That Round-Up That They Do Every Year

routenoteCrikey, what a year: Brexit, Trump, Corbyn and the coups, Syria, the destruction of The Jungle, Theresa May. If you’re a political band of any description you’d better be able to say that you know a song about some of that, and yes we do.

Like it’s predecessor, Protest For Dummies was two years in the making but hopefully it sounds like it might all have been written yesterday, opening as it does with a song about the royal family just as the government announced nearly £400 million pounds worth of public money heading towards repairs to Buckingham Palace. No space or resources for refugees, but millions of pounds to spend on all those empty rooms? Yeah, we might’ve mentioned that.

As political commentators talk up our post-truth, fake news existence and the world experiences an alarming rise in right-wing populism, there’s work to do for the likes of the Protest Family. If the facts don’t matter any more how do you challenge popular opinion or widely held beliefs? Well maybe if you can make the facts rhyme, dress them up with a chorus and mandolins and stuff, then maybe, just maybe people will be humming the truth on their way to work before they realise they’re supposed to have a post-fact reaction to the news.

The hard bit as ever is to get your work into the hands and ears of a wider audience and not just the folk who already share your point of view, hence our decision this time round to distribute the album more widely online, including on Amazon and iTunes. I’ve always avoided the big players before, didn’t want the purity of our art tainted by doing business with them and I’d have felt a bit of a hypocrite doing so, but I’ve been convinced (by the others mainly) that it’s part of reaching as many people as we can, and maybe placing songs about tax justice on an arch tax-dodger’s website is exactly the kind of subversive act that we should be engaged in. Mind you, the bonus track is only on the CD or on downloads from the band’s Bandcamp page, so there’s still a little reward for taking your ethics record shopping with you.

Obviously there’s nothing new about challenging the world we live in through song, as I was reminded listening to Tom Robinson sing Power In The Darkness at the Reminiscences of Rock Against Racism  book launch at Conway Hall in December. It was an extraordinarily powerful song then and it remains so now. Roger Huddle and Red Saunders’ book tells an extraordinary tale too, through the stories of some of the people that were there, including Tom of course. Did I mention that he borrowed my guitar?

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And only one cover version all year.

But never mind Tom (unless you want to drop him a line about listening to Protest For Dummies), what did we do in 2016? Well 46% of our gigs last year were outside the M25 and only 15% were in Waltham Forest (and they were less than a month apart). 15% of last year’s shows were in Hertfordshire and another 15% were in Derbyshire. Nearly 8% featured Jeremy Corbyn on the supporting line-up, but none of those were in Waltham Forest, Hertfordshire or Derbyshire. 15% of appearances were at Labour clubs and 23% were at festivals. (How I’ve got this far without a Venn diagram, I don’t know). 23% were in July and 15% in venues beginning with C….oh, enough.

Anyway, we had a nice time and hopefully made the world a better place by a percentage point or at least a bit of one.

2017? Who knows? It looks like there’s some strike benefits on the horizon and that’s no surprise. There is a surprise planned for July, but more of that later, and otherwise? Well as one reviewer put it, we’re alive and kicking, and definitely kicking.

Happy New Year!

Steve

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Burston At The Seams

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Hardwork

Alright, so Burston’s the scene of the longest running strike in this country’s history. The Burston tale is one of militant teachers, nasty bosses, a pantomime villain power-hungry preacher, the kids showing extraordinary solidarity and mettle, and the trade union cavalry charging over the hill to save the day. You might have bought a brick at Brisbane Road but Tolstoy sponsored one in the Strike School.

 

The sun shone on this year’s rally, the queues for selfies with Corbyn were long*, the ones at the bar appealingly shorter and we had a great time despite me breaking a string AGAIN. It was great fun too to join Attila the Stockbroker at the end as invited** backing singers on Prince Harry’s Knob. I’m not sure he was expecting the harmonies.

