ACTIVISM (I DON'T LIKE THAT WORD)*

FEBRUARY 2017 

My neice Emma came to stay from America recently. Emma has the get-up-and-go of a whirlwind on amphetamines, she’s an actor and hairdresser and dancer and singer, and frankly she probably doesn’t need advice from people like me. Despite my incessant thinking and organising, I feel like I move at half Emma’s speed. After she’s had her morning coffee, that is. Anyway Emma sat still for five minutes to explain that, since I (and my generation of leftist anarchist troublemakers) had been around so long, it was our duty to pass on advice about activism to a new generation, a generation coming to terms with a shocking new world.

That we ought to explain what we’ve learned from years of marching, protesting, striking, demonstrating and rioting. Emma had even been asked by an activist friend back home near Philadelphia to make notes and bring them home with her. It felt strange, but...

Here’s what I said, whilst washing up dishes. Four sprawling ideas, one of which isn’t even mine.

Firstly, take note of Michael Moore’s lovely analogy of a group of people singing together, which goes something like this: imagine a choir singing, one note or one harmony, continuously, a loud vibrant hum. In order to sustain the notes as one unstopping whole, each singer has to take time out to breathe, to recover, and to take another lungful of air. If everyone takes their break at different times, the singing carries on, unbroken and powerful.

That’s what we have to do right now if we don’t want to suffer from protest fatigue. This may be a long hard struggle, and we all need time to stop shouting and complaining and organising, we need time to stop and breathe. To read and drink tea. To stop watching the news and checking Twitter. To walk in a forest. To sit in an art gallery or a cinema. To take the kids to a waterpark. To run up a hill. Then, when we’re done, we’re able to take a big lungful or oxygen and re-engage.

Secondly, accept that activism, or protest or whatever you want to call it, is a broad church. People (and groups of people) on the Left are spectacularly good at falling out with each other, and the level of criticism of each others’ tactics is absurd. Stop it! Embrace the idea that our having differently-styled protests is a strength. It all adds up. It conveys the idea that this isn’t just one homogenous mass of protest but an ungovernable, uncontainable array of ideas and movements. Some people write to politicians, some people throw bricks through windows. Some people go on strike, some people wear button badges. Some people march on the streets, some people sign petitions. Some people make documentary films, some people write songs, some people make speeches, some people knit pink hats, some people throw shoes at politicians, some people boycott, picket, chant, make banners, make cakes, make jokes.

Government’s main priority is to demonstrate order. As long as there’s order, they can get on with their ideological land-grab, their savage and rapacious accumulation of wealth. Because order comforts those who voted for these governments in the first place. Order says ‘all is well’. So any sense of chaos, of disorder, of things getting out of hand, is good. It says, this lot are losing control. This isn’t working. The broad spectrum of our protests plays into this notion of chaos and disorder; strikes stop the trains, marches stop the traffic, disruptions stop the normal flow. So let’s try to understand and accept the parts of protest we don’t particularly agree with.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t have conversations and discussions amongst ourselves, and I don’t mean there aren’t a worldful of things to be worked out. But in each situation, be prepared to compromise and accept differences. Don’t spend time bickering with those whose tactics you might not agree with; our diversity is our strength.

Some political organisations are like religions, believing they have a monopoly on ideological purity. They won’t work with other organisations whose version of dialectical materialism doesn’t measure up to their own. In turn, some individuals style themselves as islands of righteousness, scholars in Whataboutery (the modern art of criticising someone by asking why they didn’t also do x, y and z). It’s all silly, divisive and unproductive. Activism can be effective by the very looseness of its scope and breadth.

Opposition to the Poll Tax, introduced in Britain in 1989, serves as an example of how protest can work; it was organised across a whole range of ideas including national and regional non-compliance including refusal to pay, the setting up of thousands of neighbourhood organisations and countless local demonstrations, disrupted court hearings and tales of tax collectors being attacked. On top of this, a national march in London turned into a fully-fledged riot. Four hundred people were arrested. For government ministers this was all too much, and even the Tory Daily Telegraph declared that “images of violent discord on the capital’s streets were politically harmful.” Not long afterwards, Margaret Thatcher was ousted from office and her successor John Major immediately repealed the tax. It wasn’t just a riot that forced change; it was an array of varied, disruptive and continued protests across the country.

Thirdly (yes, that was all the second suggestion, Emma) find the thing that’s enjoyable. Don’t think that activism has to be simply duty. One of the best ways to turn duty into pleasure is to do it with other people. Form groups, make plans, share the work, sing together, laugh together. Don’t be a martyr. Don’t stand outside the bus station on your own in the rain handing out leaflets and hating every minute of it. Protest can be creative and ingenious; the more unexpected, the better.
Angry dairy farmers in France fired volleys of milk from huge containers at the riot police. Hundreds gathered at a pub in central London for a same-sex kiss-in after two men said they had been thrown out of the establishment for canoodling. The Ukrainian women's rights group FEMEN regularly strip off and daub their bodies with messages of protest. There are flaneurs and clowns, there’s Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping invading department stores and delivering his evangelical message, there’s comedian Mark Thomas leading absurd trespasses and swear-a-thons. From Pussy Riot to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, there’s a history of creative protest that blends righteous anger with playfulness and surprise.

Fourthly, and this fits with thirdly really – make connections. Don’t stare into social media clicking angrily. Gather, group, converge, huddle. Fire plans at each other, amend each other’s ideas, delegate jobs, share skills, feel connected. Handing out those leaflets at the bus station is better if you’re in a group. Congregating is important if we’re to (in the words of the great historian EP Thompson) ‘sense our own strength’. Marches might not seem like they’re achieving anything, but they are physical, audible, tactile, human and earthly reminders of our power as a group. A mass of living, laughing, shouting opposition.

And for all my talk about fun and guerilla protest, there are plenty of organisations and groups full of people who have years of experience and background in creating effective opposition. I’m not talking about political parties, most of whom are run by the kind of people who are happy to give vague support to protest until it threatens their own seat at the table of power. I mean grass roots groups, not-for-profit groups, local groups. Don’t ask me how you work out which groups are worth hooking up with; they change from issue to issue, from year to year. Personally I tend to mistrust groups who insist on having their name prominently displayed on the placards they distribute; I gravitate towards the home-made signs, the hand-painted banners, the ones who can laugh and sing, the ones that aren’t overwhelmingly male.

Oh and another thing: drink in the good stuff, the uplifting stuff. Part of the role of the artist in these weird times is to offer an alternative, and with it a suggestion of a way out and a way through – a transcendental vision of a better, brighter world. Books, film, songs, there’s so much out there that scares the conservatives into wanting to shut down the arts, and that’s the stuff we can use for ammunition. I’d suggest Rebecca Solnit’s essays about hope. Look her up, get inspired, then stop, then breathe.

And that’s it, that’s about the sum of what I’ve learned about activism since I first went on a CND protest in the early 1980s. Emma, you can probably use this as notes for your friends. Don’t blame me if they laugh you out of the room.


*Activism. For me it conjures up young men in masks, which it shouldn’t. It just means working to bring change (the Oxford English uses the term ‘vigorous campaigning’, which is so very English.)

February 2017

LIST YOUR TOP TEN ALBUMS

Firebricks and Flares in Rainy Colchester

January 2017 


One of the games running around social media at the moment is people posting the ten albums that most influenced them in their teenage years. I might have guessed that, of my friends (mostly born a decade either side of me), the older people have lists full of space-age hippies, prog rockers and experimental folkies, and the younger people have top tens that start with The Clash and end in hip-hop. Those born right around the same year as me – 1961 – whose teens straddled the so-called ‘Year Zero’ (1976 or 1977, depending on where you lived) share a strange hotch-potch of teenage affection that bridged the cultural divide between the narcissistic, long haired, flared trousers era and the sneering, itching energy of what followed. I still drift into a laughable teenage reverie whenever I hear something from Paul Simon’s ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’ (1973), in much the same way as I feel compelled to sing along to every word of Crass’s ‘Feeding Of The Five Thousand’ (1979).

What’s interesting to me about all this is what that jump between subcultures meant, as a teenager. It’s hard to explain to people now how right Joe Strummer was when he declared, simply, “like trousers, like brain.” Big flappy flares signalled baggage and excess, comfy chairs and spliffs. Ultra-narrow trousers (my friend Sage took his trousers in so tight that he had to regularly unpick the stitches to squeeze his ankles into them) meant change, challenge, don’t sit around, get off your arse. I know it’s all a bit ridiculous, reducing cultural upheavals to trouser widths, but there really was something furiously important about suddenly appearing at school with your kex all narrow. Because what it did was it started conversations. It tore a small rent in the everyday hum-drum, it welcomed a response – what Rebecca Solnit calls “the disruptiveness that cracks open the possibility”. And that’s what I think we need now. Disruption, opposition, shock, anything to provoke possibility and opportunity. Things have got that bad. Things are that scary.

I’m at Gee Vaucher’s retrospective exhibition in Colchester, alone. The show is called ‘Introspective’, but it seems anything but. It’s art that looks resolutely outwards, not egotistically inwards. Gee was a member of anarchist punks Crass, the ex-hippies who jumped ship, learned barre chords and took in their flares (you can see it in the old photographs on the walls… Crass as experimental art group Exit in their loon pants and collarless shirts suddenly appearing in military-style black, chopped hair and not a centimetre of spare material to be seen). It’s a brilliant exhibition, a brief summing-up of how counter-culture shocks, is absorbed, shocks again; how to appropriate media tools to attack the media; how small acts of beauty and cleverness can pierce the fleshy side of power and make it wince.

As a conceptual art collective, Exit were doing strange things with wood and string during the mid-1970s at the Roundhouse in London. Shocking the straights, challenging boredom, in blurry, flickering Super-8. At the exhibition I watch some of the home-made films made of their performances, on playing fields in Essex, earnest young people being vaguely interesting and defiantly weird.

As a teenager in Burnley, Lancashire, I came into contact with the conceptual art group Welfare State, known to us only as ‘that bunch of weirdos living up by Queen’s Park’. They held an annual Bonfire Night march carrying towering papier-mache models of the Houses of Parliament, which they then burnt on a huge fire. I had no idea who these people were, but their incredibly un-Burnley artistic rituals, as well as their very presence in the town, stuck with me. Outsiders, wanting something more than that old Burnley Borough Council stodginess.

When, in 1976, the Daily Mirror shrieked in front-page outrage at the Tate Gallery paying over £2,000 for Carl Andre’s ‘120 Firebricks’, I immediately stuck photocopied pictures of the bricks on my schoolbooks – what I didn’t realise at the time was that when Andre was asked to ‘defend’ the artwork, his reply was to say only that the bricks were a question, not an answer. There it is again, that disruptiveness that cracks open possibility. At the time I was listening to the music of the Bonzo Dog Band, art-prank geniuses who ridiculed the everyday tedium of modern suburban Britain. I began to sense the way art and music were creating alternatives, opening up avenues that might lead away from 9 to 5 jobs and semi-detached nuclear families. But.

But the real disruptiveness came with Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and McLaren and The Slits. This is what I found in Gee’s exhibition, too. Between the Essex Super-8 films and the incredible, typewriter-dense, shocking pencil-and-collage fold-out sleeves of the first Crass LPs there’s that clean break, that jump, that savage edit. What caused the break? How could rock ‘n’ roll be so utterly disruptive? A coming-together of circumstances, for sure; visionary artists and manic entrepreneurs. But also a particular political scenario. A point where post-war Anglo-American power reached its zenith. When the capitalists realised that ‘continual growth’ is an unworkable concept. The dawn of Thatcher-Reagan; no such thing as society. Open warfare. Mass unemployment. The workers have had it too good for too long.

At that point in history, we all sensed that changing world. Crass didn’t suddenly sell bucketloads of records because their music was exciting, their ideas commercial. It happened because Crass seized their chance to blast open that crack in the possibilities. And blast it open they did, along with a bunch of other musicians and artists, and in turn a generation of boys and girls who were willing to dance, play, shout and fight in the opened spaces caused by the disruption.

There are some parallels between the late 1970s and the way our world is tilting and shifting now. I lived and worked and protested right through the Thatcher years, and though I despised Blair and Campbell’s New Labour with a vengeance, I felt I’d seen the worst of governments in Thatcher’s idealogical hatred of ordinary people, her crowing defence of the bloated pigs that ran the country. I was wrong. Things are more grim now than anything I experienced in the 1980s. The progress we’ve made as a people – and we have made some progress, in combatting racism, sexism, homophobia, bit by bit; in starting to work against environmental disaster – that progress seems to be shutting down, rolling back. Both in everyday, media-fed ignorance and prejudice and in the new-found, frightening, swaggering power of our political and corporate leaders.


The exhibition of Gee’s work – beautifully designed by Christian Brett – is inspiring not only because it re-tells the story of that incredible firework-blast of defiant and political art that came in the punky rush of noise, fanzines, badges and newly-found sewing-skills. It’s also a reminder that the best artists change, don’t repeat themselves, continually look for new ways to have conversations. Art is nothing if it’s not a conversation; if Gee carried on doing what she did in 1977, the only people listening would be those who buy original pressings of Crass singles on e-Bay for £60. Gee has weaved a lifetime as an artist working out different ways to start conversations, different ways to shock, different ways to debate. For me – and I know, absolutely not for the galleries and the buyers and the art market – that’s the hallmark of a great artist.

Colchester is a town that has one foot in history (it’s the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain and has a medieval castle) and one foot in shuttered shops, boarded-up pubs and homeless folk outside amusement arcades. It’s modern Britain, essentially, and the rain is fitting. Fitting, too, that Gee’s exhibition – her first major retrospective collection – is here, in an old market town not far up the road from where she, along with ex-Crass lyricist Penny Rimbaud, lives in an open house somewhere on the outskirts of Epping, an old farmhouse with a beautiful garden, apparently an unexpected oasis of day-to-day revolution and gardening. They’ve been there since their days as performance artists, centred and permanent yet flitting from project to project, a history of styles, techniques and methods. Tonight in the gallery space where Gee’s exhibition is showing, Penny will recite the poetry of Wilfred Owen accompanied by piano and cello. From gardening to rock ‘n’ roll and all points inbetween, there’s still that clear hunger to start conversations.

I first saw Crass in a church hall in some out-of-the-way village in Kent. I was at college in Maidstone and my mate Spider – always with his finger on the pulse – had been yakking on about this weird band. I caught the train to see them and was duly stunned. Not by the music, particularly, but by the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle – films, backdrops, clothing, lighting… I knew straight away that this wasn’t just rock ‘n’ roll, it was some kind of explosion of ideas. What it said to me was that these were artists who had learnt how to put on a show that could stop us in our tracks, that could made us blink. A show that shocked. 

After the gig I walked many miles home (having missed the last train) feeling like I’d somehow been assaulted and wondering what to do with all this new information (the band had handily printed masses of it onto various leaflets that I had stuffed in my pockets). That gig seemed to make sense of punk, it put political flesh on the movement’s bones. I’d been only 15 when I watched Sex Pistols make their very first TV appearance, on a regional channel show called ‘So It Goes’. It didn’t change my life overnight, but it shocked me and shook me. It said, all is not right with the world. I loved my Paul Simon and my Beatles. I didn’t really understand ‘Your future dream/Is a shopping scheme’. But somehow I took this snippet of art that crept into the gaps and ran with it, and I believed it when Malcolm McLaren said the song was "a call to arms to the kids... It's a statement of self rule, of ultimate independence." What Crass did was take that call to arms and give it form and function. Rebecca Solnit again:

“Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.”

I don’t hold out any hope for some new ‘punk’, some artform that will suddenly wake up the world in the face of this dangerous new era. But I hold out hope that in the upheaval that comes with this Brexit-Trump world there will be cracks and fissures, openings, gaps. And in those gaps we’ll find new ways to create opposition and to spread ideas. Ways to say we won’t let his happen; ways to stop things happening. As Crass sang on their first album, ‘Watch out for the quiet ones at the back. All they want is the smallest crack.’

Comic Sans Walks Into A Bar. Barman Says, We Don't Serve Your Type

October • 2016


Shortly after returning from touring Europe in a knackered yellow-and-blue hippy bus (with its Sex Pistols destination sign reading ‘Nowhere’), limping from town to town busking for petrol money and scavenging at the fruit markets, we decided to start a band, properly this time. This was in 1982, or thereabouts. We’d had several attempts before but now we had a different vision – it wasn’t to be just a band, it would be a collective, we’d be a northern version of Crass, squatting in an old house, sharing money and inviting friends to join us. We commandeered a Victorian tumble-down mansion in West Leeds, planted a garden of vegetables, built furniture out of discarded wooden pallets, and blagged and borrowed amplifiers and microphones.

But there was something missing, and we found it in a skip round the back of the Leeds University buildings one night, where perfectly good stuff seemed to be routinely thrown out. What we found was a Roneo rotary stencil duplicator. Basically, a crude desk-top printer. It was as big as a kitchen bin and incredibly heavy, with a single circular drum housed in a steel frame, a large cranking handle at the side and the smudge and stink of old printing ink all over it. It was rudimentary (oh the hours we spent fixing the thing, with its adjustable springs and catches) but it altered what we could do as a band – before this we played guitars and sang, now we wrote stories and articles that sat alongside the songs, handed out mass-produced (is 500 copies ‘mass’?) leaflets and pamphlets at gigs, and with that one small step we became, er, multi-media.

When Johannes Gutenberg perfected mechanical movable type in 1448 he opened the door not only to the mass-production of books but to the idea that the church and the state didn’t hold a monopoly on words – suddenly people had their own information, their own songsheets and call-to-arms, cheaply printed and passed around. This incredible cultural upheaval changed the way we communicated and learned, forever. It empowered us. Power to the people, in fact.

I’ve been reading and researching the history and effect of the invention of the printing press for a performance and exhibition at Leeds Library. A journey that threads through letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books and libraries. Celebrating the outward explosion of knowledge that came from that mechanical wooden frame and a block of re-usable metal type. It’s a beautiful and inspiring story.

I first came across a stencil duplicator a few years before that night at Leeds Uni, when I was at secondary school in Burnley – my dad had brought a huge old Gestetner printer home from the primary school where he worked and I learnt how to draw into the waxy sheets and create a template that could be attached to the drum. Overnight I produced scores of copies of a cartoon ridiculing one of my teachers and, first thing next morning, distributed them at school. Within minutes of the first lesson the printed sheets were up on noticeboards and being passed around classrooms. Someone snitched and I ended up with a week of staying behind at home-time and missing football training. I was never cut out to be a footballer anyway.

Gutenberg’s invention freed us. Took power from above and spread it around – in addition to books, the cheaply-printed ballads and rallying cries, sold for ha’pennies on streetcorners, helped to democratise knowledge. Within just fifty years of the building of that first printing press, 1000 printing presses were in operation throughout Western Europe and had produced twenty million books; rising in the sixteenth century to between 150 and 200 million books.

One of the things I loved about that old Roneo was the smell, the mess, the physicality of the machine. It’s what computers lack – a sense of tactility and immersion in the process. As a post-digital revolution begins to take shape, with people actively seeking time away from 24/7 digital communication, there’s a move towards the physical and the face-to-face. We’re searching for ‘authenticity’ by getting grubby on allotments, by walking, cycling, baking, singing, dancing.

One of the most evocative smells is the fusty reek of a second-hand bookshop.

Most research now confirms the fact that paper is still the best medium for storing information. Look at those boxes of old floppy disks and ScSII hard drives, think about all those photographs and articles you carefully stored on formats that your latest computer can’t recognise. Then go and wander up and down the five storey-building that is Scrivener’s Books on Buxton High Street, a building that feels like it’s practically held up by its 40,000 books, papers, annuals and maps on slanting, sloping higgledy-piggledy shelves. There’s a whole world of history and ideas there, some of it hundreds of years old, waiting to be discovered.

The original Gutenberg press was a rudimentary design, a wooden frame with a lever that allowed a plate to be pressed down onto sheets of paper. It looks, now, not unlike an ornate high-backed chair, or a guillotine. But within this construction of wood and steel, joints and brackets, lay a universe of ideas and knowledge. The 18th century iron-monger and book-collector Joseph Ames put it beautifully when he wrote, simply: “Souls dwell in a printer’s type.”


Commoners Choir will be performing as part of an afternoon celebrating print, literacy and libraries at Leeds Central Library on Sunday November 13th between 1pm and 3pm.

Guy Debord Goes Rambling

September • 2016

We’re halfway through a week of walking and singing, on a day’s tramp over fields and over stiles, from Bredenbury to Yarpole. Places joined by walking, places I’ll probably never visit again, but places where things are happening. Good things. I’m with fourty or so walkers stringing together a series of concerts with daily stomps across the English and Welsh countryside, and I’m also one of John Jones’ Reluctant Ramblers. For anyone who doesn’t know, John leads a twice-yearly tour around the British countryside, walking up to twenty miles a day and playing a concert every night. As we arrive in Yarpole there are church bells ringing – for us. The sun beats down and we ditch our bags and boots, laying on the lawn of St Leonards church, our venue for the evening’s concert. British churches have come to signify little else but the past, at best a nostalgic and pleasant reminder of peace and order and at worst the slow, gloomy, draughty death of an idea. This church in Yarpole is different. It’s been re-jigged as a village community centre, with a shop selling everything from toilet paper to locally-brewed beers, a cafe on its own specially-built mezzanine floor and a post office tucked away within the shop. The preaching end of the church – the bit with a pulpit and a cross – is almost an afterthought. Instead, taking over the space where the pews used to be, there’s a small stage set up with a PA and a handful less than 200 seats arranged for a concert. It’s where the Reluctant Ramblers will play, where the day’s walk will be neatly brought to a close in this space that’s been transformed by community, by people who’ve reimagined and reawakened the church’s long-lost power as a gathering place, a hub. In an age when we communicate with our friends mainly through pressing buttons, this step into the past is a great leap forward.

Half a century ago, Guy Debord, erstwhile leader of the Situationists, foretold of a world where instead of experiencing the world in the here-and-now we would instead accept a second-hand version of it. Nothing would be as it seemed; we would live in a society of fabricated pretence, see everything via screens, our language and culture carefully managed for us. Debord called it the Society of the Spectacle – living would become a series of hand-me-down lifestyle choices interspersed with advertisements for products that complemented the Spectacle. Looking at our shopping centres (now rebranded as ‘retail experiences’), watching how everyone looks from their phone screens to the shop window displays and back again, seeing how friendship has been co-opted by internet-based social media, it’s easy to see how right the Situationists were.

What Guy Debord’s lot didn’t predict, though, was post-Situationism; the world after the Spectacle. As far as I can see we’re already one step into that post-Situ era, one step into a world of re-connections and returnings, beginning to reassert social interaction over device-time, learning again to understand ourselves as physical, communal, social creatures.

This is the space I find myself in a couple of days after the Yarpole concert, on a Saturday afternoon walking alone in the middle of a wood somewhere on the Welsh border, back-marking on one of the Reluctant Ramblers’ all-day meanderings. I’m dawdling, humming to myself, following a rough path cut by shards of sunlight, and I gradually become aware of an intense quietness, a silence so heavy it’s deafening. I stop. Too far from traffic, no plane engines, out of range of the other Ramblers’ human snake of bootsteps and chatter, I listen. A bee or fly, somewhere. Nothing else. Surrounded by the wood’s bustling life, huge and incredible, yet everything oh so still, to the point where I might hear a pine-cone drop.

This real world never went away, of course. But now, in this age of ‘reality’ shows, online ‘communities’ and heavy heavy irony, walking in the countryside has become a revelation. The stillness of the woods sounds so incredible because it’s set against a constant chatter of communication technology, of digital bleeps and jolly ringtones. The truth is, people everywhere are rediscovering what’s real. What’s real right now is locally-brewed beer, bicycles, outdoor river swimming, fresh bread, life-drawing, demonstrations and marches, home cooking, bonfires, dancing, allotments, sewing and knitting – and of course, singing, and walking.

The Reluctant Ramblers’ tours are essentially rooted in singing and walking, the quest for some kind of authenticity, the chance to take part in something as old as the hills, something that connects us back long before Cecil Sharp’s nostalgic notion of tradition, back to a physical, elemental, bodily melding of us and the rest of the world. The first time I joined John for the inaugural Ramblers’ walk – seven years ago now – we were nearing the end of a long day of climbing and descending when a noisy scramble of flapping wings above us heralded several red kites leaving the trees and soaring skywards. John immediately called it ‘a Pantheistic moment’. Nature in its element shouting “look at me!”

Every concert we’ve played since then has included a meandering on-stage conversation about the day’s Pantheistic moment – a bolting deer crossing a footpath, a hill-top view across three counties, or in this case, simply a forest silence.

Pantheism offers a way of understanding one's place in the world, a place where living a meaningful life depends upon a good relationship with our ultimate context: the Universe and the Earth. The second day of this week’s walk stretches uphill from Malvern onto the long undulating ridge that looms above the town. As we set off from the streets of large whitewashed townhouses we pass by the statue of the composer Elgar, and a discussion of Elgar’s music – some of us trying to hum something from the Enigma Variations, and everyone refraining from bursting into ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ – results in the day’s strangely daft Pantheistic moment, when thirty of us gather on top of a hill and listen intently to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ streamed from YouTube and played on an iPhone. I’m not sure if Guy Debord would have approved, but it’s beautiful all the same.

But back to the singing and walking. As I said, it’s on these two downright physical activities that the Reluctant Ramblers tours are built, the two foundations at the base of a community of people navigating their way out of our towny retail zones and into a landscape of shared jokes and real effort. The walks aren’t easy – they can be long and hard, wet and windy with plenty of hills and navigation, not to mention the scary road-crossings. Hitting a busy A-road after a couple of hours’ grassy wandering is a reminder of the ruthless speeded-up everyday cartoon of commuting, the impersonal traffic noise contrasting with the sounds picked up along, say, a riverbank or a meadow’s hedgerow. After one road crossing we clamber over a fence and leave the roar of the combustion engine to follow a long dyke, where a herd of around fifteen horses gallops alongside us, heavy and powerful and breathtaking. Rainstorms come and go, Benji and Rowan pick apples from cider orchards as we pass, and our feet get muddied or blistered or both. We get lost and found, we stumble over decaying footbridges, we struggle to lift pet dogs over stiles and we alternate between wonderful chatter and glorious quiet.

Earlier this summer I was full of gloom and doom at the realisation that, simply put, the world seemed to be getting worse, as a majority of Brits stood behind the Mail and The Sun and registered their support for a racist, divisive and inward-looking future that had been conjured up by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. (I’ll ignore for now several other pressing matters – the ongoing, widening gap between a rich world and a poor world, a globeful of wars and hunger and a looming environmental catastrophe). Basically, I felt utterly hopeless. Then Rebecca Solnit came along with an article she wrote in The Guardian, a piece that acknowledged the bad stuff but reminded me that hope is still a valuable currency, that in many ways the world is getting better, bit by bit, quietly and from below, out of sight of power and wealth. That’s when I started to see how people were looking beyond the nightmarish Daily Mail headlines and searching for something tangible, real and authentic.

I don’t really know what ‘authentic’ means any more – it’s a word that’s been chronically overused, to sell everything from fireplaces to rock ‘n’ roll. But I do know that people are looking for it. There’s a growing sense of unease with the daily sell sell sell of media (whether social or traditional) and a growing number of people walking, cycling, singing and baking. There are also (lest we forget) armies of young men growing beards, wearing checked shirts and buying their music on vinyl, arguably turning the search for what might be ‘real’ into another consumable lifestyle. Walking and singing (along with digging an allotment, baking bread, sewing, etc etc) are harder to commodify – they’re cheap, communal and require a fair amount of effort, as the wheezing and panting of the Ramblers reaching the summit of Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern hills will testify.

If you can measure authenticity in sweat, then this is real. Sales of acoustic instruments in Britain are up and rising. Numbers of walkers, too, are up and rising. The number of English adults walking purely for recreation for at least 30 minutes every month has been increasing each year by around 5%.

We’re on stage in Kington at the end of a week’s hard walking with five concerts chucked in for good measure. Every show has been different; it’s easy to talk between songs when you haven’t spent all day on an anonymous tourbus shuttling between anonymous cities. The Pantheist moment today as we ramble through Herefordshire occurs when a group of us get lost off the back of the walk, standing on Offa’s Dyke on top of a vast and unending landscape of rolling hills. John rings us up, wondering where we are. We’re in a field, I tell him. He offers some advice: “Head across the field that has the sheep in it.” All we can see as we look around us are fields and sheep.

But getting a map out galvanises us, wakes us up. See, for me, this is Pantheism – not just a spiritual connection with Nature, but a recognition that we have an integral part within Nature, we are one and all and together and indivisible. The lines on the map are neither abstract nor scientific scribbles, they’re put there so we can work out where we are in the world. Helen jabs her finger across the contours and we look up at the skyline that revolves right around us. We’re here. And we need to go there. Despite being marooned off the back of the walk, despite having wandered blindly into a cul-de-sac of unknown territory, we have hope. And as we head across a fieldful of sheep we’re joined by Guy Debord, his old leather boots cacked up with cow-dung, who tells us: “Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.”

And that’s what it all is, isn’t it? Rediscovering adventure.


Crass, me and Gareth Malone 

March 1 • 2016


Well it’s been a year since the choir gathered, since its ambitious manifesto and since we had just one proper song. That song was the one-minute long ‘Get Off Your Arse’, a sort of melodic call-to-arms. Since then the choir has grown, gone through the crawling and toddling stages and now stands up and shouts, with umpteen songs under its belt and loads of projects and ideas in the diary (past and present). From that tentative minute-long song has grown a huge and unruly full-throated yell.

Yes, this is a blog about a choir. I’m not unaware of the recent popularity of choirs on this island, especially after all that Gareth Malone stuff on the telly, and I can see how championing singing together can sound like an advert for well-being, pleasantness, good clean living and the Big Society. Here’s Niall Crawley writing in The Independent:

Choral singing may have curative qualities but if we recast it as just another healthy lifestyle activity, like going to the gym or visiting our GP, then all that’s magical, inspiring and elevating about the choral experience might just melt into air.”

So I’ll try to keep this to the magical, inspiring stuff. What can I say? Monday nights are choir nights and choir nights are a joy. They really are. There’s chatting and tea-drinking and catching up and laughing… and some singing, too. Before the Commoners I’d never been in a choir before, barely seen a real choir rehearsing, so I have nothing to compare it to except my time in a band. And what I can assume is that being in Commoners Choir is somewhere between being in a band and being in a choir, which was, as it happens, exactly the aim. Being in a band is about making music as a gang, purposeful, ambitious and close-knit. Being in a choir is about the empathy and shared experience of making music with lots of people. The idea is that Commoners Choir is neither one nor t’other, but the best bits of both.

A bit more about the band thing. One of the best things about rock ‘n’ roll is volume, and specifically amplification. I haven’t forgotten the sheer excitement to be had from turning up the dial on a Gibson guitar going through a Marshall amp. Honestly. The youthful, exciting stuff. And of matching the guitar to drums and bass, of playing with the tension and dynamics of volume and sound. But I’m learning that that’s sort of how it can work in a choir – playing with the possibilities of volume and sound, of matching voices. I’ve always loved acapella singing, by folk groups like The Watersons, Swan Arcade, Coope, Boyes & Simpson and by fifties and sixties acapella doo-wop groups like the Zircons, Nutmegs and Savoys. It’s just bands without instruments, isn’t it?

