The Queen’s widely previewed but rarely watched Christmas message will be delivered in a royal blue 1 cashmere dress by Angela Kelly adorned with the sapphire and diamond brooch given to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1840. In it she’ll encourage the country to put past differences behind us by referencing D-Day and describe the unveiling of her favourite son as a rapist and a liar as “quite bumpy” 2. Essential viewing for fans of carefully guarded language and calls for unity from super-rich folk who will do little else to achieve it.
Boris Johnson 3 meanwhile, clearly didn’t get the memo about national unity and focuses his Christmas message on Christians alone, referencing them three times in a 350-word statement while addressing a country whose own census data recognises several other major religions, Christianity’s declining popularity, and a rise in the number of people declaring themselves to be of no religion.4
On the subject of the census, Herod the Great’s Christmas message is that it, along with the Massacre of the Innocents, is just fake news.
We have yet to hear from Donald Trump, the festive season has gifted us impeachment after all, but his Christmas message will no doubt follow a similar pattern:
A Christian message.
Gratitude to the armed forces for freedom, democracy, etc.
Gratitude to the police 5 and any other public servants working on Christmas Day.
Jeremy Corbyn, of course, bucks the trend by using his Christmas message to point out that Baby Jesus’ instruction to love thy neighbour isn’t reflected in the doubling of rough sleeping in the UK over the last six years of austere Tory rule.6
And that’s our message to you too this Christmas. It’s a tough old world out there that looks set to get tougher, so look after yourselves and each other and, however you identify, however you celebrate, if you’re a victim of the system, their system, we’re on your side, making music to bring hope, healing, encouragement, entertainment and outrage.
Hold your loved ones close this Christmas if you can, and think about those that can’t. Let’s all come out fighting in the New Year.
If my inbox bulged a little with enquiries as to where my Brexit song was, I can only imagine what Billy Bragg’s looked like as he headed out on the Shine A Light tour with Joe Henry. We know his answer now, it’s Full English Brexit, addressing not his own feelings about the outcome of the EU referendum but attempting to deal with the increasing polarisation of British society that the result has brought. In his own words:
“Brexit and Trump are manifestations of the failure to build a society that works for everyone. Both offer answers, but only to their own supporters. I believe that if we are to overcome the mistrust and disdain that has divided us, to take the first steps towards building that inclusive society that reflects both the traditions and diversity of our country, we need to have some understanding about where our opponents are coming from.
My new song “Full English Brexit” was written in that spirit.”
And that’s the thing. I have no intention of re-hashing the longest essay that I ever wrote on social media, my reasons for voting how I did, or your reasons for voting how you did, but the polls suggest that we’re becoming entrenched, people’s opinions are unchanged and unchanging, and how do we progress as a society when the 48% are writing the 52% off as racists and the 52% are complaining that the 48% are just bad losers? So I’m with Billy here, our response as artists needs to be about building bridges and understanding, and re-discovering our common cause.
To be honest, the whole of the next album was written in the shadow of Brexit. That is to say the shadow of the outcome of the referendum, not the shadow of leaving the EU, which we haven’t even done yet, and it’s presence is felt obliquely in several of the new songs. To deal with what I wanted to deal with meant more of a departure for my songwriting though. The funny-but-true lampooning of people with power, staying true to the axiom of always punching up, wasn’t going to work here.
Writing characters happened almost accidentally. Having written a verse and most of a chorus sketching out her life (inspired in part by something that Paul Mason says in PostCapitalism about how “a single mum on benefits, forced into the world of payday loans and buying household goods on credit, can be generating a much higher profit rate for capital than an auto industry worker with a steady job”), I spent a sleepless night wondering where the father of her children had got to. Getting up with the second verse already written in my head, I got it down on paper and thought about where I wanted to go next.
My intention was to make some more general points about debt and the EU which made Greece the obvious setting, but the characters weren’t letting go, and the third verse became her memories of a family holiday in better times. The fourth wrote itself moments later and wrapped up the tale, such as it is, in one line.
They don’t have names yet, this couple. I don’t know if they ever will, but I do know a great deal about them: their looks, attitudes, character, and some of their past. I feel as though I’ve got to know them as they’ve written themselves, with a little help from me.
