Indefatigable in his advocacy for political change and finding time to play hundreds of shows each year, with over 3000 under his belt to date Attila the Stockbroker has forged an international reputation, in a career spanning four decades. Throughout this time he has remained true to his punk roots and continues to operate very much with a DIY ethos.
As well as writing and performing as a solo poet his band Barnstormer 1649 play music that blends punk with early folk influences, heavily informed by the radical political ferment that motivated groups such as The Diggers and the Ranters. They are currently hitting the road supporting their latest album Restoration Tragedy. Attila also runs Glastonwick festival and is heavily involved with his beloved football team Brighton and Hove Albion. Somewhere in between his incredibly busy schedule he found some time to answer a few questions about his time as a performer and his expansive career to date. You can read the answers below:
Firstly let me congratulate you on such an informative, intelligent and inspiring website. Your interview with Dunstan Bruce, for instance, is great. This is what punk is, or should be, about – creative, independent thought. (As well as beer and music and having a laugh of course!)
There’s a great mini documentary which sums me up pretty well here
And, inevitably, I’m on Facebook
What are your earliest memories of encountering poetry and when did you realise that it was something you wanted to pursue?
My father Bill was an amateur poet – he was born in 1899, left school at 15 and worked in the civil service all his life, apart from during the First World War, when he miraculously survived while fighting in the Civil Service Rifles during the German offensive in early 1918. He was 59 when I was born and died in 1968 when I was ten. (Amazing story I know…) He wrote mainly comic poetry and love poems for my mother, and some of his work was pretty good, but it was never published in a book: his verse was apparently regularly featured in the Home Guard magazine during the Second World War, but sadly I have never been able to find the copies in question. He retired when I was 3 and taught me to read, introducing me to loads of poetry, above all the Cautionary Tales of Hilaire Belloc, which I absolutely loved. By the age of about 6 I was writing little poems of my own, encouraged by him, and I took it from there….
My mother was a talented musician, again from the kind of background which meant that she sadly never had the opportunities to make music her career. Having inherited words from my father and music from my mother I vowed aged about 15 that I would earn my living from my talents in the way they never could and that nothing would stop me!
I have managed this for 37 years.
Here is the poem I wrote for my father in 2014, as the centenary of the war was ‘commemorated’ with some especially brainless and jingoistic comments from Michael Gove.
For Bill Baine, 1899-1968
1/15th Battalion, London Regiment, #535068
‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.’
And so some lines to spike centenary prattle:
These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s.
My father Bill, born in Victorian England:
The sixth of January, 1899.
His stock, loyal London. Proletarian doff-cap.
Aged just eighteen, he went to join the line.
Not in a war to end all wars forever
But in a ghastly slaughter at the Somme –
A pointless feud, a royal family squabble
Fought by their proxy poor with gun and bomb.
My father saved. Pyrexia, unknown origin.
Front line battalion: he lay sick in bed.
His comrades formed their line, then came the whistle
And then the news that every one was dead.
In later life a polished comic poet
No words to us expressed that awful fear
Although we knew such things were not forgotten.
He dreamed Sassoon: he wrote Belloc and Lear.
When I was ten he died, but I remember,
Although just once, he’d hinted at the truth.
He put down Henry King and Jabberwocky
And read me Owen’s ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’.
‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.’
And so some lines to spike Gove’s mindless prattle:
These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s.
Who or what do you see as your main influences?
In the widest possible sense – my parents, Hilaire Belloc and the Clash. (And latterly my wife Robina…)
I think it must be pretty clear why from what I have written above and the fact that you are interviewing me for a website with ‘punk’ in the title! There are more of course: the groundbreaking ‘Mersey Sound’ anthology which introduced Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri to the world made a huge impression on me aged about 14 as the first modern poetry I could truly relate to, and my contemporaries like JCC, Ben Zephaniah, Kate Tempest etc strike a chord.
But, in truth, I have never been a huge fan of poetry in general – rock lyrics have always been a far bigger influence on me, and on the whole I feel more at home playing to music audiences than in the mainly rather insular poetry/spoken word scene, although this is changing as people half my age take spoken word in a whole new direction and popularise it to a new generation. I am sometimes described as pioneer and grandad to the modern spoken word movement, which is flattering!