I always loved being in a band. It was that joy of playing music matched to the feeling of working with friends to make something that connected with bigger ideas than rock ‘n’ roll or pop. For a couple of years after Chumbawamba stopped playing I wondered about starting another band, but couldn’t work out what it could be, what it might sound like. Bands are intense, so it was a bit daunting. And I knew I had to steer clear of anything that might sound remotely like Chumbawamba (that would be weird, like being in a covers band). In the meantime I was writing scores of songs for theatre and art and community projects, for friends and for fun. I worked with choirs in a project at Manchester Museum with Dan Bye and Sarah Punshon (and thoroughly loved it) and then created a small scratch choir to sing at the Tate Gallery in London (and loved that too). I found it challenging and enjoyable and strange and wonderful.

And that’s when I had the idea of crossing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (whose music I grew up listening to, but that’s another story) with seminal anarchist punk band Crass. Absolute diametric opposites. Sacred, harmonic grandeur paired with frenetic, angry polemic. But the thing about the Tabernacle Choir and Crass is that both are utterly compelling, they share a desire to tell the world something important. Neither makes music just to be listened to, it’s about what they have to say, and both found a form that matched their intent. And whilst both Crass and the Tabernacle Choir could be criticised for being one-dimensional, I knew choirs didn’t have to be – a choir could encompass the pop of doo wop and the folk of The Watersons, the art-noise of Furious Pig or the repetitive, modern classical stuff like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. There’s a whole world right there in the human voice.

I hadn’t thought it through very much. That was about as far as it went, the mutant lovechild of Crass and the Mormon Tabernacles, along with the idea for the opening song – knowing that there would be something peculiarly beautiful in hearing twenty or thirty people harmonise the refrain, ‘Get off your arse!’ It’s juvenile – but that’s what they said about Dada and rock ‘n’ roll and punk…

So a year later here we are, twenty or thirty or forty people in a low-ceilinged rehearsal room or waving our flag up on a moortop or uninvited in a shopping arcade singing our hearts out and feeling like we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. Not just because we’re a choir but because we’re, well, a weird choir. A maladjusted, not-quite-knowing-what-we’re-doing choir. We just released our second video. The Boris Johnson one. I wasn’t in it, I had a broken arm. But that’s sort of how the choir works, everyone is subsumed into the bigger idea.

We have all sorts of plans as to where we go next, and I’m as curious as all the other Commoners what that means. We’re playing in Bradford at ‘Threadfest’ and, in the light of the decision to move the Media Museum’s photography collection down to London’s V&A (where it will be “part of the national collection”) we’ll be singing about the Northern Poorhouse, erm, I mean Powerhouse. We’re heading down to Ely in Cambridgeshire to commemorate the Ely and Littleport Riots of 1774, again with a special song. I’ll be taking up residence at Leeds Central Library in late summer to prepare a Commoners event based around the history of literacy and print, access to words and the democratising role of the libraries. Oh and we’re going to record as many of our songs as possible and somehow let them loose on the world.

And that’s the Commoners Choir, as it stands, one year on. I’ve no idea where it’s going. I can’t start to thank the people in the choir who’ve put their shoulders to the wheel and made things happen – I’d have to list everyone. Getting this far really has been a team effort. And you, if you’re anywhere nearby, you’re welcome to come along if you want to sing about the world… and have fun doing it. It doesn’t have to just be a healthy lifestyle activity, y’know.

 









Mr Whalley, in the kitchen, with the axe. 

Fixing A Hole

December 16 • 2015

It’s Sunday morning in a strange little house in Staithes, where I’ve been wrestling with words for two days while Josh, James and Paul write, play guitar, sketch and whittle spoons. It’s a short weekend away to discuss art, beer and climate change, surrounded by furniture, wallpaper and trinkets that appear to have survived from the 1950s. I’m trying to write a chorus for a song called Great Big Hole, about the holes left by the destructive drive of capital, wastelands where work and community used to be – the big gaps in towns, on estates, in hearts and in history. Holes. All I need is a few lines, an idea, a hook… 8am and Paul is sitting with a cup of tea playing guitar. I decide to light a fire in the kitchen’s ancient wood-burning range. There’s wood that needs chopping into kindling, and an axe, Josh’s newly-sharpened axe, small and gorgeous with its head tucked into its button-up pouch. I’ve chopped wood a hundred times before. This time, three or four chops into the task, I somehow lose concentration and the axe bangs into my wrist. For some reason I imagine it’s just bounced off with nothing more than a bump, then the blood starts to pump out, down my arm and onto the old hearth carpet. I run to the sink and the blood spatters onto the lino and across the dishes. Paul looks up, stops playing his guitar, swears, tells me to wrap my arm in a teatowel and runs off to get Josh.

There’s not much pain. I twist the tea towel tighter and watch as it grows red and sodden. I don’t panic, even while I’m realising that it’s an early Sunday morning in a hushly-quiet seaside village without any phone coverage. Last night we’d been out at one of Staithes’ two pubs, perched right on the tiny harbour front as if to invite the North Sea to come crashing in for a crab sandwich and a pint of something dark and local. Two musicians in the pub had steadily gone from playing their own repertoire of folk-tinged acoustic songs to banging out Eagles and Fleetwood Mac tunes that had everyone in the pub bellowing along. This morning the sky has a hangover, grey and heavy, and through the tiny cobbles-level kitchen window it’s clear there’s nobody around. Josh crashes into the kitchen half-asleep and in only his pants, takes a look at the cut in my arm (carefully revealed as if the teatowel were the wrapping on a chocolate orange) and retreats. A minute later he’s back, declaring that he’d had to sit down for a minute to avoid fainting – then he’s out of the house barefoot down the damp street to the phone box.

In the meantime, Paul has run off up the hill to where he’d parked his car. In a determined effort to avoid the £2 overnight car park fee last night he’d left it at the foot of an adjoining valley about a mile away, but not to fear, he has some remarkable marathon times on his cv and with the Countdown theme music ticking away inside in his head he’s halfway up the road, cagoule flapping and laces undone. Josh returns in a tizz from his chat with the operator at the other end of the 111 call since he’s none the wiser, having failed to find anyone with information about the nearest A&E department. Paul arrives back and we all jump in the car hoping that the local doctor’s surgery will have an emergency hospitals notice pasted to its front door. It doesn’t. The rain is starting to bucket now. An old bloke in a flat cap is walking his dismal-looking dog so Josh runs across. Yes, says the bloke, coughing up phlegm along with information, the nearest A&E is in Brotton, 15 minutes’ drive up the coast. Off we go, Paul and me, while Josh heads back down to Staithes to rally James and gather all our belongings, wondering irrationally whether he ought to be shouldering some of the blame for leaving his axe lying around. Which is silly, of course. As Josh himself succinctly pointed out to me later in the day, “Here’s some advice: stick to art and music”.

Aside from trying to write a chorus for a song about holes – and yes, there’s now some irony thrown in for good measure – I’ve been reading (and wondering, and learning) about the big question that goes: humans – are we innately co-operative or competitive? My positive (some might say unbearably upbeat) version of humanity agrees with Charles Darwin, who wrote that “those communities which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic members will flourish best.” Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ is a bible-sized study that shows clearly and simply that worldwide violence is decreasing while altruism and tolerance is on the increase. I’ve seen it in my lifetime, in my limited world – attitudes surrounding race, gender and sexuality have fundamentally changed for the better, despite the Daily Mail’s best efforts. And never mind Mrs Thatcher’s ignorant foghorning cry, these changes are forced through by society. Society as in culture, community, the aggregate of people living together.

The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labour – these things didn’t end simply by act of parliament but by decades (or centuries) of struggle, of protest and debate, of education. And we changed because we are part of what sociologists call ‘a civilising process’ that includes the invention of printing, the empowerment of women, enhanced powers of reasoning and expanding capacities for empathy – we’re community-minded, we care about each other. It’s hard to see this when someone daubs ‘Immigrants Go Home’ on the wall on your street, or when you read about the rape and murder of children in Syria, or when you can bear to watch Donald Trump holding forth – but these things have to be stacked against the everyday acts of tolerance, understanding and goodwill that indicate that we’re learning to live together. I say all this because even though the narrative of my story says aaagh my arm’s still losing blood and I can’t move or feel my thumb, without my realising it I’m about to be thrown into a whole community of people that come together, as a microcosm of ‘society’, around this one stupid mis-cued axe, to make a good case for humanity as co-operative, interdependent and group-minded. All hail the NHS…

Mind you, Brotton hospital, when we find it tucked around the back of a redbrick semi-detached housing estate, is closed save for a nightwatchman who points northwards and says, “Redcar. You’ll want Redcar.” Off we go again, not without a creeping sense of time running out on an arm that’s losing blood and looking paler by the minute. I daren’t take the indispensible and by-now talismanic teatowel off my wrist for fear of shooting blood across Paul’s windshield, and I’m beginning to feel faint, possibly because I’ve started to add up the things I might not be able to do without a left hand. Let’s face it though, I was never much of a guitarist – though it’s a servicable tool for songwriting. I don’t go out on my bike often enough anyway, so I can stop comparing this to the wrist fracture that dumped Chris Froome out of the Tour in 2014. And on the bright side, I can write up the events of the day as a blog, full of flowery sentiment and exaggeration. Maybe not – that would be just too vain and self-absorbed (and I’d have to do it one-handed).

Redcar hospital, inconveniently positioned beyond a level crossing where we’re forced to sit in a line of cars for several minutes (it feels like hours), is fresh-paint new and practically empty, the gaggle of receptionists huddled in a glass-fronted booth outnumbering the out-patients. I’m taken in to see a doctor who unwraps my arm and swills it with half a gallon of salt water, dabbing and swabbing and trying to stench the bloodflow. I’m told to keep my arm up in the air and I walk with him through to the x-ray department looking like I’ve got a question I need to answer really urgently. “Miss! Miss! Miss!” In between scans, swabs and x-rays me and Paul sit in the waiting room watching that Shrek Christmas film, the really short one where the narrative arc is essentially that Shrek decides he doesn’t like Christmas and then he decides he does. The film is on repeat play and much to my discomfort there’s a scene where Shrek attempts to chop wood for the fire with an axe. It’s one of those cyclical dreams where there’s no escape until someone slaps you awake and bellows “Whalley, room seven”.

Arm cleaned, wrapped and tied in an upright position, we race to the hand injuries department down in Leeds. So I’m not about to have it lopped off after all, but apparently I have to wait until we’re down at Leeds LGI before the surgeons can have a proper root around and see what damage I’ve done in there. Paul decides to take some minor sight-seeing detours on the way, and any fears I have over the urgency of having my wrist put back together again is assuaged by a gentle trip around Guisborough town centre’s one-way system, twice. 

Casey takes over from Paul in Otley and hurtles us both into Leeds, tyres burning and brakes squealing, down narrow alleys and knocking over market stalls on the way. The hospital is busy and buzzing, it’s now evening and I’m trying to avoid looking as a surgeon pulls back the cut and looks inside as if my arm were a lucky dip. His face lights up like a child’s as he pulls out a live goldfish – it’s Banksy’s Dismaland all over again. In truth, he finds a broken bone, severed ligaments and tendons and various nerves cut right through. My thumb has retracted to the ‘off’ position across the palm of my hand and the doctor explains that I’ve effectively cut off its ability to move, feel or play the bass run-down on Davy Graham’s ‘Anji’. I’m injected and patched up again and booked in for 7.30 the following morning.

This is the hospital where I saw Jimmy Saville once, visiting my friend Di. He was wandering around the ward loudly flirting with the patients and nurses, and even back then, in the mid-1980s, I couldn’t stand his cackling, demonic air of bluster and ego. To put things in perspective, my daughter Maisy was born here too, just a couple of floors down and along, a pink mess of gunked-up beauty that emerged with a fair bit of fuss and an invitation for me to “cut the cord”, this generous offer coming with a proffered pair of scissors. I declined. I don’t trust myself around sharp objects. 

I know it’s fashionable (and rightly so) for people going through hospital treatment to use the experience as a reason to get up and shout about the glorious National Health Service and its practitioners, the put-upon and under-valued medical staff, but that won’t stop me joining in. All of them, every last porter and surgeon and receptionist, they’re heroically patching us up and sending us back out into the world while being undermined, badly paid and unfairly criticised by government and media in the name of greed and profit. Given the chance to cut health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s umbilical cord I’d be happily snipping before the blood dried. And I wouldn’t stop at the umbilical, either.

Monday morning and the hospital staff in the hand unit are arranging the patients into a league table of urgency on a big white card system on the wall. It’s like those football league tables you used to get free with Shoot magazine at the start of each season, moveable tabs that take you either down into the relegation zone or up into the top four. I’m chuffed to be lying in second place behind a bloke who probably had his fingers caught in a bread slicer, so it’s not long before I’m taken into the care of an anaesthetist and laid out on a trolley-bed all hooked up with bleeping machines, transparent pipes and blinking LEDs. More swabbing (what a wonderful word ‘swabbing’ is. I’m tempted to over-use it, it describes so perfectly what it means. And it sounds right, too. Swabbing. You can hear the wool pad as it swabs its route across the wound. Swab swab swab) and a bloke in a white coat injects about half a bathful of weird stuff into my arm that races up and down turning all the sore and tingling flesh into a lumpy, numb deadweight.

Half an hour later and it’s not my arm anymore. It’s lying there next to me but it doesn’t belong to me, and it certainly has no intention of responding when I tell it to. Someone (this is reminding me how many nameless people are in this story – how many different faces peer down at my injury and play a part in fixing it, and how, significantly, they’re faces from all over the world) applies a tourniquet to my arm and forces the blood out, leaving me wondering not about the pint that’s gone from the wounded arm but where it’s gone to. I check my eyes aren’t bulging.

From there I carry my own disembodied arm into the operating theatre and yet another scrubbed-up, soap-smelling, masked-up character becomes part of this tale by laying the arm – which by now looks like a prop from a Hammer Horror film, all pale-yellow and with the wound wide open – on the table beside a bed I’m laid on. A nurse, after asking my permission, constructs a small cloth screen to prevent me from seeing the operation, adjusting the lights above whilst a team of five or six people busy themselves with strange eyepieces, snap-on latex gloves and trays of shiny instruments. And swabs. And off they go, prodding and picking, slicing the arm open and flapping the skin back to get better room to work with inside. I know this because there’s a tiny reflection in one of the overhead lights, which I try to avoid looking at but…

The arm is so not-my-arm that I don’t feel squeamish watching it being opened up. I can’t watch those programmes on telly that show people having their gallbladders removed or their breasts enlarged, just the sight of a sharp knife cutting into flesh has me practically wretching. That book, ‘Alive’ by Piers Paul Read, about the survivors of an Andes plane crash and their subsequent efforts to cut flesh from the dead bodies in order to stay alive – that’s what I’m talking about, the horror of words like incision and slice when applied to human skin. But this is different. It’s an arm they’ve brought in from Madam Tussaud’s, too shiny and waxy and not quite the right colour.

As soon as one of the surgeons sees me trying to peer beyond the erected screen he invites me in for a proper look, with the eager air of a game show host welcoming me onto the stage to win a cuddly toy. I accept his offer and the screen comes down, and there’s a proper view of those paintings by Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical and beautiful, with physicians surrounding a corpse that’s half dissected. And it’s at this point that it strikes me what a privilege it is to be at the centre of this intense and busy hive of stitching and fixing, numbing and swabbing, this mass of people who’ve circled around me for two days to repair me. It’s a privilege to watch how as a species we’ll rush into action to patch each other up, never mind our age or our usefulness to society, we’ll patch each other up because we care, because it’s in our DNA to care. All these folk from Redcar to Leeds in a big conspiracy of caring, simply because some numpty who should have stuck to art and music decided to chop a lump out of his arm.

I ask the surgeons, whilst they’re stitching up the long zig-zagging slit that they’ve been wrestling with for the last hour-and-a-half, whether they get used to the miraculous, magical thing they’re doing. I mean, just now they’ve re-attached the ligament holding my wrist bones together, they’ve stitched up two lacerated tendons (even showing me, by lifting an exposed tendon up and down, how my thumb can be made to suddenly spring into life) and somehow put back together a series of teeny-tiny nerve fibres running to my fingers. The answer, from the two surgeons bent over my arm with needle and surgical thread, is yes, they’re completely used to it all, there’s no sense of anything miraculous left at all. Which makes sense, since they do this day in, day out, but which is still difficult to hear. Look, you’ve just dug around inside my arm and put it all back together again! You trained for umpteen years and read a million textbooks and stood around corpses as if in a Rembrandt masterpiece and you’ve spent most of your lifetime learning and practising just so you can pick people up, make them better and place them back in the world! In my book, that beats turning water into wine anyday.

So Casey drives me home and I face up to the minor inconveniences of a few months of not running, not driving and typing very, very slowly with the finger of one hand. And not cooking, or cleaning, or washing up, or making the bed, or making Maisy’s school sandwiches or playing football with Johnny (some you win, some you lose). I expect my hand to become something approaching normal, and I expect I’ll eventually stop flinching at the sight of sharp knives. What I won’t forget, I hope, is that urgent, whirlwind, let’s-do-the-show-right-here sense of collective caring that suddenly emerged when I needed it. There’s a lovely book by Rebecca Solnit called ‘A Paradise Built In Hell’, where she makes a brilliant case for the extraordinary power of community that arises out of disaster. She looks at the way people instinctively rush to each other’s aid during crises like the twin towers attacks or hurricane Katrina, but she could just as well apply the reasoning to the everyday disasters, to the knife-cuts and broken bones that get their everyday care. I’ll end with a quote from Solnit’s book; one that’s sort of about the many, many people who played a bit-part in this two-day story. Then I’m off to finish that song about holes.

Disaster doesn't sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.” 

Muddying History

November 3 • 2015

I’ve just finished reading an academic essay by David Hey entitled ‘Kinder Scout and the legend of the Mass Trespass’ (see link below), a subject close to both my heart and my studded running shoes. The piece is essentially a systematic downgrading of the 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, an event that, to most of us, signified a dramatic change in the popular clamour for access rights and freedom to roam.
Basically, Hey asserts that the great work done by various walking groups and associations both prior to and after the 1932 mass trespass was of far more consequence than the spectacular Kinder Scout event, and that in fact that event was akin to “a university rag”, a bunch of uncultivated Communist-inspired youths out to stir up trouble, an episode that was practically irrelevant in the fight for access.
I’ve long since believed that most real change in society comes from below, from the people, from our popular culture rather than from our Parliament. This country’s government ministers, both now and back through Empire and beyond, have always proved themselves to be clinging on to an essentially conservative status quo, begrudgingly voting through change when they can hold back the tide no longer. Changes in legislation in gay partnerships, race equality, employment law and women’s rights (to name a very few) didn’t come from House of Commons committee rooms but from decades of protest, agitation, persuasion, organisation and demonstration, by grass roots activists, by unions, artists, writers and orators.
Women’s rights are a good case in point when talking about Hey’s assertion that the Kinder Mass Trespass is merely a historically inaccurate legend. No-one can doubt the incredible groundwork that had ben done by the suffragists and the Votes for Women movement both inside and outside Parliament during the late 1800s. Lobbying, organising, marching and calling for change brought the issue into the public eye. But progress had halted, stuttered, and slowed to a crawl; tired legislators lazily fobbing off the suffragists. Then along came the Pankhursts. They were visionaries who realised the need for the spectacle, for deeds to bring attention to the words. Their campaign of civil disobedience, smashing windows, disrupting meetings, chaining themselves to railings, throwing missiles at government ministers, even suicide and arson – these actions dragged the debate into popular, everyday culture, into a space where the media and the law-makers couldn’t choose to ignore it.
A quick scan through newspapers of the day shows that the suffragettes (this new term for the women was itself a media-invented phrase) were wholly and utterly derided and opposed. Getting ‘good’ publicity was never the point, of course – the point was to place the movement in the heart of culture and the heart of everyday conversation. It worked.
Which brings me back to the Kinder mass trespass. Hey himself, in his knowledgeable and admirable round-up of the routine trespassing that many walkers’ associations were party to prior to 1932, admits that such law-breaking for the main part avoided confrontation; he tells a story of historian AJP Taylor and colleagues “creeping along under a wall for half a mile on the alarm that gamekeepers were on the watch for us.” What the Mass Trespass did was to take this sense of indignant skirting of law and replace it with a direct challenge to law. I’m not diminishing the work of the ramblers who came before and after the Mass Trespass – frankly, there’s room for everyone up on those Peak District moors. But what the Trespass (and the subsequent arrests and imprisonment of five trespassers) achieved was deliberate and focussed; it drew in the wider public.
Firstly, the Trespass was publicised in advance. There was nothing underhand or sneaky about it, no crawling along behind walls. Leaflets were produced and handed out, members of the group talked to newspapers, and the day’s actions and aims were made abundantly clear beforehand. It was also made explicit that this was to be a politically-motivated event, and furthermore that it was specifically confrontational. Importantly, the Trespassers were accompanied on the entire walk by police officers, something the ramblers were presumably happy with; this was an open declaration of intent and action, a moment of standing up and being counted. The walk, in addition, began with a rally, an overtly political rally. The hundreds who turned out, including the local constabulary and the newspaper reporters present, could have been in no doubt that the whole event was openly, brazenly provocative.
When the five walkers were arrested and put on trial, they continued to be openly defiant in court. One young man was given the chance to avoid a prison sentence by paying a fine and expressing regret for his actions; he refused. Songwriter Ewan MacColl, already well-known for his protest songs, hastily wrote ‘The Manchester Rambler’, and the story of the Trespass was not only written across the newspapers but being sung up and down the country (as a kid, I knew nothing of walkers’ rights or access over common land; but I knew that song, knew its repeated chorus of ‘I may be a wage slave on Monday – but I am a free man on Sunday’). That Hey draws a snidey parallel between MacColl’s popular song and a satirical put-down of protest music by Tom Lehrer indicates his contempt for MacColl, and fails to recognise the power of song in popular culture as modern story-telling, as a way of disseminating ideas and histories (most modern movements for change have their own soundtrack – from American Civil Rights marches to anti-Vietnam protest, from workers’ rights to the gay and lesbian struggle for equality).
Hey neglects to mention that three weeks after the Trespass, following the huge wave of publicity that the arrests had provoked, a protest rally at nearby Castleton was attended by 10,000 ramblers, the largest turn-out in the movement’s history. As with the militant suffragettes, the great grinding wheels of change had been given a hefty shove and the issue could no longer be assigned to wealthy men in Commons back rooms to make deals with landowners giving ramblers scarce and limited access along designated passageways (and only when it wasn’t shooting season).
There is a case to be made for the idea that the Mass Trespass has become mythologised to the extent that it crowds out any and all of the incredible work done by campaigners and organisers before and after the event. Bringing this work to our attention is important if we are to see the Trespass in its right context. But to dismiss what happened that day as “a one-off stunt” is disingenuous and ridiculous. The Mass Trespass changed the game; it was an opportunity seized by a group of people who understood popular culture and the machinations of politics not at Parliamentary level but where it can often count most effectively – on the ground, in this case the rolling, muddied ground of the Peak District. Any of us who might walk (or run) on the open moorlands of Britain has a debt of gratitude to give to those few hundred souls who, while building on the work done by countless others, effectively reinvisioned the methods and rules of the debate over land access. 


David Hey's article was published in the Agricultural History Review and can be read here.









Daisy takes a mass, muddy selfie 

What I Did On My Holidays

September 15 • 2015

I’ve never been good at organising my life. I knew it at school – subjects with clear rules, like mathematics and science, confounded me. I gravitated (without understanding why) towards subjects that required opinion or debate. Organisation, with its set patterns and its definites, seemed to be the antithesis of my longing for a life of wonder and weirdness. I didn’t know it then. I just knew I hated maths, hated calculus and trigonometry and sine, cosine, tangent. Here’s a joke: What’s cabbage plus carrot minus oil to the power vinegar? It’s Cole’s Law. That’s what I was doing in maths class, telling jokes and getting detentions.

And since the band ground to a voluntary halt several years ago – pulling the rug of stability from under my feet – I’ve found myself pinging around the flippers on an artistic pinball machine, project to project, idea to idea, ding ding dinging between all my favourite work things: songwriting, theatre, history, art, politics, community and choirs. Added to the childcare and the running it’s all been a bit of a non-stop whirl, with little time to get my breath back. I’m not complaining, I love it. It means I end up in places I didn’t expect to be. It also means I’m utterly disorganised. This summer was a hotch-potch mix of family and work, of jigsaws and art shows.

At the start of the summer I ended up with four other songwriters in a beautifully wild patch of the Durham coast for four days, without access to the internet, without my little boy Johnny dressed up as Spiderman tugging at my legs and demanding a game of tig, without phone calls, food shopping, feeding the cat or watching the football on telly. And those four days were becalming, inspiring and productive, a proper change from all the hectic bouncing around, even though we spent hours every day walking the coastline and talking to people that knew the area and its history – representatives from the Seaham lifeboat centre, Easington miners’ strike support group, and Durham Heritage Coast group – as well as morning runs down through the wooded sea inlets and onto the beaches up and down the coast.

We were there to write songs about the new coastal path, about the way the area is rapidly changing, looking over its shoulder at the fishing ports and the mineworks. It’s a beautiful place and a fascinating pathway, in that it’s a weird and wonderful mixture of old and new, past and present – the sea coal still washes up on some of the beaches, the graffiti’d redbrick railway viaducts tower above the Denes (rivers running into the sea), but everywhere there’s evidence that an older world is pushing through, with orchids and rare birds, bluebells carpeting the woods and the sea getting clearer and cleaner.

Projects like this have done wonders for my songwriting. I’ve never been someone who carries around a notebook full of scribbled ideas, and I rarely find myself struck with inspiration whilst going about my daily life, like writers are somehow expected to do – I have to invite it in, have to have a reason to write. In the past year I’ve been set the task of writing songs in various (and wildly different) places, in art galleries, housing estates and museums, and out there on the Durham coastline was as enjoyable and inspiring a task as I can imagine. It was a treat to hear the other songwriters – Findlay Napier, Kate Young, Ed Pickford and Jackie Oates, all brilliant and all as different from each other as I was to them – dealing with the project in very different ways. I’ve heard rough beginnings of what people are writing and I’ve little doubt that the concert that comes out of all this, at the Hartlepool Folk Festival (16 October), will be as varied and interesting as the coastline and its history...

After Durham, summer threw up the Commoners Choir boat trip, commemorating the Castleford Food Riots of 1795. A wonderful day out that was, too – but I’ve written glowingly about that elsewhere. Moving swiftly on… next came a full-to-bursting campervan stuffed with children, sleeping bags and wellies, off on a two-week exploration of the English rain, starting at the Levellers’ Beautiful Days festival in Devon. It was just down the road from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s old gaffe, and a peat-clod’s throw from the moors where Wordssworth, his sister and Coleridge met up for long walks and talk of poetry, love and revolution. I’ve been listening to Ange Hardy’s new album ‘Esteecee’ (Coleridge’s initials) which tells of the atmosphere of those times and the wildness of Dartmoor. The festival was a mess of muddied fun, with Dunstan & Harry’s band Interrobang appearing like aliens from the Planet Suit on a small stage tucked out of the way – and great they were too, all button-down collars, creased trousers and crisp sharp riffs in the middle of the rain-battered chaos.

Levellers headlined the last night, and with the help of Oysterband’s John Jones, I grabbed my lad Johnny’s hand and got him round the back and up onto the stage. He’s five now, and I don’t think I’ve seen his eyes quite as saucerful as that night, watching Mark and Jeremy bouncing around in front of a huge ocean of an audience. Johnny pulled me in close and shouted, above the noise, “Levellers are my favourite band.”

Then it was a big pack-up and off up to Weston-super-Mare to see Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’. I’ve written glowingly about that, too. Plenty of glowing amidst the rain. I think I’ve been on holiday to Weston-super-Mare as a little kid. Before my new dad came along we had holidays with my grandparents – my grandad was a postman for about 700 years and we took holidays in subsidised postworkers’ holiday hotels that were dotted around the British coastline. We’d leave Burnley in a rented Ford Anglia at 2am, me and my sister tucked up in blankets on the back seat, and drive through the night to arrive at a hotel that was full of postal workers from… Burnley. Free entertainment every evening (bingo, a turn, and Cokes with straws).

From Weston-super-Mare it was a slow trundle up along the Welsh borders, staying in places I’d never heard of, eating pub meals and setting our compass for Shrewsbury and the folk festival. It’s probably the third or fourth time I’ve been to the festival, and it’s always peaceful, friendly and full of good music. And good food, an’ all – one thing about festivals is realising that there’s no need for the ugly, nasty, unhealthy fast food we get in our towns and cities; at Shrewsbury the variety of beautifull-prepared, healthy and delicious fast food was as varied as the music. Gordie MacKeeman playing gorgeous bluegrass, the New Rope String Band doing a kind of folk Bonzos, the always brilliant O’Hooley &Tidow, the bellowing, wonderful Wilson Family, several different versions of Oysterband, Lucy Ward, Spooky Men’s acapella barnstorm, Richard Thompson… actually I missed Richard Thompson cos he was on when I was playing with the Reluctant Ramblers somewhere else.

Earlier in the day I’d sung with Janet Russell’s choir for the annual Peace Concert, standing in line with Lester Simpson and belting out ‘Singing Out The Days’, proud to be part of a rolling, beautiful up ‘n’ down package of songs and words not commemorating the Great War but remembering its futility and its cost in young people’s lives.

Playing with The Ramblers was altogether different. We gathered at Shrewsbury with neither a 20-mile walk to fill our lungs with conceptual raison d’etre nor a rehearsal. We slouched around a plastic table backstage and hummed and strummed and tapped out the intros and outros (Eric Clapton on ukulele), slashed the set down to its barest minimum because of a power cut, and then strode onstage to launch into a handily-sized selection of songs from the new album. I enjoy playing with the Ramblers. I have very little artistic input – my place is on the walks, and in nattering on-mic between songs – and I find that a rarity. I’m used to being precious, being concerned and responsible about the work I do. And I’m an instinctive anarchist, I rarely let other people tell me what to do! But the Reluctant Ramblers is John Jones’ baby, and it’s run-through with the classy arranging and musicianship of Al, Tim, Rowan, Lindsay and Dil (and Benji, when he’s available. Benji was doing the big Bellowhead send-off, so I got dragged in).

I’m not a musician. Not in any immediately recognisable sense, anyway. I’m with Alice Nutter on this one – actually with most of Chumbawamba – we didn’t dare identify ourselves as musicians in case it was discovered that we were little more than a bunch of inspired and motivated idealists on a three-decade romp through pop culture’s well-stocked supermarket, stealing what we could, turning off the fridges, drinking the wine and activating the fire alarm. For Alice, telling interviewers that she wasn’t a musician became her mantra after a while. She was continually aware that because she was the clever gobby one, people would assume she sang all the female leads, too. As for me playing a guitar – I barely improved beyond my first three or four years of playing one, and when we met up with guitarist Neil Ferguson in his industrial-estate studio next to the stinky meat factory in Castleford in the mid-1980s, I knew my days of playing guitar on Chumbawamba recordings were numbered.

