I have a kind of modus operandi here on The Grizzly Folk blog. It was created to explore the world of traditional folk music and, as much as I’d like to review and chat to singer-songwriters who play non-trad folk, that’s not what this website is for. Usually, this works quite neatly. Occasionally, however, the lines get a bit blurred.
One example of this would be the Bright Phoebus interview that I did last year with Marry Waterson. Not trad folk, but so heavily connected to the trad folk world – and quite often a gateway album for people who subsequently venture further – that it was impossible to ignore.
The other elephant in the room for the last 12 months has been The Transports.
What on earth to do with The Transports? I won’t say it has kept me awake at night, but it has been a bit of a head-scratcher. Again, not a trad folk show or album, but such a huge album for trad folk fans. I sat and watched it becoming the mega-hit it has once again become and I thought, this is silly. What a thing to not be writing about.
So when, a few weeks ago, Matthew Crampton got in touch, I thought I’d grab the opportunity. Matthew (one of the people who brought the show to recent stages, as well as being the central narrator and author of the new narration) is about to hit the road again, this time in the company of American folk musician, Jeff Warner. Sharing similarities with The Transports, his new show (Human Cargo) deals with the history of forced migration, and it promises to be a fascinating, emotionally charged dproduction.
We caught up in the cafe at Cecil Sharp House and chatted for a good hour about the making of The Transports, the new show, migration, the Parallel Lives project, Refugee Week and… wait for it… Matthew’s secret history as a masseur.
Read on, do.
I know we’re here to discuss a new show – Human Cargo – but it’d be remiss of me not to start by asking you a bit about The Transports. After all, it’s there that many people in the folk community came to hear about you. How did your involvement with that much-loved folk opera come about?
I got to know The Young’uns as mates. I started out as a fan, and then we got to know each other and hung out. They are good pals. They knew that I’d written a book called Human Cargo, and then they had come to see me do a performance of it at Folk East.
Now, they’d worked with Paul Sartin, Faustus and a few others on a production of The Transports at Sidmouth in 2011, and they’d long had plans to bring it back. I don’t think they were quite sure how to do it, though.
Did you know about The Transports already?
Only since I’d seen it at Sidmouth. Before that, nothing. I’m new to folk music. I only came to folk music about 10 years ago. I’d never heard of Martin Carthy in my life until 10 years ago. I’d heard of Steeleye Span – The Mighty Span – of course.
I love that somebody who has spent a decade listening to folk music still considers themselves a newbie!
Haha! Yes. Although nobody treats me as a newbie. It’s not like there’s an attitude thing going on. But I was coming in pretty fresh, and I think that’s quite crucial to my involvement with The Transports. I saw the show at Sidmouth and I remember coming out of it and thinking, nice music, but I didn’t get the story at all. So The Young’uns came to me and said they’d thought of getting me involved but they didn’t know how – maybe doing a bit of storytelling or maybe a bit of narration. It was quite vague. At one point I thought they’d ask me to sing the part of the narrator [from the original show]!
You sing with one of The Young’uns anyway, don’t you?
I have a music hall double act with David Eagle called Muddling Through, which is legendary in its own lunchtime [laughs].
Anyway, Michael from The Young’uns said, “Take a good look at The Transports and see what you think. So I looked at it and I listened to it. The main thing you listen to is the original album, which is peerless. Then you listen to the 25th anniversary recording. Once again, it struck me that the music was great and the songs were great, but I never quite got the story. So I looked into the true story behind it and I found that – oh my goodness – it’s quite remarkable.
The way The Transports was done originally, for those who don’t know: it was an entirely sung piece that lasted about 60 minutes. It was written by the legendary Peter Bellamy over a few days. There is a narrator character, the street singer, who comes in five times during the performance. He does a kind of recitative which sort of tells the story.
Now, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t listen to the lyrics of songs in general, and I’m convinced that there are a lot of people like me. Of course, there are a lot who aren’t, who listen to everything religiously, but I don’t. I love songs, I love folk songs and I’m very moved by them, but it’s often only when I learn to sing them myself that I learn what they’re about. So, therefore, I never listened to what the singing narrator in The Transports was saying.
