Interwoven Histories – working-class writing and immigration

Working-class writers have for centuries understood the interwoven histories of their own position within British society and that of colonised people overseas. The radical rhetoric of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drew parallels between the plight of the African slaves who picked cotton in the American South and the children who carded and spun it in the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of the North of England. I’ve just started a piece examining the continuities of this tradition in two post-war writers’ treatments of ethnicity, racism and immigration. Like so many of the issues that I’m interested in, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists provides an early and important twentieth-century example. At the beginning of the novel Owen and his colleagues are sitting on upturned buckets, slurping tea from jam jars during their lunch break. One of the decorators, Easton, is reading the Obscurer, which provokes in him

a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that it was about time we did something to protect ourselves … The papers they read were full of vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country. The enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.*

When he was writing in the early 1910s, Tressell was dismayed by the way in which those in power distracted the people from their own colossal greed and corruption by blaming foreigners. It’s a sad statement on our own times that a century later the right-wing press are up to the same dirty tricks. Another subject of a previous post, Jack Hilton, was disarmingly honest about how he was brainwashed by such racist propaganda, describing how the foundations were laid during his education:

What a fighting chance we were given to understand the happenings of world significance – it was not a dog’s chance. It worked out this way. 1st: Heaps of God; 2nd: England first – the world nowhere; 3rd: Blatant swagger; one good honest Christian blue-eyed English schoolboy equalled twenty infidel Japs …

Having been schooled in the bigotry of British imperialism, Hilton was swept up by the anti-German feeling of the First World War and later flirted with eugenics, a despicable and discredited philosophy not a million miles from Boris Johnson’s. True to the enduring internationalism and anti-racism of the radical working-class tradition (stretching back to Joseph Mather and beyond), Hilton came to see the working-class movement as related to the anti-colonial struggles of his day. Gandhi visited Lancashire whilst Hilton was writing his first book and slept on the sofa of a Labour family in Salford. Renewed interest in the historical theft of common land – linked to the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 – forged a more concrete connection between these twin struggles and in the post-war era working-class writers continued to show a progressive interest in the intersection of class and colonialism.

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Gandhi in Lancashire

Writers whose work was shaped in the post-war era by these interwoven histories include Sheffield’s own Len Doherty, Shelagh Delaney (whose A Taste of Honey, in Colin MacInnes’s memorable phrase, was the first play to portray black and gay characters ‘without a nudge or shudder’), Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow (whose narrator Vic says of a racist character ‘she could hardly open her mouth without showing everybody what a stupid, bigoted, ignorant old cow she is’), Buchi Emecheta, Jeremy Sandford, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the list goes on…

The project I am starting looks at two more whose lives and works traverse British inner cities and former British colonies. In the pages of these writers’ work we find out much more about the changing nature of the working class and the spectrum of working-class responses to immigration than we ever can from the journalists and politicians who blame immigrants for everything from putting too much strain on the NHS (it would collapse without them) to roasting swans.** And indeed more than we can from phenomena like the BBC’s White Season of a few years back, which managed to be racist by labelling all white working-class people racist – a pretty spectacular feat when you think about it. What we find in these books is what many people from diverse neighbourhoods know through their daily lived experience – what Paul Gilroy has described as ‘demotic multiculturalism’ – which is that the working class co-authored multiculturalism alongside immigrants, largely from the colonies. The history of immigration into Britain following the Second World War – and in many areas before the war – is a history of immigration into working-class areas.

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Grave of a Muslim miner killed at Beighton colliery in 1922, Bunrgreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Working-class writers deal with the realities of what this means. They don’t shy away from appalling racism or seek to present a rose-tinted view of things, but nor do they ignore the rich history of tolerance and conviviality that many contemporary commentators ignore and efface. The tradition of internationalism and radical anti-racism in working-class writing constitutes an eloquent historical response to the absurd and offensive notion that the working class is somehow inherently racist or intolerant.

In our own times, as recent work by Beverly Skeggs, Stephen Garner and Owen Jones has shown, there is a worrying trend for journalists, politicians and academics to vilify working-class people in ways that are sinisterly reminiscent of the how ‘racial others’ have been demonised since the beginning of the colonial era. Working-class writers often intuitively understand this and deliberately position themselves alongside the ‘other’. In the opening sonnet of his brilliant collection The School of Eloquence, Tony Harrison connects his exploration of working-class history – and his search for an identity and a voice to express it – by analogy with Aimé Césaire’s founding text of the Négritude movement:

…I call these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,

My growing black enough to fit my boots.

