2022: That Was The Year That Was

As we close out 2022, it’s time for my annual pilgrimage of reflection over a twelve months which marked my 35th anniversary as a performer, and pound-for-pound, my most challenging year to date.

It started slowly as the live scene tried to find its way back after two stop-start years of lockdowns and restrictions had stripped venues and promoters of their confidence and much of their income. I was very conscious that audiences too were still trying to find their feet- and their voices- in the aftermath of such a spirit-crushing period of human history. Gigs were fewer, crowds smaller, and atmosphere a little flat for the first few months of the year, but when The Men They Couldn’t Hang asked me to join them onstage in Middlesbrough for ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ and ‘Ghosts Of Cable Street‘, I looked out across a full room of people who wanted to live again, and knew we’d be OK.

Live streams dominated my late-winter gig calendar, and once again, they helped prop up We Shall Overcome as we faced unprecedented need against a backdrop of frozen wages and escalating living costs. Fundraising is exceptionally difficult when the rising numbers of people needing support is exacerbated by the falling numbers of folks able to answer the call because they are struggling for the necessary disposable income to help; and attempting to square this circle went on to define my year.

In March I sang at a protest against P&O Ferries sacking of 800 workers, in what was the most blatant attack on trade unions and the validity of a contract of employment in modern times. We blocked the terminal in Hull, and led by RMT and Hull & District Trades Council comrades, we gathered the assembled banners and marched in solidarity, halting traffic on the main road and attracting the national media, especially to our impromptu version of ‘You’re Not Sailing’ to the tune of the Rod Stewart classic.

It was just the start.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with workers in struggle is an essential part of what I try to do from a political standpoint, but if pay and conditions can be secured, it helps ease demand on the community support services WSO battles so hard to sustain too. 2022 has been a running series of early mornings, hitting picket lines before work in order to show a little solidarity when people need it most; and as we face down the worst of the winter, I would ask everyone reading this to remember, if you see a picket line- DON’T CROSS IT, JOIN IT!

My most vivid memory of this was 1st October when the ‘Enough Is Enough’ rally in Hull ended with a march led by pipers, through the city to the CWU picket, where hundreds of flags and banners arrived to support the striking posties. It was a wonderful thing to see the look on their faces when a peaceful picket became a virtual carnival of unity; a beautiful moment lighting the darkest of times.

Of course, as the live scene recovered, there were gigs too. Like Glastonwick…..

And the incredibly emotional day in May, when The Station finally re-opened as a pub after supporting hundreds of people a day through Covid, as a community hub. Capturing the image of Pauline Town pulling her first pint in more than two years was something very special…..

There was another fantastic May Day Festival Of Solidarity as we returned to a full house following the forced hiatus of Covid. Gathering together in front of the Hatfield Brigade banner to film a full-audience version of ‘No Pasaran’ to be screened as part of the Solidarity Park festival in Barcelona, was an unforgettable moment…..

And speaking of the Hatfield Brigade, there were marches throughout the year where I had the honour of being on pole duties. From the gathering to unveil the Thorne & Moorends Memorial, the Orgreave rally in Sheffield, through Durham Miner’s Gala to the ceremony in Edlington to remember Frank Arrowsmith. Nothing fills me full of pride more than marching with these absolute heroes. Love em.

And probably my favourite photo of the year…

There was singing at the ‘No Pasaran’ Memorial to welcome in the Clarion Club cyclists after their epic cross-country journey to help fund the Morning Star. A really special evening when I got chance for a chat with the wonderful Maxine Peake…..

And the Peterloo Rally in Manchester was a truly special day as the massed ranks of banners formed a column winding its way from Piccadilly Gardens. It was fantastic to hear the speeches and be around so much positive energy after all those months of singing to a phone on a tripod in a shed. Spoke to so many amazing people, comparing notes and recharging their batteries.

There was new music too, of course. The year began with the release of ‘Never Let Them Win’, an album of songs I’m immensely proud of if you get chance for a listen; then, later in the year, I commemorated the 10th anniversary of my ‘Fight The Good Fight Club’ CD by re-recording two of its key songs with Commoners Choir. ‘Hang On In There, Brother’ and ‘Better Times Will Come’ make a cracking double A-Side single if you look them up.

And I launched two new children’s books alongside my comrade-in-crayons Kevin Pearson, published by Unison and finding their ways into schools, libraries and Adult Education services…

As ever, the money raised from my music, merch, and gigs has been donated to help support folks through hard times. This year, it has been a four-way split between Pauline at The Station, Mesopotamia Cafe in Nottingham, Refugee Support Europe, and Hull Unity Shop. The latter is a cause especially close to my heart, and its ability to provide food parcels to struggling families and striking workers alike, while making that support political, is a model vital to fighting both hunger and the cause of that hunger as we move forward. We live streamed a discussion from there in the autumn, and we’ll continue to highlight the problems faced in 2023.

And, as the new year approaches, there multiple projects about to come to fruition after months of work behind the scenes.

Back in May, Steve White, Kev Titterton and myself hiked from Scarborough to Robin Hood’s Bay along the Cleveland Way for We Shall Overrun. We filmed ourselves en route, and the resulting 40 minute film entitled ‘Three Shall Overcome’ will be launched in mid-January to raise funds for WSO.

In November, Lithium Joe finished work on our first new material in 21 years, and the resulting single ‘Answer Machine’/’See You When I Get There’, will be released in the Spring.

And the new Joe Solo & The Hatfield Brigade single, ‘The Last Miner’ is just waiting on Skelmanthorpe Brass Band, and we’ll be diving into finishing that, hopefully before Durham in July.

So, as a difficult year comes to a close, there’s much to look forward to; two new singles, two new children’s books, a new album for later in the year and work on the long-promised lyrics book are all in the pipeline; but also, much to dig deep and battle through- the strikes, the colossal demands on WSO and the real need for an organised political movement to defend the Working Class. It’s a challenge for sure, but I saw enough on my final few gigs this year, to know the mood has changed, from fear to defiance. A better world is not just possible, it is inevitable.

So a MASSIVE thank you to everyone who supported me this year. It is never emphasised enough how much that means. Whether it was a CD you bought, or a gig you booked; or a quick message on social media, a tap on the shoulder at a gig, or a chorus sung with all your heart. This is the stuff that keeps me going. This is the stuff that helps me face down the next challenge and carry on.

I started the year singing onstage with The Men They Couldn’t Hang in Middlesbrough, and ended it singing onstage with Sid Griffin of The Long Ryders in London, in-between I sang with Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds, Boss Caine, and I’m pretty sure I sang ‘No Pasaran’ with the amazing Jess Silk more than I sang it on my own! And although we only managed two gigs together, there will be plenty of shows alongside Rebekah Findlay coming very soon. I loved every second of collaborating with friends and comrades along the way and I can’t wait to hit the ground running in 2023.

The last news of 2022 is perhaps the most poignant of all. In December myself and Rebekah Findlay were honoured with a plaque on the Hatfield Main Memorial alongside Paul Heaton and a long list of the real heroes, those who clambered into the cage year on year and descended underground to hew the coal which built this land of ours.

If I needed any excuse to dig deeper and fight harder, then justifying my name being on that wall will do it.

We fight til they lose.

Damn right.

See you on the other side.

Photos by Jason Shipley, Neil Terry, Eric Barnes, Paul Rutland and countless others who capture these moments in time and deserve more than just a footnote because their images go on to define a generation for all who come after.

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