So I thought, “OK, if I was going to do this, I think I’d like it to be a spoken narration because I think people listen to spoken narration if it’s done properly.”
Were there many other changes that you had to make?
Well, I think at Sidmouth in 2011 they’d done a talk about transportation and maybe some of the musicians had performed some related songs, and then in the second half of the show they did The Transports in its entirety – 55 or 60 minutes long. I thought, to do things differently, we’d look at it as a whole evening’s show. To do that, you needed to build it up a bit more and add a bit to it.
In terms of narration?
Yes, but I also suggested taking out all of the sung narrative because I didn’t think it was strongest bit of it, musically, and also it would then be doubled up if you got a spoken narrator as well.
A bold move.
I was very nervous about it. I thought a lot of the aficionados and the Bellamy fans would be up in arms about it. I can honestly say we didn’t have a single word of protest, so far as I know. Which was… phew!
The other problem was giving it a narrative structure. I’m a big fan of musical theatre, story structure, movies – the whole thing. One of the things you need is a good protagonist, and unfortunately the leading character in The Transports, Henry Kable, is a bit limp – a bit passive – and actually, although it’s not relevant to the story, he later turned out to be not very pleasant. During The Transports, he’s quite passive. Things happen to him. He wails and whinges a bit.
Now, if I was doing the story differently still, I’d make Susannah Holmes the protagonist. She’s plucky and feisty and strong. She takes risks and has initiative.
And then there’s the hero. I define the hero as someone who faces a dilemma – is thrown into a situation of peril – and then takes an unusual course of action which reveals great character.
It’s got to be Greg Russell, hasn’t it?!
Yeah! Or John Simpson [the character played in the recent production by singer Greg Russell]. That’s the, “Oh shit! I never saw that one coming” moment. A humble turnkey given this terrible job to carry a woman in chains with her baby all the way from Norwich to Plymouth – 350 miles in winter on the top of an open carriage. He dumps her in Plymouth and has every reason to disappear. When he arrives, the captain of the transports ship won’t take the baby because only Susannah’s name is on the list. So the captain puts the baby back in the arms of the turnkey. What would usually happen in such times is that they’d dump the baby – drown it or plonk it in the nearest workhouse – but he doesn’t.
And this is a true story?
An absolutely true story. He doesn’t do any of that. He has the initiative to go back to London, and when he got there he went to the house of the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney (who gave his name to the city of Sydney later), and this turnkey spoke to him and actually secured justice.
Yes! That in itself is a whole story. You could make a whole show out of that, but we were working with the existing songs. So, in terms of story structure and narration, I milked that section. The songs already do the job, of course. They’re fantastic at bringing John Simpson out.
What we needed was a clear break in the story to close the first half with a moment of anguish so that you go away for the interval and you come back thinking, “Oh my god! What’s going to happen?!” Fortunately – thank you Peter Bellamy – there was ‘Dark and Bitter Night’. It’s quite late in the show if the show is 60 minutes, but for a 45-minute half, it’s perfect to close that first half. So the first half runs, pretty much, as Bellamy wrote it, only with narration added.
And the second half?
Well, something I learnt with the first iteration of Human Cargo was that if you’re going to give people an evening that’s pretty miserable, they’ll go away for the interval, come back, and there’s part of them thinking, “Oh no. I’ve got another 45 minutes of misery!”
However good it is, however brilliant it is, they’re still going to be thinking, “Oh god!” It’s like a double edition of Eastenders [laughs] One is enough! It’s why the early edition of Eastenders in the week is more popular than the later one, because people are more up for misery on Mondays!
This is a real education.
So, I think the trick is, when they come back for the second half, you have to completely surprise them. Throw in something they’re not expecting. I did that in the first production of Human Cargo with a modern song – a great song by Rosie Hood called ‘Adrift, Adrift’. We put that in the top of the second half of the show and I told a modern story about a modern-day refugee.
