Sunday, 12 October 2014

Co-operative Folk Lament World War One

I had a fabulous time at the Derby Folk Festival. At one point it did not look like it would go ahead, after a fire at the Assembly Rooms, however a large marquee in the market place saved the day.  Bill toppers included Steeleye Span, Show of Hands and Kate Rusby. Lower down the bill however there where some real showstoppers including an outstanding performance from the wonderful Martin Simpson and a lovely laid back slot from Americans Dana and Susan Robinson.

The most moving performance by a long way however was that of In Flanders Fields by vocal trio, Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson. They have been stalwarts of the festival for a long time and one of my personal favourites. That is not just because they release their music on the co-operative No Masters Voice label their vocal harmony singing is sublime and they combine a mastery of the genre with tremendous wit and biting social commentary.

The folk world generally has produced some of the best musical offerings to mark the centenary of the First World War and as you would expect from folk artists generally from the bottom up. Rob Johnsons with Gentle Men his family history of the war to end all wars is very good indeed so is Show of Hands Centenary a mixture of song and poetry from the period.

Coope ,Boyes & Simpson’s is a very substantial piece of work it is both moving and funny and  marks a twenty year collaboration not only with the history but the place of Flanders itself. Piet Chielens, Co-ordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres argues that they have been at the forefront of the commemoration in the West Flemish Front Region for twenty years. Their body of work on the war can be seen as a “lieu de mémoire”.  Indeed in Flanders, he says, no artistic initiative seems to have been more successfully involved with the theme than that of this trio.

In their show they bring together eye-witness accounts, contemporary poetry and songs specially commissioned for the town of Passchendaele’s Peace Concerts. The albums title, In Flanders Fields takes its name from the poem written by John McCrae who was killed on the Western Front in the First World War. Ironically the poem was used in army recruitment and its references to poppies made them an important part of later commemoration. 

In the live shows the pieces between the songs are as well chosen as the songs themselves quips from contemporary music hall song, to extracts from the Ypres Times, the satirical paper produced by the soldiers in the trenches, as well as poetry and letters home.

They give voice to the poor bloody infantry and their contempt for the sergeant majors and officers. Never afraid to prick the bubble of the pompous they create a rounded image of the war that is deeply moving.

Visiting Belgium for twenty years changed the life of Jim Boyes in particular who now lives there. Going over regularly since the 70s, but by becoming involved in Peace Concerts Passchendaele, he got to know a lot of people in Belgium and it soon became his second home.
His involvement with the Flemish folk scene began when he had released a solo album called Out The Blue, it was the first thing he had done on the co-operative No Masters label which he had set up with John Tams.
Piet Chielens who wrote for the Flemish folk magazine called Gandalf had known of Jim since his time in Swan Arcade. He reviewed the album which contained a song Down On The Dugout Floor that he had written after a visit to play the Dranouter Folk Festival, near Ypres.
When Piet started the Peace concerts he invited Jim to go over and play with some Flemish musicians. Once there he was asked if there was anyone else that Jim would like to involve. He had just started working with Barry and Lester eventually they took part in five different Peace Concert productions in Belgium and England, performing on former battlefields like Hill 60, among the memorials at Tyne Cot and at the request of the town of Passendale for their eightieth anniversary commemoration of the battle.  Many of these performances are now contained on In Flanders Field also working with Piet there is also an impressive book to go with the two CD’s.
At Derby they mocked the Guardian’s description of their work as post-modern folk. More like ‘post-mortem’ they said. Sadly there is nothing post about this work, as we embark on another war, it is strikingly contemporary.
This work is beautiful, funny, passionate and angry and a terrific antidote to much of the jingoism that marks the centenary. They argue that, “the more we learn about war, the more important it becomes to sing about peace.” Get to see them perform if you can and lets hope that’s what everyone who hears them learns too.

Onward and Upward

I was enjoying reading Britain’s Communists the Untold Story by John Green where he seeks to correct the malign mainstream account of the contribution that Communists have made to British life.  At one point he talks about how authors who where members of the party are now remembered despite their party affiliation or because of their subsequent anti-communism.

In the latter category he places Edward Upward. Now Edward was a member of the party for sixteen years from 1932 until 1948 but left because he felt it no longer to be a Marxist Party and irretrievably reformist.

You may disagree with Edwards’s assessment but this does not make him an anti-communist. Edward was a very distinguished author who mingles surrealism with realism to create incredibly vibrant novels and short-stories.

He had an extraordinarily long life living until he was 105. In his youth he began a life long friendship with Christopher Isherwood knew Auden and Virginia Wolf with his early work being published by the Hogarth Press.

In 2009 that “drink soaked former Trotskyist popinjay” (according to George Galloway anyway), Christopher Hitchens went in search of Edward who was hiding in plain sight on the Isle of Wight after his retirement as a school teacher. During his teaching life he remained politically engaged undertaking editorial work for Ploughshare, the journal of the Teachers' Anti-War Movement.

The encounter between Edward and Hitchens was published in Atlantic Monthly on appropriately the 1st May, 2009.

