“The Catholic Worker Farm and Mary House provide accommodation, food, English lessons, counselling and other services for 19 destitute (without access to public funds) female asylum seekers… and their children, at no charge.”
Three generations ago, my ancestors were what would now be called refugees or asylum seekers, fleeing oppression and murder. We now live in a time of unprecedented numbers of people doing the same thing. Women refugees – about a third of the total in the UK – suffer particular problems and are more likely to become victims of violence, including sexual violence. Women refugees with children are at serious risk of having their children taken into care.
The Catholic Worker Farm have to fund their essential work supporting women. One way they do this is by holding events such as FarmFest – a four day festival across the late August Bank Holiday weekend. We’re proud to be playing this year – on Monday 26th August, time to be confirmed.
It’s cheap as chips to get in: £35 for the whole weekend for adults, half-price for kids, free for 0-5 year olds. That includes 33 musical acts plus comedy, FREE camping and FREE parking, if you need it. If you’re not doing the whole weekend, you can pay £10 per day. And yes, there’s real ale.
During a rehearsal (yes, we do rehearse), we were trying Right To Strike (from Drums Ruin Everything). It didn’t sound quite right. Someone suggested that it might sound good with a female voice doing harmony, like… Maddy Carty. We warmed to the idea that she might play keyboards on it too. A few days later, she agreed. More than that, she really wanted to perform Have I Got News For You with us. By the time we met up, she was playing on four songs. She joined us on stage at the Matchwomen’s Festival in July – and it was fun. We did it again at the Leytonstone Festival the following week. A couple of months later, Steve and Maddy did a couple of songs together in central London.
Meanwhile, a new movement had been brewing. It was We Shall Overcome: hundreds of gigs across the country on the same weekend, protesting against austerity, and raising money and collecting food for those hardest hit by it. We wanted to do something special for that – but what? Well, who else would we call? So in October, Maddy Protest joined us for our entire set at the Rose & Crown for Walthamstow Folk’s contribution to the weekend. It was a great night with an enthusiastic crowd, but…
Discussing it afterwards, we felt that something was a bit off. Was it Doug’s socks? No, not this time. It boiled down to this: we had used Maddy as a piano player and a backing vocalist. Now, don’t get me wrong. She’s fine as a piano player. She’s fine as a backing vocalist. But she’s got so much more. She was easily the best singer present on stage that night (sorry, Doug), but her terrific voice was always in the background. Also, she’s a very strong songwriter, but we played none of her songs at all. She was happy to play that night, but on reflection it seemed to us to be a bit of an insult to her talents.
Fast forward to 2016. We had a better idea: how about having Maddy join us properly for a one-off gig? This time, she could back us on some of our songs – and we would back her on some of hers. But she let us down badly, pointing out that she was getting married on the day that we’d planned for the performance. How selfish can you get?
Now it’s 2017 (check your phone if you don’t believe me) and we’ve forgiven her for that snub. It’s finally going to happen. On Sunday 16th July at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in Dorset, Maddy Carty & The Protest Family will take to the stage. It’s going to be different. Come and join us.
In 1976, in the middle of a rise in moronic nationalism and outright racism led by the National Front, Eric Clapton delivered a horrific, racist rant on stage in Birmingham. Walthamstow lad Roger Huddle and three pals wrote to the NME in disgust. They did far more than that, though – with the same letter, they launched Rock Against Racism.
Within a couple of years it had grown from a few pub gigs to huge events across the country. In 1978, there was a crowd of over 80,000 to see The Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, The Ruts, Sham 69, Generation X and the Tom Robinson Band at Victoria Park in Hackney, east London. The crucial point was that vulnerable young people could see their heroes backing anti-racism – this was a serious youth culture response to the boneheads. The National Front shrank and splintered.
Roger Huddle and fellow founder Red Saunders have edited a book about Rock Against Racism to be published on 5th December. It’s not simply their view of what happened, but a mix of memories and ideas from a range of people, famous, little known and maybe even infamous.
Memories of the past? Yes, but here’s the thing: the same ‘blame the wrong people’ ideas are growing today. They’re in small groups of nationalist knuckle-draggers, of course, but now… well, they’re lurking in UKIP. They’re lurking in speeches by the Conservative Prime Minister. They’re given airtime via a French fascist leader on a prestigious BBC political interview programme. And, as if we could forget, racism was a key part of the election strategy of the incoming President of the USA.
Anyone who’s even vaguely progressive has some tough battles ahead – that’s for certain. But we can all learn something from the successes of the past. That’s why we’re looking forward to this book.
In fact, we’re honoured to have been asked to do a few songs at the launch. It’s at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square in central London on 5th December. It’s free, but you’ll need to book a place if you’re coming. Folk punk against racism? You bet.
Our Steve turns 50 (fifty) this week. It’s a difficult age. It’s a time when you really, really have to accept that you’re never going to play for England (or even Holland), never going to come up with a coherent Theory Of Everything, never going to the Moon. (Some of us still haven’t got over that last one.)
He wasn’t always a songwriter. He only started this nonsense in earnest about 10 years ago. Since then, Steve’s written songs about all sorts: broken hearts, socialism, police violence, tax dodgers, clownish politicians, fast food, racism, Santa, merchant bankers, picket lines, UKIP, revolution, resistance, cancer, refugees, fox hunting, truth, gluten, death, swearing, cycling, a fizzy drinks company, the misappropriation of language, Hank Marvin, anarchy, monarchy, gentrification, Walthamstow, Chingford, Leyton, Orient, Leyton Orient, health & safety legislation, piracy (arrrrrrhh!!) and even, rarely, about himself. Yes, we know a song about that. Sometimes you think that the songs are too simple to work. But they usually do.
When I first saw Steve perform live, he was solo (or with Chris Da Lipz), handing out buttered chunks of home-made bread at gigs. Me and Doug joined up with him in 2009 and what soon became The Family has been on an adventure ever since. We’ve played in the east, west, south and north of the country and in Northern Ireland. We’ve had Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn as support acts. We’ve performed with an ex-Sex Pistol. We’ve had talents as diverse as Louise Distras, Attila The Stockbroker and Maddy Carty playing on stage with us. Yes, we’ve argued, fallen out, sulked and fallen back in again. Most of that happened in one row about a count-in.
We’ll start recording our third studio album soon, and once again all of the songs will be written by Steve. The rest of us chip in musical bits and pieces and even the occasional word, but they’re his songs.
So you’re all invited to come and join us in celebration on Saturday night at What’s Cookin’ in Leytonstone. Watch the bands. Raise a glass to our bandmate – our mate – Steve, who in his personal, professional and musical lives strives to make things a bit better for other people. And most of all, sing his songs along with us. See you there.
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 Caroline Flint 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 Caroline Flint 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, Stella Creasy. 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 was back in place. By now, we had supporters from the local Trades Council, including the impressive Darren O’Grady (“and don’t forget Darren, standing his ground”), 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. Neil Gerrard, the former MP for the area, turned up and began to help turn people away. There was no sign of Stella Creasy or of Caroline Flint (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 Creasy and Flint, 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.
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.
*It got to about number 1,000 in the Amazon download chart, you know.
You may know me from such bands as the 4Fathers*,Imenim or Walthamstow Folk Club, but I can also sometimes be found engaged in a competition to see who can play the most instruments during a Protest Family set. Sometimes I even win. If there was ever a member of the band to get banned from Facebook it would be me. I’m also the one that does all that jumping around on stage, not because I’m really into the music but more just to keep myself awake.