So I wondered what we could do in a similar way with The Transports. And then of course we realised we had Sean Cooney’s song, ‘Dark Water’. It’s an amazing song and Sean and The Young’uns are already there on stage, so it was the perfect fit. When people came back from the break, we launched straight into that. It was not what they were expecting. And that went into me talking about Parallel Lives, and I’d talk about the town in which we were performing, talking about local stories of migration. So, already we’d been taken out of The Transports story, and I’d hope people were feeling a bit fresh – thinking differently about things. And then we went straight back into the story.
I took my son to see The Transports when you performed it at the BBC. He’s 14 and hates folk music. Can’t stand it.
If he’s only 14, can you blame him?
Well, quite. They say that folk music comes to all of us in the end, so there’s time for him yet! Anyway, he sat through the show, and I can’t say it completely grabbed him. But what was interesting was that, in the days afterwards, I started to hear ‘Dark Water’ floating down from his room via his Spotify playlist. It’s not part of the original Transports show, but I think it was the gateway song for him. It may lead him back into the wider show in the future.
Oh, that’s lovely.
Well, I think it’s just contemporary-sounding enough for someone of his age.
Well, that’s great to hear. Sean is a great songwriter and performer.
Anyway, back to the story.
Yes, so we put that at the top of the second half and it began to look like we had a story that worked across the whole evening – a story with an arc.
I shifted a couple of other bits around. In the original they did a dance at the end. We didn’t want to do a dance. And it struck me that ‘Roll Down’ is the real closer.
That wasn’t the closer in the original?
No. As I say, it ended with a dance. I’m sure it was done very beautifully, but that brings me to the next point: how theatrical do you want to be? This was the biggest risk of all with The Transports. Do you go down a straight folk concert route where everyone sits on chairs with music stands, and then each one stands up when it’s their piece, or do you do an acting show?
How did they do it back in the 1977 version? It went on tour, didn’t it?
It did. I never saw any of it, and there’s almost no video of it. There’s a tiny clip of it at Whitby, although I can’t remember the year. It looks very theatrical with a lot of dancing. And, in fact, I know a guy called Andrew Franks who was in the original as a dancer and chorus singer.
So it was a big production, then?
Yeah! It was at the Southbank, I think. Very theatrical.
There’s a more recent production as well, isn’t there?
Yes, there’s one that was done in Norwich, and that was done in a more am-dram style. For us… well, I’m not a great believer in people acting when they can’t act.
Yes, and I suppose most of the people on your stage were musicians first and foremost.
Paul had done Made in the Great War with Sam Sweeney, and that had been semi-staged with Hugh Lupton, a hero of mine – a good, old-fashioned storyteller. That had involved a little bit of theatricality – some scenes. They’d brought in a guy called Tim Dalling, who is a performer, director and comedian, based up in Newcastle. So, he came in for a day and a half to turn the show from a straightforward folk concert into something more. And the question was, “How much more?”
Just a day and a half?!
Yep, just a day and half. He created what you saw in the show. All the way through, just a bit of staging, with each song having its own different staging depending on who was singing it. You had the stable of musicians on one side – the bedrock of it: Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane, occasionally Greg. Then you had me wandering around as the narrator, and then The Young’uns moving around a bit as well, but spending more time as the singers.
That’s a lot of change and a lot of rebuilding. It must’ve been nerve-wracking.
Well, let me tell you! The first night in Cambridge… It’s packed out; we’re very nervous. I was nervous because I’d never done a show that size in my life, but the other guys had done huge shows – some of them were in Bellowhead, for goodness sakes! I remember Saul Rose telling me, “There are a lot of scared people around here tonight.”
What was the fear?
The fear was that it’d fall between two stalls – that the music would suffer because we were trying to act without being actors; that it’d be rubbish amateur dramatics. We were prepared to pull everything – all the staging – and the next day just do it sitting in a semi-circle, more like a concert.
We knew the music was good and that the words were good, but we’d never seen anyone do it quite like this before. So we went out and we got a standing ovation. That made us think, “Perhaps this is OK.” It really seemed to work.
I think what made it work was that we kept that authentic folk performance, and then lifted it. When you’re performing folk songs, you look people in the eye. When musical theatre performers sing, they look above the back of the stalls. I think that’s the difference. It worked.
Are there plans to keep it going?