On the music front I have taught myself to play a wide variety of instruments, including facsimiles of ancient ones like the crumhorn, cornamuse, bombarde and rauschpfeife, have always had an instinctive love of early music and have always believed that it could be combined with punk in the same kind of way that the Pogues combined Irish music and punk. After 38 years with this project in the back of my mind I have finally done it with ‘Restoration Tragedy’, my new album with Barnstormer 1649, and am incredibly proud of the result!
What does punk mean to you and how do you view its influence on your work?
Obviously the initial musical impact in 1976 was important to me, although to be honest it seemed a natural progression from the stuff I already related to – T.Rex, John Cale, Lou Reed and the Velvets, Bowie, Mott the Hoople and the incredibly underrated Doctors of Madness to name but a few. But the primary, essential and enduring influence of punk on me was the DIY culture and the simple message that you don’t need to bother with agents, managers etc – organise your own gigs and festivals, put out your own records, publish your own books, live your own life! I have done that for over 20 of my 38 years on stage, starting long before the internet made things a lot easier than they are now. I have had many ‘label’ releases in the 80s and early 90s (Cherry Red, Probe Plus and various German labels for records, Bloodaxe and Unwins for poetry books) but latterly have done nearly everything myself, the notable exception being my autobiography, ‘Arguments Yard’ which was published by Cherry Red Books in 2015.
Of course I love ‘punk – the music’ too. Clash, Newtown Neurotics, Dead Kennedys, Rancid, Red London, King Blues…the list is endless. But I like a lot of other kinds of music as well, from Jacques Brel to Corvus Corax to Laibach (who were/are all punk in their own way..)
Do you approach the process of writing a piece to be recited differently from one intended for music, is there always a clear separation or is the process much more porous?
It is almost always apparent where something will finish up. I only ever write when an idea comes, but they are always surging up since I write about what is happening in the world and to me personally and there is never a shortage of material. Sadly, in the sense that so much of my work is a response to injustice in all its forms. I do write an increasing amount of very personal stuff these days too, as my latest poetry collection bears witness.
It seems that sometimes there is a resistance from certain quarters of the literary world towards stand up or performance poetry, which is unfairly disparaged and somehow seen as not proper poetry, what has your experience of this been and do you think that attitudes are changing?
My status in the literary world is an absolute zero, I have to say. This isn’t a moan, just a simple statement of fact. I am a middle aged bloke from a Sussex port town (and an exceptionally loud and stroppy one who says exactly what he thinks and doesn’t try and and curry favour with the liberal media). I get virtually no coverage from mainstream broadcasting and literally no interest from the ‘poetry world’, despite having a wide and enthusiastic following.
It honestly doesn’t worry me. Social media is just as powerful these days, perhaps more so, and I quite like being an outsider. I always say that I write poetry for people who don’t like poetry. Poet Adrian Mitchell’s wonderful quote ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’ is engraved on my metaphorical heart, and I take great pleasure in bringing poetry to loads of people who wouldn’t normally listen to it in venues where it has often never been performed before!
I have about 30,000 people interested in my activities across Facebook and Twitter and more gig offers than I can fulfil all over the UK and further afield. I lead a wonderful, interesting life doing what I love, and no one can ask for more than that.
You’ve been heavily involved with Brighton and Hove Albion football club, do you think there are any similarities between the process of playing sport and writing and performing, and how do you view the interaction of the two as informing your work?
Having been a lifelong fan I got involved in the Albion when our future was threatened in the nineties as co-founder of Brighton Independent Supporters’ Association. I was one of the activists determined to save our club from property-speculating bastards and secure us a permanent home, also PA announcer and DJ during our 14 years in exile at Gillingham and Withdean and Poet in Residence from the year 2000 to date. I will always say that the successful battle to rescue the Seagulls remains one of the most inspiring grass roots actions I have ever been involved in. I am proud to have my epic poem ‘Goldstone Ghosts’ in Dick’s Bar (our supporters’ bar) and my poetry all over the ground and I love the fact that my poetry about the Albion reaches people who wouldn’t normally read/listen to poetry (see above). Now we’ve won, it’s great to just be a fan again and enjoy the team’s battle to survive in the Premier League.
I have organised my gigs around the fixture list all my life, really difficult now since thanks to Murdoch TV you don’t know until 6 weeks beforehand whether the game will be Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday! Last season, our first in the Premier League, I put the football first, turning down loads of good gigs that people needed confirmed well in advance. But from now on work comes first, of course (it’s not just my work, it’s my life!) and so I shall book in the gigs assuming a 3pm Sat kick off and if it gets moved and I can’t go then so be it. I’ll still get to most of the fixtures but I am not having my life run by Murdoch.
