COMMON 'AS SKETCH GALLERY

LUDI TALKS US THROUGH THE COMMONERS' SKETCHBOOK PROJECT

This COVID experience has been a difficult and an isolating experience for many. At the same time it has emphasised how connected and helpful we are when our strengths come together. Despite a corrupt government with no interest in our humanity, it has become easy during these past two years to recognise just how much we depend on the collective effort that services, family, friends and social networks are.

Commoners weren’t going to let a global epidemic break us up. We've produced half a dozen new songs, started a successful magazine Commontary, and spent a year circulating our sketched ideas and feelings in Common as' Sketch.

In January 2021, 25 of us each bought a sketchbook and filled a page or two. Every fortnight we have passed the sketchbook in our hands on to the next person in the list after adding another page or two. At the beginning of 2022 we have 25 books each with 25 sketches in. It was never intended as a public thing, and we didn't share the images during the year. It has been an intensely personal effort, and a personal reward receiving the gradually filling sketch books and passing them on. A fortnightly surprise.

But as one of us puts it: "I love this kind of project, where your individual contribution is openly, but somehow also secretly, contributing to something far more communal and collaborative."

Each one of us has got back our original sketchbook, yet it is not ours because there are 24 other people's sketches in it, provocations of colour, design and ideas. This blog and the gallery attached are our recognition that something intensely private – and difficult for some of us, not many of us have had much artistic experience or training – had been offered in a common way into a collection that deserves some celebration.

So this blog and gallery are a sharing of what's possible. In a real sense we are sharing with each other too, because none of us have seen all the sketches – the last one we did got seen only by the final person it was sent to. Only half of them have passed through our hands. This sketch-book rotation is not an original idea, but putting this selection onto the Commoners website might encourage it to happen more often. So somewhat reluctantly we have given what began privately a more public form.

There's nothing in the gallery that's supposed to be 'good' or 'special'. It is intended to showcase the process. They all represent someone's effort to share something on paper. While they weren't thought out for public consumption, neither were they intimately only for people we knew. Our choir is a big and varied collection of people. But we know each other a bit better now, especially the person immediately before us in the ring who knew we would always be the first person to see what they had come up with, and the next person who would receive our bit of nonsense.

What you see is several contributors' selection of three of their own contributions, and three others from the book we ended up with. And to finish, here are comments by some of the contributors:

"Taking part in the Sketchbook group was one of the best things I did last year.  Through the passing round of the books, I saw other people's creativity come to life on the page, in so many different styles and media.  Some drew things they were knowledgable about, teaching me things I hadn't realised, and others just drew something to reflect their day.  I learnt a lot about my fellow commoners by seeing how they filled that space.  As for me, it was a challenge from the start, not having drawn or painted anything since I was a child.  I started by using my grandchild's crayons, then moved on to learning how to use watercolours.  The discipline of having to pass the book on every 2 weeks meant that I kept at it.  Some weeks I wondered what I would draw or say, but somehow inspiration struck just in time before putting it in the post."

"I feel that you have seen me over the last year: creative and energetic me; unmotivated and unimaginative me; furious and sad with the world me; delighting in nature and just being me"

"What a lovely thing the sketchbooks are! Every time I sat down with the next book I thought about what had been happening in my week and what I’d been thinking about or reading or doing, so it became a kind of journal that I was sending out into the world (albeit a small and fairly select world). I enjoyed the permission to not think too much about the quality of what I was creating, to just try something and see what worked, to let it fail sometimes…. but fail publicly (albeit a small and fairly select public failure). I find I’m inhabiting this kind of space for experimentation and failure more and more in my creative life and I love it."

"I enjoyed doing the sketch books because I took the ‘everyone’s an artist’ ethos seriously. And I found I like the me that performs that role. The act of sharing the books among us has proved a bit more challenging from that perspective- my stuff looks different from that of people who have received art training. Reflecting on that has been useful for me, though, and helped me further pick away at creative blockages that were handed to me decades ago. The context of the choir has made it feel safe and possible to make marks in a sketch book and hand it on."

"I loved the rawness of multiple directions, of clearly unfamiliar techniques from the less experienced (like me), taking the opportunity to try out ideas that were really too big for our abilities, but interesting in their directness. And I cherished the privilege of seeing the experienced styles of trained hands which produced marvels of wonder, really lovely to hold in my hands and examine up close."

The sketchers were Alison McIntyre, Bob Cannell, Bob Longworth, Boff Whalley, Carolyn Edwards, Catherine Long, Chris Gill,, Elaine O'Brien Ellie Clement, Ella Key, Helen Cosmo, Helen Lucy, Helen Sheard, Jane Clifford, Jane Morland, Joe Luscombe, Josh Sutton, Kirsty Rowan, Lesley Collett, Steve Allen, Lisa Wilkinson, Ludi Simpson, Phil Moody


remember what we learned today

Over the past two months, Commoners Choir hasn’t been able to meet face to face and sing together in the same space. And we’re missing that. One of the delights of being a Commoner is getting to spend time with each other and to talk and argue and laugh. Although we are managing to meet and sing online, it’s really not the same. Singing together in real time is impossible and big online meetings are a great tonic for the soul, but they don’t allow for the lovely constellations and conversations that you get with a group of people milling about in one room.

We come from all walks of life and so are having very different experiences under lockdown. Some are still going to work every day and others are shielding at home. Some have more work than ever, in their jobs and in organising in unions and local mutual aid groups, and others have found every job they had lined up has evaporated and are wondering how they will cope. In amongst all that, people have children and relatives and friends to care for as well as their own mental health. Whatever our personal circumstances, what unites us all is an urgency that we don’t go back, after this, to “business as usual”. As our latest song says, “We don’t want to go back to the way it was before”.
Here are some reflections from a few Commoners about what we are learning during lockdown and what we want to make happen next. There’s some hope and a lot of anger. Enjoy.

Cath
I hadn’t laughed so much in days when four Commoners had a go at singing together on Zoom at the beginning of the lockdown. The total lack of synchronisation and tunefulness meant that it was one of the worst and one of the best practices ever and we were all weeping with laughter as we tried every which way to nail it, without success. We had to accept that singing together in real time, with the available software problems, wasn’t going to happen for a long time.
Undeterred, we’ve found ways of sharing ideas and even singing together, and our regular online choir meetings are a real treat. Just like so many other people in this strange time, we’re learning new ways to collaborate and in among the apprehension and anxiety and anger that people are feeling, that’s a joyful thing. 
Particularly strange is recording our voices individually, which we’ve all done for the songs we’ve released recently. I joined the choir to be part of a group, a gaggle, a gang – not to sing alone in my kitchen. Most of us who’ve joined the choir wouldn’t dream of getting up and singing solo, so singing alone, unable to hide in amongst the voices of your friends, is hugely intimidating. But we’ve managed it and learnt a bit about our own voices in the process. And the result is rather lovely.
What we’re hoping – and I’m using hope in the angry, positive, active sense, the sense of hope as an axe to break down a door, as Rebecca Solnit puts it – is that this time of huge upheaval also opens spaces for new ways of doing things in the wider world. Valuing people over profit and greed and seeing the back of the systems and values that exploit and degrade and belittle. We are hopeful and angry and ready to fight for that. And it’s going to be a hell of a fight. Bring it on.

Kirsty
I am not much of a hugger or a kisser; I am acutely aware of my own personal space and am prone to feeling awkward in the personal space of others. If you had asked me six months ago to imagine how I would cope with social distancing, I would have been confident that I would be fine. I am self-contained and I like my own space “On a land that is blighted,” sings Leon Rosselson, “a cold crop grows. And I can feel nothing, when the wind blows” 
But my COVID lockdown experience has made me rethink. For a little while at least, I would like Zoom to go out of fashion. Currently, I am both terrified of being in close proximity to people and yet feel desperate and ungrounded at not. Due to the pandemic, I have been working directly with people who have COVID-19 and apart from a once-a-week shop and socially-distant wave to neighbours whilst walking to work, I have isolated myself. I feel panicky when people come close. A man I encountered when I was on my way to work recently became frustrated at me waiting for him to pass and said, “What? Are you scared of me or something?” He moved when I said I was afraid I could give him COVID. It struck me that at a time when I cannot be physically close to those I love, I am on constant guard and having to repel people who I don't know or want near me. “But still is the memory green in my mind; spray on my skin in the sea-blown weather. Touch of fingers are warm and tender: planting nerves at my body’s centre.....” 
Thank you COVID lockdown and compulsory PPE, for making me aware of the sensory deprivation of isolation. I have come to appreciate the touch and smell of my friends and loved ones and even if I slip back into being a socially awkward hug-and-kisser, I will take pleasure in the value of relationships that keep me grounded and in taste, smell and touch “springing to meet me heath and heather”.

Chris
Before lockdown, my worst nightmare was being stuck on a broken-down train with a finished book and a dead phone battery. Then suddenly I was catapulted into endless days without any of the familiar events, outings, meetings, classes, groups, films, plays or concerts.
My salvation has been minutiae. I discovered the tiniest cross stitch kit known to womankind and have been patiently completing it for a friend’s birthday. Poetry has arrived in my life having been largely absent for the last 60 years. Somehow the economy of language in haiku and cinquain speaks to me perfectly in this pared-down existence. I’ve also written letters to a dozen friends. 
The “discovery” of the natural world on our doorsteps has been well-documented and daily walks have highlighted the incremental unfolding of the spring in wonderful detail. The first chiffchaff, the first bluebell, the first swift – all mine. 
Of course I have also felt immense anger and frustration at the political handling of the crisis but I have tried not to let that overwhelm the inner calm I have been cultivating as my survival strategy.
I would like to think that this new fascination and appreciation of all things small and slow will continue as elements of that old life slowly return. Next time I am on a stationary train with nothing to read, perhaps I will write poetry.

