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Porty Town Hall, Me, and Ewan MacColl.

January 26, 2015

As is the case with people, there are some places and buildings which seem influential in our lives without necessarily being front and centre in our day to day experiences.

For me, this applies to the Town Hall in Portobello – Edinburgh’s seaside resort. It’s the third Portobello Town Hall, and, interestingly, was built in 1914 – some 18 years after the town was incorporated with Edinburgh City, and lost the need for a town hall. This was achieved as part of the deal to provide a meeting and performing venue (and also a seawater baths) in exchange for a vote in favour of incorporation.

When I started school in Portobello, as a five year old, in 1957, I had to get a bus to and from St John’s Primary in the resort’s Brighton Place. It had to be a number 12 bus because its route meant I wouldn’t need to cross the busy main road.

However, there was a problem.

Most of my new pals lived in ‘downtown’ Portobello, between the High Street and the beach. At the end of school each day, they all charged down Brighton Place, and, often, instead of catching the 12 bus at the school, I went along with them. We fastened our raincoats, cloak like, round our necks with one button and, arms outstretched claimed to be “Superman”. I enjoyed this – though, not being allowed comics yet, I had no idea who or what “Superman” was.

When we reached the High St, they all went their different ways, and I was left to get the bus home – at the 26 bus stop, by Portobello Town Hall. This was daringly dissident of me – to an extent which amazes me all these years later, for the route of the 26 meant I would have to cross the “busy main road” as it was always described. After a couple of minutes basking in revolution, I would spend the last seconds of the journey terrified that, somehow, my parents would see me get off that 26 bus on the ‘busy’ Portobello Rd and illicitly cross over. I have a vague memory of imagining my mother on the roof of our tenement with binoculars, scanning the area.

Compared to these days, the frequency of traffic must have been negligible, and I can’t remember how many times my subterfuge was discovered – though my worry must have been clear to see – but, to this day, whenever I pass the town hall I experience a wee frisson of guilt – especially if there is a 26 bus about.

Shortly after those times, we moved to England, but made annual trips back to visit relatives.

In 1966, on one of these visits, we happened to be in Portobello on a night when SNP Leader, Arthur Donaldson, was speaking in a meeting at the Town Hall. I had linked up with the SNP a year before and proudly wore my party badge in school, to the puzzlement of my north Liverpool schoolmates. That night, as only a teenager can, I muttered and hinted about the meeting, until, eventually, our host agreed to take me along, whilst my mother stayed with the rest of the family in the house.

Donaldson was an inspirational speaker – and this was my first political meeting. Unsurprisingly, I joined in the standing ovation at the end of his speech, while my relative did not. I was vaguely aware of some chatter about ‘embarrassment’ when we got back to the house, but it was decades later I discovered that my genial and obliging host, who had sat stoically through both speech and ovation, was at the time a high ranking Labour Party official. Oops!

A decade later, when I started teaching, I lived in Portobello for a year, but the Town Hall didn’t properly re-enter my life until 1988. I had seen a typically basic flyer announcing that Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger would be in concert at Portobello Town Hall. Everybody knew that MacColl was ailing and there was a sense of urgency about catching him live – so I went along with a friend who was a fellow ‘folky and lefty’.

I would love to be able to say that I became aware of Ewan MacColl through politics – the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, his work with Joan Littlewood in Theatre Workshop, or musically through his work on the Radio Ballads, and with Alan Lomax, Dominic Behan and Bert Lloyd – but, in all honesty, like many I know, I first became aware of him as a song writing credit, when I bought The Dubliners’ ‘Dirty Old Town’ on Major Minor records. It’s difficult to appreciate today the extent to which the establishment controlled access to the arts in the fifties and early sixties. MacColl was certainly not someone whose work and beliefs were easy to find, unless you were old enough to be part of the folk world underground.

Again, like for so many of my generation, my discovery of honest to God ‘folk music’, came about almost circuitously in a Fairport-Steeleye-Planxty-Christy-Gaughan progression, till, eventually, our music reflected our politics and, at every step, MacColl seemed to appear. The Johnstons “Travelling People”, Planxty’s wonderful “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”, Christy Moore’s “Go, Move, Shift”, or “Schooldays’ End” by Dick Gaughan.

At the same time, MacColl’s work in theatre seemed to be reflected in the frequent delight of performances by 7:84 or Wildcat Theatre or plays like “Willie Rough” and “The Bevellers” at the Edinburgh Lyceum.

MacColl and Seeger were hugely affecting that night at the Town Hall. MacColl was as uncompromising as ever, the anger as well as the gentleness in his songs filling the hall as if he were performing in a small folk club. Equally engaging was Seeger’s musicianship, and her concern for him, in her small unobtrusive acts of support as they went through the set.