With these lines – and the dedication of the poem to members of the Angolan independence movement Frelimo – Harrison aligns his own project with that of the anti-colonial poets of Africa and the West Indies. It is this interwoven history that I will be exploring in my current project.

*pp. 41-3 – as a member of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, I have copies of this book to give away. If you’d like one, please email me your address and I’ll post one to you.

** ‘SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen’s birds for barbecues’.The Sun has removed the article from its website but Nick Medic’s Making a Meal of a Myth details its complete lack of any factual basis.

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Sweetly Sings Delaney

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This is an overdue review of a book published almost a year ago. John Harding’s Sweetly Sings Delaney: A Study of Shelagh Delaney’s Work 1958-68 is a valuable exploration of the first ten years of a fascinating career. Jeanette Winterson wrote that reviews of Delaney’s first two plays ‘read like a depressing essay in sexism’ and called her ‘the first working-class woman playwright’. Such an important figure in the development of working-class writing deserves far greater critical attention than Delaney has received, and this book is a welcome step in the right direction.

Since its publication, Salford City Council organised the first Shelagh Delaney Day on what would have been her 76th birthday (25 November 2014).* Given the then Director of Education’s public hostility to her depiction of Salford in 1958, Delaney might have found her officially sanctioned local hero status amusing. But this recognition rightly places her alongside Salford’s most famous artist, LS Lowry. The painter was a major influence on Delanay: his Coming from the Mill hung in her classroom and she gazed at it when her attention strayed from lessons (‘which was often enough’).

In LS Lowry is the very essence of a child … The universal truth – this loneliness of mankind – this loneliness is something we have always suspected at some time and Lowry has caught it – comic, cruel, beautiful, ugly and tragic.

Those last five words could equally describe the genius of A Taste of Honey. Just as Lowry had been a significant figure in representations of the industrial north a generation before, Delaney was a leading light in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the 1950s. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – received at the time and seen since as a pivotal moment in post-war theatre – was made to seem tame and dated when A Taste of Honey swaggered out in front of an unsuspecting audience two years later in 1958. Apart from a too-detailed summary of the play (similar accounts of later works are understandable given their relative obscurity), the seventy-or-so pages Harding dedicates to its genesis, development, production and reception are by far the most thoroughgoing account yet offered of Delaney’s masterpiece. Harding notes that there are few extended analyses of the play (a chunk of my PhD thesis takes issue with Arthur Oberg and Edward Esche’s readings, the two most detailed academic engagements with it) and his seven short chapters are a useful antidote to this critical neglect.

coming from the mill

Coming from the Mill

On the first page we’re told that on her birth certificate her name is spelled ‘Sheila’ and that ‘why she changed it isn’t known’. Harding assumes it was to emphasise her Irish roots – of which she was doubtlessly proud – but skips over its wider significance. ‘Shelagh’ seems part of a concerted effort to cultivate the cult outsider recognisability of a JD Salinger or Françoise Sagan (with whom comparisons were made at the time). Delaney projected an image of herself as a bolshy, defiant and mysterious young woman intent on rocking the theatrical boat and shaking post-war culture out of its complacent conservatism.** Harding’s assumption is of no great significance but it is indicative of the book’s un-academic tone.

The advantage of this approach is the ready readability of Harding’s prose, which is pitched at the general reader as well as a more scholarly audience. He has amassed a great deal of material, much of it entertaining as well as insightful, and he stitches many and varied quotations into a coherent and compelling account of Delaney’s early career. Harding illustrates well how Delaney was, like many writers, an inveterate self-mythologiser, telling Joan Littlewood in the letter that accompanied the manuscript of A Taste of Honey that two weeks previously she ‘didn’t know the theatre existed’ and leading journalists to believe that she cut her cultural teeth in the music hall and on thrice-weekly visits to the cinema. In fact, she’d worked as an usher and regularly went to plays with her friend, the artist Harold Riley, who was ‘struck at the time by the extent of Delaney’s knowledge of the history of the theatre’.