Ella
Boris’s ‘Roadmap out of lockdown’ leaves me furious and frustrated. The rich and privileged in society are proving to be less affected by coronavirus so it seems that the new motto is ‘let’s send the vulnerable back to work regardless of the risk because the economy is the most important thing’. The rates of infection are likely to rise sharply again resulting in a second peak and further lockdown, which will be too late to prevent many more deaths. 
This pandemic hit us later than many other countries. We should have and still should be looking at the countries who have controlled the virus well and learning from them. Whilst I believe a change of government is imperative I am not sure that is the solution. From here I would like to see recognition of the power of community to create change. There have been countless fantastic examples of communities pulling together to help the needy, the vulnerable and the frontline workers. I work as a GP and we have had visors and scrubs made for us by local community members and I know this, and much more, has been widespread across the country. I want to see all of this energy harnessed and focused on demanding a society that is fair for everybody, (oh and on redistribution of wealth as a start to sort the economy out).

Louche’ Allan
Escape Room
The COVID lockdown is disruption.
The disaster capitalist knows this and takes swift and awful advantage: Buy, sell, grab, consume, wring-dry, reject.
Is there hope? 
Yes, there is hope.
This is flux. Change is possible. 
This is flux. We need to see this and to know this and to push, push, push. 
What can we see?
There! Those working hard: cleaning, driving, sorting, healing, teaching. Washing chapped red hands.
There! Furloughed workers and their bored kids: baking buns, sorting photos, poking seedlings, opening bottles. Looking out the window, looking in the fridge.
There! Zero-hours precariat queuing at the food bank, counting coppers, huddled on the sofa. Dreading tomorrow, staring at the bedroom ceiling.
There! Us.
What can we all see? We can see that the work ethic is bollocks. That some work matters and some really doesn’t. We can see the gross amount of work so many do and we can see that we don’t have to do all that work anymore. No-one has suffered because Ofsted didn’t call, because Primark didn’t sell, because that Ryanair jet is parked and quiet. 
People suffered because there was enough stuff but it just wasn’t shared with them.
We see a true thing Andre Gorz said thirty years ago.
"The work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life. The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.”
A call for change.
Push. Death to the work ethic! 
Push. Life to beauty, time and human contact.

Alison
I hope that there is a realisation that everything we take for granted and see as solid and unmoveable can fundamentally and very quickly change. Change could be good or bad of course, but change in itself doesn’t have any moral value and maybe the realisation that real and monumental change CAN HAPPEN will galvanise enough people to think that they could change something for the better.
Change also gives space and permission for different behaviour, for reflection on what we value and for silliness. Things start to seep through the gaps. On our street we are all connecting with people we may not have talked to before, old friends who I normally take for granted are getting phone calls and odd posters have started to spring up in the woods near us for 'Lost Unicorns' and 'Missing Woman: Last Seen Feeding Alligator'. Hopefully at least some of this will continue… once we give ourselves permission to be different, maybe we won’t want to go back.
Change is messy and unpredictable, but I’m engaging in a recklessly optimistic hope that people will use the power of change to make things permanently better, kinder and sillier.

Boff
What I want from all this – and especially following any major lifting of restrictions on work, movement, school, etc – is for people to temper their hope with a healthy dollop of wary, skeptical anger. Because while I hope for all the good things – taking care of our neighbours, championing scientists over politicians, learning to live with less consumerism, cycling on car-free roads – what I fear, and believe, is that the aftermath of the pandemic will be a doubling-down of austerity (the “we’re all in it together” mantra will reach fever pitch), a massive lurch to the populist right wing with the government claiming victory over the virus in the name of Churchill, the Union Flag and a few choruses of Rule Britannia, and a capitalism-at-all-costs backlash the like of which we’ve never seen.
CEOs and their political lackeys will crank up their onslaught on workers’ rights; there’ll be no public sector pay rises for years; unions will be gagged and tied to the mast of ‘getting the economy back on its feet’. People like Branson, Murdoch et al, smarting from the way they’ve been humiliated, will be determined to wring every last penny from ordinary working people. The Left, the splintered, pussyfooting Parliamentary Left, will offer a splintered, pussyfooting opposition and the remaining Corbynites will be purged. In deference and fear, whole populations will retreat to their laptops and keep quiet. Rumours of riots and strikes will be smothered by the BBC News and replaced by heartwarming films of Royal birthdays and national sporting victories. Cars and their drivers will go back to swamping the road and running cyclists into ditches. 
I want people to imagine all this in the spirit it is written – that we mustn’t rest easy on the current mood of hope and optimism without understanding the need to be watchful, be angry, be prepared to switch off your screens, get ready to tool up and fight. 

Commoners May 2020

Waving Not Clapping

Three Essays by Commoners Choir members – 

how we respond differently to the VE Celebrations and to Thursday evening NHS clapping

1. Kirsty McArthur

Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding’

The thought of VE Day celebrations in lockdown Britain makes my toes curl. Under normal circumstances, I would hardly have noticed it was happening or simply ignored it. I have never really ‘gone in for’ the occasions that mark out significant dates in regard to war, whether that be in remembrance or celebration of victory; there is something about the pomp and ceremony that never quite gelled. The enforced pride and honour of the noble, brave heroes who sacrifice their lives and wellbeing for their country (our country) colludes in validating the loss of life and devastation. War is nothing if not terrible: the suffering, the loss, the destruction, the displacement and fear felt by those living and dying through wars is horrific for those who fight and those who are bombed out of their homes, their cities destroyed. But VE Day 2020 I find myself unable to ignore. The language of war is permeating so much of my life, our lives, at the moment. I don't know what going to war feels like; I don't know what it is for someone I love to be killed or maimed when fighting in a war. I don't know what it might be like to come home from war to find my community decimated and the people I know and love changed.

But I do know that having a job as an 'essential worker' (I wonder what it is like to be a ‘non-essential’ worker?) is not like going to war; I do know that a virus is not an enemy with an unsavoury ideology. I have been redeployed in order to help on wards whose patients and staff have contracted Covid-19 and I feel that we who work in the NHS have been ‘set-up’ (to use the language of 70s crime). Why do I feel that?
I am told I am essential. 
The country claps each Thursday to show how grateful they are to me. Like so many other workers, we are heroes, we are angels; recognising my ID, complete strangers working in supermarkets say 'thankyou' to me and I can get 10% off the price of my toilet roll. 
I am special.
This troubles me. I am not a hero nor an angel. I have no choice but to go to work and it is not a job that resembles anything I have done in the last 30 years and I feel anxious and resentful. I do not enjoy what I am doing but I feel duty bound to do it. I miss being with my wife and daughter and with my friends because my proximity to COVID demands that I self-isolate. It isn't that I would decline to do the work if I could but to be cornered and scapegoated is crippling. It places the burden of success and survival in the hand of individual doctors, nurses and care workers. If only we try hard enough, if we put in a bit more effort, if we clap loud enough, victory will be ours – as if the NHS and Social Care is a charity run on good will and optimism.
I wonder if our hero worship, our talk of sacrifice, of doing something noble in being prepared to die for our country closes down the possibility of us hearing the true horror of war. It keeps us detached from the reality. And I wonder if the clapping of my neighbours is drowning out the reality that lies behind the figures of COVID deaths. Lest we forget? Is there something we have forgotten?
The 2WW was a triumph of people from many nations coming together to fight fascism. And if you could come together collectively to fight a war, if all the resources of the state and the people were used for war, then they could be used for the common good in peace, thus paving the way for a landslide Labour victory after the war and the creation of the welfare state. Free healthcare and education for all for the first time; a massive programme of building good quality council housing. 
Seventy five years ago the country celebrated the end of the war and recognised the importance of collective endeavour and the importance of remembering the horrors of the concentration camps, of the racism and anti-antisemitism to which fascism can lead
But on Friday, has our government harnessed us to a different narrative? Honouring VE Day with all its pomp and ceremony is patriotic and to do otherwise is disrespectful and churlish. Indeed, it is our duty. And just as we fought for our lives and freedom in WW2, we now need to pull together, muster the war spirit and clap and cheer Covid-19 into submission; we should evoke the Blitz spirit and the virus will have no other option than to surrender.
Perhaps I am too polite to people saying thank you.The noise of the clapping and the rush to take advantage of another NHS discount offer stops me being able to speak out and say that we are being harnessed by this government to further their agenda. This virus, this crisis, has highlighted so much that is wrong and corrupt in our government and how far we have come from the ideals of seventy five years ago: namely the years and years of under funding of the NHS and Social Care, the dismantling of the welfare state and the growing inequalities in our society. But while we hang out the bunting and sing ‘We'll Meet Again’, eat scones, drink tea and call essential workers ‘heroes’, none of those stories can be heard or seen.
I guess it doesn't sound much of a celebration, but perhaps distributing adequate PPE for all those who are caring for residents and patients in hospitals and care homes would be more appropriate than a street party. Many of our society’s most vulnerable to COVID have memories of WW2 and certainly of its impact on their families and communities
Perhaps holding in mind the optimism there was after the war, the desire for our society to be a better place; the need for security and health through an NHS and welfare state – perhaps honouring all that would let me enjoy that wonderful feeling of connection with my neighbours as they greet each other and make noise on a Thursday evening. Perhaps then I could even hang up a bit of bunting to raise a glass to VE Day as the start of change for the better.
Protect the NHS. Save lives. Yes, please.
But I have several problems with the way we celebrate it, especially in England. Many countries were involved in the defeat of fascism, which doesn't seem to feature much in our VE Day rhetoric (oh the Brexit irony) and we have been involved in plenty of wars since, outside Europe, which we're not all quite as proud of. 
Why glorify war? It's horrific.  
Why are so many people hung up on Dad's Army and war films? Is it because despite everything life was actually better post war? That feelings of hope for the future and working together are more important than endless piles of material goods?
WW2 led to a feeling of national unity in the UK, with a desire for peace and a fair society for all – The Beveridge report was compiled during the war; then the policy of 'cradle to grave' state support, funded by national insurance, was implemented by the Labour Party. We can only imagine living in such a united nation, welcoming ideas such as building the NHS, whatever the cost.
How can we not draw lines to today's degraded or dismantled national services? The money sickness seems to stem from Thatcher. Her 'no such thing as society' rings true in the heads of the rich and powerful. But since the C19 pandemic started we've seen ordinary people being brave, selfless and kind every day. 
The political appropriation makes me uncomfortable. On 10 May 2015 re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron told Channel 4 News, “Today is a good day to remember just what the United Kingdom stands for and what it has done. The United Kingdom stood alone against Hitler.” Alone! Have politicians always lied so blatantly or are they more exposed these days? I fully expect to see the present government using VE Day to somehow justify their C19 policies in the 'war on the virus'. I can only hope that I'm wrong.
The competitive union jack waving, chlorinated coronation chicken eating and general unthinking slogan shouting is not for me. Neither is the suggested toast, where we must all go to our doorsteps and say the words we have been told to say. I'm not saying anyone shouldn't do it, it's a free country after all. But I almost feel like VE vigilantes will be knocking on my door when I don't join the party.
I don't want to celebrate any war, let alone one I wasn't even alive for. A day of mourning for all people affected by violence feels more appropriate to me and I will probably take part in the moment of reflection and remembrance at 11am on Friday.


