As Leverhulme Artists in Residence in the Geography Department of Durham University Brenda and Geoff Heslop were involved in Disposal – in the Numbered Streets, a project looking at social housing issues in the ex-colliery houses of Hordern, Co. Durham. The houses on these fourteen ‘numbered streets’, so called as they have no names (the 14th is the cemetery), were passed on to a Housing Association when the colliery closed in 1987 in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike. However, with years of broken promises regarding investment, today many stand empty and vandalised, an indictment of both the lack of investment in former mining communities and successive governments’ inadequate housing policies, while those few occupiers that remain are best by a raft of social problems that include alcoholism, drugs and anti-social behaviour. That the Housing Association is now selling off properties at auction to whoever may want them, with no concern for how they are developed, has led to even more concerns about the future.
Brenda, a folk singer and songwriter from Northumberland’s Border country, along with husband Geoff, daughter Jill and documentary photographer Carl Joyce put together Our Streets Are Numbered, a film and music performance production that was performed at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and will be touring in 2017. This, the band’s ninth album, features Brenda and Geoff with songs from the production and is a both a stunning album and a powerful social history document.
It opens with the pair in harmony on ‘Sons of Hordern’, a sketch of the ‘war zone’-like condition of the housing that stand as symbols of the ‘wasted’ community to which they were once home, the lyrics contrasting what they were to what they have become. The scene setting continues with the title track, a damning picture of what government policies have produced, the remaining inhabitants trapped by lack of money and hope alike, the hymnal and sparsely accompanied song and performance evocative of the very best of the McGarrigles.
Summoning thoughts of Gracie Fields as much as, say, Frankie Armstrong or Shirley Collins, the relatively jaunty ‘Daddy It’s For You’ is set during the strike and recalls the poignant true story of how the young daughter of one of the miners gave her father her money box for him to try and make things right again. Reinforcing the theme, it’s followed by the carousel waltzing ‘Kiss All Me Troubles Goodbye’ where dreams of a better life are “just enough to get by” when you don’t have the money to pay for the electricity.
The acoustic blues ‘Eddie’s Tattoo Studio’ is another true story, that of a former miner who opened a tattoo studio with his redundancy and, despite initial hostility from the residents, has managed to survive and progress, the studio serving as a community of itself and, as Brenda sings, “what’s under the skin is kept inside…we can draw the dark and light and give it some expression.”
Sung unaccompanied in an intimate voice, sounding almost like a playground song with its tumbling scales, ‘A Place Where You Can Be’ refers specifically to Cotsford Junior School where pupils have a specially designated place to go whenever they can’t cope with their problems and “the monsters of your mind.”
Sung in harmony by Brenda and Geoff and set to a pulsing acoustic guitar rhythm with a circling chorus refrain, ‘The Ghost’ addresses the past that continues to haunt the living, but also how history continues to repeat itself with current policies.
Again featuring minimal guitar backing, the theatrical-styled (it reminds me a touch of the musical production of Scrooge) ‘Easy Pickings’ turns its focus on those responsible, the Housing Association and others in authority who saw and see the disenfranchised underclass as easy to walk over, citing the demands of austerity as justification for the hob nailed boots stamping on their souls.
Backed by what sounds like harmonium, ‘When Times Are Tough’ largely draws on stories collected by a couple from the streets who have campaigned for and tried to help the remaining residents over the years. Another hymnal like tune, it echoes the make do theme of ‘Kiss All Me Troubles Goodbye’ as Brenda sings the chorus refrain of “when times are tough a little’s gotta be enough, when love is thin you gotta live the life you’re in.”
The album closes on an inspirational note, Brenda initially singing a capella before being joined by Geoff and harmonium backing on the lovely and deeply moving Northern lullaby of ‘All The Difference In The World’, a tribute to those who have voluntarily given their time to provide help and understanding, reminding how just a touch on the arm “makes all the difference in a world so cold” , before fading away to the sound of Jill’s accordion. Absolutely stunning, a reminder of what folk music is meant to be about and unquestionably one of the finest albums of the year.
Artists’ website: www.ribbonroadmusic.com
‘Eddie’s Tattoo Studio’: