THE SKELMANTHORPE PROJECT: ELLIE AND ALLAN RECOUNT THREE DAYS OF WALKING AND SINGING WITH HISTORY STICKING TO THE SOLES OF OUR BOOTS...
T h e P a t h A c r o s s t h e H i l l s
In 1819 the people of Skelmanthorpe in Yorkshire felt close to those murdered at Peterloo, so close they created a flag that they brought out at marches and protests to remember them. Two hundred years later, on a warm afternoon in July, it didn’t seem very geographically close as we set off to walk the 40+ miles to Manchester.
Around 4pm, we met and sang the Skelmanthorpe Flag Song (appropriately enough) in St Aidan's churchyard, next to where the original flag had been kept. We were joined by the Shepley Singers and some children from the local school, and all the flags we made in workshops led by Catherine Long were out on the ground in front of us in a colourful cacophony of defiance.
Our first day was to take us 11 miles from Skelmanthorpe to the hills above Holmfirth. We set off into the late afternoon sun, through fields of barley towards Denby Dale and Shepley. The band that set off changed as a variety of pick-ups and drop-offs enabled people to join and leave as their ability and inclination allowed. Josh and Dusty, our logistics fixers, had been and set up camp at our first stop and met us at points where we crossed roads offering encouragement and lifts.
Undulating hills on the edge of the Pennines became slightly steeper as we headed towards Hepworth. Cresting the hill we could scan across from Emley Moor TV mast to Huddersfield’s Castle Hill. As I paused for breath, I looked up a lane and saw a four-legged creature lolloping. At first glance it looked like a small dog with a limp, but it briefly sat back on its haunches and it was now clearly a hare hopping over the horizon, going off to find the moon. Turning down a steeply rutted path that led to Hepworth, a kite circled above us. Walking into the evening felt lovely as the shadows lengthened. On leaving Hepworth we passed through a beautiful woodland following a stream uphill towards Hade Edge – the stream in spate would make the route impassable but on a warm evening the cool moss and bubbling water made our hearts sing.
We laughed and chatted and generally put the world to rights. As we left Hade Edge, we were ambushed by Phil and Carolyn, the Commoners media team, who recorded our walk and shared it to Twitter and other channels on the social mee-ja. So impressive was their camouflage that several of us walked right past them without noticing on at least one occasion. As we rose out of the valley towards the Rising Sun campsite the gloaming was gathering. We arrived very slightly ahead of schedule and were greeted with cold beer and hot curry. We sat round eating and drinking as it got darker and colder and retreated into tents for well-earned sleep at just after midnight. We weren’t due to leave until 10am the next day.
The following dawn was beautiful if still quite nippy. Well fuelled with porridge (and scrambled eggs for those who eat them), but a paucity on the coffee front, (this was resolved for day two), we took down the tents and set off towards Holme Moss. The second day was the longest distance-wise (15 miles) and also the day with least chance for people to join or leave as we only really crossed the road at Holme Moss (five miles in). The first mile was farm track, but we soon headed off across the moors. The heather and ling were in flower, and it became increasingly peaty under foot. After a little more than a mile we hit the edge of the valley. The next few miles were following the clough edge until we drew level with Holme Moss and struck out towards it. Circling the clough, the valley below us had every conceivable shade of green in it. The ground was dry but the peat still had that delicious bounce to it as we got further up to Holme Moss.
At the mast we stopped for lunch and were joined by the logistics and media teams. Several other folks joined us to walk and we headed up to the trig point at the top of Black Hill with our flag unfurled, ready to sing into the wind. And we sang gloriously – some of us sang with the wrong words, but we sang out!
The next seven miles were some of the best the Pennines have to offer. Beautiful valleys with streams for cooling your feet and sheep paths picking our route along ridges above Laddow Rocks, with dizzying drops away down the valley towards Crowden. We turned over the hill away from Crowden and across boggier ground, as we crossed what was sometimes a stream but currently a patch of reeds and bog. We carefully picked out the driest routes and eventually came out towards Chew Reservoir and down the valley towards the camp site at Well-i-hole, our end point for the day.
When we arrived the tents were up, the beers were cold and the tea was nearly ready. We were all tinged pink from the sun and ready for more singing, laughter and chat; that night I snuggled up in my sleeping bag tired, happy and full of beer. I fell asleep reading with my head torch on. Lovely Alison (fellow wearer of the yellow cycling cape) heading to bed slightly after me, turned off my torch and took my book from my hands. We had to be up and off by seven the next morning.
T H E P A T H T H R O U G H T H E C I T YSaturday, early, low soft sky and gentle summer rain. We have come from Leeds to find the walkers’ camp. Green nature spills into the narrow lanes as we climb up, nettling calves and whipping knees. We climb up to Hartshead Pike. A stony, pitted, clay road rides a brief escarpment where we pause to hop over a stile and descend to tessellated farmland. Here the city arrests us; the view shakes us.
ALancashire crafted by human hands rolls far away. Every field, every road, every brick and concrete slab bows towards the city. A thousand buildings and a million souls swim in emission-blue fog spread on the remote horizon where the fields meet the clouds.
There is smoky Manchester, conjuring a time of the thousand choking chimneys of Cottonopolis. Manchester now and then is smudged and indistinct. As blue and lilac and grey as the paintings of Valette whose past city hangs down there on the walls of the gallery.
Down. A sharp insurrection of weeds and brambles, an insect assertion that summer is here. The ground becomes flat and the paths became organised. Dog walkers multiply, cafes become frequent. As the paths bleed into the city there is a penumbra of waste piled up in the bushes. Plastic bags and plastic bottles, a burnt out moped, a ripped newspaper covered in shit.
Outskirt estates. Tiny new-build cul-de-sacs. We walk the undulating hastily-laid asphalt waved by rebelling roots, we crunch the glass-jewelled alleys, we speed the old rail lines.
In the city parks we gather outrider kids on BMXs. We beat along the city canal. Canalside mills are now a red brick canvas tattooed with the rainbow optimism of spray-can youth. It is a new edition of the city’s graphic novel. Our Skelmanthorpe flag is unfurled, poled and raised for the walk into the heart of the city. The flag is our samizdat comic-strip concerning liberty and freedom for all.
She Choir locals join us bringing partners and push-chairs. The heat increases by the canalside developments. Funky glass walls for funky urban people. An air of being just a bit slightly lost permeates the nattering crowd. The confident stride along the country path is being replaced by the unsure labyrinth of the urban.In the shopping frenzy of the centre we are conspicuous yokels in our dusty black’n’patches. From the carefully attired a la mode Saturday crowd we excite a mild annoyance as we bumble along, hesitant without a street sign, unsure at the lights, snaking through anxious consumption-junkies, tired families and excited hen-dos, our ranks begin to fracture.
We don’t make sense ‘til we make St Peter’s Square and, assembling on the steps of the cenotaph war memorial, belt out the Skelmanthorpe Flag Song for the first time in the space it was intended for. Joining together and singing it out loud is a great release and re-energises and re-focuses us all. The handful of diverted shoppers, public boozers and bench-jockeys whoop and clap with a genuine appreciation for something given freely.
In Albert Square it is the Manchester International Festival – we are to sing for free in a public square, but the space feels unfree. There are fences, bag searches, anti-terror barriers and hi-vis-low-wage security. There are bars and street-food and a curvy futuristic white marquee where the entertainment is happening. We wait quietly backstage listening to the show we will provide the finale for; a series of local activists, poets and writers are reading out historical speeches from radical history. We can hear the performers but we can’t see them or the audience. There is a beautifully surreal moment when we hear a woman heartily recall a suffragette’s cry for action and she repeatedly tells the crowd to go out and smash windows – each time, her command is met with a cheer. It seems to take us longer to assemble on stage than it does to give our song another rousing roar for a second time. It’s fun. Radical history should be fun. The crowd laughs and claps.
The Commoners’ day is done. The apocalypse sun beats down … the morning rain is as distant as the green fields and moors of the Pennines. The Jolly Angler offers drinks to tickle our throats.
* * *
Sunday morning, we all meet again, baggy faced eye-rubbers, at the Peoples’ History Museum. We are to give an afternoon show with other choirs in the vaulting room that was a hydraulic pump station, and whose power once raised the curtain at the Opera House in Quay Street. The chairs are set out and the flags and banners are draped from the walls. Jane leads all in a hum, gurn and stretch to get us ready for action.
At noon we assemble with friends from other choirs in front of Manchester Central, at the spot where Orator Hunt stood on a carriage to address the crowds on that August afternoon two hundred years ago. Now it is a paved area, a public space, in front of the conference centre. Another public space.
A public space in a city is an urgent and vital thing. Those with power have a desire to remake, remodel, redesign, rename and re-orientate the urban spaces we share. They want to monitor and regulate and the unifying urge is to control the space and define our use of it. This will be done with violence when deemed necessary.
For the third time we sing the Skelmanthorpe Flag Song on the streets of Manchester. We’re trying the shake history loose from under our feet.
History oozes out from underneath the paving slabs; it rises like steam from the great blocks of the grand municipal buildings. The ignored statues constantly mutter grimly their tired tales of the oppressor but, in reality, these heavy-headed stone liars are few, it is the whispered voices of everyone that ever lived in the city that is everywhere in everything and everyone. Whispered voices behind the squeak of a tram wheel. A child screaming with laughter hiding behind a banging pub-door. The hubbub of an ancient crowd is a throbbing bus in a queue. An angry shout, wooden clogs on cobbles, the history of many.
In this little square of Manchester, what can we conjure up from two hundred years ago? Perhaps half the city’s population, packed so dense their hats seemed to touch. Weavers facing hard times, soldiers back from the wars, women in white, kids in best clothes. 200 injured by sabre, 70 injured by truncheon, 188 injured by trampling. Banners and bodies litter the hot field, the required expression of public tranquillity. Remember this, but remember more than this.
We sing with joy and smiles because that is how we naturally feel and how we want to be when we are together in our public space. The collective spirit is a happy spirit. Even when we gather to remember the violence of others it prompts our connection to those who were like us. It was their happy endeavours that authority sought to crush then, so happiness and endeavour are our weapon here.
Now, here and in our afternoon at the People’s History Museum. We are all gathered together in this mad connected building; linking us with Tom Paine’s desk, Suffragist posters, Grunwick strike banners and Stop the War placards. Five choirs. She Choir, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Open Voices, Shepley Singers, Commoners Choir. Each sings. We all collect together, perhaps two hundred people on a makeshift stage and we all sing our flag song one last time again and the high room rings like a bell. sxz
In the last minibus back over the Pennines we sing again at Windy Hill as a bottle of whiskey is passed round. Singing, as the flag reminds us, ‘til Liberty regains her sway.
COMMONERS 2018: A YEAR IN WORDS
A SELECTION OF COMMONERS ROUNDING UP THE YEAR...
Commoners are a chaotic, fantastic bunch. Grab a cup of tea and a slice of cake, (obligatory Commoners side order), and settle down to enjoy some Commoners writing in all its splendid variety. You’ll need those refreshments, as one thing that you can guarantee with us is plenty of chat – and 2018 was a very, very full year.
Although it has been a hellish year in many respects when you look at the wider world, being in Commoners Choir has meant that for many of us 2018 has been a hell of a good year, at least when we get together and sing about what matters. You can get an impression of that from Robin, who talks about how it is when you first join the choir and Carolyn, Nancy and Allan, who share their stories about what being a Commoner has meant for them. Carol has written about a song that resonates for her and David has dug into why singing with Commoners Choir is something special.
We’ve travelled around the country, as documented by Mark with his minibus tales and we’ve sung at all sorts of events. Jane talks about an important campaign to save a local library, Ellie explains how we’ve been noisy and angry for peace this year and Sally shares her thoughts about how we connected with history and landscape in the Calder Valley. A particularly memorable project was More Than A Mouthful, that saw us touring community centres and churches around Leeds in the spring, singing about food and food poverty while feeding our audiences with Josh’s lovely curry.
