Goodbye To Rod Dixon, Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre

(He hasn't died, he's just leaving his job)

December 2023

(Above: me and Rod with the original Red Ladder, which gave its name to the Company.

Last weekend, Saturday night in an upstairs bar in city centre Leeds, we waved a big fat partying goodbye to Rod Dixon as Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre. You’ll probably know that I’ve been involved with Red Ladder for about the same length of time – I was invited by him to “write something, then” not long after he’d taken the job, we were in an old Victorian pub on the Kirkstall Road and we’d both had a few drinks.

The leaving party went really well and there were lots of references (not least by Rod himself) to his unique style of ‘artistically directing’ – as an anarchic, gobby and often hilarious mixture of crusading politics and fart jokes. But what was missing from the evening was a real sense of what Rod achieved at Red Ladder, behind the silliness and the continued ability to piss people off.

Red Ladder changed direction drastically when Rod took over, shifting from Theatre In Education and community teaching to loud, eclectic shows that could (and did) pop up in black box theatres, music halls, pub backrooms and community centres –often actively seeking out non-theatre-going audiences and making top-quality work on a shoestring of a budget. The budget balancing has been down to Chris, Rod’s long-suffering partner at the helm of Red Ladder. I say long-suffering because it was Chris’s job to keep some semblance of fiscal control over the maddest of ideas, and despite his constant work to get financial backing from assorted ‘partners’ – Unions, theatres, businesses – it was always a struggle with Rod tweeting daily anti-capitalist rants.

Ranting was one of Rod’s special talents. He could rant for Britain. Or rather, for Liverpool, the birthplace he deemed to be a republic independent of the rest of the country. He dismissed (probably unwisely, but you had to admire his front) reviewers and critics, (“If they want to review it, they can get on a train heading north, the pampered bastards!”)  blasted the Edinburgh Festival, (“It’s just bloody London on its holidays!”) and of course slagged off London itself incessantly.

Fun as all this was (and I was always laughing along), this all masked an incredible dedication to the craft and art of making populist, daring, clever and important theatre. He and I were big fans of John McGrath’s book ‘A Good Night Out’, which called for theatre to become part of popular class-wide culture and not an expensive pastime for those with money and ‘taste’. The shows he directed were wildly different, stretching from dramas about the bleak, realist, often grim truth of life in marginalised communities to upbeat and colourful musicals with big-name stars. The thing that brought these different forms together was a dedication to radical, hard-hitting politics; a refusal to shy away from pointing the finger at the Westminster Emperors ruining the country. At the same time there would always be a sense of hope and belief in people and in communities.

The fact that Rod could convince actors like Phill Jupitus and Pauline McLynn to head up Red Ladder shows on standard Equity weekly wages (I still remember sitting down with Pauline in a café in Leeds at the very first meeting, where Rod opened up with, “you do know there’s no money in this don’t you?!”) was testament to the belief and enthusiasm he could generate. He was a firebrand, a clown, an agitator, a dynamo and a naughty boy (!) – but above all a really, really good director and inspirer of people.  

Red Ladder will get a new Artistic Director and I don’t doubt they’ll be brilliant. And they’ll be starting from a place – a respected and ‘punching above their weight’ place – that Rod and Chris have created and built over the years of their partnership, on next to no money, a place where the important stuff is part of every production, every workshop.

I can’t believe Rod is disappearing to live on a smallholding in Scotland. It just doesn’t seem feasible. No smallholding can contain that level of energy. But I’m dying to see how it works out, and I wish Rod and Ella all the best, and before they disappear I just wanted to write this stuff down in case anyone should forget how much our tiny bit of the world has been re-shaped by the passion and heart of this man. And so to finish, in honour of Rod, here’s a joke:

A theatre director was worried that his leading actor hadn't turned up for the opening performance. His assistant came up to him.
"Sir, you just received this letter from the leading actor."
The director took the letter and read it.
"Dear sir, I am afraid I cannot come in for the show tonight as I have..."
The director stopped reading and kept staring at the letter.
"I can't read his writing, is that an I or an O?"
The assistant looked at the letter.
"It's an I"
"Thank goodness, I thought he'd shot himself"


Coope, Boyes & Simpson. Barry Coope on the right

Barry Coope – Only Remembered

A brief tribute to one of folk's finest voices

In 2002 Chumbawamba wanted to create an album of songs – Readymades – based on samples of various English folk artists, so we needed permission, of course, from the artists themselves. Three of the samples we’d used were by Coope, Boyes & Simpson, simply because we loved them. We loved their voices, their harmonies, their words and their ideas. We wrote to them to ask for permission and they wrote back to say, simply, ‘use our stuff, gladly!’ No mention of royalties or legalities.

I knew Jim Boyes from his singing with Swan Arcade in the 1980s. Me and Lou, in the early days of Chumbas, had travelled across to Holmfirth to see Swan Arcade, three incredible voices that could fill any room. We’d always sung acapella songs even as a noisy punk band, so Swan Arcade were simply inspirational. Skip on a decade and here was Jim Boyes now joined by Barry Coope and Lester Simpson, the three of them taking the power of Swan Arcade and adding astute, clever songwriting. Three male voices pulling together, stretching the limits of acapella singing, stepping outside tradition. There were times when you’d see and hear them singing together and marvel at the way the buzz and tone and burr of these three voices could make such a solid, perfect, generous sound.

Some time during the recording of that Readymades album we trooped across the Pennines to Oldham to see them perform and introduced ourselves, straight away becoming friends and discovering that they were genuinely lovely blokes. Before long we became part of the No Masters Co-operative, a collection of northern English singers and songwriters collectively and independently putting out records; Coope, Boyes & Simpson were the collective’s mainstay, its spine. We would gather at each others’ houses every few months to sit round a big table eating biscuits, drinking tea and putting the world to rights; we shared stages at festivals and sang on each others’ records.

Barry was always there at the meetings, a friendly, engaged and active member of the co-op, ever-helpful and good humoured. No matter how many stages we shared – Barry was there singing with us when we played our last concert in Leeds – I couldn’t get over that voice, the one that starts the Coope, Boyes & Simpson song ‘Jerusalem Revisited’ – that powerful, plaintive cry of “Out there on a doomed estate, a house is burning down…” Simply perfect.

The last time we sang with Barry, Lester, and Jim was onstage at their final gig, at the Derby Folk Festival in 2017. We joined them for three songs, finishing with ‘Only Remembered’ – as I’ve got older I cry easily, so I can well remember that last farewell chorus, holding a lyric sheet and holding back the tears, singing along with the wonderful sound those three made together.

Fading away like the stars in the morning
Losing their light in the glorious sun
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling
Only remembered for what we have done

Only remembered, only remembered –
Only remembered for what we have done
Shall we at last be united in glory
Only remembered for what we have done

Crass, Commoners Choir and Growing Old Disgracefully

June 2021

I first came across Crass as a teenager in Burnley. It must have been about 1978, though the accelerated years between ’77 and ‘82, even at the time, seemed to pass in a frenetic blur. Gary Brown, bassist with local punk legends Notsensibles, brought their record into Mid Pennine Arts, a grand and tatty Victorian building that all the punks frequently took over as we put together our various fanzines and posters for gigs. I’d become mildly interested in anarchism and was fascinated by Crass’s artwork – stark, monochrome, stencilled lettering alongside incredibly detailed soft pencil drawings of dystopian scenes.

The music was as strange a combination as the sleeve; at first listen an almost unintelligible volley of barked words over a biting metallic roar, but then a realisation of the clever and unusual arrangement – drums driven by military snare rolls and off-beat cymbal crashes, two guitars split either side of stereo sounding as if they were played through transistor radios, and a rolling, melodic bass that somehow brought tunefulness to the clattering whole.

The vocals were equally unusual – male and female, sometimes shouted and screamed, sometimes whispered poetically, sometimes with operatic whoops and yodels. That first record was a strange thing indeed, and unforgettable.

When I was 18 I went to Maidstone Art College in Kent, thinking it was close enough to London to allow me to easily get to the capital’s punk gigs (I was wrong, the last train back to Maidstone was about 9 o’clock). Somewhere in the three months I stayed there, in between being chased up the high street by mods and threatened by teddy boys in a toilet, I caught a train to some unmemorable Kent village where Crass were playing in the local scout hall.

What I saw of Crass there was pure theatre – the lighting (all from below), the clothes (all black) the pre-show routine (mingling with fans outside and handing out stencil-copied leaflets on anarchism), the post-show routine (finishing the cacophonous set and immediately stepping off the front of the stage to drink tea with a bewildered audience) and the stage setting (beautifully designed banners hung across the walls) – all of it creating a sort of travelling circus of ideas, art, anger, shock, community and confrontation.

It was only later that I discovered Crass had roots in experimental performance art, and were part of a fascinating tradition of eccentric British art school mavericks. Back then, walking home umpteen miles back to my digs in Maidstone, I understood only that this band were here to shake me up, to make me think, to challenge what I thought I knew about rock ‘n’ roll, politics and the world.

I travelled around the country for a short while, catching them at gigs in various towns and cities across Britain, watching this weird and compelling jumble of politics and art. At several of these gigs there’d be an older man called Raymond, perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, wearing a black beret and black overcoat. He smiled a lot and spoke in a soft eastern European accent. Later I got to know him, but at the time I remember thinking – that’s what I want to be like when I’m sixty. I don’t want to be watching telly in a favourite armchair, retired from some job I had for a lifetime. I want to be travelling around the country, following the most interesting noise, looking interesting, growing old disgracefully.

That was all over 40 years ago now, 40 years to draw a huge, higgledy-piggledy circle that goes from first hearing that Crass record to a faceless room in Leeds where I’d put out a call to see if anyone was interested in being part of a choir that would “mix the choral power of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the astute punk dynamism of Crass”. Around twenty people gathered in that room and together we decided the idea could work. We would call ourselves Commoners Choir, wear all black, sing about putting Boris Johnson’s head on a stick (this before he was even our Foreign Minister) and sing on top of mountains, on boats, in churches… and the choir grew, and now stands at well over a hundred members.

Sometime last year I heard about the ‘Crass Remix’ project and just felt that, well, the ‘fit’ was too perfect to miss. The invitation from Crass was to experiment with the mix, and we decided that turning G’s Song – a hurtling, full-throttle 37 second blast – into something choral and hauntingly melodic would echo the band’s strangeness, that challenging of preconceptions that had always appealed to me in the first place.

G’s Song ends with the line ‘… and they’ve got no problem when you’re underground!’ which can be taken in two ways. Either it’s a gloomy fatalism that says we’re no trouble to the establishment/the system when we’re dead – or it’s a declaration of intent that we need to stop being politically underground and take our ideas into the world. I prefer the latter, obviously.

When I became interested in anarchism as a teenager I went to an evening meeting of the anarchist Direct Action Movement in a tiny café in Burnley. Compared to the theatrical shock of Crass, it seemed so dry and lifeless and, above all, hidden. Crass took their political anger and put it into popular culture, from record decks and the backs of jackets to courtrooms and teen magazines and questions in Parliament. So much of popular culture is now online, and during this last year of lockdowns and enforced hibernation, that’s where Commoners Choir have been getting out into the world – what we’ve proved with our choir of misfits and ne’er-do-wells is that even without gathering in public spaces and singing, even without playing concerts, we can make songs and films and zines and get stuff out into the world. Avoiding the underground. The Crass/Commoners Choir remix leaves that final line – they’ve got no problem when you’re underground – to Steve Ignorant’s original strangled vocal. It’s a call to arms.

The Commoners Choir/Crass Remix will be out in early August, accompanied by a film we’re in the process of making. For me the remix is a good marker of time and ideas, and a confirmation of how the best art can change our lives. Among the massed ranks of Commoners Choir there are quite a few whose lives as teenagers were impacted not just by Crass but by punk’s call for challenge, change and social justice; this remix is one way of connecting these threads of a lifetime (and having a ton of fun doing it).

In our house we have a huge photograph of Raymond, the old Crass fan, up on the wall in our kitchen. He died about twenty years ago, but he’s there with a big smile on his face, wearing a long black cape and his trademark beret. I can’t look at it without smiling. Actually I can’t even think about it without smiling. Raymond, soundtracked by Crass’s intense and clever version of punk, became a symbol of a life well spent, a life full of adventures and ideas, where, somewhere down the line, a choir’s four-part harmonies and a punk band’s rhythmic aggression might somehow find a way to work together.