In a wider sense I feel an affinity with footballers in the sense that unlike the majority of the population we earn our living doing what we love. For this reason I can never understand players who do not give their all on the pitch – especially if they are earning more in a week than many people do in a year. I put the same energy into a performance to 20 people, 200 or 2000. A lot of players do give their all, but the ones that don’t really wind me up. (Big shout out to Craig MacKail-Smith, former BHAFC forward who TOTALLY gets this and is the most honest and hard working footballer I have ever met)
What first attracted you to the influence of early music and how did Barnstormer 1649 come together?
Instinctive love of the simple ancient sounds, simple as that. No idea why, just THERE, always something in the back of my mind. I know it’s niche 🙂 There were early music instrumentals – ‘The Fall of King Zog’ and ‘March of the Levellers’ – on ‘Ranting at the Nation’ and ‘Sawdust and Empire’ my first two albums in the early 80s. Then after 14 years as a solo poet/songwriter I formed Barnstormer in 1994 with the specific aim of combining early music and punk. The rest is a long story I shall keep as short as possible.
I was joined by three of Brighton’s legendary Fish Brothers, Martin Fish (guitar) Dan Woods (guitar) and M.M.McGhee (drums) with Captain Sensible on bass for our first two gigs! Soon Captain left, Dan took over on bass, my old mate Tim O’ Tay joined on recorders and we did an album ‘The Siege Of Shoreham’ in 1996 which combined early music and punk to a degree, albeit in quite an unfocussed way. We did a second album ‘Just One Life’ in 2000. Then Tim and Martin left, Dan took over on guitar, Tommy Muir and later David Beaken joined on bass and we turned into a melodic Clashy punk band, doing about 600 gigs and 2 more albums, ‘Zero Tolerance’ (2004) and ‘Bankers & Looters’ (2012) to date alongside my solo shows, mostly in mainland Europe where bands get treated really well as I am sure you know.
In recent times long standing guitarist Dan and bassist David left, we acquired Jason Pegg, formerly of Clearlake and countless other projects, on guitar, Dave Cook, normally frontman/singer/guitarist of Too Many Crooks picked up a bass for the first time to join us and fitted in perfectly, and David Squires came in as our sound man and driver. Last year I had an idea you’ll read about below….and the new line up fitted perfectly for it. Tim O’Tay rejoined, I added ‘1649’ to the band name – and the rest is, quite literally, history. Having hardly played in the UK at all in the first 24 years of the band’s existence we are going to be doing so as much as possible from now on, for obvious reasons!
2018 has seen Barnstormer hit the road blending the influence of punk and music inspired by the radical movements that proliferated around the time of the English Civil war. What similarities are there between these musical styles and what do you think could be learnt about today’s political landscape from this period of history?
For this bit I am going to reproduce the sleeve notes for the forthcoming Barnstormer 1649 double LP and CD
Growing up and living in Southwick, the port town of Shoreham Harbour in West Sussex, I’ve spent my life next door to the site of a pivotal moment in English history.
After his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles II travelled south in disguise, chased by the New Model Army, and ended up at Shoreham Port, sneaking off to France in a coal boat called ‘Surprise’ from a spot 400 yards from where our house now stands. I’ve always been interested in the history of the English Civil War and its aftermath and like many locals been aware of this story. Completely coincidentally, I’ve always loved early music, have taught myself to play many ancient instruments and thought those sounds could be harnessed to the energy of punk in the same kind of way that The Pogues combined Irish music and punk.
Last October, I suddenly had an idea. I’d write a whole album about the English Revolution, the Commonwealth, the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters (the radical sects whose ideas spread like wildfire after the execution of Charles I in 1649) and the part my home port played in Charles II’s escape. I’d do so from exactly the opposite perspective to that of the local Cavaliers who celebrate the latter with a music festival called The Great Escape, a (now closed) music venue called the Escape Club and a Royal Escape Yacht Race.
For me, his escapewas a disaster for the future path of English history, and the title of this album shows my thoughts on the restoration! I’d use many of the instruments and musical ideas that were around at the time. And, of course, I’d do it with one eye firmly fixed on events in our ‘distressed and divided Nation’ today.
