A Deadhead in Downing Street

AA and JM

This is a piece I wrote for the English Grateful Dead magazine 'Spiral Light' in the 1990s when I was working for John Major, then the British Prime Minister. 10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister's office and residence.
I don't imagine John Major had heard of the Grateful Dead before he met me. But he now gives a tolerant smile when he wanders past my desk in Downing Street and notices copies of DeadBase lying around-or indeed copies of Spiral Light. I don't think he quite believed it when I showed him the picture of Garcia in shorts in Issue 32!

My job goes under the grand title of "Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister." The easiest way to explain that is to say I'm Bernard in Yes, Prime Minister-and in answer to the inevitable questions, that programme is of course a wholly realistic documentary series masquerading as fiction (well sort of ...). I've managed to combine being a deadhead and a civil servant for over twenty years now - I joined the civil service not long after I'd seen the Dead at Bickershaw and the Lyceum during the Europe '72 Tour. My main problem has always been lack of time to listen to the music, particularly in my present job: something like "you keep me working boss man, working round the clock."

Weekends are a time to catch up. One great pleasure is walking my dog in the New Forest listening to the latest tape trade on my Walkman - until I'm interrupted by the inevitable bleeper and mobile phone call. But I've discovered that if I have the tape on loud enough I can't hear my bleeper, which can be convenient (don't tell our switchboard operators).

I first met John Major when he was in the Treasury. When he became Chancellor I went on a visit to Washington with him, and that of course involved an obligatory trip to Tower Records for both of us - for me to catch up on new Dead-related stuff and for him to browse around Joan Sutherland records for his wife Norma. In those days it was easy: wander down the lift and walk five minutes round the corner from the IMF building during a gap between meetings.

When I went back with him as Prime Minister in 1993, it was all much harder. He had full Secret Service protection. So a convoy of cars with blue flashing lights stopped outside Tower Records and a huge army of agents jumped out. But inside, it was much the same: me downstairs looking for incredibly obscure Dead stuff; the Prime Minister upstairs looking at country and classical music and Mrs Major finding opera recordings to add to her collection.

As you will have gathered, the Prime Minister cannot be said to listen to the Grateful Dead much himself. But they play some covers of the sort of music he likes, such as Marty Robbins and Buddy Holly. And I did once try to infiltrate a tape into his car, carefully selecting the Dead songs I thought might appeal-but, as always, that plot was foiled by a telephone call from the Chancellor which rather diverted his attention!

As fate would have it, I was in Australia when Jerry died. I had a mobile phone with me for the office to contact me in emergencies-and the only time they tried was when they heard the news about Jerry. Unfortunately I was on a boat off the Queensland coast and out of range at the time. I caught up with the news when we got back to Sydney, with a visit to an Internet Cafe‚ to find out if it was really true.

I find the Internet a great way to keep in touch with news about the Dead. I can often be found using my portable computer in our office at international Summit meetings in New Zealand or Canada to log on and catch up with what's been happening. When I have time, I have ambitions to get my own Web site up and running - but no, it won't be on the Number 10 Server. I'm something of a "completist" for obscure songs and their lyrics, both covers and originals. So I probably spend as much time listening and trying to decipher the lyrics to Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues, Down So Long or Equinox as I do to hearing the great Scarlet>Fires.

Combining being a civil servant and a Deadhead leaves a host of memories and images. The thrill of first seeing the Dead in the mud at Bickershawe and the intimacy of the Lyceum. Proudly wearing one of my Garcia ties to lunch with the President and Vice President at the White House. Bicycling early from the Treasury to the Rainbow to see all the 1981 concerts from right at the front. Getting really bored in a huge international meeting with simultaneous translation via headphones, and substituting a Dead tape on my Walkman and hoping no one would notice. And the relaxed, almost family atmosphere which John Major keeps going in Number 10, which means that eccentricities such as my passion for the Dead are tolerated affectionately, though with good-natured teasing when I go over the top.

I guess there's only one way to finish this article - I can't resist it:
"Ah well, a touch of grey kind of suits you any way"
That was all I had to say.
[this was a reference to John Major being unpleasantly criticised by detractors for being a "grey man"]


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