Out on One Little Independent records, Friday 6th August – 12" Single Physical + Digital Release Focus Track: 'G's song (Commoners Choir Remix)'

All Or Nothing At All – Me, Billy and Steve 
August 2020

Well, here’s an interesting one... If you’re at all interested in running. Or nature. Or the history and culture of sport. Or about how, quite a few years ago, I spent 23 hours running around a high-level ribbon of Lakeland peaks and met a man who I think we can safely describe as a ‘legend’. That was Billy Bland, and his story has just been written and published by writer Steve Chilton – which is where this blog becomes something other than one of my normal run-of-the-hill blogs.

This is a guest blog from Steve, who has just written ‘All or Nothing at All’ about Billy Bland, published on 20 August 2020. The blog is part of a Blog Tour to celebrate the book’s publication. What this means is that since Steve can’t go round bookshops signing books, he’s piggy-backing onto various people’s blogs, interviewing the writers about their connection to Billy and to the wider social context of fell running. 

For context: the Bob Graham Round, which features heavily in our discussion, is a run which takes in 42 of the highest Lake District peaks (28,000 feet of climb), is 66 miles long and has to be completed in under 24 hours – Billy Bland completed it in around slightly under 14 hours. 

Right then, take it away, Steve...

The following is an edited extract from a recent interview between the author and Boff Whalley. In it they discuss Boff getting into fell running, discovering the Bob Graham Round (BGR), and how he suddenly had Billy Bland pacing him on the last leg of his own round because one of his designated pacers had to drop out at the last minute.

SC: When and how did you become aware of the BGR?

BW: When I first got into fell running I was captivated by the culture of the sport, and the history and the mythologies. Reading Bill Smith's Stud Marks on the Summits - the first 100 pages about open fell running, about village fell running, naked fell running, and racing up and down mountains, to win a prize pig or whatever - it fascinated me. Fred Reeves and all the 1950s and 1960s era stuff, I just loved all that. It felt like a sport that wasn't just about excellence in athletics. It was about culture and community and all those things which I love anyway. 

SC: When did you discover the fells?

BW: It was 1988 I started running in the fells. That was an interesting era because there were three things happening basically, and I hadn't kind of realised how big they were until recently. Firstly, women were being recognised properly in the sport, being allowed to run in the long races and that sort of thing. There was a lot of stuff to do with the environment, people were waking up to the idea, especially after BNFL sponsored the 1988 World Cup (in Keswick), and it caused loads of controversy on the pages of The Fellrunner. Then there was the whole amateur versus professional thing, which was really big. All those things meant fell running had a connection with the world. I find that all fascinating. 

SC: How soon did the fact that Billy Bland had done this amazing thing in 1982 (his 13-53 BGR record) get on your radar?

BW: I soon became aware that some of near legendary fell runners were still racing. So, people like Andy Styan and Billy Bland were two kind of heroes, because I always loved descending. I loved rough descents and mad descents. To see those two competing and still running really fast was just fantastic. I then found out all about the Bob Graham. I remember the little pamphlet with a picture of Bob on the front with his big billowy shirt. I thought this is great, this is the kind of sport I love. It an amazing history of it and such a great thing to do. I thought, if I am going to do one thing while I am running it will be that. 

SC: How soon into your running time did it become a possibility that you'd do it then?

BW: Nobody at Pudsey and Bramley (my club) was interested. They weren't doing mountain marathons and that. Maybe one or two people here and there, but in general it wasn't a club that did that. We were a club that raced championship races, and was more like a gang than a club. The idea of planning for a BGR and spending six months doing long runs and that sort of thing wasn't part of what we did. We did hill reps and we did track sessions and everyone went to the same races together. Pudsey and Bramley had a reputation for short sharp races with good downhills like Burnsall, partly thanks to Pete Watson really. Then well into the 1990s I thought I might have a go at the BGR. I remember asking around at Pudsey and Bramley to see if anyone was interested, and no-one was. So, I became the first person at the club to do it, which is bizarre really. Then years later a big bunch of them did it, because I kind of convinced everyone that it was a brilliant day out. Then 5 or 6 of the did it at once.

SC: Did this mean you had a problem finding pacers for yours?

BW: Yes, definitely. I was doing it with people from other clubs, recce-ing and stuff like that.

I did a lot of recce-ing with Geoff Read from Rochdale, because he had done it previously. I didn't know many people that had done it really. I wasn't part of that scene at all. 

SC: How did networking work, pre-social media?

BW: Talking after races usually. I got some people to run it so that I had someone with me. I said, I have recced it all, you don't have to do anything, just be with me. No nav required, so it wasn't like it was supported in that sense. 

SC: Is that because you wanted to be in the BG Club, that you wanted someone with you at all times?

BW: Yes, I did. 

SC: Knowing your attitude and personality I thought you might have just gone round the route and said ‘sod the club, I am not really that bothered’?

BW: Yeh. I can understand you saying that, but I love the cultural tradition of honouring these amazing people that did it in the past and set it up, and thinking I want to respect that. I am not against organisations and people, and things like that. But having said that, if people do want to get up and go and run round it as fast as they can on their own, then that is fine. 

SC: The club was setup to acknowledge the history, like you say.

BW: When I decided I wasn't ever going to run a road marathon again it wouldn't stop me from going and running 26.2 miles on me own round the woods and trails. Some of the races that are organised - you could just go and run round them, like Ennerdale or whatever, any day you wanted. But to be part of that race is having Joss Naylor running in it or setting it off, and understanding what it meant to people to run that race in the past, I just think ‘No, it is great to be part of the tradition’, which the race is. I like that. It is the same with the BGR. I kind of liked the fact that others in Pudsey and Bramley hadn't done it too. 

SC: You mentioned trying to get Gary Devine interested, did you ever succeed?

BW: No. Not at all. But, he was the reason I ended up running with Billy though. Gary had no recce knowledge but he was going to support me. He just said he'd come with me on one of the toughest legs, and it was a leg that he’d be good on, since he’s such a good mountain runner. 

Then the week beforehand, he was ill and he couldn't get out of bed, but he offered to help find some people to do it with me. At that time I had people for some of the legs, Geoff Read and Fred Deegan, really good runners and navigators. But no-one for the last two legs, which was worrying, but Gary just said, don't worry, with a wink. We both knew Scoffer (Schofield) so we got in touch with him. And he turned up with Phil Davies. It was like two of the best Lakeland mountain runners setting off with me from Wasdale on leg 4. They were great and knew all the secret Borrowdale club paths! Danbert (from the band) did leg 2, I think. He might as well have been running on the moon, he had no idea where he was, but he’s always good company. 

SC: You said there was no particular time expectation?

BW: It was a day out. I knew I wanted to get it in under 24 hours. I aimed for that and I didn't push it at all. That wasn't my kind of thing. The races I did well in were all fairly short races. I knew I wasn't going to break Billy's time!  

SC: You pull in to Honister at the end of leg 4. Did you know by then who the next pacers were going to be?

BW: Yeh. My brother-in-law Mark was going to run in with me. That’s all I knew. He didn't know where he was going and he hadn't done a lot of running either, but that was fine. I knew he was going to be there, but the fact that Billy and Gavin Bland were there was just hilarious. Gary had drafted them in, I was really shocked. In a way I felt a bit sorry for them! I knew Gavin a bit before and I had spoken to them both before, but didn't really know them. What a good spirited thing they did for me. Incredible. Mark (my brother in law) was gobsmacked – “Are they gonna run with you?!” he says.  All those Borrowdale runners have such a good attitude to the sport. To turn out like that and help someone on a BGR is just great. If there are people running in my neck of the woods who ask for help I would say 'yeh, I'll come out'. It’s the spirit of the thing. I still don’t know if I ever thanked all those Borrowdale runners enough. 

SC: That is the ethos of the Rounds, isn’t it?

BW: It is interesting as well, because my attitude to Kilian breaking Billy's record is that it is absolutely fantastic and a great athletic feat. But, it will never match what Billy did, not in a million years. As you know, like with the rivalry between John Wild and Kenny Stuart, those were times when people didn't have a full support crew around them like the culture of professionalised running now. These recent feats are amazing but somehow don't match the idea of someone that is rounding up sheep all day and then saying right I'll have a crack at the BG tomorrow! It is a different world. It is hard to talk about these things without sounding like an old curmudgeon, but it is the same with digital technology – It is fantastic, but at the same time I prefer the authentic experiences that came before everything was online.

SC: You were navigating yourself, did you ever think of doing a solo or unsupported round?

BW: I think the only reason I probably didn't was that I thought no-one will believe me. I think nowadays you would always believe someone because there is usually an army of people at each road crossing and people are out there spotting people doing these kind of challenges. But at Pudsey & Bramley no-one was really bothered about what I was doing. If I had said, ‘oh I have just done the Bob Graham this weekend’, they would have said, ‘alright what’s that’. I needed it validated. ‘No I honestly went to every peak!’ But if I did it now, I DEFINATELY wouldn't do it with a tracker so people could dot watch. 

SC: why so adamant?
BW: I am doing a theatre show about running with a friend of mine, Dan Bye, but it has been put off till next year. Part of it involved an 85 mile run which we were both going to do from Lancaster down to Kinder Scout. It is to do with land rights and land ownership. But I couldn't do it because I broke my toe, so I supported him. He had a digital tracker which was the first time I have had to deal with that kind of thing. I was on road support watching this little digital dot moving along. I found it really frustrating because three or four times it stopped because it lost GPS signal, a couple of in the night-time. You are completely lost, you just think this is ridiculous. If it wasn't for this technology you'd do it all different. You would have more safety times measures in for a start. Seeing a dot – you think ‘oh yeah all is fine’. 

SC: What are you thoughts on access to land, and the dichotomy of access against erosion?
BW: I do think that there comes a point when I would look at the Bob Graham and think I am not going to do that as it has turned into a motorway. When I first did the Three Peaks race in about 1989 they had just paved and duckboarded two really big sections of it. It was really boggy coming off Pen y Gent. They changed the route slightly and boarded it. Even then I thought I am never going to do this race again, it is just making it kind of too easy. If the Bob Graham gets like that then I think people need to have a think about running somewhere else. You go into the Howgills which is just 30 mins drive away and there is nobody there. You can run every day and not see any runners at all. There are always other places to go. I think runners are a bit more sensitive to environmental stuff than a lot of other people. 

SC: in book I detail Kilian Jornet meeting Billy Bland, and being encouraged by him at road points
BW: Yeh. I think Billy turning up and being supportive of it all made such a difference. And I think Kilian’s run was amazing.

SC: I also quote Billy saying to Kilian that he stopped for 20 mins in total on his round and he had to beat the time by more than those 20 mins.
BW: That is funny. I remember somebody saying to me that if you stop on every summit just for a minute and catch your breath and have a look around you have lost a lot of time, so don't stop. 

Yes indeed – 'Don't stop'. 

‘All or Nothing at All’ will be published on Thursday 20th August and can be obtained from all good bookshops and online at Amazon.

Live book launch, Thu 20 Aug 6-30pm:

About the book:

All or Nothing at All: the life of Billy Bland. Sandstone Press. Format: Hardback. ISBN: 9781913207229. Publication Date: 20/08/2020 RRP: £19.99

All or Nothing At All is the life story of Billy Bland, fellrunner extraordinaire and holder of many records including that of the Bob Graham Round until it was broken by the foreword author of this book, Kilian Jornet. It is also the story of Borrowdale in the English Lake District, describing its people, their character and their lifestyle, into which fellrunning is unmistakably woven.

About the author

Steve Chilton is a runner and coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University as Lead Academic Developer. He has written three other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps; and Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. He has written articles for The Fellrunner, Compass Sport, Like the Wind and Cumbria magazines.

