SPOKEN WORD IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
On my trip back to Britain in December, I called up my new Hull friend Russ Litten. I know him as an author, and poet, and raconteur, and for his admirable work as writer-in-residence at the local prison. I even knew that during my travels round the world, he’d set up another festival in Hull, this one called Lyricull, for which he was able to recruit Jason Williamson, Shaun Ryder, Viv Albertine and Pauline Black for separate one-on-one conversations. No slouch, he. Perhaps, then, I should not have been surprised when he told me he had released an album and an EP during my absence, a collaboration with Steve Cobby, known to many for his work as half of Fila Brazilia, founder of its record label, Pork, and other illustrious electronic musical activities. The pair of them even had a gig coming up that next week, in Leeds, if I fancied joining them for the trek over.
Of course I did. Me and the spoken word go a long way back. When the whole youth poetry thing took off in the early 1980s, Jamming! served as one of its main distribution channels. Blame Paul Weller. (You usually can.) Poetry became W’s new bag, and when our mail box started flooding over with the stuff, I printed it. Lots of it. Not all of it was great. Some people tell me none of it was any good. But publishing the written, rhythmic musings of hard-up, fed-up Brits from around the Sceptic Isles served multiple beneficial purposes. May even have kick-started a couple of careers; so people occasionally say. The stand-up poet became a regular source of attention, amusement and occasional animosity at mid-80s gigs. A few of them (Anne Clarke, Atilla the Stockbroker, Swift Nick, Porky the Poet) became borderline household names – at least in those households where the Smiths, the Redskins, the Housemartins and Billy Bragg had ownership of the turntables. It wasn’t a northern thing, not by any stretch, but it was a class thing, and during the Miners Strike of 1984-85, the class war was primarily being fought north of Nottingham.
Attending that gig in December with Cobby and Litten was like stepping back into that class war. The venue, Wharf Chambers, is a co-op, with political leaflets on the tables, posters on the war, and sticky beer on the floor. Stickers proclaiming “coal not dole” and “justice for Orgreave” served to remind of the lasting effects of Thatcher’s all-out assault on the most militant of British work forces.
So, too, did Toria Garbutt, a poet in from the former West Yorks mining town of Knottingley. Born just after the strike concluded, Toria is a product of what the pit closures left behind, as blatantly assessed in these opening lines from “Nowt Matters Nar Mucker”:
In Knottla, we smoke smack for pain
to hide the pain and guilt and shame
And that, I’m tempted to jest, is one of her more positive poems – but though it’s true that the opening lines of “It’s Alrate” dig yet deeper into the “mines” of poverty and hopelessness that beget crime and drug abuse, that same track quickly dovetails into the humor that lies at the heart of her poetry, as she details her mission to score “soap” (i.e. hash) from the middle-aged “Scotch Barbara” on a distant council estate when just thirteen. Still, her reflections are not all about drugs, evident though it is that they have replaced coal as the driving economic force in far too many a former mining town: the opening track “Subway” concludes with the reference to the “words still on the wall from 1984: Thatcher Fucked us Up.”
No, many of Toria’s poems cast a fonder nostalgic light on her teenage years, as on, for example, the self-explanatory “First Kiss,” or the melancholic “in-between space after school before tea” described on “The Universe and Me.” On stage, Garbutt was funny without being corny, confident without being cocky, powerful without sounding patronizing, and rhythmic without being repetitive. I readily supplied her with a fiver for her 16-poem CD entitled Hot Plastic Moon, released by Nymphs & Thugs in a slip-sleeve that keeps it all to basics. You should too. Unless you want wait for the album to be re-released with new tracks now that she’s gathering appropriate acclaim from touring with John Cooper Clarke.
The event at Wharf Chambers was entitled Voices from the 62, after the Motorway that cuts across the north of England, from Liverpool to Hull. Toria appeared after the former city’s ROY, whose poems kept circling back to football (an Everton supporter, he freely admitted he couldn’t help it), and another youth who’d driven up from Derby (I believe it was) in the successful hope of blagging some stage time; his delivery had something of the freestyle rap to it, a little too Daisy Age for the subject matter one could argue, but evidence that if drugs and violence remained a constant of the urban lifestyle, not every poet that night was harking back to the past.