We also produced a short film, (thanks to Phil and Carolyn), about a project with two other choirs to celebrate the North, (get your tickets for a screening in Leeds in January here). It’s not only films: Bob tells the story of how we produced a vinyl EP that fittingly paid tribute to the fabulous Pete Shelley, Ian celebrates the involvement of some Commoners in Red Ladder’s fantastic 50th anniversary production of Mother Courage And Her Children and you can still catch us for a few minutes on catch-up on ITV as we retrace the footsteps of the Mass Trespassers on Kinder Scout, (we’re walk No.21 on ‘Britain’s Greatest Walks’).
Festivals, gigs and recordings with friends have been a feature: we sang along with Joe Solo for his ‘Headscarves And Hurricanes’ album and had a giggle singing a jingle for Freegle. We had fun at Wigan Diggers Festival in September, inviting Merry Hell onto the stage to sing with us and seeing some brilliant performers; Ellie recounts our adventures in Tolpuddle at the Martyrs Festival and Kirsty enthuses about a fabulous night in Sheffield with the wonderful Reem Kelani.
All in all, a year with the Commoners has given a lot of us hope in these dark times. 2019 is shaping up to be possibly even more nasty out there, so all the more reason to keep on singing, celebrating and using our anger and hope to make things happen. Right then. Cup of tea, piece of cake, onward.
Robin Tynan – Fresh Meat
Stepping into a room full of people you don’t know and knowing you are going to have to sing in front of them is pretty bloody daunting for somebody with anxiety like me but, this year, I did it.
I joined the Commoners back in August I’d been inspired to join after hearing them singing at an anti-fascist demo in the city centre. I immediately knew that the Commoners Choir would fulfil my need both for more activism and for more singing. I was at once welcomed and, though it was clear that this was a group of people who already knew each other well and had stories aplenty to share, share they did bringing me into the fold quickly. It did occasionally feel like being thrown in at the deep end. Each rehearsal presented me with more songs I didn’t know but I did my best to muddle along and figure out the tune, with plenty of help from Boff and the others. I started to learn names, share jokes and more importantly, learn some words!
November rolled around and with it a flurry of performances. I made a commitment to go to every one and I am so glad I did. It was my baptism. If I thought I’d been in deep before now I could have been positively drowning if it wasn’t for the support and camaraderie of the choir.
Whether it was letting me borrow their lyric-sheets, follow their cues or reassuring me before the performance, they had my back. It felt wonderful. Four months and five gigs later I still don’t know everybody’s name or all the words but I do know I have found a family of sorts. A rambunctious, talented, compassionate family who will sing at any opportunity. I can’t wait to see what the new year brings.
Jane Morland – Burley in Wharfedale Library
A Saturday morning in January found the Commoners on a small-scale but important protest in the leafy village of Burley-in-Wharfedale. The venue for this protest was the village Library. The parish council had proposed to close the building to fund repairs at another local building, the Queens Hall. Protesters young and old had already staged events to save it, such as making a ring of people holding hands around it. ‘Save Our Village Site’ campaigner Niccola Swan asked us along one bright crisp sat morning in a bid to ‘Sing to Save’.
Commoners arrived armed with important stuff: song folders, Library Tour exhibition posters, our giveaway booklets on ‘Literacy, Books and the Print Revolution’ and of course, cake. The library volunteers were a little cautious as a sea of black-clad Commoners invaded, moving furniture, placing posters over books and generally making more noise with our chatter than was usual in a little library.
The warm-up was the most challenging part of the day as all 35 of us squashed into the back office, surrounded by files, large books and about an inch of space each. Lack of air and overheating didn’t deter us.
Lots of people packed in to see us that day, proving that people power is crucial. The audience peered over counters, squinted over their books, squashed into the doorway whilst others sat close on the floor. The atmosphere was a spirited one, and we sang loudly with passion and defiance. The audience loved it, joined in and were very receptive.
Hopefully the Commoners energy helped the villagers’ protest and the Parish Council decided after public consultation to award the Library £150,000 for repairs and maintenance. A Saturday morning given to singing protest songs before breakfast is not to be underestimated.
Ellie Clement – Singing For Peace
Our bit of Yorkshire, Bradford in particular, has strong peace links. In February CND celebrated their 60th anniversary, and Yorkshire CND marked this with an event in Bradford where we were asked to perform. Several Commoners were there with their veteran peace activist hats on too, recounting tales of demonstrations and projects promoting peace, and the day ended with dancing to The Peace Artistes – Bradford’s finest street band.
Also in Bradford in April we were asked to sing at the opening of Jill Gibbon’s exhibition of drawings at the Peace Museum. Jill has been visiting arms fairs covertly drawing weapons manufacturers and their customers, as well as collecting some of the frankly sick and twisted freebies being given away, like stress balls shaped as bombs and "ultimate protection" condoms.
Jill’s ‘Art Of The Arms Trade’ exhibition was especially fitting for Commoners Choir as our threat to withdraw from The Great Exhibition of the North due to weapons manufacturers BAE Systems’ sponsorship had kicked off just before this. If you haven't been to the Peace Museum in Bradford I urge you to, it's a fantastic collection of peace artefacts, banners, badges and stories.
On July 4th we sang outside Menwith Hill, Yorkshire’s US spy-base as part of the annual ‘Independence From America’ demo organised by the Menwith Hill Accountability Campaign. We are proud to be singing for peace in a time when governments are intent on war and bundle their trade deals and overseas aid with concessions to arms dealers. In September 2019 we aim to be part of a huge activists’ and artists’ protest at the annual DSEi Arms Trade in London. Join us!
Mark WHyatt - Behind The Dashboard: On The Road With Commoners Choir
We have three main ways of getting to gigs: If the gig is paying and can be done there and back in a day, then we will hire a coach. If not, we’ll share lifts to get everyone there. There are the long trips that last a weekend, and for these excursions we hire a couple of minibuses and have a crack team of drivers to get us there and back … and taking a choir on the road is a lot like herding particularly playful cats.
On our adventures, several immutable rules have established themselves:
Whichever minibus Josh chooses to drive will be the one without air con. Always choose the other bus.
Steve’s iPod will repeat the same track every six songs.
There will be a crossword and the inter-bus rivalry makes the Wars of the Roses look like a teddy bears’ picnic.
Motorway service stations are hard to love … apart from Tebay.
Josh’s minibus will have worse fuel economy. Even though the buses are speed limited to 62mph Josh just seems to burn more fuel.
No one wants to own up to speeding tickets, and it’s fiendishly difficult to find out who might be responsible…
Someone will always, always, always leave a bag on the bus when we get back to the hire depot.
I love our charabanc trips to the further reaches of the country. We have covered much of the country, from Scotland to Brighton. We have sweated round the M25, peered through the rain on the A75 and been delighted on the A303 passing by Stonehenge. There is a comradeship that makes every arse-clenching difficulty just part of the fun … although arriving back at the van-hire depot after midnight to find no signs of life can be lonely and disconcerting after a long drive from Dorset.
So to Josh (who does the ringing around and hiring), Steve, Catherine L, Helen P, Dusty, Catherine H, Ellie; I thank you for sharing the driving with me. Thanks to Kirsty and to Jane M for being the main source of communication between the two vehicles, and thanks to everyone who has travelled with us for all the laughs and for not criticising my music choices. Here’s to many more adventures to come.
Carol Wright – A Song For Refugees
‘Three Boats’ is a song that swims against the tide of the government’s “hostile environment” policy towards refugees and others seeking sanctuary.
When we sing ‘Three Boats’ I think of the little boy Aylan, a 3 year-old Syrian refugee, trying to escape to Canada with his family. Instead he washed up drowned on a beach in Turkey. This happened in September 2015, and resulted in much sympathy for refugees, ordinary families fleeing lives made impossible in their own countries due to war, poverty or both.
In 2018 I became friends with a refugee whose family escaped war in Sierra Leone to try and start “living life” in this country. However, they found themselves living in limbo for ten years dependent on the support of charities like All Hallows Church in Leeds, who welcome and help get justice for those seeking sanctuary in the UK.
Although ‘Three Boats’ is a favourite song of mine, it is also one where I sometimes have to stop for a moment as emotion rises in my throat, a moment to just watch the quiet audience as they hear the story the lyrics tell; there are often tears. I recall a friend starting to wipe away the tears during our gig at Hope Street Baptist Chapel. It is a rightfully emotive song, and names the people as human beings, with relationships to one another and to us.
We will keep on singing these songs in response to how people are being treated; from those desperate sea crossings to Windrush betrayals, it’s important to be able to speak up in word and song for people whose voices are unheard.
David Harvie – Re-enchanting The World
In his foreword to Re-enchanting the World, a new collection of essays by feminist commons-scholar Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh (himself a historian of the commons) tells us that 'enchantment' comes from the French verb chanter, to sing. Is it possible to chant – or sing – the world, or new worlds, into existence? Certainly this is what some people thought. Linebaugh again:
'In the olden days, when Colombus sailed, the people in America sang while the corn grew; it was believed that they even sang it into growth.'
This, to me, is part of the project of Commoners Choir.
Capitalism is an irrational system. A system that measures 'progress' by the computing power contained in the latest smartphone, the 'precision' of the latest killer drone, and above all by the endless accumulation of ones and zeros on a (virtual) accounting ledger: there is something supernatural about it. Marx and Engels captured this point in the Communist Manifesto: ‘Modern bourgeois society is… like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.’
Yet it persists. Resistant to our rational criticism, to counter 'capitalist sorcery' we need a magic of our own.
This is where Commoners Choir comes in. When we sing (in 'True North') of 'the Luddites [coming] to burn the mill', for instance, or (in 'Ely and Littleport Riot') of 'the voices coming down the lane (can you hear?)' I get goose-pimples. I am instantly connected – viscerally – to those rebels and dreamers of another time and other places. I am there and they are here, time and space compressed: a singularity in the fabric of space-time. Suddenly, 'the past isn't dead. It isn't even past' (William Faulkner). And when the past comes rushing into the present, the future opens up too: everything becomes possible, anything could happen. A rupture in capital's fabric of domination: breaking time. Rapture!
This connection – magical as it is – is nevertheless real. It's material. When we sing we become as close to Percy Shelley and his political-romantic poetry ('rise like lions') as to Pete Shelley and his. And it's 'only in the real world do things happen like they do in [our] dreams.’ This is what it means to enchant the world. This is how we sing new worlds into being.
Bob Longworth – Choiral Scratch
As the year comes to a close, we find out that Pete Shelley, songsmith with Buzzcocks, has died. He grew up in Leigh, just a few miles from where I did in Little Hulton. His band brought the Sex Pistols to Manchester twice and in doing so inspired, in those who attended, a northern punk explosion (members of the audience went on to form The Fall, Joy Division, The Smiths, Jon the Postman … er … Simply Red).
Perhaps the most radical thing Pete and the Buzzcocks did was to produce their own single and release it on their own record label. Unheard of at the time - the punk ethic in action. So was born ‘Spiral Scratch’ – an EP of four songs including the wonderful ‘Boredom’ which has the best two note guitar solo you’ll ever hear. The beauty of Buzzcocks, and in particular Shelley, was that they took the driving energy of punk and translated it into pop – they didn’t shout. Their anger came with melody and harmony.
So, when searching for a name for our first vinyl adventure, I came up with ‘Choiral Scratch’ as it was going to be our first independent 7” release on our own label and we consider ourselves a ‘punk’ choir held together by our own patches and safety pins … and yes, it was a terrible pun, but done in tribute to those who paved the way – but didn’t shout about it.