He blogs at:

Leaving Honister on the last leg of the Bob Graham Round. L-R, Boff Whalley, Mark Whittaker, Billy Bland and Gavin Bland
Growing Up With Neil 
31 January, 2019
We all have heroes, don’t we? Even as an avowed anarchist (No gods! No masters!) I have people I’ve idolised and looked up to. Heroes are superhuman, out of reach, better than us. We aspire to be them but know we never will be. Bowie was a hero. Johnny Rotten was a hero. 
Neil Innes, with that plastic duck on his head and a reputation for being a lovely bloke, wasn’t a hero for me. He was more than that – better than that – he was someone who taught me what I could be; as I grew up he became a practical, down-to-earth and workable model. That’s more than a hero, isn’t it?
Neil Innes died yesterday, and I feel like I lost someone who’s been around me my whole life. He was there when I most needed him to be there; when I decided as a 15 year-old I wanted to go to art school and, on a collection of cassettes, when I dropped out of college to be in a band. It’ll be strange not having him around.
Some time in the mid 1970s I was round at my mate Mick Binns’ house, skiving off school, obsessed with Monty Python and pop music. Me, Mick and our friend Stanny wanted to form a band but none of us could play an instrument. Instead we decided to make our own comedy shows, writing and performing sketches and recording them on cassettes. Mick had an older brother and so had access to records that we didn’t know about – I remember being impressed that he had the first Sparks LP, but being nonplussed hearing early Bruce Springsteen. One afternoon he declared that he’d borrowed an LP called ‘The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse’ by an old 1960s band called the Bonzo Dog Band. The preposterousness of the title and the sleeve photographs of the band registered it as fascinating enough for me to ask to borrow it. Two weeks later I was buying the album for myself in a record shop in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, convinced I’d found the meaning of life. 
The make-up of the Bonzos was important. They were a bunch of maverick artists whose various contributions made the band eclectic and compelling. Most of the focus was on Viv Stanshall, an eccentric genius and incredible wordsmith. But I gradually came to realise that there was a quieter, but no less important, voice in the band.
And I grew up with that quieter voice. It gave me hope.
I don’t want to write an obituary, much as they’re essential and beautiful – I don’t want to write one of those pieces you read in the papers. How such-and-such was brilliant at this and that, how lovely they were, how they changed the world. I want to write about how this quieter voice impacted me in such a way as to effectively give me a blueprint for getting through life. 
I was never going to be a Viv Stanshall. He was obviously an outrageous and incredible personality, one of a kind, a born poet and performer. But he needed a Neil Innes. I have a Bonzos bootleg of the band rehearsing, and there’s a point where the band are trying a new song out – they launch into it and Viv comes in on the wrong beat, throwing everyone out. The song stutters to a halt. Neil at the piano gently instructs Viv to count the bars to the intro before he comes in, half-encouraging, half-tired of having to deal with Viv’s alcoholic waywardness. They set off again and click, and all’s well. 
And that was Neil’s job for a while. Looking after the frontman, making sure it could all be held together. All the while, he was contributing his own beautiful songs, rarely stepping out front (despite his song ‘Urban Spaceman’ being the group’s only hit) but always ensuring the band held tight and kept time. 
So, suddenly in love with this new and unsung musician, at school I covered my books with a photocopied photo of Neil wearing a dress. I presume (looking back) that I just loved that he looked beautiful and weird at the same time. I then went out scouring the record shops in Manchester finding Neil’s more obscure albums (Grimms, The World, etc), taped all his TV shows on a portable cassette recorder, and eventually saw him live at some awful student ball in a London art college. 
And when I started to be in bands myself, I realised that Neil was a role model for what I wanted to be – essential to the band but not at the front. The first band I played in was called Chimp Eats Banana and we formed without any of us knowing how to play an instrument. That didn’t matter – I’d grown up on the Bonzos, so I knew it was all about theatre, humour and shock. I stayed at the back, strumming an electric guitar I’d bought on Maidstone market for £10. 
I followed Neil through the Eric Idle / Rutles years, regularly seeing him play in various arts centres and theatres, and eventually, twenty years later, I met up with him to do an interview after a show at Leeds City Varieties. Knowing I couldn’t ever explain just what his example had meant to me, we had a very pleasant chat; and he at least proved that he was indeed the bloke I’d always imagined he’d be (friendly, unassuming, humble, generous, clever).
I think I have everything Neil ever recorded. Bits of it are awful – that pro-monarchy Silver Jubilee single he released in 1977, just as I was being enthralled by punk, too often comes to mind – but overall it’s a lifetime of ideas that could fill up... well, that could fill up my record collection. Across all those recordings there’s no fixed genre, no fixed style, nothing other than ideas. Ideas of where to go to next. That, to me, is one of the things that makes a great artist. Flitting around, not doing what you’re expected to do. 
The other day I was thinking about lyrics, about great song lyrics. And I thought, there are two lyrical snippets that just amuse and amaze me whenever I think of them. And they were both Neil’s. Both are based on rhymes.
“You’re so pusillanimous, oh yeah –
Nature’s calling and I must go there...”
“Hey you, you’re such a pedant!
You’ve got as much brain as a dead ant!”
So anyway, Neil wasn’t a hero. Not like John Lennon or Emma Goldman or Che Guevara or whoever. He was more than that – he was someone who made me think, “that’s how I can navigate my way through life. Through art. Through music.” In my obscure little corner of popular culture, I could never have been Viv Stanshall. But Neil Innes, he was my man. And always will be. 
Ping-Pong At The Opera 
30 September, 2019

“I’m just thinking about my family now.”

I’ve been off-handedly critical of opera for the last decade or so, for no other reason than that it gets a disproportionately large slice of arts funding, possibly due to its ‘high art’ connections to the social life of this country’s millionaire club. In my home city of Leeds, Opera North (at the last round of Arts Council funding) received over £40 million – almost half of the city’s entire arts fund allocation. This is just NOT FAIR.

It doesn’t mean I hate opera. Opera North are an innovative and creative organisation and I can’t blame them for mopping up the arts budgets. But it means I have an in-built distrust of opera, along with a class-based prejudice (dinner jackets and shiny shoes!) and a scary memory of my mum listening to a 7” vinyl single of tenor Jussi Bjorling singing the hell out of Bizet.

Anyway, about a year ago writer Sarah Woods invited me to be part of a project with Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, working on a piece of music about refugees and asylum seekers. Obviously I jumped at the chance. Whatever my views on opera, here was an opportunity to both get out of my musical comfort zone and properly engage with all the personal and poltitical issues surrounding immigration. I mean, standing back from it, wasn’t this a case of two worlds diametrically opposite? The gratuitously-monied arts and the under-funded plight of displaced families? Let battle commence.

Sarah is brilliant. She’s better at dealing with people than I am – we’re both from similar punk/squatting backgrounds, but possibly because of her London metropolitanism, she can walk into a roomful of strangers with confidence and ease. She maybe doesn’t have as big a chip on her shoulder; whatever it is, it works – she can shift between the two worlds (opera house and refugee centre) easily enough to make this all possible.

What we wanted was to make a piece of music that used the words of refugees and asylum seekers to tell a story of hope. We had a title – ‘Hope Has Wings’ – but that’s all. We’d be working with the clients of the Oasis refugee centre in Cardiff (‘clients’ is the word used for the centre’s users). It’s an amazing place that’s grown within the empty shell of an old church in urban Cardiff to become a lively, central gathering place for the city’s huge influx of refugees. Some of the clients tell stories of arriving in Dover, being put on a bus by immigration officials, and finding themselves in Cardiff. Lost, alone, alienated, bewildered. The Oasis Centre is a lifeline. When I first visited I was amazed by the hubbub of different languages, the smell of the day’s cooked lunch, the to and fro of everyday life. There was a barbershop in the main hall beside the ping-pong tables. A class teaching English each morning in a room where the cupboards are full of percussion instruments. There’s legal advice, washing facilities and places to relax. Music groups, mother-and-baby classes, arts and crafts, cookery, a creche, writing courses.

Right from the start we agreed that this thing we were here to create should be performed not to an invited audience in the WNO halls at the Cardiff Millennium Centre but right here at Oasis, to an audience including the refugees.

We held weekly workshops. The thing with people who have refugeee status is that they have no routine. They are constantly moving, constantly at the beck and call of interviews, tribunals, appointments, hearings; consequently each workshop we held would often have a different set of people. We encouraged them to share their ideas of hope, and avoided prompting them to share harrowing stories of their journeys from war-ravaged homelands and their separation from parents and children. Nonetheless, over the few months we worked there, these stories inevitably surfaced. People who had been teachers and doctors in their home countries talked of being unable to work in Cardiff, told us about their children they hadn’t seen for a year or more. Fortunately, through all the workshops and discussions and wonderings and wanderings, we had the help of Oasis worker Lydia, whose youthful energy held all the madness together – Lydia knew every client by name, and knew their stories.

Meanwhile, I was dealing with the much more banal and petty problem of writing for opera – utterly (and wonderfully) out of my depth, wrestling with writing a score for a string quartet and twelve operatic voices. Sarah’s lyrics, cleverly crafted from the words she collected in the workshops, were easily translated into little singalong pieces with guitar. We’d take these along to each Oasis workshop and everyone would sing a reflection of what had been written the previous week. But how to translate this to a performance by the Welsh National Opera?

I both loved and feared the challenge, and relished the feeling of wading too far out beyond the shallows. I asked that we have an Arabic percussionist, preferably one of Oasis Centre’s clients. And I wanted the whole thing built around a classical guitar playing simple arpeggios – no piano. The producers at WNO raised their eyebrows but said yes, sure. I had no idea what I was doing, but believe me it was strange and unpredictable FUN. Like punk, like starting a band in 1978 – not sure what was coming next, eagerly looking around the next bend.

The refugees’ words made it work. Sarah created a moving and beautiful narrative from their talking and from pencilled words on scraps of paper that moved through different stages of hope, from desire to despair, from faith to action, and finally to a sense of a shared, hopeful future. It was these ideas that we took into the WNO’s rehearsal rooms just three days before the performance.

The WNO is housed in the Millenium Centre, that huge building in Cardiff with the big words on the front. Looking up at the building during a break from rehearsal I took a photograph of the one word: ‘Sing’. Inside it’s a rabbit-warren of corridors and swing doors. You can follow your nose in there and never come out again. The rehearsal room we would be working in, when I found it, was an aircraft hanger of a place, with three (yes, three) Steinway pianos and an army of invisible people who set up the stools and music stands before you arrive. This is where the money goes. This is the arts funding, right here in this enormous room. And I’m part of it.

What drives this project though isn’t some abstract idea of huge and impressive musicality but the down-to-earth stories of 30 or 40 refugees. The re-telling of stories, the chance to give voice to people who are, essentially, voiceless. We hoped that by taking this performance into the Oasis Centre we could somehow, in a small way, share out – across the city – the connection between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

There are twelve opera singers. They’re in groups of three, ranging from Bass to Soprano. During the first rehearsal I realised that with my choir head on I hadn’t realised that these singers – these amazing singers! – don’t need to be grouped in threes; one of each would have done the job perfectly. Then again, me and Sarah had written two parts of the piece which used all twelve voices to sing, shout and converse in different languages, so I didn’t need to feel too guilty about waste. And besides, the twelve singers were a delight to work with (and I think they loved the chance to break free from musical convention in order to yell and blurt). So, too, was everyone else we worked with at WNO, from the directors and producers to the engineers and translators. No Jussi Bjorling and not a shiny shoe to be seen.

So it came to the performance. The setting was an evening dinner at the Oasis Centre. Every week there’s a special meal prepared by chefs from different parts of the world – people who worked as chefs in their homelands who can bring their incredible skills to a disused church in south Wales. This week there’s a special menu to complement the brilliant hand-picked string players and singers from the WNO. A three-course meal with a musical re-telling of the clients’ stories of hope, of the future.

By now I can see what I did wrong, how I misjudged the vocal ranges of the singers, how I limited myself to tempos and keys in order to keep it all simple. I could have been braver. But watching and hearing the opera singers singing those words, which Sarah had picked out from those weekly sessions in the creche at the old church, I realised how important it was to be part of telling those stories, and how satisfying it had been to work on the project.

There was one small part of the twenty-odd minute piece that always ‘got’ me. At one of the last sessions with the clients at Oasis, we’d asked the assembled group to write down simply what they were thinking about, after we’d had a conversation about hope. Just a few words, write them down, fold up the paper, pass it to Sarah. She shared some of them with me after everyone had gone and one in particular stuck out: it simply said, 

“I’m just thinking about my family now.” 

Thinking of a family thousand of miles away. A family cut off and distant.