I have no tune to share with you at the moment. There is one, but I’ll let The Protest Family work their magic on it before setting it free. I can, however, let you have a read of the lyrics:
She drops her eldest at school Old enough to remember when her dad still lived at home Sticks the younger in her buggy In no kind of hurry as she wheels her into town Looking for another payday loan A bit of credit for her phone Looking for a stay of execution While she finds a solution For the payments on the washing machine Before the money’s all gone
But she’s the engine of the economy She’s the grease in the machine Every fiver that she borrows Is a tenner on a banker’s screen Forget about productivity In a greed-based society From the euro to the pound It’s debt that makes the wheels go round
It was a decent enough job Until redundancy came his and his mates way It’s easy to blame the migrant worker When you’re called a shirker by the paper that you buy every day Looking for someone else to blame Drinking away his pain But when the words won’t come But the punches will It’s the ones you love Who are standing in the way
Now he’s the engine of the economy He’s the grease in the machine Every fiver that he borrows Is a tenner on a banker’s screen Forget about productivity In a greed-based society From the euro to the pound It’s debt that makes the wheels go round
There was that holiday in Greece They had a bit of money for a place in the sun, if only for two weeks They were better times She wonders about the people that they met in foreign climes Looking for some happy memories But the pictures on the TV Say they’re struggling And just as broken As she feels on days On days like these
They’re the engine of the economy They’re the grease in the machine Every fiver that they borrow Is a tenner on a banker’s screen Forget about productivity In a greed-based society From the euro to the pound It’s debt that makes the wheels go round
There was that holiday in Greece He had a bit of money to take the family to the beach They were happy times And the people that they met all seemed fine Looking for the reason it all changed Still looking for someone to blame In all the wrong places In all the wrong faces And wondering Is she still the same?
They’re the engine of the economy They’re the grease in the machine Every fiver that they borrow Is a tenner on a banker’s screen Forget about productivity In a greed-based society From the euro to the pound It’s debt that makes the wheels go round
I think it’s fair to say, looking back on it now that we had an amazing Tolpuddle performing as Maddy Carty & The Protest Family and as Workers Playtime, plus the almost-part-of-the-Tolpuddle furniture Unplugged session, and obligatory selfies with Jeremy Corbyn. I was going to write something about Tolpuddle Unplugged. In fact I still might, but suffice to say that every year I worry that it’s going to be a disaster, and every year it’s the opposite. I might have even figured out how it works, or at least I think so. The premise is ridiculous: Run a stage at a small but popular festival with no budget, no acts or amplification. Where do you start? Well, give it to a couple of chancers from an East London folk/punk band who’s main talent appears to be making friends, and chuck them into a field full of like-minded people who’ve stepped out of the struggle for the weekend to enjoy each other’s company while imagining a better, fairer world. It seems to work somehow.
The band has, though, been quiet since the summer, some of it planned and some unplanned. In a fallow year for Protest Family albums, you may have expected a solo effort from me, along the lines of somethingweirdgoingoninmyhead or Check Your Stereo. Well, the new songs are coming, a bit slower maybe, but there’s some work on it’s way that I’m already quite proud of, even before the rest of the band get their mucky paws on it and work their magic. You might have got some titbits from social media when I’ve got impatient and stuck myself in front of a live camera, or on YouTube where I’ve parked some sketches of songs where they’re easy for Doug, Lol and Russ to find, or if you’ve caught me giving some songs a run-out on my solo travels.
The Crematorium is of course the most immediately pressing message to get out there, but the song’s not going to go away, anymore than the Justice4Grenfell campaign will. We did knock up a terrific version of it for Tolpuddle with Robb Johnson on lead guitar and Maddy Carty’s amazing backing vocals, but the regular Protest Family line-up’s version is yet to be unveiled. Expect to hear it on November 14th at Ye Olde Rose & Crown as we raise money for striking workers at Whipps Cross Hospital.
Although The Death of Facts has been around since I played it at Punk 4 The Homeless in Nottingham last year, it’s not on the band’s radar yet, but I think it will be eventually. What is coming up soon (see above for when soon is) are Protest Family versions of Supersonic (using supersonic passenger flight to demonstrate that progress isn’t linear) and Han Solo (using the films of Harrison Ford to talk about consent. A chat that the actual Harrison Ford could’ve done with, by all accounts).