Fascinating insights such as this, gleaned from interviews and an impressive range of sources, make Sweetly Sings Delaney an invaluable account of her early writing career. Harding sets out to show that Delaney ‘played an important role in both stage and film writing and that her contribution to the careers of film directors such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson was a significant one’. He certainly succeeds, and at the same time offers a comprehensive account of her early development and her relationship with Salford. For anyone interested in the first working-class woman playwright, it’s a must-read.

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Shelagh Delaney’s Salford has great footage of the playwright in her home town.

*There’s a promotional video – with a very odd choice of backing music – here.

**This was surely part of what fascinated Morrissey about her: The Smiths used one of Arnold Newman’s portraits for the cover of Louder Than Bombs and Morrissey said ‘at least fifty per cent of the reason for my writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney’.

louder than bombs

Still the Greatest Novel of the 20th Century

Half way through Shut Out the Light‘s fantastic Still Ragged, Andrew Lynch – one of several writers to have dramatised the novel for radio – describes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as a classic, iconic text, going on to say:

It stands as a great novel and then its political significance makes it rise above just a novel.

Lynch condenses into a single sentence a century of criticism about this controversial, mysterious masterpiece. Since first emerging in heavily abridged form a century ago it has become a set text of British socialism and a popular classic whose readership is several times the number of printed copies. Over the last hundred years it has been handed down through generations, passed around workplaces, union branches and armed forces and – in a way only a book that has generated its own folklore could – won a general election (in 1945). As Lynch suggests, its unparalleled political potency has overshadowed its considerable literary achievement and it is one of the strengths of Still Ragged that both elements of Tressell’s genius are considered by the impressive cast of passionate enthusiasts the film gathers together.

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An example of Tressell’s highly skilled painting

Only The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could require such a cast, including trade unionists, painter-decorators, singer-songwriters, playwrights, writers, actors, MPs and, yes, literary critics to even come near to doing its genius justice. Those who share their thoughts about the book include well-known fans such as Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Skinner and Len McCluskey, as well as readers at a Liverpool book group. A painter-decorator talks us through the difficulties of the job – still plentiful in the early twenty-first century – and an actor gives entertaining solo performances of some of the book’s most memorable and important passages to give the viewer unfamiliar with the text a flavour of its tone and message.

One of the most fascinating contributions is by Stephen Lowe, who has adapted the novel for the stage several times, including for the Isango Ensemble’s musical re-imagining of the text against the backdrop of Apartheid-era South Africa. Lowe argues that Tressell’s book is a major literary landmark, skilfully blending influences as diverse as Dickens, Zola, Flaubert and Swift in order to find ‘a new form able to take a lecture in the middle of it almost Brechtianly’. As Nicola Wilson points out, Tressell self-consciously comes out of the Victorian tradition, using an intrusive narrator and the foregrounding of the men’s labour to subvert the country house novel and represent the way in which society is constructed by its members. Still Ragged manages something that literary critics have largely failed to do: it advances some decent literary criticism of a book that has always been primarily considered a political text and in doing so calls for a well-overdue reassessment from a literary-critical perspective.*

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 Tressell’s Oblong, still a depressingly accurate breakdown of British society.

As well as giving literary credit where it’s due, Still Ragged gives plenty of space to the impassioned political polemic of the book and its continued relevance today. Dennis Skinner is visibly livid as he likens the current scourge of zero-hours contracts to the instability of the men’s employment in the novel. Ricky Tomlinson tells the extraordinary story of how the prison governor introduced him to the text whilst he was in solitary confinement on purely political charges. The film shows how urgently relevant Tressell’s political message is in our own time and urges viewers to return to it and consider how it can help us in our current crises. The recurring account is that the book is passed on to people and it changes their lives; as Dave Harker points out with his extensive collection of translations, it persistently has the power to change people’s lives across space and time.**

The film also conveys some of the incredible story behind the novel’s publication, which would provide enough material for a whole film in itself.*** But what it achieves most convincingly is to celebrate the triumph of this most brilliant working-class novel. Despite being butchered by editors and publishers (who we nevertheless have to thank for the survival of the text) and ignored or patronised by critics, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has managed to become the most important and influential British novel of the twentieth century: Still Ragged passionately conveys this and will hopefully recruit more readers and change their lives. In my case it was very much preaching to the converted but the film was hugely effective at that: I immediately ordered more copies to give away.^ If you’ve ever read the book, buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant. If you’ve never read the book, email me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Then buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant…

Still Ragged trailer

*Welcome progress was made in this direction with the publication of Revisiting Robert Tressell’s Mugsborough in 2008.