RIP Pete X
Ellie Clement – Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival
Tolpuddle is a tiny village in Dorset, and with its chocolate-box thatched cottages it now seems implausible as the birthplace of the British trade union movement. However, we still have a debt to the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were farm labourers transported for organising to fight against cuts to their wages. Today Tolpuddle hosts a lovely annual festival celebrating trade unionism and labour organisation, a sort of southern equivalent of the Durham Miners’ Gala.
The festival is in fields next to the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum. Commoners Choir were to sing in the festival marquee on the Sunday morning before the traditional parade through the village. We arrived on the Saturday, pitched our tents, and did a short ten-minute taster of our set in the Festival Fringe’s open mic tent to tempt people out of bed to hear us the following day. We then wandered around the festival finding something to eat and some liquid refreshment. A very jolly evening was had, and liquid refreshment found. There was singing and dancing to Lankum and Captain Ska and we retired to bed at a sensible hour. Or some of us did…
We sang a set including ‘True North’, which to be honest wasn’t the best performance of the song, but which was well received (Maxine Peake, who is namechecked in the song, was in the audience – to much excitement amongst the ‘middles’ section of the choir. Why is it the altos and tenors who fall for Maxine?). The entire festival crowd still only felt like a few hundred so we didn’t think the Sunday afternoon parade would be that huge.
Then the coaches for the parade started arriving … and arriving, and arriving. By the time the parade headed off there were 10,000 of us in the beautiful Dorset sunshine. From the left, the Labour Party, socialists, communists and anarchists. A glorious cacophony of trade union banners, samba bands, brass bands, dhol drummers and (obviously) choirs.
We lined up and eventually moved off, singing as we went. It felt terribly affirming being part of such a sea of people in what seems nowadays to be such a middle class and affluent area. That said, rural poverty is still very real. The impact of the Enclosures Acts – which stole the common land from the people and pushed the working classes into the cities – is still felt. With real wages falling today we have to learn from the Tolpuddle Martyrs and organise in our workplaces to fight for a better future; a future full of the joy, optimism and energy of the 2018 Tolpuddle parade.
Boff Whalley – Shake the Chains
We’re not alone, and never have been. We’re a mouthy gang and we swarm like errant bees but we know we’re a tiny, tiny part of something huge and important.
At the moment we can choose to be depressed and battered by the unholy failing mess of politics or we can choose to be uplifted and energised by the everywhere-patchwork of ongoing, everyday resistance.
Commoners Choir is our melodic way of saying we want the uplift and energy, not the battering.
We’re not alone, we’re somewhere in the crowd, a big bunch of us, moving forward, singing as we go.
At some point in 2018 I stood in the centre of a gymnasium in Brixton, surrounded by pictures, posters and words by artists who had pulled their work from the Design Museum in protest at arms manufacturers being welcomed there as sponsors. Part of the soundtrack being played in the gym featured Commoners Choir, singing ‘go where you’re forbidden to go...’ and I stood there and thought of Greg Russell, Findlay Napier, Nancy Kerr, Tim Yates and Hannah Martin – collectively Shake The Chains – singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ on stage in Bury, backed by the massed ranks of Commoners. I don’t know why I thought of that particular song in that particular setting. Something to do with people linking arms and walking, something to do with knowing we’re not alone.
Something to do with art having the ability to inspire and educate, art as a cultural glue that brings people and ideas together.
When I was writing this one of the Commoners alerted me to the fact that this week’s Desert Island Discs – well-known people choosing their favourite songs for radio – featured artist Jeremy Deller. I’ve loved Deller for a long time, for his humour and his anger, his politics and his celebratory love of community, of people. One of the songs Deller chose, citing its ability to unite and embolden people, was ‘We Shall Overcome’.
Those three moments – hearing Commoners in a transformed gymnasium in London, singing a Pete Seeger song with some incredible folk in Lancashire and then, listening to Jeremy Deller and feeling like the year’s loose ends had been tied – tell one story of our year. The sick-making story of Trump and May and Brexit will get stale in the telling, it will be a story of past mistakes, a tale that fizzles out and dies an ugly death.
But the story of We Shall Overcome will carry on, and hopefully Commoners Choir will be a sentence in that story. Uplifted and energised, and in turn uplifting and energising, shaking chains, moving forward, singing as we go.
Sally Harrop – Moortop To Riverbed
Is it wrong to celebrate criminals? To glorify their criminality? What if those crimes are capital crimes? And what if those crimes lead to deadlier crimes, crimes where people die?
But then what if the law that makes those crimes ‘capital’ could itself be considered criminal, and the crimes committed are a matter of life and death – because there isn’t enough local work to support families – and the only real victims of the crime are the monarchy and the ruling classes?
Well then, you write a short four-line song and head off with a choir up Hebden Bridge’s notoriously steep and cobbled Buttress on a hot midsummer’s day to sing at the criminal’s graveside. And teach said song to the locals, get them to join in. Well, you do if you’re Commoners Choir.
The Cragg Vale Coiners are legendary around those parts, and their story is fascinating. The recent novel ‘Gallows Pole’ by Ben Myers gives a remarkable account of it and maybe the publication of the book re-focused Boff towards the story of the Coiners (this was not his first salute to them). Boff wrote over 26,000 songs in 2018, and this one fell out of him while he was brushing his teeth one morning.
“Moortop to riverbed, upside-down
Half a King’s ransom clipped from a crown
All along the valley settling the score
The poor get rich and the rich get poor”
Hope Chapel, where we sang that evening, was a beautiful, tranquil space of smooth, old mahogany glowing in the late evening sun. The Choir was rather too large for the choir stalls, so we congregated on the stage in front of the pulpit and spilled out onto the floor, and even took on extras from the audience for a rendition of ‘Citizen Shanty’. The place was full and appreciative, the choir in good voice, the acoustics warm and rich. We bellowed out ‘True North’ at the end of the second half, well-practised from our all-day True North-a-thon the day before. Lungs well and truly exercised. Spirits well and truly up. A fabulous end to an extraordinary weekend. exercised.
Spirits well and truly up. A fabulous end to an extraordinary weekend.
Carolyn Edwards – Untitled
How could I, as an Amateur Anthropologist and Lady Baritone (dubbed as ‘mid women’ by Beccy Owen), pass up the opportunity offered by A. Clifford (we have two) to write up my observations of Commoners’ “obscure and cultish behaviour” during my first year?
It’s all been such glorious fun, though, which renders my ethnographic practice suspect so it can’t be considered either reliable or objective. Anyway, as E. Clement (there’s only one) has observed, we are NOT a cult. Cults demand unthinking loyalty to a leader, which is simply laughable in the context of us independent and free-thinking Commoners. I mean, we wouldn’t follow Boff over a cliff, would we? Of course not! We’d merely have a very good and long discussion, possibly with cake, about whether or not we should.
Also, if we were a cult, we’d have to have initiation rituals, and nobody could claim that the warm welcome you get upon joining the choir is anywhere near scary enough to qualify. The number of Commoners who have, in the past year, offered me lifts, made me food, shared their booze with me, invited me into their homes, taught me, lent me and recommended me brilliant stuff AND made me laugh so hard I almost had an accident is ridiculously high.
My first gig was me squodged with A. M. Boyle in the boot of P. Serjeant’s car (where the dogs go) and driven to a warehouse in Bradford to sing about merryandrews on a scaffold under giant fish heads while a large gold-paintedman (D. Rhodes) pulled me free pints as I hit digital images of babies whilst wearing boxing gloves before dancing round a burning plastic effigy of Richard Branson.
Cult, tribe, band, choir, gang, union, nation: all groups require members to conform in some way. I think perhaps the freedom granted to individual Commoners to decide for themselves what that way is, both sets this particular group apart and engenders within it an unusually strong and warm sense of belonging. That and the secret handshake, obvs...
C. Edwards (Ms)
Ian Taylor – Commoners Take Courage
In the summer, seven Commoners successfully auditioned for Red Ladder Theatre’s production of Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage And Her Children’. We became part of the ‘community chorus’, supporting a professional cast headed by Pauline McLynn, famously Mrs Doyle in Father Ted.
And what a fabulous experience it was. We had a head start of sorts, with Choirmeister Boff Whalley having written the suite of songs we were to perform, and friends of the choir heavily involved. Beccy Owen as Musical Director brought some ethereal choral arrangements to Boff’s songs, and Rod Dixon directed the show with calm authority. It was thrilling and fascinating to see a professional production come together in just three weeks.
Following rehearsals, we transferred to the vast, dusty warehouse basement near the Leeds Royal Armouries, where the shows were performed in promenade style. The set, lighting and soundscape soon fell in to place with impressive efficiency.
We performed around 25 sell-out shows over the three week run, with cast, crew and chorus developing into one big, close theatrical family on the way. We made friends for life, and attracted many brilliant reviews from audiences and critics alike. Everyone was superbly versatile, but to watch Pauline at close hand throughout the three-hour show, working her socks off up to that haunting closing scream, was an education and a privilege. A true professional, she laughed off our private plaudits with humble grace.
Then it was over. Boff wrote us a song, we partied and sang one final time, and said our goodbyes. Except we didn’t, because we’ve all been supporting each other’s shows and ventures ever since, in true Commoners spirit.
‘Mother Courage’ features in many ‘top ten’ lists of 2018, including The Stage and The Observer. If you missed the show, well I’m afraid that’s your loss. Or is it? Watch this space...
Nancy Woods – Tribal Culture And Commoners
A Friday night, Sedbergh Youth Club, Bradford, 1981.
My best friend, Adele, was surrounded by a group of Northern Soul girls, and one of them was pointing at her feet:
‘What yer wearing them shoes for? Eh?’
The shoes in question were a pair of flat, shiny, oxblood-coloured men’s brogues which sat incongruously with the rest of Adele’s attire of mostly black ripped items covered in badges. Adele is 6 foot 3 inches and takes a size 9 ½ shoe, so finding footwear was an issue in the early ‘80s. Adele’s brogues were a sartorial faux pas which breached tribal rules and the bully was outraged:
‘You’re a bit of a punk, wear yer own fucking shoes!’
Adele’s answer was so unexpectedly honest that the bully was successfully repelled and sloped off to terrorise someone else.
‘They’re the only shoes that fit me’.
I remember the early 1980s as a time of ‘tribes’ where it was easy to recognise who belonged where. You could scan a person and make a judgement on their cultural and musical tastes in about three seconds.
My anecdote isn’t really selling the idea of 1980s tribal culture, but it did make you feel you belonged to something, it instilled a sense of pride and if you possessed half an ounce of sensibility, you had a silent respect for the other tribes… well, some of them. I missed it as I grew older. I never found anything to replace it and began to think it was something you could only experience when you’re young.
Commoners Choir takes all the good bits from ‘tribal culture’: the feelings of acceptance, belonging and solidarity. The black dress code identifies you as a choir member at a gig with its tribal mark – the patch, a little pinned-on work of art. Like a school uniform, the black dress code is the equaliser, the common denominator, the blank canvas that you can pimp up with badges, pins and brooches.
There is also that homemade aspect within Commoners which was so vital to my tribal youth. Helen Lucy makes her own tunics with badges going up the seam on the sleeves, and there was a shirt with a magnificent ruff down the front. Commoners rejects my early tribal experience in Bradford in one important aspect though – footwear. Here you can really go off-piste. You are actively encouraged to wear shoes, boots or sandals which reflect you, from monkey boots to flowery Docs to silver Bowie-style sneakers. Any particularly interesting specimens are always admired and discussed. Chris Hunt’s pink leather lace-up shoes are a joy to behold… though I’m not sure he would have made it out of Sedbergh Youth Club in 1981 in one piece.
Kirsty Rowan – Reem Kelani, sheffield
The audience cheered as we joined Reem Kelani onstage in November to raise funds for the Sheffield Palestine Women’s Scholarship Fund, despite our faltering Arabic singing. Reem had told us, “those who don’t speak it won’t know, and those who do will just be glad you tried.” Having said that, to everyone’s delight, Josh did Reem and the Arabic speakers in the audience the courtesy of introducing us in fluent Arabic.