Certainly not Cobby and Litten, whose partnership came about, despite having moved in the same Hull circles for many years, only recently, when Cobby invited Litten to freestyle some spoken word at a gig. Getting suitably wrecked for inspiration and the calming of nerves, Litten apparently entertained and enthralled (himself if no one else!), and before the pair knew it, they were over at Cobby’s Shedio, one of them concocting grooves out of YouTube rowing machine rhythms and the like, the other summoning up the spirit of his poetic idols Karl Hyde and Mark E. Smith. The result was tracks like “Iceland” – about life in the aisles of the frozen food stores that were a big deal in the 1970s but now appear part of faded social aspirations.
The Leeds gig – only their second – was far from ideal: the sound man had a hard time blending the words with the grooves, forcing the audience to switch attention from one to the other. But it was clear to all in attendance that if the opening acts had supplied the necessary vim and vigor, Cobby and Litten were the professionals. Cobby has terrabytes full of critically acclaimed (and at times commercially successful) music behind him, while Litten has a couple of superb novels to his name, and a way with the spoken word so that it falls somewhere between anecdotal account and abstract painting. Litten’s “Arthur” is assembled from the many characters he has seen released from the Hull jail with, as he puts it here, “a bag full of dirty washing and a head full of ideas,” but little by way of finance or work, all of which makes them easy prey for dealers who work the half-way houses. “A Good Hiding” has Cobby working up an infectious groove over the course of eight-plus minutes as Litten improvises what appears to be a random drunken night on the town. And the (mis)fortunes of Hull City show up here and there as part of the fabric of a region best summed up by the album’s title track, “My People Come From The Sea”:
You can argue the merits of such attributes, but you can’t deny the truth of it. The good people of Hull, without attempting to generalize, remain refreshingly, remarkably down-to-earth, blissfully unphased by their home town’s new found celebrity status as City of Culture. Yet the modern generation is anything but as insular as the above lyrics might suggest. When I joined Litten for an in-conversation at the Hull Central Library to promote my Wilson Pickett biography, fellow R.E.M. biographer Tim Abbott drove over with his wife Denise from the far West Yorks on little more than a whim; he subsequently wrote to me of the post-talk session at the Old English Gentleman, “I can’t remember the last time I was made to feel that welcome by a group of complete strangers.”
Among the crowd at the pub that night was Joe Hakim, who almost apologetically offered me the CD Cultural Thrift, which pivots his own spoken word/poetry against the guitar-bass-keyboards musicianship of the talented artist Ashley Reaks, and a handful of additional guests. Recorded in Harrogate back in 2015, Cultural Thrift contains poetry more literal than Litten’s, more intricate than Garbutt’s, with plenty of organic rhythms by Reaks for Hakim to latch onto. While it’s tempting to stay on cliché, and focus on the likes of “To Let” or “Special Brew Blues,” we should note that Cultural Thrift starts with the straight-faced “Nature Poem” and includes “The Principles of Paranoia,” about those painful group encounters where “inconsistencies in conversation insist on being brought up for further discussion.”
It’s not entirely clear whether Hakim is speaking for himself or an anonymous narrator when he ends the album with “The Way It Is,” opening line of which – “Scraping by on minimum wage… counting down the days until I next get paid” – reminds as to the limited options for millions of modern Britons. But over the course of their eight tracks, Reaks and Hakim find just the right blend. My hope is that this collaboration does not remain a one-off.
Fortunately, Cobby and Litten have decided that they’re enjoying their sudden middle-aged partnership far too much to leave it alone. April 28 sees release of the “Rime” EP, a concept EP about the sea-faring people of the region commissioned for and coinciding with John Grant’s Hull-based North Atlantic Flux Festival. On “Black Cloud,” the fishermen set off in adverse weather, their temperaments dictated by the ongoing storm: “Come on brother, finish that drop, the bell’s about to go, yeah I know this is the last trip you’re doing, I know, you’re chucking it after this, there must be more to life than this,” rambles the narrator. Life at sea is detailed more finitely on “Iceberg in the Guts,” while “Sing our Souls To Sleep” is purposefully sonorous and beatless. The finale, “Home,” runs through a vaguely uplifting roll-call of the sea-faring employees’ job titles as the ship finds itself returning to port, where a sampled gospel choir fades them into the distance.
What’s notable about Rime is not only that it congeals so well thanks to the conceptual glue, but that Cobby’s music is more buoyant, as if confidence in his venture with Litten has found its way into his grooves. Cobby and Litten will be performing Rime at Flux, and hopefully continuing thereafter. The great thing about their partnership is not just that they seem to have found a comfortable space at the nexus of poetic spoken word and downtempo electronic music, but that it has all been so inherently natural, the result of two 50-somethings who’ve been there, done that, and now just want to get on with whatever works. Like this.
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