**Peter Miles’ intro to the 2005 OUP edition includes this quotation from a website in the Philippines: ‘the injustices suffered by Owen (the hero) at the hands of the vicious foreman, the corrupt politicians, the hypocritical churchmen are all around me in Manila. It makes me so angry that we have made so little progress over 100 years’.

***It was burnt, rescued, passed on, lost and eventually bought – in a tin box handed over in a station café by a mysterious stranger – by Fred Ball, a Hastings painter-decorator and Tressell enthusiast who painstakingly restored the manuscript to as close as possible to its original state. Have a look here.

^I’m a member of The Association of the Ragged Trousered  which was set up to help the book reach new readers and whose founder Kevin Jones appears in the film

Tommy Youdan: Music Hall Hero

On Monday the 8th of September I sent this article – Tommy Youdan: Music Hall Hero – into Now Then (a great, beautifully produced free Sheffield magazine that’s had the good taste to publish a few of my articles in the past). The following day, on route to The Tumble near Abergavenny to see Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Tour of Britain, I got a call from Point Blank Theatre asking me to be… Tommy Youdan in a production about Harvey Teasdale at the Spiegeltent in Barker’s Pool for the Festival of the Mind. I ended up leading the Tour of Britain briefly over a famous road climb later on, so it was a pretty surreal day all-round.* This post is a slightly longer version of that Now Then article and I will post shortly about how and why I ended up being Tommy on stage and my experience of researching, devising and performing in the piece.

In 1844, Engels wrote that ‘immorality among young people in Sheffield seems to be more prevalent than anywhere else’. In fact, early music-hall was transforming working-class culture in Sheffield by introducing a huge variety of popular and ‘high-brow’ entertainment to affordable venues. One of the key figures in its development was the tenth son of a farm labourer from Kirk Sandal, near Doncaster. Tommy Youdan was born in 1816 and followed older brothers to Sheffield to look for work. After being a labourer, a silver stamper and a beerhouse keeper, in March 1849 he opened Youdan’s Royal Casino at 66 West Bar: it was so successful that it was enlarged twice that year to hold 1,200 punters and a stage big enough for elaborate shows. Despite its size and nightly entertainment admission was still free, suggesting drink was the main attraction.

But Youdan had grand plans and wanted to offer high quality, affordable entertainment to his working-class clientele. The 1843 Theatres Act required licences for all sorts of dramatic performances, and theatre managers were on the look-out for infringements so they could inform on music-hall owners who were encroaching on their turf. Youdan used phrases like ‘illustrated ballad’ and ‘duologue’ to describe operas and plays so he could offer a wide range of entertainments without a licence. It didn’t always work: in 1850 he was fined £20 for eighteen nights of ‘operatic performances’. The fact that Youdan could pay the fines shows that the working-class appetite for music and drama made it a lucrative business.

In the same year he changed the name to the Surrey Music Hall, a bold statement of intent because Sheffield’s foremost respectable concert room was the Music Hall in Surrey Street. The range of entertainment on offer was huge, from high-grade musicians, opera and ballet to animal acts, comics, ventriloquists, dramatic readings and ceiling walkers. Youdan’s blend of low prices, classy surroundings and programmes mixing high-brow and popular entertainment was so successful that it spawned a rash of copycat venues. When a rival took over a massive former circus in Blonk Street, opening it in 1851 as the Adelphi, Youdan responded by investing £5,000 on expanding to a capacity of 3,000. At Christmas 1851 he advertised his ‘ELEGANT ESTABLISHMENT’ as ‘the EMPORIUM OF ECONOMICAL INTELLECTUAL AMUSEMENT’.

The Adelphi got a theatre licence in 1852 and its manager and the Theatre Royal’s owners repeatedly took Youdan to court for staging unlicenced shows. Determined to prove his respectability, Youdan made himself a popular public figure through charity work and canny PR. He gave beef and blankets to the poor, hosted an open-air tea for 2,000 old ladies to celebrate the end of the Crimean War, offered train tickets to London and trips to the St Leger festival as prizes to his customers, leant his house band for public events and bought a menagerie of stuffed animals for educational display. But even his philanthropy got Youdan into trouble: in 1856 he advertised the sale of a 4-ton ‘Monster Twelfth Cake’ in portions, some containing medals entitling the holder to a cash prize. Cautioned by the authorities under the Lottery Act, he was forced to sell off the soggy, undercooked cake with no prizes.

