Radical Liverpool

Almanac Folk
Everyman Theatre
21st May 2010

Reviewed by Richard Lewis

The Everyman theatre is opening its doors for an evening of readings and acoustic performances as part of Liverpool’s Sound City this year. Almanac Folk - organised by singer-songwriter Lizzie Nunnery and playwright Lindsay Rodden - create nights that explore folk music and storytelling. Although politics are never far away from many folk songs, the theme of tonight’s performances are inspired by Liverpool’s history of radical culture and politics.

The bulk of the music in regular folk almanac collaborator Andy Hickie is mostly self –composed, and also included in his set is an excellent rendition of Bob Dylan’s 1962 composition ‘Song for Woody’, taken from the bard’s debut album. A poem entitled ‘The Blarney Stone’, about a bar in Dublin followed by a piece entitled ‘Repertoire’, about New York, highlights the links between the three cities and its Irish heritage. The choice is also apt considering Bob Dylan’s formative musical performances in the bars and coffee shops of New York in the early 1960s. Hickie rounds off his set with a track entitled ‘One Minute Silence’, an evocative piece about the Hillsborough memorial.

Next on to the stage is poet Paul Farley, who delivers an impassioned contribution about William James Roscoe. An abolitionist who was instrumental in the dismantling of the slave trade, his name is commemorated in the University’s Halls of Residence and a street in the city centre. His highly controversial belief in the nineteenth century that slavery should be abolished saw him vilified by the political classes and wealthy slave traders alike. A piece written when Roscoe was only sixteen years old about injustice, the key line of ‘Luxury trampled o’er the rights of man’ rings true to this day, in view of third world sweat shops and workers struggling in squalid conditions.

The second half of the evening begins with Dave O’Dowda of Manchester band Table. Backed by band mate Kieran Flynn, the first of his two song set opens with a taped interview of a Liverpool docker who was involved in the mid-1990s strike. Accompanying him for the second track is co-curator of the evening Lizzie Nunnery. Beginning her own set with a self-composed tune entitled ‘La Passionata’, played on a ukulele, the track pays tribute to those who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a conflict many Liverpudlians fought in to defeat fascism.

Also included is John Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’, his stinging riposte to the Nixon administration, recorded in 1971. Inspired by Lennon’s struggle to try and live in the United States, a request he was consistently denied by the Republican administration, the lyric takes on a more universal theme in the present day of governments and their continual neglect of the truth. Following on from this is a performance of ‘Old Man Trouble’, introduced as an "anti-Empire song". Underpinned by a slow military drumbeat and a descending guitar figure, the song’s prescient lyric is followed by ‘Wasn’t it a Time’ by Pete Seegar, a songwriter whose work is never far away from any acoustic performance.

Playwright Frank Cottrell Boyce’s contribution to the evening begins with a talk on the life of Edmund Dene Morel, a Parisian emigre who settled in the city. The first public figure to expose the horrors of the Belgian Congo to the world, Morel was a highly respected figure in the 1910s, his book 'The Black Man’s Burden' still being in print. His memory neglected in death, he was the inspiration behind Joseph Conrad’s novel 'Heart of Darkness', which details a harrowing voyage up river to the Belgium Congo.

The following reading - accompanied by Vidar Norheim on vibraphone - celebrated the life of Jeremiah Horrocks, born 1618 in Toxteth. Now acclaimed as ‘The Godfather of British Astronomy’, Horrocks was the first to posit heliocentric theory that the planets moved around the sun, not the Earth, as had long been believed. Having predicted a solar eclipse that would take place, the Transit of Venus, Horrocks set about trying to prove this theory. By hanging a cloth over a tree branch, Horrocks was able to prove the existence of a solar eclipse, yet as a clergyman, he was torn between working on a Sunday and having to observe the strict traditions of the sabbath.

By recording the event he became the first to prove the Earth was not the centre of the universe, long before Isaac Newton. As the reading reveals, Horrocks died tragically young at the age of twenty-two at his family home in Toxteth. Despite being venerated with a memorial in Westminster Abbey, he is little remembered in his home city, as Boyce suggests, "It’s a pity they never named the airport after him".

An inspiring, informative evening, the songs and stories of Liverpool’s history of radicalism, encompassing politics, science, and of course music, it further proves that unheralded heroes such as Morel, Roscoe and those who fought in the Spanish Civil War are long overdue further recognition.

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