Reem is a force of nature, an energy, an inspiration. She has an amazing presence on stage. Her music is derived from folk melodies, incorporating rhythmic clapping and jazz, a melting pot of Palestinian and Arabic music which is not only beautiful but means the audience emerge knowing much about Palestinian culture, music, and history and its importance in the maintenance of the Palestinian identity. In her own words, her politics are inseparable from her music.
Before the show most of the Commoners were unfamiliar with Reem’s music and we arrived with only ten minutes rehearsal time due to an accident on the M1 – but it all came together thanks to Reem’s confidence in us. I have an image of us looking like rabbits in headlights when she turned her back to the audience and said to us, “Smile, or I’ll show you mi’ tits!” We didn’t for a moment doubt her. We smiled.
The whole evening was a blast: from our own set (failing spectacularly to remember the new arrangements of ‘George Orwell’ and ‘Get Back on Your Bus’) to joining in with Reem and jazz pianist Bruno Heine. Regarding our Arabic, Reem was right: the audience embraced us warmly and together we sang in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Josh Sutton – Palestine: You’re More Than Welcome Here
Not one for following convention (golf is shit), I decided to take up skateboarding at the age of 51. That was a couple of years ago and apart from the odd painful bruise and grazed knee it’s all going rather well. I’m not one for tricks, I’m more Stan than Ollie (an ollie being a basic trick with a skateboard which enables a rider to jump over things and up onto curbs and the like).
I love it though. Skaters are a creative lot and, for me, skateboarding has opened a whole corridor of doors, behind which lie all manner of opportunities. When the Commoners were invited to Brighton to participate in the Street Choirs Festival last summer, I took my board – there’s a pretty sick skatepark on the Levels. While the majority of the choir were down on the beach belting out a Citizens’ Shanty, I snuck off and ‘dropped in’.
More recently another opportunity presented itself as I came accross a charity working with Palestinian kids in the West Bank. I knew I had to get involved with SkatePal and with the support of my fellow Commoners I signed up for a two week period as a volunteer. Commoners helped me raise the cash needed to get out to Palestine. There were lino cutting workshops, benefit gigs, generous donations on my Just Giving Page and lots of cake.
I spent my 53rd birthday sipping Palestinian Taybeh beer with a bunch of skaters half my age, in a bar in Ramallah. Funnily enough I’d first tasted Taybeh at the Red & Green Club in Milnsbridge near Huddersfield at a Commoners gig back in 2017. It marked the beginning of my two-week period as a volunteer teaching Palestinian kids how to skate. Volunteers from all over the world travel to Palestine to help build skate parks and give kids an opportunity to play in a safe space, momentarily removed from the sickening cruelty of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Needless to say, my time there whizzed by and I’m looking forward to going back some day. I took photographs and made drawings when I was out there, which found their way into a recipe book, CookPal, which I wrote as a memento of my visit. I’m proud of CookPal, it’s one of the best things I’ve done, and half the profits go to SkatePal. You can buy a copy here if you like.
Allan Clifford – 2019: Our streets!
For a couple of months I dropped out. A weary teacher with a partner doing herculean shift-work for the NHS. We have spawned debts and been loaded down with kids. Common commoner stuff … but more than all this, what really happened was that I had a political wig-out. An activist interregnum. The red and black blues. Disaster news got to me. Early summer smoke from burning moors wheedled under my skin and wormed into the optimism of my will … A hundred awful things. I won’t depress you with a list of crap; angry men sieg heil-ing down Leeds Briggate and such. You know it all.
Commoners sing songs of hope. It’s what we do. At the end of our shows our signature message is in our song ‘Hope’ … but by September I wasn’t sure I was feeling the hope; I just couldn’t clap in time. I skipped rehearsals and missed gigs.
But the times roll on with or without you. A little thing here and a big thing there. The sudden twitch of a muscle, an eye blinks open, someone stands up. A well-attended and determined union meeting where I work. RMT picket-line unity. Antifa kids and frack-free grannies. American women together walking American streets. Tributaries becoming rivers.
By December rail workers, Parisian queer-activists and banlieue sink-estate kids were putting on their yellow jackets and taking back their streets. Budapest workers were linking arms with hipster students blocking the Erzsébet híd, defying Orban’s cops. Guns in Rojova. Resistance in Rio. Sabs in Sussex.
“This is not a time to be dismayed, this is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.” is what Henry Rollins said about Trump. Such a great great thing to say. I came back and my friends the Commoners welcomed me back, told me about a great gig down in Sheffield, and we stood in a semi-circle and sang songs in dark times and, of course, everything was possible again.
Here’s to 2019, and to the most important work of being a Commoner: making sure we’re part of something much bigger than a choir and embracing that single idea: we are people in common.
hope and Chorus
Catherine Long on commoners' Recent Visit to Lancaster
‘Hope’ is the song that the Commoners sing as an antidote to our anger and frustration about so much that’s wrong with the world. It usually comes at the end of a set, and it’s brilliant to sing – even if sometimes we get carried away with some slightly out of time clapping… In the face of austerity, discrimination, the rise of the far right, lying politicians and greedy corporations, we need to hang on to the fact that people are out there, organising and finding their own ways to fight back. Our song celebrates that loudly and joyfully.
It was inspired by the American writer, Rebecca Solnit, who wrote a book called ‘Hope in the Dark’ in the early 2000s and is still doing her best to share stories of hope on an almost daily basis. She wrote it at what seemed then a bleak time: a million people marched in London against the war in Iraq but were completely ignored; George Bush, with the blood of that war on his hands, won the US presidential election despite the fact that a majority of American voters didn’t choose him; Celebrity Big Brother was launched…
Solnit is articulate and passionate about how in the darkest times it’s important for us to remember and document stories of hope to inspire ourselves and each other. Her book tells stories of movements and people who wouldn’t take things lying down but found positive ways to resist and create. And even though in these days of Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte things might seem even bleaker than they did in 2003, there are still so many great stories from which we can take heart and take action. To use a phrase of Solnit’s:
“We can change the world because we have many times before.”
As the Commoners travel around to gigs, we come across stories of hope in every place we perform. Last week, we headed north west to Lancaster to sing at a great co-operatively-run space, Halton Mill. The Mill has been converted from dereliction to a busy arts centre, and is part of a 41-house estate, every building run on environmentally-friendly systems. An eco-estate built through the dedication, labour and (yes) hope of a bunch of determined people.
And we learnt about a brilliant local struggle to save another co-operative, the Lancaster Music Co-op. The Co-op had been running for 33 years, providing rehearsal and recording spaces at as low a cost as possible and serving as a launch pad for many musicians and bands. After a long, long waiting game with the local council, in which the Co-op wanted to improve its space so it could offer more to the musicians using it (but weren’t able to because the council and a large property developer were going to redevelop the whole area), they were suddenly served with an eviction notice.
Musicians and local residents who loved the space and the support the Co-op offered mobilised quickly and got thousands of people to sign up to a petition and to protest to the council. And the day before our gig, they had a victory – Lancaster City Council voted unanimously not to evict the Co-op and to move towards giving them a long-term lease. All sorts of people spoke passionately about the importance of the co-op and of music in their lives and how such spaces make all the difference to the life of a city.
In the grand scheme of things, saving an affordable space for people to make music in a city in the north of England might not seem so much of an achievement. But that’s what hope is about – keeping the door open for people to gather, to create, to laugh together and to make stuff happen. Every victory is important and each one keeps us singing.
BUSY BUSY BUSY
bob LONGWORTH rounds up a hectic period
It’s been a busy few of weeks for Commoners Choir. Singing (and starring in) the Leeds International Film Festival, being part of the George Orwell Exhibition and... my best bit of all... doing a gig with the Notsensibles!
This flurry of activity started when we supported Reem Kelani at a charity gig for a Palestinian Women's charity based in Sheffield. Reem is a force of nature (“sings like an angel, swears like a trooper” as Mark put it) who had us singing backing on a few of her numbers. With very little prep, she managed to pull a great sound out of us and wore her Commoners patch with pride.
The film festival event was the public debut of a documentary by Commoner Phil Moody, aided and abetted by Commoner Carolyn Edwards, about the song ‘True North’ which we performed with two other choirs at the start of 'The Great Exhibition of The North' in Newcastle. One of those wonderful events that you look back on with great pride, which this short film elegantly captures. It's 20mins long so grab a cuppa and have a look.
Boff wrote a song about George Orwell and The Road To Wigan Pier for the set of food-based gigs we did earlier in the year called ‘More Than A Mouthful’ (tea towels still available at the Commoners shop). With food poverty and foodbanks on the rise it feels like we’re "walking back to Wigan Pier". So, when the curator of the travelling, Orwell-inspired art exhibition, asked us to sing it at the Leeds opening, we jumped at the chance. You can hear us and see the art here.
The next night we were up in Lancaster at an amazing Co-op they have up there – not the music one that the Lovely Eggs helped to save, but another one with shared eco-housing and an old mill (Halton Mill – where they used to make mechanical elephants!) that’s been turned into an arts space. Our support was the Stephen John Hartley band – ex of the Notsensibles who did a great set of new songs (and one old one) with loads of stories in between – mainly aimed at ‘Boffo’ as they were in the same class at school together in Burnley. He’s also been an A+E consultant in his time as well as running a record label, doing some printing and keeping an allotment. I got his book and what a great read it is!
So with one more gig to go (Hebden Bridge Trades Club – 14th December) it’s been another tremendous year for this raggedy band of ne'er-do-wells... heaven knows what we'll be doing next year – what a joy!
Commoners Go Wild At The Seaside
Jane morlandand Catherine Long with a seagull's eye view of the BRIGHTON STREET CHOIRS FESTIVAL 2018
What a brilliant weekend. 42 Commoners by the sea on one of the hottest weekends of the year, laughing, swimming, dancing, having the odd drink, and, of course, singing.
The holiday feeling, sun shining, coffee in hand. Grim Friday motorway driving, and six sticky hours later we arrive in the cosmopolitan throng. Brighton feels alive, packed with tourists and singers alike. It feels like we have arrived at a big conference as we collect our packs for the Street Choirs festival. Only the woven wristband hints at something different.
No time to sing yet, there’s a big ocean to be discovered. We race to the water and before too long Commoners in all manner of swimwear (and some without) dive into the cold sea. Now we are definitely on our jollies! Chips, beer and dancing in the pub to follow. Josh and I shuffle and swing in a tiny space between a bench and the bar, but we love it. More join in the dancing, to the laughter of our friend Dunstan, now a Brighton local, who tells us people don’t dance in this pub. Well, they do now.
We are down in Brighton for the annual Street Choirs Festival, hosted every year by a different choir in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. The festival is about hundreds of people gathering to sing, and this year the focus is on songs about protest and coming together. OrganisersHullabaloo Community Quire do us all proud, offering a warm welcome to their lovely city and making the hosting of nearly forty different choirs singing all over town (and en masse) seem like an easy task.
Commoners Choir are at the festival for the first time and we don’t quite know what to expect. Boff describes the hilarious panic he can see in the eyes of lots of us at the Mass Sing rehearsal on the Saturday morning (all the choirs sing a few songs together at one point over the weekend), as we realise that the other choirs a) can read music comfortably and b) have done their homework before coming...We feel a bit rebellious on the back row as we learn, guessing at tunes, watching the dots rise and fall, Boff waving his arms about confidently in a predominantly female world.
In the end we all gather tosing together down below the Promenade, in the extreme heat, sea behind us, town in front. It feels wonderful to sing with so many people but just too hot to be standing – we use the song books as sun shade. We hear the songs going in and out of time, five people in various forms of arm-flapping and facial expressions trying to keep us all together.