2. Jane C

VE Day 2020

Firstly, I agree that we need to remember and honour those who fought against the Nazis and enabled 75 years of peace in Europe. There was no other choice but to stop them.
But I have several problems with the way we celebrate it, especially in England. Many countries were involved in the defeat of fascism, which doesn't seem to feature much in our VE Day rhetoric (oh the Brexit irony) and we have been involved in plenty of wars since, outside Europe, which we're not all quite as proud of. 
Why glorify war? It's horrific.  
Why are so many people hung up on Dad's Army and war films? Is it because despite everything life was actually better post war? That feelings of hope for the future and working together are more important than endless piles of material goods?
WW2 led to a feeling of national unity in the UK, with a desire for peace and a fair society for all – The Beveridge report was compiled during the war; then the policy of 'cradle to grave' state support, funded by national insurance, was implemented by the Labour Party. We can only imagine living in such a united nation, welcoming ideas such as building the NHS, whatever the cost.
How can we not draw lines to today's degraded or dismantled national services? The money sickness seems to stem from Thatcher. Her 'no such thing as society' rings true in the heads of the rich and powerful. But since the C19 pandemic started we've seen ordinary people being brave, selfless and kind every day. 
The political appropriation makes me uncomfortable. On 10 May 2015 re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron told Channel 4 News, “Today is a good day to remember just what the United Kingdom stands for and what it has done. The United Kingdom stood alone against Hitler.” Alone! Have politicians always lied so blatantly or are they more exposed these days? I fully expect to see the present government using VE Day to somehow justify their C19 policies in the 'war on the virus'. I can only hope that I'm wrong.
The competitive union jack waving, chlorinated coronation chicken eating and general unthinking slogan shouting is not for me. Neither is the suggested toast, where we must all go to our doorsteps and say the words we have been told to say. I'm not saying anyone shouldn't do it, it's a free country after all. But I almost feel like VE vigilantes will be knocking on my door when I don't join the party.
I don't want to celebrate any war, let alone one I wasn't even alive for. A day of mourning for all people affected by violence feels more appropriate to me and I will probably take part in the moment of reflection and remembrance at 11am on Friday.


3. Boff Whalley

Clap Clap Clapping

Every Thursday evening me and my two children (9 and 17) stand and applaud the NHS and frontline/key workers from our front doorstep. It’s an uplifting bump in the routine rhythm of the week, uplifting because every other family on our street does it too. It’s a proper cacophony, whistles and pots and pans and even a drumkit on the front street one week. Yes it’s a nice middle class street in the North, a long row of Victorian terraced houses with postage-stamp front gardens where all the kids are usually, until this pandemic, in and out of each other’s houses. It’s also a street where, on the day it was announced we could all ‘clap for Boris’, there was utter silence. 
For the kids up and down the street it’s a rare chance to sort-of get together from our doorsteps, to be part of a community again. It reminds them what’s happening and frames it in a positive and supportive way. They’ll remember this. They’ll look back at a time when we stood up and made a noise for the NHS workers; they’ll remember this when, in the next decade or two, the Tories and their paymasters attempt, again, to privatise the nation’s health and undermine the people who work for it. 
A lot of people have argued that this is all a hollow gesture, that it’s meaningless because “Tories are clapping too” or because “the frontline workers don’t need clapping, they need equipment, protection and testing.” I look at these arguments – both absolutely valid – and I wonder what the alternative is to clapping? Is it just... not clapping? Staying inside? If the alternative is, going forward beyond this pandemic, an ongoing commitment to demonstrating, to direct action, to singing, picketing, writing, shouting, organising, marching – then yes, I’m in. And always have been, and will continue to be. I have absolutely no problem with people choosing not to join in with the weekly show of gratitude. But I do question the idea that it’s ‘shutting down the debate’ or ‘virtue-signalling’.
My job, for a large part of my life, was playing music on a stage and then, at the end of each performance, accepting applause, cheers, clapping, encores. Sometimes (and people who saw us might remember) I would wonder out loud about the applause, acknowledging that all the people in the audience never get to have the feeling of a roomful of people clapping and cheering them, saying thank you, we love you, more more more. 
I’m not happy that this weekly applause, that fills our street with a rare sense of purpose and solidarity, is being co-opted and shared by the right-wing press or by the government ministers who are the root of the NHS’s problems in the first place. I’m not happy that the pan-banging and whistling and whooping might feed into a safety-valve ‘letting off steam’ leading to a whimpering fade-out of real criticism. But here’s the bottom line, for me. Standing on my doorstep clapping for the health workers – and all the other folk keeping us knitted together as a society – makes any future discussion about the NHS, about proper support for its workers, into something tangible and physical. When we look back at these strange times (and I say this especially for the kids who are off school and trying to grasp such huge changes in their lives) we’ll remember these physical things, the straining for community, the shared, fleeting joy amidst the fear and the unknown. I’m not going to let Johnson or the Mail or Hancock co-opt that sense of hope and togetherness. They can’t. So in the spirit of all the times I’ve played guitar and sang and then had hallfuls of people cheering and applauding, I’ll clap the health workers, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the post workers, the shopworkers, all the frontline carers and deliverers and food producers and chemists and everyone still working under risky conditions to keep things going. The lot of ‘em. Me and my kids and my street, clapping, saying thanks, that’s all.

I GET LOCKED DOWN, BUT I GET UP AGAIN

I know it’s cheesy but I’m allowed to use that heading, aren’t I? Surely?

As the social distancing and self-isolation enters its third week, I’m stuck on a quote by George Monbiot –

You can watch neoliberalism collapsing in real time.”

However awful the pandemic is turning out to be, and however grim our forecasts for capitalism’s response once we’re out the other side, it’s clear that communities – all sorts of communities, from workplaces to streets to online friendship groups – are pulling together right now in a way we haven’t seen on such a scale before. Socialism and community are working to get us through this while capitalism is floundering.

I have no idea if, as we eventually head out blinking back into the streets and pubs, we’ll all remember how the wealthy and powerful failed to act decisively and early because they were scared of harming the great god economy. But I’m hoping that, at least, we will remember how strangers started to connect and become friends, people on the street we’d never even said hello to. I’m hoping we’ll remember the way we revered and praised NHS workers and that the memory will drive us to make sure the NHS is valued, rewarded and above all protected.

I’ve been part of Commoners Choir for several years now, and along the way I’ve thought long and hard about exactly what it is about this choir that keeps us all coming. Here’s a neat list:

1. It’s a place to sing together, because we love singing. Singing in a group is demonstrably good for you. There are science-based academic papers and everything to prove it.
2. It’s a place to socialise with like-minded people, physically, as an escape from the malaise of screen-based counterfeit community.
3. It’s a way to express our anger, hopes and fears for the world around us, together – a way to shout about what’s wrong and celebrate what’s right.

