Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!
Saturday, 22 September 2018 13:53

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille interviews Paul Summers, including extracts from a major new poem which is published by Culture Matters. It will be launched at the People, Pits and Politics festival in Durham on Friday 13th July, the day before the Miners’ Gala, and is available for purchase here

Paul Summers is deeply rooted in the working-class pit communities of the North East, and the poem was commissioned from him by Culture Matters. Its aim is to show, as a poetical and political statement, the growing political importance under Corbyn’s Labour Party of the socialist values and politics of the old mining communities – the women as well as the men – who struggled for a more caring, collective and co-operative way of life through their sheer hard work, their trade unions, and their political affiliations.

This heritage is celebrated and recreated annually at the Gala in Durham, one of the world’s biggest working-class cultural festivals, and the poem links the processions at the Gala to the rebirth of a more class conscious, socialist politics in the labour movement and the Labour Party.

MQ: To start with, can you tell us something about yourself? What's your background, and how did you come to appreciate and write poetry?

PS: I was born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1967. We lived in an old 2 up 2 down terrace in a place called Cowpen, half a mile west of Bates’ Pit (the last working pit out of the 10 or so that had existed in Blyth) where both my grandads had worked and half a mile east of Bebside village, where my great and great-great-grandads had settled in the 1850s to hew coals.

It was a lovely old working-class community: we had all the romantic clichés of back doors left open, borrowing cups of sugar or coal from the neighbours, a wash-day chorus of gossip in the back lane, as well as the less romantic realities of the domestic violence, the alcoholism and the undercurrent of racism. I suppose it was quite an anachronistic place on reflection; whenever I recount it to people now it feels as though I was brought up in Beamish Museum or on the set of When The Boat Comes In.

Most of the people in the street were old, retired miners, their wives or widows and they were all good talkers, fond of a yarn or a song and a bit of reminiscence about ye olden days, the hardships they’d endured and the mischief they’d got up to. They were an oral historian’s dream. I was captivated by them, seduced by their stories, and I think that’s what sowed the seed of me being a yarner of sorts too.

Class, politics, social history and cultural identity were ever present, all wrapped up in their tales of extraordinary ordinariness. I think I decided quite early on that I fancied being a south-east Northumbrian version of John Boy from The Walton’, documenting the place I lived in and the characters who I shared it with. To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve just about succeeded in fulfilling my career model. I’m not sure that being a poet featured highly in that plan but it’s what I’ve found I’m probably best at, despite still occasionally dabbling in bits of prose and drama.

I had a great comprehensive education too, and was encouraged by a few ‘special’ teachers to take my writing seriously and to keep on being in love with history and peoples’ stories.

I was 17 in 1984, when the Miners’ Strike started. It brought politics with a capital ‘P’ to our front door. It highlighted both the unities and divisions within the community, in opinion, ideologies and realities. I remember the pragmatism of some of the older fellas, like my granda, saying that most pits were like men and if you got 3 score and ten years out of them you’d have been lucky.

I remember the ferocity of support for Scargill from many others who were fighting for their futures (or their children’s futures) and who could foresee the coming desolation of a town without industry or opportunity. I remember witnessing the heavy hand of the police state first hand for the first time – waking up to find a long line of South Yorkshire SPG riot vans parked up along Cowpen Road, in readiness for any bother on the picket line.

I remember a few (slightly drunken) mates getting viciously beaten up by the coppers on the night that Scargill spoke at Croft Park, the home of the mighty Blyth Spartans. I remember the tales of hardship and suicidal depression you’d hear around the doors, the hate-filled stories of scabs and Tory vindictiveness, as well as the stories of incredible resolve, resilience and solidarity.

Anyhow, the strike was defeated and in a few years the pit was closed. Blyth didn’t fare too well for a decade or so after that. I think at some point in the late 80s we had the dubious honour of being voted the most depressing place in the country twice in a row, and being labelled as the heroin capital of the north.

Plenty to bear witness to, plenty to educate you in social injustice and existential torment, in defeat and optimism, in nihilism and hope, in grief and joy, in laughter and tears, plenty of complex stuff that a person could easily spend their entire creative life trying to unpick & make sense of.


MQ: Can you tell us something about your poetic career, what you've been trying to achieve and how that's changed over the years?

PS: I’d left school at 17 and motivated no doubt by TV lawyer Petrocelli, I started to work as a trainee legal executive at a solicitors’ office in Newcastle. It was a thoroughly Dickensian institution which paid us less than the dole for working from 8 till 5.30, and it fuelled my dislike for the upper classes, my hatred of privilege and my growing sense of social injustice. Luckily for me (in retrospect) I was sacked in 1987, for playing snooker when I should have been at Newcastle College doing my afternoon-release Legal Executive’s course.