Tommy Youdan 25 march 1865 after the fire

The only surviving photo of Youdan, centre in top hat, with his company after the fire.

In 1858 Youdan’s popularity and public spirit got him elected as a Town Councillor and a member of the Board of Workhouse Guardians, positions in which he worked conscientiously to improve conditions for the Sheffield poor. The following year he took on the lease of the Adelphi, removing a major competitor, and used it as a warehouse. This turned out to be his saviour when, in 1865, the Surrey Music Hall burnt down. He reopened the Adelphi as the Alexandra New Music Hall and eventually got his theatrical licence, allowing him to bring the greatest stars of the day to Sheffield audiences at affordable prices.

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The Burning of the Surrey Theatre, 1865

Not only did Youdan revolutionise music-hall, he also had a hand in the early development of the next great mass entertainment, football. He donated the trophy and prize money for the Youdan Cup, the first ever cup competition, featuring twelve teams from the Sheffield area including Pitsmoor, Broomhall, Heeley, Norton and the winners – and only team still going – Hallam FC (who still have it now). Even though he had retired in 1874 and died two years later – leaving £25,000 to his niece – The Alexandra was popularly referred to as Tommy’s right up until its demolition in 1914. Because of Youdan’s vision, drive and ambition, Sheffield had a much richer music hall culture than most other industrial cities. His love of popular entertainment and his desire to improve the lot of the city’s poor led him to have an important hand in the development of music and football in the city, two passions that its residents still hold dear.

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The Youdan Cup presented to Hallam FC in 1867

* MOTORBIKE COP: You’re gonna have to pull over, there’s a race coming through

ME: I know, I’m winning!

MOTORBIKE COP pulls unimpressed face, speeds off.

Dr Graham Joyce (1954-2014)

Laboring-Class Poets Online

Dr Graham Joyce (1954-2014)

John Goodridge
Nottingham Trent University

This posting is about a working-class writer who won’t be listed on our Database of Labouring-class Poets any time soon, even though he was a coalminer’s son and an immensely successful and popular writer (and even had an interesting link to our project). He would of course be ‘OP’, or ‘out of our period’. But more importantly my friend and colleague Graham Joyce, who died on September 9th aged 59, loudly disdained what he saw as the pretentiousness and self-absorption of poets, and indeed art writers of all sorts. (His antipathy towards poets though, like the music-loathing of the Chief Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine, evidently masked suppressed longings, because according to the long memory of our mutual friend the poet Mahendra Solanki, Graham began his writing career as a poet long ago.) Graham’s attitude to mainstream fiction was…

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The Evergreen in Red and White – Review

Steven Kay’s self-published debut novel, The Evergreen in Red and White, is about the first professional footballer of Romany descent, Rabbi Howell, and his final season at Sheffield United in 1897-8. Kay has dedicated a post on his blog to reviews of fourteen Sheffield novels – a great reading list for anyone interested in the city’s representation in fiction – and invites a review of his own effort. So here goes…

The action starts with a friendly in Glossop in such horrific conditions the teams agree to play half an hour each way. United are preparing for an ambitious tilt at the title and Rabbi and his best mate Mike discuss how long they can expect to last as professional players. United’s matches punctuate the narrative, sometimes from Rab’s point of view in italicised passages and always true to contemporary reports from United’s most glorious season. There is fascinating detail about football history: players are forbidden from training with the ball to make them hungry for it on match days; they are confined to the club house the night before games to keep them away from pubs and music halls; managers travel in first class whilst players go in second. Kay is clearly a die-hard Blade and has meticulously researched the club’s finest year. There is much here for fans of football history more broadly, too, but the novel has more to it than that.

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Sheffield United in 1891-2: Rabbi Howell is 2nd from the right on the middle row.

Rabbi returns from matches to a fractious home life where there is no enthusiasm or respect for his profession. Having been cheered by thousands of fans, he is sneered at by his father-in-law for playing ‘schoolyard games’ and becomes increasingly marginalised in a household that is dominated by his wife’s family. As in many novels of working-class life, there are sharp contrasts between the predominantly feminine domestic sphere and the macho worlds of mining, manufacturing and match days. Having turned pro, Rabbi has far more time on his hands than his brother and father-in-law who still work at the pit, and spends it walking over Wincobank, smoking his pipe and strumming his Spanish mandolin. His estrangement from family and ordinary working life, compounded by away matches and training camps at a hotel in Matlock, make Rabbi restless and unhappy whenever he isn’t playing. The Evergreen imagines how these tensions played out through Rab’s playing career and private life using what little evidence remains about his life.