So yes, the Ramblers. I strum along and enjoy myself and revel in singing three- and four-part harmony lines with John, Rowan and Al, and I think I love it partly because it’s just not what I do, it’s a release. And I love the songs, which helps. And the walking, obviously. The next Ramblers jaunt is in the Lake District and involves various concerts shceduled around proper mountain hikes. What’s not to like? I was telling John about running down Hall’s Fell Ridge from the summit of Blencathra in the early, early morning hours, watching the sun rise over beyond the Pennine hills, its huge orange glow spreading right across northern England. The Ramblers will be walking that ridge, and playing in the village at the foot of that mountain, and I’m really looking forward to it. Benji’s not available, he’s touring his latest recording, a selection of Jimi Hendrix tunes played on bazouki. Seriously. I salute that man, even though his jokes are terrible.

After Shrewsbury it was a whistle-stop visit to Otley to check if the house was still standing before heading back off to the Spooky Men’s festival near Malvern. I was there, essentially, to swot up on acapella choirs, and Spooky Men are reputedly the best. Or at least, the most professional. They’re incredible. They look and sound beautiful, funny, poignant and clever, all at once. I spent the performance making mental notes of how Commoners Choir needed to shape up. In the best possible way, of course. One thing about the magnificent Spookies, though – is that they don’t sing about anything important. Not usually, anyway. There’s a wonderful recording of them singing their comment on Aussie politics ‘Vote the Bastards Out’ here. I suppose I should be grateful, since if they did I probably wouldn’t be so eagerly building up Commoners Choir.

Before they played, Roy Bailey did a set, stumbling gently through his repertoire of heart-breaking, telling, relevant songs, all sung with that fragile, lush vibrato. He was accompanied by Marc and Andy on percussion and button-melodeon, all very simple and stark. To end his set he sang a song I’d written for him when he wasn’t well, several months ago. It’s a song about growing old but not growing more conservative, and his singing of it will be something I’ll remember forever. Nearly killed me, it did. What a lovely man.

And so the summer was more or less wrapped up. There was still Wallingford Bunkfest, but it was less than a whisper from Roy’s gentle song to the blaring start of the new school term and its return to schedules and patterns. On Johnny’s first day back at school, his new teacher asked everyone what their mums, dads and carers did. Johnny told me that he’d said mum was an artist, and she takes pictures, and she’s a teacher too. I asked him what he said his dad did. I half-expected what was coming.

“I said you stayed at home and worked at the computer.”

Right. So when I’m staying at home working at the computer, what is it I work on?

There was a pause while he thought it through.

“Mathematics. You work on mathematics.”


Dismaland, Millionaires' Yachts and Coloured Crayons

September 1 • 2015

"The rise of the art market and the commercial art world in the past few decades seemed to erode political engagement – oligarchs don’t want to buy art that says that they are crap [laughs]. The Young British Artists bought into all that. That lot shifted the democracy of who was making art by embracing wholeheartedly the commerciality of the market. I think we are all a bit sickened by that now.

(Bob & Roberta Smith, August 2015)

We're ushered around the edge of a large open-air pool that, in the moonlight, is oil-black. Its centre-piece is a Police riot van, smashed and wrecked, half-submerged. Then through the gateway to a fairy castle, all turrets and portcullis, except here it's decrepid and ruined, smoke rising from its tumbledown innards, and into a corridor that twists and turns before opening out into a large hall. There in the centre of the dark room is Cinderella's pumpkin-coach, upturned, lit only by the glare and stuttering flash of a row of paparazzi photographers, kneeling and leaning in for a better angle. Halfway out of the coach's window lies the inert and bleeding body of Cinders herself, the people's princess chased to her death by tabloid fascination. Away and around the corner, a bank of TV screens shows images caught by the paparazzi featuring us, the spectators, and we're invited to pay our £5 to take home a souvenir of our complicity in the spectacle. Now that's what I call art!

When I was not long into my twenties I hand-printed a leaflet that reproduced the great Surrealist Andre Breton's essay on art and revolution – art as a revolutionary act, challenging and 'astonishing', art that plays a part in social, cultural and political revolutionary ideas, art that links explicitly to life, to the turbulent politics outside the gallery walls. I took a bus to London and stood on the steps of the Tate Gallery, handing out the leaflets and trying to engage visitors in a discussion about the current state of British art, its irrelevance to the upheavals that were going on in the country under Thatcherism. Security guards, unmoved by my argument that these were simply the words of Andre Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto, moved me away from the steps and onto the street. In truth, my dissilusionment with the art world hardly recovered from the point where I realised that all the relevant, culturally-influential artists and art movements had been and gone long before I was in my teens. Of the living and working artists in my home country, there were only Richard Hamilton, lone voice of protest left over from British Pop Art, Gilbert & George, still shocking (but increasingly shocking only for shocking's sake) and land artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, trying to make important links between ourselves and our wider environment. And that was it.

"The role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him. This fact alone, in so far as he is conscious of it, makes the artist the natural ally of revolution."

(Andre Breton, 1938)

I went to see the infamous Sensation art show at the Royal Academy in 1997, Charles (Thatcher's ad-man) Saatchi's collection of young British artists that heralded the popularity of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood and Chris Ofili (amongst others). I went mainly because it was the first time in ages that the media had gone all 'front page' by expressing shock and outrage at Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley. Most of the artists (and especially Emin and Hirst) seized their popularity and ran, laughing hysterically, to the bank, rich and irrelevant. The established artworld increasingly became simply a tool of capital, both as a means of exchange for the super-rich (a currency that plays out between the mansions and yachts of oligarchs, heads of state and CEOs) and a way of denying a thriving, active, purposeful and politically-engaged subculture of art and artists. Frankly, if you're an artist that rocks the boat (or the multi-million dollar yacht) then you probably won't get your work in the galleries.

Recently, this has begun to change. Slowly and slightly. There are artists – Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry, Bob & Roberta Smith – who have understood this state of affairs and, using their status within the artworld, are making declarations, stirring up debate, siding with people against the galleries and the patrons. Of course there's always been an undercurrent of politically-engaged and vital, relevant art, but it's too often been sidelined and hushed-up to the extent that, unless you're in the know, you wouldn't have a clue it existed. But with Deller, Grayson and Smith we're starting to see this politically-curious, establishment-challenging and critical art on the telly, in the newspapers, on the radio phone-ins. Banksy, and his Dismaland project – a collaboration with thirty or fourty varied and contrasting artists – is another artist who is determined to make art that talks of wider culture (and indeed, relentlessly slags off our political masters and their corporate buddies). This is without doubt a show as close to the relevance and timeliness of Dada's Cabaret Voltaire as my generation has seen.

That The Guardian would go to great lengths to rubbish Dismaland is as good an indication as any that this is an exhibition that doesn't kow-tow to the up-its-own-arse snobbery of art criticism that does nothing but dance to the tune played by the art-buyers market. But because Dismaland is politically further left, more radical and unashamedly harder-hitting than The Guardian's editorial position, it felt the need to rubbish it, pulling out every condescending elitist cliché to undermine the work. I've been reading these centrist dismissals for three decades – in Chumbawamba, we got used to being roundly slagged off by The Guardian not for whatever style of music we were playing at the time but because of our politics. As with Banksy's work, it was often deemed 'naïve' – which you can take to mean 'popular with the kids'. For whatever you might think of Dismaland, it's hugely popular, to an audience far wider than the usual art-show crowd, a mass of young people, families, lads 'n' lasses, me – and every one of us smiling, talking, pointing and laughing. Acting, in short, like an art lover isn't supposed to act.

I've seen it in theatre, too – a show I was part of, Red Ladder's satirical 'Big Society', played to a fortnight of full houses at Leeds City Varieties and every night ended in encores. When we got the report back from the Arts Council – who send along a critic to judge the show they part-financed – it sneered patronisingly at the show whilst admitting, almost shamefully, “…however, it was apparent that the audience seemed to enjoy the performance and I was almost tempted to join in with the singalong.” Yeah, almost. Critics can't be seen to lower themselves to the status of mere public, of course.

The Labour Party's squalid, unseemly reaction to the public's declaration of support for a politician who is left of the bland Blairite centre is indicative of this attitude; that the people's opinion is worthless. That the political machine, and its media partners, will do everything they can to keep the wheels of capital turning. That Banksy, Deller, Smith et al are part of a genuinely popular movement for an art that voices our concerns and fears, that champions protest and protestors, that celebrates civil unrest and questions the very basis of capitalism, means they'll always face the sneering dismissals of the powers-that-be; and also means that, for now, importantly, they will continue to become more and more relevant and essential.

A couple of days after my Dismaland experience, I went to see Richard Long's retrospective at Bristol's Arnolfini. I like the Arnolfini. It supports local artists, its exhibitions are free, and it's an open and welcoming space perched on the river and in the centre of the city. I like Richard Long, too. Walking as art, treading a path somewhere between conceptual art and Happening, environmental and land art. But after Dismaland, it all looked and felt a little stale and irrelevant. For all his ideas of movement and journeying, Long's art is static and fixed, untouchable, exisiting within its own conceptual rigour. The gallery's huge white rooms, each with its own security guard, ushered in a sparse audience of knowing visitors, nodding, appreciative and alone. My little lad Johnny and teenager Maisy went through the three floors of the exhibition in around two minutes flat, holing up in the Arnolfini's top-floor kids' room, which was scruffed up and alive with toddlers, mums, books, puzzles and pots of coloured crayons and blank paper. It was the liveliest, noisiest, most interesting room in the building, and significantly the room that most echoed the city outside.

If you haven't visited Dismaland, I recommend you do. Have a good time. Hook A Duck. Ride on the Carousel. And find yourself in a world that attempts to do what that kids' room did by accident – a world that deliberately echoes the brash, ridiculous, sad, funny, desperate, angry world outside its tatty, crumbling walls. Where information, ideas and polemic crash in a dark chaos of clever beauty. Now that's what I call art.

Process and/or Performance? Learning to Make Community Theatre

June 22 • 2015

Over a year, it’s been, since Emma T at Space 2 came up with idea of asking me to write a musical for and with the residents of the Gipton estate. Back then I’d only ever been through Gipton because I’d be out running and exploring and getting lost in its higgledy-piggledy-shaped Crescents and Closes – I used to live just over the border in Harehills and there was always a sense that I was jogging through enemy territory. But that was a lifetime before I started with this musical.

So Space 2 threw me together with Jane Moreland, who I knew from the ubiquitous West Leeds Festival sheds – I’d seen her lurking in and out of little wooden buildings making cakes or interviewing people about their favourite objects or being dressed as an ice cream seller. Perhaps I was making all this up, but it didn’t matter – me and Jane made a proper tag-team and pinballed around between Giptonites and the estate’s hub, the Henry Barran Centre. Jane grew up around the Gipton area, while I grew up over the hills in (shhh) Lancashire, so at first I tended to keep my trap shut and let Jane do the talking.

“Hiya, we’re talking to people who live round here because we’re writing a musical about Gipton, about the estate.”
“What for?”
“Because it’s got a fascinating history, and it’s overlooked, and there are some great stories to tell. And we though you might have a story.”
“What for?”
“For re-telling. We want to take your ideas and put music to them. Make them funny. Make them stories to sing along to. To tell the rest of Leeds, the rest of Yorkshire, about Gipton.”
“What for?”

We talked to the old dears at the craft session at the Henry Barran Centre. They were mad at us ‘cos we were ten minutes late. But they forgave us and told us a thousand stories – three, four generations of families in the same houses, passing down through history. And Gipton does have a great history. Built in 1935 and known as the Garden Estate, it was designed as an antidote to the cramped and unsanitary South Leeds back-to-backs that thousands of Leeds families were forced to live in. Whole areas of the city were shipped over and plonked in the new estate, and residents marvelled at being housed in new red-bricks with inside toilets and gardens. Luxury.

There were shops, pubs, churches, cinemas, youth clubs… and plentiful employment at the huge Burton’s factory. Half the estate worked there. The Picture Palaces and dancehalls thrived and the area grew into a proper community. Then came the inevitable decline as Burtons closed down and moved away (today they call it ‘outsourcing’) and one by one the shops and pubs closed down. Cinemas became Bingo Halls and then fell into dereliction. The Gipton estate wasn’t part of Leeds’ narrowly-focused regeneration and has become an outpost of an older Leeds, a real Leeds that’s cast adrift from the superficial city centre retail experiences (sic) or the mad chase for the student money. But as such Gipton has a sense of itself, and of its history, that the more ‘cosmopolitan’ Leeds chooses to ignore.

A lot of the people we met up with and started to work with hadn’t even been to the theatre before, let alone been part of it. There was the annual Gipton Panto at the local church hall, loud and brilliantly raucous; and a million cheerleading groups who seemed to pop up all over the place, entering competitions and winning awards, so we could see there was lots of energy and life in the estate. Terri Loney, red-haired Chairwoman of Gipton Together and effectively the woman who runs the Henry Barran Centre (on its own grassy island, marooned in the middle of the estate), threw in her muscle and her voice and, along with Space 2, recruited a little army of volunteers for the musical.

We sat round tables with anyone who turned up to talk to us, wrote down ideas, turned big scraps of scribbled paper into songs on the spot. Sometimes me and Jane pushed people into acting or singing because they needed pushing, and needed to see that once they were standing in a room reading lines and singing about Gipton bonfires, the rest of us were right behind them. Jessica came to a meeting to encourage her two young lads to get involved – all three were suddenly part of the cast. Graham and Jen came along to tell their stories and ended up acting. Teenage Frankie ambled in, all silent and with her hood up, and slouched in the corner – within a couple of months she was singing a solo verse in the knowledge she’d be performing in front of a big audience. It’s been lovely to watch the whole thing growing from chats to workshops and to rehearsals.
Along the way, Terri and Space 2 recruited four school choirs (just the hundred schoolchildren to fit onto the stage, then…) a local drama club and two dance groups. And as the Musical grew, so everyone had a part written into it, until it turned into a big old celebration of what people can do together given a script and a bunch of songs – about themselves.

I’ve been writing musicals for a while now – I think this is about my 7th or 8th – but Gipton The Musical is very different. It grew from the people in the area, from their stories, and it chopped and changed along the way depending on who could get involved. But it’s different, too, because it’s been as much about the process as about the final performance. Of course we want to present a huge, full blow-out, dancing in the aisles singalonga family musical at the Playhouse – and as I write this, I’ve heard that the musical is sold out in the 750-seat Quarry Theatre – but more than that, Jane and me have realised that point of the whole thing has been to bring people together to create something, to empower people to tell their stories, to make them and their community visible in Leeds. Look at me, Ma! Look what we did together!

It’s been hard work, a real head-space-filler. For the core acting group we can only rehearse for a couple of hours every fortnight, so it’s usually a mad-dash-and-panic, all-hands-on-deck rush-through. But we’re aware that somewhere else in Gipton there are a hundred schoolchildren singing the songs, learning them, and dancers in a gym going through moves to fit the songs, and drama club kids working out their roles. It’ll all come together on the night. It will. It’ll be great fun. But in a way, it’s all come together, perfectly, already.

Photo at top: Lizzie Coombes 

On Tour: Folkies, Anti-Capitalists & Footballers

April 30 • 2015

A big chunk of my life up to now can be labelled 'On Tour'. The whole point of being in a band used to be packing amps and drums into boxes and leaving home, and for most of the time, the measure of success wasn't selling records or getting played on the radio (except when it was John Peel…) but the length of the tour in days, and sometimes, weeks. Since that's all in the past now there's a sense of nostalgia whenever I have to pack a bag and head off for a few days' work. Well, I call it work. Really it's a culmination of years of trying to make a living doing exactly what I want to do.

Wednesday morning and after I drop Johnny off at school with the echoes of our usual start-of-the-day conversation (“Who do you think would win a fight between Iron Man and Captain America?”) I frantically pile stuff into bags, check for spare guitar strings and a notebook, and set off driving to Cardiff. It's the Radio 2 Folk Awards and our co-operative labelmates O'Hooley & Tidow have been nominated for Best Duo. I reckon it's about time they won something, but I'm cynical enough to think they probably don't quite fit the folk mould – a bit too weird and wonderful, and without any folk parentage (always a disadvantage). The drive to south Wales reminds me how fed up I am with election-themed radio debates and phone-ins and how glad I am that Marks & Spencer's have set up shop on motorway services.

The Folk Awards is a treat, to be honest. Excuse my earlier cynicism, because even though the girls don't win Best Duo they get to show off their new tattoos and I get to watch Loudon Wainwright making a lovely old fool of himself on stage and have Guy Garvey almost bring me to tears with a version of 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'. And that Nessa character from 'Gavin & Stacey' is funny. Cat Stevens isn't, he's like a boring uncle doing Cat Stevens karaoke.* Kate Rusby is whispy and delicate in precisely the same way she's been whispy and delicate for the last fifteen years and Peggy Seeger wins Best Song (which I completely agree with). But as everyone tells me, the Folk Awards is really about the bar afterwards…

So there's a lovely young lad called Greg Russell who also missed out on Best Duo and who's accompanied by Ray Hearne's daughter. Ray Hearne is not only part of the No Master's co-operative, he's a lovely feller and an incredible songwriter with a proper poet's gob on him. I think Greg wants me to put in a good word for him with Ray, on account of Ray's daughter. It's all a bit complicated but they're lovely people, and Greg is proud to announce that Ray has, on several occasions, drunk him under the table, and that this is a good basis for a marriage. To Ray's daughter, not to Ray. (Are you keeping up?) 

I say a big warm hello to John Tams who stares at me with the look of someone who has no recollection that we've met many times before (hic). You might gather from this that there's been a lot of drink consumed. I hear tell the next morning of famous folkies being sick in various public places. No fights, though – John Jones wasn't there, after all. (JJ later told me that Bellowhead had voted him 'Second Best Fighter in the Folk World'. The Best? Norma Waterson). I would have fancied watching a scrap between some of the older legends and the young upstarts, and I reckon The Young 'Uns would be worth backing in a fist-fight. Fortunately I'm distracted from my violent folk-based fantasies by meeting Ange Hardy, who I've wanted to talk to for a while because I've heard she's doing a project about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We end up enthusing together about Coleridge's model Pantisocratic society and his love of walking, and it all leads perfectly into me talking about John Jones and his Ramblers…

Thursday morning I drive up to a tiny village called Titley (you can laugh) on the Welsh/Herefordshire border. In a gatekeeper's house with a fancy red-brick chimney (or 'chimbley-pot' as they were called when I was little) there's John Jones and his new mad missile of a dog, I don't catch its name since I'm too busy stopping it from taking a chunk out of my leg. Fortunately JJ has a special collar which delivers 5000 volts straight to the mutt's neck whenever it comes near me. Only joking. No I'm not.

John's got a new solo album coming out. It's all about walking, and landscape, and place. I'm here to spend a day ambling around the local fields being filmed talking about the songs and the ideas behind the record; Pantheism, history and the secret life of a modern-day minstrel. That's what The Ramblers (John's band of long-distance-walking musicians, of which I'm an occasional member) do, essentially – wander from town to town telling stories in song. The walks between the venues fuel the songs and feed the between-song chatter, in a way that German autobahns and tour buses don't.

The sun shines and John spins stories perfectly fit for a promo DVD. At one point we're walking beside a small lake (or a very large pond) as producer-turned-film-maker Al Scott stumbles around with mics and leads. “See that wooden hut over there,” John points to a new-looking construction built on the far water's edge, “that's a bird hide. Twitchers come from all over to spend hours in there watching for birds. There's a book where they leave their discoveries – the date and time, which birds they've spotted, anything unusual about the wildlife. Lovely. Then you turn the page and it says, in a big scrawl, 'I shagged Janet in here.'”

Friday mid-day, more filming then I'm off to Birmingham to meet up with the motley collection of rabble-rousers that is the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow. What a great bunch of people. We gather at the Irish Centre with its needlessly grim and grouchy staff, waiting to soundcheck and discussing collaborations. There's talk of this being the final ACR event (ever), but that seems unlikely – to me, at any rate. Some of the principal voices in the group are simply getting too old to be organising shows where participants come from all over the country and attempt to play on each others' songs before requiring a place to stay and some money to get there and back. Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey burn with the same fighting, radical spirit I first marvelled at back in the early 1980s, but nowadays it's coupled with ailing limbs and reduced hearing. Not that such things get in the way – when Frankie Armstrong sings Leon's 'Voices' I'm reminded of hearing the song on an album I found at least three decades ago in a Leeds radical bookshop (we haven't got one any more). Peggy Seeger is unable to sing tonight but she's here anyway, selling merchandise and generally making herself a useful part of the collective. It's all quite wonderful to watch.

What's a little strange is the fact that I'm now part of it all. Not that I feel different or somehow unworthy (!) but that I haven't yet got over the idea that some of these people were my musical mentors at a time when I was starting to learn how to write political songs. I talk to the lively and lovely Sandra Kerr about an album I bought in 1982 called 'Nuclear Power – No Thanks'. Looking further afield than punk for protest music I'd bought it purely for its sentiment, not realising it would open up a world of scouring local record libraries for albums by Martin Carthy, Leon Rosselson and the like. Sandra was on that LP (Long Player. Oh yes) singing a song about the Cheviot Hills, and here she is tonight sitting next to me on stage and accompanying herself on concertina. And I haven't mentioned Robb Johnson, Grace Petrie, Ian Saville, Janet Russell and Jim Woodland, or the beautiful edginess running through the show due to our differences of opinion on the upcoming election. Several weeks ago the emails started – I think possibly because Grace had mentioned that she might sing a song in support of voting Green. Roy and Leon immediately planted the flag for a 'vote-Labour-to-get-the-Tories-out' campaign. Jim weighed in on Grace's side and was insulted by Leon, Robb stirred it up, Janet defended Jim, Roy continued to get angrier and I largely stayed out of it.

Any thoughts that the ongoing arguments might calm down in the spirit of communality for the Birmingham concert were dispelled as the song introductions betrayed the collective spikiness. Brilliant. And all in good humour, in fact – the debate and the arguments are, after all, the stuff that real politics is made of, not the whitewashed guff coming from the party leaders. I love the ACR concerts, and I especially love this one; the audience are stirred-up-laughalong-singalong-welcoming and the heart and spirit is full-to-bursting. We finish with an unrehearsed version of Leon's 'Diggers Song' which is scrappily beautiful from where I'm standing (which is somewhere at the back with Ian).

Afterwards we go back to organisers Graham and Pam's house, sit round their kitchen table, drink their wine and put the world to rights. Properly. Until the early hours. I'm billeted in the camper van in the back garden, which is more luxurious than it sounds – a long day ends with a single bird singing in the darkness somewhere above me.

Saturday comes early and I get up at 7am to find I'm locked out of the house and everyone's asleep. I need to get going so I have a pee against the privet hedge (don't tell Pam and Graham) and sneak out the back gate into an empty, chilly Birmingham. It's silent, more or less. I used to love the old milk floats. They gave early mornings a soundtrack of rattling glass, a stop-start rhythm, and they gave young lads a pocket-money reason to be up at the crack of dawn dashing from doorstep to doorstep with fulls and empties. The milk floats had electric motors that hummed along at a stately 10 mph. Nowadays I imagine they'd be run off the road by impatient estate agents in 4x4s. I set off up north, expecting to hit traffic somewhere.

The traffic's on the M6. Of course it is. Motorways are now a series of traffic-coned 50-mile-an-hour-limits and bumper-to-bumper crawls interspersed with mad games of Death Race 2000 involving lorries the size of office blocks. Eventually I worm my way around Manchester and towards Turf Moor, Burnley, where today we're playing Leicester City. It's a do-or-die game; whoever loses is surely going to be relegated from the Premier League. I'm part-way through writing a book about football, working title: 'Football Is Rotten (So Why Do I Love It So Much?)'. So this trip, I can call it work. I can. I take notes and everything.

Burnley lose. Rather than anger or despair, there's a sense of resigned gloom after the game as the home crowd trudge out into the real world and scatter, slowly. That's life, and life is unfair. I climb into my scruffy Berlingo and put on the new CD by Thee Cee Cees. The football disappears; the tour's over.


*But then I'm not likely to be uncritical of a man who called for the slaying of Salman Rushdie as "a blasphemer" (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Oienjf0GK8). 

Get Off Your Arse

April 2 • 2015

Singing is good for you. Singing with other people is even better for you. If I was wearing a journalist's hat (a trilby with a ticket stub in the band, obviously) I'd throw some quotes into this article ('A study at Cardiff University in 2012 found that lung cancer patients who sang in a choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those who didn’t. Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic pain. A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went one step further, claiming that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy' etc etc). But I'm not a journalist (too opinionated, I think). I tend to snatch at disparate, personal, poetic, cultural, anecdotal and philosophical ideas as they swirl around, collecting and storing all the interconnecting stuff until it forms itself into a proper, cohesive idea.

One of those ideas is that singing with other people is not only good for you but is one of the ongoing wonders of our (present) age: that it represents revolutionary potential both individually and collectively. Potential is a big word here. I don't think 200 nine year-olds parrot-singing 'All Things Bright & Beautiful' at school assembly along to a pre-recorded CD of midi keyboard music has much in the way of revolutionary spirit. But the potential in gathering kids and getting them to create something communal and loud that doesn't need technology is enormous.

Mentioning kids is important – because singing with other people is one way we can allow ourselves to play again. Playing is something we're encouraged to 'grow out of', and our social lives as we get older revolve more and more around entertainment that's spoon-fed to us, that's one-way. Part of me dies every time my football team score a goal and, instead of allowing the crowd to sing their support, the over-loud tannoy blares out the regulation celebration music that we have to la-la-la along to. But in an age where it's difficult to escape the clutch of 24/7 digital communication, people are trying to find ways to rediscover how to play. Heading for the countryside; learning to play an instrument; gardening; riding bicycles; singing.

One of the things I enjoyed most playing in Chumbawamba was singing, acapella, in rehearsal rooms or in backstage warm-ups. Being able to feel the knitting, resonating voices (a physical buzz, timbres and breaths rubbing against each other) was always a joy. I love loud guitars and drums and rock 'n' roll, too. But singing in harmony fitted in perfectly with my love of fell running, or debating, or riding a bicycle, or chatting in the pub, or being in the middle of a demonstration… physical, natural, things that connect us.

Working at Manchester Museum last year with Dan, Sarah and Josh and a hundred-and-odd singers taught me something else that fed into this sense of the natural and physical – through the ethos of organisers People United (in short, 'promoting kindness through art') I realised that choral singing was something to be messed with, spun around, played with. That it could be taken out of context and thrown into the world of ideas. That choirs could be revolutionary. I'm not talking about manning the barricades (although…) but about challenging the way we think about things, about the way we think about the world.

Following the Manchester stuff (and what inspiring stuff it was to be involved in) I ended up at Tate Britain in January this year with a group of quickly-assembled singers who stood in front of one of Turner's huge Yorkshire skies (sketched from the top of the hill that overlooks my town) and sang about art, space, creation and genius to surprised gallery-goers. There was a pattern emerging, and the pattern was to take that idea that communal singing is good for you and couple it with other stuff that's good for you: it's good to shout about the world around you, both as self-expression and as part of the collective shout for a better world. And blimey we need a better world – both the Manchester and London projects meant I walked daily past the winter's streetfuls of homeless, blanketed people that successive governments flick derisively into the margins. “Change, mate?” “Yeah, the sooner the better.”

So this week the Commoners Choir was born in a big strip-lit room in Leeds city centre and a bunch of people turned up not knowing where this was all going. I brought the kettle and the tea but forgot to get milk. I was nervous. I don't usually get nervous. I needn't have been, because our singing together, according to that report in the Journal of Music Therapy, was boosting our immune system and reducing our stress levels. And it was fun. Physical, communal, energising fun. Like playing, but with a point.

And the point is to take all the joy and bundle it with purpose, sing words that mean something, then walk those words up hills and onto the streets and into places we haven't even thought of yet. To plant our flag with big choruses and whoops. Reclaiming our sense of place and our collective voice whilst singing (in four-part harmony, naturally) 'Get off your aaaaarrrrrrse!'

As I write this (really, right now. I thought 'aaaaarrrrrrse' was the punchline to this piece, but now…) there's a class of schoolkids being walked in a crocodile line down the front street past my window, their hi-viz jacketed teachers doing their best to retain some control. I heard them coming a good two minutes before they appeared in front of my house, and I can still hear them as they disappear back to their schools, all babbling, sniggering energy and yells and exclamations. You can hear the power of collective human noise in that crocodile, and it's a thrilling, vibrant noise. And what I'm trying to say with all this stuff about singing and choirs is that as we get older we don't need to swap that thrill of human noise for the ordered, restrained hum of being a grown-up; and that if we can fill that noise with shouts and sniggers at the world around us, then the singing isn't just good for us, it's good for everyone. 

A Commoners Choir 

A bit like this. Only with women, too. 

February 23 • 2015

First, the briefest of history lessons.

This year sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.This 'big charter' effectively curtailed the excessive power of the crown over the commoners and set out a legal framework that gave rights to all under the law. In tandem with Magna Carta came the Forest Charter, which set out guidelines for common use of the land and forests. The King was required to give up possession of forest and heathland, and in doing so the land became available to commoners. The Charter also provided a right of common access to (royal) private lands.

In the intervening centuries these written acts of access to law and land have been gradually eroded by crown, parliament, aristocracy and corporations. In direct contrast to the principles of the Forest Charter, a group of just 36,000 individuals – only 0.6 per cent of the population – own 50 per cent of rural land. Of the rest, much is owned by armed forces and retail companies.

In June this year, and without a trace of irony, 'official' celebrations will be held all over England to commemorate the signing of Magna Carta, including a huge garden party at Runnymede presided over by the Queen. (The Queen is the world's primary feudal landowner. She is Queen of 32 countries, head of a Commonwealth of 54 countries in which a quarter of the world's population lives, and nominally the legal owner of about 6.6 billion acres of land, one-sixth of the earth's land surface). Just 3% of English land is 'common' land, where all of us are entitled to exercise rights of common (such as grazing animals, walking and picnicking).

Our rights before the law are also being systematically taken away; as I write this, Prime Minister David Cameron is hosting a 'Global Law Summit' that aims to commemorate Magna Carta at a £1,750-a-head corporate jamboree, celebrating a drastic reduction in legal aid and policies that have raised court fees in a blatant attempt to restrict access to justice.

So here's my plan. In recognition of the way Magna Carta and the Forest Charter have been effectively betrayed through the centuries by the steady appropriation of power and land by crown, parliament and corporations, I'm organising a walk on the anniversary of the document's signing in June – coinciding with the Royal celebration at Runnymede – across some of what's left of our commonly-held land. In Yorkshire we have moorland areas such as Ilkley Moor, Marsden Moor and Rishworth Moor, and I'm proposing to walk over some of this land, land on which we can fittingly commemorate Magna Carta and the Forest Charter. Perhaps there'll be a single 8 or 9 mile walk (on a gloriously sunny Sunday, of course!) or a series of shorter walks over various patches of our common land. And once we're out there, there'll be a properly rehearsed-and-drilled performance by a scratch choir – the Commoners Choir – of a new and original piece of music written for the occasion, a piece of music detailing our rightful ownership of the land and our opposition to the continuing aristocratic, royal and corporate land-grab; a celebration of our power as people in opposition to a self-serving political and wealthy elite.