These three things together are a powerful mix. All three involve community, sharing and kinship. So how were we to carry on this incredible spirit while we were all in our separate boxes, worrying about our own and our families’ safety as we watched neoliberalism collapse on repeat play? Singing as a choir on screens didn’t work. The software just wasn’t clever enough to sync together 60 or 70 people’s voices. We tried it. Someone recorded a small part of us singing together online, on Zoom, and I really hope you never get to hear it. Instead we decided to have our weekly Monday rehearsal meetings without the rehearsal bit – now it’s Parish Notices, warm-ups, quizzes, ghost stories, jokes... there are upwards of 40 or 50 of us meet up and we look like Celebrity Squares but sound like a PG Tips advert. The one with the monkeys. Along the way we come up with plans and ideas and we somehow carry on as a beautifully chaotic choir.

And here’s one thing that has come out of this: an attempt to write a song about singing together even as we’re separated; a song for Commoners Choir to sing, separated physically but together in spirit. A sort of big online collaboration that depended on us all working together while we were standing in our own kitchens and living rooms singing along to voices we could only imagine.

As we sang separately, we filmed ourselves, all of us, and now both the song and the film are being put together. It’ll be another week or so before it’s edited and finished, but the result will hopefully be a demonstration of (as I said earlier) socialism and community working to get us through this. The song is called ‘Singing Together Apart’ and features about 60 voices. The tune is based on something traditionally Italian, in respect of those lovely little films of Italian people singing together across their balconies during this pandemic. Our film should be done soon, and we’ll let you know when it is. So yes, we get locked down etc, and in this case we definitely are allowed to use the awful punning headline.

Oh, and we’re still sending out copies of our new album ‘Untied Kingdom’ for as long as the Post Office workers continue to do their incredible work (all the hand-laced sleeves have been suitably quarantined for a couple of weeks). The tour we were in the middle of putting together will resume at some point later in the year – by which time our singing of ‘Singing Together Apart’ will hopefully be a marker for a time that’s passed, a time when, in our isolations, we began to fully understand and embrace community.

Boff Whalley

THE SKELMANTHORPE PROJECT: ELLIE AND ALLAN RECOUNT THREE DAYS OF WALKING AND SINGING WITH HISTORY STICKING TO THE SOLES OF OUR BOOTS...

The Path Across the Hills

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. 
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. 

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. 

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.

Ellie Clement

The Path Through the City

Saturday, 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. 

Lancashire 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.

Allan Clifford

COMMONERS 2018: A YEAR IN WORDS

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.


Catherine Long



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.


December/January 2019

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 at Halton Mill in Lancaster

REAL CHANGE COMES FROM BELOW: WALKING AND SINGING ABOUT PLACES THAT MATTER; THE FORMATION OF COMMONERS CHOIR

AN ACADEMIC STUDY BY LISA TAYLOR (WITH BOFF WHALLEY)

PUBLISHED IN 'LEISURE STUDIES' SEPTEMBER 2018

This article details the first event Commoners Choir performed: a singing and walking project, Magna Carta, about the rights of lay people to access land for leisure and recreation. Using original songs, the project conceives both singing and walking as political acts of protest and commemoration. Situated within new walking studies, it argues that the choir’s walking is embodied and politically ‘artful and wilful’ (Lorimer, 2011). Drawing on radical walking collectives and practitioners from British psychogeography such as the Loiterers Resistance Movement, Wrights & Sitesand Phil Smith (2009; 2015), it explores how Magna Cartaaffected the choir as they connected, through song with the rural spaces where the choir performed. Using a small-scale sample of interviews with choir members, the piece explores the experience of the Magna Cartaproject.To capture the subjective and reflexive nature of both the action of the protest and the psychogeographical response to space as an output, the article is written using a deliberately creative melange of lyrics, histories, happenings, symbols and images to offer a ‘thickness’ (Highmore, 2005) of description of Magna Carta as a walking event. 

(1) Introduction

Get Off Your Arse

Get off your arse

And do something good for the world


Get off your knees

And stand up. Let’s take back the world

Commoners Choir (no ‘the’, no apostrophe) is an active, contemporary political choir (see Figure 1). It is a group of singing practitioners who perform original songs about a whole manner of social issues from food poverty to the closure of public libraries. The aim of Commoners Choir is to sing about questions of social justice and to perform in locations which get them noticed. Hence the clarion call to ‘Get Off Your Arse’; it is our signature song, the first song sung at rehearsals to motivate our purpose. Commoners Choir was formed in April 2015 out of a collaboration with former band member X and the ‘Media and Place’ research cluster at X University with a view to making a creative project about attachments to place. Author X designed the first project the choir undertook entitled Magna Carta: he wrote the music and lyrics, put a call out on Facebook.com for the first rehearsal (no audition required) and envisaged the terrain to be walked where the songs would be performed.


In Magna Carta singing and walking were conceived as political acts. To this day walkers face restricted land access and are excluded from rural space. As Ravenscroft and Gilchrist argue (2010) ‘Right to Roam’ legislation prohibits recreational and leisure access to large parts of rural Britain. Designed to commemorate activists who have protested for the rights of common walkers to have free access to land, Magna Carta was a performative event of two halves. The first took place at Edale at the foot of the Kinder Scout summit to remember activists who defied landlords at the 1932 mass trespass. The second centred around Yorkshire’s largest tract of common land at Ilkley Moor the day before the 800thanniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta– a document travestied by the elite, the establishment and corporate wealth – on the day the Queen would unveil a portrait of herself at Runnymede to give the royal seal of approval to a charter originally drafted to challenge royal power over commoners’ access to common land.i


In this article we produce a critically informed descriptive account of how our walking practice explored the many meanings of the rural spaces where we performed Magna Carta. Opening with a contextual foray in to what Lorimer (2011) terms ‘new walking studies’ to situate our approach to walking as embodied practice, the paper argues that our work joins the tradition of British psychogeography, notably the work of practitioners such as Wrights & Sites and TheLoiterers Resistance Movement. While psychogeography is associated with formulating response to and critique of urban terrain (Richardson, 2015) we argue that elements of their praxis, for example ‘mytho-geography’ (Smith, 2009b; 2015) and the democratised version of the Situationist ‘derive’ developed by Morag Rose (2015) can be applied to the rural settings of our performances, to critique the dominant legislative order which prohibits access to the countryside (Richardson, 2015, p. 7). 


As performers the choir was conscious of the rich historical traditions of political singing (Russell, 1997; Waters, 1990; Miyake, 2014) and determined walking (Walton, 2012; Taylor, 1995; Navickas, 2009; Salveson, 2012). We recognise that the practices which form our identity as a choir, such as singing in ‘shock’ locations have historical antecedents. We pay critical attention to the mythical, layered and necessarily partial ‘story’ of the Kinder Scout Trespass in recognition that knowledge of it gave wilfulness to Magna Cartaas a walking event. Legat (2008) argues that for indigenous peoples, the significance of ‘becoming knowledgeable and using stories to think with’ while walking, keeps the chain of teaching and learning of place-knowledge alive (2008, p. 35). For her, both the environment and the place to be walked in are continually regenerated through narratives of place: ‘helping them to walk the stories and follow the footprints of their predecessors while becoming knowledgeable and leaving their own footprints for others to follow’ (Legat, 2008, p. 43). In Magna Carta we wanted to walk knowledgeably in homage to those who determinedly made claims to access cherished landscape; each lyrical note and footfall underpinned by an expression of opposition using knowledge of our trespassing forbears. The paper then turns to our methodology. We locate our positionality within the research as ‘insiders’. We reflect on our methods as performersfor whom singing and walking are embodied acts and as writersusing a creative bricolage of words and media to enable the event of the walks to become an output (Richardson, 2015). Drawing onCommoners’ oral testimony we discuss the empirical methods we used to research the experience of five choir members. The article offers a ‘thickness’ (Highmore, 2005) of description of the Magna Cartaevents using a deliberately experimental form of words, photographs, lyrics, symbols and oral testimony in a sequence which resists a linear story structure.


Contemporary Political Walking

In his chapter ‘Walking’ Lorimer (2011) argues for the emergence of new ‘walking studies’ which breaks away from un-reflexive, A to B accounts of walking as a mundane way to transport people to their destinations. Rather, a ‘cultural, interpretive frame’ is used to produce a critical perspective on walking as a practice (2011, p. 19). The approach conceives of walking in these ways: ‘the walk as an event; the walker,as a human subject; and, walking as an embodied act’ (ibid.) Writers within this tradition call for an appreciation of various types of walking which emanate from differing cultural and social perspectives, insisting that any analysis of walking recognise the sensuous effects it has on the body. Edensor (2005, 2008) argues that the affordances of ruins with their ‘charged sensuality’ awakens the walking body to enervate the senses. Grouping different cultures of walking in to a typology Lorimer marks out four categories; the walking in this articlefalls under his heading ‘walkers who are wilful and artful’ (2011, p. 24).


According to Richardson, British psychogeography is primarily an urban, improvisatory type of walking, informed by the will to critique the geographical consequences of capitalism. An embodied practice, it is sensitive and responsive to the environment traversed and seeks a method, by which the output of the practical walk is documented (Richardson, 2015). The movement’s roots began with the avant-garde Situationalist International, a group of Paris revolutionary artists and writers (1957-1972) who used the walking strategy they termed the ‘derive’ to walk through cities such as Amsterdam in a ludic, yet highly conscious manner, with a view to identifying and problematising what writers within the movement termed, ‘the capitalist domestication of space …the choice of one particular materialization, to the exclusion of other possible ones’ (Kotanyi and Vaneigem quoted in Richardson, 1996, p. 116). The affective corporeal encounter with space is central: subjective and psychological responses to the aesthetics of environment in the form of moods and emotions are, ‘the ‘bread and butter’ of psychogeography, the matter that enables its output’ (Richardson, 2015, p. 5). It is through the active, overtly political and sensorial approach to terrain that space is transformed: ‘the psychogeographer recognises that they are part of this process, and it is their presence that enables this recognition to occur’ (2015, p. 18).


