Merry Hell

Catalysts : Bob Kettle

Bob Kettle sings, plays the mandolin and wears a top hat in England's most vital folk band, Merry Hell.

Bob is also a richly talented songwriter - as two compositions (Come on, England! and Coming Home Song) on the Merry Hell's last-but-one studio album, Bloodlines, emphatically attest. His finely-honed lyrics manage to communicate deep-rooted values effortlessly, and he frames them with sublime music. There is an intent to his work that brings to mind a Phil Ochs' quote, 'In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.'

Given the task of identifying three key cultural influences from the last ten years, Bob was no shirker, and rose to the challenge with typical energy. An eclectic trio - The Shakespeare North Project, the writing of Laura Bates and Wigan Diggers Festival made his final cut.

Each of the three choices is detailed below by Bob himself - his thoughts set out on a page as deftly as he composes songs. There is a lot to absorb in the words, and it is worth the time needed to digest them - as always, there are important ideas expressed in what Bob Kettle has to say.


Wigan Diggers Festival

My birthplace was in Wigan, the same town in northwest England where Gerrard Winstanley was born in 1609. He founded the 'True Levellers' movement - also known as the 'Diggers'. In order to communally cultivate crops after the upheavals of the English Civil Wars, they instigated the occupation of enclosed, privatized land that had previously been set aside for public use.

Winstanley had been honoured internationally as a pioneer of socialism and agrarian anarchism ? but no mark of his life and influence could be found in his hometown. So, in 2010, a collective of left-leaning activists and trades unionists set out to celebrate the legacy of the town's most influential, but locally overlooked, son. Thus, Wigan Diggers Festival was founded.

Having moved down to London as an apprentice, Winstanley was bankrupted in 1643 and relocated to Surrey where he became a cowherd. He stood for common ownership and cooperative cultivation, arguing that private property and the exploitation of labour are impediments to the beneficial management and equitable distribution of the Earth's resources.

His rhetoric was grounded in the Bible. He observed that no political or social hierarchy is present in the paradise described in the Book of Genesis and that the early Christian apostles lived communally; 'distribution was made unto every man according as he had need' (see Acts 4:32–35).

Nevertheless, he repudiated institutionalized religion as divisive: 'all your particular churches are like the enclosures of land which hedges in some to be heirs of life, and hedges out others.' It is only by means of cooperative organization that the whole of humanity can be nourished and live together in peace and prosperity. We must 'lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth ... Not Inclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together ... as equals in the Creation.'

In April, 1649 - the year in which King Charles I lost his head - the Diggers began communal farming at St George's Hill, Surrey. They suffered intimidation and violence by local landowners. They were not only harassed by local courts but also by the attentions of General Fairfax of the New Model Army - representing the forces which were supposed to defend the liberty of the People of England. Although they were dispersed, their influence can, nevertheless, be seen and felt to this day.

Inspired by this historical example, the first Wigan Diggers Festival has grown from its humble beginnings at The Old Pear Tree pub on Frog Lane in 2011 to a greatly expanded event which has occupied and enlivened the town centre each September for the last decade.

Generously funded by the trades union movement and contributors representing the full breadth of leftwing organizations, it has hosted an impressive array of musicians, including The Men They Couldn't Hang, The Railway Children and The Blockheads - alongside a plethora of talented local artists and poets.

It has provided a forum for stalls from which progressive ideas can be disseminated and a wide range of community outreach schemes, including projects which have taken Winstanley's words and ideas into schools to heighten local children's awareness of their radical forebear. A regular feature has been the award of The Gerrard Winstanley Spade, given annually to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of socialism. Recipients have included Tony Benn, Ken Loach, Jimmy McGovern, Maxine Peake and singer-songwriter Joe Solo.

This year's event was to be marked by a special celebration - as the 10th Wigan Diggers Festival. My band, Merry Hell, had been booked to fill the headline slot, but, due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for the live event have had to be postponed; discussions about organizing an appropriate online alternative are ongoing.

Winstanley and the True Levellers have had a particular influence on my own writing ? in which I've tried to foreground England's often-marginalized radical history and emphasize that the things we hold in common, such as our National Health Service, are much more reliable markers of our shared national identity than the flags and insignia of its imperialist past. For now, myself and the band can only wish the organizers and audience well and hope we can get together in the spirit of friendship and cooperation as soon as it's safe to do so.

I'd like to close by drawing the greatest attention to the most important element of the festival's organization: the army of volunteers that works tirelessly throughout the year to make this event possible. They labour for love, not money. It is their dedication that allows us to see the seeds of solidarity, sewn by a poor man in the seventeenth century, flourish in his hometown and continue to blossom into an ever-growing sense of togetherness and community, shared from the past to the present - and, if we maintain our unity, thriving in the future.

MERRY HELL I Come on England


Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism

This book transformed my view of power relationships between the sexes.

I was already an ideological feminist ? could hold forth on patriarchy and performativity at the drop of an academic paper. Whilst I wouldn’t have gone so far as to claim that sexism no longer exists, I was broadly confident that progress was being made and that gender prejudice was well on its way to inevitable extinction. The text shook my complacent male perspective and made me aware of the inequalities, disadvantages and abuses imposed on females by males.

