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Billy Bragg, Time Out

“I’m now in west Dorset, though everyone in my village comes from Essex. Plus ça change.”

On a slate-grey East London morning, Billy Bragg ambles out of Gallions Reach DLR head up, affable and stocky. At 49, the Bard of Barking looks more of a dad than a hungry rebel (as he is, to 12-year-old Jack by his partner Juliet).

Armada Way leads off into wasteland. Bragg, though, is looking past the scruffy present. He points out Shooters Hill over the river, where Caesar marched, and the Gallion’s Hotel on Albert Basin, where Rudyard Kipling stayed. And in his new book, ‘The Progressive Patriot’, he quotes Kipling’s poem The River’s Tale and its image of a harmonious, pre-Roman London: ‘And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek/Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek.’

A memoir-cum-polemic, The Progressive Patriot, was sparked off by the BNP winning a Barking Council seat in 2004. Its victories this year, and the 7/7 bombings, added fuel to his ire. The book is a cry from a multicultural heart for the Cross of St George to be embraced by all of England’s inhabitants – just as political rights from the Magna Carta onwards came to embrace all English people, just as the East End absorbed different immigrant waves. So we go to Beckton, home of the first London Bragg.

Winsor Terrace is bricks-and-mortar East End history. The southern side is a sturdy, dark, Nineteenth-Century terrace. The north side is modern, honey-coloured semis. Tall, padlocked gates dead end the road. Once the entrance to the Beckton Gas Light and Coke Company, they now guard an untidy park. Bragg’s great-grandfather, Fred, lived where the semis now stand.

“Great-grandfather Bragg was born out in Essex, so the gasworks were the reason my people came here,” says Bragg, studying the terrace. “And coming from the countryside, where they were in cottages, these would have been something great. If my brother was here, he’d be admiring the brickwork. He’s a bricklayer.” Bragg nods across at the semis. “He built a lot of these.”

He built over the site of their great-grandfather’s house? “Yeah. It’s hugely ironic. I only found out when I was researching the book.”

In 1889, Fred Bragg and his fellow workers made a historic, successful demand for shorter (eight-hour) shifts. In 1911 another of Billy Bragg’s great-grandfathers – George Austin, a ‘permanent labourer’ in St Katharine Docks – was in a famous strike against the humiliating ‘call-on’ system where un-unionised, casual workers would crowd at the docks, hoping to be picked for a day’s work.

Bragg looks at the padlocked gates. “This is where they walked in every day. Now it’s just park and a bit of wasteland. When they opened these gates in 1871, this was the largest factory in the world”

The factory touches several Bragg generations; not only his brother’s brickwork. “When I was a kid in the ’60s, my great-aunt, who was the daughter of Fred Bragg, still had gas lighting. It was a sort of echo of where her father had worked.” And the union that led the 1889 strike was the forerunner of today’s GMB. “I work very closely with the GMB on tour, I play under their banner. And that was the union my great-grandfather would have taken part in.”

Bragg talks about this radical inheritance as he walks up Fred’s old street. “I guess in   genealogy there is an element of looking for something you can relate to in your past. My    father never spoke to me about politics. My mother doesn’t have any interest in politics. I had my broad humanitarian feelings, like opposition to the Conservative Party. Well, you get that with your free school meals in Barking.”

That half-interest changed when he saw the Carnival Against the Nazis in Hackney’s Victoria Park in 1978. On stage were people he’d later come to know, such as Tom Robinson and his heroes, The Clash. “That was the first political thing I’d done in my life. In some ways, writing the book is just a continuation of the struggle that event introduced me to.”

Bragg sits on a front wall while Jill Furmanovsky takes photos. A claret Hammers flag hangs from a bedroom window. West Ham were a big part of his boyhood. “I remember standing in the road watching them bring back the FA Cup in 1964. The year after that they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Then in 1966 they won the World Cup. When that has happened before you are ten, you’ve got it for life.”

It was a “very ordinary” childhood. “We lived by Barking Park, so we had the run of the park, it was beautiful. We’d be over there till late. Our parents knew where we were, we didn’t have to cross any roads. I went to the old Victorian school my dad went to.”

Does he lament changes to the East End since then?

“You used to be able to smell this gasworks from my school,” he laughs. “So no, not particularly.”

Well, does he worry about the affect of the new Thames Gateway development, regenerating vast tracts all along the river east of Westferry?

“No, no, we’ve done this before. Becontree Housing Estate [in Dagenham] was the largest social housing project in Europe. They built more houses and brought more families into Becontree in the 1920s and ’30s – my mother included, and her family from Cable Street – than the Thames Gateway is going to bring. And Becontree didn’t kill the borough, it made it.”

Does he still feels like a working-class, Barking bloke? “I do, this is what I most identify with. Even though I’m now in west Dorset – though to be honest, everyone in my village comes from Essex: plus ça change. But Barking is who I am, it’s where I’m from.”

We head closer there, driving to the Gallion’s Reach Shopping Centre on a dual carriageway (on land where the young Bragg rode shopping trolleys down ditches), stopping for a cappuccino in a traditional East End Starbucks.

In conversation, Bragg fixes you with watery grey eyes, rarely glancing away, and speaks with lyrical precision as his mind hops from idea to idea. His hands are held together, making only occasional neat gestures. He talks straight, bloke to bloke, citizen to citizen, without a performer’s distance.

