commoners library tour 2017
I’ve just started reading two books. I don’t usually start two books at the same time, but they both arrived on the same day and I can’t decide which I’m more excited about reading. Maybe ‘excited’ is a bit too Famous Five, but it’s true, I get a bit giddy when I have a new book that, after the first couple of pages, feels like it’s going to take me on an adventure. A lot of us have that feeling, don’t we? My two books are Benjamin Myers’ ‘The Gallows Pole’ – a novel based on the real history of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a slice of the past I’m fascinated by – and wildlife commentator Chris Packham’s autobiography ‘Fingers In The Sparkle Jar’, tracing his life from punk rocker to environmental campaigner. The Myers was a present, the Packham was lent.
I might have said this before (possibly late into the evening, in the kitchen, at a party) but there was a hazy time in my life when I switched from second-hand record shops to second-hand bookshops. I still love flicking through racks of LPs in the hope of finding a mint copy of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ on the Brunswick label (mono, first UK pressing). But the lure of an old copy of The Victor (with an Alf Tupper story I haven’t read) or a hardback of Tony Harrison’s ‘The Loiners’ just about wins out. And there’s the smell of books, too… and maybe it’s also that just about every piece of music ever recorded is instantly available and downloadable somewhere on the internet, whereas books still demand your time and space, force you to make a cup of tea and settle down. And blimey, we all need time and space to settle down nowadays.
April is over and there’s a bit more time to read, despite the fact I’ve started a month-long job in Hull with Dan Bye, writing for and leading a choir. More time because April was mad with Commoners Choir concerts, five of which were events we put on in libraries around the north of England. That’s where this preamble is leading, from my excitement at having two new books to read, backwards into a month seemingly surrounded by books. There’s something about singing in a library that feels right. Possibly it’s to do with the physicality of the paper, the smell and weight of all those pulped trees having the effect of being in a forest clearing. We’ve sung in six libraries now, and they’ve all been very different buildings – from imposing Victorian gothic of Sheffield to the stark steel ‘n’ glass of Carlisle – but the long shelves of books all have the same allure, heavy and tactile, all those words packed tightly in leaves and rows.
The singing echoes that physicality. Without added instruments, there’s only the raw, basic nature of the voice, cast into the forest of print; and a tangible, audible, visceral connection happening between the song and the shelf. There’s character and energy in the way the books rub against each other on the shelves as you look along them, those that jump out, those that hide, all those masses of ideas and arguments wedged into their hardback covers. All the different voices inviting you into their adventures, all entirely individual but all of a piece, too, a collection of disparate noises that the lovely fussy librarians assemble and order and then present. I say fussy in the best sense of the word: the librarians we met on our tour were full of the passionate fuss that people have when they really, really want to show you something, when they think you just might understand their obsessions.
Packham’s book gives me that feeling, already – he goes for walks
and engages with nature, loving it so much that he wants to tell us
all about it, about what it means, about where the urge came from,
about how we might love it, too.
Commoners Choir was set up two years ago for a few reasons – to sing about what’s going on around us, to give an outlet to our anger and joy and hope, to have a laugh together, to make something truly original. And we also (because this is the very nature of art) want to share that with people, want to usher an audience in to hear and see our ideas, because we have that passionate fussiness, passion to make something we love and the fussiness to make it work, properly. Books, libraries, choirs, we want nothing less than to put words to use, dress them up and invite you to grab them and use them (and sing along to them, if you fancy it).
On our tour of libraries, we didn’t just sing . We took along a printmaker – Helen Peyton – who lugged an ancient cast iron letter-printing-press along with her and hand-printed souvenirs for everyone that showed up to the concerts. It was a delight to watch how much Helen enjoyed showing off her perfectly-set block of metal type, seeing the pride she took in spreading sticky ink across the letters with a wooden-handled roller. At one event, Helen used printing ink containing glitter. We gave away CDs of a song we’d written specially called ‘Mechanical Movable Type’, an acapella celebration of Johannes Gutenberg’s world-changing invention, and the CDs were sleeved in Helen’s printed cards. The smell of the ink across the rows and rows of bookshelves was, every time, perfect.
And we hung an exhibition. Last winter I sat in Leeds Central Library surrounded by reference books piled in a minor mountain on a huge desk. Every so often, as I worked my way through the collections of ancient broadside ballads and penny pamphlets, one of the librarians would arrive with another book, wondering if this or that chapter might contain useful ideas. I’d told them I wanted to collect a series of quotes, modern and contemporary, to describe and illuminate the power of print, of the printing press, of how the press gave people power. How cheap print spread information, how songs and ballads turned printed information into oral tale-telling to be passed around and remembered. How public libraries further gave ordinary folk access to a world previously denied them. All this stuff was in my mountain of books pulled from various public and hidden collections, and three days spent wading through them was a nothing short of a privilege (the smell of ‘em was enough).
The gathered quotes were printed onto huge sheets of paper and hung, usually on wires and with clips, around the libraries we visited. In places where we sang right amongst the rows of books, the posters hung from the shelves held fast at the top by heavy books, crude and perfect.
And there was tea and cake. Always tea and cake, baked by choir members, a range of smells to match and mingle with the stink of the printing ink. What better way to spend an hour on a weekend afternoon? We sang our songs to uncategorisable audiences. All life was there. Kids on the front row with drawing books and pencils. Grown-ups who cried when we sang about refugees. Teenagers wearing T-shirt slogans, couples singing along, old folk laughing. A Tory supporter leaving in disgust, a bewildered homeless bloke clutching his free tea and cake. People there especially and people there by chance. Folkies and professors and students and families.
It all felt right, felt perfectly fitting. A choir of 35 people doing what choirs do, stretching the gap that hums between the purity and clarity of singing in unison and the huge beauty of singing in harmony. I can’t name everyone, obviously, and anyway there were different singers each time. As conductor, I get to stand at the front (as one lad asked a choir member afterwards, “who was that bloke at the front waving his arms out of time with the singing?”) and listen to the singing. Not often, to be honest, as I’m too busy trying to remind all the different harmony groups when to sing and when to shut up, or when to song softly and when to bellow and bawl. But I do sometimes stop singing along and listen, and it’s always a thrill. Once you go through the slog of rehearsing a particular line over and over and over and over again in rehearsal, matching intonation and rhythm and some odd word’s particular swoop and dive, once you’ve gone through all that fussiness, then it can be allowed to be simply, directly, tangibly passionate.
Imagine what the books thought. Books that exist to create and invent worlds or to instruct and teach or argue with you and insult you. Books whose histories are rooted in forests, stuffed full of their own sense of the physical. All numbered and categorised, arranged in their sections; suddenly hearing those verse-chorus-verse-chorus voices singing at them and about them. As natural and as old as our vocal chords, as important and useful as our ability to tell stories, to pass on information. Voices and books, having travelled through millennia of progress, technology and science, ending up there in the library, back at the beginning, together, where people sing each other the news, make marks in the earth, and laugh at each other.
Then, with the tea gone cold and the cake reducd to crumbs, we all pile back on the Commoners coach and head home, back up and down the motorways, full of the chatter and natter of the afternoon, who sang this and who sang that. A group of choristers gather to do the Saturday cryptic crossword, some doze against the bus windows, and some get out their books. New books! Sally from the choir saw this book in a shop and thought I should read it. It’s about the Cragg Vale Coiners. But I already told you that didn’t I? Sorry. I’m excited, that’s all.
Thanks to the librarians at all the libraries we visited (Leeds, Sheffield, Darlington, Carlisle, Doncaster and Keighley).
one year later…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 1816, 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.
Boff, March 2016