There’s enough love out there for If The Queen Had a Hammer that I think there will be a band version of it and, although I’m yet to share it with them, I think there’s a future for my song about Frank Turner (cheekily titled Thatcher Fucked The Kids) too. However my Blue Labour anthem Flag, Faith, Family & Fried Chicken may well fall by the wayside. It’s funny, true (look them up) and in the Protest Family style, but I think I’m tiring of it before it’s crossed the finish line. Maybe a new arrangement will give it a new lease of life. We’ll see.
Also queuing up to hit your ears is a Steve White/Russ Chandler collaboration called Winter of Discontent. Featuring Shakespeare’s Richard III re-cast as a trade union leader in the dying months of the Callaghan government, it’s the first time that I’ve put anything out there in iambic pentameter. The song will feature on a winter-themed compilation with a worldwide distribution deal* very soon. I’ll point you in the right direction when it comes out.
So, there’s songs, there’s big ideas, but maybe a lack of a vehicle to get them to you. Yes, gigs are a little thin on the ground but we do have a cunning plan or two, so (WATCH THIS SPACE).
*Everybody with an internet connection and an upload button’s got one.
Crikey, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is anyone surprised that David Cameron benefited from offshore investments that paid no tax? I’m only surprised that he wriggled and tried to hide it when the Mossack Fonseca story started to break. After all this government by the rich on behalf of the rich seem to get away with pretty much whatever they want, and we may chortle at his “It’s a private matter” whining, but it’s not like he’s going to give any of it back now is it? You might call for his head too, but there will be no challenge to his leadership this side of the EU referendum, the knives are still being sharpened.
Regular listeners will know that the words to Pay Your Tax vary considerably live, giving us the chance to have a pop at the latest tax dodger du jour. If the song makes it to the set lists for either Barnsley or Brixton, Camerons junior and senior are very much in the cross-hairs. And Cameron’s the perfect target. Although the song lists corporate tax dodgers (along with the occasional dig at Gary Barlow) their “it’s not illegal, just immoral” defence holds water. The real enemy is the system of government that allows the super-rich and the multinationals to benefit from massive tax avoidance only barely hidden from public view, and Cameron is both author and beneficiary of this corrupt regime.
“Glossop Labour Club is an independent social club. It is not affiliated to any political party, but is home to people who share a progressive outlook on life.”
Ooh, that’s interesting: setting out your “No, we’re not affiliated to the Labour Party” stance in the opening paragraph of your web site. The authors of Glossop Labour Club’s site go on to add that they’re one of the oldest Labour/Socialist clubs in the country, founded in 1906 by the ILP, two years before the national party existed.
Our kind of folk, but folk we’d mostly not met before; and though a warm and friendly audience, one that was prepared to subject our songs to some scrutiny. From the stage you could almost feel people listening, working out what we meant and realising that yeah, we are all on the same side. It’s great when that happens. I remember a conversation at Tolpuddle the morning after we’d played when a fella we’d not met before (let’s call him Hugh) came back to us with a couple of lines from the first verse of No Pasaran In E17 for a fuller version of the story.*
Talking of anonymous contributors to the story, I used a fictional friend (let’s call him Dave) as part of the intro to Victoria Says. Fictional Dave is of course based on a real friend called, um, Dave, but being 200 miles away from home I thought I’d got away with it. Turns out that Dave (the real one) had a mate in the room who he’d encouraged to come along if we were ever playing nearby. Busted. But in a good way.
Anyway, an hour long set gave us a good opportunity to set out our stall to a new crowd. We started with a bang, messed around with spoons and poetry in the middle, and finished on a high with a Pete Seeger singalong and our version of the National Anthem. We got a lovely review in the Morning Star too.
With a bit of TLC, the Protest Family tour bus made it to and from Glossop without incident and we’ll hope for the same again as we head to Barnsley on May Day for the Festival of Solidarity in the Polish Club. That’s one you don’t want to miss, a gathering of the great and the good of the lefty touring scene, with an average age slightly lower than the Pensioners Against The Cuts Tour.
You should come.
* Hugh: “So what you’re saying is that the RMT used health and safety to perform an overtly political act and oppose fascism?” Us: “Yeah”.