The Corbynmania thing’s a bit weird. We’re all behind JC for obvious reasons but it’s odd seeing him whisked in by car and surrounded by pink-jacketed Unite stewards when you’re used to seeing him just turn up on the bus with everybody else.

I did write about him recently, so if you’re thinking about writing a song about how the whole of the mainstream press, all of the BBC’s politics department and most of his own party appear to be against him despite his enormous public popularity, in the style of Kent Walton commentating on tag-team wrestling, to a country and western themed sound track, don’t worry I’ve got you covered. I even used a line from Tag Team Time in a Facebook status update about Jeremy’s late addition to the Strike School Rally’s line-up of speakers.

You’ll get to hear Tag Team Time (plus our tribute to the Punk Waltham Forest tributes) if you manage to get along to our StowFest gig next week.

Failing that, Lol and I are out being pop-up folk-punks at a Corbyn-supporting show at Nambucca on Wednesday, I’m in Nottingham on October 7th and then it’s all systems go for my birthday bash on October 15th.

So, see you out there somewhere.

Steve

* We didn’t get one, we’ll have to settle for my picture with John McDonnell from the Redbridge Momentum meeting.

** We’ve done it uninvited loads of times.

Funky Lol’s Picket Line

Most of our songs are pretty easy to understand, but people sometimes ask about Funky Lol’s Picket Line (from This Band Is Sick). It was written by Steve, but it’s got my name in it. Here’s what it’s all about.

It’s a true story from 5 years ago. I was working at a Further Education college in London. We were on a national strike over extra pension contributions. It meant an effective pay cut of £500-£1000 per year for each of us – worth fighting against.

The college was open from 7am-11pm. We had an uneventful picket line in the morning, when most staff and students would have been going in (few did). The strike continued, but the picket line rota wound down early to allow many of the strikers to attend a union event in central London.

I discovered to my surprise that the local Labour Party were planning to hold a fund-raising dinner in the college’s training restaurant that night, with Shadow Minister Carrie-Anne Slate* as guest speaker. I passed a message to a prominent local Party member, assuming that they would want to postpone the event to support us. His reaction was non-committal. So I went to Labour’s constituency office and rang the bell. I had to speak to an intercom: “Will Carrie-Anne Slate* cross our picket line tonight?” They invited me in and took my details, but did nothing. Later, I was phoned by the local MP’s agent. He had a superior tone and seemed mildly irritated.

Eventually, I began to realise that I’d have no choice but to reassemble the picket line. I made a couple of phone calls, sent texts and started walking up the road to the college. As I was walking, I got a call from the MP, India Empy*. She bent my ear for fully 19 (nineteen) minutes. Whenever I tried to speak, she interrupted with, “No, listen…”

She told me that she had known about the strike a week in advance. She had checked with the Principal of the college (“spoke to the wrong fella”), who doubted that we would continue it into the evening (“said it would be over by tea time”). He was wrong, of course (“you know a strike’s all day when you’re losing a day’s pay”). She hadn’t bothered to check with us. Either we were unimportant to her, or she didn’t want to hear the answer we would have given.

Anyway, she made me an offer: if we let the dinner go ahead, she would invite one of our pickets to cross our picket line. They could then explain to the diners who had crossed our picket line why they shouldn’t have crossed our picket line. Okay, read that again. Got it? Did we accept the offer? As if.

The picket line reconvenes
The picket line reconvenes

The picket was back in place. By now, we had supporters from the local Trades Council, including the impressive Daryl O’Levely*, and from other unions, including current members of the band. We were incredulous at the actions of our local Labour Party – the party formed largely from the trade union movement.

Confusion reigned as some people arrived for the dinner. A small number went inside the college. Niall Gerald*, the former MP for the area, turned up and began to help turn people away. There was no sign of India Empy* or of Carrie-Anne Slate* (I discovered months later that the Party feared a photo of a Shadow Minister crossing a picket line). We eventually found out that what was left of the guests, including Empy* and Slate*, had gone to an Indian restaurant a few miles away to try to salvage the chaos (“better go for a curry instead”).

