It was a beautiful day for a riot. Granted, it was an exceedingly small riot, and not a very spontaneous one. And I don't even support rioting as a tactic under most circumstances. But they can still be a lot of fun, and I had been looking forward to this one for several weeks.
I've been on this island that an ever-dwindling number of people call Great Britain for close to a month now, on another of my annual pilgrimages to Europe, otherwise known as a concert tour. Sitting in the lovely back garden of the pub known as the Duke of Wellington, the local pub of my good friend Attila the Stockbroker, punk rock poet and organizer of tonight's gig, the last of twenty or so gigs on the British leg of the tour.
Not sure how much it's helped, but I've been mentioning this day at the end of all my gigs here, the day the English Defense League celebrates England in their own special way. St. George's Day. I don't know who St. George was, but this is his Day, and it evidently has something to do with this political-geographical entity full of the descendents of the Celtic tribes, the Vikings, the Normans and people from all over what was once the British Empire and beyond, known as England.
Every St. George's Day, the xenophobic men of the EDL – there are virtually no women in the group as far as I can tell – get pissed (drunk, in American) and have their March For England. For some bizarre reason, they choose Brighton as the location for their annual March. Brighton, the lovely little city on the south coast of England, less than an hour's train ride south of London, which has long been a vacation spot for Londoners wishing to breath some clean air for a change, and in recent decades has become the gay capital of Europe. It's also a big university town and a huge magnet for tourists from around the world, what with its quaint Old Town known as the Lanes, its seafront B&Bs, its very colorful population, and of course its proximity to the even bigger tourism magnet, the sprawling megalopolis known as London.
Every year, the ranks of the EDL keep shrinking, and the ranks of the anti-EDL protesters and police continually expand. When I arrived in town I parked on the outskirts of the city, knowing how parking anywhere closer is virtually impossible, even on a normal day, when the police haven't fenced off half the city. The March had already started. I wasn't sure quite where to find it, so I followed the helicopter, which I correctly assumed was there for the occasion, circling above the proceedings. If there had been no helicopter, it would have been easy enough to find by the scores of police vehicles and hundreds of geared-up cops lining the streets near the section of the seafront which had been duly fenced off in preparation for the festivities.
Walking through the city, there were two conversations that kept on repeating themselves every few seconds all around me. One was people with southern English accents complaining about the massive police presence, all to protect a pathetic group of forty or so fascists, as they are popularly known. The other was people with foreign accents of one kind or another asking one of the many cops or someone nearby what was going on here.
The spectre of the sloshed, jeering football hooligans who pass for ultranationalists, trying not to notice that they owe their very survival to this tremendous police operation, as they are constantly getting yelled at wherever they go by people of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations, while walking up and down the fenced-off seafront, much of the time in the rain, was very sad. One expects a certain amount of military discipline from fascists, but this lot had none of that. They did at least have large flags on long wooden poles, approximately one flag for every two fascists, which gave them at least a slight air of respectability, or at least some kind of notion that they were making some attempt at being an organized group. While the fascists – or the “fash” -- were being unceremoniously shoved and kettled by the police just as the anti-fascist protesters were, the fact that many of them had their English crusader flags on long wooden poles was somewhat conspicuous. If any of the black-clad youth had showed up with any kind of flag on a long wooden pole, I'm fairly certain the poles would have been confiscated by the police, for fear of them being used as weapons.
The very small-scale rioting took place near the train station, when the fash were trying to escape Brighton and fuck off home, under police protection of course. On a couple of occasions, protesters got close enough to them to nail one with a can of beer, or in one case, to spill beer on their faces. The latter event I personally witnessed, while sitting in a pub a block from the station. A waste of good beer, someone nearby mumbled after the event.
What I like best about protests is running into friends, and this one was no exception. At the seafront I spotted a couple who had once organized a gig for me, and attended many others over the years. I hadn't seen them in quite a while, though, and seeing the badges around their necks it became clear why. Both of them had been elected to the Brighton City Council seven years earlier, on the Green Party ticket. Standing amongst them were a collection of other local Green Party politicians, including a Member of the European Parliament, and the infamous Caroline Lucas, the Green Party's one Member of Parliament at Westminster, who for the past few years has seemed to be the sole voice of reason in the British Parliament since Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons.