After the discipline of trying to sing complicated and lovely harmonies with hundreds of other people, the Commoners busking slots feel great: tight, passionate and funny. Never have we sung our songs so fast – we have a lot of energy to burn!Busking in the shade is lovely, supportive faces watching and joining in. There is definitely a warmth towards us and our songs and we revel in that. I love the moment when the Hullabaloo choir sing one of Boff’s songs and they all clap him and treat him like a hero as he sits quietly on the grass, Phil Moody singing his bass part in my ear.
The sea beckons, and this time it’s a comedy watching Commoners trying to walk on the cobbled beach with screams of ooos and aaahs, not in harmony but in pain trying to get back to their towels.
We warm up for our performance slot at the evening concert, each of the choirs in turn singing to an audience of hundreds of choristers. And in that echo chamber of a room, Brighton’s wonderful Dome Theatre, we make our big booming sound of riotous hope.After our six minutes on stage, the wall of clapping and stamping that sweeps over us is overwhelming. The street choirs are such a lovely, generous bunch. And blimey, they can sing!
We retreat and head for the local pub. The Hand in Hand, like a lyric in one of our protest songs. We sing and drink and drink and sing, and the landlady tells us she has had the best night in 10 years as we swig her rum and hoarsely belt out our anthem, ‘True North’. We sing with passion and spirit, Boff trying to set us off on the right key. We probably sound like a bag of shook spanners, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t about the sound, it’s about the sharing of the singing, the squashed-togetherness of songs and sweaty bodies. We can see the landlady crying, so we sing louder and prouder, the rum tasting nicer with every swig. It gets late and the landlady gives us a tour of the cellar brewery (she brews her own beer and very tasty it is),then there’s more late night drinking back at the amazing house as late night revellers (lost and wandering Commoners...) stop by, or fall in to our house and stage a lie down protest.
Sunday is a day for collective breakfast, endless rounds of toast and avocado. Some go for a swim fix, some head off for workshops. Boff has slipped away to pass on protest song inspiration. The collective sound in the workshop is great but almost too sweet, and we escape the sauna to find our way back to the minibuses.
‘Our bus is better than your bus’ is the theme for the return leg. Still hot, now knackered but all agreeing that we have had a joyous time, sharing, hearing other choirs sing their songs and singing ours. Spending social time together makes us appreciate what we have in the choir and each other.
The weekend confirms for me why I love singing with the Commoners. We aren’t necessarily the most musically accomplished, but we have passion and humour aplenty and Boff’s songs can’t be beaten. We’d spent the previous weekend singing together in Newcastle, (what an incredible day), and in Hebden Bridge, (always a joy), and here we were again, sharing minibuses, houses and mates’ floors, breakfasts and beers, still finding stuff to laugh and argue about and still enjoying each other’s company.
All weekend we dipped in and out of the Festival, enjoying learning about and with other choirs, but also finding that great food, the sea, pubs, and a chance to catch up with families and old friends were temptations that meant that we weren’t always the most diligent of participants. And if at times we stuck together a bit too much and socialised not quite enough with others it’s because making an angry, hope-filled and mostly harmonious noise with a bunch of friends is a sheer joy!
Who knows whether we will get to Manchester next year? We might if someone can rustle up a beach, a lovely local, the sun and the spirit of 800 people coming together. Commoners can party anywhere...
Singing that Song – GETNorth 2018
Commoners Choir has had many adventures singing raucous, inspiring and uplifting songs, but this gig promised to be one of the best so far. There was to be a party, a celebration of all things good in the North of England. An ‘exhibition that celebrates great art, culture and design of the North of England, showcasing local artists and performers, cultural organisations and creative businesses...’ according to the Cameron government in 2016, as part of their Northern Powerhouse initiative, in the hopes that the event would attract more investment in an area that perhaps wouldn’t seem so grim after all.
The excitement and joy emanating from Boff, Jane and Josh when their project got the go-ahead, after an arduous selection process, gave us an indication that it was ‘going to be big’. The BBC were going to be involved, we were told –we’d be on the telly! We’d be working with two other choirs, we were told, and there’d be a fantastic new song we were all going to sing as one. Without any prior rehearsals together. Being filmed. Gulp. We knew Boff had form, as he had done something similar a year or so earlier, but nothing on this scale. I hadn’t realised that it was George Osborne, lately the Chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for extending austerity into tyranny, who came up with the idea of The Great Exhibition of the North, but even that knowledge couldn’t put a crimp in it.
The next thing we heard, in a frantic note from Boff, was that it was all off. At the full programme announcement event in Newcastle, Jane, Josh and Boff found out at the last minute that BAE systems were one of the main sponsors of the event. As a choir we sing about social injustice, we are political, we care, we have opinions (do we have opinions!). This was never going to work for us if corporate arms dealers were involved, no matter how many jobs they provide for locals. Reluctantly, and devastatingly for the three people who had put the bid together and got the gig, we pulled out, along with Nadine Shah and amid further unhappy rumblings from a few other participants. It was the right thing to do, but boy, did it hurt. Then, miraculously, a few days later, BAE pulled out. A flurry of conversations followed and then we were back on track, all systems go.
The choir has increased in size quite a lot since I started about two and half years ago, we even need a bigger rehearsal room now. So there were quite a few Commoners for Boff to juggle and manoeuvre into learning the song. And what a song. Nine minutes of complex, multi-layered parts within parts, verses for different voices and different choirs, and some rousing bugger-alls thrown in for good measure. We even had to shift our normally well-entrenched standing positions around to get the group into the right shape for the harmonies. The words ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ weren’t far from peoples’ lips. It was a work-out simply getting through it all. At first we were a bit ropey, confused, lost. Which bit belonged to which part, to which choir, do we sing now too or is it just them? We heard rumours that the other two choirs were immediately brilliant, tuneful, understanding, in time. We were a bit daunted. Then, beautifully, it all started to come together. We slowed down, we knew the words, we got the parts, we let rip. And it was a joyous thing.
On the day, a glorious Saturday in mid-June, we set out from Leeds giddy with anticipation. We’d spent hours, weeks, singing the song, often at the expense of all others. We had to know it and we had to slot in with the other choirs. There would be no hiding, our voices would be obvious, and we needed to be spot-on. We sang along with the demo on endless repeat in our cars, on our runs, on our bikes, in the supermarket, at work; knowing that we had to all fit in effortlessly when we eventually got together in Newcastle. And today was that day. No more rehearsing, this was it. Singing for real all over Newcastle then a big sing at the Sage Gateshead at teatime.
As Boff welcomed us all in the big rehearsal room, there was an expectant, animated mood amongst the choristers. Each choir introduced itself to the others by each singing a song that showed who we are. Infant Hercules, already with pints in hand, blasted out their bass richness; She Choir sang like angels gathering to herald a new world peace, and Commoners, perhaps more rustically, told everyone to get off their arses. We giggled nervously as Boff rearranged us all into our correct positions. What would the first run-through be like? Would it be a discordant, cacophonous din or would we be ok? Would we all be able to see Boff conducting, or would we run off at our own speeds, end up singing in rounds? Would we bungle the words? We needn’t have worried. With a only a few small mistakes, we pretty much nailed it from the outset. The sound of so many voices, with the range extended high and low by the new choirs, was amazing. There were goosebumps, tears and a great cheer at the end. It was fabulous. The joy and excitement in the room was palpable. 120 people coming together to make a beautiful noise, it was so uplifting. The volunteers were cheering, GETNorth staff wiping their eyes, choristers buzzing. This was going to be a great day.
After an initial sing together on the green at the university, the choirs split up, each taking one of the trails through the city, and each trail highlighting different aspect of its history. Ably assisted by GETNorth volunteers, we were safely herded across Newcastle and round to the open-air Sage stage for the final sing three hours later. Infant Hercules took a tour of the pubs they passed too (just to be sociable).
The Commoners took the Design Trail, singing in the Biscuit Factory art gallery, deftly managing to make a couple of audience members cry as we sang our song celebrating the history and culture of this place we call ‘North’. We sang outside the refurbished, swish offices of the Toffee Factory, not quite managing to get people out of the pub across the river to come and listen to us (so instead we headed over and sang for them. Take the mountain to Mohammad and all that). All along the route were gardens and allotments, spectacular buildings, often repurposed for modern use into housing, galleries and museums, human spaces now rather than industrial ones, educational areas, and beautiful art installations dotted about along the way, showing huge creativity and pride in the city. We circled round up onto the Tyne quayside, our collective eye fixed on our final destination. Singing, walking, chatting, in glorious weather; what more does the human spirit need?
As we strolled up the many steps to the Sage, we realised this was the finale, the last time we would sing this remarkable song all together. There was a sadness to that, even though it would be the best rendition of the day, as we were all well-versed by now. That is if we could get past the strange peculiarities of our brains, which earlier knew the lyrics completely, but now chose to substitute random words instead. So we had laughter and weather shaping the way were are, renegade teashops in the city square, and a thousand blithering idiots, who gave us… Hints of other tunes would send us into Simon and Garfunkel or even Half Man Half Biscuit songs. But of course we’d pull it together for the last big sing. If only Infant Hercules would get out of the pub and come to join us.
I remember once being told by a friend that they felt English, were proud to be English. Not in a far-right, nationalist kind of way, but more about being proud of their roots, feeling belonging. I pondered this a while, and decided I didn’t feel that. I didn’t feel English. I felt Northern. I felt I had more in common and in kinship with the Scots, the Danes and the Icelanders than with some southerners I knew. I didn’t think my country was proud of me, of my neighbours, or of things that my northern ancestors had achieved; in fact they actively tried to ignore us, or placate us, or just wish we’d go away or something, just keep paying the taxes. Even the amount of money the government donated towards this fabulous event – £5 million – was paltry, the price of a nice house in Notting Hill. So this song I was singing for the Great Exhibition was spot on for me, felt so right, so powerful and said everything I couldn’t in one easy bite-sized, beautiful way.
It turns out the Sage wasn’t the last time we’d sing together. Outside a tiny pub afterwards, before the buses came to take us all back to reality, a relaxed and happy choir sang one final time, for joy, for comradeship, for the bar staff and because we couldn’t help it. The song was in our bones now, in our beings, and would stay with us forever. Inescapable. Just like our Northernness.
Sally Harrop, July 2018
T r u e N o r t h
an earlier report – Trail-Blazing After The Event
There’s a thing that writers get told – ‘Never use the word indescribable’.
It’s a good word though, sometimes. When a story can’t be told in terms of what it looked like or felt like or sounded like, when a story is all those things as well as a mixed bag of spirit and emotion and whatever other ingredients get chucked into the soup.
So I was part of a six-month long project that grew from an idea (three choirs, singing about the North) to a mad series of performances, and that culmination of all this gathering of choirs and Northernness – at the Gateshead Sage on a glorious Saturday afternoon – was as close to indescribable as I can get. It basically felt like getting all my senses battered at once, a big emotional tug at all the bits of me that can feel stuff. Will that do as a description? Senses battered, emotional tug? There, it’s not indescribable then.
Six months ago Josh Sutton, Jane Morland and me were convincing the organisers of The Great Exhibition of the North that this unholy alliance of three city choirs would be big, grand and special. We didn’t have any music and we didn’t yet have the consent of the choirs; we were winging it with bravado and hope. I’d done this kind of thing before with Dan Bye and Sarah Punshon, singing with scratch choirs at Manchester Museum and outside Somerset House in London. This one was a bit closer to my heart, since it was loaded with big emotional triggers – singing about the North and what it meant without ending up with something cloying and cliched, an answer to years of ‘Northern Powerhouse’ lies and centuries of discrimination and inequality. My own personal dig at Thatcher’s legacy (as Elvis Costello put it, ‘tramping the dirt down’). A chance to sing about childhood and history and landscape.