Was his first musical love, folk, unusual for a Barking boy? “No, there were a few folk clubs around mid-’70s, I suppose the tail end of the folk revival. I mean Paul Simon came and played out in Brentwood.” (And, as Bragg speculates in the book, probably changed trains at Barking.)

The Clash drew Bragg to punk. He tried to dress the part: “When I went to see them at The Rainbow I had on a mohair sweater my mum had knitted and my brother’s school tie, but I still had a semi-mullet. I hadn’t gone the whole way.”

Neither had Barking. “Punk was very much a West End phenomena. There was a circuit [of venues] in the East End that ended at Canning Town. It wasn’t a circuit that went to The Marquee.” So when his early band, Riff Raff, played The Marquee in 1977, “it was Valhalla. If that had been the high point of being Billy Bragg, I would still be immensely proud.”

His family’s store of memories includes an ex-Cable Street aunt being told to be home before dark or the Blackshirt bogeymen would get her. So how has the East End gone from Blackshirts losing the Battle of Cable Street, to the BNP winning in Barking?

Bragg’s fluency slows as he thinks. “Most important is a sense of betrayal by the people of Barking with the Labour Party that, historically, has delivered for them. Barking has the cheapest housing in London. So that aspect of prosperity New Labour has relied on, rising house prices, has no affect here.”

“So these people are in some ways stranded, excluded from the prosperity of the South-East. And because housing is so cheap, there is a huge influx of people looking for somewhere cheap to live. And the BNP has been clever, by seeing that Barking has had the largest influx of non-British-born people of any town in Britain.”

The result, Bragg says, is too much competition for resources: unfair to immigrants and locals alike. “And the local people are so frustrated at the running down of resources and public services in this area that they are lashing out.”

But how do you beat the BNP? Two East End traditions, says Bragg: its ability to absorb all comers and to collectively see off a threat. “That has been the motif for the East End: constant change highlighted by moments of people working together, such as Cable Street in 1936 or the Second World War or building the Welfare State, where the community came together against people who would prefer us to be divided. I think that is how we will deal with the BNP.”

It is World War II, thinks Bragg, that crystallised the East End’s identity, which he calls “A working-class pride, a resilience that has its apex in the Blitz. They stood up to it and came through it and for their sacrifice they got the Welfare State. They could look the rest of London in the eye and say, ‘We’ve earned this, it’s not charity.’ ”

Asked about London’s more recent bombings and Bragg shows real venom for the first time. “The men who committed that terrible, terrible atrocity are as opposed to multiculturalism as the BNP. The July 7 bombers have done more damage to multiculturalism than the BNP. I see them both as a threat that has to be dealt with. It’s not a matter of assimilation: one of those guys worked in his father’s chip shop. It’s about believing it’s in your interest to be here and to be a part of this community.”

Has his old community missed out on all the East End hipsteria of Hoxton and Spitalfields?

He laughs. “Barking has never been trendy. Also we’ve had to put up with the snobbery of the Essex Man, Essex Woman bullshit. I think the white working class are the least served by our present concept of society. You never hear people talking about feckless Irish or Pakistani or Caribbean workers. But seldom do you hear about the white working class without terms like that being used.”

Snobbery isn’t the East End working class’s only problem. Low house prices mean “For people in a place like Barking, the traditional route out to somewhere leafy like Chigwell has closed. Those left behind are no longer able to be absorbed by Ford or the gasworks. Everything was geared around the seasons of the factory: the sense of being a part of something, that you had pride to work there. It’s lost if you end up stuffing shelves in Tesco supermarket.”

It is time to drop him at his mum’s for dinner in Barking, as in his concert sign-off: ‘My name is Billy Bragg. I’m from Barking, Essex, thank you very much.’ When I ask why he still uses that line, he pauses. “My mum still lives here. I am still from Barking and…” His brow furrows. “I suppose I say that by way of explanation for everything that has gone before.”

Driving into his home town, he brightens. A big yellow and red sign announces the office of the local Labour MP, Margaret Hodge. Bragg notes it and says she didn’t have an office here until the BNP started doing so well.

A flyover takes us past abandoned, fire-damaged council flats. “These were built when I was a kid. They are about to be knocked down. So I’ve lasted longer than them.” Round the corner, a smaller, bright white art deco-style block. “These are brand new. It’s like Barcelona, innit?”

The gothic gables of his primary school in the distance, we wind through streets that suggest a town distinct from London. At a Victorian pub, fronted by busty statues, he says “This is a great pub –The Britannia, known locally as The Titty House, for obvious reasons.”

We drive along Victoria Road, on what was once the boundary of a pre-Roman settlement, Uphall Camp. Satellite dishes line the street like shields and we stop at the junction with Uphall Road. “See how the road rises? That is the gravel promontory that the camp was built on.”

Victoria Road comes to a dead end, a concrete wall along one side. “I used to deliver papers here. The River Roding is just over the other side of those houses. There was a mist over here and a chemical works. So it was pretty spooky on those winter mornings, when you are 11.”

On his mum’s road two Asian women chat, one in jeans and a sweater, the other in a salwar kameez. Bragg points out newer houses that replaced six bombed in the War. We arrive at his mum’s terraced, bow-windowed house, Bragg family home since 1905.

“That little boxroom there was mine,” he says. “That’s where I spent my adolescence, listening to Paul Simon.” Who might have been changing trains at Barking, as you listened.  Bragg smiles: “He may well have been, if he was going to Brentwood. So I’ve got Kipling here, I’ve got Paul Simon here. If only I could have got George Orwell here on the 87 bus.”

8 November 2006

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