If nothing else my dismissal encouraged me to go and do my A Levels and to start thinking about getting a degree. In the process of the former I met three literature lecturers/poets called Brendan Cleary, George Charlton & Tony Baynes. All three were interested in and supportive of my writing and at that moment in time that was the only motivation I needed. They introduced me to literary magazines and the work of other writers and they encouraged me to start submitting stuff myself.  

By 1990 I’d had bits and bobs of stuff published and had, by a strange fluke of history, found myself co-organising the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle. The tragic suicide of my fellow co-organiser left me, the anxious rookie, at the helm. It was an interesting time – I met some great poets and my poetic education continued, and I made some long-lasting allies and friends. I also learned what a self-interested viper’s nest the creative world could be, and how the world of literature was still fairly bourgeois and unwelcoming to a working class man. All good lessons for a naïve, small-town boy.

I’d published a few little chapbooks through Brendan Cleary’s Echo Room Press in the nineties, and picked up a couple of writers’ awards from Northern Arts, but the last bus was my first proper collection. Iron Press published it on May 1st 1998, and luckily it was well received and reviewed. It even got the title sequence from the book in that year’s Forward poetry anthology, and a brief but favourable mention in the broadsheets.

the last bus was all about growing up in Blyth, all about the micro-universe of Cowpen, all about family, friends and acquaintances, all about love and loss. But it was also, by default, about the bigger stuff: about class, politics, identity and history, dead-set on exploring the tensions between romanticised and realistic representations of a working-class community. I was already tired of unquestioningly romantic Geordierama versions of working class existence in the north East. It created my version of Walton’s Mountain, not pre-war Virginia but Thatcher era, post-industrial Northumberland – and hopefully not just sentimental and eulogising. It was full of rage and love, the complexity of identity and familial relations. It was me trying to tell the truth, or my truth anyhow, to be authentic, to tell it how it was, warts and all.

The next few books just picked up the baton – any street, any town, ‘all human life is here’ (and worthy of poetry). In fact, I don’t think I’ve veered that far from that way of thinking in the following twenty years of writing. The focus on community or geography might occasionally shift, town to city, macro to domestic, Britain to Australia and back, but the desire to report, document and interrogate people and place remains the same. My muses or motivations to write remain the same too: rage and outrage, confusion and bewilderment, love, rapture and grief, all of them demanding the need to bear witness.

MQ. There are a number of issues around poetry and politics that I'd like to explore with you. What are your own political beliefs, and how do they influence your choice of poetic subject and approach?

PS: I like to think that I’m a compassionate socialist who isn’t averse to most of the core values of communism. I’d very much like to see the end of capitalism and neo-liberalism and for them to be replaced with a more equitable, just, democratic and sustainable model of society free of class division, elites, patriarchy and hierarchies.

Much of my poetry is shaped by this political positioning and my experiences as a working class, comprehensively educated bloke from the post-industrial North East of England. A reviewer once said that my work ‘wasn’t political in the way Brecht or Neruda’s was, but that it was full of politics nonetheless’. My granda, who was fond of a proverb, used to say it was fine to wave the flag but a different thing altogether to hit people over the head with the flag-staff. I think I try and do precisely that.

I hope I authentically and empathically represent and document aspects of my community, I hope I display compassion and care. I hope the questions I occasionally pose on our behaviours are relevant ones, and that my frequent outrage is well placed. I hope that me bearing witness to the things which appal and enrage me occasionally impacts on other people’s thinking.

I hope I occasionally encourage an intellectual or ideological response from people as well as an emotional one. I hope people find the beauty and tenderness in my poems which might re-energise them or keep a darkness at bay. I hope I model being a ‘decent’, compassionate person in my work. I don’t think you’d have to work very hard to establish my politics – I hope you can see the flag even though I am not always whacking you with it.

MQ: What's your view on the history of poetry, and its close historical association with politically dominant and leisured classes in society?

PS: Poetry may have been genuinely popular in the British Isles at several moments of history, when an oral tradition was dominant amongst largely illiterate societies. Whether it was a population transfixed by the retelling of a Viking saga or the romans of the troubadours and minstrels, folklore and song, to the doggerel of the music hall and the gin-house balladeers, or Kipling’s imperial jingoism. Oral transmission popularised poetry and made the form more accessible to all classes, not just the book-owning, forelock tugging, velvet-suited elites.