Drawing on some of the political tenets of psychogeography, mythogeography was developed by theWrights & Sites (1997-) collective. Described as, ‘our resistance to the monocular identity manufactured by Tourist Boards and Local councils’ (2009b, p. 84), mythogeography takes objection to the ways in which urban planning and managed tourist sites distil the meaning of places fecund with meanings into, ‘restricted meaning’. Indeed, the work of Wrights & Sites is to allow the specificity of site to ‘fracture, erode and distress’ singular meaning. Strategies of disruption can occur by engaging with mythical and anomalous stories about a site or by celebrating all the other things a site may have been, ‘jam factories, battlegrounds, lovers’ lanes, farms…’ In this way, the lens of mythogeography places, ‘the fictional, factual, mistaken and personal on equal terms with the factual municipal history …allowing authors and walkers to become equal partners in ascribing significance to place’ (Hodge et. al., 2004, quoted in Smith, 2015, p. 167). TheMythogeography website advertises Counter-Tourism: The Handbook(2012) by Crabman (aka Phil Smith) which encourages the reader to behave outside the regulated norms of bodily deportment expected at heritage sites (an image on the page shows a visitor lying inside a tombstone for example). The aim is to celebrate the multiplicities of meaning in every heritage site and to dislodge, ‘the industry’s attempt at meaning control and homogenisation …Behind the locked gates marked PRIVATE there is a multitude of inconvenient stories’. 


These ideas find similar expression in the site-specific solo work of performer and founder of the walking collective Wrights & SitesPhil Smith. Using, ‘self-consciously aesthetic walking’ (Smith, 2009b, p. 88) his autobiographical text, ‘Crab Walks’ (2003-6) is a written performance based on holidays to South Devon where he was taken as a child (Smith, 2009a). These ‘exploratory walks’ were performed across a 4 week period, at several unconventional sites in Dawlish which acted as, ‘custodian and agent of memory’ (Mock, 2009, p. 21). One of Smith’s authorial voices proclaims the desire to ‘find’ his memories of place, but the text shows that places refuse to be straight-jacketed into static meanings, rather, they change through the accretion of multiple site-specific meanings. Smith notes in his contextual essay to ‘Crab Walks’ that at Wrights & Siteshis conception of ‘site’ shifted from, ‘landscape backdrop. Unexpected events and appearances barely acknowledged’; to the notion, ‘that a site might – and might be encouraged to – perform’ (Smith, 2009b, p. 81). This idea is central to ‘mythogeography’, for in ‘Crab Walks’ the singular, assured autobiographical voice of the self is disrupted when ‘space, place, environment, route and way are not passive surfaces …. On which the walker writes’, rather they are ‘psychical and physical … ‘characters’ that the ‘drifter’ seeks to provoke into performances of themselves’ (2009b, p.98). What Smith finds is the mythologizing of memory; in this way, the performance demonstrates a ‘failed archaeology’, instead he finds metaphors that disrupt any sense of a fixed memory, encouraging him to re-engage, to make meanings afresh about the place where he experienced childhood holidays,


I didn’t find my memories …I had found something bigger … I’d found all these layers – the gulls, the giant’s eyes, the shifting sands of the ghost houses …Nan and Pop weren’t missing. I felt the presence of their love. The adventure, the safety, the warmth inside the cold on a misty, shaky sea. But I couldn’t find it HERE anymore (2009b, p. 76)


Morag Rose is founder member of The Loiterers Resistance Movement(LRM) a Manchester collective who use walking as a ‘kinaesthetic tool’ (2015, p. 149) to critique the hegemonic planning and growth of the neo-liberal city. Chosen as an irreverent, playful form of protest which enables the lay public to engage with radical theory in an active way against spatial inequality, Rose takes a stance as a disabled, working-class woman against the entitled affordances of Benjamin’s position as flaneur. Rallying against the neo-colonial, elitist and mysogynistic tendencies of the derive she argues that it can be democratised to become collective and non-hierarchical. The work of the LRM is to look beyond stores such as Harvey Nichols and the ‘shiny postbomb nirvana of Manchester City Centre’, past the monopolisation of place marketing to explore spaces of decay, liminality and to conjure the haunted qualities of the streets: 


Although the street layout may have changed somewhat, their metaphorical ghosts and those of a million unnamed workers, continue to haunt Manchester and the injustices they documented still prevail (2015, p. 149).


The work of the collective is to use the derive to uncover hidden histories of characters from the past who have contributed to the ‘rich tapestry’ of those who have moved through the city. At the heart of the work of LRM is the drive to make power structures transparent, to bring forth invisible layers of the city to ask how things can be made better by loitering.


Method 

Autoethnography is … a self-narrative that critiques the situatedness of the self and others in social context (Spry, 2001, p. 710).


We co-wrote this article drawing on an interpretive, performative auto-ethnographic approach (Denzin, 2014). We are both the authors and the subjects of the story, we experienced the events and we tell of them, we are both viewers and the viewed. Located at the intersection of the cultural and the personal we perceive and observe as ethnographers and recount as interpretive storytellers. The text produced here is discursively constructed. We recount here, ‘storied performances of life experience’ which are ‘open-ended, inconclusive, and ambiguous, subject to multiple interpretations’ (Denzin, 2014, p.4-5). We recognise that emotions form the subject matter of auto-ethnographic accounts; here our own investment in the value of the choir and its attendant emotions – anger about landowners’ strategies for keeping out commoners for example, is embedded in our account. We take Denzin’s poststructural perspective in which performances are not truthful evidence of experience but rather, ‘are constitutive of experience …practices that allow for the construction of situated identities in specific sites’ (Ibid, p. 41). Embodied, sensory acts with ‘material and affective effects’, performances strive to ‘do something in the world’(ibid.) as they reach out and connect with the hopes, anxieties and longings of their participants and audiences. A performative approach to everyday life understands experience as imitation or construction. If however, that performative construction takes a resistant stance, blending it with aspiration for social justice then a powerful form of resistance has the potential to take shape.


We used artful and methods drawn from psychogeograpy to ‘produce’ the events. Author X used the language of the management, ownership and rights to land in the song lyrics: objects and figures and heroic historical and mythical figures from vernacular folklore were featured. In these ways, we were using mythogeography as a method as we conjured fragments of stories and diverse figures who have passed through rural space to engage different meanings of the landscape on the move. Similarly, while these walks were neither urban nor impromptu, they share the features of the democratised derive envisaged by Rose; we use the derive collectively as a method for connecting with and exploring the rural environment to open an experiential dialogue with space, not as Rose argues as a ‘solution’, but as a means of imagining different possibilities.


Interested in how the events were experienced by Commoners,we conducted five 30 minute static qualitative semi-structured interviews in informal settings (choir members’ homes, a local café, in the University buildings before rehearsal) in the summer of 2015.iiAt this stage in the choir’s early life it was comprised of around 30 members, a largely white constituency with an even gender balance. The age of choir members ranged from 9 to 69, however, at least 75% of the choir were aged 40+. We found through conducting a survey of professional occupation, home ownership, educational qualifications and self-classification of social class that 50% of the choir would be identified as lower-middle class, 35% more firmly middle-class with the remaining 15% identifying with a working-class identity. Anecdotally, our sense is that there were a number of members, who like ourselves, were born into working class households but have moved through education into middle-class professions. To give an illustration of the types of work members were employed in we found: a camping cookery writer, two university lecturers, a GP, an accountant, three social workers, a theatre workshop organiser, a theatre director, three people working in the FE sector and two nurses. 


We draw on psychogeography in terms of the method we use for writing up the experience of the Magna Carta project. Richardson argues that as practice it can feel random and unsystematic; its attraction to the messy consequences of disruption and the ephemeral nature of the ‘derive’ or ‘drift’ make recording the sensual aspects of the walk difficult. Its ‘bricolage nature’ (2015, p. 3), means that it lies outside academic conventions. We argue for a self-reflexive melange of ways of capturing the embodied nature of how we used walking to make rural place meanings. 

(2) Where it all started: the Commoners Choir manifesto

Using his experience of being a practicing song-writer for three decades, drawing on his recent work with volunteer ‘scratch choirs’ and his membership of the singing and walking group ‘The Reluctant Ramblers’, author X realised that the choir needed a manifesto. Author X wrote an outward facing manifesto as a means of welcoming interested new comers on the CommonersChoirwebsite (to be found at www.commonerschoir.com). Essentially the manifesto was designed along these parameters such that the choir would:

  • be rigorously investigative and ideas-led, in a way which makes a connection between work by historians, cultural theorists and journalists about walking and singing as forms of political activism;

  • be specifically about the politics of class and culture relating to land ownership and access;

  • be a musical group characterised by walking to or between sites where the songs would be performed and sung in places to shock;

  • be fun! The website call out said: ‘rehearsals and concerts will be a mixed- up uneven balance of hard work and laughter …we’ll be peculiar, memorable, feisty, witty, angry and inclusive.’