And there at the pub down the street from the train station was a table full of people with press badges and fancy cameras, including my old friend Guy Smallman, who had clearly had a satisfying afternoon of sticking his camera in the faces of drunk fascists. Guy had only returned from covering the elections in Afghanistan days before, and had some exciting (to him), horrifying (to me) stories of near-death experiences to tell about the trip, which included being way too close to an exchange of heavy artillery between the Afghan Army and the Taleban. Speaking of the Taleban, this was the one line of reason, if you can call it that, that the EDL boys kept using against anyone who would criticize them. “You like the Taleban?”, they kept asking. Evidently, anyone who has a problem with racist homophobic idiots must be a Taleban supporter.
This tour of Great Britain began where it ends, in southern England. The plan was to start with a day to recover from jet lag, but that was not to be, thanks to yet another very delayed United Airlines flight which prevented me from getting to Chicago, from where I was originally going to be taken to London. So my first gig was on the day I landed. I was exhausted, and didn't have much of a singing voice, but it was nonetheless another great gig at what might be the best-run folk club in England, the Islington Folk Club. Opening for me there, as they do there every Thursday for whoever is the main act that week, was the house band, the Angel Band, playing their familiar traditional folk music. The band has so many members that they barely fit on the stage -- a collection of accordian players, guitarists, and a fiddler player in his late eighties, originally from the US, who played with the New Lost City Ramblers once upon a time, back in the 1950's, when he and that legendary outfit were a central part of the Greenwich Village folk revival, before there officially was one.
After a gig at the much smaller Hove Folk Club, formed only in recent years by one of the greatest songwriters in the English language, Robb Johnson, soon after he moved from London to Hove, the next stop was a small town near Milton Keynes, northwest of London, where the Workers Music Association were having a weekend gathering. Somewhat reminiscent of the New York-based Peoples Music Network, the WMA is a collection of a few dozen leftwingers, many of whom are members of leftwing choirs. There's a folk music-oriented bias to the WMA these days, but its roots are in the “workers music” tradition of the 1930's, when folks like my father's mentor, Stefan Wolpe, and people like Bertoldt Brecht and Hans Eisler were composing music that they hoped would appeal to the working class, and thus do their part to use music as a tool for moving society in a sensibly leftward direction. As with most organizations with the word “workers” in its name, the membership of the WMA is solidly on the older and more communist side of the left. Nothing wrong with that in the least, as far as I'm concerned, but as usual with ageing organizations, there was a lot of talk about how to interest the youth in it. Always a tough question, especially when you're starting out with an organization that is completely lacking in youth. Helps to have some to start with, in order to attract more of them...
Next stop was Wales. The organizer of the show in the little town of Llandloes (don't ask me how to pronounce that) was a transplant from Glasgow with many fine stories of the chaotic scenes in that conflicted city that had prompted him to take his family to a decidedly quieter place. His kids, who, on their mother's side of the family, are the grandchildren of a great promoter of the Welsh language, are being raised bilingual, in both Welsh and English, like their mother was, long before that became commonplace for kids living in Wales.
In Cardiff I shared the stage with the great Cosmo, an English transplant to Wales and a fabulous songwriter of a decidedly anarchist persuasion, recently back from a trip to Palestine. Also back from Palestine there at the No NATO benefit gig was Dee, a feisty little Irish woman who had been living in Wales for a long time, who managed to get herself arrested by the IDF during their visit to Palestine, for yelling at the soldiers who had just randomly decided to teargas small children as they were attempting to walk to school one morning.
In Birmingham I had the great pleasure of sitting in on a meeting of folks involved with organizing a small left-oriented festival, including a couple of folks who are members of the venerable Banner Theater group, who have been on the forefront of the class war in England since the early 1970's. I interviewed Dave Rogers, who writes the songs for Banner, among other things. One of what I hope will be many interviews with folks I meet in my travels. (Stay tuned for more on that...)
The function room in the pub in Liverpool was packed, as were most of the gigs, which was an especially welcome surprise given that it had only been organized with about four days' advance notice by one of the (younger) folks at the WMA weekend, Phil Hargreaves, an extremely talented jazz musician (whose daughter is also a great musician in a really good band that has just recorded their first CD). Phil lives in the working class neighborhood where John Lennon grew up, but I couldn't find John's house. Had a nice walk, though, in making the attempt...