Sarah wrote it into the performance, as part of a spoken word section. During rehearsal, whenever the singer spoke those words, I would find myself almost crying. The same in the actual performance at Oasis. Even writing this, it makes me want to cry. I’m a songwriter, I write music, I write people’s stories. But that sentence – forget my prejudice against opera, my worries about musicality, my comfort zones, whatever – that sentence is why I do this stuff. We’re living in a world that will deny the right of people to be with their families, and that denial is based on economics and ideology. Not on humanity.

Right now Sarah and me are cooking up another project linking the clients at Oasis with Welsh National Opera, which we’ll start on later this year. Next year will mark WNO’s 75th anniversary – it was created in 1945 – and it seems fitting to make the piece around the notion of the Welfare State with all its connections to social justice, empathy and care. So it’s back to the frequent trips to Cardiff and the Oasis Centre and the three Steinways and wondering how it’ll all turn out; knowing, all the while, that at the end of a two-day workshop or rehearsal session I can get back to my family – more aware than ever of how, in this chaotic messy age, that can somehow be a privilege, not a right. 

Opera singing at Oasis Centre. Photograph by Tess Seymour

Tyranny With A Mandate
30 August, 2019

“Democracy! Bah! When I hear that word I reach for my feather boa!”
(Allen Ginsberg)

I think my first taste of how British democracy works was watching how the Labour Party hounded, bad-mouthed and expelled its left-wing members around the time of the 1984 Miners’ Strike. I was new to politics, but already learning to be cynical from seeing how powerful men in cigarette-stained committee rooms gathered to draw up new rules and regulations (all seemingly accompanied by that miraculous word ‘mandate’) which would shore up the power around them and rid their own body politik of dissenters and radicals.
Tomorrow there’s a protest against De Pfeffel Johnson’s ridiculous coup-lite. His ham-fisted manipulation of constitutional protocol is so blatantly and outrageously unfair; the man is a revolting, power-hungry, old-school racist toff. Nevertheless, my marching, demonstrating, singing or writing won’t be ‘in Defence of Democracy’. By which I mean, British democracy as it stands. What the Tories are doing, as they so smugly know, is perfectly legal and within the country’s constitutional framework. It’s democratic. They’re not stupid. They understand how to manipulate democracy and always have done. Manipulate it by controlling press, TV and radio (and, it transpires, the internet and social media). Manipulate it by ensuring a steady flow of public school and Oxbridge MPs into both houses of Parliament, judiciary and corporations. Manipulate it with gerrymandering, nepotism, cronyism, and the simple weight of ‘majority rule’(even when you have to pay £1 billion to bribe another party to ensure such a majority): all of it falls within the framework of British democracy. 
“Democracy is a system that gives people a chance to elect rascals of their own choice.”
(Doug Larson)
We have this idea that dictatorships arise from nowhere, armed generals staging palace coups, that sort of thing. But sometimes they emerge, slowly, from democracies facing economic or polititcal crises. When I say emerge, I mean they are voted in, by electorates sick of poverty and alienation and swayed by streams of propaganda. The word democracy comes from the original Greek word meaning ‘rule by people’. It’s an admirable idea, obviously, but it can only exist while the people – the electorate – have equal access to knowledge, equal understanding of what they’re voting for. A recent report showed that just three companies, run by a trio of old school viscounts and billionaires, own 83% of the British national print and online newspaper market.
“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets...”
(Napoleon Bonaparte)
Despite the inherently unequal access to information and to opportunity, British democracy has served many ordinary people well down the years. We’ve used its basic idea as a way of building on progressive, communal, inclusive ways of changing society. Democracy has been part of the mechanism by which the power of the people has influenced the way our lives have improved, through universal suffrage, unions, movements, statutes and laws for equality and justice. When enough people have demanded, shouted, demonstrated and agitated for change, democracy has acted as a rough and ready tool to ensure we got that change. Up to a point. 
Now we’re at that point (some would say, well beyond it). Gradually, since the Thatcher era (when Capitalism began to run out of steam) push has come to shove, and the progressive evolution of society is being halted and rolled back. Johnson, like Trump (and there are plenty of others at the moment) is seizing the narrative of populism and using it to promote a right-wing elitist agenda. The problem with this version of populism is that it’s essentially, fairly-and-squarely, Proud To Be Britishly democratic. As the hideous Brendan O’Neill wrote recently in Spiked magazine (itself part of a network of new rightists, the ‘voice of the people’ as funded by American billionaires):
“This cognitive dissonance – to be briefly generous – was summed up in placards being carried by numerous people. The text said: ‘Defend democracy… Stop Brexit.’ And there you have it: defend democracy by crushing a massive democratic vote.”
It wasn’t actually ‘a massive democratic vote’ – it was 52% against 48%. It’s an old cliché, but a reliable one, that ‘democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for lunch.' That 52/48 split should be a cause for compromise, instead it’s being used as a mandate to allow the majority to stomp all over the minority. But essentially, O’Neill is right – why are we defending the democratic process that grants the right of people to drag Britain towards being a narrow-minded, provincial, blinkered version of itself, the red-faced bloke in the corner of the Albion Inn dribbling ale down the front of his tatty John Bull costume (from Union Jack Wear, of Clitheroe, Lancashire, pictured above...)?
Yet somehow we keep thinking that our version of democracy, like our version of ‘the news’, is worth defending. It isn’t. British Democracy comes with in-built checks and balances to ensure that the same old elites retain power. It ensures that, should the power swing toward the people, there are enough loopholes for those rich white men to climb through. In my lifetime I’ve seen how we can get better as people – more co-operative, less racist, less sexist, more tolerant, less bigoted. And I’ve also watched recently as all those progressive steps have been attacked and stripped back. Health, education, transport, culture, utilities, all the stuff we gained, it’s all now up for grabs, sold off and asset-stripped – all under the auspices of successive Conservative and Labour governments. What Pfeffel Johnson is doing, backed by his crew of loathsome public school lizards, is just more of the same, more shoring up the elite’s power within a framework we still call democracy. 
Ghandi said: 
“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
Yesterday I listened to the detestable and odious Jacob Rees-Mogg on Radio 4 being intellectually cuddled by the BBC’s arch-Tory presenter John Humphries. Much as I recognised that Rees-Mogg’s defence of Pfeffel Johnson was obnoxious and repellant, what was worse was detecting the utter smugness of someone who knows that democracy is firmly on his side. This jumped-up Lord Snooty was, as if we need reminding, elected to serve by a democratic mandate of the good people of North East Somerset. 
“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”
Oscar Wilde
The point of all this is to reiterate that there are higher principles to defend than democracy, at least the democracy we have right now, the democracy that allows Rees-Mogg and the rest to securely act in its name. And by ‘act’, I include all the acts that allow a democratically-elected government to brutalise, marginalise, evict, humiliate, punish, rob and murder so many of its citizens in the name of austerity and welfare reform. The higher principles we need to defend start with equality, freedom, respect, honesty and opportunity. They end when the last Tory cabinet millionaire is strung up by the last Eton school tie.
Rouse, Ye Women! Why Preaching To The Converted Isn't An Insult
28 March, 2019

“Preaching to the choir actually arms the choir with arguments and elevates the choir's discourse.” 
(Dan Savage)
So the argument is – and it’s an argument I’ve had to deal with all my working life – that making political art is simply ‘preaching to the converted’. Playing to the crowd. That sharing our ideas is worthless unless we’re sharing them with those who profoundly disagree with us.
In response I’d say that now, more than ever, isn’t the time to be trying to ‘convert’ the xenophobes and bigots who’d have us walking backwards into a world of sepia-tinted historic ignorance and small-mindedness. For one thing, I’m getting older and I just haven’t got time to bicker (online or otherwise) with those I have very little in common with. The people I’m interested in talking (and singing) to are the people who, like me, have been battered by Big Politics and its current state of awfulness. Battered by the way so much of social media has become a playground for hateful name-calling, misogyny and arrogance. Battered by failing democracy. Battered by the worldwide rise in right-wing populism. Battered by the cynical careerism of those in power and battered by the idiocy of those who believe, accept and follow them.
No, what I want to spend my time doing is reminding myself of the good stuff, the good people. Remembering that when good people gather we can feel energised and motivated. Rebecca Solnit writes:
‘The majority of Americans, according to Gallup polls from the early 1960s, did not support the tactics of the civil rights movement, and less than a quarter of the public approved of the 1963 March on Washington. Nevertheless, the march helped push the federal government to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was at the march that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech — an example of preaching to the choir at its best. King spoke to inspire his supporters rather than persuade his detractors. He disparaged moderation and gradualism; he argued that his listeners’ dissatisfaction was legitimate and necessary, that they must demand drastic change.’
Chapel Allerton is a well-off suburb of Leeds, which local estate agents refer to as ‘the village’. It’s not a village, it looks broadly the same as a lot of the rest of Leeds – higgledy-piggledy terraced housing and semi-detached garden estates, the occasional pub and one main bus route along the high street. Chapel Allerton's Seven Arts is a small tidy venue with sofas in the bar and lots of posters on the walls. It’s here that touring theatre group Townsend Productions are performing their ‘folk-ballad-opera’ based on a historic strike by 1000 women chain makers in the West Midlands in 1910.
It’s a stirring story and a stirring re-telling of the story, with music written by John Kirkpatrick, and the cast of three make a solid thumping fist of bringing history alive. Neil Gore plays the authority-figure as Bryony Purdue and Rowan Godel run cast-iron rings around him. Bryony plays union organiser Mary Macarthur; Rowan plays chain maker Bird. Both sing and harmonise beautifully, setting melodic singalongability (if it's not a word it should be) against righteous anger.
It’s history, but it’s also plainly relevant, and the audience lap it up – the non-stop Brexit news coverage we’ve all left behind to come here tonight is so sense-dullingly, arse-clenchingly annoying that the women’s raised fists and catchy choruses are a relief. Just being there in an audience of (presumably) like-minded people is a welcome respite from the puke-making bitchiness of Parliamentary politics.
And it’s this sense of escape that is so valuable right now. It’s not an escape from what’s going on, it’s an escape from the endless volley of undigested hatred surrounding what’s going on. A top-level lack of dignity and honesty that typifies current British and US politics.
“To win politically, you don’t need to win over people who differ from you, you need to motivate your own. There are a thousand things beyond the fact of blunt agreement that you might need or want to discuss with your friends and allies. There are strategy and practical management, the finer points of a theory, values and goals both incremental and ultimate, reassessment as things change for better or worse. Effective speech in this model isn’t alchemy; it doesn’t transform what people believe. It’s electricity: it galvanizes them to act.”
(Rebecca Solnit)
During the 1990s I started to think that marches and big demonstrations were simply a tedious duty. I felt like I’d been traipsing meekly around London landmarks for long enough, and that none of it felt effective or useful. Too many SWP placards, too many megaphone chants. But quite recently, after Trump’s travel ban on Muslem-majority countries was introduced in the US, I joined a hastily-arranged demonstration in Leeds which felt different – it was made up of mainly young people with their own home-made signs and we-don’t-give-a-damn attitude, and I remembered why these demonstrations are important: they’re not for changing the minds of those we demonstrate against, they’re for bringing us together and sensing our own strength. In an age where it seems that we click our way through life, a lot of young people won’t have experienced the physical, noisy, not-quite-predictable thrill of gathering together to shout and sing and make ourselves heard. It can be powerful and intoxicating, and it can send us home wanting to do more.
“I may be preaching to the choir, but the choir needs a good song.”
(Michael Moore)
Townsend Productions have a reputation for touring small-scale theatre around the country, telling incredible stories of resistance and rebellion. What they provide is a space for people to laugh together, sing together, feel stimulated, empowered and motivated. There’ll be a handful of people in every audience that might not agree with the general political thrust of the play – and maybe they’ll be won over by seeing a great story, well told. But if they don’t, no matter. Plays like ‘Rouse, Ye Women’ are important, because they belong to us and we need to hear these stories, we need to sing these songs. To sustain us. And we need them in places like Seven Arts – not just on the TV – to remind us of communality. A shared experience of the invigorating power of live theatre.
And to finish... one more quote from Rebecca Solnit:
“To dismiss the value of talking to our own is to fail to see that the utility of conversation, like that of preaching, goes far beyond persuasion or the transmission of information. At its best, conversation is a means of accomplishing many subtle and indirect things.”
The White Album, Ex/Mint Condition
27 November, 2018