In a vicarage-style house not far from the railway station in the small town of Sandown, Upward received me and led me to a side room. He explained without loss of time that the main rooms of the little home were out of bounds because his wife, Hilda, was in the process of dying there. “I shall miss Hilda,” he said with the brisk matter-of-factness of the materialist, “but I have promised her that I shall go on writing.” Attired in gray flannel trousers, a corduroy jacket, and a V-neck jersey, he reminded me of something so obvious that I didn’t immediately recognize it. On a table lay the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the Stalinist rump organization that survived the British Communist Party’s decision to dissolve itself after the implosion of the Soviet Union. It is entirely possible that Upward was the paper’s sole subscriber on this islet of thatched cottages and stained glass and theme-park rural Englishness. Seeing me notice the old rag, he said, rather defensively, “Yes I still take it, though there doesn’t seem much hope these days.” When I asked him if there was anyone on the left he still admired, he cited Arthur Scargill, the coal miners’ thuggish leader, who was known to connoisseurs as the most ouvriériste and sectarian and demagogic of the anti-Blair forces in the Labour movement. Yet to this alarming opinion he appended the shy and disarming news that the last review he had had in the Morning Star had been a good one, precisely because it stressed that not all his work was strictly political. “It particularly mentioned my story ‘The White-Pinafored Black Cat.’” I inquired if he was working on a story at that moment. “Yes I am.” “And may one know the title?” “It’s to be called ‘The World Revolution.’” At this point and in this context, I began to find the word surreal recurring to my mind.”

I think Edward comes out of this encounter rather well whilst Hitchens confirms George Galloway’s assessment. Edward does not sound anything like an anti-communist although Hitchins most certainly does and one wonders what the true purpose of his journey was.

In recent years Edwards work has been published by Enitharmon press who have issued a series of critically acclaimed stories as well as memoirs of Isherwood and Auden.

Probably his greatest work was the trilogy, The Spiral Ascent, (In the Thirties, The Rotten Elements and No Home But the Struggle) described by the Guardian as, “without doubt Upward's central work; unfortunately it is also the most misunderstood, and today it languishes out of print.” It is a indeed a remarkable work and fortunately it is relatively easy to get second hand copies.

One of his characters in the short story, A Ship in the Sky (from the Unmentionable Man, Enitharmon, 1994) has an encounter with a fellow passenger on a ship,
“And why do you think you are lucky to meet me?”
“Because my closest friends and I have always admired you as one of the very few left-wing imaginative writers of literary ability who have not betrayed their principles.”

Sounds like the perfect epitaph to me.

Little Co-op Vesus the Evil Empire

One of my favourite co-ops is Revolver based in Wolverhampton. Paul Birch the inspiration behind it has had a long career in the music business and came to fair trade sourcing fair trade cotton for bands T-shirts.

Paul felt that the new found desire for provenance in coffee played to the fair trade agenda in a new way. The need to identify the region or even estate the coffee had come from meant you could ensure higher quality and have a real relationship with the producers.

His second idea was that fair trade was not fair enough. If Nestle or Wal-Mart could get the fair trade logo on their products it was far too easy!

So what was to be done? Well if you formed a co-op with membership available to both producers and consumers you could make the connection that the original idea of fair trade was meant to be all about.

So far so good. The business was growing steadily in a very competitive market place when the chance arose to include Cuban coffee to the range.

It was crystal mountain coffee grown by some two hundred farmers around the Sopapo-Mayare plateau in the Cuatro Vientos region, nestled in the valleys of the Sierra del Escambray Mountains frequent rain produces a perfect mico-climate. The soil rich in mica and quartz crystal deposits gives the coffee its name.

The coffee cherries are handpicked and naturally sundried before being bought to Cumanayagua for processing it has a highly intense aroma with an elegant and delicate sweetness.

Following meetings with the Cubans and a visit to Cuban this soon became their best seller. Unsurprisingly when you taste its rich, strong and rounded flavour with very low acidity - perfect for after dinner by ensuring that the coffee was lightly roasted as much of this magnificent flavour as possible was preserved.

Demand for this magnificent coffee had been growing steadily. Like many small businesses internet trading has been a real boon. Then a customer trying to pay for some Cuban Coffee online through paypal received an email it began, “Paypal’s Compliance Department has reviewed your account and identified activity that is in violation of United States regulations administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).”

It went on: “It has come to our attention that you initiated a payment for the purchase of an item of Cuban origin. To ensure that future activity and transactions comply with current regulations, PayPal is requesting that you complete the following appeal step: Agree to no longer undertake activities in violation of laws, regulations and rules as outlined in PayPal's User Agreement .  Any further violations will result in the closure of your account. As a result of the violation, details of your account and the transaction have been reported to OFAC.”

Anyone who doesn’t know, as they didn’t at the time the, Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Department of the Treasury enforces economic sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.”

A British company being paid by a firm based in Luxembourg selling Cuban coffee is perfectly legal. But often bigger firms often give up at this point because they want to do other business in the US. These extraterritorial sanctions are holding Cuba back.  Then came their second set back. One of the companies which had been distributing their coffee to retailers in the midlands particularly to retail co-ops went bust owing them money and breaking the supply chain.

A less resilient group of people could given up. Finance frozen supply chain bust. This was a very serious setback. However they are made of sterner stuff.

They arranged to sell the coffee through the Cuba Solidarity website (where you can get the ground and beans). They spent months getting their pay pal account unfrozen and they are rebuilding their web site.

Now working with the Cubans they are looking at importing and marketing other commodities, including rum, honey and beer. There is no doubt that these issues have damaged the business but it is still standing and being a threat to the United States is a real honour. To grow and take support for Cuba to a new level they really need more member investors. Their experience has made them more determined to succeed than ever!

If you want to help break the embargo and get a great cup of coffee go to: and note members get free delivery!