The Commoners Choir will be a big, stirring bunch of singers with stout boots and sandwiches, they'll sing in 5-part harmonies and will be made up of people like yourself. And there'll be an open invitation for people – the public – to join the walk(s), and to join in the choruses and be part of the whole affair. It'll be filmed, recorded and distributed. It'll be hard work and it'll be fun. And this is the part where I explain that if you're up for the work and fun, and fancy throwing in your lot with other like-minded singers and getting involved, then here's the invitation to get in touch and declare an interest. To be part of the Choir you have to be able to sing in tune, of course. To hold a note, to have rhythm, and to have confidence that you can sing harmony parts. And for the walk, and for singing choruses on the summit of a heather-topped moor, you don't even need to be able to sing, you can just walk and watch or you can grab a wordsheet and bellow along.

The walk(s) will take place in June, specifically Sunday 14th June. Rehearsals for the choir will begin in March, the first one probably being somewhere in Leeds or Otley on March 30th. Singers will need to be relatively committed; this Magna Carta project will hopefully be the start of an ongoing Commoners Choir that can build up a repertoire of radical and protest songs – no covers! – to tour the world and record and release music. So. If you're interested, have a look at the Commoners Choir manifesto (below) and email me through this website or by text or Facebook or by stopping me in the street and saying "Hey, I've heard you're starting a choir.." 

So think on, ask your mates, pass on the information, clear your throat and start singing. 

C O M M O N E R S   C H O I R    M A N I F E S T O

  • This will be a choir unlike any other.

  • We won't do covers of popular songs. Or of unpopular songs, come to that.

  • We'll sing in usual and unusual places; in concert halls, at festivals, on demonstrations, at cabarets, in churches, in dingy rooms above pubs, in galleries and museums, anywhere with an audience and a reason to sing.

  • We won't be a 'community choir'. It'll be fun, and communal, but we'll be professional and committed and hard-nosed about what we do.

  • We'll rehearse until we're brilliant.

  • We'll share out the organising, share any money we get for performing, share ideas about how we operate, and share a responsibility for the choir. The only thing we won't share (at least at the start) will be the songwriting.

  • We'll sing about the world around us, about inequality and unfairness, and about the things that need changing. The words we sing will be angry and clever, but we'll sing them with as much harmony, melody and earworms as we can muster!

  • We'll be disciplined and organised and we'll sing in tune.

  • Rehearsals and concerts will be a mixed-up uneven balance of hard work and laughter.

  • We'll be explicitly political and committed to what we sing about.

  • We'll make albums and videos, we'll be involved in projects and collaborations, we'll have a website, and we'll make sure to shout about ourselves whenever possible.

  • We'll be peculiar, memorable, feisty, witty and inclusive.

February 2015 

The Smell of Social Media

February 2 • 2015

I've always liked books, but I remember a time – a fuzzy grey year or two somewhere along the way – when my allegiance to record shops, and my ability to spend hours on end lovingly rifling through racks of second-hand LPs, switched to an obsessive and rabid love of bookshops. This wasn't just about books – this was bookshops, as a place to graze and nibble, to skim across the rows and rows of spines.

It wasn't really about spending all my money on books, either. I wasn't coming out of bookshops with carrier bagfuls of American-press Sylvia Plaths or 1960s Football Monthly annuals. What I was doing was reading them, in the shop, loving the way I could flit from one genre to another by going round the corner. Like a library, in fact, except they were usually just off the high street in every town and city, you didn't have to be a member, and if you did come across a copy of some long-out-of-print book you'd heard about but never seen (in hardback, third edition, slight tear on the dust-jacket) for £3.99 you could declare it yours and feel like the digging pirate whose spade just struck the treasure chest.

And part of the love affair was the physicality of books. Not just the weight and the feel but the smell, the design, the margin size, the font spacing, the yellowing of the paper, and all squashed into floor-to-ceiling stacks and rows. And did I say the smell? The smell of old books. The smell of print-runs and binding glue, the smell of decaying paper, the smell of the thousands of lives that have been lived around these books. There are other smells, too – like in Scrivener's Books, the beautiful 5-storey shambling affair on Buxton's High Street, where there's a small table and chairs set out on the third floor with a pot of tea on the go, and the basement boasts (and smells) of its in-house book-binding.

So when the digital revolution came and swept its big new broom through the world a couple of decades ago, bringing with it a wholesale switch to utterly unfragrant words-on-screens, I fought it. I didn't like it. I was reasonably happy enough for the technology to revolutionise communication and design, but disgusted that it should usurp the printing press, with all its radical tradition and history. When social media was revealed in the 1990s to be all-too-often a forum for sharing pictures of cute animals, or porn, or cut 'n' paste information full of unchecked facts, it only cemented my fear of how this new technology had all happened too quickly, too easily, and that the notion that suddenly we were all journalists, writers, and artists because we all had access to Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop was absurd.

But now I've changed my mind. There's been enough time for the change to have lived and breathed for a generation, and for the first time I feel like I'm properly, totally, fully convinced that social media works, that it's a good thing. I still love a rummage around a bookshop. But what I have now (as well as, not instead of) is a world-sized bookshop on tap, including encyclopedias I can trust (which wasn't the case for a couple of decades) and with access to writing I love and which, crucially, I might have missed twenty years ago. Not books – I still don't read books on a screen, though I've tried – but journals, editiorials, articles, blogs, arguments, debates and opinions. And because social media is perfectly set-up to be fashioned and moulded around the things I might want to see and read (I don't follow Kim Kardashian on Twitter and so am unlikely to ever have to read what she might think. About anything, ever), it's finally acting like a good bookshop, a place to flick through ideas until I'm grabbed by the collar and drawn right into an article on fracking or a documentary about fell running or a photograph of Dadaist Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire dressed as a lobster.

The reason I thought to write this down, here, is for two reasons. Firstly, because I still know people who refuse to have anything to do with social media. Good people, clever people, who hate Twitter and Facebook with a passion. To them I'd say it's not unlike watching telly – being able to switch it on at 10 o'clock just as Celebrity Big Brother is finishing and in time for Jacques Peretti's incisive and important documentary 'The Super Rich And Us'. It's all about choosing which bits you care to spend time with, which bits you blank out. And that's both the basis and the beauty of social media (For a while I thought this depressing, the way we can all just filter our sources of information down to what we agree with. Then I realised that the real world that we wade through every day is filtered to give us a non-stop endorsement of the unequal, bigoted, conservative, top-heavy, macho, dumbed-down culture that runs like blood through capitalism's veins. So really all we're doing is finding some balance).

The second reason for suddenly confessing a love affair with social media is that in the past few days I've come across several brilliant, important bits of media that I was alerted to by Twitter and Facebook and which (since I've been away with my heads-down no-nonsense work head on) I would have missed otherwise.

Ed Vulliamy's extensive writing on the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre draws on a great history of satire, humour and dissent while gathering the opinions of the Charlie survivors, those who were to put out the commemoration edition. Vulliamy's mother was a famous French cartoonist; he knew the people involved, and was able to get their reactions on the now-infamous Paris march attended by the world's leading butchers and bigots (aka Heads of State). Laurent Léger, reporter with Charlie Hebdo, did not march. “It had all become too political,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be next to those politicians, or shake their hands.”

Another artist at the paper, Max Cabanes, had returned home to Bordeaux, fuming. “What on earth are Cameron, Netinyahu, Juncker and others doing there, saying, ‘Je suis Charlie’?”

The daily newspapers, significantly, haven't been telling us this particular part of the narrative in the wake of the killings and the marches, the story of cartoonists refusing to be co-opted by what one interviewee calls 'the hollow world of power'. Vulliamy's article ranges between Albert Camus and the revolutionary potential of Paris 1968, always returning to the contempt felt by the paper's authors for the charade which followed the tragedy. Willem, the paper's long-standing Dutch Anarchist cartoonist, ends the piece by saying, "There are clever people with an agenda who just don’t have the culture to understand our laughter. These people like your prime minister and all the others calling themselves Charlie. It’s completely ridiculous, first because in the end they don’t want us, and they don’t want to be Charlie – how could they be? They hate us! And second because they are pretentious, and all pretention is false. When the king employed a fool to laugh at him, the fool was the only one allowed. Now they want no one to laugh at them, but we are free and we do. And if you abolish humour, or kill the funny people, there is nothing left – nothing.” It's a brilliant article and I'm glad someone thought to throw its link out into that swirling digital sea of words.

Then there's the clip – two and a half minutes long – of Stephen Fry being interviewed on the Gay Byrne show recently in Ireland. The link popped up often enough on social media for me to have a look, and I immediately passed it on to other people. Go on, you know you want to. It's just Stephen Fry being clever, funny, shocking, reasoned and so poetically blasphemous that host Byrne practically puts his fingers in his ears and shouts 'Not listening! Not listening! Not listening!'

And the third piece that social media threw up – which I definitely would have missed otherwise – is John Pilger's collection of crucial and important words on austerity and the media's cap-doffing submissiveness to its political masters. I saw the Tweet that read:

'Tory 'austerity', supported by Ed Miliband & Labour's corporate management class, is just jargon for imposed poverty.'

So I clicked, and read. It wasn't just an article, this time, but John Pilger's website, essentially a collection of his essays. I felt like I'd stumbled into the section in the bookshop that's full of contemporary radical pamphlets, 2000-word rallying cries and ruminations, stuffed with facts and figures and bursting with insight and a reasoned and righteous anger. It made me readjust the way I listened to the BBC News on the radio later that evening, for starters.

Three links I stumbled across this week, but really it could have been any number of diverse, fascinating and less-than-worthy things – the results from a mountain race, various editorials and comments on the Greek election, an interview with Burnley FC manager Sean Dyche, a review of Situation Press's 'Philosophy of Punk' book, a photograph of my brother-in-law's kitchen (I meant fascinating for me, not for everyone). All this without getting into the role of social media in shouting about stuff that needs to be shouted about – Red Ladder Theatre's campaign to carry on working in the face of a total cut in its funding has been carried out almost entirely on social media, and it's working – not only in raising money but in keeping the issue of unfair and politically-motivated cuts to services part of our ongoing conversation. Social media's good at not letting things get swept under the carpet; good at making sure that important ideas are being heard.

On New Year's Eve this year, me and Casey were in freezing New York, it was eight o'clock in the evening and we were walking miles of city streets across Manhattan to where we were staying. And there, halfway up Broadway (I should burst out singing at this point) was The Strand bookshop, several storeys of second-hand and remaindered books, piled and shelved and jam-packed in, lit up and open and warm. And the smell of the place! We went in, and could have stayed all night (oh I know, the people who work there had parties to go to). 

So no, social media isn't taking the place of books for me – my bedside table (and everywhere I sit down to write, in fact) is still an unholy, teetering mountain of half-read fiction and well-read non-fiction – but like the best bookshops, social media is becoming a fantastic new place to browse, to come across things I didn't expect. And yes, there are still lots of cute cat photos (and I'll happily share pictures of 4 year-old Johnny refereeing the continuing fight between his plastic Hulk and Spiderman figures). But there's learning stuff too, and funny stuff, and stuff that helps me understand what's going on in the world. It's just a pity there isn't that wonderful smell, too.


Ed Vulliamy's Charlie Hebdo article:

http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/18/charlie-hebdo-we-cant-let-this-change-our-cartoons-nor-will-it

Stephen Fry on RTE:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suvkwNYSQo

John Pilger:

www.johnpilger.com

Bricks, Elvis, Turner and the Tate

January 26 • 2015

In 1978 I was part of a class trip to London to visit the Tate Gallery. I can't remember what exhibition we'd been taken to see there. No idea. All I was interested in was seeing Carl Andre's then-infamous firebrick scultpure, 120 bricks laid out on the gallery floor and the subject of intense media disgust. 'The Tate Drops a Costly Brick', that's what the Times had said, and the story had run for weeks and weeks. Any work of art that caused that much moral outrage was worth seeing.

So there they were, the bricks. Two minutes worth of looking and laughing and then, if I remember rightly, a group of us escaped the gallery and spent most of the day trying to find Rough Trade records, where I bought some punk fanzines and heard a pre-release of The Clash's 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais' being played for the first time.

As if to prove I'd paid attention at the gallery I'd bought a marked-down old exhibition catalogue by an artist I'd only just become aware of called Richard Hamilton. The catalogue was from 1970 but the work looked relevant, modern, political and clever. It seemed to chime with the way punk music had just burst out of the art colleges, and it somehow, awkwardly and without much coherence, helped me stumble into a way of looking at creativity that stuck with me and never let go.

I'd messed around with painting and drawing, with writing poetry for the school magazine, with writing songs and with making super 8 films. “Whalley lacks direction” might have been a teacher's assessment at the time (alongside the music teacher's memorable “He has a flippant and careless attitude,” placing me second-bottom in the class).

Richard Hamilton. He lacked direction, but he had the theory to back it up. His work fell within what critic Lawrence Alloway called a 'fine/pop art continuum'. Hamilton interpreted this as meaning, in his own words, that “all art is equal - there was no hierarchy of value. Elvis was to one side of a long line while Picasso was strung out on the other side ... TV is neither less nor more legitimate an influence than, for example, is New York Abstract Expressionism”. High and low art, side by side. In theatre there were people like Joan Littlewood and John McGrath expounding the same theories, only I didn't know that back then. But I could see it in Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid's championing of situationism, could see it in poet Adrian Henri's desire to connect conceptual art with Kerouac and the Beats, rock n roll with Baudelaire.

And that, I thought, was what I wanted to do. Jump onto the fine/pop art continuum and see where it lead. What I didn't know then was that this jump onto an already-speeding vehicle would entail spending the better part of a decade in the back of a Ford Transit for no money whatsoever while holding down a series of part-time jobs selling wholefoods and delivering bulk newspapers. It all worked out in the end, though. I carried on lacking direction (even the band that lasted 30 years prided itself on changing course musically every few years and point-blank refused to retain a common font for the name, never mind have a logo) and carried on, after Chumbawamba stopped playing, following instinct and commissions into places I hadn't been previously.

So here I am back at the Tate Gallery (now called Tate Britain) with a now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't piece of music written with a gathering of singers about the fiery, stormy JMW Turner paintings and the relationship between us as viewers and the artist as maker. It's part of a bigger project called RadioCity, three months of artists working with the Tate to produce work that reaches out to the world beyond the gallery walls (through radio programmes, visitor interventions, etc). The obvious distance between the Turner exhibition audience – quiet, thoughtful, hmmming and aahing – and the turbulent life and working practise of the painter himself has been a shock. Maybe it always is, whoever the artist. I find the relationship between rock 'n' roll artist and audience equally fascinating; especially in its stadium-rock format, with half the audience holding up phone cameras as if to emphasise the gap even more.











'Peace – Burial at Sea' JMW Turner (1842) 

The piece of music we're singing (Saturday 31st, 2pm, one time only, six minutes long!) is part of this wondering about that relationship. When I first came here in the 1970s I was attracted to Carl Andre's brick sculpture not for its aesthetics but for its context, for the story behind it. Standing there in a gallery looking at the bricks neatly arranged on the floor seemed to somehow miss the point – seeing Daily Mirror editorials frothing about art, that was the point. Starting debate, getting people to question culture and design, bridging the gap between decoration and provocation.

Bricks are not works of art. Bricks are Bricks. You can build walls with them or chuck them through jeweller's windows, but you cannot stack them two deep and call it sculpture.” 

(Keith Waterhouse, Daily Mirror 1976)

Working at the Tate has been fascinating. Hopefully there'll be a short film of the performance – there'll definitely be a recording of the music on this website sometime next week. Rowan Godell (a Reluctant Rambler and vocalist on various Oysterband records) is part of the group and has already recorded vocals. The end result isn't, as someone responded when I asked what a piece of music that suited the Turner paintings might sound like, “Nine Inch Nails… played by a symphony orchestra.” But it's full of the contradictions and wonderings that keep coming up whenever I'm looking at something like these paintings – how passion and anger can be tethered and held fast within the oblong boundary of a picture frame. Or in my case, within the melodic and rhythmic structure of a song. And then it's all back again to that imaginary line between Elvis and Picasso, isn't it? 

Singing with the Dinosaurs

November 20 • 2014

When I discovered I wasn’t good enough to be a professional footballer (I was eleven – how did I labour under that misapprehension for so long?) I fell into a couple of years of not quite knowing what I was going to do with my life other than to set forth, as soon as I was 17, with a dark blue suit and a name tag as a Mormon missionary. Then music happened. Quickly, a love for the transistor radio pop of Bolan and Bowie grew into buying my own records and discovering the long-defunct Beatles as a gateway drug into weirder, wilder stuff.

And somewhere in that muddle of adolescence I fell in love, too, with Warhol, Lichtenstein, Blake, Hamilton, Rauschenberg; the pop artists. I found Dali and Magritte, Mondrian and Christo. I read the First World War poets, the Liverpool Poets and the Beats. And somehow, football didn’t seem so important anymore.

I didn’t choose all this, so much as it drifted into view and I grabbed it, excitedly, eyes like dinner-plates.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan this month warned young people that choosing to study arts subjects at school could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. She also said “the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are science, technology, engineering and maths.”

And thus is all art reduced to career options, all life to monetary value. That what you choose to do when you’re fourteen or fifteen is not about what you’re interested in, what fascinates you, only what might make you (and naturally the government) the most money. And thus is our entire culture of music, song, literature and ideas brushed aside; Morgan also described maths as “the subject that employers value most” and claimed that pupils who study maths to A level will earn 10% more over their lifetime.

Thanks for the careers advice, Nicky. And at the risk of devaluing my lifetime’s income by 10% I’d like to submit the idea that my entire adult life has consisted of an haphazard mess of such fascinations and wonderings as would make Nicky Morgan turn in her grave. (She’s already dead, isn’t she? This cadaver that sees the world as monetary numbers on computer screens?) Actually I wish the Education Secretary had had the space in her diaryful of bland, colourless ledger-entries to have a look round Manchester Museum last weekend. I imagine her turning that corner at the bottom of the stairs leading into the mineralogy gallery and looking left, towards the huge skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Standing in front of the dinosaur are thirty primary school children (Morgan must surely know what a school child looks like? Being Education Secretary? Possibly not) dressed in bedtime onesies, hoods pulled up, facing forwards, waiting and grinning. At each side of them are thirty pension-aged men and women, in overcoats and hats, scarves and gloves, some with mobility chairs and walking sticks, all looking outwards and upwards, both them and the children looking for all the big wide world like they’re waiting to watch night-time stars, or a comet, or a firework display. C’mon kids, get out of bed! Look at the skies, see what’s happening out there!

Then they begin to sing, filling the huge room with echoing voices, the older folk chanting “tick, tock, tick, tock” as the children sing about time, about life, about our place as humans in the grand, vast scale of the universe. And the kids and the pensioners and the Tyrannosaurus rex suddenly break into three-part harmony, all waving at the gathering crowds in the gallery, singing “Here we are, and here we are, and here we are…”

It’s art, that. Actually it’s art and science mixed together, but you know what I mean. Art that, if you believe the government line, will hold these 8, 9, 10 year-olds back for the rest of their lives.

The Wonderstruck weekend at Manchester Museum grew from a commission proposed by the arts charity People United, whose aim is to support ‘art that creates kindness’, and from that a sense of community and social change. What a grand and beautiful mission statement! Dan Bye and Sarah Punshon decided they wanted to apply. Dan rang me up – we’d worked happily together several years ago on a play for I Love West Leeds Festival – and asked if I’d think about writing music that might happen in a museum. Manchester Museum were co-commissioning the project, inviting artists into their galleries to make work that responded to their vast collections of weird and wonderful stuff. Yes, definitely – I remember feeling excited at the possibilities. Museum! Singing! Science and Art in a big bundle of Freakiness!

We were interviewed at the museum. We didn’t have a plan, to speak of. All we knew was that we wanted to use music and theatre to fill the galleries with ideas. Or something like that, I can’t remember – the truth is, we didn’t really know what we intended to do; we just knew we could do something fascinating and strange that would involve lots of people singing.

There were a lot of applications, apparently. We got the job. The three of us probably have very different ideas of why we were chosen to do this. Dan has a track record of doing one-man shows about social responsibility and co-operation (ie kindness). Sarah had worked as a creative curator at the Natural History Museum in London. Me, I like to think it’s because I quoted a love of John Muir at the interview. (Please, if you haven’t heard of John Muir, look him up now).

A couple of months later and we were at the museum, scuttling around in its bowels, meeting the curators, asking questions, in awe at their knowledge and enthusiasm. We had a week of looking around, getting to know the museum, thinking up ideas, holding huge spiders and singing about cockroaches. At the end of that week we had a plan. The plan wasn’t fool-proof, wasn’t fail-safe. It was a plan that might result in chaos, in a glorious mess. Wendy Earle of the Arts & Society Forum says:

‘The arts have a complex relationship with society. But arts lovers need to make a case for arts education that doesn’t harness it to contemporary moral, civic, social or economic priorities.’

In short, art shouldn’t have to make a profit, make a societal change, or even (and I hate this current catch-all term), ‘make a difference’. Art should take risks, should hold its breath, jump in and see what happens. This is the spirit with which ‘Wonderstruck’ was created. This was the spirit with which ‘Wonderstruck’ was accepted and encouraged by both People United and Manchester Museum. Bless ‘em.

So we, and the museum, gathered a bunch of local Manchester community choirs who were willing to be involved in this wonderfully unknown project. We ended up with four – Golden Voices, a pensioners’ choir, Network Choir, made up of primary school children, Ordsall Acapella, established local singers, and She, an all-woman choir. Added to this, we created a so-called ‘guerrilla choir’ made up of volunteers.

We had a week with the choirs in September. We gathered and sat down together and talked about the project. We sent choirfuls of people into the galleries to write down their impressions, to listen in to conversations, to observe how museum visitors acted and talked, to scuttle around the museum eavesdropping. Then we gathered the comments and words and information into a big bagful of post-it notes; Dan took it away and made poetic sense of it all, and all I had to do was tidy up Dan’s words and fit them to a tune. With harmonies. And rhythm. And huge choruses. We all chipped in, changed lyrics, added tunes, kept on planning, aware that it was all getting bigger and bigger, like the Hulk bursting out of his clothes. (Imagine Dan Bye, green and raging, wearing torn purple trunks).

I’ve always loved the idea of art outside its ‘normal’ context. Paintings, plays and music taken outside the art galleries, theatres and concert halls. Steve Byrne from Interplay Theatre told me that on a visit to Italy he’d gone with his brother to watch the big Milan football derby – AC versus Inter – and that at half time the playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rama (‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’) had walked onto the pitch and performed a short sketch. The crowd hushed, applauding wildly at its conclusion. That was what we wanted to do – to take the idea of ‘Wonder’ and make it surprising, recreate the feeling of coming across something you didn’t expect or know, the feeling I think we got when we were looking round the museum the first time – a flock of paper cranes that burst out of the frame of their glass cabinet, a handwritten sign telling of how Manchester’s Peppered Moth explains evolution, the skeleton of an elephant, a 4 billion-year-old meteorite.

We plotted excitedly. Every room in the museum would have its own song, its own choir. Actors would wear animal masks and tell stories, linking the choirs, creating a journey. All we had to do now was shape all that imagining into a workable, ordered whole. That’s where Sarah came in, arms waving, collecting all the loose thoughts and tying them together, shaping them. That’s where Josh came in, too, tall as a fir tree, invaluable, jumping headlong into all the nooks and crannies of the project.












Sarah, Dan, Josh (seated) write a nice letter to Nicky Morgan. 

Now it was November, and we were gearing up for the final performances. I could barely believe we’d managed to worm our way into a major museum, install five choirs, and have them singing whatever it was we came up with – about not only the stuff in the galleries but about the world we live in. It was far, far too good to be true. Our main contact at the museum – Anna Bunney – was so delightfully involved, helpful and enthusiastic that it felt like we’d had all our wishes granted at once. “D’you think we could have someone in a fox mask wheeling one of the museum’s stuffed foxes through this gallery? How about if we have a flash-mob choir in that gallery? Can we bring the choirs in to rehearse after the museum is closed at night?”

Anna said yes to everything. It felt like the whole museum was given to us as a playspace for a weekend. What we ended up with was (to cut a very long description very short) a one-hour walk that took the visitor from the entrance hall to the depths of the museum and back again, via songs, spoken words, theatre, the expected and the unexpected. It could have gone woefully wrong, but didn’t. Mainly because the choirs were so enthusiastic, and so willing to be a part of something unusual and fascinating.

And yes, it worked. Art outside its usual context, music filling rooms that were normally quiet and still. The choirs performed beautifully. The journey through the museum made sense, and the glitches were just a lovely part of the chaos of wonderment.

There’s a lovely blog by Jo Bell, in the form of an open letter replying to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s speech. It talks of the value of the arts and refutes the idea that studying stuff like Shakespeare, Mozart and the Brontes might “hold students back for the rest of their lives.” It ends by saying,

“Science and art are not mutually exclusive. Both are vital to a safe, fulfilled and interesting life. Science and technology are what we live by, on the whole. But what we live for? That’s art.”

Maybe now is the time for me to declare, loudly, that studying the arts – and spending a lifetime as an artist, in fact – hasn’t held me back. Apart from one hit single, I never made anything that made much money. The publishing royalties from that one song (split between ten members of a band) keep coming in (in diminishing numbers) but the money’s not the important bit. What’s important is the day-to-day excitement of wrestling with beauty, with ideas, with communication, with stories and connections and histories.

What was important, and exciting, about the ‘Wonderstruck’ project wasn’t just in the success of the final performances, it was also in the summer-long process of experimenting, gathering, playing, and, yes, wondering. The choirs, the choir leaders, the story-tellers, the museum staff and the People United folk threw themselves into our weird ideas with an enthusiasm I couldn’t have predicted. 

I’ll always look back with pride at the way the museum was transformed for a weekend; but I’ll remember more clearly what Nicky Morgan will always fail to understand, the moments during rehearsal when we made connections between people, when we laughed and joked, when we realised what we were all part of. The Golden Voices choir singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to their gorgeous 88 year-old soprano. The kids in their onesies scampering up the stairs after having sung their hearts out in the dinosaur gallery, excitedly asking if they’d ‘done good’. The choir leaders Jools and Jeff, constantly full to the brim with a real joy for the project. The so-called ‘guerrilla choir’, volunteers who, in the space of two weeks, learned how to sing harmony with each other, beautifully. The museum’s staff, who slowly and smilingly over the weeks begun to see the scale and scope of the whole thing. The 70 year-old woman who “jumped out of her skin” when the group of museum visitors next to her revealed themselves by suddenly breaking into song (that was my Mum. She’s recovering). The She Choir, swapping leadership roles and taking it in turns to invent warm-ups (a rousing version of ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ notwithstanding). And the four of us, as artists, working our collective arses off (collective arses? Really?) and loving every minute of it, proud to be part of a worldful of culture and ideas that Nicky Morgan deems irrelevant.

I do wish the Education Secretary could have come along and seen the finale on the Sunday afternoon, 100+ singers filling the grand steps of the Living Worlds gallery and singing of our connection to, and our part within, the natural world (for not even a government minister could have sucked the joy and energy out of that room). But she didn’t. So we’ll have to do it all again, won’t we? 


Good News, Bad News

September 23 • 2014

I realised quite suddenly a couple of weeks ago that, despite having a generally cheery outlook on life in all its day-to-day doings and whatnots, I was using social media as a regular and easy way of griping about the world and all its horrific, warring doings and its unfair, unequal whatnots. I’d posted yet another attack on some politician or other, re-tweeted something about Gaza or the Tory Party, and then it struck me that people who didn’t know me might think I was a bitter, curmudgeonly old git with my fists permanently clenched and my shoulders hunched in grim disgust with the world.

It’s not true. For every tear I shed over the state of the world there are ten times the amount of laughs and smiles. My life is generally good – I can sit with my young son sticking Lego together or run alone across the summit of an open moor in the Yorkshire Dales and properly understand how glorious life can be.

About two or three decades ago, full to the brim with righteous indignation and youthful spittle, Chumbawamba had a meeting where we decided that, contrary to everything we’d done up to that point, we had to stop being so po-faced on stage, so serious, so determinedly hateful. It just wasn’t us. We needed to smile, too. So we wrote a song – actually Dunst wrote the words and together we all put it to music – I can’t remember what it was called (I don’t know if it ever had a proper title). It was about nuclear war. The complete lyric went:

“Do it yourself:

A screwdriver, a box of matches, a tin-opener and a radio.

When you hear the explosion –

Don’t worry, don’t panic

Because the windows are whitewashed.

So the neighbours won’t know

That you’ve shit your pants.”

And with that song we started to learn how to rail against the world with a bit of humour along with the fist-clenching.

So how come I ended up being the bloke who posts the bad news on Facebook?

I had to stop, or at least had to balance things out. I’d had a full and fascinating day doing all sorts of stuff that wasn’t actually putting a bullet through David Cameron’s squashy head but was instead the usual mix of domestic fun and political art. So I wrote about it, and for a change people said, yes, we enjoyed that. I should have realised a lot earlier.

I’ve spent most of my life finding myself in opposition to things. It’s understandable, isn’t it? Every day I look at the news and read the words of some corrupt government official, often British, and know instinctively that I have to do something to counter those words – in song, or conversation, or nowadays more easily by cut ‘n’ pasting something apt on social media. In the mid-1980s we spent a fair amount of time with a band we knew well and loved, toured with, stayed at their house – Flux of Pink Indians – they developed quickly, moved away from their punky noisy roots, looked for other ways to be heard. I loved them for it, loved their decision to give up on three-chord guitar rock, it was brave and fascinating. But the result of this development was an album that, lyrically, hinged on the phrase ‘I’m not angry anymore’.

I didn’t understand that. To this day I don’t understand that. The idea of seeing what’s happening in the world and not being angry? Regardless of my life as a singer or a writer or whatever, I don’t see how anyone can lose their anger at the basic everyday suffering of people. So the question then is, how do you express that anger without becoming the curmudgeonly old git with the boring ranting blogs?

And blimey, I don’t really know. Not by refusing to talk about the bad stuff, that’s for sure. Maybe, just maybe, it’s by balancing the bad stuff with the good stuff. I recently watched a TV documentary made in the early 1970s, detailing the lives of various people farming in the north Yorkshire Dales through terrible hardship; people whose stoic and red-cheeked resilience made me want to grab them by their big old worn-out coats and give them a hug. (The photo above this blog is of one of the participants, Hannah Hauxwell). I recommend this film; it’s only 45 minutes long. But if you watch it, you’ll want to watch the follow-up, too. It gets under your skin, the incredible positivity. It’s here if you want to have a look: 

And I’ll be posting that link on Facebook, attempting to awkwardly balance the depressing stuff I stick up there with something heart-achingly uplifting, and hoping that I might be able to temper my fear and loathing of a political world gone mad with a world full of great characters, cheap jokes and the odd bit of Randy Newman: who knows so well the art of mixing the good news with the bad. And thus I leave you with his 'Political Science'...