When I wasn’t long into my teens, still obsessed with football but gradually excited by pop music – particularly Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ – my friend Phil Preston, who lived at the bottom end of our street, showed me a pop magazine with a pull-out poster of The Beatles. This must have been some time in 1973, so it was several years after the band had split up. I remember they were bearded and had long hair, and that I couldn’t tell the difference between them. But I was curious – I couldn’t connect this bunch of hairy blokes with my patchy and jumbled memory of those early hits I’d heard on the radio in our old kitchen. I asked around and found a lad at school who said he had a Beatles album that he’d record for me on cassette.
A week later I had a copy of the White Album on cassette tape (TDK C120), and what I remember most about it was that he’d recorded it with a microphone placed somewhere in the vicinity of his record player’s speakers; I wasn’t put off by the sound of his dad shouting him to come for his dinner halfway through ‘Martha My Dear’ or the noise of passing traffic on his front street punctuating ‘Savoy Truffle’ but I was utterly bemused by the fact that, before each vinyl side commenced, he had leant into the mic and recorded himself declaring “Side one!”, “Side two!” etc. 
That Christmas my Grandma and Grandad gave me £5 to buy my own present and off I went to the Record Exchange on Standish Street in Burnley, all patch pockets and budgie shirt, feather cut and aviator specs, to buy the album for real. At this point I didn’t realise that the Record Exchange was to become my church. It wasn’t just the stacks and stacks of second hand records, it was the smell of the sleeves mixed with the ciggie smoke, the shock of the new and unknown, the thrill of discovery. They had a copy of the White Album (yeah I know it’s actually called ‘The Beatles’) stickered as ‘Ex/Mint condition’ with the poster and the photographs inside. It was the first album I ever bought. It was £4. I had a quid left to ‘put towards’ a pair of shin pads. 
Fifty years later and the White Album is re-released, remixed and with a zillion extra tracks. I was going to get it for Xmas but I couldn’t wait. I think my Grandma and Grandad would have approved (though back then I couldn’t play ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ in earshot of my Grandma. Y’know, with all that “my-finger-on-your-trigger” malarkey). I’ve listened to the whole thing now – five CDs, including demos and rehearsals and whatnot – but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with the Blu-Ray disc that’s in there. I’m not sure I have anything to actually play it on. What is it? A film? More music? 
It’s hard to be objective about the White Album. It’s my Desert Island Disc, in all its sprawling, idiosyncratic weirdness. It has been since the day I took it home and listened to it properly, positioning myself in front of my mum and dad’s stereogram, a teak-finish cabinet with speakers built into each slatted wooden side, with a record player that would stack 45s under its spindle and harshly drop them onto the turntable, one at a time. 
What the White Album did was it taught me that music – pop music, at least – could be an adventure. It could be this and that, that and this, heavy, light, happy, sad, pleasantly melodic or uncompromisingly challenging. How could ‘I Will’ and ‘Revolution No 9’ exist in the same cultural universe, never mind on the same record?
The White Album was a blueprint for me. In its musical extremes it taught me that everything was possible, everything was admissible. But in its tight and attentive production it taught me that all this stuff is only possible and admissible if it’s well done, if it knows how to balance the experimentation with care and attention to detail. Be as weird as you want, but don’t be sloppy.
This new version of the White Album is mixed by Giles Martin, son of producer George Martin. George was crucial to The Beatles. All the other great bands of that era, the Stones, the Kinks, the Small Faces... it doesn’t matter how good they were, none of them had George Martin. Thankfully Giles doesn’t go to town with the mix – it’s just a bit clearer, beefier, the drums have more clarity and the vocals sound brilliant. There are even a few coughs, splutters and giggles that I hadn’t heard before. ‘Revolution No 9’ spills a bit more of its guts and George’s wailing at the finale to ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ creeps up in the mix somewhere beneath Clapton’s guitar. 
The album’s bonus tracks are split between acoustic demos of the songs recorded at George Harrison’s house (The Esher Tapes, which have been around for years as bootlegs, so no suprises there) and studio run-throughs. Some are fascinating – all the between-takes banter is charming – but most of the recordings just demonstrate how perfect George Martin’s final mixes were.
What it does do though is remind me how influential this music was to me as a teenager. (Even the daring sleeve and poster design led me into designer Richard Hamilton’s socially-conscious post-Pop Art work, from his paintings of the H-Block hunger strikers to his damning portrait of Tony Blair posing in full cowboy gear in front of a warzone). I loved how the White Album could switch between deadly serious and playful, swivelling from pastiche to anger. Nursery rhymes, mothers, pet dogs, death, pain, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, it was all in there. It wasn’t the album that encouraged me to have a go at playing a guitar, but it was the album that, once I’d eventually started strumming a cheap acoustic in thrall to folk-punk Patrik Fitzgerald, forced me to understand there were no stylistic limits. 
All these years later and it still works, it still humbles most records if only in its scope and ambition (though it helped that The Beatles could carry off such a range of ideas by peppering the songs with beautiful, memorable melodies and flawless harmonies). So, when I get put in that nursing home, just turn up the radiator, stick on ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ and go off and have some fun. As you disappear down the corridor you’ll hear me intoning, “Side one! Side two!”

Roy Bailey

21 November 2018

There was a time when I thought English protest music started in 1977 with punk. I don’t remember how I stumbled across the album ‘Nuclear Power? No Thanks!’, a collection of angry songs by contemporary English folk musicians, but I remember that it was dead cheap so I bought it, some time around 1980. I played it over and over, falling in love with one song in particular – Leon Rosselson’s ‘Who Reaps The Profits? Who Pays The Price?’ – an epic ballad full of switching time signatures that veered between anger and sadness, sung mainly by Roy Bailey and Frankie Armstrong. 
With that record began a discovery of political and relevant folk music going backwards from Leon, Roy and Frankie to Martin Carthy, Dick Gaughan and Christy Moore. Over the next few years I saw them all playing live, usually in little clubs where you were told to ‘shhh!’ if you as much as whispered (the exception being at Christy Moore concerts, which were always gorgeously raucous). Rock ‘n’ Roll didn’t have the blueprint on protest music after all.
I was fascinated by the way Leon Rosselson’s songs were often sung by Roy Bailey – Leon as a master songwriter, Roy as a voice that smoothed over any brittleness and invited you in, educated and stirred you. (Someone on the radio yesterday, discussing political art, made the point that good protest art shouldn’t be propaganda, it should seduce you – that propaganda puts people off, whereas "everyone wants to be seduced"). This Rosselson/Bailey duo was all wonderful stuff, and it was Roy’s gorgeous, welcoming voice that underpinned the idea that protest music needn’t harangue and polemicise, that it could share its anger with softness and calm. This idea was to have a profound influence on the way I began to write songs, endlessly refining the idea that ‘sometimes a melody is louder than a shout’.
Many years later, we had the chance to work with Roy, who was as generous and warm as his voice implied. He sang on one of our albums and we sang at his birthday party. Then he ‘put me forward’ (really!) as a new addition to the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, to join up with the rebel gang of folksingers that was Leon Rosselson, Robb Johnson, Grace Petrie, Ian Saville, Sandra Kerr, Jim Woodland, Reem Kelani and Janet Russell. As I write this there are emails going backwards and forwards between this bunch, all talking of how sad they are to hear about Roy, all artists who understood the importance of gathering to sing about the world around us. 
He was a tremendously supportive bloke, always complimentary, and, vitally, he was cheeky and funny, too. His command of an audience was a lesson in treating the audience as if they were invited friends, gathered to sing together. Which they always did, of course. Sharing the stage as Roy sang ‘Rolling Home’ was to understand how to share a beautiful idea.
And bless him, he was protesting to the end. Sending out his fired-up email bulletins, railing against a callous, self-centred government, still singing his songs of rage and hope. Just this week I was listening to Robb Johnson’s new CD, the monumental ’Ordinary Giants’,where Roy’s vocal sounds fragile, tender and beautiful as he sings of the soldiers returning from the Great War (“There’s a two-minute silence that lasts the whole year...”). 
Roy (who seemingly tried to retire several times but just couldn’t stop carrying on) often joked about his ill-health and age, sending up his own mortality and swearing at the increasing aches and pains of getting older. But then he’d get settled at the centre of the stage, turn the pages of his songbook, ceremoniously open a bottle of water (“I can do it all on my own!”), take a sip and off he’d head into another gloriously sweet singalong of a song... 

Coffee, Snow and Rocket Launchers

3 March 2018

A coffee-cup, that’s all it is. A grey, double-walled, coloured thermal mug with a blood-red coloured screw-top lid. Microwave and dishwasher safe. And on the side, a block-lettered logo reading –


And in smaller lettering below the logo –


It’s snowing a storm and a half across the Tyne as we arrive at Newcastle train station. Looking across the river and its assorted criss-cross of bridges, there’s the huge glass armadillo of The Sage, covered in a thick snowy fur, the venue for today’s official opening of The Great Exhibition of the North (otherwise known as, ta-daaaa, GET North). It’s the first time the media are to be let into the secret of what exactly will happen over the three months of the summer exhibition, and the first time people like us – I’m here with Commoners Choir’s Josh Sutton and Jane Morland – get to meet some of the community of artists and designers that are coming together to make up this huge upcoming jamboree of happenings and spectacles.

The train journey up from Leeds was perfect – firstly to marvel at the frosted Yorkshire landscape, dotted with farms and electricity pylons, and secondly to grab a couple more hours of planning for the project we’re putting on as part of (ta-daaaa!) GET North. Inside The Sage there are rows of tables where people are queuing to register and where volunteers hand out free bottles of water. Looking upwards I can see the colourful GET North banners and logos, splashed around the upper ribs of the armadillo, as snow on the roof slides off the top in powdery clumps, crashing onto the grass verges below us. We get tea and Josh buys a cheese scone almost as big as his entire head.

Today the three of us are here, mainly, to get a bigger grasp of what we’re to be involved in; it’s fair to say we know very little about the whole shebang. We’ve been told some of the artists and events involved – Lemn Sissay, Lubaina Himid and a virtual reality version of Stephenson’s Rocket – but that’s about it. Our project, which is due to happen on the opening weekend of GET North, involves us and two brilliant choirs from the north of England (She Choir from Manchester and Stockton’s Infant Hercules) combining to sing a specially-written choral piece about the cities we come from. First we’ll each walk three separate routes through Newcastle city centre, singing at key points along the way, and then we’ll gather to sing together in the performance space outside The Sage.

It’s taken a lot of thinking and talking and planning, all this. And funding, too – the GET North Commissioners we’ve worked with have been brilliant in making sure this large-scale project can happen, and that crucially we’ll get paid to create and perform it. Commoners Choir is and has always been entirely free for its members. As the choir’s leader I only get paid when I create and organise large-scale events like this one up in Newcastle, so it’s doubly important for me to make this work. Same goes for Josh and Jane, who’ll be managing the project from scribbled notepad start to resounding four-part-harmony finish.

The tannoy inside The Sage tells us we ought to be taking our seats in the main hall. Josh eradicates the last of the cheese scone and we head up the stairs and into the venue’s huge, lush and dimly-lit auditorium. We shuffle along a row and giggle at how easy it is to spot the difference between the arts and the business people in the audience. The Royal Northern Sinfonia stride onto the stage and play something stirringly beautiful. It feels like we’re part of something grand and inspiring.

The Choir’s involvement in all this probably stems from my identity as a Lancastrian living most of my life in Yorkshire. I can’t stand the Yorkshire-Lancashire rivalry. In the face of a north-south divide that exposes serious inequalities, and living in a time when central London’s grip on political, economic and cultural power is so blatant, it seems incredibly stupid to be constantly regurgitating historic cross-Pennine enmities. So for this project I wanted to write something that celebrated not a particular city or county but the whole of the North. My first idea was to create a choir from Manchester and a choir from Leeds, and have them meet on the Pennine moors just north of the infamous pedestrian footbridge across the M62 at Windy Hill, on the Lancashire and Yorkshire border. There we’d seal some sort of peace pact in a specially-written song.

