A COMPOSER'S BLOG

Tony Haynes, composer/creative director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

82: Raise the Banner

 

2021 was a bumper year for anniversaries of events of lasting social and political significance in London’s East End. This 3-minute video introduces how the Grand Union Orchestra commemorated them:

First we had the 100th anniversary of the Poplar Rates Rebellion (1921), when the local Council refused to levy the rates demanded by the Government of the day, arguing that the Borough was one of the poorest in the country, and shouldn’t be required to pay the same rates as, say, Kensington and Chelsea. (Remember this was not long after a previous major pandemic – the Spanish Flu that swept the country after the the First World War.) All the Councillors and the leader George Lansbury (later also leader of the Labour Party, though never Prime Minister) were imprisoned for three months for Contempt of Court. They were only released after a spectacular U-turn by the Government (they did them in those days too!) and an historic change in the law towards the more equitable rating system that prevailed for decades – until Mrs Thatcher put an end to that with the Poll Tax…

Then came the 85th anniversary of what has become known as Battle of Cable Street (1936), when Sir Oswald Mosley attempted to march his British Union of Fascists (known as the Blackshirts) through the streets of Stepney and Whitechapel, to intimidate the local Jewish population. However, although it had the permission of the Home Secretary and the support of the Metropolitan Police, the march had to be abandoned when local people banded together in large numbers and forced it to turn back. There was also the 50th anniversary of end of the war of Independence of Bangladesh (1971), important locally of course because of Tower Hamlets’ large Bengali population, now running to three generations – and which itself now frequently experiences hostility from the far right.

 

Finally we had perhaps the most unusual of all, the 50th anniversary of the publication of Stepney Words (1971). A young teacher at what was then Sir John Cass’s Foundation School (now Stepney All Saints) took the bold step of printing a collection of his pupils’ poems. The School Governors felt these painted a drab and dismal picture of life in the East End, and brought the School into disrepute. In spite of distinguished local supporters (Trevor Huddleston among them, then Bishop of Stepney), the teacher, Chris Searle, was sacked. His students went on strike, and marched in protest to Trafalgar Square. He was eventually reinstated after the intervention of the Education Secretary at the time – Mrs Thatcher, no less.

So Raise The Banner tells a colourful story of dissent, protest and resistance in East London in the 20th Century, one which also has a universal, nation-wide resonance in our own day.

Dramatising themes of this kind in music characterises a lot of my work for the Grand Union Orchestra. The challenge is to avoid them being dismissed as just ‘liberal causes’ – worthy, a bit doomy, rather than the exciting, game-changing or life-enhancing events they really are. So I try to reverse the perspective, and celebrate instead, in a joyous and upbeat form, the spirit, energy and determination of those who oppose and avenge injustice. As it happens, much of the material to create the narrative of Raise The Banner was already at hand, in the form of pieces from previous Grand Union shows; and they make a very satisfying structure.

I had met Chris Searle in the early 1980s. The Grand Union had attracted a great deal attention and praise for what was then seen as pioneering ‘multicultural music-making’, thanks to its national touring show Strange Migration. This was picked up by the Greater London Council, just about to be abolished (take another bow, Mrs Thatcher!), whose leader Ken Livingstone had designated 1984 the Year Against Racism. Through the legendary Maggie Pinhorn, Artistic Director of Alternative Arts, based among the local communities of Covent Garden, I was commissioned to produce a new work to celebrate it. Performed in the Piazza on a stage in front of St Paul’s (‘The Actors Church’) on a balmy Sunday afternoon in early September, it was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd, and marked the début of the Grand Union Orchestra. 

The hour-long show was called The Song of Many Tongues. In writing it, I discovered Stepney Words and a later of Chris’s anthologies of poems by young people Wheel Around the World, and set several of their verses as lyrics for songs. One of these, I Live in the City, provided the ideal opening for Raise The Banner:

I had no material specific to the Poplar Rebellion, but Chris came along to the show and read a delightful poem by one of his students at Langdon Park School, where he had moved to later:

Now fast forward 30 years: in 2016, in association with Tower Hamlets Borough Council, the Grand Union produced a series of events to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. These included a large-scale community participation show (including the GU Youth Orchestra) at St John on Bethnal Green, and a more formal show at Rich Mix in Shoreditch featuring GU Voices and the full Grand Union Orchestra. Described more fully in Post 54, this piece, The Beast is Back, tells the story of the Battle and its aftermath:

Finally, over the last year or so, Grand Union has been producing events relating to the Bangladesh struggle for independence, from the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (‘Father of the Nation’ and first president) in March 1920, through the Declaration of Independence (March 1971) to the end of the War on ‘Victory Day’ (December 1971) with a special commemorative event at the British Library. This is acknowledged in Raise The Banner through a version of a well-known baul song by 19th Century poet/singer Lalon Shah, who asserts our common humanity irrespective of caste, class, race or religion:

Other anniversaries

By a further, completely unexpected coincidence, 2021 was the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. The Grand Union’s own evocation of this – “Behind them, the ruined towers lie breached and broken…” – was in fact created prophetically several years before, to describe the desecration of cities and the plight of civilians in Central Asia, recently replicated yet again in Afghanistan:

The story is then enacted entirely through music in Collateral Damage, with four jazz soloists (two trumpets, two alto saxophones) going head to head in a powerful big band piece, fully described in Post 16 and Post 17:      

The show ends in reconciliation with another old Grand Union favourite, the song Raise the Banner itself. which depicts a large, peaceful and good-humoured demonstration in a London park: 

Grand Union Orchestra · Raise the Banner

While the narrative and structure of Raise The Banner is illustrated above by performances from previous Grand Union Orchestra shows of the individual pieces , the video with which I began this Post is made up of excerpts from the actual inaugural performance of the show at St John on Bethnal Green in October 2021. We hope a full-length film of the show will be available early in 2022 – the year in which Grand Union proudly celebrates its 40th anniversary (May)!

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