Rabbi and his wife, Selina, are from Romany families who have recently left the old nomadic life to settle in ‘chooreste-gav‘, or ‘knife town’, the Romany name for Sheffield. Rabbi was the first Romany player to be capped for England and Kay presents his hybrid identity with skill and sensitivity. Rabbi’s speech switches between Sheffield and Romany dialect and he brushes off his team-mates’ jokes about gipsy spells and Egyptian ancestry with the kind of good humour in which they are made. Prejudice, though, plays a part in the management committee’s treatment of Rabbi at the end of his United career – something which, to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into here.

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Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations feature in the novel. With a healthy dose of republicanism…

The other character that is meticulously researched and lovingly brought to life by Kay’s prose is Sheffield itself. Rabbi’s home in Brightside  is a short walk from Wincobank Woods, which overlooks ‘the Don valley and its majestic array of chimneys’. Sheffield is painted as a friendly, bustling place where the clanging and hammering of industry provides the backdrop for a vibrant cultural scene. Crowds flock to football matches and music halls and a scene in which Rabbi visits the theatre – to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, stage superstars in their day – captures the class anxieties of a rapidly expanding city. Kay does a good job of evoking late-19th-century Sheffield and giving its inhabitants genuine depth and humanity without over-romanticising, a difficult balance for a historical novel to strike. Readers from Sheffield will enjoy encountering familiar places and well-written dee-dah dialect; it’s great to see industrial Sheffield come to life on the page and have well-drawn working-class characters walking its streets.

This is the best Sheffield novel I’ve read for a long time and anyone interested in the city’s history will find it a fascinating and entertaining read.

Ray Hearne’s Songs of South Yorkshire – ‘the language of ordinary people’

I first met Ray Hearne at Sing-Folk-Speak at the Greystones Pub last year, where we had a bit of a natter in the interval and established that he’d gone to De La Salle College in Pitsmoor, just round the corner from where I was born and brought up. When Now Then magazine asked me for a follow-up piece to my article about Joseph Mather (there’s a longer version on this blog here) I immediately thought back to that night, where I’d been lucky enough to hear Nancy Kerr sing Mather’s alternative national anthem, God Save Great Thomas Paine. It struck me that Ray was a modern-day Mather, singing songs about industrial South Yorkshire and the great injustices of our times just as Sheffield’s original radical balladeer had done 200-odd years ago. I tried to track Ray down before I wrote the piece but he was away in the States, so it appeared in Now Then in this form, minus the final few paragraphs that I’ve added since meeting Ray for a couple of pints on Westgate in Rotherham.

Hearne was brought up in the Parkgate area of Rotherham. The son of Irish immigrants, he was steeped in the folk tradition and, like Mather, uses its centuries-crafted tunes as the scaffolding for distinctly contemporary content. The parallels don’t end there: both balladeers try to make the folk tradition speak to (and for) the specific locality of South Yorkshire and its industrial past and present; both adopt an unabashedly radical stance and repeatedly return to the importance of working-class representation; both combine a radical internationalism with a proudly local focus; and both achieve a potent mixture of melancholy and humour in their songs.

Hearne’s two albums to date – Broad Street Ballads and The Wrong Sunshine – are on the No Masters Co-operative label, which promotes the development of traditional and radical songwriting. The long list of folk luminaries who have performed and recorded Hearne’s songs – including Kate Rusby, Roy Bailey and Coope, Boyes & Simpson – is testament to his craft as a songwriter. Hearne himself is a great performer, yarning between songs with warmth and humour. His delivery is crisp and crystal clear in his beautiful Rotherham accent and he switches skilfully between seriousness and a warm, humorous tone. Recent songs include one about a murder in Attercliffe and one about the annual mock beach in the centre of Rotherham.