This all seems to have changed with the advent of modernism, when for one reason or another, poetry seems to have retrenched itself as a ‘difficult’ or ‘high’ art and retreated back into the confines of its ivory towers (or red brick university towers). And the upper classes asserted a new set of conventions to make the canon more exclusive and impenetrable, and by turns less human and engaging.

This position wasn’t really challenged in Britain until the 60s, when a generation of baby-boomer, working-class, grammar school kids started to introduce poetic narratives and styles that were more familiar and engaging to the broader population. This coincided with the Beat movement in the US, with May 68 in Paris and the Summer of Love in America. Poetry had a brief renaissance, existing happily alongside the words of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and their like. Even then though, the reach of poetry into the world of the working classes was miniscule in comparison to the gin-house days.

Since then, you could argue there has a been a painfully slow democratisation of the form. As Sean O’Brien suggested in The Deregulated Muse, the last thirty or forty years has undoubtedly seen a more diverse range of voices appear, denting the glass ceilings of gender, class, race and sexuality, and there are probably more physical and virtual platforms for dissemination than ever before. However, it’s still a long way from reaching mainstream status, where it’s readily consumed by the masses.

Despite the perennial broadsheet hype suggesting poetry is the new rock and roll, book sales and audiences suggest the contrary. It’s still a fairly marginalised artform with a limited reach, and limited opportunity for it to be a sustainable way of making a living, unless you find a niche in academia or socially engaged activities.

Some of the indie presses are trying their damnedest to increase this diversity and readership but mostly they do it without resource or capacity to impact on the already flooded cultural arena.

The premier publishing houses still have limited sized lists and equally limited marketing capacity and generally speaking they are still, in my opinion, fairly bourgeois and unchallenging in their choices of poets to champion.

Then we have the various splits & factions within the poetry world itself: around aesthetics, regional identities , our various sociological classifications and identities, the ascendancy of stage and page, the academic and the ‘popular’, the ‘majors’ and the ‘minors’, the left and the right, the ‘art for art’s sake’ mob and the politically engaged creative utilitarians.

We poets are a very disunited and disjointed village and fragmentation, as anyone familiar with leftist politics will tell you, has never been a strength in terms of furthering your message or realising change.

MQ: How do you think poetry can contribute towards making a better, juster, world?

PS: We as poets can bear witness to and challenge atrocity and social injustice at every level we find it, we can be moral arbiters and polemicists, agitators and rabble-rousers. We can flag up the experience of the marginalised and forgotten. We can be conduits for the telling and re-telling of histories, and the dissemination of alternative ideas and ideologies.

We can remind people of the things we share, our commonalities, as well as celebrating our difference. We can validate experiences and create a sense of universal interest. We can celebrate beauty, compassion and altruism. We can provide a space of sanctuary, delight or quiet grieving. We can make people laugh as well as move them to tears. We can remind each other of our humanity and of the responsibilities that goes with enacting and facilitating that humanity. We can encourage broader participation, be brave enough to take our work into non-traditional environments, we can be educators and facilitators, we can organise events and publish.

We can collaborate, collectivise and work cross-form. We can actually start to think like cultural democrats and political activists, rather than wallowing in our garrets or talking only to our respective choirs. We can do whatever our motivations, confidence and energy levels allow us. We can all be subversives if we understand what and who we are fighting against.

fish quay fugues

  1. i. doggerland

the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

- antonio gramsci

& the way will be perilous;
black ice & shark-eyed smiles,
several heaps of hogmanay vomit,
a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,
its palimpsest of feast & greed,
bleak litany of the new & old,
dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,
the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,
the endless cycle of peddled fact.
& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;
its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,
the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.

kick off your shoes my love & walk;
due east, towards the burgeoning sun.
plough on through the grave mounds
of haddock-frames & listless kelp,
tread slowly on the pebble field,
avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;
then walk & wade & catch your breath,
beyond the bar where codling lurk,
let swell becalm your troubled blood,
squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;
the rapture of tectonic plates entwined
in acts of violence & of love, the red raw
ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,
each jolt, each breathless force exerted
sees citadels emergent from these waves,
a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,
its strongholds of hope re-rendered
now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,
their gates agape, their monsters slain;
each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.

 

MQ. Can you say something about how you wrote this poem and what it means to you?

PS: doggerland is from a new sequence of poems I’m working on called the fish quay fugues. The poems document the flights of my imagination as I walk by the river.