Well, the head of development at the National Theatre came to see it here at Cecil Sharp House. I had a meeting with her afterwards and she said really lovely things. But it’s not the next War Horse. Of course it’s not. One of the reasons for that is that there’s no room for actors in it. How would you change the current production to bring actors in? You couldn’t. You’d keep it as it is. It’s not fit for the Olivier Stage – let’s not get ahead of ourselves! [Laughs] It’s not going to transform the world of musical theatre, but it is what it is and it works.
Does it have a future? Is it going back on the road, or have you mothballed it for now?
We’re very ambitious for it, certainly. There’s strong talk of Australia and strong talk of Canada. But it’s so expensive to take 12 people on the road around Britain, let alone abroad. Also, there are the schedules of the musicians involved. They’re so complex. It’s going to be a tough one.
We toured twice in Britain. The recent tour in Britain toured big houses and got a great response. We’ll give it a bit longer, but we’re not rushing to do it.
So, for the time being…
For the time being you can listen to the album. We’re very excited about the album. Andy Bell recorded it. Now, one of the strengths of the show is 10-part harmony. There’s a bit in ‘The Green Fields of England’ where we all sit around and David Eagle starts it up, then we all come in on the first chorus. I think that’s about as gorgeous a bit of harmony singing as you’re going to hear. It’s like honey going down your spine. You could see the audience really react to that.
I’m sorry, but to me it’s English folk music at its best. Incredible musicianship, tunes all the way through, harmony singing…
And then, of course, there’s ‘Roll Down’. If you could see the audience’s faces when that started – that wall of sound.
Anyway, when you listen to Andy’s recordings of them… I’m not an expert sound recordist but friends of mine who are have pointed out that you can make out all the voices. Apparently it’s not easy to record like that.
Moving away from The Transports, I’d like to know a bit about your background. Your official title is ‘Storyteller’, am I right?
[Laughs] Yeeeees. My background is quite varied. I spent years as a speechwriter. I used to teach speechwriting at The Globe Theatre and in business schools. I’ve done a lot of things. I’m a fully qualified masseur…
Now that’s hard work! You can’t fake that!
Were you masseuring on The Transports tour, then?
No, not really. There may have been one time when I provided a few healing hands, but generally it wasn’t necessary.
You also write, don’t you?
Yes, I’ve been writing books for the last 10 years. I wrote one called Tales from the Angler’s Retreat, which is the main book about fishing on the Island of South Uist.
Yes! And I’m particularly proud of that because it still sells hundreds of copies every year, and yet only about 40 people per year fish there!
What else have you written?
My second book was called The Trebor Story, which was a history of the sweet firm Trebor. That was a big lavish book with lots of lovely photos and stories of social history. It was the story of a business from a time when capitalism was a bit more benign. A family-run company. Admittedly a bit of benign despotism there, in that they weren’t big fans of unions – and I’m a strong union man myself – but on the other hand, they looked after their workers well and they had a job for life. An example is that they built a new factory in Colchester in 1980, and they designed it so that there’d be no night shifts.
That is progressive.
It was unheard of. The financial advisor told them it was crazy and that they had to sweat the assets, but they said no – they weren’t going to make anyone work at night. They took a hit on it.
After that I wrote Human Cargo.
And that’s what we’re here to discuss today. How did this come into existence?
Well, originally I was approached by the Harwich Shanty Festival.
What’s the Harwich Shanty Festival?
Well… it kind of does what it says on the tin! [Laughs] Harwich is a major port on the border between Essex and Suffolk. I’ve been going there for a while. It’s a lovely small festival – lots of shanty groups come from around Britain and Europe. I’d done a show up there before called She Rises based on a novel of the same name by a friend of mine.
They said, “Oh! Words and music! This is good. Do another one.”
So, I began to think about the songs I knew, and I tried to find a theme. I was in a shanty group called The London Lubbers, so we sang some songs and gathered some stories.
The songs that you sang were all traditionals?
Yes – shanties, folk songs, and from that I got so interested in the subject. This was autumn 2015, the when there was an explosion of people trying to escape across the Southeast Mediterranean in flimsy inflatables. I was very moved by that.