Until eventually 120 of us stood facing the city, watched over by the huge glass armadillo of The Sage, three choirs who sound utterly unlike each other, united to make a single glorious noise. A big and beautiful and bellowed noise that roared and soared across the Tyne. It worked because we all meant it. Because we dearly wanted to celebrate what defined us, what makes the North. What makes us Northerners. (Isn’t that so often an excuse for parochial in-bred nonsense? I remember the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire and the place being plastered with posters showing cloth-capped cyclists exclaiming ‘Ee Bah Gum’. Aye lad, we’re reyt good at stereotyping ourselves, tha knows). But Northernness, and trying to understand it, is essential, since this country’s political and cultural divide is getting worse. In terms of regional economic division, Britain now boasts the second largest north/south divide in Europe, witha 25% income gap between the richest and poorest regions of Britain.
The comical fabrication of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has itself become a source of division – as if we’re caricatures in an old edition of The Beano , doffing our flat caps to Lord Snooty and his Pals. So bring on Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and the rest of ‘em, singing at the tops of their voices around the Newcastle city streets, walking the arts trails that thread down towards the Tyne and across the bridge to Gateshead. Manchester’s She Choir arrived at the river after singing in the gothic gorgeousness of St Nicholas Cathedral, Stockton’s Infant Hercules turned up after drowning out the tannoy at the train station (and singing to a bemused local MP) and Commoners Choir arrived after a sing-song in a biscuit factory that had been turned into an art gallery. We gave out leaflets and badges, carried our flags, and left our big noisy footprints along the way.
The three choirs had met each other for the first time only a few hours earlier, up at Northern Stage, piling off our charabancs and looking for all the world like we were all on day-trips to the seaside. Up at The Sage, this amalgamation of three disparate choirs fitted together like a wonky jigsaw, full of the sound and joy and fury of a gang on a mission to sing down the powers-that-be and sing up the ordinary folk. The song ‘True North’, pieced together from hundreds of scraps of ideas that all three choirs’ members threw into the mix, is an homage to those ordinary folk whose lives tell the history of the North, who are part of its story (and our story, too).
The song is also an anthem for the Northern countryside, its hills and valleys, limestone and grit. The nature that surrounds and defines us. Each choir sang its own part of the song, backed by the rest, sharing around our differences and working out where the similarities are. And the sheer size of the noise up there above the river – I don’t mean noise that’s measured in decibels, but noise that spans octaves and dynamics, from She Choir’s glorious soprano fanfares to Infant Hercules’ bass boom – was so much more than the sum of its parts. Not indescribable, but possibly incomparable.
Maybe that’s just me, though, standing in front of the choirs waving my arms about and trying to stop thinking of the 8-minute piece as a mathematical puzzle, trying to stop concentrating on what comes next and who sings what and where does the bass come in, trying to stop thinking for a few moments so I can experience the moment. Let go. Listen. Feel it.
Our involvement in the Great Exhibition of the North began in earnest several months ago at the launch event when we discovered that a major partner and sponsor would be BAE Systems. I won’t re-hash the story here. We pulled out, spent a week feeling cheated out of a project we’d been really looking forward to, and then jumped back in again when BAE gave in to the pressure and ran away, red-faced. The commissioners and organisers who helped set up our project were wonderful and supportive throughout, even when we were being righteously bolshy and awkward. And the dozens of volunteers on the day who chaperoned the three choirs around Newcastle were just brilliant. The final, long, held note that finished ‘True North’ on the tiered outside stage overlooking the city was a big, loud cry of all sorts of describable emotions: relief, joy, celebration, togetherness and fun.
And when it was all over, and we’d waited around to cart mic stands back to the bus and joked with the BBC2 camera crew that our next project would be “a similar idea, but about the South” (I had to explain I was joking), after we’d said our goodbyes to the volunteers and organisers, we headed off to the nearest pub. Most of the three choirs were already there, sitting outside in the courtyard of The Central, a tiny old one-room bar beside a busy dual carriageway. And there, with ten minutes to go before we all had to pile back to our buses and head off home, we chucked out one last, big rendition of ‘True North’, this time as a skywards holler, glasses raised, everyone smiling. And OK, I’ll admit – that last version, all of us thrown together and singing not for an audience but for the joy of sharing something special with each other – that was simply indescribable.
Boff Whalley June 2018
Thanks Sara Barnard for the photograph
The Hangry Brigade
A Blog about the 'more than a mouthful' shows by Allan Clifford
Food. Commoners Choir rose one day and turned its hundred voices and fist-waving black ’n’ patches centipede of arms and legs … turned itself to thoughts of food. The good stuff.
Turned its thoughts and turned its actions to food. The action seems clear and necessary; gather, make, bake, create, sing, scoff and share. And know of the rebellion well-stewed into those actions.
Manifesto! We set the work of heads and hands, spoons and pens to the 'More Than A Mouthful' quartet of concerts based around food. Holbeck, New Wortley, Otley and Seacroft mapped out our Leeds compass. The city on a plate.
Our enthusiasm meant that the incredible people at Leeds Inspiredbelieved in us enough to put money down to fund the idea.
The plan came together: at each venue, Commoners’ resident chef Josh Sutton (Tommy Cooper two-hat fez ‘n’ cook combo) would crouch like a sweaty DJ mixin’ up a banging in-your-face curry for the masses. Whilst we’d sway and holler behind him – trying not to sniff and dribble.
Josh’s raw materials? A mountain! Around half of all the food the world produces is thrown away. Binned. Un-tucked-into. So these concerts would mean that a small hill of nourishment would be rescued by using ingrediants from the Real Junk Food Project. So the Black Fez would cook, and the Choir would sing.
It would be primary barter economics. As people came they would swing by Sainsbury’s and get some proper scran to give to a local food bank (that was the entrance fee – a donation of your choice to the local foodbank) and after the show they’d scoop up the good victuals we’d share and some hot tea and cakestuff. There for anyone at all who’d smelt the onion frying, heard the four-part harmony bellowing and climbed in the window waving a can of beans.
Well that was the action – but the thoughts! For food produces farts, belches and politics. The food-thoughts whirl and spin, they overlap and spark off each other then collide and connect into a huge brainmelt around this basic biological function. The Politics of Food. George Orwell walks with us and nails a truth that a human being is “primarily a bag for putting food into”. Food is the basic the thing, the next on the list the moment we’ve sorted out breathing and before we’ve had a shit.
Food is the ultimate commodity. The commodity we work for of necessity. We shop, acquire and consume food of necessity. And I, like every human being; like all of us, like all of you, deep in my twirly gene-ribbons, there’s my hunter-gatherer belly rumbler, and I covet that food. I need to acquire, to horde and then to munch and masticate through well over 58 varieties … ‘til the day I die, hopefully with some food still in my tum. After a big foodshop I feel guilty but happily satisfied as I open the fridge door and gaze at the wonderment piled up there. Deep down, my Cro-Mag brain-stem salivates amazed … so much fodder. I try not to waste any.
And so to politics! The outrage of under-consumption. The miserable mathematics of food poverty, in Leeds in 2018. In January 2018 it emerged that 1 in 4 parents has missed a meal to feed their children. 20% of the Leeds population in 2015/16 was living in absolute poverty. 155,000 people. 26,831 Leeds people have accessed a foodbank in 2016/17 – a 7% increase on 2015/16. In five wards in Leeds around half or more of children are growing up in poverty. Hyde Park and Woodhouse, Gipton and Harehills, City and Hunslet, Burmantofts, Richmond Hill, Headingley.
This is the lamentable language of food poverty – in our streets, down our roads, today. Food poverty, food insecurity, food banks, soup kitchens, hidden hunger, holiday hunger, elderly malnourishment, obesity epidemics, eating disorders, food inequality.
I talked to a couple of middle-aged people in Holbeck. We were standing out in the sun with a beer after our show. We considered the normalisation of food banks. Someone said that he was of an age where the phrase ‘soup kitchen’ just automatically conjured up black and white Great Depression photos from his school history lessons, he had this distant reaction to what was happening to our towns today, distant despite knowing and seeing and understanding … he said it was difficult to conceive of food banks in every town, in every city, feeding tens of thousands weekly … the sheer scale of the enterprise the community was undertaking because the state had simply walked away from any obligation to the needy … had walked away taking our money with it.
Yet there he was, popping four tins of soup into a big wire basket by the Tesco checkout every week when he did his family shop – now just a thoughtless part of the routine. Normalised and hidden because we’re so damned adaptable, we take it in our stride and forget that it’s obscene.
The ‘unreality’ of food poverty is encouraged by wealthier people in positions of power. To sow confusion, to stereotype, to obfuscate, to muddy reality. Posho journos like Toby Young and Camila Long – the shoeshine boys of the bourgeoisie. When ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was released Young and Long both questioned the reality of the events in Ken Loach’s meticulously researched portrayal of foodbank Britain. They want us to think it isn’t really there – that the things we can actually see aren’t actually real because Camila and Toby can’t see them when they drive through the West End in a taxi.
In New Wortley Community Centre some local people – old and young – had their own choir and they joined us to sing ‘Citizen’s Shanty’. After some clapping and whooping from the audience, one girl grinned so much and looked so chuffed I swear I thought the top half of her head would fall off. She glued it back together with cake.
The guy there making tea in the kitchen said there were people who simply wouldn’t cope without the centre, that it was a real community enterprise because there was nothing else. I remembered reading something about how the criminal austerity the EU imposed on the Greek people resulted in people forging close community networks at the basic level of keeping each other alive – and then realising they’d done something rather beautiful together. Hope in the dark times.
I spoke to a cheery chatty woman in a wheelchair who told me the choir was too negative and we should take the long-term view that lives had, on the whole, got a lot better over the last 100 years. She tried to get me to join a jazz choir!
Later I spoke to one of the other local choir girls.
Piece of cake number one.
Q - ‘What kind of songs do you sing in your choir?’
A – ‘Lots of David Bowie’ (spraying cake crumbs)
(Me thinking - ‘damn that sounds like a good choir to be in.’)
Piece of cake number two.
Q – ‘Do you want a Commoners Choir badge?’
A – ‘No.’
Piece of cake number three.
‘I’ve got to go home ‘cause me mam’s made me tea.’
Otley, Saturday. I spoke to a young woman who had just returned from travelling around India. She marvelled with joy at the memory, at the generosity of poor people who will not let a stranger pass by without insisting that food is shared, and new friendships sealed – hands clasped over plates. Again, and again, she was taken into people’s houses and food was shared. She said such generosity made her feel bad at times because some days it was a challenge to spend any money. But to take money would have been to insult the gesture. My conversations were stitching something together – food and community.
We were in Seacroft for the last show. We have a new song called Come On In From The Cold which tells the story of a local school during March’s ‘Beast from the East’ snow days – the school, and our city, were iced thick and shut down. Cosy for the cosy who’ve cranked up the heating and raided the biscuit tin but very difficult for the poor kids shivering in front of the TV. At one Seacroft school the teachers, the site staff and the dinner ladies and dinner laddies, those that could, came in and threw open the doors (metaphorically, due to the snow) and cooked up a meal for whatever local kids needed to come and eat. They de-commodified the commodity and gave it away because it was needed. They supercharged their community and asked nothing because that was needed.
This huge little event inspired the More Than A Mouthful shows. I was having a mull on this just before we started the song ‘Come On In From The Cold’ in front of a packed crowd on a sunny spring day at Chapel FM, which sits in an old church hall where Seacroft stands up high and regards the slate and trees of the Leeds-scape. The song started without me... I felt a bit choked. Maybe the song sounded better without me.
I spoke to two beaming students who said they lived around Seacroft because it was really cheap. They loved the show, cheered them up no end, they said, but it turned out the curry had run out and they didn’t get any … but they might come along on a Monday evening and join the choir anyway.
Commoners Choir did its four shows. Cooked a pile of chickpea and potato curry. Sang songs about Orwell and doorways, school dinners and Ely riots, Robin Hood and hope, ministers and citizens, libraries and boats.
