Sunday, 18 December 2011

1976, the Strike of 2011 and Sharp Lane in Belle Isle

Dear Debs

Before I go back to the gigs that followed the Lantern Festival I feel a seasonal act of reflection coming on. It’s 1976, and three things are happening 50 miles away, two in Leeds and one in Blackburn. In Leeds 1. Helen and her chums in the council are taking up the government’s anti-racist, multi-cultural initiative that is SECTION 11 and 2. they have appointed StClair Morris to be Leeds Education Music Service's first steelpan teacher, [and one of the first in the UK [following Gerald Forsythe in London for the GLC].

In Blackburn I had just had my second child: and was also just meeting racism for the first time – massive, wholescale, disgusting unprovoked relentless attacks on the newly arrived and arriving Asian immigrants.

When Daisy was old enough to hang out at the babyminder’s, I took on a couple of part-time jobs, one as a barmaid, and one as a petrol pump attendant. Through both jobs I met various members of the public whose views on race left a little to be desired.

I got the phone number for Len Proos at the Blackburn CRE [Commission for Racial Equality].

I started to work as a volunteer for the CRE, and did eventually get a part-time job teaching Asian women English [which also seemed to involve an amount of eating great food and learning how to make pechoras and chapattis]. Here were my first tentative efforts at writing to the paper [Lancashire Evening News/Post?]. This resulted in nasty letters, phone calls and even an undertaker appearing at 11 one evening to take me away. [Len said it was par for the course.][It was also the 70s, hence the perm!]

Six years later, now a qualified English teacher in Leeds, I met StClair. My headteacher, Bob Spooner, had also used Section 11 money to buy a set of steel pans for the nearly all-white Foxwood School, to be a positive example of black culture. The music teacher hated the sound of the pans. Knowing of my history in Blackburn Mr Spooner asked me to learn how to teach them. It was a tenuous link; it was 1982; it was love at first sight.
Every Friday morning StClair came to Foxwood School, taught us a tune. I wrote all the notes down and we rehearsed during the week; then I went on a course [Music For Yourself and Your Class] at Beckett Park where I met Jan Holdstock. Here I met grids, and colour-coding. I needed something so we could easily remember what St Clair showed us on Fridays. Eventually I devised the Foxwood Songsheets, a highly refined system of grids, now also published and still used extensively in Leeds and in pockets round the UK [usually in the wake of a conference steelpan workshop].

And that’s how all this started. Thirty years later, Sharp Lane Primary School all-included Yr 6 Steel Band played for Over -55's lunch club in Belle isle on the 15th November, and Foxwood Steel and Leeds Silver Doves played for thousands of protesters outside Leeds Art Gallery for the Great Pensions Strike on the 30th. StClair, steel pan peri pioneer, travelling from school to school in the 70s and 80s passing the baton on, but without needing to let go. StClair retired from the Music Service a decade ago, but is still gigging with his Paradise Steel Band, and still doing workshops.

Back to the diary of November: from Yr 6 Sharp Lane [gigging after 2 and ½ half months – only possible with Stacy and Diane’s total involvement] to Foxwood Steel at the Rally – only possible to be that good through playing together for years, and having two amazing drummers: Natalie and Joe. Sadly for you, Debs and happily for us, the Rally was a gig that you were still in the UK to do.

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