In 2012, Bates launched the Everyday Sexism website to serve as a forum within which women and girls could express their personal experiences of abuse and marginalization. In its first twenty months alone, over a hundred thousand accounts were posted, providing evidence that chauvinism is very much alive and thriving.

Supporting this with a compelling array of statistics, the author showed that, for example, one in five women had reported being a victim of a sexual offence and one in four had experienced domestic violence (p. 15). The effects of this widespread criminality are so pervasive as to oblige females to alter their behaviour, manners and appearance; to change where they walk, how they talk and what they wear. She argues that if any social, political or ethnic group other than women were subject to similar mistreatments, there would justly be a moral outcry and calls for institutional changes. However, harassment and assault of females by males is so ubiquitous as to become culturally normalized; natural as the weather, so common as to go unnoticed. They are victimized when alone and vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of men ? everyday impositions which aren't perpetrated by women against men to remotely the same degree. Males, unlikely to be the victims of sexism, remain largely unaware of the pervasiveness of its limiting and debilitating intrusions.

Everyday Sexism made me conscious of both the scale of the problem and my tacit complicity in its maintenance and reproduction. This is not a natural consequence of being born with male genitalia but a cultural malady with a cultural cure. If men and boys don't take action to call out, challenge and reform sexist attitudes and behaviours, they will remain instrumental in its injustices. Female rights are human rights ? Bates's book made me aware of the part I can play, not only in the liberation of women but of humanity in general.


The Shakespeare North Project

It came as a surprise to me to learn that, during the Elizabethan period, the only free-standing purpose-built theatre outside London was in Prescot.

Now in the metropolitan county of Merseyside, this small town - only three miles away from my present home in St Helens - was the venue for some of Shakespeare's earliest plays. This fascinating and unexpected historical connection, originating in the support the Bard received from the Earls of Derby, has been the catalyst for an exciting and enlivening cultural project in the area. At its core is the plan to build a 350-seat theatre to complete the UK's 'Shakespearean triangle' ? linking London, Stratford and Prescot. It has already motivated many fascinating and entertaining events which have been enormously beneficial to the local community. I'd like to celebrate some of those here, drawing particular attention to the most memorable:

In June 2015, I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in the woods behind St Mary's church, Prescot ? and As You Like It in summer, 2016, in the same location. The grounds of Croxteth Hall, Liverpool, were the venue for The Tempest in July, 2017; Romeo and Juliet was staged in Taylor Park, St Helens, in 2019. Audiences witnessed: the breakdown of individual aristocratic identities because of Puck's mischievous meddling, along with the Queen of the Fairies' amorous relationship with a 'rude mechanical' with the head of an ass. The cross-dressing of Rosalind as the pageboy 'Ganymede' ? and Jaques' 'All the world's a stage' monologue suggesting the performative roles to which all human beings are subject. Prospero's magical manipulations to regain his usurped dukedom and the native Caliban's reply to the impositions of colonial discourse: 'You taught me language, and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse./ The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!' Civil disorder, brought about by the feuding Capulets and Montagues, ended by the deaths of young lovers who transgressed the divisions of prejudice and conflict.

Very many people attended each event, representing all types and classes. Local accents dominated the satisfied buzz that followed those engaging spectacles. The actors ? from outdoor drama specialists Imaginarium Theatre - hung around at the end to discuss the performance with the audience.

On the one hand, the plays can be received as evidence of the transhistorical mastery of authorial genius. Although, arguably, the history of their production is interesting and their content innovative, they nevertheless transmit perennial values of respect for authority and the nation along with stable ideals of class and gender relationships. This view is exemplified in Boris Johnson's recently published book, Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius ? in which the author is described as the 'best-known Brit of all time'; as a timeless innovator who, paradoxically, underpins and justifies conservative values.

On the other, Shakespearean drama presents a multiplicity of conflicting voices and views - a profusion of opinions and perspectives from which audiences can observe the shaping and reshaping of identities over time and can choose from competing alternatives. Gender, sexuality and social class are depicted as matters of language and performance. This is particularly pertinent when we consider that, throughout Shakespeare's lifetime, English Renaissance theatre forbade female actors; women's parts had to be played by boys or young men. So, for example, the role of Rosalind/Ganymede would involve a boy playing a woman playing a boy in order to avoid potential assailants in 'her' journey through the Forest of Arden. Not only is this 'female' role one of an aristocrat's daughter playing a 'male' servant and therefore transgressive of class boundaries - but the name 'Ganymede' is also closely associated, in Greco-Roman myth, with homosexuality and is thus suggestive of the instability of sexual categories. Similarly, although the authority of Prospero in The Tempest can be seen as absolute, the role of Caliban affords the opportunity of dissent and challenge and so presents the potential of subverting colonial discourses and dominion.

We can only hope that the Shakespeare North Project will continue to develop after the hiatus imposed by coronavirus. It is not only beneficial because it brings the diverse communities of Merseyside together, although that, in itself, is more than welcome in the wake of austerity and the divisions wrought by Brexit. It also allows fresh audiences to engage with a hotly contested cultural product - to participate in the reception of the author's output and the myths that surround it and to reassess and renew his plays' meanings in the context of their own lives and experiences.


MERRY HELL I Coming Home Song (Live)