I tried to talk to people about serious politics and being Very Angry with the Government – but no-one really wanted to get all Marx & Engels once the melodies faded away and the plates and mugs came out. Each show ended in an ecstatic buzz of people chatting and chewing. A babble of bites. Four fleeting communities assembled around a big pot of curry and a lot of tea. Something warm to take away.
There’s a lovely, slightly old-hat word, that longhaired European street activists used to use in ‘70s as an umbrella term to encompass all the possible theatre of political protest, they’d call any such events ‘manifestations’. Always loved that. Manifestations is what the Commoners do.
The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission project has adopted the slogan of disability activists and asserted that the poor must be the active participants in their own improvement– “Nothing about us, is for us, without us.” Under the Tories, the state has walked away from its obligations to the poor – which is an ongoing horror and tragedy for thousands but when people reorganise and push back … and they are, and they will … they’ll do it better than before because they’ll have learned to do it together. And that’s, basically, what we were trying to say over those four manifestations, a few sings and a curry. Hanger is an energy...
Thanks to all four venues who hosted ‘More Than A Mouthful’ (Holbeck Hub, New Wortley Community Centre, Otley Parish Church and Chapel FM), and thanks again to Leeds Inspired for helping to make it happen.
postscript: An Introduction to our song 'George Orwell Joins The Commoners On The Road To Wigan Pier'
George Orwell is one of our great radical writers.
George Orwell is also really quite a posh bloke.
In The Road to Wigan Pier he, with some humour and accuracy described himself as “lower upper middle class”
TRTWP is a report of his journey into the poverty of working class communities in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the ‘30s.
TRTWP is painfully clear and brilliant as it describes the squalid housing, the struggle on the dole, the labour of a miner– and especially painfully honest as he confronts his own class prejudice.
And he writes about food, the struggle for food, the impossibility of feeding a family for a week on a few pounds.
Orwell writes a lot about food often with disgust and horror
In Coming Up for Air he delights in detailing biting into a frankfurter the explodes like hot fishy rubber in the mouth.
In Down and Out in Paris and London he happily describes waiters fingering a steak before it is served.
In TRTWP his uses his grim snobbish humour to nail a truth that a human being is “primarily a bag for putting food in to”
But Orwell also frequently writes about food with great feeling and joy. In a short essay in 1945 he describes great British food:
Kippers, Yorkshire puddings, bread pudding, stilton, marmalade, many many biscuits, cottage loaves, apple dumplings and something called a saffron bun …
In a lovely line he says of British food that it is “simple, rather heavy, slightly barbarous”
In TRTWP Orwell (who’s a bit posh) isn’t condescending or mawkish about poverty and hunger …
He’s really honest, and really really angry and he wants change.
And his writing became part of the change that happened after 1945.
This is a song about the fury and the hope of George Orwell who should now speak only for a shocking past but still speaks for a shocking British present and so the Commoners walk with Orwell …
Thanks to John Woods for the photographs
Sources - Leeds Council Poverty fact Book – March 2018
End Child Poverty Coalition
The idea behind the Commoners Choir, she said, was a radical choir melding political singing with political activism: “You should come along. They’re looking for more people and I’m sure you’d love it.”
I didn’t feel particularly inspired, more cornered. I had just turned 50 and my punk-political activism youth was far behind me. Instead, I’d settled down to a life of grousing and daydreaming. The exhausting graft of life as a teacher and parenting stroppy teenagers seemed to be the expected measure of my days.
But this brief conversation with Helen lodged in the back of my mind amid the evening’s sea of beer, cheese and chat. I decided to try it. I got increasingly anxious as I contacted Boff and arranged to turn up for one of the weekly practices. The thought of singing in public with a bunch of people that I didn’t know filled me with dread.
When I walked into the small room at the local university, I was handed a badge and a song sheet and pointed towards the kettle and teabags. I immediately felt welcomed, and became at once, without hesitation or question from anyone, a Commoner.
We stood in a semicircle and went through the six or seven songs written by Boff. This choir didn’t do standards or covers, the original songs are a critical take on contemporary events from a radical perspective. The idea is to keep you humming all day as they snuggle into the brain, hopefully taking our progressive message with them. A singing revolutionary tabloid.
I sang fairly quietly that first time. We got to a new song called Three Boats, which riffs on the tune of a Christmas carol, with lyrics highlighting the human experiences of the Mediterranean migration tragedy. In the background, half of us sang the numbers of the dead in Arabic, Swahili and English. I found myself choking up.
Two years on, I’m still singing. We sing angry songs and hopeful songs. We’ve toured northern libraries. We serenaded Christmas shoppers to reclaim the once public space that is now Trinity Leeds shopping centre. We went up to Ilkley moor to defiantly recall the real spirit of citizens’ rights and the Magna Carta. We went to Ely to sing in memory of food rioters hanged in 1816. We dressed as monks and went to Kirkstall Abbey to sing a song about Boris Johnson. We serenaded commuters on their way home the day after the election.
Being in the choir has perhaps not so much changed me as confirmed me. Many of us have an idealised version of what we’d like to be and what we want to do. But to get there involves shaking ourselves out of our comfort zone. I didn’t imagine finding myself in my early 50s recording an album.
Singing in this choir has made me much happier. Life for ordinary working people at the moment is tough. Like many jobs, teaching is an often thankless task that can easily take over your life. I reckon I’d probably be happier if I’d joined a cycling club or sorted out the garden. However, the Commoners choir is a shared experience with other ordinary folk that helps me realise my isolated experiences are common. My newfound sense of joy comes from the way that we have a clear sense of Britain’s radical history and our proud place within that.
We sing for the homeless, the closed-down factories, immigrants, the printed word, past struggles and, most importantly, we sing for hope. I have met an incredible group who inspire each other to get out of the house and do something. I’m still not the best or bravest singer, but I assume my position with the basses at the back and endeavour to give it my best bellow.
that was the year that was... 2017
various Members of Commoners Choir write about the events of the past 12 months
Commoners Choir has had
an amazing year: gigs and walks in places conventional and
unexpected, our first CD released, a huge influx of members, a new
protest song online every month, a fair bit of protesting in the
streets, a lot of laughter, occasionally a lot of beer and always
plenty of cake.
We’re a talkative and awkward bunch: when Boff suggested that one of us might like to write something about 2017, eight of us did and each of us has written quite a lot… So here goes, the Commoners’ year, in eight chapters:
January: a first gig for a new member – Alison
I started singing with
the choir almost exactly a year ago and the event at Armley Mills
Industrial Museum was my first time singing in public. I was slightly
For the gig, we were singing amongst the machinery in the Museum and fortunately the acoustic was reassuringly lovely so that fear faded quickly. I only made one mistake that I remember, (though it was a loud and obvious one so caused me more than a little embarrassment), and the choir as a whole had to start two songs again. This was appreciated by the audience in a similar way to seeing comedians corpsing and feeling you’ve got something no-one else is going to see.
Afterwards it made me think about the unlikely magic that happens when a large group of people do manage to all come in on the right notes together. It made me aware of the level of trust implicit in communal singing: everyone has to lean on everyone else just a little, and I’ve happily spent a year’s worth of Monday nights (plus quite a few weekends) immersed in that magic.
March to May: Commoners Library Tour – EllieThe 1964 Public Libraries Act states that local authorities have a statutory duty to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons”. However, since 2010 the austerity agenda has seen 600 libraries close or move to being volunteer-run and ten thousand library workers lose their jobs. It doesn’t seem sustainable, comprehensive or efficient to be relying on the goodwill of volunteers to provide a service. For many the library is access to books, a sense of community and also the internet; in a society where we have moved the whole benefits system online this access is vital for many.
Because Commoners love the Commons, and love libraries, in April we piled onto a tour bus with a stack of cryptic crosswords and set off on a five-date jaunt to sing in libraries across the North of England. To some this breaking of the “silence” in libraries may be heretical. I work in a library, and I don’t think libraries should be quiet, I’m with Paula Poundstone who says that “libraries are raucous clubhouses of free speech, controversy and community”. I hope we helped libraries live up to that.
We sang in Sheffield, Keighley, Darlington, Carlisle and Doncaster. Each town had a different tale of cuts to library services. In Keighley we heard of 14 libraries closing in the 2016/17 budget with a further £950k of cuts announced in November 2017.
We offered cakes and a cuppa and 45 minutes of singing and ranting and sharing our love for libraries, the printed word and the hope of a fairer society to come. Oh and a free CD of our song Mechanical Movable Type … there’s a video about the library tour here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6h4KsdM2ek.
February to November: Singing outdoors – CatherineFor me, one of the most joyous things about Commoners Choir is when we sing outdoors, surrounded by wildlife, people, dogs and glorious scenery – or by thousands of other people who are angry and energised about the same things as we are. I love the way that we keep on trying to make sure that everyone, whatever their situation, gets the chance to sing in the open air.
MAY – Singing to a small group of outdoor swimmers in Sparth Reservoir. “When your heart says yes and the sign says no” has never seemed more pertinent than when we sang it to this fantastic group who resisted an attempted ban on swimming in a spot that had been used for generations. We hadn’t planned it – we were walking along the canal from Marsden, where we’d had a lot of fun singing in different spots around the town for their Cuckoo Festival, to Milnsbridge, where we sang at the wonderful Red and Green Club. But we just came across the swimmers en route and we had to serenade them. It’s hard to stop a Commoner when an appropriate opportunity comes up.
FEBRUARY, JUNE and SEPTEMBER – in Leeds and in Manchester, protesting. Sometimes with hundreds or even thousands of other people, sometimes just us. Singing to show solidarity, singing to show anger, singing to share hope. Singing because we believe that we don’t need to accept a world in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and women and people of colour and gay people and disabled people and everyone who just doesn’t fit can be pushed to one side… It’s brilliant to see people in the crowd smiling in recognition, laughing, singing along – and it’s also great when there’s someone who gets really indignant. If what we said never got any disagreement, we’d be doing something wrong!
NOVEMBER – Teetering on the edge of Kinder Scout, almost numb with cold but still grinning, watching Boff’s hands waving about in absurd yellow gloves and pretending not to see the hovering drone above us as we launch into the fourth repetition of a song that celebrates the 1932 Mass Trespass, being filmed for a “Britain’s Greatest Walks” TV programme.
It was brilliant – the fact that we were all ready to be out there early on a cold Sunday morning; the cheeriness and enthusiasm of the TV crew; the fact that lots of Commoners had carried cake up the hillside to share; the way that lots of us piled on across Kinder Scout and beyond after the filming and made it to the pub at the end of the day red-cheeked and still laughing. The combination of fresh air, incomparable hills, angry and articulate politics and lots of laughter can’t be beat.
february, recording the album – jane
One large room, Ebor Court, two windows
One gentle sound engineer, one desk, one chair, limitless patience
One hearty warmup full of ooohs and aaahs and brrrs
Three impromptu songs
Fifty eight choir members
Twenty-one amazing songs
Two hundred and thirty two cups of tea (at least)
Three or more attempts at each song
Two cold Sundays
One roomful of kindred spirits
One pair of red socks as worn by Boff
One tree, Kett’s Oak
One bucketful of hope
One unbelievable album
One Choir on an adventure
September: Commoners Choir CD Launch – MarkWe have a great album. So good that a complete stranger said ‘that sounds good’ whilst I was blasting a prerelease copy in my car, windows down, arm resting on the door. So how do we make a bit of a fuss about it?
Josh was the ideas man for this particular caper. Boff knew a man who had a good gaff for holing up in. We worked on a getaway route that initially took us to a mill involved in the Luddite rebellion, until we realised that it had become a soulless executive housing estate. We needed a gang of accomplices to pull this blag off.
