"We've so much to lose"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 08/02/19

I first encountered the Young'uns performing with a host of outstanding musicians in Peter Bellamy's renowned folk ballad suite "The Transports." The show received a standing ovation and tonight I watched the Young'uns, Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes, receive the same accolade after performing their own stunning folk theatre show "The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff ". Like everyone I spoke with in the appreciative audience in Yeovil's Octagon Theatre, I was profoundly moved. Granny-bred Johnny's remarkable story inspired tears, anger, laughter and respect for a young man who left his home in Stockton on Tees to join the 1934 Hunger March to London, partly to spare his grandmother the dreaded means test, partly to look for work. (His job in the steel mill was given to someone else when he was hospitalised after a dreadful accident. That part of the story intensified my appreciation of the Welfare State and Health and Safety legislation.)

The powerful, poignant opening song "Any Bread?" painted the bleak picture of children begging for food. The horrors of hunger and poverty haunt Johnny's story; a story which embraces his discovery in London of political camaraderie, opposition to the Blackshirt fascists led by Oswald Mosley and the continuation of the fight against fascism in Spain as part of the courageous and idealistic British Brigade. And all of this before he was nineteen.

"Cable Street" tells how Eastenders rose up against Moseley's plans to lead his 2-3,000 followers through a community with a large Jewish population. Moseley was supported by the police, but the opposition to the fascists was strong, including women armed with full chamber pots, families, friends and neighbours erecting barricades, and, inevitably, violence. The march was called off. Sean Cooney's lyrics, inspired by Johnny's own words as recorded for the Imperial War Museum archives, made this song a highlight for me. The unaccompanied performance was exceptional, and the point strongly made that well before WW2 began, the consequences of the rise of fascism were well known.

"For with Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain, we knew what fascism meant
So when Mosley came trouncing, denouncing the Jews, to the east end of London we went
For I’d met refugees who’d fled overseas, Germans, Italians, and Jews
And I knew their despair for what they’d seen there, and I couldn’t let them be abused
We had so much to lose."

With the exception of one song with a very fast delivery, I heard every word of every song, as well as the skilful narrative connecting the music with Johnny's recordings, enhanced by powerful projections of contemporary photographs and news reports. I relished the harmonies; the musical diversity; the use of old tunes for new songs; the evocation of war with its terrible mix of carnage and courage. And, of course, comradeship. Johnny's words and the Young'uns songs brought to life the men and women from all over the world who went to fight fascism in Spain. I remember my parents talking with admiration and respect about the International Brigade.

The Young'uns and their production team, Emma Thompson (lighting), Andy Bell (sound) and Cally (staging and projections) do full justice to Johnny's story, far exceeding the hopes of his son, Duncan, that the group might like to write a song about him. Instead, they wrote sixteen. I liked David Eagle's occasional excursions into rudeness and raucousness, adding to the sense of authenticity that pervades the performance.

Johnny ended his days in Somerset, and another local connection was the story of two Quakers from the area who served in Spain. The story comes close to home, however, in another way. It proved impossible to watch the rise of fascism then without fearing the reemergence of fascism on our own streets and across the world. Talking on the way home, my companion and I wondered if enough of us have the courage and conviction of Johnny Longstaff and his comrades to effectively oppose the rising forces threatening the values of diversity, compassion and tolerance that many of us hold dear. To paraphrase "Cable Street", we have so much to lose.

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