Apart from the sense that we were watching a music giant for the last time, there was a kind of awe about the evening – something MacColl himself would have deprecated. “In the presence of greatness’ is an awful phrase, but I struggle to find a more fitting description of the atmosphere that night – a greatness which was made even more tangible by the understated presentation of this elderly man in a checked shirt on a bare stage. When you thought of the impact his words and music had had on our lives over decades, when you reflected on people all over the world believing that songs he’d written were actually ‘traditional’, when you considered his lifetime of fighting to present the case for society’s most marginalized – the working class, travellers, fishermen, miners – and the privations he endured because of his political principles, you couldn’t help but be awed.

Throughout that tour, he finished his set with “The Joy of Living”. It was, I suppose, a kind of acknowledgement that his time was drawing to a close and that we would not see him again. Those who categorized MacColl as simply a hard bitten, unreformed, political polemicist would have been surprised to see grown men leaving the hall in tears that night. He was easy to admire, he may have been hard to like at times, but he was also easy to love.

So – my first bout of dissident rebellion, my starting point for a lifetime of political meetings, and a live encounter with the folk laureate whose life’s work chimed with so many of my views and interests – thank you Portobello Town Hall!

Sunday would have been MacColl’s 100th Birthday and it seemed very fitting to be headed through to Celtic Connections for an evening to celebrate his work – on Burns Night. One of the disadvantages of an education in England is missing out on Burns’ poetry at school, and, as a result, I have never been a huge Burns fan – though I recognise his greatness and appreciate Fergusson’s poetry.

However, if anyone could fill that gap in my cultural hinterland, I suspect it is Ewan MacColl, especially given my childhood times in Lancashire. His evocation of Salford in ‘Dirty Old Town”, alongside Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, and Barstow’s “A Kind of Loving” were hugely formative in my teenage years – and the messages they gave put flesh on the bones of any political credo which has accompanied me through life.

Like MacColl, I found myself growing up a Scot in the north of England, and, like him, my origins – in my case Irish, came to define my viewpoint.

A favourite song in my music collection is a recording of the late Kirsty MacColl dueting with her Dad on “Manchester Rambler”. I’m not sure they managed to share a studio to record the track – MacColl wasn’t the greatest admirer of the world of rock, and Kirsty inherited a lot of his feistiness – but it is a wonderful recognition of the strength of family, music, and politics when brought together.

I had to admire the MacColl clan for their bravery in putting together a tribute evening for their patriarch. Publicly celebrating a family member could bring all manner of pitfalls. I had seen Gerry Rafferty’s clan and friends pull it off magnificently in this same hall at Celtic Connections – could Neil MacColl and company manage the same success?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!”. From the opening bars of MacColl himself singing “A man’s a man for a’ tha’ to the final encore of the massed ranks giving it laldy with “The Manchester Rambler”, this was a tribute which spoke of admiration, love, and respect for the character the family referred to as “The Old Man” or “The old Bugger”.

Neil MacColl pointed out that, though his dad was unimpressed by the ways of fame in the popular music world, he loved it when his songs were taken up and sung by other people – and that was the enriching experience we gained on Sunday night.

Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile gave us “The First Time ever I saw your Face”, Jarvis Cocker and Norma Waterson sang “Dirty Old Town” and then joined with Martin Carthy for the “Moving on Song”, after Martin himself had given us “The Travelling People”. Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart and Eliza Carthy dazzled in their different ways, whilst the vastly underpublicised philosophy professor and multi instrumentalist, Chaim Tannenbaum, McGarrigle/Wainright alumnus, and musical collaborator to the MacColl’s, contributed to practically every number. A whole raft of MacColls and in-laws took part – with a family set of seas shanties (as promulgated by ‘the old bugger’ in the house while they were growing up) producing the kind of harmonies that only family and practice can achieve.

Neil pointed out that his dad wrote love songs to many things – the worker, the Communist Party, the working classes, the travellers and the marginalized – but he was not beyond penning impossibly beautiful love songs in the traditional sense. ”First Time Ever” is a classic example, but has there ever been a more poignant and affecting tale of lost love than the image strewn “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”? which was performed magnificently in this tribute.

Ewan MacColl had a long life and probably achieved an even greater impact that he could have imagined. Like many of his songs, he will become part of the tradition. For his admirers, his refusal to accept the power of the establishment continues to inspire, for his family, pride in his achievements and the solace of the beautiful heartfelt songs we heard on Sunday – written for his parents, his partners, his children, can reassure them of his humanity and love, not just for causes and countryside, but for those closest to him at home.

For many of us who were there, the abiding memory will be of Norma Waterson, one of the great folk family matriarchs, singing alongside daughter and husband, paying tribute to Sheila Stewart and Rae Fisher, and causing us to reflect, as MacColl would have wanted, that music is about humanity, folk is family, and family is folk.

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