I had my first gig ever in the town of Wigan, probably best known for its rugby team (for those who are into sport) or by George Orwell's book about it (for those who are into literature). I'm completely uninterested in sport and have never read the book, but it's a nice little town, like most towns in England are. The great actor and singer Tayo Aluko sat in the front row. Always exciting and slightly unsettling when someone of his stature is paying so much attention to me, so of course I completely botched at least one song, but otherwise it went OK. (For those of you in Britain and Ireland, Tayo is touring with his one-man musical about Paul Robeson for much of the month of May, and more in the fall...)
Most of the other shows in England were in what they call the North. Exactly what defines the North seems to be open to debate, but Northerners will tell you if you're in the North, or just near it... It includes the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, I think I can say definitively. The North-South divide in England goes way back. Of course there are people of all sorts in both regions of the country, but some of the characteristics that people tend to think of when they think of this divide are things like, well, class, primarily. The South has more money, overall, and also a lot more people. The stereotypical bias of Southerners toward the North can be characterized by a Tory MP (and a Southerner) who said recently that while he didn't approve of fracking in the south of England, he thought that fracking was a good idea in the northeast of England, which he characterized as “barren.” When challenged about this characterization of the northeast, he corrected himself, and said that he had meant the northwest. So he managed to insert his foot even deeper down his throat, and offend everybody in the North all at once, not for the first time.
I'm always really happy to get up to the north of England. The atmosphere is more relaxed than in the parts of England that are anywhere near the great international financial capital and teeming metropolis that is London. The air is clean up north, especially since Thatcher destroyed the manufacturing base of the country long ago, which was once largely based there, in cities like Manchester. In the countryside there are lots of sheep, and beautiful rolling hills on which the sheep are grazing. In spring, there are lots of baby sheep frolicking about, looking impossibly adorable. Most of the population is what you might call leftwing. Or at least in the South they might call them leftwing. In the North they'd more tend to just consider themselves Northerners, where the term “left” or even “working class” might just seem redundant as a descriptor.
The gig in Lancaster was an exceptionally well-attended anti-fracking benefit that featured a bunch of other great acts, and many audience members who had recently been arrested for locking down to fracking equipment. When I arrived at the venue, I learned that the police had called in to the publican to express their concern, because they had heard there was going to be a riot after the gig. The cops were wondering if they should post a riot squad outside the building. Thankfully, the owner of the pub declined their generous offer. I was not the only person at the gig to think that if the police had had a riot squad outside the pub, this in itself could have caused a riot, but that with no riot squad, a riot was unlikely to happen, despite the fact that probably half of the anarchist punks in Lancaster were at the gig, one of whom recited poetry from the stage that definitely glorified violence against cops and fascists alike. (He also really didn't like meat-eaters, but luckily for me, he apparently didn't think they should be beaten up. Either that or he assumed I was a fellow vegan.)
From the moment I arrived in Scotland until the moment I left, there was talk of the upcoming Independence vote. I lost count of the number of people who told me, “next time I see you it will be in an independent Scotland.” The vote is in the fall, and for the most part they know I usually make it to Scotland and elsewhere in Europe in the spring. Occasionally I met someone who quietly said they didn't care whether it was a Scottish government or a British government as long as it was a socialist one, but most people there, at least among the possibly-not-very-representative self-selected group of leftists that I tend to attract, were convinced that independence would be a good thing, and many of them were actively campaigning for it.
I stayed with a friend in a neighborhood of Glasgow that's mostly populated by people with very recent South Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry. The neighborhood was well-known locally for the successful struggle for the Govanhill Baths. The government closed them down, and the people occupied them for several months, got arrested a lot, and mobilized the community to defend the venerable and much-loved institution. My friend and host, Fatima Uygun, and her late partner, my old touring companion Alistair Hulett, were central to this struggle. Alistair even wrote a whole album's worth of songs about the struggle to keep the baths open.