With Tim on stage during a Ramblers set 

Beauty, Brutality & the Reluctant Ramblers

August 25 • 2014

This is how my life balances out: between the beauty of the world and the ugliness of what we do to it. We all balance our lives, somewhere, between this and that, between work and leisure, desire and practicality, between daring and fear. For me, fell running (and occasionally fell walking) has always been a good way to balance out the dejection and hopelessness that seems to pour out of Parliament, out of politics. I can’t ignore the everyday, everywhere injustices (I don’t want to ignore them. I want to be involved, want to understand and be part of how we live as a society) so I balance them out by running away, physically and mentally. Find a place up on a hilltop where there’s no sight or sound of all that brutal ignorance and destruction. Then run down headlong back into it, hoping that I’ve built up enough ballast to balance out a life that’s in between those two extremes.

I just finished an on/off couple of weeks’ worth of walking with the Reluctant Ramblers, an inappropriately-named bunch of musicians under the stewardship of Oysterband’s John Jones, who sing and play (as bands do) and walk between concerts (as bands don’t), accompanied on the walks by anyone wanting to turn up and tramp some dirt down. It’s an idea I love, an exercise in being properly down-to-earth (in more than one sense).

The concerts are often a little chaotic and unruly, beautifully so, born out of the brief soundchecks (there’ve been several last-few-miles lung-bursting dashes to get to venues) and the exhausted elation of a day out walking on trails and paths, fields and hills. The Reluctant Ramblers now includes new double bass player Lindsey Oliver, and the ragged balance on stage looks right, looks like it should – with Tim Cotterell, Rowan Godel and me taking our turns in singing and playing, turning the set into a modern-day folk variety show. Part of the appeal for me, too, is finding a balance between myself and John on stage. He’s the front man, the lead vocalist, and sometimes (actually most of the time) I feel like I’m there primarily to puncture the traditional front-man bubble, making jokes and pointing out the Emperor’s lack of clothing, urging the audience to get involved in the finger-pointing. To his credit, John encourages it – because, I think, this game between King and Court Jester makes a good balance. Dil Davies and Al Scott quietly and confidently tether this swaying, uneasy band to a big rock at the back of the stage, and overall there’s a feeling of being part of something strange, exciting and fun.

It’s often all a bit of a surprise, too, to both the audience and to me. One show on the second leg of the ‘tour’, in the large backroom of a pub in Bishop’s Castle, was attended by Robert Plant, Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife and the mayor of Presteigne, who bizarrely insisted on wearing his mayoral chain to the concert even as he joined in the dancing (alright, that last bit was a lie). And this time the walking was relatively easy – never quite stretching over 20 miles in a day and, apart from one mighty and thunderous storm in the first week, blessed with a pleasant enough mixture of sunshine and showers.

But it’s not the weather I wanted to write about.

During the Rambles I tend to find myself fairly cut off from the day-to-day world of news reports, of wars and atrocities, gossip and slander, national scandals and international outrages. But this time I unwittingly brought to the first part of the tour a headful of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, having two days previously jumped at the chance to help organise a benefit concert to raise money for Palestinian theatre-makers. Just before heading off on the walking tour, confronted by a daily bombardment of images and reports of Gaza’s bomb-blasted babies and wailing, bereaved mothers, I’d agreed with a friend, Dom, that all this social media hand-wringing needed to go somewhere, needed to translate into action.

David Grieg, a Scottish playwright, has written an eloquent criticism of an Israeli state-funded theatre group performing at the Edinburgh Fringe whilst Palestinian theatres are being denied that opportunity through both Israeli censorship and lack of funds. He has, admirably, followed this up by starting a fund to support both Palestinians who could be sponsored to bring work to Edinburgh and Israeli makers who refuse state sponsorship. 

(See https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/307277511/welcome-to-the-fringe).

To cut a rambling detour short, Dom and me decided to organise a benefit night and to donate all the money to David Greig’s campaign. Musicians, comics, actors, poets, artists and a magician (oh yes) readily agreed to perform at the show, to be held at short notice in Bradford (as I write this, the show is three days away). Thinking this might somehow remove the ‘screaming babies’ images from my head, I set off for the first part of the Reluctant Ramblers tour with a bagful of sandwiches and a spring in my step. As Fotherington-Thomas (you know, from the Molesworth books that my Dad passed down to me) used to say, “Hello birds! Hello sky!”

It didn’t work out that way. What I’d see at home as a balance of extremes between the morning’s (usually depressing) radio news and an hour’s cleansing, inspiring run through the local achingly-gorgeous Chevin forest became something else – it became walking that was accompanied by a nag-nag-nagging of annoying organisational details which inevitably led back to my trying to work out why I agreed to take the benefit show on in the first place. Why? Oh yes, the dying babies. The green and pleasant landscape, its hills and valleys, are usually enough to drown out the noise of inequality and barbarism; not this time, not quite. Every food-stop was punctuated by worries about bombardments and blockades, occupations and propaganda, along with sound, lights, running times and backstage sandwiches. I decided I had to block out the Gaza concert for those few days; I switched off the text messaging, put it all on hold and refused to think about it. In the gap between the first and second half of the tour, I reckoned, I’d sort things out, put it all to rest.

The plan worked, more or less. The Gaza show was organised and ready to go and a tentative ceasefire between Israel and Palestine gave the world some respite from the relentless drip-feed of deaths and casualties. The plan worked, that is, until the second day of the final week’s walking and playing, when I decided to catch up on the news on my phone over breakfast. American journalist beheaded by British Jihadist. And suddenly my head wasn’t in Palestine but in Syria, in and among the cruel absurdities of this brutal religion-driven tit-for-tat.

The sun came up on the day’s walk, the hills were gloriously unique and challenging, and the swooping herons and bowing oaks were pulling me back to a world of hope and wonder, of stomping and slipping, clambering and squinting. From Presteigne heading north along the Welsh border, thirty or forty of us, towards Clun and on to Bishop’s Castle, up and down and up and down through a string of ragged kingdoms. And every hour or so of that day, I returned to the beheading.

A few years ago, when it was made public that these fanatics were not only beheading their captors but were videoing themselves doing it, I decided to watch YouTube footage of one of these atrocities. I thought long and hard beforehand, knowing that I was going to fill my memory banks to bursting with something vile and saddening. Thought long and hard and decided to watch, in an attempt to translate the stark headlines into their tangible, appalling truth. And what stuck with me wasn’t so much the horror of the act – which I won’t go into – but its soundtrack. For along with the utter cruelty was the constant yelling, by every one of the armed Jihadists present, of the blood-curdling cry of ‘Allahu Akbar’ – God is great, God is great, God is great, God is great, God is great. This absurdity, this cruel juxtaposition, will always sum up for me what religion looks like from the outside.

And all this was worming and wearing its way around my head, even as I laughed and joked on a beautiful afternoon’s walk up the stone-strewn path to Stiperstones, a craggy and uneven ridge with a view right across both England and Wales.

It took a while for the balance – the even keel that means a burst of dawn sunshine through an early Autumn wood cancels out the bad news – to become restored. Took a while for the joy of being out amongst the green and pleasant world to slowly tuck away the endless, relentless grind of real-world politics.

What brought me back into balance – on that walk and on just about every run across a gale-blasted Ilkley Moor or into an early-evening Lake District sunset, is the belief that nature – the good stuff, the self-healing earthy stuff, the stuff that came before digital-age war and ugly, backward fanaticism – will win the day. Yell ‘God is great’ as loudly as you like; nature will win the day. Being out among the cloudbursts and the muddy tracks, the heather-covered hills and the sodden valley-bottoms, doesn’t make headlines. Thank goodness. If it was all just a cheaply-sold commodity then Murdoch would take it over and fence it off. What all this rambling and running does, for me, is provide a simple and essential antidote to the world’s madness. A space to look forward to that fills up my lungs and my head with sanity and proportion; with balance.

Up at the top of a steep climb, with our bunch of walkers strung out across several hundred yards of heavy breathing and smiles, legendary singer June Tabor appears as if in some folk-tinged fantasy (except it’s not a fantasy, and she appears from the passenger door of a 4x4 that’s climbed the other way up the hill. And she’s wearing wellies) and sings for us all.

“Abroad for pleasure as I was a-walking…”

The moment is both peculiar and present, welcoming and affirming. It reminds me that, in that moment, there’s just us and our voices and a vast shuffle of greens and browns rolling around us, fantastically.


 










Red Bladder in rehearsal

We’re Not Getting Funded

July 19 • 2014

Three days ago I sat on a beaten-up sofa in a converted Methodist church on the fringes of Leeds city centre watching the first run-through (no holding your script in your hand!) of the new Red Ladder play ‘We’re Not Going Back’. It’s a play what I wrote, as Ernie Wise used to say – I wrote it and then in proper Red Ladder fashion I gave it to the director and the actors to play with, to improvise, to chop and change. At Red Ladder everyone in the room gets a say, and gets listened to. It’s a way of working that I think pays dividends: it empowers people, makes a piece of work less self-indulgent, teaches people to work without suffocating hierarchies and gives everyone a stake in the production. There’s never much money going around at this level of theatre, so getting job satisfaction – a real sense of ‘owning’ the work you do – is really important.

During the run-through’s ‘interval’, the rehearsal room’s only toilet suddenly blocks up and overflows. Stacey shrieks as Rod Dixon (Artistic Director) breaks off from discussing lines to dive across the space and clear up a minor flood. Panic over, the run-through continues. On the battered sofa, cradling a cup of tea beside lighting director Tim Skelly, I have to blink back tears a couple of times during the second half. I cry easily anyway, but I’m so desperately involved in the words that the three actors (Victoria Brazier, Stacey Sampson and Claire-Marie Seddon) are saying, and the way they’ve brought them into the world in better shape than they left my laptop, that I get caught up and carried along. Over at the side, poised behind a keyboard and several small mountains of paper, Beccy Owen is the bundle of energy who’s taken the songs by the scruffs of their little necks and got them all dressed and ready for rehearsal. Together these four lasses, this team of people holding their bladders (red bladders!) because the toilet is now out of action, this strange and lovely old buildingful of purpose and craft; somehow this typifies a theatre company wanting more than bums-on-seats or nice reviews in the newspapers.

So it’s sort of fitting (and somewhat sickening) that this run-through of the play – which will go on to play miners’ welfare halls along with traditional theatres, starting next week in the vast, circular, polished wood meeting room of the Durham Miners during the annual Gala – should be the backdrop for the morning’s shocking news that Red Ladder has been dropped from the Arts Council’s NPO grant hand-out. ‘Fitting’ in that the political nature of the current Parliamentary (as in, both sides of the House) obsession with ‘austerity’ could rarely be more easily illustrated, ‘fitting’ in that it confirms that artists making explicitly political work run the risk of being discarded and unsupported.

Just up the road from Red Ladder’s tiny office in Leeds city centre is Opera North. Most of the people reading this blog will already have seen the figures, but it’s worth reiterating that Red Ladder’s annual grant of £165,000 has been reduced to nil while Opera North’s annual grant has been raised by 6% to £10.4 million. I’m not disparaging opera; but for one art form to be so disproportionately subsidised over another is plainly obscene. The obvious assumption is that opera, which traditionally belongs to the elite classes, is able to effectively pull strings in powerful circles.

Class is an issue that artists tend to keep quiet about; there’s even a rumour going round the galleries and rehearsal rooms that artists are ‘classless’. I can’t help thinking how convenient this idea must be to the overwhelmingly middle class arts council establishment – watching the live press conference announcing the grant allocations on the morning of this run-through, it’s hard to listen past the plummy accents and institutionalised language that still dominate art’s governing bodies.

I’ve never liked exclusivity in art, in language or in politics. Elites are generally dominated by well-off white men anxious to circle the wagons and defend their cultural and political piece of dirt against the intruding oiks.

Red Ladder employs two full-time workers: Rod Dixon and Chris Lloyd. I reckon they wouldn’t be offended if I referred to them as the oiks rather than the establishment (!) They’re both of them steeped in the northern English culture they were brought up in, both more fish ‘n’ chips than wine and canapés. As such, they have an interest in making theatre that appeals to any class of audience, but especially to those people who don’t normally go to the theatre. Those people who are put off by the price of a ticket to see the latest production of Shakespeare, put off by theatre’s perceived disconnection from everyday popular culture.

Red Ladder’s recent community play ‘Promised Land’ – written by Anthony Clavane, a Leeds-born writer – featured a cast of people playing football fans, Leeds United fans, and drew an audience of both theatre-goers and Leeds United supporters. Some of the cast, and many of the people in the audience, had never been to the theatre before. Clavane’s recent play about rugby league commentator Eddie Waring, after a short and successful spell in the foyer at West Yorkshire Playhouse, was taken up by Red Ladder and sent out to the rugby league towns, and played successfully in the function rooms of the rugby clubs. These plays typify a kind of theatre that serves well the legacy of the late John McGrath in his seminal book ‘A Good Night Out’, a rallying-cry for inclusivity, for reaching out, for popularising theatre, and for making it relevant and important.

I visited Hemsworth Miners’ Welfare a few months ago and talked to some of the old miners there, men who’d been through the 1984/5 strike and seen the pit closed, watched the village and the estates around it lose its lifeblood. These were people whose lives had been shattered by Thatcherism; the welfare hall now a dilapidated building on its uppers, surviving on bingo nights and local cabaret turns. I was there to talk to BBC Radio Leeds about my involvement in the strike in 1984, about the miners’ support group we set up in Armley, Leeds. I asked the Hall’s secretary whether they’d be interested in having a play on, about the strike. It’s got music and songs and jokes, I assured them.

“Ooh I don’t know about that. We’ve never had a play on. Well I mean we’ve had comedians. Some good comics used to come here y’know. But I don’t know about a play. How many people are in it? We’d never afford it.”

I told him to phone Rod and Chris. He did, and they suggested, ‘How about we invite people along, and pass a bucket round. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to pay?’ The secretary said yes. That might not tick boxes, but for me it’s good theatre, inclusive theatre, the best kind of theatre.

The last of my plays that Red Ladder took out was ‘Sex & Docks & Rock ‘n’ Roll’, which toured various (and many-varied) venues including the Easington Colliery Club up in the North East, another small town decimated by the shutting down of the mines. It’s a place that, since then, has never recovered, all quiet streets and suspicious-looking locals (the local chippy does a fine mushy pea fritter, mind). The play was put on in a large and largely-deserted room of the Club (low ceiling, strip-lights, glitter decorations, bingo machine) while the main bar was full. It was a fiver on the door to see the play, and that included a free pint; still, only about a dozen locals came through, more bemused than enthusiastic. By the time the show had finished, all were standing and applauding, shouting for more. It’s these nights, as much as the sell-out audiences at City Varieties Music Hall, that for me typify Red Ladder’s work.

Sadly, I fear that it’s these nights that mean increasingly less to the box-tickers at the Arts Council, and especially those whose directives steer the funding policies. During the live feed of the Arts Council’s press conference I was disgusted to hear chairman Peter Gazalgette express gratitude for the work done by George Osborne “for generous funding of the arts”. Eh? How can the people who swim so effortlessly around that swirling cesspool of privilege and power understand the importance of taking theatre into places like Easington Colliery Club?

Red Ladder in its recent history has supported and encouraged emerging writers, actors and theatre-makers, some of whom had little chance to develop elsewhere. Writers like Emma Adams, Ben Tagoe, Alice Nutter and Dom Grace, writers committed to the idea of theatre as inclusive and open, not as an alien and exclusive world ‘somewhere over there’. Before I began to write for theatre I spent three decades in a pop group, never once applying for or receiving any funding from arts organisations. That’s the nature of pop’s place in capitalism – it’s built to survive in the marketplace, it’s an artform that, separate from the live concert, is easily reproducible, you can stick it on a CD and sell it piece by piece. Theatre is different; it is by its nature live, and only live. In order to make it accessible, in order to have ticket prices low enough for everyone to afford (one of Red Ladder’s important aims with every show), it needs funding, needs subsidising. The money that the Arts Council dish out doesn’t come from George Osborne, it comes from us as taxpayers. It comes from ordinary people who buy lottery tickets. It’s our money, yet we have no choice in how it’s divvied out; the (unelected) Arts Council send out people in the regions to fill in forms and report back to the plummy voices at the top who, ignoring the clamour for a less London-centric hand-out, rubber-stamp the usual million-pound pay-outs to the same few organisations.

Bitter? You bet. Unashamedly so. Inequality should make us all bitter, not least when it ties in so neatly with the current ‘austerity’ drive that somehow translates neatly as three-quarters of the population working harder and for less money whilst the top 25% slither, slug-like, through the increasing profits. How can I not be bitter about arts hand-outs to one opera company in my home city amounting to over £10 million every year? How can I watch these actors in this ageing Methodist chapel working so hard to create something powerful and unique, something meaningful and relevant, whilst hearing the repeated replaying in my head of Gazalgette saying his humble thank yous to George Osborne?

There’s a political element in all this, of course. As Rod points out, there are precious few arts organisations left – let alone theatre companies – who actively challenge the political status quo. Who expressly, and as a point of policy, support those working for social justice and fairness. Whose work isn’t afraid to point fingers and shout about the world we live in. How convenient that a company like Red Ladder, with its history of radical politics, should have its funding slashed at a time when dissent throughout British culture is being stifled and hidden, when the media is too scared to report on demonstrations, strikes and political activism.

This is not to denigrate the work (and the funding) of other local arts groups. Not at all. I reckon there’s space and support for all of us – and I love the work that other local groups like Slung Low and Interplay are doing. But somehow it’s been decided that Red Ladder should be hung out to dry. Why? I can imagine someone from the Arts Council saying that certain boxes weren’t ticked, quotas weren’t filled. That the impenetrable language of form-filling wasn’t adequately parroted. Any number of excuses to cover the fact that this is a political decision.

Over the past two or three years I’ve been in countless Red Ladder audiences – sell-out audiences – where everyone has laughed, clapped, and sang along. Felt involved, not alienated, by theatre. I’ve seen that theatre can be a part of people’s lives, not just an expensive evening’s entertainment. Isn’t this what the Arts Council should be promoting? One of Red Ladder’s principles is to keep down the price of seeing a show. The cost of tickets for theatre is one of the biggest reasons why it retains a middle class audience, why so many people have never been to the theatre. I’ve sat in the company’s rented basement office and watched Chris and Rod discussing how to keep prices down, how to encourage people to see stuff – and I’ve seen, too, that I can go online with a credit card and buy a seat in the Circle at Leeds Grand to see Opera North’s La Traviata for £68.

And so back to the play, to the rehearsal. In the two or three days since the announcement was made, messages of support for Red Ladder have been flooding in from all over the place. A fighting fund has been set up. But more than that, Red Ladder have declared that they won’t be wearied by any sense of injustice; that they’ll find a way to work, somehow – not least with the help of supporters and well-wishers – that any bitterness be replaced with a positive commitment to continuing work. When all’s said and done, it’s about the work, and the work is always thorough, popular and important. Although the company relied on that funding, there’ll be other ways to raise money to produce important and timely theatre. There has to be.

The four women on the creaking, not-quite-finished revolving stage set up in the old church hall stand to sing a final song, an amalgam of songs they’ve sung as characters in the play. It’s a finale about change, about hope, and it seems to fit, beautifully, this weird mix-up of a day.

Ordinary folks can live

Extraordinary lives

The distrust and the doubt can disappear 

For it only takes a spark

To turn the whole world upside down

And light the fire on an extraordinary year

It’s coming round

It’s coming round 

Please visit:

www.saveredladder.co.uk

www.localgiving.com/redladder

Twitter:

@saveredladder 









The Shears Inn, Luddite boozer

Photo by David Heppingstall 

Luddite Walking

May 18 • 2014

‘Walking with history sticking to the soles of your shoes.’

They call orienteering ‘smart running’, by which logic we might as well call this ‘smart walking’. Strolling through the countryside not just for the sake of getting out and about but to get drenched in the history and politics of the area, to get physically attached to the same bits of the revolving earth that our radical and rebellious ancestors walked on. In this case, literally – following in the bootsteps of 200 Luddite machine-wreckers who walked these paths in their fight for justice two centuries ago. 

Diane from Kirklees Libraries had cause to be a bit worried about setting up this whole thing – after proposing the event, she’d been queried by her higher-ups as to the politics of this bloke from that band that threw water over Mr Prescott. In the end, in a church hall in Liversedge, 80 people turn up armed with rucksacks, flasks and waterproofs to hear the gripping tale of the night-time Luddite attack on Rawfolds Mill.

I love telling that story, but I’m not going to tell it here. Well, not much of it anyway. Two hundred men meeting after nightfall, walking in rough formation across the moors, past churchyards and farms, past the Shears Inn where they’d taken the secret oath that bound them to the Luddite cause, down into the valley where stood the great grey mill, owned by ruthless old git William Cartwright. Imagine Alan Sugar with his own private army and with a vat of sulphuric acid ready to throw on his attackers.

At the church hall, squished and squeezed into a riot of fold-up chairs, and in the absence of any sulphuric acid, I sing a couple of songs, talk about walking and the politics behind walking – the 1932 Kinder mass trespass, Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ – before finishing off with a half-remembered rendition of the old Luddite song ‘General Ludd’s Triumph’. The one that’s on the English Rebel Songs album, but with an added chorus that sneakily turns it into a pop song. Sensing an urgency to get the walk started, I wrap up all the words and tales and politely demand that we stop talking and get on with walking.

Outside in the real world, the rain comes and goes as we thrash our way through wet nettles and derelict garages, chatting and laughing. Every half an hour we stop and re-group, pointing out some Luddite haunt or other (“This is where two dying Luddites were taken after the fateful attack on Cartwright’s mill. Where they were both tortured by a local clergyman…”) and spin ourselves into a long thin thread that bunches at stiles and re-routes around cows. It’s a delight, all these people planting their feet into history and re-learning the meaning of the word ‘Luddite’. For the record, it doesn’t mean someone who is opposed to technology; it means someone who is willing to attack and destroy the machines that were throwing themselves and their children into poverty and into the workhouses.

By the time we arrive back at the church hall we’re all a little bit smarter than when we set off. I don’t mean that in a teacher-ish way. Even though I’ve walked along the trails and paths used by the Luddites many, many times, I still find something new each walk, even if only a renewed sense of my connection to those people. A connection that links radical acts down the centuries, a line of walking people on the march towards something fairer and free-er.

Thanks to the Kirklees Library folk for coping with more people than they’d expected, and mercifully without any health & safety paranoia. And thanks to everyone that turned up and attached themselves bodily to the history around them; smart walking from the past, one foot in front of the other.













Photo by Dave Woodhead 

The Crab, the Mountain and Me

May 18 • 2014

Nick, who works for a TV production company, sent me a text.

‘Do you fancy being at Sedbergh Gala in a couple of weeks – Making a One Show film about fell running?’

Apart from its bouncy castles, brass bands and country food stalls, Sedbergh Gala hosts a traditional (and traditionally tough) fell race that starts from the showfield, runs up the near-as-dammit vertical climb to the top of the nearest mountain, turns round and runs back down again.

Yes, I do fancy being at Sedbergh. It’s an Open fell race, part of a legacy of races that in the past existed outside the barmy middle class codes of the Amateur Athletics Association, a race that pays its winners in cash-stuffed envelopes, a race that (along with dozens of others scattered around the north of Britain) puts two fingers up to the blazer-and-stopwatch brigade that tried for years to straitjacket rural running.

When I first got into fell running, back when you were just this high, I remember hearing tell of these races. Mad dashes up and down hills and mountains, routes criss-crossed by rivers and dry-stone walls, routes down scree-lined gullies, routes without paths. (At Sedbergh, seasoned runner Mick tells me of Open races where you have to wear gardening gloves, to stop your clutching hands being ripped open on horrifying descents). And all without insurance, without health and safety guidelines, without codified practices, whatever they are.

So I said yes, I’d be at Sedbergh. Nick wrote back about a week before the race.

‘You will be Iwan Thomas’ running partner/foil/moral support.’

Iwan Thomas is the current British 400 metres record holder. He’s won Olympic and Commonwealth medals. A proper runner. I point this out to Nick. Nick says, don’t worry, it’ll be fine.

Sedbergh Gala bathes in freakishly hot sun and the smell of frying hot dogs. People everywhere. Kids have ice cream tantrums, beered-up blokes queue for the portaloos. A brass band plays ‘New York, New York’ and a tannoy announces that the winners of the prize vegetable competition will be decided by 2pm, in the white marquee, by Mrs Douthwaite, chairwoman of Sedbergh Women’s Institute. (I made that last bit up, but you get the picture). The showground is a school playing-field, all freshly-cut grass and rugby pitch markings. Look around and it’s one more early-summer country fair; but look up, to the north, and you see the looming grassy behemoth of Winder, a mountain that seems to erupt from the village and reach up to the heavens. Big and green and as steep as… well, in Iwan’s case, probably as steep a learning curve as he’ll ever have.

Half an hour to go before the race, and Iwan’s worried. He looks up at the mountainside and wonders aloud. He’s not fit, he says. He’s unprepared, he says. “I’ll stick with you,” I tell him, not convinced that he won’t sprint off like a track athlete and be back at the finish by the time I’ve grovelled my way to the summit. It’s for the telly, so we’re wired up with microphones while warming up. He apologises in advance for a line he feeds me:

“… er, so Boff, what happens, in the race, if you get knocked down…?”

The start line. Precisely 100 runners of all shapes and sizes, male and female, young and old, all now aware (the tannoy has been working overtime) that they’re toeing the line with a champion athlete. A real runner. An Olympian. Three, two, one, a blast of a whistle, and we’re off out of the showground and heading up a winding, stony track leading to the foot of the mountain. The elite runners sprint off ahead. Iwan, competitive blood surging through his veins, goes with them. I’m about twenty metres behind, struggling for breath, doing a rotten job of being running partner/foil/moral support. I can’t keep up. He’s too good. He’s a bona fide athlete, and he has thighs the shape and power of motor pistons. He’s off and away, and I’ll never see him again. Blimey.

We reach the foot of the fell. We haven’t started the real climb yet. Suddenly Iwan is in front of me, gasping.

“I’m bastard knackered,” he shouts.

He starts to walk.

I’m relieved, to be honest. I only have one job, and that’s to keep up. To talk to him as he’s running, so that anything he says (remember, he’s mic’d up) might be cut into the segment, might be television gold. Or not, I think, considering the amount of swearing he’s doing.

It’s at this point that I realise I can stop worrying. Iwan isn’t built to run fell races. He’s a huge man, trained over a lifetime to be a thoroughbred sprinter, a powerhouse. Not someone who strides up hillsides, hands-on-knees, who delights in scrambling over rough earth towards horizons and summits.

Thing is, I don’t think Iwan quite knew this, either. He’s gobsmacked by his own utter knackeredness. As if he can’t quite understand how, despite his general athletic fitness coupled with a fierce competitive drive, he’s now towards the back of the field and in absolute pain. I get a little worried and ask if he’s going to make it round the race. We’re not halfway up the mountainside. His answer is a positive “Yes! Course I will!” and I realise that this man, being overtaken one at a time by most of the 100 runners of all shapes and sizes, male and female, young and old, is one of those ‘never-give-up’ types, hard-wired to stay the course. Despite the fact that he’s now adapted a style of hill-climbing I’ve not hitherto seen. Let’s call it ‘The Crab’. He walks on all fours, slowly, grabbing at tufts of white heather (which, frankly, are not unlike his own hair) and doesn’t look up.

“Tell me when I’m near the top, Boff.”

He’s not near the top. He carries on, slower now, crab-style. More people pass.

I start to remind him that this is not about winning, or achieving, or even finishing. It’s about enjoying it. I turn around and look back down the mountainside at the tiny Sedbergh showground, its red and yellow inflatables like tiny coloured stamps on the great green envelope of the valley, huge and expansive and going on forever. Look at that, Iwan!

To give him his due, he does look. He looks, panting, declares that he’s in absolute pain, and agrees that, yes, that’s a view to savour; after which he turns and resumes doing The Crab.

The thing about The Crab is that its effectiveness is limited. It’s incredibly slow, and it looks daft. As more people pass us, I’m beginning to think what good telly it would be were Iwan Thomas to finish last. I suggest this to him, but he struggles to understand. ‘Last’ probably isn’t a word he’s used to. I tell him a joke.

At the back of a big race, the bloke who’s second-to-last is taking great delight in taunting the one bloke behind him, making hand gestures and laughing. He shouts “Hey, what’s it like to be last, loser!” and the bloke at the back says, “You tell me” and drops out.

They won’t be using that on The One Show. By now I’m used to this pace, taking in the wealth of the world beneath us. Whatever the speed, this is life-affirming, it’s grounding and elevating at the same time, and it’s fun. Proper fun. Iwan says to a woman who passes us, ‘So what’s enjoyable about this, then?’ and she answers, without a beat and with a smile, ‘All of it.’ I hope the telly mics caught that.

It’s a reminder (as if I need one) that this isn’t just about the achievement of finishing, or the glow of the aftermath – it’s about every hard-earned, well-won step.

“How far to the top, Boff?”

Ten or so long, long minutes later, we’re at the summit. Iwan would be relieved if he weren’t so deliriously tired. If his calves and his quads and his back weren’t screaming ‘hurt’ at him. He’s honest, though, despite the microphones and the cameramen up on the mountainside, and the people around him in the race – at the hill’s peak he lifts his face to the sky and shouts ‘I’m in agony! I’m in pain!’

But see, we’re on the summit ridge now now. We made it. And look! You can see the Lakeland skyline from here! Iwan looks across as I sweep my arm over to the west. He doesn’t respond. He’s at the top. He can barely register the incredible view of the village from up here, a toy-town version of itself, calling us back down.

We start to descend, and I assure Iwan that he’s not last. He starts to lengthen his stride, feels easier, begins to talk. Then we hit a sheer descent.

“Zig zag!” I shout.

He zig zags. Very carefully. But he’s enjoying it now. He zig zags, and zag zigs, and starts to bounce down the mountain. He’s recovering now, and beginning to articulate what he’s enjoying about this race – the other runners encouraging him on when he felt so low, so tired. The spectators who urge him to keep going. The marshals, volunteers who are out here making sure everyone gets up and down safely. Iwan loves them all. He does. It’s the adrenalin-surge of the descending runner, the tears-in-your-eyes love of finishing, of feeling like you’re running again, properly, along the tracks that lead you down to the finish. We enter the Gala field and he’s loving it now, jogging along nicely, all the bastard hurt and bastard pain left up on the mountain.

“You’re a proper gent,” he tells me as we cross the line. He means it. He tells me how happy he is to have had someone sticking by him in his darkest half-hour. Thirty-five minutes, to be exact. The race winner, Robb Jebb, is probably at home with his feet up watching the FA Cup final. People gather around, cameras whirr and click, and Iwan switches on a breathless TV smile before declaring that he’ll “definitely do another one!” For a second – just a second – I picture him perfecting his Crab technique and scuttling to victory at next year’s Ben Nevis race.

Blogging about Blogging

April 28 • 2014

I sense that many people think that people who blog are just people with too much time on their hands.

I talked to a friend the other day whose contributions to Twitter used to be pithy, witty, clever and above all regular. I say ‘used to be’ not because he’d lost the art of translating his expansive sense of humour into 140 characters but because he’d just been too busy working and the tweets had dried up.

Last year, floundering around a bit since the band had kicked the bucket, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do for work (like, proper work that you get paid for) or how I’d go about it. Setting up a website felt almost like that old bumper sticker that reads ‘Look busy – Jesus is coming!’ So I wrote and wrote, theatre, songs, proposals and ideas … and blogs. Things that I wanted to say, I had space and time to write them, in between chasing my three year-old round the living room roaring like a dinosaur and turning up in odd places (literature festivals, book stores) playing a ukulele and talking about running. I grew a beard.