The Ethos of theMagna Carta Project

Having established a manifesto the choir needed an identity. Commoners Choir alludes to the idea of ‘commons’ – ‘that there are natural resources accessible to all members of society, including natural materials such as air, water and habitable earth,’ which are ‘held in common, not privately owned’ (Wikipedia, accessed 26 January, 2016). Already experienced at performing English rebel songs from the Peasant’s revolt of 1381 to the Miner’s Strike of 1984 during his time as a band member of X, the title also came from the authors mutual interest in drawing up alternative histories as opposed to legitimated ones ‘from below’ through song as voiced by ‘ordinary’ people, by ‘commoners’. For the purposes of this its first project, the title also alluded to the idea of common land held in common by commoners. It was a title which lent itself readily to the choir’s symbol which could be dispersed across a spectrum of sites: banners, the website, the pin-badge as well as a cloth badge to be appended to choir members at performances (See Figure 2). Cloth, as Connerton (2011, p. 15) argues, has a broad historical connection, across a range of cultures, to legends, commemoration, mourning and loss. 


Deliberately irreverent with its upturned crown it carries a clear anti-establishment message.iiiImportantly the choir’s output and organization was shared amongst its members from project planning to printing patches to filming and editing videos. Crucially though, the formation of the choir also needed a story, a precursor to the choir’s ethos, so that potential members could identify a space for their own held beliefs to build a community of interest with other group members. Loosely narrated and layered with fragments of history, legend and contemporary popular commentary the author decided to use the aims of the Magna Cartaas an appealing historical concept to lend the group purpose. The choir began its rehearsals in April 2015 with two planned walking and singing commemorations in its diary. The first gathered at Edale, to remember the hundreds of activists who defied landlords and laws to physically reclaim the land which was once held in common at the 1932 Mass Trespass; and to commemorate the five who were jailed and who, some would argue, sped up the process of forcing parliament to take back the land for the workers in northern industrial towns which had been parcelled off for rich landowners during the Enclosures Acts of the nineteenth century. 

(3)Rich Histories of Protest: Walking

Recreational rural walking originated in the early nineteenth century in the first industrial districts of northern England (Salveson, 2012; Walton, 2012). ‘Developing in popularity and assertiveness’ (Walton, 2012, p. 267) ‘stravaging’,ivemerged out of early industrial urbanization alongside other popular pursuits: the seaside holiday and popular cinema. Un-commercial and un-regulated, it offered sensuous embodied pleasures of fresh air and exercise, while affording, ‘an accessible antidote to the smoke, grime, pollution, and domestic over-crowding’ (Walton, 2012, p. 267) of industrial everyday life. Rural walking represented a ‘popular cultural adaptation and innovation in working-class life’ and was a pursuit that was largely unnoticed until others tried to block or prevent it. 


The Lancashire and the Yorkshire Pennines offer a rich context through which to explore the political aspect of upland walking, especially in relation to the contestation of total ownership of land by aristocratic landowners and the nouveau riche. Peoples’ political walking practices based on attachments to the land and the countryside have a history. The northern footpath preservation societies, which aimed to keep ancient access to pathways open began in the 1820s (Taylor, 1995). Navickas (2009) charts early nineteenth century cultures of political radicalism in relation to fields, tracks, moors and pathways in West Yorkshire and the Pennines, as religious and political protesters convened to strategize and disseminate their protest while using their knowledges of tracks to remain below the radar of urban officials. Hartshead Moor was the site of meetings by the Luddites and celebrations of the French Revolution for example and such spaces were fiercely protected from threats of closure. An affinity between the radical campaigners and the footpath societies developed alongside an association of open landscape with free-thinking and political campaigning.


In the twentieth century the 1930s were significant: ‘hiking’ or ‘rambling’ became especially fashionable, the Youth Hostels Associationand the Ramblers’ Associationwere formed and this was also the decade of the Kinder trespass. Often socialist and at times radical, the politics of rambling as an accessible, democratic pursuit relied on common entitlements to access and rights of way. Celebrated by Commoners Choirin the Magna Carterproject, The Kinder mass trespass of April 1932 remains controversial, partly because it exposes differences of opinion about which methods and tactics are appropriate to protest over the ‘right to roam’. The young and eager male protesters, affiliated as they were to the Young Communistsand The Labour League of Youth,were informal weekend walkers who had clashed with aggressive aristocratic gamekeepers in the Peak District. They were adept at organizing political demonstrations and because of their politics they were not sanctioned by the official ramblers’ associations; Walton for example shows that the Peak District Footpaths Preservation Society’s Annual Report for 1932 makes no mention of the mass trespass (2012, p. 264). 


Indeed, in David Hey’s contentious article he extends this argument by down-playing the event as a, ‘single afternoon stunt’ enacted by members of the Communist party, who were entirely unaware of the history of the political gains of the official outdoor movement (2011, p. 199). Labelling it the ‘legend of the mass trespass’ which did more harm than good, Hey argues that it was the slow persistence of rambling clubs which proved the turning point in the ‘right to roam’ campaign. Hey is opposed the ‘direct action’ of Benny Rothman and his associates, his position is invested in the legitimate legislative processes of the judicial system. While numbers of the trespass vary, between 400-800 people followed Rothman and walked from Hayfield with the intention of reaching Kinder Scout, singing as they walked (2011, p. 210)! The trespass itself was relatively peaceful, though five were arrested. The harsh sentences, the prejudicial identification of the ‘perpetrators’, ‘half of whom were Jewish (as the judge pointed out)’ (2011, p. 212) and the class-privileged and elite nature of the jury, generated a good deal of sympathy, such that the annual meetings of the Manchester and Sheffield rambling associations in 1932 were said to have attracted 10,000 people in the wake of the trespass (ibid.) For our purposes here, the historical ‘truth’ of the trespass is perhaps beside the point, for as Walton asserts: ‘the mass trespass was to accumulate great symbolic importance, as a reservoir of anger and injustice, which could be tapped for future campaigns’ (Walton, p. 264). It is the symbolic significance of what Hey calls the ‘legend’ of the mass trespass that Commoners Choirused to construct the political flavour of its raison d’etre. It also holds the historical, mythical and imaginative metaphors we wanted to unfold as we walked. 

(4) Now Back to the choir …

On the morning of the first gathering at Edale, the author gave out pin-badges of the Commoners symbol for choir members to wear and two postcards: one of thlarge group of walkers on their way to Kinder Scout in 1932, the ‘peak district ramblers in trouble!’ and another of Tom Stephenson, the political activist and journalist of the socialist newspaper The Daily Herald (See Figure 3). The commentary on the back told the story of Tom who had been a, ‘a nine-bob-a-week apprentice textile printer in Whalley’ when he first climbed the Pendle Hill in wooden clogs to survey the Pennine peaks, ‘then inaccessible, private shooting grounds, fenced and guarded by gamekeepers working for wealthy landowners’. The postcard celebrates thirty years of campaigning for the ‘long green trail’ of the Pennine Way, ‘which stands as a glorious testament to our unsung power to change things; as a physical trail to mark the reclamation of our open land for common, not private use’. The card shows Tom grinning next to a notice threatening prosecution for trespassing. These badges, postcards, stories and symbols are important; they set the project in to a historical tradition of protest and defiance and they give members a visual code of shared aesthetics and belonging. For choir member Will the design choice of Commoners typeface on the badge was appealing. ‘I also like the graphics,’ he told me, ‘I like the upside down crown in the William Morris font.’v


On the day of the second walk across Ilkley Moor, the author distributed a leaflet which drawing on Peter Lindbaugh, argued that the aims of the Magna Cartahad been a ‘blueprint for change, for equality and for the commonality of the law and the land’ which had since been travestied by the political elite, the establishment and corporate wealth as a ‘document that boasts democracy whilst acting as a smokescreen for diminished rights and rule’. And after reminding the choir of the irony that the Queen would unveil a portrait of herself at Runnymede to give the royal seal of approval to a document originally drafted to challenge royal power over commoners and common land, the pamphlet then turns to the choir member:

So what can we do? We can, for starters, begin to understand our historic right to have common ownership of the land. We can re-imagine our roles as part of a community that looks after itself, ... The Commons, these patches of shared land, from village greens to moorland expanses, are resources for us to build on. So by walking, and by singing, we’re rooting ourselves to the earth and to the past, celebrating the simple physical pleasure of community and self-organisation.

(5) Rich Histories of Protest: Singing

The notion that music is a form especially capable of influencing peoples’ ideas is not new; it was a prevalent belief in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. Indeed the first political song, the ‘Cutty Wren’ goes back to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. ‘Broadsides’ and folk songs containing lyrics which rallied against bad employers, working conditions and political rulers dates back to the seventeenth century (Russell, 1997). Music’s potential as a ‘political weapon’ for the people was even more prevalent in the nineteenth century, for example the dialect song which mimicked the persuasive ‘Peter Fearless’ who tries to convince ‘Dick Freeman’ of the importance of union membership, identifying in the process the self-interest and exploitative traits in employers at the Durham pit strike of 1831: ‘Wey, Peter, aw begin to see things right plain/For wor maisters they care for nowt else by gain’. Commoners lyrics, as detailed below, continue this tradition of addressing its audience with its views about social class and access. There is also a history of the performance of music in locations which are designed to make a challenge or underline its radical use, for example the series of concerts deliberately held on Sundays in 1856 by the secularist movement which held that religion was a mere matter of speculation, to attack the devotional, non-commercialism of ‘Victorian Sunday’.