But that all sounded too cold, too weird, and too easily ignored. Have you ever walked across that footbridge? It’s a place that divides two separate stretches of boot-sucking peat-bog moorland where winds disguised as demons howl into your ears. It’s a grim, desolate place where people come to heave their old mattresses onto the side of the motorway’s connecting roads. There’d be a fair chance that the only audience would be lorry drivers pulling vast containers thundering along the M62.

When I heard about The Great Exhibition of the North I realised that this was a chance to lay my demons to rest and create something big and beautiful, something far away from the grim and the desolate, something that stretched its ideas of celebration and hope right across the North. And from the viewpoint of the huge windows of The Sage, this version of the North looks beautiful. Especially in the middle of a snowstorm. Newcastle’s worn-out, sooty bits get covered up and you’re left with epic landmarks – clock towers, bridges and the huge yellow-brick Baltic, a former flour mill converted into a thriving contemporary arts centre. They do the arts really well up here. On a site visit a month earlier we’d wandered along one of the proposed walking, singing trails through the city marvelling at the way cafes, music venues, bars and galleries seemed to sprout up on every street corner, all of them eager to be part of this exhibition.

I love how there are so many different versions of the North. My default version of the North lies somewhere in a jumble of Pennine trails and Cumbrian mountains, Calder Valley chimneys and old football grounds. But let’s face it, everywhere north of Sheffield is fascinating, everywhere has some identity rooted in history and tradition, whether it’s embedded in the heathered moors or the gritstone paving stones. I’m growing to love the North East too. I don’t know it very well, but I love how it’s not like where I’m from, and yet it chimes completely with my ideas of Northern identity. And I love how it embraces art and culture, whether that be graffiti or galleries. A year or so ago I worked for a week on the Durham coast, collecting stories, walking along the coastline and writing songs as part of the Hartlepool Folk Festival. That was me falling in love with the North East right there, with all its working class pride and its natural beauty.

So how could we make a performance that might articulate all this stuff about gritstone and chimneys and graffiti? After a lot of talking with Jane and Josh, we came up with this thing called Trail-Blazing. We invited She Choir and Infant Hercules to join us in singing about our cities. It was all planned, organised, written up and sent off as a proposal to the GET North commissioners. For anyone unfamiliar with working in the arts, this is essentially how it works – you put your heart and soul into an idea and then put it all down onto paper. When that’s done you re-write and re-write and re-write it, then cost it all out, until it can’t possibly fail to impress someone who’s responsible for project commissioning. You send it off and wait for six weeks, keeping all those blank spaces in your diary on the off-chance that someone will say yes, we like your idea, we’ll fund you. And more often than not you don’t get the funding, because 30, 40, 50 other people are bidding for the same opportunity, going through that same six-week wait to see if they’re going to be employed for a couple of months over summer.

We got the call towards the end of last year, accepted as part of the GET North exhibition. Now all we had to do was pull this thing together. When we arrive in Newcastle for the programme announcement it feels like we’re half-way through the project, with most of the mapping and scheduling sorted out. This is where the fun bit starts – visiting the choirs, doing workshops to gather ideas, putting it all down lyrically and creating music that will work as three separate songs and as one unified choral piece.

Gary Verity, heading up the Exhibition organisers, is on the stage and he’s talking in motivational soundbites. This, presumably, is what he’s there for, what he’s good at. It sounds like what it essentially is – a speech about the value of an arts event to the businesses who will fund it and the media who will cover it. The accompanying brochure looks less like a festival programme than a company pamphlet – smiling, go-ahead faces cropped at angles, text that reads in buzzwords and bullet-points.

This ongoing conversation between potential funders and the arts is essential of course, especially when successive governments have run down the educational value of art and slashed arts budgets. Nowhere is this more true than in the north, where cultural spending per head is a fraction of what it is in the metropolitan south – figures from an analysis by The Institute for Public Policy Research North revealed that the arts in northern England would have to be allocated almost £700m a year to receive a level of funding to equal London.

I’ve spent most of my life balancing this tightrope between art and commerce. I constantly tipple over and fall off (but I get up again, etc), and the one thing I’ve learned is that there isn’t an easy and obvious solution to the problem of who funds art? As Josh pointed out the other day, sitting in a local cafe in what looked like full Russian army winter gear, there’s a history of this problem going back at least to the Italian Rennaissance, when the Medici family in 15th century Florence – ruthless and corrupt bankers – were the patrons of artists like Michaelangelo and Botticelli. The Medicis bankrolled the great Italian artists in return for having their portraits painted and hung prominently around the city; being portrayed not as vicious merchants but as quasi-religious figures.

Steph McGovern is up next, and I sense I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t know who she is. Jane whispers that she’s “on the telly. BBC Breakfast.” The only telly in our house at breakfast time is CBBC (if Steve Backshall appeared on The Sage stage I’d be properly impressed). Steph is great up there. She’s funny and self-depracating and clearly in love with her northern roots – she refuses to allow the whole presentation to become simply a smoothly-managed advertisement, and embodies ideas of northernness in a way that the accompanying brochure fails to do. The North is more than ‘a business opportunity’, a fact which eludes the Tory spokesman who appears on video towards the close of play. He manages to use words and sentences without ever actually saying anything of meaning or value, his mulched and colourless speech set oddly against the tilted camera angle (he’s cool!) and the Andy Warhol print on the wall behind him (he’s arty!)

We sneak out before the end. We have a train to catch so we can get back for our separate school pick-up times, and after a slight lull it’s beginning to snow heavily again. Down the stairs and on the way out, we’re handed a goody-bag, which we take eagerly because we’re cheapskates and it’s all stuff for free. Ooh let’s have a look. That brochure again. A nice metal water bottle subtly branded by Northumbrian Water. A metal (ta-daaaa) GET North pin badge (the designers of the British Rail logo are contacting their lawyers). And a coffee cup – a grey, double-walled, coloured thermal mug with a blood-red coloured screw-top lid. Microwave and dishwasher safe. And on the side, a block-lettered logo reading –


And in smaller lettering below the logo –


We’re on our way out now, into a windswept storm of snow whipping around the balcony entrance of The Sage. BAE Systems? I point out to Jane and Josh that BAE are a weapons manufacturers. So why are we getting a free coffee cup carrying the logo of an international arms dealer? We look on the back of the brochure, scanning the brands and corporations supporting the Exhibition – and there they are, one of three ‘premier partners’. BAE Systems. Inspired Work (more colourless mulch disguised as a funky slogan). My heart drops to my soggy shoe soles, really it does. It drops thinking of what this means, thinking of all the work we’ve put into the project, thinking of having to sever links with the commissioning team who’ve been so supportive, thinking of telling all three choirs that this great gathering wouldn’t be happening. Thinking of a couple of months’ paid work disappearing into a sinkhole of debates and questions and justifications. I just want to make art, that’s all.

That’s a lie of course. I don’t just want to make art. What I want to do is make art that’s challenging and informative. Or at the very least to make art that doesn’t associate itself with the arms trade. Is that too much to ask? (Some would say yes). Over the next 24 hours, through to Wednesday evening, Jane, Josh and me try to make sense of all this. Plan our next move. Work out how to tell the commissioners, the choirs, the world, that we’re walking away from (not so much ta-daaaa anymore) GET North.

The idea of us not completing our project fades into insignificance as I spend Tuesday night reading articles on BAE Systems, following the online trail between protests at shareholder meetings and battlefield boasts, between boycotts and endless descriptions of state-of-the-art killing machines. Everything from bullets and shells to assault rifles, rocket launchers and guided missiles; billions of pounds’ worth of weapons sold to Saudi Arabia to arm their deadly assault on Yemeni’s schools and hospitals. Chairman of BAE, Roger Carr, is quoted saying, “We try and provide our people, our government, our allies with the very best weapons … to encourage peace.”

Inspired Work, it says on the cup. I can’t for the life of me work out what might be inspiring about manufacturing weapons built specifically to kill people. I can only imagine the slogan has been conjured up by a hip design consultancy to fit with the notions of creativity, collaboration and community that usually embody arts festivals.

Somewhere in this mix-up of doubts and decisions I find out that our part of GET North – our Trail-blazing choirs walking and singing their way through the city – wasn’t to be funded in any way by BAE Systems. That the commissioners who invited us and our performance to the Exhibition have secured our funding wholly from Arts Council England. This doesn’t change our minds. It’s bad enough to be seen to be connected, whether by direct funding or with free coffee cups.

Jane rings on Wednesday afternoon to say she’s seen that singer/songwriter Nadine Shah has publicly pulled out of the Exhibition, explaining on Twitter:

I will no longer be playing the @getnorth2018 festival now that I have discovered BAE Systems are a sponsor. I am disgusted to hear of their involvement and refuse to be in any way associated with them. I encourage all artists involved to follow suit.”

Josh exclaims, “bastard! She got there before us!” and we laugh. It makes it easier, doesn’t it, knowing you’re not alone in something? By now, friends in the artworld are already on social media discussing BAE’s involvement in the Exhibition, and we press the button on our hurriedly-written press release.

Right then.

Time to start planning some brand new inspired work.

Press release, March 1st 2018

We are Leeds-based Commoners Choir and we create and manage arts projects and events that tie together choral singing with the everyday politics of where we live. Last year we did a tour of libraries in the North of England with a show that championed literacy, print and the value of libraries. Recently we appeared on ITV’s ‘Britain’s Favourite Walks’, commemorating the 1932 Kinder Mass Trespass by walking to the Peak District summits and singing specially-written songs about the legacy of the trespassers.

We jokingly call ourselves ‘a Singing Newspaper’. A choir that reacts to what’s going on around us day-to-day. Our latest venture was to team up with two other choirs (one in Stockton, one in Manchester) and create three walking, singing trails through Newcastle city centre as part of The Great Exhibition of the North. The idea was for the choirs to sing three specially-commissioned pieces reflecting their ideas about ‘northernness’, to sing some of the incredible stories that tell of these northern cities we call home. The three choirs would meet outside The Sage in Gateshead and join together, their three choral pieces becoming one intertwining celebration of the North. This was to happen on the opening weekend of the Exhibition, on the afternoon of Saturday 23 June.

This performance, involving around 100 participants, will no longer happen. At the full programme announcement for the Exhibition on Tuesday 27 February, which highlighted some of the fantastic events and performances that would make up the summer-long Exhibition, it became clear that one of the primary partners for the Exhibition will be BAE Systems.

This left us with no alternative but to pull out. There are plenty of researched and nuanced reasons for not wanting to make work that links to BAE which we won’t go into here, but suffice to say that we felt completely unhappy being represented alongside a corporation with a track record in supplying weaponry to countries waging war on their own people and boasting appalling human rights records.

The commissioners we have been working with have been brilliant throughout, showing us enthusiasm and support, so we don’t take this decision lightly. None of us are ever ideologically ‘pure’, and this is not about making judgements on how other people work (not least the many thousands of people working at BAE). But in this case, and in a time when weapons manufacturers (or in fact, their shareholders) benefit so heavily from civil wars, nuclear weapons proliferation and personal gun-use, we felt that as artists we couldn’t justify working under the shadow of BAE’s reputation.

It is, of course, in the interests of BAE Systems to be associated with arts events that celebrate community and creativity – and the Great Exhibition of the North looks like it will be a genuinely uplifting and exciting festival of ideas. So what better way for a company that deals in weapons of death to present a facade of energy, kinship and collaboration than in having their logo across events such as these?

Commoners Choir will continue to create site-specific performances that highlight our love of, and concerns about, the world around us – but without the cynical patronage of corporations whose success seems to be measured in body-counts.


Art, Work and Strange Edna

December 2017

For a short while back in the summer of 2016 I was overwhelmed with work, and with the worry of too much work. I felt swamped and worked out that if I stayed up all night, every night, for a month, I still couldn’t do everything I’d committed myself to doing. It derailed me for a while. I didn’t feel well. That had never happened before, and it taught me a lesson.

The lesson was: work – even work that you love – isn’t important enough to drive you mad.

I cancelled and postponed a couple of projects and I swore I’d make spaces for myself, spaces away from work.

I started to read novels. Not books that informed my work – not information, not source material – just novels. Stories to take me away somewhere. Oh, and biographies. Books about poets and musicians, some good stuff and some right old stinkers. Pete Townshend, cheer up! And I rekindled a love of cryptic crosswords, an easy escape into conundrums and puzzles. My Grandma taught me to do the cryptic Burnley Express crossword as a kid, and lately I’ve heard it said that they’re a defence against dementia. Strange Edna met one inside with chronic disorder (8).