Now, at the heart of Human Cargo is the attempt to understand the experience of people who were exiled or became refugees in the 18th and 19th centuries, to see what parallels there are between their experiences and the experiences of people today.
It’s a hugely divisive and important issue, migration today. It’s one of the key issues in life, and you have to take a position. A lot of people are going to tell you angry things either way. Clearly there is massive fear, in Britain and most countries, about people coming to live in their country. We cannot deny that. It has arguably shaped this country through Brexit – the fears of immigration.
One of the problems is that, if you just address it in modern terms (which you have to, because we’ve got to be practical), there’s only so far you can go. You can talk about economic benefits, and the economic benefits of migrants arriving are clearly and regularly reported as bringing more value to a country than they take. Maybe in the short term there is a pressure on resources, but we clearly need people of working age in this country to help pay our pensions, and we don’t have enough of them.
Here’s an amazing statistic. Most Western countries rely, for pensions and support, on roughly an average of four working people for every retired person. That’s the rule of thumb. But, of course, people are growing older and population rates are going down in the West. It’s already down from four working people to three-and-a-bit. That’s a massive difference because you’ve got much less income coming in. And it’s going to go down to two-and-a-half if it’s left to its own devices. We desperately need an injection of working-age, resourceful people into this country, and that’s just to stay buoyant as an economy. That’s why Germany let in a million people. It was a very hard-headed decision.
OK, so that’s the economic argument, and people have been making that argument very clearly but nobody really seems to know about it or take any notice of it.
So, I thought, I’m a storyteller… apparently [laughs].
That’s what it says on your business card.
I realised, when people are angry… If you think of kids when they’re angry and you distract them… History is a great way to take people’s minds off things. You can tell them stories and maybe even find a kinship as well. Most people have got migration in their family history somewhere. This country is a huge melting pot. So there’s a relationship between us, if you take us as people who go back a long way, and people who are now coming to this country.
So, I thought I’d look up stories of migration – people coming across the sea in recent years. That very quickly becomes a horror-fest, because there are so many awful stories.
Where did you go to research these stories?
My friend Herr Google is a wonderful research assistant!
You don’t need to leave the house anymore. There’s also Abe Books, where you can buy almost any book for 10p plus the postage. I’ve bought an awful lot of books. I’ve got a huge library at home.
The wonderful thing about the internet for this project, though, was that I’m very keen to tell modern stories and a lot of them haven’t been published yet. So, everywhere The Transports and Human Cargo was performed, I’d collect local stories.
Yes, that’s one of the most moving things in the show.
Well, thank you. It was always those local stories that people would talk to me about after the show.
Let’s come back to Parallel Lives in a moment. You were telling me about horror stories.
Yes. When you start engaging in a topic like this, you quickly start discovering the injustices. I knew a bit about Scotland and the Highland Clearances. A lot of people don’t know about that. We’re talking about decades after the abolition of the slave trade, whole communities in Britain being socially cleansed for profit. They were exiled. Evicted.
The Southern English Clearances, too. Very few people know about them. They’re going to be a big part of the Human Cargo show. In the 1830s and 1840s, councils across Southern England – Hampshire, Guildford – simply went into the workhouse and evicted paupers. They’d put them on a boat and send them to Canada. The councils feared the mob, and what was a quick way to deal with that? Just get rid of poor people. It was as simple as that.
Have you listened to the recent album by Nick Hart?
I know Nick, but I’ve not heard his album yet.
There’s a very moving song on that called ‘The River Don’t Run’. It isn’t traditional, but it’s about the clearance of Agar Town which used to exist in the area around Kings Cross and St Pancras.
I’ll have to check that out.
It tells the story of a young pair of lovers who’d have married if it weren’t for the destruction of their surroundings. It’s incredibly moving.
Well, there you go, you see? If you want to tell a story, put the people in it. It’s easy to slip into lecture mode, and I’m really careful not to. There are facts in The Transports, but they’re very carefully marshalled. It’s about the people. I’m a great believer in the power of peoples’ brains and the way they react to stimuli. They’re hearing music, they’re listening to a story and they’re learning facts. Three completely different stimuli, and I think that makes for a good evening.