Walking has become part of my creative practice. I walk every day, rain, hail or shine. Usually it’s the same route: from my house in North Shields down the bank to the River Tyne at the Fish Quay, then eastwards towards the Spanish Battery Prow, onto the Haven Beach at Tynemouth, then back home to Shields via Collingwood’s Monument, Knott’s Flats and Northumberland Park.

At low tide I walk out on the rocks in a vain search for sea-borne archaeological treasures and a high tide along the promenade. It’s become a form of meditation, sometimes a head-clearing exercising, sometimes a thought-refining process. Lots of creative ideas are polished and there is much philosophising en route.

I have spent, and continue to spend, a great chunk of my life trying to negotiate with myself over a position of continued optimism for humankind and for the arrival of some sort of socialist utopia: the great & ponderous dialectic between hope and despondency. History proves that I am more than capable of the latter path, the path of perpetual moping, angry cynicism or even nihilism, but it’s not a version of myself I’m particularly attracted to. It doesn’t seem like a very sustainable model for your general wellbeing or that of those around you.

So, I continue to dredge my psyche for a semblance of hope. I do this even though throughout my adult life, it has often seemed as if we have stumbled from one period of Brechtian ‘dark times’ to another, without any real or sustained recourse to any ‘light times’. I do this even though reality tells me I have experienced lots of ideological defeats and disappointments and very few victories.

Now that I am a decade into being a parent, I feel even more of an obligation to be hopeful, at least within my outward looking face. Otherwise, the prospects of my children’s futures are just too difficult to contemplate. It is because of this, I genuinely feel we must remain stubbornly optimistic, we must remain robustly hopeful that the ‘glorious day’ will come, equality & peace will prevail & that all the evils of capitalism will be kicked into touch for good.

I think these new poems are all addressing this nagging question of hope and despair, and generally speaking – up to now anyway – they are leaning towards optimism, even if that optimism is slightly metaphysical.

It strikes me that both optimism & hope may both be forms of necessary denial: essential parts of the toolkit of any forward-looking socialist trying to keep the red flag flying and the black dog at bay.

Extract from arise!

by Paul Summers

‘they being dead yet speaketh’

so history is done,
the shafts capped,

the breathless heaps
erased or made-over:

a short-cut to asda,
a low gradient jog,

somewhere for the dog
to take a shit.

no monument
save memory,

save anecdote
& frail romance,

no rusted remnant,
no totem mark,

only nature to sing
their hymn.

a broken picket-line
of hunch-backed thistles,

a huddle of poppies
in a fly-tipped fridge,

summer’s shrill birdsong
captive in a cage of gorse,

three score years & ten
of spoil beneath our feet,

our antecedents
rendered mute & obsolete,

our pasts & present
wedged asunder,

their marriage annulled
by devious progress.

history is done
the cynics proclaim,

they do not hear it
nagging in our veins,

they do not hear
the bitter wind

hiss its litany
of familiar names.

they do not hear
the whispered yakka

echo in the helix
of our complex genes.

they do not hear
the roll-call

of redundant lives,
of prospects slain

at altars of profit
& heinous spite.

history is done
the sages refrain,

they do not hear it
niggling in our veins.

 

MQ. Can you tell us a bit about what the Gala and mining history means to you?

PS: As I implied earlier, my family has had a connection to coal-mining since the late 1700s. The Summers ancestors started out working in the bell-pits of north Northumberland then migrated southwards towards Newcastle and south-east Northumberland as the process was more industrialised. Other branches of the family migrated eastwards from Cumbria or northwards from Cornwall into the Durham coalfield before they ultimately ended up in Blyth. My dad was the first man in his direct bloodline in over a hundred and fifty years never to work down the pit, choosing the relatively safety of the Town Gas Yard and a fitter’s apprenticeship instead. It’s safe to say that coal, and the traditions that go with mining it, is firmly embedded in our genetic make-up.

As a Blyth boy we always went to the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic at Attlee Park in Bedlington. We’d march from Blyth behind the Bates & Cambois Banner. It was similarly rousing but only a proportion of the scale of Durham by the time I can remember it. I’ve fond memories though, good rousing speakers, brass bands, abundant ice cream & candy floss. My mam had even been a Picnic Queen in the late fifties, representing West Sleekburn Colliery. It still exists today to a greater or lesser degree, and happens at Woodhorn Museum in early June.

