don't shhh!

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.

Chris 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.

May 2017

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. 


Singing is good for you. Singing with other people is even better for you. If I was wearing a journalist's hat (a trilby with a ticket stub in the band, obviously) I'd throw some quotes into this article ('A study at Cardiff University in 2012 found that lung cancer patients who sang in a choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those who didn’t. Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic pain. A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went one step further, claiming that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy' etc etc). But I'm not a journalist (too opinionated, I think). I tend to snatch at disparate, personal, poetic, cultural, anecdotal and philosophical ideas as they swirl around, collecting and storing all the interconnecting stuff until it forms itself into a proper, cohesive idea.
One of those ideas is that singing with other people is not only good for you but is one of the ongoing wonders of our (present) age: that it represents revolutionary potential both individually and collectively. Potential is a big word here. I don't think 200 nine year-olds parrot-singing 'All Things Bright & Beautiful' at school assembly along to a pre-recorded CD of midi keyboard music has much in the way of revolutionary spirit. But the potential in gathering kids and getting them to create something communal and loud that doesn't need technology is enormous.
Mentioning kids is important – because singing with other people is one way we can allow ourselves to play again. Playing is something we're encouraged to 'grow out of', and our social lives as we get older revolve more and more around entertainment that's spoon-fed to us, that's one-way. Part of me dies every time my football team score a goal and, instead of allowing the crowd to sing their support, the over-loud tannoy blares out the regulation celebration music that we have to la-la-la along to. But in an age where it's difficult to escape the clutch of 24/7 digital communication, people are trying to find ways to rediscover how to play. Heading for the countryside; learning to play an instrument; gardening; riding bicycles; singing.
One of the things I enjoyed most playing in Chumbawamba was singing, acapella, in rehearsal rooms or in backstage warm-ups. Being able to feel the knitting, resonating voices (a physical buzz, timbres and breaths rubbing against each other) was always a joy. I love loud guitars and drums and rock 'n' roll, too. But singing in harmony fitted in perfectly with my love of fell running, or debating, or riding a bicycle, or chatting in the pub, or being in the middle of a demonstration… physical, natural, things that connect us.
Working at Manchester Museum last year with Dan, Sarah and Josh and a hundred-and-odd singers taught me something else that fed into this sense of the natural and physical – through the ethos of organisers People United (in short, 'promoting kindness through art') I realised that choral singing was something to be messed with, spun around, played with. That it could be taken out of context and thrown into the world of ideas. That choirs could be revolutionary. I'm not talking about manning the barricades (although…) but about challenging the way we think about things, about the way we think about the world.
Following the Manchester stuff (and what inspiring stuff it was to be involved in) I ended up at Tate Britain in January this year with a group of quickly-assembled singers who stood in front of one of Turner's huge Yorkshire skies (sketched from the top of the hill that overlooks my town) and sang about art, space, creation and genius to surprised gallery-goers. There was a pattern emerging, and the pattern was to take that idea that communal singing is good for you and couple it with other stuff that's good for you: it's good to shout about the world around you, both as self-expression and as part of the collective shout for a better world. And blimey we need a better world – both the Manchester and London projects meant I walked daily past the winter's streetfuls of homeless, blanketed people that successive governments flick derisively into the margins. “Change, mate?” “Yeah, the sooner the better.”
So this week, 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.