Sometimes it feels as though we might be stuck in Brexit limbo forever. It’s been over two years since the EU Referendum, and we’re no closer to any kind of resolution. Brexit has been a topic of protest stickers since before the referendum. Manchester is one of the best cities I’ve been to for protest stickers, and I’ve found loads of Brexit stickers there, including ones that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I haven’t seen any of the stickers featured in this post anywhere other than Manchester, although if you have I would be very interested to know where!
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the latest album by folk trio The Young’uns. The album tells the story of Johnny, a poor working-class man from Stockton who went to London on a hunger march when he was just 15. He took part in many of the protests and campaigns in the mid-1930s, including the Battle of Cable Street, and at the age of just 17 volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. But The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is much more than just an album. When performed live, it is a powerful combination of songs, oral history, and archival sources such as photos and newspapers. I went to see the performance on the first night of the tour, at Middleton Hall in Hull, East Yorkshire.
Folk fans know The Young’uns for their beautiful harmonies and political lyrics that don’t pull any punches. Some of their songs are hopeful, uplifting stories that restore faith in humanity. Others are angry, tragic, or defiant, but all of them are thoughtful. Like The Young’uns’ previous albums, the Ballad of Johnny Longstaff contains a mix of such songs. ‘The Great Tomorrow’ is a stirring tribute to international solidarity, ‘Paella’ is a comic song about Johnny encountering Spanish food for the first time, and ‘Ay Carmella’ is a poignant account of conditions in Spain during the Civil War. Interspersed with the songs are clips of Johnny himself talking about his life, and photos, newspaper articles, and other historical sources projected onto the back of the stage.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Imperial War Museum recorded oral history interviews with many of those who had traveled from the UK to Spain as volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The interviews are all available online for anyone to listen to; I used some of them whilst researching the Battle of Cable Street during my PhD. Johnny Longstaff was one of the men who was interviewed. The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney became captivated by Johnny’s story after his son, Duncan, told them about his father at a gig in 2015. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was written with the aid of that interview, Johnny’s unpublished memoirs, his annotated collection of Spanish War literature, his personal collection of photos, and the memories and anecdotes of his family. It is an excellent example of the captivating stories that can be uncovered with meticulous archival and historical research, as well as the range of sources that can be used for this kind of biographical research.
As a historical geographer of protest, I already knew quite a bit about the events Johnny took part in, but I often wonder how much ‘ordinary’ people know. Leaving the auditorium, I listened to other audience members talking about the show. I heard several people saying things like “Well I knew about x, but I didn’t know y.” It was great to hear that people got so much out of it. I recently reviewed Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo, about the 1819 Peterloo massacre when soldiers in Manchester killed and injured dozens of peaceful protesters. The film is educational, but it is not very entertaining. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is both. It isn’t just a wonderful performance, it also educates people about the anti-fascist history of the second half of the 1930s. It is a great example of how creative methods can be used to make history accessible. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff will undoubtedly reach more people than my PhD thesis ever will (having said that, I am more than happy to share my 400+ page beast if you would like to read it), and what is the point of doing such research if you can’t find a way to communicate the results with people? As far right groups gain popularity across the world, it seems more important than ever that we don’t forget this crucial period of European history.
To me, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is everything that good art should be. It is engaging, it teaches you something, and it makes you think. I don’t know if The Young’uns have any more performances planned, but I really hope so. It is a show that deserves to be seen.
Maggie Craig. When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.
I don’t need much of an excuse to go book shopping, but traveling is one of them. Whenever I go somewhere new, I keep an eye out for books about local history, particularly relating to protest and dissent. On a recent trip to Scotland, I bought When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside by Maggie Craig. The book tells the story of a period in Glasgow’s history known as Red Clydeside. In the first half of the twentieth century Glasgow and the surrounding areas experienced a period of radical politics which saw a number of dedicated campaigners fighting to improve the lives of working-class Glaswegians. When the Clyde Ran Red tells the story of Glasgow between the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 and the Clydebank Blitz in 1941.
Warm and witty, kind-hearted and generous, interested in everything and everyone, the spirited men and women of Red Clydeside had one goal they set above all things…to create a fair and just society, one in which the children of the poor had as much right as the children of the rich to good health, happiness, education and opportunity.
Craig, p. 301
When the Clyde Ran Red is an engaging and lively read, it is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maggie Craig has an informal writing style, her prose peppered with phrases in Scots that helps to transport the reader to Glasgow in the first half of the twentieth century. The book is comprehensive, covering everything from party politics undertaken by idealistic and self-sacrificing men, to rent strikes organised by fierce and determined housewives. Craig also brings in social history, explaining the context of Red Clydeside by describing the social, economic, and cultural life of Glasgow. For example, the Scottish Exhibition (1911), the Empire Exhibition (1938) and the popularity of increasingly ‘raunchy’ dance styles as a form of social revolution.
I criticised the last book I reviewed, The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn (LINK), for going into too much detail. Sometimes, When the Clyde Ran Red goes to far in the opposite direction. I occasionally found its lack of detail frustrating. For example, the Singer Sewing Machine Factory strike in 1911 failed, but Craig does not any offer explanations about what went wrong. There were several points where I just wanted more information. Nevertheless, I think the book is a good introduction to an area of history that I previously knew very little about, and I can always find more detail elsewhere about all the events featured if I wanted to. When the Clyde Ran Red is an excellent starting point.
I admit that my knowledge of Scottish history is patchy at best, but When the Clyde Ran Red was an enjoyable way of filling some of those gaps. I would recommend it to anyone interested in labour history, the history of protest, or Scottish history.