depiction of the impact of Soviet nuclear attack on Britain had caused such dismay within the BBC and British government that the public broadcaster cancelled its scheduled transmission on 6 August 1966 (the 21 anniversary of the Hiroshima attack). It was finally broadcast in 1985, with the corporation stating that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”.
But Auntie Beeb and the rest of the Establishment couldn’t stop Mitchell, whose satirical poems continued to demolish myths emanating from the propaganda mills of the military-industrial complex and their allies in the mainstream media.
As Kustow recalled: “To Whom It May Concern, a riveting poem against bombs and cenotaphs and the Vietnam war, with which he stirred a capacity audience in Mike Horovitz’s pioneering Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall in 1965, has lasted through the too many wars since: a durable counting-rhyme to a rhythm and blues beat.”
Watch Adrian Mitchell recite/sing his poem in 1965 (black and white film):
As Jan Woolf wrote in another tribute: “To watch Adrian Mitchell…prepare his body for a performance of To Whom It May Concern – chin cupped in hand, eyes focused, back tense, ‘I got run over by the truth one day…’ – was to see a great poet steadying himself with all the focus and tension of a warrior. When those blue suede shoes got moving, the poem came alive. He breathed it, lived it, became it. It was as if he were dancing with language to get at the truth.”
Woolf recalls that Mitchell’s reading of Tell Me Lies at a City Hall benefit just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq was electrifying. “Of course, he couldn’t stop that war, but he performed as if he could.”
Watch Mitchell read what he called the 21st-century remix of his protest poem ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell me lies about Vietnam)’.
The 21st century re-mix ends with these words:
“You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out
You take the human being, and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about –
Tell me lies Mr Bush
Tell me lies Mr Blairbrowncameron
Tell me lies about Vietnam”
For some strange reason that has nothing to do with Adrian Mitchell’s recent departure, these words and the whole poem keep turning in my mind over and over again.