We had seen off the disgraceful threat to the strike. We disbanded our picket line and went to the pub (“you know this story ends up in the Rose & Crown”).

Those involved in organising the shambles might consider this: they could have postponed the whole thing a week before the event, held it on another night and raised some funds. Instead, they chose the dishonourable path and lost both money and credibility.  And Steve White & The Protest Family gained a dance number.

Lol

*Names changed to protect the innocent.  And the guilty.

Top picture: legalcheek.com.

“From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Bryant & May…”

matchwomen strike committee
The Matchwomen’s strike committee, 1888

On 2nd July, we’re playing the Matchwomen’s Festival for the third time in its four year history. Our greatest hit*, Right To Strike, begins with a tribute to some of the pioneering trade unionists of the 19th century.

You might be thinking, “How have a bunch of smelly blokes from east London got so involved with a women’s festival? And what’s Brian May got to do with this?”

Let me explain. First, it’s nothing to do with Brian May. Bryant & May was a company that made matches, originally in Bow in east London. In 1888, about 1400 women and girls working in their factory went on strike over long hours, poor pay, excessive fines and the horrific effects of working with white phosphorus, including mutilation and premature death. They formed a trade union. Soon, their resoluteness and ultimate success inspired the formation of trade unions across the country.

The union movement is important to us as a band and it matters to you, whether you realise it or not. Apart from anything else, without the work of trade unions, most of us would simply have no effective employment rights. That’s one reason why we’re proud to be playing the festival again.

The other reason is women. “Ah, so you’re playing it to attract women?” Er – no. We’re all taken, thanks. The Matchwomen’s fight proved that women didn’t have to be passive. Women could organise. Women could gain control. Women could win improvements for themselves.

That message continues to be vital. Between the members of the band, we’ve got six daughters. But we’ve also got partners, sisters, mothers, friends, workmates, neighbours… we want them to be inspired by those ‘ordinary’ women from the century before last. As we are.

Lol
*It got to about number 1,000 in the Amazon download chart, you know.

matchfest top 2016

It’s a Half an Inch of Water

From ABC to Deacon Blue and Madness to Right Said Fred, the list of bands who take their names from other band’s lyrics is worth a Wikipedia page all of its own. But I can only think of one band named after a mondegreen.

Now a mondegreen, as you well know, is a mis-heard lyric, and in this case it’s the line “It’s a half an inch of water” from John Prine’s That’s The Way That The World Goes Round that gives Paddy Nash & The Happy Enchiladas the non-eponymous bit of their name.

We first met Paddy and Diane at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in 2012, where we played a number of gigs, official, unofficial and very unofficial with them before deciding that they were wonderful and we were following them home to Derry.* **

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You know who you are….

So, we were delighted to be able to return the favour and put on a couple of shows for them in London. Despite some initial (and last minute) fretting from us as organisers, the Veg Bar gig was magical. The atmosphere was great, and the audience outstanding. We’ve had a few stand-out shows over the years but I don’t think we’ve ever had a crowd sing along to every word of pretty much every song from every performer before, and it definitely brought the best out of all the acts.

 

The Sunday was a more relaxed affair at Walthamstow Folk Club and the folk club format really suited them, rewarding us with some of the stories behind the songs and two sets of  songs with light and shade exploring a range of emotions. They really are extraordinary storytellers and performers.

There’s a load of stuff out there on YouTube and what have you if you want to explore their music further, but if you want a better sense of them, then try their appearance on Radio 4’s The Listening Project.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02np2j6

Wedding or Camper Van? Well, we’ll be seeing the van in Tolpuddle this July.

* Or Derry/Londonderry as it was known at the time.

** We know a song about that.

 

 

On Not Going To Yeovil

So when was Orient’s season over?  Last week after the Star Man Dinner kerfuffle? When Dean Cox and Unlucky Alf got injured? Not until the beer runs out?