The neighborhood was also made famous by the murder of a young white man by a group of Asian teenagers one night some years ago, very near to Fatima's flat. So, just as Brighton has become the preferred location for the EDL to have their annual march, the neighborhood of Pollakshields has become the spot for the pathetically small Scottish Defense League to have their marches. Their last march consisted of seven racist twats, protected by hundreds of riot police, who shut down the neighborhood so these thugs could exercise their right to assemble in an immigrant neighborhood, which apparently did not go down well among the locals.
One day several of us took a day trip around Loch Lomond and to the beautiful Scottish Highlands. Other than nearly getting run over by a lorrie, it was magnificent. Hills and mountains, called glens there, with rivers running between them, and deer grazing in the plentiful grass. There are almost no people living there now, though. For just as England is a place divided by huge regional differences and a gaping class divide, to say nothing of the disintegrating collection of states that, for a few more months, we may perhaps call Great Britain, Scotland is also a divided place. The depopulated Highlands are an eloquent, silent testament to this fact. Once they were filled with people, people who lived in tribes called clans, who eeked out a living through small-scale farming. But ownership of their land was claimed by absentee landlords from England and the Scottish lowlands, who ultimately decided to systematically burn down their villages house by house, forcing the Highlanders to either freeze to death – as many did – or flee to the refugee camps in the cities of Scotland and England that awaited them, before being forced to emigrate to New Scotland – Nova Scotia – or elsewhere in North America, Australia, or New Zealand. Today there are far more descendents of the Highlanders in these places than there are in Scotland itself, and the Highlands remain land for grazing only, just as the landlords wanted it to be when they began the Clearances a couple centuries ago.
Back in England, an event sponsored by a Palestine solidarity group in the Lancashire town of Colne that featured a really good leftwing choir in between my sets, and then the next day, a long drive across England from north to south, featuring more and more traffic the further south I got, the kind of barely-moving traffic that roads like the M6 and M25 are well-known for, though it was actually the first really bad traffic I had encountered on the entire trip, aside from in London itself. The last two gigs in southern England, aside from at the Duke, were in Kingston and Hastings.
Kingston is at this point I suppose a suburb of London. I believe it's represented in parliament by Tories, but there is a leftwing punk rock underbelly to be sure. I got to the venue in plenty of time anyway. A pub called the Cricketers, it was presumably once for cricket players who would have been playing cricket in the field across from it, which now looks more like a typical park than a cricket field. I can imagine what kind of food the kitchen used to serve there, but thankfully, now there's a Lebanese chef, and a wonderful menu of Lebanese food, which I was very ready for after all those hours behind the wheel, drinking lots of espresso, but not eating a whole lot.
The gig was another wonderful multi-bill event, which I always love, because I get to hear other performers. (I don't get out much, aside from going to my own shows...) Grace Petrie delivered a stellar set of songs, including a few great new ones as well as somewhat older songs of hers. I knew which ones were the older ones, because I had heard them before, as, clearly, had at least half of the audience, who sang along loudly to every word of those ones. For someone with such outspoken leftwing politics, the fact that she's been getting regular airplay on national radio shows on BBC is hard to believe, from the perspective of this particular cynical American. (When, I often wonder, is Venezuela going to start up that English-language satellite TV channel, so I might have a chance of getting some media attention before I die...)
The organizer of the show at the Cricketers was also a fine performer of original music, Tim OT is the name he goes by. Tim has apparently been listening to my music since he was 14. He's now 22. I especially enjoy meeting people who “grew up” listening to my music, which happens increasingly the longer I do this.
In Hastings, a lovely coastal town, I wandered around the Old Town and then went to the Jenny Lind, the pub where the folk club in town happens, diligently organized every month by local rabble-rousing historian and author, Tony Streeter. I assume it was because he had a solidly leftwing performer on the bill that he decided to feature six different five-minute (theoretically) speeches by activists and organizers of all sorts, who spoke about everything from stopping drone warfare to promoting African land reform.
Attila tells me, and others gathered around the bar in between my sets, that when he first met me thirteen years ago I was a hippie, and played very folky music, which he imitated with hand gestures and “plunk-plunk” noises. But the longer we toured together, the blacker my clothing got, and the more punk rock my songwriting got. It's all true, of course. However, he says the iPad on the stage with me where I keep my lyrics these days has got to go. It's not at all punk rock, he says. I'm sure that's true, too.
Next stop: Hamburg Airport.