Then I started to get work (proper work that I got paid for) and suddenly, not wanting to curtail the dinosaur-roaring, the blogging had to take a back seat. Now I’m up to my neck in projects, exhibitions, playwriting and turning up in odd places playing a ukulele and talking about running. Nevertheless, I started to realise that the blog was more than something to fill the time between dinosaurs and ukuleles; it’s a way of articulating ideas, forcing me to take snatches of thoughts and give them context and place. A way of turning this-just-happened into what-did-this-mean. A way of bringing some rigour into that daily hotch-potch of scattered opinions that we probably all have. A way to put down markers that stay put instead of pub rants that disappear into the Gent’s urinals. If you know what I mean.

So, right. I’m a changed man. I mean business, and I’ve shaved off the beard. I’m a man with enough time on his hands to blog.

 

April 28 • 2014

Art, Kindness and Wonder

I was standing in the drizzle outside The Quad in Derby when Dan Bye rang. Dan was on University Challenge once, many years ago. Dan said he was thinking about putting in a proposal for a project that would happen, if it happened, sometime in the future in the Manchester Museum. “It’s about the idea of wonder,” he said, before asking if I’d be up for sticking a musical oar into the mix of his proposal.  (You don’t stick an oar into a mix. You stick a spoon into a mix. But a spoon sounds weedy and tentative, and I thought it sounded like a great idea, so I used an oar).

I’d recently read a book called The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, a book I’d recommend to everyone. A history of a time when scientists, artists, poets, philosophers and political thinkers gathered around dinner tables and wondered, out loud. The kind of wonder that made them get up and do something, the wonder that forged new inventions and scientific breakthroughs. The wonder I was interested in wasn’t the simple wonder of ‘Oh, look at that, how interesting’, but the wonder that chimes with curiosity, which says, ‘Oh, look at that, how does it do that, what does it mean, what can I learn from that, how will that affect the way I think about the world tomorrow morning when I leave the house and walk down the street?’ So in short, I love that word; wonder. I constantly wonder. I love to wonder.

Dan’s partner Sarah Punshon – who, owing to their hectic and disparate work schedules, he has only met four times, once being at their wedding – is a theatre director and producer, and was also drawn into Dan’s proposal.

But proposals come and proposals go, and this one had the disadvantage of being put together one day before the closing date. Not that this would matter to Dan Bye. He’s been on University Challenge, you know.

We were summoned to an interview at the museum. Manchester Museum is a weird and (aptly) wonder-ful place, seemingly built around various bequeathed collections over the years and thus a glorious hotch-potch of ideas and marvels. I’d been there before and had loved how it seemed to break out of its straitjacket, being neither a natural history museum nor a local museum nor any type of just-one-thing museum. And before the interview, looking around with our interview heads on, all three of us were shocked (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) by the way the museum challenges your expectation of what a museum is – information on exhibits are scrawled by hand, glass cases are named in neon tube lighting, paper cranes escape an exhibition and appear to fly off toward the room’s ceiling.

I was cycling in the rain out towards Swinsty Reservoir a few weeks after the interview when Dan rang and left a message that we’d got the commission. He sounded a little shocked.

Now, none of the above has much to do with what I wanted to write about – so if you can consider the last six paragraphs as a succinct one-line pre-amble I’d be grateful. The commission, to produce a piece of drama/music/art to complement both the Museum’s collection and to illuminate and celebrate the sense of ‘wonder’ that a good museum can provoke, was co-sponsored by the museum and by an organisation called People United (right, I finally got to the point).

Look up People United if you like. But here’s my version – a charity that co-ordinates, produces, partners, funds, inspires and guides artists who want to make work that engenders kindness. And so here’s another word, after ‘wonder’, that I love: kindness. There’s a poster on the hallway wall in our house that reads ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People.’ I love that poster, but various people have derided the idea of ‘being nice’. It’s too wet, that’s what they think. It’s wishy-washy liberal and uncombative language that allows us to be walked over. It’s the word your English teachers told you never to write, isn’t it? It’s hard to say it without inflecting it with tilt-of-the-head sarcasm.

But one of the things I got from my parents that sticks with me is that sense of common decency, being nice, valuing kindness. Caring. It doesn’t mean I shy away from sometimes being hateful and angry sometimes – anger’s important, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t wish I had a secret button that instantly and anonymously executed people like David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson (mine’s underneath the kitchen table, but I shouldn’t tell you that, you’ll all be round wanting a go).

Kindness. Or as People United researcher Jo Broadwood calls it, when we meet up in Canterbury for a two-day briefing about the aims of the museum project, ‘pro-social activity’.  This two-day meet-up did what it presumably set out to do, which was fill up my head with ideas and questions, with shifts and adjustments, sometimes with arguments. And all of it coming back to that principle of ‘kindness’, of making work (in our case, theatre and music) that creates change.

There’s an old photograph that turned up recently on Facebook, of Chumbawamba playing a free outdoor concert under a makeshift canvas awning at Menwith Hill listening station in North Yorkshire, basically a US spy base that sits awkwardly among the rolling greenness of the Dales. The photograph has us playing in front of two banners we’d painted, one reading ‘Music is not a threat’, the other, ‘Action that music inspires can be threat’. And when I saw it, I realised that the intervening 30 years since that photograph was taken haven’t changed that simple idea for me – art, as Brecht puts it, as not just a mirror but as a hammer with which to smash that mirror. Art that provokes and questions, that changes the way we think. Rod Dixon of Red Ladder is apt to walk out of theatre productions full of praise for the piece he’s just seen – beautifully acted, compelling, funny, clever, whatever – but unable to get past the simple question, ‘what was it for? What did it say?’ It’s no good just making nice art. The trick is to make nice art that provokes a kinder world.

Defining kindness as something that goes beyond individual acts of generosity and thoughtfulness, we examine the potential of the arts to be at the heart of strengthening our capacity for empathy, friendship, social bonds and concern for others, including future generations.

(People United)

I know it’s more or less what I’ve always thought, but it’s still worth reminding myself every now and then just what it is that I do, what’s important – taking art and shaking it, asking questions of it, giving it a reason, a point, a duty, even. As with many things in life, I blame punk. It took a love of creativity and ideas and gave it a kick up the arse. It didn’t run away from the pro-social values I already knew, it expanded them, gave them meaning – it took punk to tell me that bigotry and racism didn’t fit with anyone’s idea of pro-social values – fired me up enough so that thirty-odd years later I could be still be charging towards ideas, ready to dive headfirst into Manchester Museum with Dan and Sarah and all those people in Canterbury whose heads buzzed with the challenge of making something worthwhile, effective, important. Making something for a reason. Making something that contributes towards ‘a sense of people being connected by force of our common humanity’. Something that encompasses notions of compassion, social justice, neighbourliness and respect for others.

People United’s manifesto, ‘Arts & Kindness’ is available as a free download here.








Rotten's stare at the chaotic end of the band's TV debut. 

January 8 • 2014

Anger Is An Energy

The music that really woke me up – that shook me out of a self-imposed adolescent rebellion full of Frank Zappa and the Bonzo Dog Band, in itself an antidote to the prevailing schoolboy flared-trouser post-hippy hangover typified by Genesis and Pink Floyd – was punk. Specifically, the Sex Pistols. Not on an intellectual level (after that initial burst of energy I rarely listened to their records) but in a visceral bolt-from-the-blue whooooosh! of fun and danger, of championing a new music that every agent of the straight, conservative world hated. From the Pistols’ whooooosh it was an easy tumble into a fizzing new landscape that wasn’t just men with guitars but poets, all-women bands, artists, shouters, street-politicians, all the beautiful freaks from Joe Strummer to Elvis Costello to The Slits, belligerent and clever with it, a kick up the arse of the 1970s and a pointer towards the next decade. 

It wasn’t until years later – ten, twenty – that I could put my finger on why this new music had felt so different, so exciting. I mean, I’d already been flirting with the weirdos by buying imported Fugs and Zappa albums before punk came along. I would’ve bought those Residents records too, even though I’d never heard the music, if I could have afforded them.

Why punk felt so different for me wasn’t its wildly varying and varied sound or its eccentric sense of style (though I loved both) but its words. I’d always loved words. I grew up devouring books and decided in my early teens I ought to write poetry. My first ever out-of-town show was to see Roger McGough, a Liverpudlian poet, playing in a depressing red-brick working men’s club in some freezing outpost of northern England. Words. That’s why I loved the early Frank Zappa albums – the lyrics were clever and cynical, barbed and witty. My childhood heroes The Beatles had a way with words, and brief flings with The Doors and Leonard Cohen led me to believe that rock ‘n’ roll had a place for poetry, too.

But before punk, the lyric – and specifically the rock lyric – seemed to consist almost entirely of love songs. And no matter how well you write a love song, there’s a point when the thrill of innovation and surprise just isn’t there anymore. Even rebellious figureheads like Hendrix, Joplin and MC5 dealt mainly in love songs of one form or another. CSN&Y and Joni Mitchell sometimes dealt with social issues, but lyrically they were less about rallying cries than about pleas for change. Dylan’s politically-charged, Guthrie-inspired early songs were what he’d call ‘observations’ rather than direct attacks (and he gave up on them as soon as popularity reared its head). There was so much in the world to sing about, but in retrospect, despite a few notable exceptions, the soundtrack to those times was, at its spikiest, full of little more than admonishing and cajoling, finger-pointing and tut-tutting.

Punk was different. From its very inception, it roared in anger. It spat and swore and sneered its hatred. I was fifteen years old when the Pistols made their television debut on local TV (I was lucky to live in Lancashire, home of the pioneering maverick television host Tony Wilson, who would later found Factory Records. He insisted on having the band on his weekly arts/pop show). They sang ‘Anarchy In The UK’, live, and frankly I could make out little of what they were saying. But whatever they said, the little I could understand, was delivered with such an amount of anger that I was completely captivated. I’d read about them in the New Musical Express, and dismissed them; I can’t remember why. But watching them, I suddenly understood what the fuss was about. There’s You Tube video of that first TV performance which I’d urge you to watch. Wilson introduces the band, hilariously, as ‘one of the most reviled bands of recent weeks.’ There’s a rumble of bass and feedback. Wilson shouts ‘Take it away!’ as the noise builds behind him, and then there’s Rotten, hanging onto the mic stand, yelling over the cacophony. The first few words he screams are practically inaudible – something sarcastic about flowers, romance and Woodstock ­– but what’s clear is that infamously manic stare and the roared, bellowed line ‘Get off your arse!’ before a guitar intro and the opening lyric:

I am an anti-Christ

Blimey. Right there in my living room in Burnley, in our devout Mormon family home, was a man declaring himself the anti-Christ. Previous to this I’d had to play the Beatles’ White Album in secret, never mind having some bloke blaspheming all over our green nylon carpet. I believed him, too, this man in the torn pink jacket, hair chopped and scruffed, eyes blazing.

And this was what I eventually came to realise had been missing: anger. Not a theatrical or reasoned or delicate or poetic anger; a furious, in-your-face anger. The pattern was set; now music could look at the real world and allow its anger to come barrelling out of the speakers and the records, allow itself to go on the attack. Instead of ‘Everybody look what’s goin’ down’ we got ‘I wanna riot’; and for the next few years I was able to form a worldview, a gradually-informed critique of capitalism and neo-liberalism to a perfect soundtrack of what the outraged Daily Mirror newspaper headline referred to as ‘The Filth and the Fury!’

What was significant about all this rage was that it picked its targets well; it wasn’t just aimless pissed-off youth railing against their parents or their girlfriends, it was focussed on those who wielded power, whether it be government, press, police or corporations. In the hands of lyricists like Elvis Costello, Ari Up of The Slits and Joe Strummer of The Clash, the anger could be given narrative and drama, could be beautifully-crafted. 

In December 1977, Elvis Costello was invited to appear on America’s Saturday Night Live as a late replacement for the Sex Pistols, who were having trouble with travel visas. Costello decided to use his first US TV slot to play ‘Radio, Radio’, an unreleased song attacking the power of corporate commercial broadcasting in the States. The producers decided otherwise; he was requested to drop the track in favour of ‘Less Than Zero’, taken from his newly-released US debut album. This he did, for a few bars, before suddenly halting the song, turning to his band and shouting ‘Radio, Radio!’ – whereupon he sang what he’d intended to sing all along, spitting out his hatred with a venom reserved not only for the powerful conglomerates but for the show’s censorious producers behind the cameras.

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me

I wanna bite that hand so badly

I want to make them wish they'd never seen me

The Slits took the anger of punk and wound it up tightly with the fury of the embattled 1970s feminist movement. They refused to play by any rules that rock ‘n’ roll had concocted for them as females, doing the dirty on decorum and style and welding their brittle reggae together with spittle and self-confidence.

Don't take it personal

I choose my own fate

I follow love

I follow hate

Here was a new pop language, a language not of urging and requesting, but a language of demanding and refusing. It informed the best of what was to follow into the 1980s, gave an edge to the best of rock ‘n’ roll’s lyricists – it’s fair to say that, beneath the last few decades of Madonna/Jackson pop sheen, there’s been a healthy dollop of anger lacing some of the best music, from the in-your-face fury of Black Flag and Dead Kennedys to the gently seething rage of The Smiths and The Specials, from the upper-class-baiting Paul Weller to Billy Bragg and Crass, across a wealth of musical stylings through to The Prodigy, Nirvana and Green Day and of course right into the heart of hip-hop.

As Rotten/Lydon himself sang in 1986 on the anthemic ‘Rise’, ‘anger is an energy’. I’m a reasonably firm believer in Beatles biographer Ian MacDonald’s loosely-described theory that sees today’s western art and culture in decline; that sometime during the 1970s the Anglo-American model of ‘culture’ reached its pinnacle and since then has been in an irreversible cycle of repeating and regurgitating itself as it struggles for new forms. If it’s at all true (and time will tell) then the advent of punk, with its temper-fuelled antagonism, might be seen as the last great kick of new and shocking creativity.

But what’s possibly more important is that punk made it commonplace, and normal, to use anger in inventive and original ways; to put tunes to the critiques. Punk didn’t replace the radical movement’s pamphlets and marches, chants and sit-ins; but it added a genuinely new and noticeable voice. As Tony Wilson, host of that first Pistols appearance, says when the last cry and hum of feedback has ended in that TV studio in Manchester:

“Bakunin would have loved it”


• Sex Pistols first appearance on TV

• Elvis Costello plays ‘Radio, Radio’ on SNL

This piece was written originally for the Exterminating Angel online magazine. Exterminating Angel is a topical, critical and regular forum for good writing and you can view or subscribe to it here at Exterminating Angel Press. The subject for the issue is 'Liberty & Lyrics'. 








Elvis barks 'Radio Radio!' at the Attractions.

December 6 • 2013

Yorkshire Tour! Bingley, Holmfirth, Nursery School

I stood in front of three different audiences last week and thought I might use the three events as a way of getting a measure of myself. Ouch, that sounded like an introduction to a self-help book. One of those books that purportedly sell millions but nobody ever seems to have one on their bookshelves.

I stood in front of three audiences and adapted what I do (whatever it is I actually do) to suit; mostly on the hoof. Maybe I should have worn a pantomime horse costume.

On Tuesday I gave a speech to 150 pupils of Bingley Grammar School as part of a series of talks, given throughout a day, that might get them thinking about the world outside education and school. I thought it might be relatively easy until I watched the speaker before me, who worked at the local Airedale Hospital and gave a power-point presentation on ‘Medical Ethics’.

Wake me up when he’s finished, etc.

But no. He detailed cases of extreme emergencies – car crashes leading to vegetative state casualties, for instance – that came attached with moral and ethical decisions. A young woman is dying of blood loss. But she’s made a YouTube video of herself, as a Jehovah’s Witness, requesting that doctors do not give her a blood transfusion. Then the surgeons fighting to save her discover that she has a secret pregnancy.

That sort of thing.

I had to follow this with a talk that rambled and rattled around between pop culture, creativity and the role of dissent in society. A young guitarist is killing his brain cells with loud music – he’s made a YouTube video of himself playing air guitar to ‘Smoke On The Water’, etc. Then he discovers he has a secret fondness for Enya.

I’m not sure how well my talk worked. The kids were too polite to express much opinion either way. After 40 minutes of extolling the virtues of the arts in education and championing society’s mavericks as an essential part of our culture moving forward (and kicking Michael Gove on the way past), I asked if anybody had any questions. The first hand raised offered, “Who’s the most famous person you’ve met?”

Oh. ‘John Prescott’, I replied. ‘But he’s from before your time, I think’.

Next up, two days later, was a 20-minute support slot with Oysterband in Holmfirth. I had no idea what I might do at this gig, having been added to the bill when I’d expressed support several months earlier for the idea of a benefit for the Holme Valley Mountain Rescue Team.

That was on one of John Jones’ walks. Helen, a member of the Mountain Rescue, was canvassing for support. Now I love mountain rescue. I do. Wherever they may be – Lake District, Scotland, Peak District – completely voluntarily, these people drop their knives and forks onto their half-eaten dinners and rush themselves into straps ‘n’ buckles, sling huge bags of ropes and first aid equipment onto their backs, and set off up mountains and across moors looking for stranded, lost, frightened people.

I might be one of those people, one day. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll help out. I’ll play!’

So the day arrived and of course I had nothing to play. Not really. I had my new cheap sanded-down guitar and a set-list largely based on an old Chumbawamba gig from 1812, when we used to do benefits for the Holme Valley Luddites.

I’m at home on those stages, with rowdy audiences and the walls painted black – but somehow I felt a little lost. Some people who I knew from the John Jones walking tours sang along, and if only I’d remembered the Oysterband’s names quicker for that verse of ‘Add Me’ it would have been essentially smooth and enjoyable. As it was, I enjoyed drawing the raffle and singing ‘El Fusilado’ but then fudged an appearance with the Oysters on their encore song of ‘Road To Nowhere’. I couldn’t see an available microphone and wasn’t prepared to elbow Ian or Alan out of the way in a rush to capture some limelight.

Lovely evening, though, and hard helmets off to the Holme Valley Mountain Rescue. Long may they save people from their directionless upland meanderings.

The third audience was a different kettle of sprats entirely. It was on the Friday at Little Green Frog Nursery in Otley, north of Leeds. My son Johnny goes there, usually dressed as Superman or Batman. For reasons of goodwill and comfort and joy I’d volunteered to play a selection of Xmas songs to the assembled kids (ages 2 – 4). This was the hardest audience of the week; but ultimately the most rewarding – I’d barely got through ‘Frosty the Snowman’ before half the kids were up on their feet and jigging around. I didn’t have to ask them to sing along; they were already roaring their half-learnt versions of the lyrics at the top of their undeveloped lungs.

It was lovely, of course. Having a small army of children leaping around while yelling the chorus of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is both beautiful and frightening. The next day I was presented with a photograph of me sitting there at the nursery on a tiny kid-sized chair, singing Xmas songs and smiling.

Not that the other two events weren’t great things to be part of, but singing ‘We all want some figgy pudding’ with backing vocals by several nursery-age children just about topped the week.

Now, back to that Self-Help book. 

We'll start with an ethical dilemma. 

Chapter One – You're called out to rescue a lost hiker who's crag-bound and injured in the vicinity of Laddow Rocks, south of Holmfirth. When you arrive, you discover that the hiker is, in fact, Conservative Party Education Secretary Michael Gove. He's alone. 

Do you:

a) Pretend not to have seen him and walk in the opposite direction as fast as your walking boots will carry you, whistling 'So long, Farewell' from the Sound of Music soundtrack, or -

b) Apply pressure to the minister's throat area until all signs of life disappear.

I'll leave it with you. All together now, 'Frosty, the snowman, was a jolly happy soul…'

November 12 • 2013

Censorship, Alice Nutter* & The Library

I’ve become one of those parents that complains about books in the library. Well, not ‘books’, just one book. About witches.

It’s a rainy afternoon and I’m in there with Johnny looking at books to read. It’s a great library and we go every Wednesday, it’s part of our potter around town, somewhere between the post office and the bookshop that sells 5p lollies. He likes scary children’s books – dinosaurs, dragons and monsters. While he wanders around I pick out one of a series of illustrated books under the title ‘Monster Mania’, this one entitled ‘Witches’. As it says on the sleeve, “Prepare to unearth the legends and mysteries surrounding some of the most feared monsters in the world.” Oooh.

But then, like it does all too often, the real world jumps up and bites me on the ankles. If I could stop thinking so much, this wouldn’t happen. I’ve read and learned enough about the persecution of those ordinary women (and children) branded as ‘witches’ to bristle at the description of them as ‘feared monsters’. 

The book is in a series together with werewolves, vampires and ghosts. The difference is that while those three are myths, witches were a very real and very regrettable part of our history. They weren't 'supernatural', they didn't have 'familiars', they couldn't ‘turn cream sour’ (as this book says). You didn’t really discover if they were witches or not by tying them to a stool and drowning them. No, they were in the main impoverished women who, together with their families, were tortured, abused and murdered to satisfy the power-trips of religious zealots. That's what this book ought to be telling children, not that ‘witches were ugly’. What next in the 'Monster' series – black people, Jews, homosexuals?

So I complained. I’ve never agreed with those liberal blanket calls for ‘No Censorship’. I don’t advocate censorship by the state, but I think in our families, communities and workplaces, we can’t let liberal politicking mean ‘anything goes’. When Jello Biafra, together with Frank Zappa, opposed the right-wing Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Centre over their intention to censor records, he ended up defending (wrongly, in my opinion) the indefensible: the misogynist, the racist, the bigoted and the backward.

I agree with ‘no platform for racists’, whether it’s censorship or not. I don’t want to see some nasty twerp from the EDL, who loudly advocates violence against Muslims, being given the respect of an equal platform with people trying to defend themselves against street attacks and burnt-out homes. (I was always more AFA than ANL). There’s a point where simply parroting Voltaire’s ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is just an excuse for inactivity. And as someone who’s written plenty of ‘hate lyrics’ against those in power (oh yes!) I’m still not prepared to stand side-by-side with musicians who use lyrics to spread hatred of those less powerful than themselves.

For instance…

I can’t see why Eminem’s latest anti-gay rant in the song ‘Rap God’ is tolerated, never mind played on the radio. (In case you missed it, he raps about his ability to “break a motherfucker’s table over the back of a couple faggots and crack it in half.”)

Remember Guns ‘n’ Roses singing ‘One in a Million’? “Immigrants and faggots, they make no sense to me. They come to our country and think they'll do as they please, like start some mini Iran, or spread some fuckin' disease.”

And I’ll spare you the Eazy-E lyric I was going to use as an example of rape glorification.

So back to the library. Over at the counter, peering around the What’s On pamphlets and plexi-glass book stands, I’m there trying to talk about witches to the librarian, who really doesn’t want to be having this conversation. She advises me to fill in a form. The form is the size of my hand, so I write a thesis on ‘monsters – imagined or real’ in very, very small letters. I put it in the box.

A week later I get a very nicely-worded (well, he does work in books) email from the head librarian, who explains that the book will remain on the shelves. There are two explanations. One is cut-and-pasted from a Libraries directive, probably a vast online resource of regulations and rules and instructions on dealing with noisy eaters in the library.

“…if a book has not incurred penalties under the law it should not be excluded from libraries under any moral, political, religious, or racial ground alone, to satisfy any sectional interest.”

Which doesn’t really satisfy me, since I’m not interested in what the law says about the book; it’s the law that has routinely persecuted people throughout history due to such ‘political, religious and racial’ grounds. The law is not always in tandem with culture, something I’ve been able to observe as I’ve got older. Laws defining people’s basic rights to equality have tended to come from below, they’ve had to respond to how culture has changed. I’ve seen how when there’s sufficient opinion on an issue, the politicians suddenly become motivated to stick it on their agendas; and the law doesn’t even drag itself out of its deep sleep until the politician kicks it in the ribs.

When I was a lad, racism in my peer group was commonplace, normalised, traditional. Then came black music, asian technology, black footballers, asian food, a thousand little changes that chipped away at our bigotry. Until eventually our media, our sport, our culture, our everyday lives were so fantastically steeped in multinational, multiracial stuff that racism became uncommon, out-of-step and backward. As long as there are still cretins like the EDL around, there’ll always be battles to fight. But there’s been change, and that change didn’t come from lawmakers. (You could argue that one of the few places where multiracial culture hasn’t yet penetrated is Westminster).

No, what’s important here is that sometimes people have to take responsibility for crap things in their workplaces and homes and communities and not wait for the law to catch up.

The second explanation was:

“If children’s publishers were to reflect the injustices that so-called ‘witches’ suffered (and to highlight the social context in which these injustices were dealt out) in their output, then public libraries would naturally stock these books on their shelves.”

And that’s a fair point. Write your own book, get it published, and we’ll stock it. But really, a children’s book about witches that doesn’t talk about spells, pointy hats, broomsticks and turning little children into hedgehogs? Now where’s the fun in that?


*Alice Nutter was one of the original Pendle witches. After a boundary dispute with her neighbour, the magistrate Roger Nowell, he took it upon himself to accuse, capture, try and murder her for ‘witchcraft’.  











Lucky Luciano, dead of a heart attack, Naples airport, 1962 

October 15 • 2013

Thinking about Luck (and not reaching any conclusions)

I used to continually think myself lucky.

I’m a man who wakes up every morning in fine health, with a wonderful family, lots of friends and a job that entails me either going off somewhere interesting playing music to appreciative strangers or sitting at an old desk flanked by a coal fire and a cup of tea. How lucky can I get?

I was fooling myself; that’s not luck. I read an inspiring article about Syria (I think by Robert Fisk, but I may be wrong. I tend to lazily catalogue any memorable writing about the political world outside Britain as being by Robert Fisk) where the punchline rested on the phrase ‘Surrey or Syria’. The idea that, despite all your best efforts, where you’re born is the ultimate piece of luck in life.

So I started to think about this thing, ‘luck’. About how we have words that become acceptable shorthand, faulty and imprecise and somewhere half a mile from the words we really want (but quick and easy). As a boy, short trousered and grubby faced, in the kitchen and in the vague hope of a Jammy Dodger, I’d tell my Mum, “I’m starving”. She’d say, “No you’re not. Children in Africa are starving. You’re hungry. Here, have a slice of bread.”

Luck, like starving, seems to be one of those shorthand words. When I finally made some money from playing music, it felt so easy to call it luck. But it wasn’t luck, it was fifteen years of expenses-only gigs, many thousands of miles in the back of transit vans, a million journeys in and out of venues carrying amplifiers and drumkits. It was working at a craft, rehearsing, playing, analysing, talking, finding out what works and what doesn’t work. Luck is so often a combination of:

Working hard

Being good

Making connections

Taking risks

Having the right people around you

I’ll stop the list there. This is beginning to sound like one of those self-help books you flick through at the airport, full of cleverly-structured sentences that mould life into easily-crackable nutshells. (I came across one of those this morning: “What you should not do is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends.” That was by Paul Graham. I couldn’t disagree more. As an artist, possibly the worst audience are your friends. Your friends want you to be happy, so at best they’ll wrap the truth in sympathy and love. That’s what friends are for. No, the point of art is to communicate ideas to an audience. So, yes, worry about the opinion of the audience.)

Back to luck. I now have a trigger reflex that jumps into life somewhere between my head’s impulsive sense of well-being and cheer and my mouth’s desire to tell the world (or my mate in the pub) how lucky I feel. Running somewhere beautifully isolated, stepping across loose stones on a Lakeland mountain ridge and seeing nothing but a huge expanse of hill, sky and cloud, it feels easy to stop and shout my luck to the world, but I don’t do it. I think, luck didn’t put me here. Lots of training did. Training, and all that stuff in the list up there. I was lucky in Bank Hall Hospital to come out screaming with lungs and legs in the right proportion; lucky to have a Mum who encouraged me to be polite, clean my ears and read a lot; but most of the rest was up to me.

Education Secretary Michael Gove recently had a meeting with scientist Robert Plomin, a man who believes that it's mainly genetics, not education, that dictates intelligence. He's thankfully quite isolated in this view, but of course it plays into the hands of government ministers who want to spend less and less money and time on educating those from poorer backgrounds and more and more on pushing well-off kids into positions of power and influence. It's not how hard you work, or how well you're taught – just what class you're born into.

There it is again, that ‘Surrey or Syria’ conundrum. Some things are down to where you're born. A lot of things. Along with Michael Gove, every member of the government cabinet, in their expensively-tailored suits and public school backgrounds, got there through luck. They were born into confidence, power, wealth and opportunity. Having the background that ensures you can have your name put down for Eton and Harrow before you're even conceived sounds like the inevitable outcome to Plomin's theory, if it wasn't already happening.

Sticking with Surrey or Syria, the implication is that bad luck outweighs good. In the USA, which trumpets itself as a 'meritocracy' (anyone can be President!) for every Barack Obama there are around a million black people in jail. 

And doesn't it seem that when the bad luck is bad, it's really bad? You can be as fit and healthy as my Dad – never smoked, never drank, fit as a fiddle and utterly alien to the idea of stress – and then one day, boom, cancer. That’s not in the airport How-To books. It's just plain bad luck. Years ago I watched a documentary about the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers, and it shocked me how many of the people who escaped, who got out before the towers collapsed, ascribed their good fortune to God. (And if they think God purposely saved them, then by inference they believe God purposely didn’t save those who were killed. You can’t have it both ways – if it’s part of a heavenly plan when the baby is miraculously saved from the terrible earthquake, then it’s part of that plan to have the baby drowned in the tsunami).

Luck plays a big part in our everyday. It’s lurking around the next corner on the runaway truck, or hiding in the wiring ready to spark into fire. Worse still, it’s there in the hospital ward at our birth and there in our times of sickness. But there’s no need to exaggerate, no need to play along with the imprecise shorthand. Luck is sometimes an excuse. Sometimes it isn’t. Carl Jung called it ‘synchronicity’ but I think he just wanted a fancy name for it. He, like everyone else, and like this imprecise piece of writing, failed to nail it.

So it’s a late summer evening and I’m listening to the Daft Punk song, ‘Get Lucky’ – not by Daft Punk, but by my daughter’s teenage band, playing on a little stage in someone’s garden – and that repeated phrase, ‘I’m up all night to get lucky’. And I think to myself, surely staying up all night (until, as the song says, the sun comes up) isn’t luck, but a combination of stamina, confidence and perseverance? The lyrics say ‘we’ve come too far to give up who we are’ – well, that’s not luck, that’s determination mixed with self-confidence. And the line ‘raise our cups to the stars’ implies that alcohol is involved: always an effective way of staying up late, increasing your chance of copping off.

At this point I realise I’m thinking too much, and instead focus on my daughter and her mates belting out a funky song using only ukulele and acoustic guitar, and realise how lucky I am. 

October 1 • 2013

Banners, Whistles and Not Clicking 'Like'

This past year I’ve been researching and reading about the suffragettes, and what surprised me is the sheer number of direct actions, interventions and attacks that were an integral part of the campaign for votes. This wasn’t Emmeline Pankhurst smashing the occasional window and being bundled off to Holloway; it was a daily continuum of civil disobedience and activism, of arson, disruption and illegality. Its purpose was to take politics back into the hands of ordinary people and away from the established power-brokers in Parliament. It’s inspiring stuff; they simply made so much trouble that they forced change.

