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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Man Walks Into a Pub

A Place in the Country

Hey nonny hey nonny hey nonny ho
Bank Holiday Monday and where shall we go?
Let's go to the country, let's get in the car
Let's get us some heritage history.
A family ticket costs 36 quid
To oo ah and eh, how the other half lived
With their castle and gardens and souvenir shop
Let's get us some lemon curd biscuits.
Oh, wouldn't we all like our own little place in the country.

For most of us peasants it wasn’t like that.
We’d be cleaning the stables, doffing the cap,
Waiting at tables, grateful for scraps,
Breaking our backs in some factory.
It’s all built on slavery, legalised theft,
From Bombay to Bradford they worked us to death
In their mines and the mills, now there’s nothing much left
And it wasn’t that merry to start with.

These are the people who stole all our wealth,
Begrudged us our schools and our national health,
Begrudged us our wages and bank holidays,
Begrudged us our hopes and our history.
Who left us with nothing to do in these towns,
Who left us with nothing that wasn't shut down,
Who let us buy tickets and let us look round,
Like all that we are now is tourists.

Hey nonny hey nonny hey nonny ho,
Let’s turn on the 10 o’clock when we get home
And another kid's shot another kid dead
In another dead end of old England.
And is it too late now to take it all back,
Take it all back, give it all back,
Give us a future instead of the past
and all the dead ends of old England.

This is actually a revised version of a song I wrote a couple of years ago. One Bank Holiday, we decided to visit Arundel Castle. This was a pretty unpleasant “heritage” experience on almost every level. The place drips opulence and acquisition and then rubs your nose in it with portraits of kings,  photos of Popes and a dungeon where there’s a convincing dummy of some poor anonymous peasant suffering in the darkness. Clearly this was all built up on the broken backs of the rest of us over hundreds of years, plus it cost £36 quid for a reduced family ticket to have the privilege of admiring all this stolen property.

I promptly wrote a song that had maybe seven verses fully detailing both the experience of the visit and the progress through history of this family who always managed to be on the side of reaction and oppression. Audiences seemed to like it, though Molly, who does this website, thought it was unnecessarily unfair to the present owners, who she maintained were preserving intact a significant historical resource. Molly felt I’d be better expending my song writing ire against current robber barons like city bankers. The song managed to slip off the set list on its own account, however; we tried recording it for the “Love and Death and Politics” album in the ill-fated basement sessions in Normandy, where it really failed to happen on all levels. and then the new recession started (so maybe Molly was right after all), and I wrote other songs, and nobody asked for it at gigs, so that seemed to be that.

But then the far right started to try to lay claim not only to the idea of England, but also to folk music as a signifier of some halcyon nationalistic past that they wanted to return us to. So I dug out this song and lost a couple of the more specific, detailed verses, and instead wrote the second verse, to make the point that the idea of England they think they’re defending has nothing to do with historical reality. It’s funny how the right always try to tap into that nostalgia for a never-neverland that never was, whether it’s through an expressed fondness for Victorian Values, warm beer, or the nice songs of nice Kate Rusby.

The past is an easy place to feel more secure in, it’s a closed world. With history there’s the comfort that - apparently- we know what’s going to happen. On an individual level, this nostalgia for a personal past is more sad and wistful than dangerous. But once you try feeding people nostalgia as politics, it becomes a more serious question, because you then have to choose whose view of the past you’re going to feed them - the view of the tiny minority who built big houses out of slavery, and hobnobbed with Popes and Royalty, or the view of the many poor anonymous peasants suffering in the darkness, getting up early, working late, cleaning the stables, doffing the cap, waiting at tables, grateful for scraps…

Both sides of my family were in service. My grandparents were born in small rooms, in small houses, in small streets. One of my granddads spent much of his childhood in a workhouse. The women would have one hat that they’d trim differently throughout the year. In service, they’d get that one Sunday off before Easter to visit their mums, which is why we have Mothering Sunday, and otherwise they were expecting to spend their whole lives looking after somebody else.

Here’s a final thought. Ok, places like Arundel are now ostensibly less decisive in determining and defining current events. What’s going to be seen as representative of our times in years to come? Will future generations “understand” our historical era through the lifestyles of Posh and Becks, or maybe even Wayne Rooney?

Sometimes, you can’t stress enough how important folk music is, in the constant struggle of memory against the conveniences of forgetting…


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