In the late Victorian period, there was a revival in socialist radicalism through bodies such as the Clarion movement and the Independent Labour Party. Mostly found in northern communities, these groups seized on the emotive powers of music to morally and politically elevate rational recreation (Waters, 1990). While music had always enjoyed a central position in utopian socialist thought, they believed, ‘that human passions could be harnessed to the cause of radical reform and that music could encourage intense feelings of shared identity’ (1990, p. 100). Robert Blatchford, a socialist who founded the Clarionnewspaper in 1891, felt that socialism had become ‘far too earnest’ (Russell, 1997, p. 60). Adept at promotion, he used the paper to showcase socialism as an attractively different lifestyle, drawing on the camera, cycling and rambling clubs to popularize its fellowship. Blatchford himself was aware that music had the potential to offer a supporting and brightening element to more pedestrian forms of political labour: ‘we want some broad, humanising interest to brighten the dingy round of our struggling party, some more genial and cheering amusement than political speeches and contested elections’ (Russell, 1997, p. 61). There are parallels here with what Commoners Will and Ned told me about finding a new form of social activism through singing: it was seen by Ned as an alternative to the more outworn political strategy of ‘placard politics’. 


More recently, forms of collective singing have become increasingly popular, demonstrating the rise of strategies which make space for social bonding, shared political purpose and for what they express about attachments to place. Miyake’s (2014) ethnographic work about the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus choir argues that the existence of the Gay Village as, ‘a geographical and social space to accommodate their activities’, its development as an openly gay culture since the 1990s and its links with LGBT were essential to its formation, practices and outward public success. The choir felt safe within the Village, but the choir also became a space defined outside the commercial, touristic values of the Village: it was non-commercial (not part of the club economy), ‘non-scene’ (non-eroticized) and it became an alternative space - an asylum - where its members were able to build a strong sense of community. Interviews with her respondents show that the most ‘meaningful’ events were locally performed and to do with civil and political issues – HIV and civil partnership for example - which affected queer lives.

(6) Once More from the Choir …


Carrying ourCommoners Choir flag, we walked several miles uphill to the plateau where the original trespassers had celebrated (see Figure 4). There, perched 2,000 feet above sea level, we sang a song about trespass in four part harmony and rooted our choir to those converging compass points of music, community, history and politics. 

From Below

Step by step…
With a compass and a cap
For a sing-song and a scrap
Are we bound by the lines upon the map?
Hell no!

Cos real change comes from below

Chorus:
From below, from below
Real change comes from below

It’s a place we call our own
From stone to boundary stone
Will they take away the right to roam?
Hell no!

Cos real change comes from below

Chorus

For every footprint on the land 
For all the banners and the banned
Should we keep to the landlord’s plans?
Hell no!

Cos real change comes from below

Chorus

From below, from below
Real change comes from below
Down in the soil where the ideas grow
Real change comes from below

Rehearsals continued with a view to the second part of the Magna Cartaproject, this time over Yorkshire’s largest tract of common land, Ilkley Moor. We sang at Darwin’s memorial at the foot of the Moor then climbed towards the summit before singing in the Cow and Calf quarry. As a choir we understood the historical and social resonance of Ilkley Moor: it stands as a reminder of a time when the common land was held in common, farmed since the Bronze Age and used for animal grazing by the Romans, Danes and Normans to the present day. Quarries were dug to provide stones to build local houses and the streams were harnessed to power the corn mills on nearby Mill Ghyll. It remains today a huge area of land with continuing open access. That day we sang the Magna Carta song in the quarry to a small audience. 


For the Common Good (Magna Carta song)

Tax by tax, stone by stone
From arable farm to a retail zone
National Lottery, payday loan
All you are is what you own

On the banks of the river in an open field
Where Crown and Cameron shake on the deal 
See the dead-eyed descendents of old King John
They’re selling their lies in the Mail and Sun

Chorus:
So call Boudica! Rally Ned Ludd!
Send a taxi for Robin Hood!
We’re taking back the past
For the Common good

They drew up the charter, signed and sealed
Then stuck it in a drawer with the unpaid bills
Three cheers for change – hello, Hooray! 
(What a nice day)
Fold it up neatly then throw it away

Chorus

In the name of the market it’s all been planned 
They’re selling the forests, fracking the land
Kettle the marchers, fill up the cells
With the good-for-nothings and the ne’er-do-wells

(7) The experience of performing Magna Carta 

While our interviews with choir members covered several topics, here we focus on Magna Carta. Ned felt proud of the idea of the project: ‘We were not just singing cover songs,’ Ned asserted, ‘we were singing about our rights to walk and enjoy our country’s open countryside.’ For Gemma the walk at Edale posed quite a physical challenge, but here she alludes to having a mental consciousness about the purpose of the walk, which was to have those figures from history in mind: 


Well I enjoyed it - a stunningly beautiful day. But walking up hill negotiating those rough stones was genuinely tough. I was glad of those pathways, fancy if we didn’t have them? I kept thinking ‘step-by-step’, it gave me a rhythm for heaving my weighty body up that hill [laughs]. And it was sweet of X to make the postcards. I kept them in my top pocket. Good reminder of why we were pulling on our calf muscles to commemorate trespass. No better way than to put one foot in front of the other.


Gemma’s response is clear that walking is the practice of the protest and that the toughness was justified by the act of commemoration. Katy recalled what it was like to sing at Edale as a small group in a vast open landscape (see Figure 5).

I’ll never forget singing ‘From Below’ on the Edale walk. The wind was blowing about us, the sky was so big and we were engulfed in vast space of the landscape, the hills. There was no audience, it was just us in that place, which gave it a particular meaning somehow. We didn’t sound that great really because our voices were so tiny in the vastness but when I got to the words on the second verse I was that moved I couldn’t sing. I think it was looking at X while he was conducting, he looked vulnerable somehow in the way that you sometimes are when something really matters … to be standing there and singing about ordinary folk and their rights to being in common land.

In this exchange, Katy reflects on the emotions of being bodily engulfed in a huge open rural space. Caught at the intersection of singing with other warm bodies, in the presence of words about the longing to have access to that space was over-whelming. Having no audience meant that the performance turned inward to reflection about the purpose of the event where the physical and psychic sense of presence combines in a unique moment. Others allowed the site to perform in ways that captured the imagination, using the stories which framed the event:


There was an eeriness for me when we got to the top of the summit. In my mind the trespassers were like ghosts – imagine them in their 1930s clothes! I stood and contemplated the ground at the summit and thought about what it must’ve been like to have that many people flood a landscape with their angry presence and the noise of shouting and charged atmosphere. Violence basically. Ghostly because the place was virtually without anybody the day we took the choir (Will).



Will actually transposed his imaginary sense of trespassers coming alive on the walk, ushering in the layers of meaning prompted by the event. For others a residual frustration about the efficacy of singing protest songs to effect real constitutional change for ordinary walkers stubbornly persisted after the event. As Katy said:


It was great at Ilkley, a good day out, we had a good laugh. I loved singing at the quarry with the dog howling as well. But it still annoys me that the problem is still there. Can real change come from below? Is the Queen listening to the Magna Carta song, I don’t think so. What will happen? Very little actually, we’re doing it to make ourselves feel better really.


These oral testimonies give an insight into the way in which choir members made meaning about place. Some were bodily uplifted, some made mental connections with how history shapes place, some felt jaded that beyond protest further action seems not to prevail. Castells’(1998) excitement about the potential for mass political organisation via the internet has never been realised in neo-liberal Britain where the public realm has been systematically eroded, despite grass-roots campaigning and protest. But we must, somehow, keep going.


And the choir goes on ….

Magna Carta was just the start of Commoners Choir.Many more protest songs came afterwards, performed in settings designed to shock. When it was announced in January 2016 that the Royal Photography Society’s world renowned collection which had been housed at Bradford’s National Media Museum since 2003 was to be moved to the V & Ain London, author X wrote ‘Robin Hood in Reverse’ to protest another triumph of metropolitanism. In a bid to challenge the idea that Northern communities are less deserving of culture than those in London, the choir flash-mobbed the museum’s foyer to the breathless consternation of security guards who demanded an end to the song. In Spring 2017 we toured public libraries around the North of England to protest their closure and sang ‘Mechanical Moveable Type’ which celebrates the invention of the printing press, a historical shift which placed the power of literacy in the hands of commoners rather than an educated elite. Our songs can be accessed from the choir’s debut album Commoners Choir (No Masters Co-operative Ltd, 2017). These events and performances are examples of a continued catalogue of the life of the choir. 


DeNora argues that, ‘musical activity can be understood as an active ingredient of community formation’ (2015, p. 88). We would argue that the choir is an on-going community. There is withinCommoners Choira feeling of inclusivity, of genuinely shared ownership. The choir operates as a collective: choir members are given space to comment on everything from what we wear when performing to the arrangements of the harmonies. And crucially, Commoners Choirhas been in some cases transformative in terms of promoting a sense of connection with others and for promoting well-being (Clifford, 2017). 