And finally, I rediscovered a love for forests, hills and trails. Not that I’d ever lost it, but since my stupid accident with an axe almst two years ago I’d had a series of fits and starts with running due to weird drugs, sleeplessness and a tangle of cut nerves needing to re-stitch themselves together. It took a while but I got back to daily fell and trail running, an hour a day without a phone and without being bombarded by advertisements.

Looking back on 2017 though (and it’s December so I’m allowing myself a look back) I still filled up lots of essential space and time with work. That’s what happens when you’re self-employed – you grab everything that comes along just in case nothing else comes along.

So I promised myself that 2018 be a year of re-balancing.
Except that I’m already starting to worry that there’s too much going on. If you see me, tell me to slow down. Actually I’ve made a big chart full of projects and it has definite spaces (the bits that aren’t coloured-in). That sounds like more Strange Edna meeting one inside, but it’s what I’ve done for ages: draw things instead of writing them down. Visualise days and weeks and years as circular wheel-rims with rainbow-coloured tyres. Here’s what’s sticking to next year’s wheel, in words (and efficiently, anally numbered):

I’m working with the brilliant Dan Bye on a new version of his ‘Tiny Heroes’ show. I’m writing music for that. This time it features Victoria Brazier on accordion; she worked with me on Red Ladder’s ‘We’re Not Going Back’. That’s being performed in and around Leeds in mid-December.

I also have a project with Dan Bye based on mountain running. Creating a choir that can sing about the hills we run up, a choir made up of runners who are also singers. Don’t laugh, this is serious. And this choir will sing about running on (and in) the landscape, on the tops of the moors and mountains. The pace of the music will reflect the pace of a run, getting slower on the climbs and quicker on the descents. Can’t wait to get cracking on that one.

I’m writing the music for Red Ladder’s ‘Mother Courage’, to be the centrepiece of Red Ladder’s anniversary next year. Brecht’s texts are legally untouchable, but the lyrics and music of the accompanying songs are allowed to be changed. The murky waters of copyright are choppy and challenging, and it’s absurd that Brecht’s theatre was based on an idea of changing with the times, of not getting stuck in tradition – and yet his heirs refuse to allow his theatrical text to be altered. Fortunately the tunes can be legally massacred, and that’s what I intend to do. Expect synthesisers, or zithers, or hardcore punk, or worse. Comb-and-paper. Hurdy-gurdy. Full-scale harp. I’ll stop now.

I’m working with health charity Space2 again in early 2018, collaborating with a primary school in Middleton, south Leeds. We’re writing stories and songs with the kids, and we’ll sing about where they live, and we’ll celebrate what’s good about their community and its people. I love Space2 projects – they fly in the face of a kind of arts and culture apartheid in Leeds, where the big institutions hoover up most of the funding and attention while the outer-ring of the city is left to fend for itself. 

I lived in West Leeds, in Armley, for almost 20 years. In that time I saw a few dedicated people create the ‘I Love West Leeds’ Festival, an annual gathering of community and artists to share something uplifting and wonderful. As the years went on the festival got bigger and bigger, and more and more important to the people in the area. Then, in 2014, the Festival was effectively and permanently shut down when both Leeds Council and the Arts Council withdrew their funding. Meanwhile, Opera North continues to get £10.4 million every year from the Arts Council. Read into that what you will (I know I do).
But I digress.

I’m writing a book. Really, I am. This one is about a punk rocker who was also a British Champion fell runner. I saw this lad in 1987, and one of my first sightings of him was scrapping with the coppers at a Conflict gig at Leeds University. I found out that he played bass in a nondescript punk band called Pagan Idols. Somehow he became the best fell runner in Britain. I decided I needed to write his story. His name’s Gary Devine, and I’ve been sitting down with him and recording what’s left of his punk-damaged memory and matching it up with magazine write-ups of Championship victories.

Commoners Choir have various plans for 2018. The Choir has been a wonderful blessing for me. It reinvigorated my love of acapella singing, it re-stated the importance of community and of communal group action, it amplified the whole idea of using singing for protest and acivism... I love it. The only problem for me is that I don’t get paid to do it. That shouldn’t be a problem, I know. But I tend to spend more and more of my time on the Choir and I find myself scrambling for time to do the projects I get paid to do. 

The Choir is planning a project called ‘More Than A Mouthful’ that will bring together choral singing, food and food poverty into the same event – we’re trying to set up a series of shows that feature Josh Sutton (as resident Commoners chef) cooking up food prepared from the Armley Junk Food Project (an ongoing initiative to use waste food) for various communties around the Leeds area. And they’ll get the Commoners singing, too, including special songs about food and food poverty, in conjunction with various venues and food banks.

We've got various concerts and festivals already sorting themselves out for 2018, including Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, British Acoustic Festival and the Street Choirs Gathering in Brighton.

I’m hoping to work on a big project for the Great Exhibition of the North in Gateshead next summer. It’ll be three choirs from three different northern cities (Manchester’s all-female She Choir, Stockton’s all-male Infant Hercules choir and, of course, Commoners Choir from Leeds) singing about where they live and work, about their northernness and about the history, culture and ideas that typify their cities. We’ll all sing seperately and then together, each choir making a walk across Newcastle as part of the event. This is all up in the air right now but I’m hoping it gets sorted out.

John Jones’ Reluctant Ramblers have a walking tour in May and I’ll be joining them with a guitar and a pair of cheap walking shoes. This time we’re walking up part of the spine of England, from Hebden Bridge to Saltaire to Otley to Settle, singing as we go. Come along, either for the walking or the gigs. More information at –

Last but not least (for now) is a collaboration with Casey, entitled ‘Visionaries’. It’ll be a book and exhibition of photographs of older people who’ve made (and continue to make) space in culture for future generations to live, thrive and explore. It’s a project that came out of a sense of despair at what’s happening around us, and then realising that things change slowly, that the things we do today might not kill off a Brexit or a Trump but they’ll lay the groundwork for what happens in the future. We were thinking of all the people who inspired us as we were growing up – artists and thinkers whose work moved the goalposts and pushed the boundaries. Poets, politicians and protestors whose ideas and actions reverberate into our lives, and many of these people are becoming invisible as they get older. 

So we’re going to visit these people, Casey will photograph them and I’ll write about them. We haven’t any funding or a publisher or anything for this, we just decided we needed to do it – I want to sit down with people who may have had no idea of the impact they had and tell them. We’ve started a list but anyone is welcome to give us advice!

There is no number ten. Well, there are a few possible number tens – a solo album called The North; music for a play about Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire; a new musical play set in an Amazon Warehouse; etc – but they might just disappear into the vast eternal Unrealised Projects hole (or get shunted to 2019). I was talking to a friend recently (in a kitchen, at a party, naturally) who said how fascinating it was that artists seem to have all sorts of varied and various types of work. My response was that it wasn’t out of choice; most working artists tend to grab what they can, when and where it’s offered. Everybody’s skint, except those in the higher echelons of arts management, and being self-employed means carrying around that niggling worry that if you turn work down you won’t get asked again.

A 2015 report by Victoria University in Australia found that performing arts workers experience symptoms of anxiety ten times higher than the general population, and depression symptoms five times higher. Presumably a lot of these statistics can be directly attributed to financial insecurity and the fact that there’s no stable pattern to work – if my theatre-performer friend Daniel Bye needs a new song to fit a new narrative by Friday, then on Wednesday evening I’ll be thinking it through while I’m watching ‘Polar Express’ with my 7 year-old. Then first thing on Thursday morning I’ll be trying lyric ideas out in my head while I’m half-listening to the radio news. And if I haven’t come up with an original melody by the start of a Space2 or Red Ladder meeting on Thursday lunchtime it’ll join the pile of other half-finished ideas already singing slightly out-of-tune in my head. I have the world’s worst filing system in my head. Like my Mum’s drawers, stuffed-to-bursting with stuff.

In other words, it’s hard to switch off.

I’m not moaning, I swear. The list above, if anything, makes me feel ridiculously happy and privileged. I get to do all this and someone pays me, too (mostly). I wouldn’t swap it for anything. But like everyone else in this swamp of a mental-health epidemic (we have all noticed, haven’t we?) I have to be careful. So, for now, no number ten. My Mum said, when she retired, “if you catch me tidying out my cupboard drawers you’ll know I’m bored.” Her cupboard drawers are still a delightful, disorganised mess. I’ll take that as inspiration. When I get to ten projects on the go at once, take me out for a drink and force me to talk about football and typesetting. Or better still, advise me to grab a good novel and get up to the Lake District to spend a week running.

I feel better already.

NB: It's worth admitting that writing this blog is a purposeful way of avoiding real work. 


Crass, Maidstone and Rock 'n' Roll

November 2017

When I was 18, in 1979, I left home and ran off to college in Maidstone, Kent, armed with a bag of punk badges and my dad’s old bike. Ridiculously, I went there because I thought it was close to London (I couldn’t get into any of the London colleges). I only lasted three months on Maidstone’s graphic design course, but halfway through that time I found out that Crass were playing in a village hall somewhere a couple of stops along the railway line. I’d heard a lot about this obscure band from Spider and Pepe from Burnley, who’d been to see them in London. Apparently they were “sort of like The Clash, but more extreme, more political, more commited”. I bought their first record, which started with a minute’s silence (called ‘The Sound of Free Speech’) and I loved it. It was punk, but not punk rock. It didn’t rock, it barked and stuttered. It was strange and extreme.

So I got the train to the gig, suddenly seeing all sorts of disenfranchised punks appearing out of the Kent woodwork. When I walked into the village hall, wherever it was, the stage was surrounded by home-made banners and painted slogans. The only lighting was from small, self-constructed wooden boxes on the floor of the stage, household bulbs throwing dark shadows against the ceiling. The band came on and basically changed my life – that hour-long concert was a shrieked aaaaaaaagggghhhhh against the world. A non-stop, full-throttle assault that, despite the noise, was clearly literate and clever. It was more performance art than rock ‘n’ roll, and I loved it.

That was almost four decades ago. You’d think the power of punk might have worn off by now.

I’m in Glasgow on my way to Fort William to run up and down Ben Nevis. It’s a holiday. A writing holiday. And on the way I get to see Pussy Riot at the Art School in Glasgow. Glasgow School of Art is an amazing building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an innovative and brilliant designer, and just to tie all this together, here’s a quote from Mackintosh:

You must be independent, independent, independent – don't talk so much but do more – go your own way and let your neighbour go his... Shake off all the props – the props tradition and authority give you – and go alone – crawl – stumble – stagger – but go alone.”

Earlier this year I’d seen one of Pussy Riot (Maria Alyokhina) in a show in Manchester by ground-breaking underground theatre group Belarus Free Theatre. If that show shocked me (and it did), tonight’s performance would double it. From the moment they took the stage tonight they demanded attention.

A projection screen told the story, in English subtitles, of their formation, trial, imprisonment and release, while two original Pussy Rioters narrated (or actually, sang, declaimed and shouted) a narrative that swung from fist-raised defiance to tearful loneliness. Digital dance beats kept the whole thing sounding urgent and uplifting; the performers danced, shouted and exclaimed. It was Crass all over again, only this time it told the story of imprisonment and hunger strikes. Of being away from your young children, locked in solitary cells, sent to far-flung prison camps, fighting for justice. It reminded me of what punk could be, at best – not a form of 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll but a way of shouting about the world.

By the time I went to art college in Maidstone I was waiting for Crass to happen. Waiting for a coming-together of theatre, art, rock ‘n’ roll and politics. While I was there I spent a lot of evenings and weekends at Maidstone library, catching up on all the stuff I thought I needed to read – so along with Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. And for that 18 year-old in a library reading about the Russian Labour Camps, about totalitarianism and imprisonment, it all came back to me tonight watching Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot reminded me that art and music wasn’t all about playing with words, style and culture – this was people’s lives being put on the line.