Pretty much instantly on board was the superb Rob Cowen, writer of the book Common Ground, and the first voice to be heard on our album. Next, Nick Harper was going to play up a storm for us. Last on board was the lovely Ursula Holden Gill, actor and storyteller supreme. All of this and a choir too. We had ourselves a plan.
We also had the brilliant Turner Prize-nominated printer Helen Peyton, a regular co-conspirator of ours, and the Real Junk Food Project; Leeds legends who, like culinary Wombles, take the stuff that everyday folk leave behind and turn it into a delicious buffet. And then there was the delightful Alaric Neville, who brewed us a batch of Commoners beer, based upon a Victorian recipe he had found in his work with Phipps Brewery. All the ingredients were there for a grand day out.
Our venue? The lovely Sunnybank Mills in Farsley. Steeped in history and still the beating heart of its community.
The day came, the bunting went up, the library tour posters were hung, the room organised. We just needed an audience. Would they come? Indeed they did. We took a good 50 or 60 people off on a ramble through the Farsley countryside. When we had scoped out the walk, two of us managed to negotiate the Leeds outer ring road without any real issue. Getting 60 people across the ring road was something more of a challenge!
Back to the Mill for the main event. We weren’t sure how many people would come, but we needn’t have worried. The room filled and we were away. Rob Cowen read with passion and verve and made me want to read his book all over again. Ursula Holden Gill kept the audience spellbound with stories from her Fairies in the Gutter collection. Nick Harper fired us up with his political songs. Helen printed souvenirs cards and posters. Everyone who wanted fare was well fed and watered. And did Commoners Choir sing? We surely did. Loud, proud and unbowed.
September: Wigtown Book Festival – AllanAt the end of September the mists parted briefly above a dreich but rain-shiney Wigtown, Scotland’s own book-town, revealing two vans chugging along the Galloway coast ready to disgorge the slimmed-down version of twenty-six Commoners insane with coffee, crosswords and travel cramp and ready to take on Scotland’s leading literary festival.
In a mad wet 24 hours we turned a green garden to festival-goo with our tents, slapped the back of Paul Lavery – genius screenwriter of ‘I, Daniel Blake’– went to the pub, sang a grand set to a grand audience in a grand big tent, cheered Phil as he nearly won the talent competition, went back to the pub, forgot to eat, got drunk, met lots of people who do all sorts of creative and uncreative things, drunk a bit more and then had a go at singing down the very walls of the Craft public house in a cheery anarchic sound-clash which we probably lost to a guy harbouring a historian’s knowledge of local folk songs. There was a rumour that someone actually went a to a book-shop at some point but I couldn’t say. Much later I stumped back to my billet in the night-ink of country dark, head ringing for reasons both musical and distilled.
The drive home next day was long and quiet. By the right side of Skipton news emerged that the other mini-bus had finished the day’s crossword way ahead of our jaded effort. As we threw some bodies out in Otley an anxious query came from behind a steaming pile of tent at the back of the bus “Well? What’s next?”. Plenty’s next...
October – two gigs in one day – MarkWe launched the album successfully, but what next? Where would we steer our ship? We
needed a launch tour! Ideas came in thick and fast: We would cover as much territory as we
could. Scotland, Manchester, Ilkley, Hartlepool and Stockton, and culminating in a gig at the
legendary Hebden Bridge Trades Club.
Hartlepool: the one thing everyone knows about Hartlepool is the story about the French
spy, washed up on the shore and hanged for being a monkey…. or something like that. We were off to find that corner of the North East that was Hartlepool Maritime Museum, to
sing on a ship.
First up was a workshop on board an old Humber ferry. Dave Hep had recollections of
seeing this ship on the Humber as a child, long before a bridge spanned the tidal waters.
We sang, and they came. They sounded magnificent, and we did okay too. The ladies
behind the tea-bar counter joined in too.
No time for sightseeing. We disembarked and walked through the authentic
Napoleonic Wars era dockyard to our next venue, where we were doing a double header gig with the amazing Grace Petrie.
The room filled, and we did our stuff with gusto to much appreciation and applause. Grace
followed us and surfed the wave we had created. A superb performer. Time for a quick look
around the sailing ship HMS Triconmalee, where Josh and myself couldn’t resist splicing the
mainbrace with a contraband bottle of spiced rum.
Then we were off a few miles inland to Stockton, to do our stuff as part of a Bob Dylan
tribute night with a series of homegrown acts at a packed-out Arc arts centre.
The band included the brilliant Dan Donnelly (last seen six-string wrangling for the Wonderstuff). There was also a burly bunch of ex-steelworkers who went under the name of Infant Hercules; more a force of nature than a choir. They said they were intimidated by us. They had surely got it the wrong way round! They were a lovely, warm bunch of blokes who were enthusiastic about what we did. It won’t be the last time we work with them.
We were put in the bowels of the labyrinthine arts centre to warm up and wait. Stockton was reputedly a UKIP stronghold. Bandit country for a choir who sings about welcoming
asylum seekers, and just down the road from where they hanged a monkey for daring to
come over here and eat our bananas … we needn’t have worried. We went down a storm apart, that is, from one man in the front row shaking his head throughout.
Mr Zimmerman was duly celebrated.
Quite a day.
November: Kinder Scout – LizIt's November and Commoners Choir are reprising their first gig, a walk over Kinder Scout in the Peak District, to celebrate the 1932 Mass Trespass. This was the most famous of several protest walks campaigning for public access to huge areas of moor and mountain, hitherto reserved for the landowning gentry and their grouse shooting chums.
I was on that first walk. The choir then was a fledgling thing, with a repertoire of two songs. And a flag. It was a marvellous day nonetheless, a beautiful day in early spring. A day of sunshine and high cloud, and a wonderful feeling that something good was beginning. A bunch of people preparing to 'work like they were living in the early days of a better nation' to quote Oysterband.
November’s walk is a different creature altogether. The choir has grown, becoming widely known across the folk scene of the North. It has a successful and well-reviewed album under its belt. This has been a busy year, of television appearances, recordings, and gigs coming thick and fast.
The purpose today is to participate in a programme, being filmed for ITV, on the most iconic walks in the country. Despite having had to leave the choir for a whole gamut of reasons, I am welcomed back to participate in this walk on my doorstep, and over a mountain that holds a special place in my heart.
Being filmed involves lots of waiting, standing still, being asked to 'go back and come through that stile again, and this time, don't look at the camera.' It is a cold day, mercifully dry but with a blustery wind. But directors, camera men and choristers are equally good humoured and patient, and so we progress along the first section of the Pennine Way, and up the steep staircase of Jacobs Ladder. This is hard-going, and there is some huffing and puffing, but we arrive under the steep bluff of the Swine's Back in good order. The original plan to sing around the trig point on Kinder Low is abandoned, as it is far too windy.
The choir assembles to sing on a steep grassy hillside looking back over Edale. There is some shifting about as folk look for a secure stance, but there is none of the uncertainty of the early days. Nowadays, these people know what they are about. We sing the song several times through as we get the light and sound right, and the piece is filmed from different angles. The song rings out across the fell and it feels as if we are singing to all Derbyshire.
It was a long time to stand still in a November wind at 2000 ft above sea level and I was chilled to the bone. But you know, it was worth it. It felt right, it felt good, and I was thrilled to be singing with the choir that I love again.
November: Hebden Bridge Trades Club – BobAs the officially second tallest member of the Choir (it’s a long story) I tend to see things from the back of the room/venue, which as the choir numbers swell, can be quite dangerous. Our last gig of 2017 was at the wonderful Hebden Trades club. Great place, tiny stage, with a big drop at the back. Now I find it hard to stay still at the best of times so when the swaying starts (“left foot first!”) for Citizens Shanty I have to keep my feet firmly on the edge of the stage to prevent an embarrassing fall from grace.
You never know how people will react when you perform live. When we played the Ilkley literature festival last year it was a free event so anyone could turn up, which they did (another full house). Afterwards a young chap (mid 30s?) approached me, so I asked “Did you like that?” – He starred at the floor shaking his head “I don’t know if I’ll ever get the image of a beheaded Boris Johnson out of my head. I don’t think you should sing songs like that” and off he went. Then an older lady (early 70s?) approached and I thought “Here we go…” “I absolutely loved it. Where do you practise and can I join?” “Leeds, Monday nights, of course you can!”
Having been a music fan since I heard my brother play the Stranglers’ ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ at the tender age of 12, it has been a great thrill to be on record myself and made buying everyone’s Christmas present so much easier this year. Making a noise. Making friends. Making me think. Making Mondays tolerable. Great fun – what’s not to like?
Singing is for all and singing is better when we all sing. Come Monday evening our Commoners door is always open and the kettle is always on. The most visible and obvious change in the Commoners in 2017 has been the way the tribe increased resembling now a great roiling mob, hoiking up its sleeves, loosening its buttons, spoiling for a sing.
We’re bigger and we’re louder. Come on in 2018.
• Photo of the Choir at the top of the page is by Will Griffiths, from our appearance on top of a hill at the Buxton Big Session Festival.
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
commoners & Trespassers
real change comes from below, april 2015
Walking with history stuck to the soles of your boots. That's what I call it when you get the chance to re-trace the footsteps of those who marched, battled, struck, demonstrated, petitioned and trespassed so that we can enjoy the freedoms and victories they fought hard for.
The 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder – organised by the Manchester branch of the British Workers Sports Association – was a gathering of over 400 people who purposely walked up and onto the privately-owned land around the Kinder Plateau in the Peak District. They were met by gamekeepers hired by the land-owners, who began to beat back the walkers with sticks. A brief fight took place before the ramblers continued victoriously to Kinder summit. After sandwiches and a sing-song the trespassers returned to Hayfield village.
There they were confronted by a small army of policemen who arrested six of the ramblers, five of whom were subsequently tried and sentenced to between two and six months in jail (the jury consisted of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains, two aldermen and 11 country gentlemen).
The arrests and imprisonment had the effect of galvanising the public, and a few weeks after the trial a mass trespass in the Peaks assembled with 10,000 walkers defying the landowners. These mass trespasses continued until Parliament bowed to populist opinion and began to legislate to grant access to large areas of open land, establishing our National Parks and supporting the development of long-distance footpaths.
Last Sunday a group of 40 of us – some from the Commoners Choir, some friends and family – met in Edale and set off to walk in the footsteps of those trespassers. We carried the Commoners flag up Jacob's Ladder, stopped to eat sandwiches and shared cake, and stomped along to the rocky outcrops of the summit skyline. There we gathered and sang a song for the first Kinder Trespassers: its repeated refrain of 'Real change comes from below!' hurled into the breeze and scattered right across the valley below us.
What's important here isn't just our sense of history, our respect for the past. This isn't laying wreaths and giving thanks. It's understanding what links us to those trespassers, what line has been drawn across the years to make this pilgrimage relevant. Land ownership, with all its attendant themes of access, power and wealth, is still incredibly important, because it's still unfair and imbalanced. So we can celebrate the pioneers, mavericks and trailblazers who faced the gamekeepers' sticks (and especially those five ramblers who spent up to six months in jail in 1932 for the crime of walking in the English countryside) but we can't – or at least, we shouldn't –commemorate without looking around us from that Peak District skyline and wondering what we ought to be doing here, and now. Earlier I talked about the 'freedoms and victories' that the Trespassers won; which isn't to say, in this age of corporate wealth, media power and political chicanery, that there aren't still a thousand more victories to be won.
So the Commoners Choir gathered up there under the bluest of April skies and we sang our hearts out, and the singing gathered us and rooted us and tied us to both the past and to the future. Then we headed off down the trail and back to Edale, nine miles of flag-bearing, harmony-singing, nattering and gazing. A right good day out. With a point.
FIRST GATHERING, march 2015
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, 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 'Aaaarrrrse' was the punchline to this piece, but now...) there's a class of school kids being walked in a crocodile 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.