Actually, that’s an easy one: It was officially over a fortnight ago at AFC Wimbledon when any over-optimistic talk of the play-offs was finally quashed. Well, you say easy. Not so easy if your mates from Derry have planned a trip over for the last weekend of the season, are playing gigs in Brighton and London on either side of your last fixture, if you’d really like to put on a gig so that you can play with them again, and there might, just might, be something on the last game.

This is where you find out which of your band mates (and fellow Orient fans) are optimists, which are pessimists and which are obsessed with football statistics. Thankfully, after extensive negotiations, we reached a position that the Yeovil game was only worth going to if promotion or relegation rested on the outcome and even then only promotion outright, not making or failing to make the play-offs. Which gives you a probability argument if you like maths or a football argument if you’re actually watching them play. So, as soon as the maths and the O’s woeful form allowed us, we booked tonight’s gig at the Veg Bar in Brixton.

We’re basking in the glow of a fabulous trip to Barnsley last weekend for the May Day Festival of Solidarity, and looking forward enormously to being reunited with Paddy & Diane and Robb Johnson. I’m looking forward to the venue too, having seen a Loud Women gig there earlier in the year, just a little worried about the PA, but we’ll be there early enough to sort any teething trouble out with any luck.

We’ve got loads to talk about too. Electoral success for Eamonn McCann and People Before Profit in Belfast, New London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the results of the poll on the future of Have I Got News For You. There will even be a few vaguely disappointed Orient fans to sing a song for.

Thank you AFC Wimbledon.

Have I Got News For You?

Yes, it was the first day of May 2008. Yes, I did stay up half the night listening to the results coming in. I couldn’t quite believe it. Maybe it was my natural optimism*. Maybe I couldn’t quite get my head around people threatening to vote for Boris Johnson because Boris being Mayor of London would be a laugh. Maybe I just couldn’t see past Ken Livingstone**. Ken had made the job his own over the previous eight years, a big personality, with vision, and maverick enough to be anti-the government of the day and pro-London. There was good and bad with Ken of course, the revival of London buses and free travel for under-18’s in full time education on the one hand, the privatisation of London’s fleet of fire engines on the other. Being back in the Labour Party didn’t hurt in 2004 but this time out it probably didn’t help. The (perceived) bigger maverick got the vote.

Not that there was much in it. 1, 043, 761 people had Boris Johnson as their first preference vote, a statistic that I have quoted from the stage on more than one occasion. First day of May 2008. And not long after, a song was born.

The idea to write about all that dodgy stuff in Boris Johnson’s recent past; the racism, philandering, dodgy-dealing, arranging to have journalists beaten up etc., came quite quickly, but the Mayor Boris Blues just didn’t quite hit the mark. As fellow song writers will know, there’s got to be a hook and there’s got to be an angle, and both of them came together around the idea of Have I Got News For You. It also gave rise to one of my favourite couplets of all of those that I’ve written:

“Anna Fazackerly, now it’s me and you, getting screwed by the bloke off Have I Got News For You.”

But it’s nearly over. The London mayoral election happens again on 5th May this year and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson won’t be standing. Having treated the job of Mayor as a part-time gig for the last eight years, he’s leaving to concentrate full-time on his campaign to be the next leader of the Tory party***.

So there’s been talk of retirement. Not his, but in the band there are voices suggesting that we retire Have I Got News For You.

Oh.

I’m against it. I think it stands up as a historical document that’s worth airing from time to time. I also think that it’s a valuable tool in our armoury against a Johnson-led Tory party, as and when that happens. But mine is just one voice. We’re definitely going to sing it at one of the next two gigs as they’re either side of the vote, but after that it might be up to you lot. You know where to find the Protest Family. You tell ’em.

Steve

 

* Yeah, right.

** We’re not here to talk about that.

*** Of course he’s going to deny it.