I could have left Crass’ little gig in Kent behind as a distant memory, but somehow it stuck. It became part of how I think about music and the world. It became an introduction to art being part of real change, for real people in really crap situations. Hearing tonight’s audience (of mainly young people) at the Pussy Riot gig, roaring their denouncement of the Putin dictatorship and yelling their approval of the band’s direct action tactics was inspiring and moving. It reminded me that the world is learning, bit by bit. And Pussy Riot’s rallying-cry:

Anybody can be Pussy Riot, you just need to put on a mask and stage an active protest of something in your particular country, wherever that may be, that you consider unjust.”


Peevishness, Pride and Everyday Activism

August 2017 

I went into Leeds centre on both weekend days. That’s a rarity. Since the hub of the city became a self-styled ‘retail experience’ I avoid it like the plague. On Saturday I went to see a play at The Grand Theatre and then nipped across town to buy the new Randy Newman album, and on the walk down one of the thronged pedestrianised streets I heard some badly-distorted ranting. A bloke with a microphone and a small speaker which he had on full volume. And he was reading from the Bible, and he reminded me that it was Pride weekend in Leeds, he reminded me because he was citing the Bible’s homophobic passages, declaiming and decrying and denouncing, fuzzy and rasping.

Leviticus tells us, Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable ... If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads!”

And a woman he was with was handing out leaflets along with the bellowing and the bluster and I had to get up close to this man to have a good look at him, to see what was in his eyes. And what I saw there was joylessness. Not a sad or melancholy joylessness, just a spiteful peevishness, a lack of fun, a lack of heart. And the joylessness was old and tired and out of date.

The next day I cycled into the city to join the Pride parade – though it wasn’t so much a parade as a take-over of the entire city centre. Every street and square filled with people in bright colours, smiling and laughing and singing and shouting. And what hit me as I became swallowed up in this mass of life and energy was the word joy. And I almost felt sad for the man who’d been standing there with his rubbish little amplifier the day before, but I didn’t actually feel sad because in times like these, with fundamentalists of all religions still wielding a lot of political power, there’s no room for feeling sorry for the spiteful, joyless people. Not when there’s work to be done with all this spirit and energy of hope and power and strength and youth – glitter-faced schoolkids linking arms everywhere you looked – not when there’s joy to be enjoyed in all this colour and laughter.

Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.” (Rebecca Solnit)

There’s often a grimness in activist politics, I’m not denying it. Black-and-white images of civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama attacked by police dogs, human rights advocators in El Salvador beaten and bloodied, striking miners at Orgreave battered and bruised. It’s not all smiley-smiley and face paint. The media likes to paint protest in stark blacks, whites and reds, it records the chants and not the songs. Che Guevara holding a gun is a more powerful image than Che Guevara holding a golf club, laughing. That’s why Pride is important; over the years it’s turned from protest to celebration, from defiance to joy. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come. Change has happened, is still happening, in my lifetime. The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York – riots that led directly to the forming of Gay rights organisations, newspapers and marches – happened when I was eight years old, the year I was baptised into the Mormon Church. By the time I was a young teenager I was typically and understandably homophobic. Why wouldn’t I have been? The only queer role models were joke figures on TV, Larry Grayson’s “shut that door!”, Kenneth Williams rolling his eyes. It wasn’t until Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad To Be Gay’ came out, at the height of my obsession with punk, that I even thought twice about what it all meant. Even then it took me ages to disentangle myself from all the years of being taught that civilisation was under threat from same-sex relationships. Forty-odd years later (a finger-snap in terms of the slowly-turning wheel of social change) and we’ve shut the door on Larry Grayson and seen gay culture become firmly entrenched in our everyday day-to-day.

I want to march (and sing, and laugh) under artist Jeremy Deller’s banner, which reads simply ‘Joy In People’. Somehow what could be seen as frivolous and glib, or worse, arty and ironic, feels right, essential, important, it’s a reminder that protest isn’t just a duty, that marches are more than SWP placards and shouty repetitive megaphone slogans. In among the righteous anger there’s time to remember how far we’ve come, to remember those 1969 rioters and all the protestors and the writers and organisers and activists who followed them into our city centres and brought the younger generations with them, singing and shouting and proudly sporting their “I Never Kissed A Tory” badges. There’s a line translated in Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ – “This kiss is for all the world!” – a line that was heard at Tiananmen Square in 1989, where students played the Ode (from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) over loudspeakers as the army came in to crush their protests for freedom. In Chile, women under the Pinochet dictatorship sang the Ninth outside the torture prisons, where those inside took hope when they heard the music being sung. Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg have both sung their own versions of it; it’s the soundtrack to a version of history that’s ours, not theirs.

Look at the faces of the people who’ll spend their Saturday afternoons quoting death threats from their Old Testaments. Look at them, pinched and old and sour. Joyless. Compare them to the faces of those singing and dancing in the streets at Pride. It’s easy to be bogged down in the everyday joylessness of world leaders and Leviticus and the old ways, and all their rotten stinking foul energy, but wheeling my bike through a city centre wall-to-wall full-to-bursting with Pride, it felt like things are changing, things are getting better.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

(Berthold Brecht)

I went home after Pride feeling energised and uplifted, a headful of hope to counteract my daily disgust at superpower politicking. The mean old man, sour and bigoted, his heart stuffed with foul, worn-out lies, stuffed with Trump and Brexit and Boris Johnson stuck in a harness twelve feet above ground, stuffed with bile and spleen and peevishness, that mean old man with his distorted amplifier is on the losing side, and you can see it in his grimace. It’s the face of someone who’s about to be swept away by progress. To quote one of the kids in Dr Seuss’s Cat In The Hat: “Go have no fun somewhere else!”


Process, Performance, Cabbage and Peas

July 2017 

You never get used to the disorientating feeling you have at the end of a final show. The short, sharp shock of breaking up the gang. Theatre’s weird like that – it throws together a bunch of people and asks them to pour their heart, soul, time and energy into something that can have a very limited shelf-life (in this case, just two performances!) and then it says, done, finished, tea-break over, back on your heads.

On top of that, the ruthless speed at which the elation of the show is followed by this strange break-up sadness seems purpose-built to make your head spin. One minute you’re on stage bowing, together with these amazing people who’ve shared the creation of it all, in front of a standing ovation; the next you’re hugging them and saying goodbye, what a fun time we had, see you somewhere, sometime. It’s so shockingly brutal.

At least being on the other side now I can gather up some of the chaos of thoughts that have been running riot over the past year or so. Collect them together and, standing at a little distance, make sense of them.

To re-cap: last week was the culmination of over a year working in Seacroft with Jane Morland and Space2, a year spent finding stories and making friends. Up until about five years ago my version of working as an artist/musician – playing in a band – was mostly based on performance. Of course the writing, recording and rehearsing was a big part of it all, but essentially it was all about putting on the best performance, the big ‘taa-daah!’, the tightrope walker’s somersault. I assume it’s a bit like professional sport – all the long hours spent training exist only to make the performance better, and for no other reason. Teeth and tits, and all for the show.

Space2’s work in East Leeds isn’t like that. It’s defiantly as much about the process as the performance. As much about how people grow and develop than how well they speak their lines on stage at the Playhouse. Anyone who watched the show last week – a huge whirling dervish of characters, songs, jokes and dancing – might think otherwise. It’s the audience’s job to watch a show on its own merits and not to have any idea about the back-stories of the actors. As an audience member, do I care if the woman playing Shakespeare’s Desdemona has a migraine and her car broke down on the motorway and she found her husband in bed with the next-door neighbour and on top of all that someone put the wrong kind of flowers in the dressing room? Nope, I don’t care. I want to hear those lines nicely and clearly in the right order, please.

When I started to work for Space2 I was thrown into a world that challenged this way of thinking, and it really confused me for a while. I’d done a lot of work with Red Ladder Theatre Company, who changed how I thought about engaging non-theatre audiences through music, staging and character – and I’d grown to resent the way large-scale, traditional (and middle class) theatre still held sway. But I wasn’t prepared for making theatre that threw in teams of pre-teen street dancers, pensioners’ groups, and young adults trying to fit in rehearsals between Poundland night-shifts. And I didn’t expect to discover that these people were incredible and talented and that our regular gatherings would become so important and life-affirming.

Yes, the end result – a big show that went to plan and had the audience laughing, crying and cheering in equal measures – was a joy to see and be part of. But that performance, that hour-and-a-half, wasn’t in the main about actors getting their lines right or dancers coming in on cue. It was about all the effort and heart that went into it, all the afternoons gathering stories and the snatched choir rehearsals in primary school halls. I can’t begin to list all the people that make up that ‘heart’. I’d miss somebody out, and I’d feel bad (if you know anything about me you know I’m forgetful and disorganised). Suffice to say I felt like I watched individuals, often under the amazing care of their youth leaders, teachers and mentors, create versions of themselves that were capable of anything. Capable of changing themselves, changing the place where they live, and, by extension, changing the world.

Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics.”  (Victor Pinchuk)

For six months, every Wednesday (and, towards the end, every Saturday too) I’d still be surprised when people turned up, from long days at college and work, ready to rehearse. I know that for many of the Seacroft cast, the motivation was the lure of being on the huge Quarry Stage at the Playhouse in front of hundreds of people; but that didn’t take away from what we were all learning by having our repeated run-throughs, warm-ups and tea-breaks together in a room that smelled faintly of boiled cabbage and usually had a small scattering of squashed tinned peas under the trestle tables.*

For Sara’s East Leeds Youth Theatre gang (and they really were a gang!) this was to be their last show together, so the performance was incredibly important to them all. But my memory of them won’t be about the way they acted, sang and danced so well on that huge stage but about the way they looked after each other in rehearsal, how they hugged and chatted, how they supported and comforted each other through the frequent upsets, seizures and panic attacks.

Playwright Lee Hall says that “the point of theatre is transformation,” and he goes on to say it’s about making an extraordinary event from something ordinary. But this misses the transformation that can happen not on stage but in the work of making the play.

Outside rehearsals I’d imagine pensioner Bill (playing the world’s worst comedian) and young Frankii (playing a girl who has her head stuck in a fence) being from different planets. Same postcode maybe, but different planets all the same. In those seemingly endless rehearsals in the strip-lit Seacroft Methodist Hall I saw them looking like family.

Now I’m suspicious of the idea of ‘family’ as some rose-tinted ideal, since too many families are just pyramid-shaped hierarchies full of hurt and bullying. But there in Seacroft we had the best version of a family – the motleyest of crews sharing laughs, dance moves, tears and biscuits.

There’s another, often-ignored but crucial part of succesful theatre, which is the audience. The audience for the Seacroft show were mostly Seacrofters, around 1000 of them, mums and dads of the actors, siblings of the singers, people who’d grown up in Seacroft and probably wonder what the bloody hell this show was going to be like. Playwrite Sarah Kane used to rail against the sanctity of theatre, comparing it unfavourably to a football match and asking why theatre doesn’t engage its audience in the same passionate, investigative, raucous way. But if the Seacroft show did anything, it engaged its audience. From the start of the process (over a year ago) to its onstage finale, the area’s stories weren’t told, they were shared. The message wasn’t a theatrical “look at me!” but a communal “look at us!” During the evening performance, people in the audience were waving at the actors, babies were yelling, every reference to a local shop or pub brought excited, knowing mutters. Everyone in the room was participating, and thankfully there wasn’t an ounce of decorum in the place. For all the art establishment’s promises about increased ‘diversity’, it’s this audience – working class and northern, marginalised on the grounds of class, economics, geography and health – that needs to see their communities being brilliant, in public. Shouting (and singing, and dancing) about themselves.

So it was indeed an incredible day at West Yorkshire Playhouse, all the parts coming together and everyone looking and sounding phenomenal. But to me that was just a huge outward expression of the phenomena that had been going on all around Seacroft while we were practising and teaching and learning. And the thing is, it’s not something that Space2 or Jane and me brought to the place, it’s stuff that was already there, waiting for its chance. I’d hope that, like me, all the people involved in ‘Oh I Do…’ can take part of what we all created into their daily lives, kept somewhere folded up at the bottom of a jacket pocket or squashed into a handbag, waiting to be re-used. Something to savour, definitely. Mind you, I won’t miss the cabbage smell.

* The Methodist Hall, who brilliantly allowed us to use their space every week, is used as a hall for pensioners to meet for a mid-day meal and a sing-song.



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


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 

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:

Stephen Fry on RTE:

John Pilger:

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. 


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:



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


“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)