In 1660, after the restoration, the Act of Oblivion was passed, and everyone was supposed to forget about those eleven years when ‘the world turned upside down’ and all kinds of visionaries rose in revolt, firstly against an autocratic king and then against Cromwell, ‘the king without a crown’ and the landed gentry in whose name he ruled. But down the centuries many have remembered, the ‘Good Old Cause’ of the Commonwealth has been an inspiration to many subsequent radical movements, and in recent years interest in the period hasif anything increased.
So here is the story of 1649 and its aftermath as seen from the perspective of a modern day Ranter (I have been a ranting poet since 1980, as many will know) and my band, playing Roundhead Renaissancecore and celebrating a period which the richand powerful have always sought to erase from history.
Attila the Stockbroker, June 2018
The album is 58 minutes long. It’ll be released on double vinyl and CD and officially launched at the most fitting event possible – the Wigan Diggers’ Festival on Saturday 8th September. However, the CDs should be available by Rebellion in early August 🙂
I am asking as many people as possible to review it and spread the word. It is the culmination of my life’s work, and I mean that! And my wonderful wife Robina, a talented pianist, has written a track for it too…
What are your thoughts on the current political climate, clearly we’re in tumultuous times given recent events but it does seem that there is an increasing will to change such circumstances, is that your experience and how would you suggest people proceed?
There has been a massive change in the political landscape with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. So many people who had written off the Labour Party as a force for social change have rejoined – including me. At the last election we proved what a radical manifesto can achieve in winning over people who had written off politicians as ‘all the same’ but there is a hell of a long way to go! We have to keep our nerve and build the widest possible movement to defeat the Tories and bring their unspeakable legacy of poverty, division and bigotry to an end. I want to see no arguing between all of us on the Left and a concentration of our anger and focus on the bastards who are destroying everything that is good and worthwhile about this country to line the pockets of their cronies.
Where’s the most unusual location you’ve ever played a gig?
So many…I’ll definitely have forgotten some of the best ones when I write this.
Four tours of the GDR before the Wall came down. First ever punk gig in Stalinist Albania with my best friend Steve Drewett from the Newtown Neurotics in 1988. Invited to tour North Korea the following year, I already had a tour of Canada, Steve went instead. (Ask him about it.)
Filling in for Donny Osmond at the Marquee, 1991. Totally acoustic around 1989 in the huge cabaret marquee at Glastonbury when the generator broke (I am very loud for a poet) Oxford Union. Supported by the Manic Street Preachers at Swansea Uni in 1990. Huge ruck on stage in 82 at Skunx when attacked by Nazi boneheads. So many more. 3500 gigs, 24 countries. A lot to choose from….
Do you have a favourite poem to perform live and why?
Always changes ‘cos my set is about what is happening now, but I suppose over all these years ‘Contributory Negligence’ stands out…
Looking forward what are your aims for the coming months and years?
To take Barnstormer 1649 as far as we can go, both electric, semi acoustic and totally unamplified (which works wonderfully in a place with good acoustics!!) and to get the new album heard far and wide. To carry on writing incisive, entertaining poetry which reaches the parts most poetry doesn’t go, as I have done for the past 38 years. To never give up, never get downhearted, support the causes I believe in, and live and perform as long as I can. Simple as that really.
What are the challenges you have faced maintaining a career that has remained true to a DIY ethos and how do you think things have changed since you started out?
Domestic financing based on the wages of a poet hasn’t always been easy but Robina and I have managed it together, and it has got loads easier since the internet made DIY a no brainer! That’s the main change. (I am keeping the answers short from now on. This has gone on for long enough 🙂 )
What’s your favourite aspect of playing live and how do you think it compares the recording process?
Every aspect – the organisation of the gigs, the travel, the performance, the people I meet. I love it.
What’s the best gig you’ve played to date?
Annandale Hotel, Sydney, 1993, after my ‘Live at the Wireless’ session on JJ went out, the night before Paul Keating won the election for Labour.
What have been the high and low points of your time career?
Too many highs to mention, no lows that were low enough to floor me.
Is there any advice you have for people looking to get going as a poet or with a new band?
Have great material. Work really hard. Never get downhearted. Never give up.
Are there any up and coming poets or bands who you think people should be more aware of?
Hundreds. I have run Glastonwick Beer, Music, Poetry and More Beer Festival since 1996. I put them on there. Come and see them. http://www.cask-ale.co.uk/beerfestival.html