I‘d never been to the Big Meeting in Durham until the early nineties but now I try to get there whenever I can. It’s an amazing spectacle and still incredibly moving I think. There were a quarter of million people there last year, and it’s still regarded as the biggest trade union event in Europe – and that’s despite the fact that we’ve got no deep-mines left in either the Durham or Northumberland coalfields.

arise! by Paul Summers is available here10% of sales income will go to to the Durham Miners’ Association, towards the restoration of Redhills and its development into a cultural hub for the area.

CM book Arise cover

Paul Robeson: The Artist As Revolutionary
Saturday, 22 September 2018 13:53

Paul Robeson: The Artist As Revolutionary

Published in Music

Paul Robeson died 40 years ago this month. Gerald Horne writes about the great singer, actor and communist, victimised by McCarthyism and the US apartheid system.......and what 'the tallest tree in our forest' would make of the Oscars today…..

A major ritual takes places annually in the USA: the nomination and awarding of ‘Oscars’ or awards for movie-making, particularly performances. And regularly, there is an outcry – in recent years a Twitter-storm – about the absence of nominations for African-Americans and other peoples of color in a nation that is increasingly diverse and elected its first black president in 2008. To be sure, there are exceptions: ’12 Years a Slave’, directed by Britain’s own Steve McQueen, did quite well in the star-studded Oscar ceremony a few years ago but this tends to be the exception that proves the rule. 

This unfortunate state of affairs would not have surprised Paul Robeson, who—among other accomplishments—was once among Hollywood’s brightest stars. Born in New Jersey in 1898 and passing away in Philadelphia in 1976, Robeson was variously a star athlete, lawyer, singer, actor and an expert students of dozens of languages, including German, Russian, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese, etc. But he met his Waterloo when he dared to express support for socialism at a time during the Red Scare of the 1950s when his homeland, the US, was moving in a diametrically opposing direction. His income dropped precipitously from the six figures to the four figures. There were numerous attempts to inflict mayhem upon him. His passport was taken way, preventing him from travelling abroad—particularly to London where he had resided during a good deal of the 1920s and 1930s—in order to pursue his livelihood. Repeatedly, he was hauled before congressional investigative committees in Washington, D.C., as his inquisitors sought to prove that he was a member of the US Communist Party, an affiliation he denied. It is possible, however, that he had been a member of the British Communist Party.

Finally, in the late 1950s, as the movement against apartheid in the US gathered steam, and the political atmosphere became more liberal, his passport was returned and Robeson headed directly to London, where he resumed his career as a singer and actor, notably reviving his portrayal of “Othello,” still considered to be the premier portrayal of Shakespeare’s Moor. He also travelled and performed incessantly, particularly to Moscow, which he had first visited in the 1930s. Indeed, his hectic schedule doubtlessly contributed to a deterioration of his health and in 1965 he chose to return to the USA, where he settled into retirement.

On the USA side of the Atlantic, despite his monumental accomplishments, Robeson is not hailed universally because of his refusal to abjure socialism, and because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. My own opinion is that if Robeson is to be excoriated for his pro-Moscow sympathies, perhaps the same animosity should be directed toward President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For just as Robeson felt the need to ally with Communists in order to beat back his pro-apartheid antagonists, FDR acted similarly in order to defeat his pro-Nazi opponents. If anything, like many activists before and since, Robeson miscalculated the progressive potential of the US itself, a topic I pursued at length in my book, ‘The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA’.

Robeson was a sacrificial lamb in that the attack on him was accompanied by an agonizing retreat from the more egregious aspects of apartheid –with the two being linked. That is, in order to compete more effectively with Moscow in the “Third World” as African nations were surging to independence, with many of these leaders – including Kenyatta of Kenya and Nkrumah of Ghana – being personal friends of his, Washington found it necessary to ease Jim Crow pressures against peoples of African descent at home. But the price of the ticket was the battering of those like Robeson who had crusaded “prematurely” for anti-colonialism, in his case beginning in the 1930s when he founded the Council on African Affairs, the organization closest to his heart.

During this “American Spring”, now encapsulated in the phrase, ‘Civil Rights Movement’, movie stars like Sidney Poitier surged to stardom and Oscar fame. But as the socialist project retreated and Robeson became little more than a distant memory, progress on many fronts dissipated, not least in Hollywood. Thus, as we tap out our 140 character Twitter messages (#oscarstillsowhite), let us take a moment to recall how we arrived at such a parlous and perilous juncture. Let us recall the man once hailed as the “tallest tree in our forest”. Let us recall the great Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, by Gerald Horne, is published by Pluto Press. Thanks to PP for providing this article.

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Saturday, 22 September 2018 13:53

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.