Then last night I watched a small segment of ‘The Frost Show’ from 1970 (see it below), where a bunch of politicised hippies took over prime time BBC and showered the host with flour and water. More good old-fashioned protest, this time from an era when the disaffected counter-culture was effectively making itself part of everyday (literally, every single day) political culture, when all the established and establishment prejudice surrounding the issues of the day – racism, sexism, Ireland, Vietnam – were being challenged, every day, through strikes, marches, direct action and media intervention. It was the same through the 1980s. Popular culture wasn’t just Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, it was politics; anti-Thatcher, anti-War, anti-Apartheid. Actions, protests and demonstrations. All this activism worked in tandem with a changing popular culture, with music, film, TV and theatre pitching into the battle.

So here we are, 2013, under the cosh of a bullying public school government seemingly dusted-down from a time when the suffragettes were setting fire to post boxes, and I’m with eleven-year-old Maisy swinging her plastic ‘Unite The Union’ football rattle and three-year-old Johnny on his Mum’s shoulders with a placard, on a Sunday gathering in support of the NHS in Manchester. It’s not hard to feel reminded of a time when protesting – marches, demos, pickets, occupations – were family affairs, actions that ran right through society. Remember kids on CND demos waving placards reading ‘I Want To Grow Up, Not To Blow Up’? For years now it’s seemed that all that incredible energy, the physical getting together, the coach trips and songs and banners and whistles, was being lost to a world where instead we spend our time clicking ‘like’ and retweeting. A world where we gradually accept that our role is to electronically write to our MPs (actually just adding our name to a pre-written email) read the latest MediaLens and sign the online petitions. I’ve got no room to talk – singing songs and writing articles has been essentially how I’ve predominantly engaged in politics for the past two decades.

'Doing things on social media is not politics. It only becomes so once you do something active as a result.'

Anarchic Ali, writing on Culture Vulture

We get to the march late and join in somewhere in the middle, unable to see (or conceive) of its head or its tail. Judging by the noise – the mingling, wind-blown chants, constant whistles, horns, rattles and megaphones, along with the heady racket of the Musicians’ Union samba band that we appear to have stumbled into – this march is big, bigger than I expected. I have flashbacks to my own timeline of protest; just how normal it used to be to feel part of the political process – that’s politics with a small ‘p’, where parliament is forced kicking and screaming into changing policy because us, the people, the culture, are already changing the world around us.

Marches and demos are planted like landmines back down my adult life, explosions of anger and colour that mark out both the highs and lows of recent British history. Demonstrating against the Falklands War, picketing and marching with the Miners, watching Gil Scott-Heron and Tony Benn at huge CND gatherings in Hyde Park. Running with Class War through London, protesting against the Poll Tax, occupying hospitals threatened with closure. Being caught up in rioting in Amsterdam and Denmark. Facing armed police and tear gas at the G8 in Genoa.

Then there was the huge 2003 anti-Iraq march in London. That was the last of the big demonstrations for me. It marked a point when I (and I wasn’t alone in this) thought that these numbers, this show of strength, had become utterly irrelevant to those in power; Blair invaded anyway, guided only by his personal belief in legacy and God, and what so many of his citizens were demanding was dismissed and ignored.

But our gradual slide away from physical and participatory politics – the swinging rattles, the home-made placards – and our embracing of internet politics has surely been damaging, to the point where it feels like we left a huge hole in political culture that the mainstream media (digital and otherwise) jumped into and filled. And, at this march with 70,000 other people on a sunny afternoon in Manchester, I can begin to get a sense of that physical involvement again. The sense that this march might be largely ignored by the BBC (marches always were) and that the Tories will close the heavy velvet Conference Hotel curtains on the distant hum of chants and whistles (they always did) but that what’s important here is the real and visible community, the gathering.

Rebecca Solnit puts it beautifully:

“Rather than see these demonstrations on foot as extraordinary, it is important to see them as an extension of the ordinary. The exercise of democracy begins as exercise, as walking around, becoming familiar with the streets, comfortable with strangers, able to imagine your own body as powerful and expressive rather than a pawn. People who are at home in [this] civic space preserve the power to protest and revolt, whereas those who have been sequestered into private space do not.”

The police helicopter hovers above, its whirring blades drowned out by the hundreds of blocks of voices below playing call-and-response, laughing as they invent new ways to insult the rich and powerful, new ways to vocalise their own collective strength. Maisy gets bored of the rattle and complains about her aching feet; this stop-start crawling along hot tarmac is draining. Johnny wants to run, to grab the balloons, to challenge his own shop-window reflections to a fight (Batman vs Incredible Hulk). We weave away from the march and into the quiet back streets. But even as we make our way home, the visceral thrill of the noise and the sheer vitality of the physical gathering – united in rage – still fizzes and pops.

It might be naïve to imagine that we’re collectively coming out from behind our laptops and returning to an age of massed actions. But the signs are there – teachers and firefighters strikes, flashmobs, occupations, protests. Today I’m happy to have introduced Maisy and Johnny to that part of political culture – that noisy starting point – where ordinary people gather in anger to sing, shout and chant; a culture as powerful and effective as we collectively choose to make it.
















 Richard Long's 'A Line Made By Walking' 

September 26 • 2013

John Jones And The Not-At-All Reluctant Ramblers

Since a lot of my ongoing blogs and writings are fuelled by anger and the need to splurge and dissect – to react and to argue – I realise it’s about time I wrote something wholly uplifting and joyous. That joy is in the innocent, simple pleasure of a few days on the Welsh borders with The Ramblers, walking and talking and singing.

Friday morning brings a long drive down to the comically-named village of Titley in Herefordshire (yes, it’s comical. It has the word ‘tit’ in it) where singer and walk-leader John Jones gathers the troops around his kitchen table and dispenses pots of tea and set lists. Musically, this is where this ad-hoc rag-tag band The Ramblers (for me, at least) is in its element – loose, acoustic, funny, a glorious din somewhere between shambolic and pitch-perfect, a bunch of people making a noise together and enjoying what comes out.

So here’s the only paragraph that strays from that celebratory, affirmative sense of enjoyment in a great weekend: The Ramblers gigs, while thoroughly and utterly enjoyable, are not so easily communal – I’m so used to Chumbawamba’s onstage sound (ie everyone on stage as quiet as church mice and crucially able to hear your own voice above anything else) that when The Ramblers pitch up at volume I feel like I’m trying to sing along to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. Trying to sing along badly, out of tune. And playing the wrong chords for good measure (I’m not much of a musician. Have I ever mentioned that?) And that’s the end of the only paragraph that strays from that celebratory, affirmative sense of enjoyment etc etc.

So we sing into the evening around the table and various lovely people turn up and talk and laugh and cook together and suddenly there’s a long night of eating and drinking and half-realising, somewhere in the shadows of this pleasantness, that tomorrow is a long walk across the hills of the Borders followed by a concert.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Ramblers gigs are always preceded by a walk. Often a long walk – fifteen to twenty miles or more over hill and dale, through forest and across moorland, a stomping across the land that informs the evening’s concert. It’s a strange and wonderful idea dreamt up by John in some weird flight of fancy, and good on him for it. It’s a privilege to be a part of such an idea. It’s part bizarre and part beautiful and all rolled into an exhausting day connecting with the land and with people. To use throwaway slang, what’s not to like?

Saturday morning and I’m at John’s house packing waterproofs and muesli bars. John’s a little horrified that I have a bladder of drinking water integrated into my rucksack – he fills his old plastic water bottle from the tap that the dogs drink from and looks daggers at me, as if I’m breaking a code of rugged old-school self-flagellation. This is supposed to be hard work, dammit! We cadge a lift to Kington and get on a bus filled with suitably-booted-and-cagouled people. The bus drops us off next to a small pond nestling in a valley – the pond retreats at the sight of us all – and we set off purposefully up the nearest hill.

There are upwards of forty people on the walk, many who have been on previous Ramblers’ jaunts; a hardcore of friendly enthusiasts ready to tackle whatever up ‘n’ down journey John throws at them. As ever, JJ’s right-hand man Colin takes up a position at the rear of the snaking, stretching line of walkers armed only with a big smile and a sense of order.

The day is full of rising clouds, rolling hills and emerging views. Ridges obscured by mist, slopes coming and going, farm gates to be held open and shut behind. A wonderful plod along and beside the source of the Arrow river, with churchyards and farmyards thrown in haphazardly along the way. Sixteen miles of pleasantness and a pub garden to finish; I know, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it.

Having polished off the 110-mile South Downs Way earlier this year on another Ramblers expedition, this 16-mile walk around the Welsh Borders turns out to be a fresh and breezy breeze of a walk. Walking any distance, after so many years of running, is still a novelty but it’s getting less so – I enjoy the way walkers embrace stopping, whether to poke around in ancient churches or to unwrap egg sandwiches.

Five or six hours later and we’re all back safely in Kington, dusted down (but not freshened up) in the gig room of the venue, Caz and Tim already beavering away setting up the concert, plugging in and writing down, unpacking flightcases, heaving boxes, turning dials and making phone calls. We dawdle for a while, chat and stink, then stumble through a soundcheck. watching an anonymous (but oh-so-eighties) hotel function room gradually turning into a place where the Ramblers can invite people to dance and laugh and sing along to tales of land and walking and … pantheism.

A day or two earlier I’d finally finished writing a song I’d imagined three months earlier, on the previous Ramblers tour – a song for pantheism, for the idea that the word ‘God’ can be sensibly substituted for the word ‘Nature’. A song to celebrate our connection to the earth, and our responsibility to the world (and the people on it). Simple, really. Playing with this band means I get the chance to sing the song, in a setting that fits, and for an audience containing a smattering of people who’ve spent the day with us tramping along tracks and trails.

We play. People like it, this thing that long-time Rambler and Oysterband producer Al Scott calls “a variety show”. It’s a spectacle. It’s John Jones singing his heartfelt and beautiful songs about the land, about the countryside. Benji Kirkpatrick with a variety of stringed instruments, faultlessly clever hook lines and melodies, with his solo spots that include surprising covers of Hendrix songs. Dil on drums, camouflaged and obsessive and so perfectly, musically, right – all the time, whatever the timing. Al Scott, mentioned earlier, surrounded by instruments and bits of paper, holding us all together – inscrutable, that’s the word. And there’s Tim Cotterell, as reserved in person as he is exceptional as an instrumentalist. An incredible fiddle player and a lovely, lovely bloke. Rowan Godel, she’s up front with John, composed and knowing, a lovely woman with a proper, beautiful and memorable voice … the weekend’s running joke is that I confessed that when I first heard her vocals on the John Jones album ‘Rising Road’, I imagined an older, dark-haired, steeped-in-the-tradition woman in Birkenstocks and knee-length flowery-print dress. Not the unassuming, tiny blonde Rowan, at any rate. The band (well, actually it’s mainly John) decide I’m a sexist, judgemental pig and I’m ordered to pack my guitar and leave. I never liked ‘em anyway.

John Jones is an enigma in all this. Frustrated several years ago by the amount of time left idle by the Oysterband, JJ made a decision to write songs, gather musical friends and create something he could call his own. Somewhere along the way he stumbled into the idea of walking his way between solo concerts. Very limiting but (I think, anyway) inspired. Thus was born The Reluctant Ramblers (I reckon it’s time John ditched the word ‘Reluctant’ – it’s the last word I’d use to describe my own part in all of this).

The gig itself is a celebratory affair, with songs full of John’s righteous passion and Rowan’s voice sounding effortlessly beautiful. I strum along, following Al and Dill’s lead, remembering how I got myself into this glorious mess of a band – not first and foremost for the music, but for the walking, or at least for the combination of the two. For the idea. I have little desire to join someone else’s group, but jumping feet-first into John’s bonkers brainchild, with its attendant long days out and a chance to constantly reassess the relationship between leisure and work, progress and tradition, nature and creativity (etc etc) is well worth the effort. I’ve recently been reading about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1802 ‘Tour of the Lakes’, a 5-day solo walk undertaken by the poet to try to understand both the power of the natural world and the art of following your nose – a walk born of an earthy, innocent curiosity. For me, the whole Ramblers experiment echoes this curiosity. So, then, John – when’s the next one? 

September 13 • 2013

Dirty Squatters

‘Labour MPs Call For Extension of Squatting Ban To Protect Profits of Property Tycoons’

In 1982 a group of around ten of us went off travelling around Europe, earning enough money to eat by busking and grape-picking. We journeyed on a single-decker bus we’d converted ourselves, an old noisy thing that drew stares and needed constantly repairing. Of the people on the bus, two or three had just taken leave of a squatted house in West Leeds, a four-storey rambling red-brick mess of a place that literally leaned in against its own cracked walls.

They’d left the building, sandwiched between Armley’s down-at-heel shopping street and the Edwardian swimming baths, in the hands of Jasper, a gentle fruitarian who seemed to spend most of his time meditating; but news had filtered across the English Channel that Jasper had abandoned the house. On our arrival back in England, and as the lease had run out on the damp and poky terrace we rented in the student area of Leeds, we decided to head straight up to Armley and to the old squat.

It was huge. There were eight or nine rooms, a cellar and an overgrown garden (tangled greenery covering what was once a tennis court) all reached by a single-track of greasy mud and strewn litter. While the house had been left empty over the summer it had been robbed, stripped of all its electrical fittings, doors, stair banisters, furniture and fireplaces, and someone had tried to set the whole house on fire – one room boasted a large burnt-out circular hole in its bare floorboards.

Southview House – a grand title that belied the fact that the house’s southwards view looked straight onto the blank brick façade of the swimming baths – overlooked on the opposite side a riot of a garden, in the middle of which sat the shell of an abandoned Volkswagon Beetle. Beyond the garden was a long low building that was formerly a spinning and weaving business, owned by the family who occupied Southview House. The then-current legal owner of the property was a stooped and elderly lady with a terrifically plummy accent who lived in a grand mews house in Harrogate, and who had washed her hands of the rambling, crumbling mess several years previous.

So in we went, a fluctuating number of us (as few as three; as many as ten) armed with a borrowed Reader’s Digest Big Book of Do it Yourself and a mountain of buckets, mops and tools. We stuck up an official notice of possession and began the process of creating a home from a near-derelict eyesore. Everything we didn’t know about fixing up an ailing, lopsided house from scratch, we learnt. I remember spending hours reading library books about electricity in order to re-wire whole sections of the house, wearing Wellingtons and standing on a rubber mat. Really. We replaced floorboards, windows and doors, laid carpets, repaired cracked plaster and cleared drains (and let me here sing the praises of Dan, who ended up with the job of digging up pipes that ran the length of the garden, pipes backed up with several years’ worth of excrement, and getting stuck in up to his elbows, scooping, removing and rebuilding the sewage system). We re-pointed, rebuilt and restored what could be saved and bit by bit fashioned from the wreckage a warm, secure, higgledy-piggledy home.

At the same time, we started a band. For the first couple of years we had very little money (most of us were, initially at least, either on benefit or in low-paid work) so we lived frugally, pooling our resources to buy cheap musical equipment and an old Transit van. We got to know our neighbours, became known locally as ‘the weirdos in the big house’ and made of the backyard jungle a planned and fruitful vegetable garden (if vegetables can be fruitful).

For the first year, we barely stopped clearing, cleaning and furnishing. And it was a year before we found out who owned the place and decided to pay her a visit, to present ourselves not as the media and politicians were wont to describe us (much later, man of the people [sic] John Prescott bracketed squatting in a list of anti-social behaviours; a list including fly-tipping, vandalism, drug-dealing and arson) but as a bunch of people who’d saved a beautiful Victorian house from falling or burning down.

We talked to Miss Barmsbee, the owner. She was from a line of wealthy mill-owners who’d lived in the house, and when the weaving business had moved out of Armley, the family did too. The house was rented out for a while, but over the years Southview ended up being forgotten. Over tea and biscuits, Miss Barmsbee, after some initial hesitation, agreed that what we’d done with the house had probably saved it from becoming one more grand and fading statistic, one more of many thousands of houses left empty and rotting while people were in need of homes.

Over the next decade and more, the house became a home for between ten and twenty people at one time or another, people squeezed out of the Leeds rent-traps and pushed from the insular and exploiting campus area of the city. We set up a small recording studio in the basement and helped to record local bands; we even had a busy printing press there for a while. Even when everyone was employed and earning money we still had an ethos of communality (which isn’t the same as being a commune…), still made living at Southview a shared experience that balanced delightfully between fun and practicality. The band we started played gigs, toured, made records, and eventually, one by one, as the band became more popular, people moved into relationships and moved out of the house.

By then we’d reached an agreement with Miss Barmsbee to pay a minimal rent, and it wasn’t until she died that we had to face any threat of eviction. Her sons, who had never visited the property, saw only its land value and began proceedings to regain control of the house. Alice was the last of us living there, and some of her experiences of growing up at Southview House form a fictionalised basis for her play ‘My Generation’ which runs through a large part of this coming October at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Today’s report that Labour’s prototype wealthy-lefty Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna had condemned squatters and, along with other leading Labour MPs has called for the Tories’ anti-squatting legislation to be extended and strengthened, reminded me of the decade I spent living at Southview, reminded me of the suspicion and distrust that squatting engenders. How supposedly ‘left-wing’ politicians would rather attack what is essentially one solution to homelessness and waste than attack the reasons for homelessness itself. Back then, in the 1980s, we battled with various members of Leeds Labour Council who saw squatting in that same blinkered way – who defended, above all else, the sanctity of property. Even property that’s left empty and wasted by rich and absent owners.

I won’t list the statistics – here are some relevant figures detailing the social need for squatting  instead I want to add my voice to the groundswell of criticism of Umunna’s attack. Not as a politician, a thinker or a writer, but simply as someone who spent a large chunk of my life squatting; and from the comfort of a mortgage on a lovely terraced house in Otley I can still see the way one large empty house in west Leeds was saved from dereliction, became a hub, became a place full of love, energy and creativity, and was transformed from an ageing skeleton of bricks and cracked slate into a living, breathing home. At a time when cuts in welfare and public services are being pushed through Parliament by an ideologically-driven, morally bankrupt right wing government, it’s galling (but sadly, not surprising) to see Labour’s front-benchers reneging on their duty as an Opposition and instead subscribing to the Daily Mail’s caricature of the poor.

September 8 • 2013

The Painting, the Tate and the Oil Company

I was just thinking.

When I was a Grammar school boy in Burnley I went on my first visit to London on a school trip. Three classes of boys squashed onto a bus that took about 7 hours to get there, everyone thrilled at the prospect of seeing The Sights. We were off to the Tate Gallery (in the days when there was only one) to see a big exhibition of LS Lowry’s paintings. For a class of kids from Lancashire the acceptance of Lowry’s primitive depictions of northern working class life probably represented some kind of victory over the soft southern art world. Come on lad, get yer clogs on, we’re off to see some art.

Grand, it was. Getting to see London’s glorious architecture, its famously scuzzy river and its ungilded streets as well as seeing Lowry’s life’s work gathered in this great and monumental building alongside the Van Goghs and Dalis and Turners; and with Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ right there in the foyer. Stuff we recognised from pictures in books.

On the way home the bearded, suede-patch-elbowed and cig-smoking art teacher, Mr Lonsdale, outlined what we’d be working on that week – we would all enter a piece of work into a national competition for schoolchildren; we had a week to produce a picture of our trip to the Tate. The winners would get a free trip to London and probably a backrub and a smile from some posh-voiced art benefactor along with a sizeable cheque and a photo in the Burnley Express.

Back at home I purloined a sizeable piece of board that may have doubled as a wallpaper table and convinced my Mum to let me use her collection of oil paints, which sat unused on the shelves alongside Dad’s old copy of Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Faust’, which I swear was never opened and is probably there still. Five long nights I spent creating a masterpiece that was essentially a parody of a Lowry in which a bunch of stick-like schoolchildren were tramping towards a great grey Tate Gallery. In the distance, instead of factory chimneys and jagged mill roofs, were St Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament Hill and the Post office tower. I layered the oils on in the Lowry manner and every day after school I’d rush off home to add more daubed depth to my painting. I’d seen those Lowrys on the walls of the Tate and knew how hugely grand they were, I’d looked at the wedges of oil paint, the smudgings and the smearings, and knew mine had to be the same. When it was finished it weighed about 5 stone. Lugging it to school on the bus was a story in itself. In the end my friend Kev from our street helped me carry it from the bus, down the lane to school. We set the piece down in a corner of the art room behind the neat pile of drawings and paintings of our trip, all labelled with name, age and school.

The next day they’d all disappeared and we held our breaths waiting to hear how we’d done in the competition. Well, that’s a lie, there was probably only me who really cared – and, what with all the football to be played and the detentions to be suffered, I probably forgot about my masterpiece for a while, until a week or so later when the art teacher announced that someone from our school had been chosen as a finalist. It wasn’t me. I can’t remember who it was. I probably resented their child-like, naïve work and knew the judges had misunderstood the glorious genius of The Beast that was my picture. Right then. Back to the footie and detention.

Two weeks later all the pieces came back from London and were handed out; except mine was missing. Typical. They dismiss the cultural significance of my ten-ton masterpiece and then lose it in the post. I prompted Mr Lonsdale to ask after its whereabouts (he needed prompting, nice bloke though he was). He scratched his beard and said he’d see what he could do. I think I asked him every day for a week if he’d heard anything. Finally, when he could take my pestering no longer, he told me he needed a quiet word after class. When the art room had emptied of jabbering lads he calmly explained that during lunchtime, while grubbing around in his stock room, he’d found my prized-but-prizeless monster shoved at the back of the room and realised he’d forgotten to send it off for the competition. 

Then he dragged it out and sent me off down the corridor, devastated, dragging the imitation Lowry back toward the cloakroom and out of his life.

So as I said at the beginning, I was just thinking. Because this is where that story turns neatly from nostalgia to pre-amble as I head to the same Tate Gallery – now called Tate Britain – to see the current retrospective of the works of LS Lowry. There’s still some debate in art circles as to whether Lowry deserves his popularity, whether he has a place in the formal chin-scratching pantheon of great British artists; I can imagine the cultural bouncers at the door of Highbrow Art checking Lowry’s coat pockets and asking to see his invite. But I reckon that if a charlatan like Tracey Emin can blag her way in, then LS Lowry deserves a seat up at the front.

I get to the gallery, all renovated and re-built (but with essentially the same huge oblong-shaped white-painted rooms and marble pillars) and find out that the exhibition is £16. Which seems a lot to pay, but I’ve waited three decades to re-visit this bit of my own history so probably well worth it. Mind, I’ve seen Lowry’s paintings over the years in various other places (not least in Manchester’s Lowry museum) and don’t imagine there’s anything especially new and exciting. So I decide to first have a walk around the Turner rooms and the British Art collection, and especially the post-1950s stuff, Hockney and Blake and Paolozzi. And the Keith Arnatt photographs; I love Keith Arnatt. The first bit of information – a map on the wall showing how the galleries are set out – is kindly sponsored by BP, it tells me. I head off to the Turner. At the entrance there’s a small reminder that this room is generously sponsored by BP. After the Turners, the big Henry Moore room, which I’m told by a discreetly-placed notice is sponsored by BP.

This carries on through each room. BP, BP, BP. All very subtle and low-key, but in the context of an art gallery – where frankly, all you need is a white wall, some lights and the art – those little placards and notices, BP BP BP, they scream and shout and stamp their feet and demand your attention. The Tate Gallery is kindly, caringly, affectionately sponsored by BP, and there’s no escaping it. At first the constant niggle is annoying, then it becomes downright infuriating. Yes, I know there are campaigns to bring an end to BP’s sponsorship of the arts, I know about BP’s record as a ruthlessly exploitative company that disguises its wholesale environmental destruction behind a friendly, benevolent association with sport and art, about its cynically-designed green-leafed logo decorating the Olympics and the Tate. I know all this, but today feel peculiarly affronted by it. I walk back to the ticket office, see another BP logo there on the price list, and decide that, no, I won’t spend £16 to see the Lowrys. The naïve and simple beauty of Lowry’s paintings, the wearied crowds on their way to work or to the football match, the landscapes teeming with chimneys, the big pale northern skies greyed by factory smoke, none of it needs or demands the attachment of that little green and yellow flower that yells ‘Oil’.

So I walk off back to the tube station instead, in the rain, and think a lot, and wonder if the 30-odd years between then and now have made me into a cynical, curmudgeonly old git. I decide I’ll write to the Tate and explain why I couldn’t face the Lowry exhibition. Yes, I know the arts have to be sponsored, but there’s a relationship now between capitalism and art that seems so much more seedy, more tasteless and more desperately ugly than it used to be. The way companies now weave their faux-kindness right through art, not just as a logo on a poster but as part and parcel of the experience. And they think it’s subtle and clever (and it obviously works) but to me it’s all so gaudy and depressingly blatant.

Grayson Perry – who I love – reacted to BPs sponsorship of the Tate by saying, “I don't think that when people come out of an exhibition, they think: ‘Oh, wow, I'm going to buy BP petrol now’”. He’s right, they may not. But he’s being stupidly disingenuous, too, because he knows that’s not how advertising works, not with a banal immediacy but with a slow and insidious build-up of connections between product and lifestyle. I wasn’t looking for logos and adverts at the Tate; but in a huge room full of paintings, the small mention of BP in the corner stands out like proverbial elephant. (Glibly, with the way oil companies are aggressively savaging the environment with land-grabs and pollution, the proverbial elephant stands much more chance of survival than the actual elephant.)

All the arts, and all arts organisations, are different, have different needs. A good chunk of my life has been spent working under some kind of sponsorship, whether explicit or hidden. Almost every concert I ever played was made possible by bar takings and thus at the behest and benefit of huge brewery companies. Records were manufactured and distributed by various corporations. Plays are funded by the multinationals that fund the theatres and the advertising. Radio and telly are sponsored, the football matches I watch are sponsored, my entire cultural life is bleedin’ sponsored. But lines still have to be drawn, and it’s too easy to say “all the companies are the same” because frankly, they’re not. And when a company with as dirty a track record as BP tries to clean up its image by associating itself very publicly with the shiny-clean aura of either athletic perfection or artistic genius, it sticks out like a sore thumb. A thumb that leaves its dirty smudge across those pristine gallery walls.

In 2009, BP became the New York City Marathon’s ‘official fuel’, declaring that athleticism and oil could be perfect bedfellows, and that the company was drawing on ‘the links to energy and performance between running and automobiles’.  The Tate director Nicholas Serota joined in recently, stating that “BP as a company is looking at renewable energy as well as using fossil fuels and using oil”. It’s come to a pretty pass when the artists are reduced to voicing the ads.

There are so many unanswered questions here – questions I ask myself, I mean – about the relationship between art and money, between creativity and big business. Red Ladder Theatre Company (who I work with as a writer) neatly side-stepped the debate on getting private funding by wooing Unite the Union, persuading them that the union needs its cultural wing, needs the arts as part of its body politic. Unite have been brilliant, but during a run of the play ‘Sex & Docks & Rock ‘n’ Roll’ I was aware of its underlying critique of union organisation and the proud tradition of union leaders ending up either being knighted or sitting in the House of Lords. Aware enough to wonder about funding and sponsorship and how far you can nibble at the hand that feeds you.

And then there’s that TV advert endlessly repeated earlier this year by some nameless ambulance-chasing company – which, to my shame, used ‘Tubthumping’ as its soundtrack. We inadvertently gave permission for that, and it was a mistake. We’d been carefully gate-keeping for over a decade and one slipped through. We didn’t even get paid very much for it. £6000 split ten ways, I think it was. Significantly, had it been BP we wouldn’t have let it happen; their profile as human rights abusers, their record on safety and on environmental disaster is so well-documented that you’d have to be, at best, incredibly unthinking to allow yourself to engage in partnership with them. That’s the word – unthinking. I came out of the gallery full of questions, full to the top with thinking. Even writing this, I know I’m full of contradictions and inconsistencies, the politics aren’t fully-formed and the answers are nowhere to be seen. But the thinking is there. And that’s what art is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

*

For a more well-researched critique of BP’s sponsorship of the Tate Gallery, visit Art Not Oil and Tate A Tate.

September 3 • 2013

George & The Lakes

Some time ago I was running along the Helvellyn ridge in the Lake District, alone and ecstatic on a Spring morning. I looked out across the Thirlmere valley to take it all in, this expanse of utter beauty and serenity, when a low-flying RAF jet cruised past, in front and below me, roaring along the valley. I was looking down at the top of the bright red jet’s body, shocked. A few seconds after the jet had passed, its engine blast crashed along the mountainsides, deafening, booming, ugly. The place felt like a battleground, I thought – between the flowing rhythms of this land beneath my feet and the crashing, discordant throttle of a war machine.

The Lake District has always been a magical place for me, and a place that vibrates with some kind of gloriously rough, natural solidity.

Now I tend to agree with a lot of what George Monbiot writes in The Guardian, but his article in yesterday’s paper left me perplexed. Basically he’s stating his opposition to the case for the Lake District being given World Heritage status. Such a status would mean protection of the landscape owing to its social and cultural importance; would mean Lakeland sheep farmers being subsidised (as they are already) to keep the Lake District looking like the Lake District.

Such sheep farming, says Monbiot, has destroyed the Lake District’s eco-system, has stripped the land of vegetation and has left what he calls, ridiculously, “something resembling the aftermath of a nuclear winter”. In addition, foams George, the Lake District “competes with the chemical deserts of East Anglia for the title of Britain's worst-kept countryside”.

Let’s recap. Until around 4,000 BC this country was almost entirely covered in wild forest. Farming, in particular the modern farming introduced by the Romans, cleared the forests and made Britain into what it is today – grazed, managed and green. Many of the mountains were left exposed; frankly, just how I like them. Cleared of trees so that we could rear sheep, create settlements, and (in my case, two thousand years later) enjoy walks and runs. Walks with views, walks that captivated Wordsworth and Coleridge and created an English Romantic tradition of exploration and questioning, where access to the open land in turn became a necessary escape during the industrial revolution. Having spent a year on America’s East coast, where almost every hill and mountain is thickly-forested, I was glad to return to a country of open land and exposed mountain peaks. The spectacular Calder Valley, running across the Pennines between Yorkshire and Lancashire, comprised uninhabitable swamp (in the valley floor) and impenetrable wildwood (on the tops) until it was farmed. Now it’s an incredible mixture of thriving, working towns and open moor and farmland. And yes, sheep. Loads of sheep. What Ted Hughes refers to as ‘the sluttiest sheep in England’. These hardy, woolly beasts were this country’s food and clothing for centuries before McDonald’s and The Gap saw an opening in the market. Yes, it was sheep that cleared the land of wild forest. And flying over Britain in a plane (or easier, scrolling across the Google Earth landscape) it’s still surprising how much of the land is green and open, criss-crossed with paths and trails.

In a time when people walk less and less (and where the chief reason for walking is now “to go shopping”) it seems petty of George to start branding the Lake District as a post-nuclear landscape or akin to a ‘chemical desert’. That kind of rhetoric is just daft. Far better to celebrate the places of beauty we have (yes, farmed, managed or otherwise) and encourage people to discover the joy of being outside, walking around our land, halfway up a ‘post-nuclear’ mountainside with a packed lunch and friends.