Hearne is adept at tackling serious global issues in a way that grounds them in local experience. The Wrong Sunshine features two of the best songs about the Iraq war you’re ever likely to hear. ‘Baghdad-on-Dearne’ graphically captures the traumas of war from the perspective of a soldier. The infantryman’s nightmare visions make up the verses and these are set against a chorus that evokes everyday opposition to the war and a sense of resignation at its inevitable grim logic. Hearne wraps up what could so easily be the banal “will they never learn love?” in the everyday warmth of a bus stop conversation in Broad Street: “Will they never learn, love, will they never learn?” The chorus reflects the down-to-earth decency of ordinary people’s responses to a brutal and unpopular war.

‘March of the Daffodils’ skilfully weaves the 24-hour rolling news representation of 21st century shock and awe warfare with the slower rhythms of the passage of seasons at home. Hearne draws on the well-worn poetic pedigree of the daffodil but turns it into a fresh and hard-hitting image of the globalised nature of conflict and communication. The song’s first verse exemplifies its energy and contrast:

Baghdad’s a bigger bad body-bag than even last night
Slowly the cistern fills
Till under the sound-bites suddenly it’s light upon light
Here come the daffodils
Over the unseethroughable mind-high hills
Here come the daffodils

The daffodils become grim reminders of the indifference of nature to human suffering and at the same time emblems of hope for new life emerging out of the barrenness of winter. Part of what is so hard-hitting about Hearne’s war songs is his disarming honesty in dealing directly with the war’s effect on him. “I need my late news fix every wine-dark night” – that sense of the need to bear witness, coupled with powerlessness and resignation, is one familiar to the millions in Britain who were anti-war.

But Hearne is far from just a protest singer. Other songs on The Wrong Sunshine deal with work (‘The Long Song Line’, ‘The Navvy Boys’ and ‘The Collier’s Elegy’), grief (‘Well’ is about the death of his father) and artistic inspiration emerging out of post-industrial renewal (‘Manvers Island Bound’). ‘Pudding Burner’ celebrates the hard work and resilience of women in the steel industry and ‘Things to Say’ is dedicated to Doncaster Advocacy, a charity that supports adults with learning disabilites. This is perhaps the unifying principal of all Hearne’s songs: he tries to give a voice to ordinary people, to reflect the lives of working-class people in South Yorkshire and to foster a sense of shared cultural identity inherited from a rich and important history. Hearne has said that it was the vicious policies of the Thatcher government that initially galvanised him to write radical songs about contemporary society. In the age of austerity we need his conviction, his compassion and his voice more than ever…

…and that’s where the Now Then piece left it. When I met Ray he’d just finished one of his writers’ groups – he’d been running several across South Yorkshire – and although he was sad to see it go he was very pleased to be writing as a full-time occupation. He’s writing more page poetry and I was priveliged to have a look at a few: the stand-out one for me was ‘Pollen Count Blues: The Opening Bars’, a wonderful skip through the wildlife that explodes from the verges of South Yorkshire that manages to invoke John Clare and skat singing all at once. Ray’s also working on a new album and sent me the words to one of his new songs, ‘Motes Art’, inspired by a well-meant event in Rotherham where they broadcast live opera in All Saints Square. All I can say here about the song is that if every one on the new album is as good, then it could be his best record yet.

As well as to discuss Ray’s recent work, one of the reasons that we met up was to talk about Joseph Mather. We never quite managed it because we had so much other stuff to talk about, so I’ll close with a brilliant anecdote he told me about how he brought the working-class hero of contemporary poetry, Tony Harrison, to Rotherham. During the Miners’ Strike, Ray read in a Yorkshire arts magazine that Harrison was embarking on a ‘tour of Yorkshire’, with dates in York, Harrogate and Ripon. Thinking this a slightly limited tour, Ray wrote to Harrison, describing the gist of the letter to me as: ‘Rotherham’s in Yorkshire too tha knoas. There’s a strike on down here. Bloody hell.’ Weeks later he received an Airogram from Miami: Harrison gave the details of his agent and promised to come. And so Harrison ended up reading ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ in Rotherham. The forthrightness, pride of place and love of language that prompted him to write to Harrison fuel Ray’s work. Talking about writing that tackles the current political situation, Ray cited the recent song ‘House of Cards’ – whose chorus continues ‘and a pack of lies’ – as an example of phrases lifted from everyday language that can simply and powerfully articulate important truths about our times, saying ‘we need to be in tune to it, it’s all there, these phrases waiting to be found – it’s there in the language of ordinary people’.

There’s a film about Ray Hearne, featuring performances of a few of his songs, here.

And Ray’s website is well worth a look too.