Monday, 27 October 2014

Politics, The Musicians' Union and Me

I didn't grow up in an overtly political family. As a young child, Mike Yarwood was my route into politics; through his impressions, I knew many politicians of the time. I did think that Women's Lib had their own party, which seemed a good idea, but then I found out that Lib meant Liberals.

When I was 11, I asked my mum which way she would vote. I wasn't surprised when she told me she was a Liberal, like her friend, Councillor Kate Neil, in Clevedon. I was shocked, when she said my dad would vote Labour. Until then, the media had given me the idea that Labour were the party of smelly factories and nasty aggressive men. My clean, mild-mannered schoolteacher dad did not fit that image at all, but I think that got me interested in finding out what the parties stood for.

 Me, Snow Brian Clough, Mum, Front Brother Peter

Subsequently, my dad often claimed to have 'given up' on politics. He used to say something like 'I gave up on religion in 1959,  gave up on football in 1969 and gave up on politics in 1979'. My dad also told me never to be cynical.

After we had been living in Newark for a few years, a fantastic teacher at our school, Miss Catherine Spencer, encouraged pupils to enter public speaking competitions, and I found I was quite good at it. So, in 1977,  I was in the Yorkshire Television Public Speaking Competition. My speech was about 'death' but I didn't win; 16-year old William Hague did.

The programme for the final won by William Hague

My marksheet for the talk on 'Death'

Around 1978, when I was friends with Clare Weatherall of The Devices, I became 'radicalised' as a small-town lefty. This involved going on the train to Nottingham and spending a lot of time in alternative bookshop Mushroom Books. We bought and read pamphlets and got into trouble at school for trying to set up a branch of the National Union of School Students. Clare made me feel ashamed for not being working class enough, as my parents had a mortgage and did not live in a farm labourer's tied cottage. It seems ridiculous now, but that's how it was. 

My favourite political pamphlet from Mushroom Books
As a result, when I went to Sheffield Poly, it was as an anti-Thatcher student, with some interest in the anarchist way of things. I marched on the Reclaim the Streets in Leeds and for various other causes, as well as being the founder editor of the student newspaper - the Sheffield City Press. In an attempt to be a professional-style journalist, I  toned down my way-out thinking and became a mild lefty-liberal for a while.  I always used to say that I would join the Labour Party when I got old.

The Nico obsession at Sheffield Poly

An edition of the Student Newspaper I edited

And the lavish annual budget

After moving to Leicester University, and forming The Soviets. there was more of the 'Support the Miners' kind of activity; I was on the student union executive and was quite shocked to encounter Tory toffs and Hellfire types - I'd led such a sheltered existence until then and hadn't thought that many young people would be Conservatives. I did enjoy the commons-style bickering in meetings, and continued to give speeches if any of them would listen.

Once I had formed PO! as a band of serious intent, I decided to join the Musicians' Union, because that was now my trade and I believed in Trades Unions. Their monthly meetings were listed in the local council news sheet, so I decided to go along to a meeting. It was listed as being at the International Hotel, Leicester. I imagined a hotel conference room with rows of crimson leather armchairs full of Miles Davis types, smoking officials sitting at a table at the front, and lots of 'procedure'.

The International Hotel
Instead the MU meeting was held in one of the hotel bedrooms. I remember, as I went up to the 9th floor in the lift, wondering whether it was maybe a bit dodgy and I shouldn't be involved. Mind you, I think the three guys at the meeting were certainly shocked when I turned up. There was little attempt at a welcome, as I squeezed in to sit on a stool, and they carried on the meeting which mostly consisted of  'Do you remember when old John Duncan played his harmonica at the Liberal Club?' type conversations. During that first meeting, they broke into song on three occasions, and then, after they got rid of me, the branch secretary gave each committee member £3 for attending.

Through sheer stubbornness, enjoyment of the old guys / young punk girl dynamic, and a commitment to Trades Unionism, I stuck with the MU and attended every meeting until they got used to me. It always used to start, 'Good evening gentlemen ..... and Ruth'. Gradually, the meetings became more purposeful. We even stopped meeting in a hotel bedroom and moved to the Belgrave Liberal Club. This was a much bigger room, but there were still usually four of us. The club seemed to be an oasis of old white blokes in the middle of one of the biggest Hindu communities in the UK.

Left Bank in a proletarian cap
Around that time, the MU nationally was trying to get more members from the rock and pop field. There was a national rock and pop officer, Horace Trubridge (now Assistant General Secretary). He had been a saxophonist in a band called 'Darts' and did a good job of trying to get the MU to move with the times. Somehow our work in Leicester, putting on showcases and events within the rock and pop genre was noticed and I became involved with the East Midlands branch in Birmingham, and the national Rock and Pop Sub-Committee in London. I found this all a terrific wheeze; I must have been awfully earnest in trying to explain myself to the majority of people who did not really understand the indie pub circuit, DIY recording, let alone sampling and mixing.

Assistant General Secretary on Saxaphone
The pinnacle of my time with the MU was attending national conference as an East Midlands delegate. I got to address a hall full of classical flautists and jazz trumpeters about a number of things that I now forget - I think one was the 'two in a bar rule' about performing licenses, but I know I used my public speaking skills to the max. After the proceedings each day, there would be entertainment - usually a jazz big band - and everyone would drink heavily. After that, the delegates would retire to the college conference accommodation and act like students on Freshers week.

The orchestra players were the heaviest drinkers. One guy showed off a mini travelling drinks cabinet that he took on tour with him that held two bottles of whisky and some glasses. Out of a couple of hundred people the only women were me, about 8 orchestral players, and a few elderly wives who were there for the food. And there was a lot of classy food.

The experiences in the Musicians' Union seemed unlike any politics I could recognise; it was more like a battle with the old guard and How We Do Things. 'Keep Music Live' was the old 1970s MU slogan that was somehow overtaken by an ever-flowing tide of disco, karaoke, sampling, DJ mixing, downloading and the Internet. Ironically, the greater availability of digital recorded music has not killed off local bands where I live; there seem to be more open mic acoustic nights and live venues than before, and certainly there are many more impressive female musicians getting up on stage.

I don't hear or see anything of the Musician's Union these days; maybe they need better PR.  After finishing performing and recording with PO!, I stopped being part of the MU. I miss the old guys and was pleased to find out that one of them is still playing local rock n roll gigs at the age of 77.


  1. Hi, Ruth! Greetings from cold Russia!

    Your music is really great and your voice sounds so cool and strange so I always think that you came from another planet. It's sad that it is unpopular these days.

    I discovered your music not so long ago and I was disappointed by the fact that very few number of your recordings is available on online music stores (like iTunes, Google Play Music, etc). On iTunes I've found only 1 compilation and two EP's by PO!, 1 LP by Jody and the Creams (which is brilliant) and nothing by Ruth's Refrigerator :(

    Is it possible that you will release the other part? I and all your fans would be very grateful.

  2. Thanks for your kind comment. I am trying to get the old recordings available online soon. Ruth