Commoners Choir has been successful in its attempt to act as a ‘fulcrum’ that links an assortment of social and political ideas, connecting us physically through our voices, our ideas and our feet to a history of dissent and change. We rejected the notion of history as being a litany of monarchs and wars, and instead presented a history as voiced by the ordinary people, the ‘commoners’. Commoners Choiris an attempt to become part of that history, an acknowledgement that the song form is a vital part of our culture that can offer something very different from a written history. If we can continue to explore these links and the interrelationships between them, whilst retaining a sense of friendship, community, purpose and enjoyment, then Commoners Choirwill be doing what it set out to do. In this sense the choir may well meet the objective Hesmondhalgh lays out in his claim that music’s most significant contribution, ‘to collective human life might be to advance political struggles for a better distribution of flourishing’ which in turn continues the ‘sustenance of a public sociability, which keeps alive feelings of solidarity and community’ (2015, p. 10).


iFor an animated experience of the Magna Carta project our short film made by Chian Gatwood at University X can be accessed on YouTube.


iiThis study was given ethical clearance by University X. The people of the study gave us signed consent to use their responses in published materials. We use pseudonyms to protect the identities of the people of the study. 


iiiThe upside down crown was used specifically as a reaction to Magna Carta – the original Charter was written to diminish the power of the King, whose power was out of control. As well as protecting the forests and commons the Charter limited the sovereign’s power in the courts and in law, so the upside-down-crown was logical.

ivWalton uses the term ‘stravaging’ to mean ‘walking unconstrained by legally established rights of way’ (2012, p. 247). 

vThe font used in all Commoners print is by Golden Type by William Morris. A pioneering socialist designer and poet, his Arts and crafts Movement was based on the idea of art and references design being part of ordinary peoples’ lives rather than as an elite fancy for the wealthy.


References

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Waters, C. (1990) British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture 1884-1984. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

Commoners Go Wild At The Seaside

Jane morland and 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's Sally Harrop writes about our big day out in Newcastle

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 

June 2018

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

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

Here's an article reprinted from The Guardian and written by Commoners Choir member Allan Clifford:
A MOMENT THAT CHANGED ME: JOINING A RADICAL CHOIR

On a boozy summer evening two years ago, a friend told me about a choir she’d recently joined run by a bloke called Boff who was a guitarist in Chumbawamba. 

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 terrified.
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 – Ellie

The 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 – Catherine

For 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
Four microphones
Four parts
Fifty eight choir members
One photographer
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 – Mark

We 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 – Allan

At 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 – Mark

We 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 – Liz

It'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 – Bob

As 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?

*
2018 …
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.

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, May 2016

CASTLEFORD CORN RIOT CELEBRATION - AUGUST 2015

There are few things seemingly more authentic than sitting on a boat and travelling up a river at the vessel’s maximum speed (5mph) watching herons lazily take off and land. I’m on my way back to Leeds, sitting on the boat’s prow with half the Commoners Choir, and the easy talk, meandering between kid’s TV programmes and environmentalism, stumbles into a singalong rendition of ‘The Wombling Song’. Sara knows all the words. Ellie confesses to having five Wombles albums. Brian, over here from the USA as a history student researching anarchism and punk, is utterly baffled.

This isn’t what media slang refers to as ‘digital detox’. This is what I call authentic. Putting yourself in a place where you’re not being advertised at, where a LOL is something you can actually hear, where you’re not part of the real/not-real confusion of what Guy Debord called ‘The Spectacle’, where you aren’t desperately clawing for status, where conversation is face to face, where a cup of tea isn’t a core value lifestyle signifier, it’s a cup of tea. Travelling along this river is much as it would have been, say, 220 years ago, when a boat carrying corn along this waterway – the Aire & Calder Navigation – moored up for the night outside Castleford and was ransacked by local townsfolk who were, for the most part, on the verge of starvation.

Admittedly, the ransackers (a good name for a band) weren’t singing about Uncle Bulgaria picking up litter, but essentially they were part of a wholly under-represented majority treated as irrelevant flotsam and jetsam by a powerful elite, who, corn shortages or not, spent their lives in indolent luxury. A powerful elite who, educated at the country’s top universities and brimming with a confidence born of inherited wealth and confidence, relied on the churches to construct a sort of makeshift welfare system, distributing basic food to the poor. The similarities are all too real.

Today we’ve dropped off countless carrier-bags loaded with donated tins, packets and bottles, and it’s all been piled into the back of a car by a couple of fresh-faced church volunteers and taken off to distribute at the local Methodist food bank. Lovely people. As are the volunteers at Castleford Heritage Trust, who welcome our choir for a short concert – including our specially-written Castlefood Food Riot song – gathering a right good crowd of folk to eat the freshly-stoneground bread and listen to local historian David Pickersgill tell the story of that riot. As we pose for a photograph for the Heritage Trust’s lively Alison Drake, watched on by several tables of pensioners drinking tea and enjoying the afternoon sun, she asks us to “raise your fists, ready for the riot!” And we do, holding aloft our bottles of (specially-bottled) Commoners Beer and wondering how on earth we ended up here.

Josh Sutton, one of the Commoners, is a bit of an expert on the history of food riots. He also exemplifies certain notions of ‘authenticity’, spending his life whittling bits of foraged wood into utensils and weapons while cooking up gourmet meals on a camping stove. If he can make something instead of buying it, he will do; he’d be a caveman if it wasn’t for his deep love of loud amplified music. As the boat travels up the Aire & Calder he bakes small flatbreads for the Choir, and coupled with a hunk of cheese and a bagful of apples from his own tree he helps conjure up a flavour of those simple times before, y’know, LED watches and pocket calculators. Back when folk used to riot, both as an expression of having reached the end of their tether, as a way of being heard, and because they fancied a telly from Curry’s on the high street.

A way of being heard, yes. When politics has become a sophisticated stitch-up between right-wing media and right-wing careerist MPs (of every hue), there are less and less ways to engage in real change. One thing people have started to do is to organise locally and personally, constructing meaning out of our everyday lives that isn’t tied to capitalism. People are searching for what’s real, everything from singing in choirs (there are now more than 25,000 choirs in the UK) and walking in the countryside (despite the overall fall in numbers of people walking for transport, walking for recreation is increasing) to gardening (the share of fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK which are grown in allotments or gardens is rising rapidly). Commoners Choir is our way of both reconnecting to a fundamental, physical, free activity and a way of being heard. It’s as near-as-dammit authentic and as far removed from the ugly fakery of The Voice as we can make it.

Trevor is the boatman for a company called Canal Connections, which moors its boats down at Thwaite Mills in Leeds and teaches boat skills to kids in social action programmes. He’s on our side, a historian with a blunt sense of humour who knows what we’re trying to do with Commoners Choir. He arranges a boat and crew for us, gets us a room in the Mill to gather, and sends us on our way after a sing-song at the quayside. The boat’s not big enough for all of us so some cycle, some walk and some run part of the 10 miles or so to the Castleford Heritage Trust’s Queen’s Mill. A game of swans watch us pass, listening to us singing our signature song ‘Get Off Your Arse’ as we wait for locks to open and close. (Yes, I had to look up the name for a group of swans. They’re a game on the water, and a wedge in the air).

Several weeks ago I went to see an exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, called ‘Magnificent Obsessions – the Artist as Collector’. It was a series of beautifully-presented gatherings of stuff that famous artists had amassed in their homes – Peter Blake’s collection of porcelain elephants, Andy Warhol’s accumulation of Mickey Mouse figures. It was, though, apart from a couple of exceptions, pretty dire. It said nothing of the artists; didn’t shine much of a light on their motivations or their passions. It was all just… stuff. Everyday stuff. Karl Marx asserted that capitalism stole the ‘soul’ from objects, rendering stuff that previously had meaning as just things. Which brings me back to authenticity and what’s real – looking at the artist’s collections at the Barbican I saw only soulless artefacts, neat clutter. Talking to David Pickersgill at Queen’s Mill in Castleford, he explains that a group of volunteers have discovered the original huge gear cogs used for operating the waterwheel, buried under several feet of conrete by the mill’s departing owners years ago, and that his weekends are spent digging through the concrete to unearth and restore the cogs. Eventually, he explains, the waterwheel will be resurrected to turn the stone that grinds the flour. The way he talks of the building is not as a manufacturing centre but as a place with soul, with meaning. A place to make bread, good bread, not that fake bread that comes wrapped in plastic with the tag-line “Bread wi’ nowt taken out” (except its soul, and its meaning).

Talking of bread: the number of people using food banks in the UK has now passed the one million mark. The final verse in Commoners Choir’s song about the Castleford Food Riot reads:


All along the old canal to 1795

The Commoners Beer had all been drunk by the time that we arrived

Cameron and Osborne were waiting on the shore

Saying 'there's never the money to spend on food but there's plenty to spend on war'.


The UK now boasts 117 billionaires, and the total wealth of the top one per cent has reached a record £547 billion. The director of the Equality Trust, Duncan Exley said: “There’s always been this idea of trickle-down – that the rich get richer and will bring the rest of the country with them. These people who are called wealth creators aren’t creating wealth for others; they’re creating it for themselves. The rising tide is not lifting all the boats.”

And so on boat time, at a steady 5mph, we travel back through the centuries and find ourselves again at Thwaite Mills, at the end of a long, long day of singing, laughing, and talking. Like the walks we’ve done as a choir, the idea is to reconnect to both our shared histories and to the world around us, to re-route our political ideas away from clicktivism and towards a literal feet-on-the-ground politics rooted in communal singing. Or in today’s case, feet-on-the-deck. Our boat is tied up and we climb onto the bank, heading off into the dusk of Leeds with our souvenir Commoners Beer, mutiny on our minds, whistling down the captain’s flag as we disperse homewards. 

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

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.