Anyway, back to the horror.
It’s a catalogue of horror. When the slave trade was abolished, new plantations were set up using slaves in Australia and the South Pacific, pretty much emulating the Triangular Trade of America, Africa and Britain. They set up a new Triangular Trade out to Asia, importing and exporting slaves because they could. The British Empire oversaw a lot of very terrible things in Australia: Blackbirding was a whole area in which they used Southern Pacific islanders as slaves to work on plantations. The British and China and tea… we did some pretty bad things with slaves in Southeast Asia to satisfy our need for tea, just as satisfying our need for sugar created the hell of the West Indies.
Then there was trafficking. I found a lot of stories about women being trafficked in the 1880s and 1890s in ways so similar to the way they’re still being trafficked today. Charming men would lure them across the sea and, before they knew it, they were being forced to work as sex workers.
How do you turn all of that into a show?
Well, there’s a lot of horror about, but what’s the point in beating people around the head with it? So, with the new Human Cargo show, I’ve tried to build on what I’ve learnt from the old Human Cargo show and The Transports. I’m taking the storytelling to another level.
How do you do that?
I previously did Human Cargo with my great friends Jan North and Chris Hayes – together, we were The London Lubbers.
Jan, who I met here at Cecil Sharp House in the choir, and who I sang with in hundreds of sessions – drunken, sober, whatever – well, we lost her last year. And that was a really tough loss. I think a lot of people involved in folk music in London felt that very badly. She died last summer. At her final session, just weeks before she died, she told everybody what they were going to sing. She was onstage singing choruses the whole evening from her wheelchair. You forget that songs you sung so many hundreds of times all have words about leaving and departures! It wasn’t an easy evening. She held it together for two hours, singing choruses and telling jokes. We lost her a week or so later.
So it wasn’t possible to continue as The London Lubbers, and Human Cargo had to change. Now, when I was thinking about that change, I suddenly thought of Jeff Warner. I’ve seen him many times. He’s American, but he’s been playing the British circuit for at least 20 years. What I love about his concerts is that he creates an atmosphere onstage. He’s quite homespun, he’s low key, but he’s effortless. He plays banjo and concertina and he only sings old songs – 18th and 19th century. You feel like you’re there. He sings a lot of gospel songs and a lot of British shanties, too. He’s very interested in the migration of the music between Britain and America.
I just thought the music was so relevant to Human Cargo. I thought it’d take the storytelling to another level. Traditionally, you’d have this: someone telling the story, stop, song, stop, story, stop. I had this idea of doing something more like The Radio Ballads: a constant wall of texture, moving in and out of songs, no clear applause points. Jeff will play a song like ‘Long Time Travelling’, and I’ll cut in between verses with a bit of story. He’s still strumming on the banjo underneath, so the texture of it is an interplay between the two of us.
It sounds fascinating.
I’m very excited about it. We’ve just spent four great days rehearsing. It went very well.
The other thing about the music is that I want people not to just hear a lot of horror stories, but to have an experience whereby they get a sense of what it would mean to them to be exiled from their homes – to become a refugee. What would it feel like to have nowhere you could depend on? Where would you draw solace? Do you draw solace from hope in the place you’re going to? There are certainly lots of songs about having a bright future ahead. Do you draw solace looking back at the sweet land of your birth, and do you always hold onto that? A yearning for the past? Do you look to God? Do you look above? There are songs for each of those feelings.
The course of the evening follows four very different characters with four very different stories of exile. There’s a similar pattern, though. First there is the abduction, or the descent into hell, then there is the arrival on the boat and the horrors involved with that, then there is the journey, and then there is the arrival. We take that journey with some crofters who are exiled from South Uist in Scotland, two teenage girls who are exiled on trumped up charges from Brighton for 14 years transportation to New South Wales, then a young lad who is kidnapped in Aberdeen and sold as a servant in America, and then Olaudah Equiano, whose story is quite well known, although I’ll be telling it in a different way. At each stage the songs provide an emotional underpinning to it.
Are there songs that are known to have been created during those voyages?