I don’t claim much knowledge of countryside management. But I know that it’s worth getting some perspective on this vision of a Lake District that’s seemingly a ravaged, barren place inhabited by these devilish sheep (“The white plague” according to Monbiot) who roam the fellsides killing everything in their path. It’s nonsense. As a 15 year-old, when I first plucked up the courage to leave the Cumbrian roads with friends and set off from Coniston up the steep, grassy track to the summit of Wetherlam, I discovered a world that I would later recognise in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s writings from over a century earlier. You can go out for a long day’s walk (or in my case, run) in the Lakes and – providing you avoid the obvious tourist traps – meet only a handful of people along the way. It’s a magnificent, verdant, wild place that could be explored forever.

What George Monbiot seems to want is for the Lake District to be helped to return to its truly wild origins, unfarmed and thickly forested. He demands nothing less than “the ecological restoration of England's biggest national park.” And what of the rest of Britain, should we allow it all to return to some vaguely-described nationwide forest under the guise of ‘ecological restoration’? There are so-called anarcho-primitivists living lives of desperate self-flagellation and denial in certain areas of the USA (I think they’re mainly clustered around Portland…), people who oppose civilisation and want a return to some kind of romanticised hunter-gatherer purity. It’s all a bit silly, of course; our real work should be in preserving the wildlife and landscapes we have, protecting them from military bombardment and industrial rape, and (in Britain at least) encouraging a relationship between ourselves and the land.


Link to George Monbiot’s original article. 

August 15 • 2013

The Football Habit

In a post on Twitter recently, as the football season started, I declared that “Turf Moor is a habit now. I’m the bloke outside the hospital entrance in my pyjamas, dragging a drip-feed while fumbling for a cigarette.” Turf Moor is where Burnley FC play. I love it there, always will. But.

But my relationship to football, my enthusiasm, is strangely muted this season, as it was for most of last. It's not BFC's fault – another enjoyable year of mid-table fare, happily punching above our weight – it's how other sportspeople over the past two years (specifically athletes and cyclists) have demonstrated so much more generosity, intelligence, respectfulness and thoughtfulness than football’s spokespeople. After listening to Wiggins, Froome and Boulting, or Colin Jackson, Jessica Ennis, the Brownlee brothers or any number of athletes during consecutive summers, it's a wrench to go back to the petty, ignorant and narrow-minded footballers and football pundits with their lack of awareness – their lack of respect towards the people who pay to watch them, for one thing.

Even the language, the ineloquence, annoys me. There just isn’t anyone in football making an effort to sell me the game for what it can be, at root – beautiful, epic, stirring, traditional, community-minded. Last night I went to see folk band Young 'Uns, from Stockton, two minutes walk away at Otley Folk Club. It was gentle and stirring and warm; three lads entertaining a room with charm, wit, and years and years of hard graft to perfect their craft.  Afterwards, at home, I settled down to watch the recorded England v Scotland match, and there was Roy Keane with his face on backwards, muttering, being paid ridiculous amounts of money for his inelegant carping. Along with the other ex-playing pundits in their tight-fitting suits, it all sounded lazy, glib and trite. Then the match. Watching players like Rooney mouthing off at referees makes my stomach turn, makes me wonder what it is about football that I love.

I had a conversation with my friend Geoff the other week. He hates football. I love football. But when we talk about football, we tend to agree on a lot of things. We joked that I should write a book called ‘Football Is Shit’ but with the subtitle ‘So Why Do I Love It So Much?’ Anyway, that’s as far as I’ve got with that book. A title. 

I was invited to the Sports Book Awards this year, at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Strictly a black-tie affair (I ended spending a chunk of the night in the Gent’s toilets re-tying bowties for all the famous sporty blokes whose bat-clutching fingers were too chunky for the job), I was sat somewhere between Terry Venables and Clare Balding, slightly uncomfortable but enjoying the ridiculousness of the situation, when I spotted Clark Carlisle. Clark, now retired from playing but still involved in football, was known by some as Most Intelligent Footballer™, appeared on Countdown and Question Time and recently conceived and presented a telling, timely TV documentary about depression in the game. At an event to celebrate sports writing, it was significant that Clark might be the only footballer I recognised. He’s also an ex-Burnley player, so I sought him out at the end and had the briefest of chats with him; after a quick discussion on Burnley’s fortunes since he left, I bizarrely, or predictably, launched into a no-full-stops-no-pauses-for-breath string of compliments about how glad I was that he was around, in the game, to balance out the generally unconcerned, unthinking characterisation of footballers. That we needed people like Clark in the game, not just clever but with an understanding that football has a context, it plays a role in society and culture. He just smiled politely, unwilling to criticise his fellow players, and I realised I sounded a bit weird. I shook his hand and left quickly. Seemed like a nice bloke, though.

I've seen Burnley just the once this season and I look forward to the next match. I'm hooked, I can't stop. I always enjoy it, the match. Even when Christian’s Dad, two seats along, chirps up with his so-predictable-it’s-funny dismissals of me as ‘a lager drinker’, or when the standard of football drops to a non-Premier League level of style-less, clunky inadequacy, or when blokes around us can’t get through a shouted, throaty sentence without swearing and moaning. I love the Burnley skyline from my place up in the stands, love the club’s connection to the town, love seeing an unexpected goal – Robbie Blake’s volley that beat Man United in our first home premier League match a few years ago is etched into the back of my eyeballs – love the feeling of celebrating and singing spontaneously with 15,000 strangers. But, again. It's just that lack of any likeable context. All the stuff around the game, the money and the petulance, the post-match managers complaining about the referees, all the dumbed-down ethics that come from keeping young lads in tiny, unreal bubbles all their working lives.

Still, there’ll be things to be happy about this season. Cup upsets, that sort of thing. There’ll never be the innocent, open, down-to-earth warm-spiritedness that you get from watching Alistair Brownlee being interviewed five minutes after winning one of sport’s hardest challenges; but let’s be thankful for small mercies – Alex Ferguson’s gone, at last, so I might be able to watch Match of the Day without seeing his spittle-moistened chewing gum rolling around his open gob. 

August 13 • 2013

Art, Structurelessness and Emma’s Hat

This is what I was thinking when I was running this morning.

I was thinking about Will Self on the radio yesterday, talking about the need for self-discipline as a writer. He said he imagined his own, personal, Sergeant Major standing over him, barking and ordering him to work. It dawned on me that this part of working as an artist, or a writer, a musician – all of them – is the hard bit. Creating your own structure, since you often don’t have guidelines and timetables set up for you.

He’s right about the Sergeant Major. It’s the same with running. Nobody tells you to keep running when you’re on your own halfway up Ben Nevis, so you invent a voice of your own that gets in your head and makes sure you keep going, even up the steep zig-zags after the Red Burn. Personally, if that voice were an actual army officer, I’d immediately stop and sit down. I hate being told what to do. But if it’s me that’s doing the ordering, then I’ll dig in and bury myself to get to the top without breaking into a walk.

There’s a feminist essay from the early 1970s called ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, by Jo Freeman. I carry the gist of it around with me in my head – it’s a reminder to those involved in liberation/radical politics that lack of organisation (for fear of setting up hierarchies and top-heavy systems) too often leads to disorganised, haphazard politics. You know, those meetings where there’s a weird bloke disrupting things by asking daft questions. Or a cadre of intellectuals whose obscure use of language is intimidating and exclusive. Or a couple at the back who aren’t given a chance to say anything because they’re quiet and unassuming. And nobody takes proper minutes, so everything gets forgotten. And the room cost £10 to hire, but nobody has the right change.

I’m not advocating conventional hierarchies. Just saying that a rejection of structure in groups can end up creating something either half-baked or dominated by elites, or both. 

When Chumbawamba first started (after we’d played a couple of gigs under the name ‘The Four Duncans’ playing plastic toy instruments) we decided that sticking to certain roles within the band – bassist, singer, etc – was too traditional and formal. So we had a habit of exchanging instruments between songs. Every song. It was expected for us all to have a go at everything. You can imagine the chaos, the constant merry-go-round of instruments, legs all tangled up in curly leads (this was the 1980s), not to mention the clatter of badly-played guitars and drums. It didn’t take long for us to accept our strengths and impose some structure.

When I first started to write, formally, for theatre, I was almost held at gunpoint by various people within West Yorkshire Playhouse and forced to learn Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure. It’s an antiquated and slightly complicated set of rules for writing drama that I instinctively hated – it was somebody telling me what to do. I begrudgingly paid it lip-service while being determined to find ways of getting around it. Writing something that broke those rules. For two years I tried. Then I gave in; Aristotle, and the WYP Sergeant-Majors, were right. It was just storytelling tradition broken down and examined. A guideline to how good stories work. To what people like to hear.

My writer friend Emma Adams, she has a writing hat. I think it’s woolly, though I’ve never seen it. I think the writing hat might be a secret, and that I’m not supposed to be telling you about it. Basically, whenever Emma writes she wears the hat. The hat reminds her she is now a writer, and that the phone and Facebook and the post office and the telly are out of bounds. Not while the hat’s on. I love that. It’s so Emma. Instead of her own personal Sergeant Major, she has a woolly hat. 

I have mates who I run with, friends for twenty-odd years, who don’t really know what I do on a day-to-day basis; who still make jokes about how I don’t work. It must be great being in a band, being in theatre. Dossing around all day smoking pot, going for a run, strumming a few chords, bob’s yer uncle. I find it hard to argue against this, because I’m not prepared to pretend that what I’ve been doing as a job for a quarter of a century even begins to size up against driving an ambulance or posting letters.

But I do love this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“There is no way to success in our art but to take off your coat, grind paint, and work like a digger on the railroad, all day and every day.”

I’ve been disappointed recently by how some artists have responded to this government-led attack on public services, including the arts. I won’t go into the myth of ‘austerity’ right now – and it is a myth, ask the rapidly increasing numbers of billionaires – but the response has too often been that art is performing an economic service to the country. That art brings in tourism, sells as product, creates huge commercial possibilities, and pays a lot of tax.

I don’t care about those arguments. Art is good because it makes the world a better place. It doesn’t have to be justified as profit-making. It makes us feel connected, makes us think, makes us examine our ideas. Done properly, with a spirit of openness to the world, it becomes work in the service of the people. And it is work. And somewhere between Will Self and self-discipline, between structure and Emma’s hat, there’s art that can function without bosses and without government interference, art that is happily dedicated to everybody’s well-being. 

August 7 • 2013

Trains

“It has been popular culture rather than serious literature which has most enthusiastically taken up the railways.” (Jeffrey Richards)

I’m in a sort of limbo at the moment, stranded between projects. With the band coming to a pretty sudden halt last October, suddenly the onus was on me to create 'proper work' out of all the higgledy-piggledy ideas and brainwaves that seem to hold impromptu parties in my head. With the band, even when we weren’t playing live much, there was structure and regularity. Now, without that, the things I did as extra-curriculur activities have to become more regular. I can’t, now, just write one musical a year with Red Ladder and top it up with the occasional essay in a paper or magazine.

I haven’t got to grips with it all yet – I have about five or six projects that may or may not happen depending on whether I can find backing for them. A couple of books in search of publishers, a play waiting for Unite the Union to give it the go-ahead, a tentative schools drama project in East Leeds, a publication and exhibition designed to coincide with next year’s Tour de France Grande Depart in Leeds … all of which are pretty much fully-formed in my head but which I’m unable to get going on until someone confirms them as work rather than vanity projects. If you know what I mean.

What this means in practise is that I keep coming up with new ideas, new projects. That book about the rain. The novel about ageing Bacup punks. The new band. The folk musical. Etc etc. I dive into ideas, get excited about projects, and have to tell myself to slow down and wait for the go-ahead on the stuff that’s already well past the ‘ideas’ stage. So. In the midst of this creative and muddled dithering, today I suddenly realised that I should write about trains in British popular culture.

No, really, that’s what I said. I must be going mad. I don’t know anything about trains. Nothing. Whenever long-time Chumbawamba sound engineer Alaric talks passionately about trains I glaze over. I never had a train set when I was a kid. In my own inverted snobbery I decided, in retrospect, that train sets went with scout camps and Jennings books – actually, I just never had anyone buy me one. Trains, though – and even worse, train enthusiasts – summon up nothing but a blank, empty landscape peppered with men of a certain age talking fondly about the past (probably not dissimilar to the way I discuss The Clash or CND marches).

But I went on a steam train today. I took Johnny, who’s three, because we thought it might be like being in a ‘Harry Plopper’ film. We took the 40-minute round-trip steam engine line from Bolton Abbey in the Dales, bought some Thomas the Tank Engine stickers, a cup of tea for me and a Fruit Shoot for the boy. As Johnny munched cheese & onion crisps, I admired the beautiful old pre-war Gill Sans typography; we stood and watched the old blokes shovelling coal into the engine’s furnace, laughed together at the deafeningly loud whistle and tried to spot my sister’s house from the train window.

Somewhere along the way though, sitting in one of the lovely old 6-seater compartments, I suddenly pictured Phil Daniels in Quadrophenia, soundtracked by The Who’s ‘5.15’, pilled-up and paranoid, sitting shiftily between two upper-class City types. ‘Out of my brain / On the train’. And then I was imagining that scene at the end of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, where Billy finally plucks up the courage to get that train out of Yorkshire to London, only to make an excuse at the last minute (pathetically, he decides to nip to the station kiosk for a bottle of milk) and then stand watching as his route out of parochial fantasy disappears down the tracks. Leeds writer Antony Clavane isn’t the only one who returns again and again to this scene, since it obviously says something about Leeds, London, ambition and fear.

From that scene it’s a short step (mind the gap) to the iconic opening episode of Clement & La Frenais’ ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? BBC TV series from 1973. It’s the one where Bob – newly-married into suburban new-build fondue-set cosiness – bumps into Terry, back from a 5-year stint in the army. Neither realises the other is on this south-bound train, and as Bob enters the carriage, there’s a power cut. In the darkness, Bob unknowingly slags off Terry, and as the lights come back on Terry is suddenly illuminated, repeating ‘You bastard … you rotten bastard.”

Then there’s The Beatles in Hard Day’s Night, in a carriage with an old curmudgeon who insists Ringo switches off his transistor radio, much to John’s contemptuous delight (“There are four of us and one of you”). Like the other three scenes, it’s about class, power, about knowing your station (excuse the pun), about the grand tradition of the old-style train being undermined and challenged by youth, by the working class, by a new generation that – in the period when these films were all made –was turning its back on the Eton-schooled British establishment. That faux-Gill Sans lettering reeks of order, of things being done properly. Regular, classic, definite. Modern without being fancy.

I heard an interview with John Le Carre on the radio the other day, talking about the differences between when he first started to write and now. He talked of these things – class, tradition, establishment – and expressed a disdainful horror that the post-war sense of change, where it was believed that the old-school tie would be swept aside as Britain moved towards a meritocracy, has been betrayed, that we allowed the Eton old boys back in en masse.

So here I was, suddenly, at the start of a cultural and social history of Britain as told through trains, through pop culture’s reading of train travel. I was onto something. I was. I looked across at Johnny.

“This is fun, isn’t it?” I smiled.

He thought for a minute. But all he said was,

“Can I have my lolly now?”

I fished out his lolly and unwrapped it.

I looked out of the window. Me, writing about trains? Ha! No chance. 

August 6 • 2013

A Very Short Walk With John Muir

A photograph of a sculpture by Peter Liversidge at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a place so beautiful I wonder why the government haven't shut it down. Whether directly or indirectly, Liversidge's piece references John Muir's "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

Muir, as well as being a naturalist and author, was a pantheist, a tree-climber, a political activist, a scree-runner, and a gloriously-bearded visionary. As such, he plants his big feet here on this page to counteract my cynicism and to raise a flag for all the good stuff in the world. 

Peter Liversidge on investigation seems to be concerned mainly with conceptual art that pays too much attention to itself rather than the world around it. And as far as I know, he doesn't climb trees. 


July 31 • 2013

The gloriously hot and sunny weather we've had recently has made this week's drenching downpours seem all the more outrageously English – just when we get used to wearing shorts and sandals, here comes 'the weather' to spoil it all. Earlier this year I started researching and thinking about writing a book about the English rain. How it affects us, how it's defined our history and our culture. I didn't get very far, and gave up at the 'introduction' stage. This week, out running up on Otley Chevin in an incredibly powerful rainstorm, I thought I should revisit the idea. So here's that rough introduction to a non-existent book. Some day it might get written (but in all probability, it won't). 


Pissing It Down

In Praise of English Rain

I look outside my window. It’s pissing it down. Bucketing. Depending on where you come from, it might be luttering, tippling, siling or plothering. And subject to how heavy it is, it could be blirting, plouting, driffling or mizzling. It’s raining stair-rods, chair legs, cats and dogs, pitchforks and hammer handles. Whatever it’s doing – turn up the radiators, close the curtains – I’m not going out.

Like everyone else in England, I get sick of the seemingly endless downpouring of all this wetness, fed up of the greasy pavements and churned mud, tired of heaving on cagoules and boots every time I want to nip out, wondering where the umbrella went, blind behind spectacles slaked with the stuff.

And it’s getting heavier and more persistent, the forecasters tell us. The 1990s ecological buzzwords that we bandy around changed slyly and slowly over the last two decades from global warming to climate change, as it gradually dawned on us that it wasn’t getting any warmer – just wetter. Rivers around the country break their banks every year, trenchfoot at rock festivals is on the rise and Doctor Foster steps into puddles right up his middle with increasing regularity.

Nobody really likes getting rainsoaked, every day. It’s uncomfortable, time-consuming and tedious. We all crave the sun, not only because it helps us to produce health-giving chemicals (serotonin, endorphins and melatonin) but because, in England, it’s almost always a welcome break from the rain. A relief from ill-fitting Wellingtons and sweat-inducing anoraks. A chance to wear a T-Shirt and shorts.

Rain, rain, go away,

Come again another day.

Little Johnny wants to play;

Rain, rain, go to Spain,

Never show your face again!

But imagine if England were sunny all year round. If some blip in the climate disaster forecasts meant that the tiny Cumbrian hamlet of Seascale – consistently the wettest place in England – was drenched in Californian warmth. If we woke up every morning knowing exactly what to expect; if our wardrobes were reduced to swimwear, sunglasses and linen. If, as the nursery rhyme suggests, the rain had gone on a permanent holiday to Spain.

For starters, imagine a country without The Beatles, without Wuthering Heights, without Richard lll’s “My country for a horse!” Imagine a country without rainbows, imagine the rolling Peak District moorland being a desolate, sandy scrub. Hot tea replaced by iced tea. No sou-westers, no Glastonbury mud-sliding. Wimbledon without its retractable roof, schoolkids’ football without those hardy, embattled, do-or-die parents gritting their teeth against a windswept lashing.

Imagine looking out of an aeroplane window as you come into land, seeing not the familiar higgledy-piggledy patchwork of vivid greens, but a vast burnt-yellowed uniformity. Imagine us all, standing at our front doors before we embark on our journeys into the day, having nothing to huddle against, nothing to moan about, nothing to blame.

So much of our culture – historical, social and political – has sprung from our weather. The Smiths were The Smiths, and not the Beach Boys, because they were born into a land of dripping raincoats and streetcorners that you huddle into – you could argue that since Morrissey moved to Los Angeles he hasn’t written a good song. Ted Hughes thrived on the bleak grey swirl of Yorkshire uplands and soggy Devon moors. Our favourite fiction, from Shakespeare to Ken Loach, is peppered with the drama of rain. Turner’s paintings are suffused with rains, mists and fogs; English films – from Brighton Rock to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Elliot to The Full Monty – are drenched in the melancholy of rain.

It doesn’t rain all the time in England, despite what we like to think. It rains, on average, roughly 133 days in a year. That’s a little more than one day in three. But that one day, whether we admit it or not, defines us. It bore us, it cradled us, followed us as we grew. Seeped right through our skins and became an absolute and essential part of us.

Why this book singles out England – as opposed to Britain – is because as an Englishman I have a sense that the rainfall in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is somehow different to ours. It sparks off different moods, paints different pictures of the landscape and its people. Perhaps I’m just being peculiarly parochial, as Englishmen often are. Statistics tell us that it rains in England on fewer days in every month throughout the year than the rest of the UK, and rainfall totals are less in every month. Maybe we’re just that bit less used to it than our neighbours. I had a conversation with a Welsh farmer recently who explained that, since England had spent the best part of a century paving over its land, Wales was suffering by having to deal with “all the rain that’s running out of England”. In Scotland, where you can expect on average fifty extra days of rain a year, there’s a tough, get-on-with-it mindset that somehow seems to ignore the rain altogether. The Scottish people don’t moan, don’t huddle and don’t write bleak pop songs about their rain. And Northern Ireland? I’ve simply never experienced the rain there. So this is a book about the English rain, because I believe that our peculiar attachment to it – part resentment, part sulking love – has spawned our character, made us into what we are. We wake up in the morning not knowing what the weather will be doing, not knowing how we’ll dress or how we’ll face the day beyond the bedroom curtains.

It’s that sense of  how rain imposes its ‘upsides and downsides’ that I want this book to discover. As I start to write, I haven’t got a clear idea of what it is about the English rain that I might find out, and I’m glad of that sense of puzzlement. I want to spend time in the country’s wettest and driest places, drink tea (un-iced) with farmers and meteorologists, trace a history through our paintings, poetry and prose, and learn how we’ve owned and disowned the rain through language, film, and sport. I want to squelch through infamously muddy battlegrounds, watch towns in flood, get drenched in our city streets, trace river sources. I want to laugh, splash and run in the rain; and I want to feel cold, miserable and utterly defeated in it, too.

I look outside my window. It’s still pissing it down. Grab a coat, pull on some boots; I’m going out.

July 30 • 2013

It’s A Cut-Up

The Art of Photomontage & Assemblage

As a teenager I travelled to see an exhibition – I can’t remember where, but somewhere that seemed more cultured than Burnley – by German anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield, and even back then I remember the thrill of seeing those familiar, powerful montages that I’d seen in books in the flesh, small and faded, all yellowing glue, blotchy white paint (from the days before Tip-Ex) and curled edges. I’d been alerted to Heartfield by a love of pop artist Richard Hamilton, another politically-inspired montagist (if that’s a word. I’ll look it up. Wait a minute… No it’s not. There are usages of the word online, but I don’t trust them. So I look in the old Oxford English that props open the back window on sunny days; a huge brick of a book. Solid and trustworthy. No, ‘montagist’ isn’t in there. So it’s not a word). Hamilton used photo-montage in the 1950s as a way of illustrating a world newly-obsessed with advertising’s brash and colourful emptiness, sticking muscle-men and pin-up stars onto modern room interiors. (Cue Roxy Music’s beautiful, and beautifully weird, ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ as soundtrack).

On to the 70s and 80s and there was Peter Kennard, putting cruise missiles right in the centre of Constable’s ‘Haywain’ as part of a co-ordinated response to the threat of nuclear weapons. We used to see Kennard’s stuff all over the anti-nuclear movement, on its banners, its leaflets and its posters, mushroom clouds cut-and-pasted onto mainstream culture and providing a backdrop to those Hyde Park CND demonstrations where Gil Scott-Heron and Tony Benn always seemed to pop up. The revolution will not be televised: but it might be photo-montaged.

So there’s some history, and here, now, in a small Leeds gallery, are those original Peter Kennard montages alongside his new anti-G8 work, same ideas but now bigger, starker, and full of the heavy history of the last thirty years of neo-liberal expansion and media control. Sadly no Heartfield, but along with the Kennards (that should be a TV soap series: ‘Along With The Kennards’. The hilarious antics of an anti-nuclear family from Barnsley as they come to terms with a post-Thatcher world) come a bunch of other photo-montagers (I know, that’s not a word either), from the barb-and-scrawl beauty of Mekons’ Jon Langford to the clever wit of Ian Killen, from Graham Rawle’s famous and pithy ‘Lost Consonants’ to his grand and incredible cut ‘n’ paste illustrations for ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

And others, an’ all – some I recognised, most I didn’t – but all in the grand tradition of chopping and trimming and arranging and gluing. It’s on until 12th October so there’s no rush, and it’s free, and I recommend it; not least because this art of cut ‘n’ paste is quickly being replaced by the digital, virtual cut ‘n’ paste of the “hey we’re all designers now!” world of quick-fix Photoshoppers and InDesigners.  Go on, before it yellows and fades into history.

It’s A Cut Up: The Art of Photomontage & Assemblage is at The Gallery, upstairs at Flannels, 78 Vicar Lane, Leeds.

July 24 • 2013

The Leeds Arena vs Art

At the risk of these blogs being entirely motivated by disgust, a quick look at tonight’s opening show at the new Leeds Arena. Bruce Springsteen, 13,500 people and a price tag of £80 million. I’ll try not to let my utter indifference to Springsteen influence me here, other than to say that opening a New! Exciting! venue with an over-indulged 1980s rock ‘n’ roll pastiche just about nails Leeds Council’s colours to the mast.

£80 million. The reason/excuse for the investment is, according to the Council, that it brings people, money and more investment into Leeds. Which it will. But by ‘Leeds’ they mean the city centre, the already-rich development areas bounded by the river to the south and the University campus to the north.

For almost a quarter of a century I lived in Armley, a relatively poor area of the city. Over the years I was there, Armley gradually improved, became more open as ex-students moved in from across the river to mix with the rooted generations of locals. It was never going to be Chapel Allerton, but for a while it had community, history and new ideas all rolled into one. Jane Earnshaw, with help from the local Interplay Theatre, set up an annual (and ever-growing) ‘I Love West Leeds’ festival, a rolling series of summer arts and community events that moved yearly between Armley, Pudsey, Bramley and Farnley, a few weeks that often splayed and stretched into months, drawing big crowds to its eclectic programme (theatre, visual art, performance, film, music… you name it). In that time some of us helped to set up a council-funded gallery – Millspace – in the local Armley Mills Museum, a space for new and emerging artists to hold residencies, to produce work that reflected the community and the area.

Then last year, on top of funding cuts made by the Arts Council, Leeds Council withdrew their funding from the I Love West Leeds festival, effectively killing it. The small amount of money that funded the Millspace museum was also withdrawn.

Of course, the argument was that the Council were faced with cuts of their own and had to choose between public services, health, education and – well, the expendable and uncommercial arts sector. No contest. Unless, of course, you consider that the Council was shelling out £80 million for a stadium suitable for stadium-sized artists like (and here’s the programme for the next six months!) Rod Stewart, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Status Quo, Wet Wet Wet and Torville & Dean’s Dancing On Ice. The money that comes back from this investment in the Arena won’t trickle down to the Armleys, to the West Leeds festivals. It will stay in the city centre, where growth is measured in visitor numbers, hotel rooms occupied and cash spent at the new giant Trinity Shopping Centre.

The idea that the Leeds Arena might somehow (as claimed by councillors) inspire future generations of musicians and artists is laughable. Stadium rock does nothing other than regenerate its own flaccid version of itself, getting older and fatter. And besides, young people wanting to go out and copy the Springsteen model after shelling out £65 to see him will find that the local small venues and festivals have been throttled and killed by lack of funding and support.

Compare it with football, with the Premier League. Manchester United’s increasing investment in its mega-rich infrastructure does nothing for the grassroots game; all the statistics show that home-grown talent is being denied the chance to improve. At that level of greed, there is no trickle-down. Meanwhile, the Premier League itself, along with Man Utd’s corporate box revenue, gets bigger and wealthier.

So yay, we’ve got a stadium big enough for Wet Wet Wet. Let’s give ourselves a slap on the back and watch the money rolling into the big bright new city. And for the people in Armley, Bramley, Gipton, Seacroft, Beeston and a dozen other areas – if you want culture, best stay in and watch the telly. 

July 23 • 2013

That Bono Book

I just finished reading a book about Bono. Well, actually I just finished reviewing it. And I feel it's my duty to recommend it to everyone. It's called 'The Frontman – Bono (In The Name Of Power)' by Harry Browne and published by Verso. Here's an edited version of the review - I chopped a big section out of the middle:

I’ve been waiting years for this book. It’s the stuff you instinctively knew about Bono – his increasingly desperate flirtations with power, his fundamentally conservative and religious motivation, his adherence to neo-liberal and essentially Republican capitalist economic strategies, his old-style crusader’s vision of Africa as another culture to be colonised, blimey even his slimy and unapologetic tax-dodging – all that stuff wrapped up in a grounded, inquisitive, even-handed bookful of research.

Bono isn’t just a smug self-deprecating grin and fancy sunglasses; he’s a clever, inspirational man who found himself, as the singer in a band, in a position of ridiculous power and influence. By adopting the messianic trappings of the rock ‘n’ roll frontman, in an age where it became possible to manipulate global media more than ever before, Bono was able to command a huge following that, frankly, politicians were desperate to poach.

Bono’s frequent pronouncements, those moralistic soundbites tossed to a tail-wagging media, are taken apart and examined, analysed and consequently derided as endorsements for a form of governance that enforces economic, political and military slavery. In Browne’s own words:

“Bono may not have realised it when he climbed aboard a largely admirable campaign against developing-world debt in the late 1990s, but his reputation for integrity and the love for his music felt by millions of people would become important weapons in the arsenal of those seeking to maintain and extend their influence, power and profit in a changing world. He fronted for the G8; he fronted for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and George Bush; he fronted for Nike and Apple and Motorola; he fronted for Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.”

In the good old days, our rock ‘n’ roll heroes were anti-establishment; this book exposes how rock ‘n’ roll, in the hands of an Irishman with a mullet, became not only a champion of the establishment but its partner-in-crime. 

July 16 • 2013

Just What The World Needs: Another Blog

Nick Ahad writes for the Yorkshire Post. He’s the arts correspondent, a journalist, a proper newspaper man steeped in the culture of a tradition. By that tradition, I mean learning a trade, doing the leg-work, researching, editing, re-writing, checking and submitting. Chasing stories, staying up half the night writing columns, reviewing, commenting, interviewing. Proper newspaper stuff.

Over the past couple of years I’ve watched Nick take on another role (or it may have been thrust upon him by the decline of real paper sales) – he’s now Nick the Anti-Blogger. He thinks it’s shameful that blogging should be killing off real journalism; blogging as the new media’s quick fix, badly-researched, unedited, often self-indulgent, inaccurate and unchecked.

He might object to my characterisation of him as the Anti-Blogger. He’s not some bitter stick-in-the-mud, yearning for the good old days. But he does remind me of a cornered animal, snapping at the world as it closes in with its big net. And he has a right to be angry. In the gap between Thatcher’s hand-me-down USA-style ‘me, me, me’ philosophy, where everyone thinks they have a right (or at least a good chance) to be famous, and the modern internet/phone-text language of immediate anonymous opinions and responses, there’s a huge swirling mass of blogs and bloggers, all mixed up into a big soup of tepid nondescript mulch. Some of it is nutritious, most of it is unidentifiable and bland.

But maybe that’s the point – to have ideas and rants that aren’t filtered through mainstream media’s colander, where (in the words of Indymedia) instead of moaning about the news, we can make the news.

Either way, sorry Nick, but here’s another blog and another blogger. If it’s any consolation, a) I still read print media  and b) at least this is better than just having a Twitter account, which, since you’re asking, is @boffwhalley.

"Of all fatiguing, futile, empty trades, the worst, I suppose, is writing about writing." (Hilaire Belloc)