Yes. I’ll give you an example. There’s a wonderful song called ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’. It’s also known as ‘By the Hush’. It’s in the Human Cargo book, too. During the American Civil War, the Union Army sent agents to recruit in Ireland. Some of them were a bit dodgy. This is Ireland soon after the famine – 1861, sometime around then. They go to young men and they say, “We’ll pay your passage and we’ll give you a job on the mighty railroads. They’ll give you a dollar a day, and when it’s all finished you’ll get your own plot of land and you can settle. Just sign up here.”
So they signed up. You can imagine their excitement when they arrived in New York. And then they’re shouted at by a sergeant because they haven’t signed up with a railroad, they’ve signed up with the Union Army. Within a week they’re at Gettysburg. They’ve been given a musket and two days of training. A lot of them died. A lot of them lost their legs.
This song, ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’, is about someone who this happened to. He has lost his leg and is now sending word back to Ireland: “Don’t come”. You see, there was no Tripadvisor in those days. How did you let people know? It’s a classic folk song in that sense, and one of the aspects of its popularity is, “Do not come to America!”
It’s interesting that The Transports and Human Cargo share this central theme of migration. It seems to have taken over a large chunk of your life. And, of course, you also created the Parallel Lives project. Tell me about that.
The notion was: people come, people go – these are parallel lives. In one town you’ve got people leaving and people arriving. They may be centuries apart, but that’s a common story.
It occurred to me that wherever we did The Transports, we could weave in local stories of people who had been transported. But then I thought, let’s bring in some stories of people who have arrived as well. People come, people go. It’s a very simple point. People can conclude whatever they want from that.
So, I started gathering stories locally, and then I thought, why not work with local refugee support groups? Ever since 2015 and those terrible scenes of the inflatables crossing the Mediterranean, and particularly the poor boy washed up the beach, there has been an explosion of organisations across Britain of people supporting refugees. They’re doing things like gathering stuff for the camps in Calais, or providing legal advice and support for people who have settled here or are asylum seekers. I thought it’d be good to link with them.
These things always mushroom. I never had a vision of what it would be. We now have a network of 50 groups across Britain that we’ve worked with and continue to work with. During the Transports tour, there’d be one or two groups in the foyer with some leaflets. I’d mention them onstage. People would have a chat with them. Sometimes they’d raise a bit of money, which was great, and other times they’d make useful contacts – a lawyer, say, who wanted to offer their services.
One important thing to mention here is Refugee Week. It’s the 18th-24th of June, a nationwide celebration of what refugees bring to Britain. Hundreds of events. Over 20 years it has escalated – it’s a very big thing. Our tour leads right up to it, so it’s a kind of warm-up for Refugee Week. Lots of the refugee groups can use it as a way of getting attention ahead of Refugee Week. So that’s the next development of it.
I’ll be sure to investigate. The stories that you tell onstage – do you find them ahead of time or are you arriving in town that morning and rushing to the local library to do research?
[Laughs] Ideally, you do stuff in advance. As you may know, however, tours can be quite busy. It did get to the stage during The Transports where I’d arrive in a town at 5pm, find wifi, research stories, write a 5-minute piece, learn it off by heart and perform it during the evening’s show. That happened more often than not.
That must’ve been quite a moving experience for the cast.
Well, they knew that I wasn’t much fun before the show! I think it gave them something fresh to listen to, though. They never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. Also, it kept me alive. It’s really great for a performer to have something fresh every night.
Are you doing the same thing with Human Cargo?
I’ve now taken it a bit further. Yes, there are stories, but I’m weaving them into the stories that I’m already telling. I’m not going to give too much away about that, but… as The Transports was one main story, you could only really link in transportation stories. Human Cargo goes into other areas, which gives me more scope for finding individuals from each town who may have been engaged in these things. It’s a very important part of the show, and already I’ve got a lot of the stories up on the website. Click on any of the towns that we’re travelling to and you’ll find some.
Human Cargo tours from May 11th to June 17th. Click here for full tour details. For more on Matthew Crampton’s books, click here, and for more on The Transports, click here. All images and videos featured in this article are courtesy of www.matthewcrampton.com.