Back in 2011, Clare Joy and Ru Litherland from a London-based cooperative of food growers called 'OrganicLea' gave a talk at one of the quarterly Community Food Growers Network (CFGN) meetings on the history of land rights in England.
It was the first time that I had encountered concepts such as enclosure and common land, with a narrative explaining how most of us in the UK have ended up bundled into tiny amounts of land, many in debt up to our necks or paying absurd amounts of money to absentee landlords for the pleasure of a place to rest our heads. No wonder many have emigrated to the New World.
Events in history such as the complete confiscation of everyone's land after the Norman Conquest,
John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt, the Enclosures and Highland Clearances, the transatlantic slave trade and the Great Famine of Ireland were utterly lacking from my schooling and still seem to be omitted from most people's education today.
Professor Tom Devine from the University Of Edinburgh has said that "... history is the fundamental source, especially for young people, of human memory. It affects everything in terms of attitudes, values and political decisions." Having since felt and seen the impact a coherent historical narrative can make to people through the development of 'Three Acres And A Cow, a history of land rights and protest in folk song and story', I agree wholeheartedly.
Creating a Relevant Artistic Culture
A year later, I was inspired to take part in my first ever 'action' at Rothamstead, protesting over government funding of GMO experiments and lack of support for organic agriculture. A choir from France lifted our spirits with their beautiful songs as we came into close contact with walls of police. After they finished singing, I was struck by my lack of knowledge of any songs of resistance from my culture and did not feel that the reworded football chants used were sufficient by themselves as a way of vocalising group energy in such a situation.
That day, I decided to make it my mission to find, learn and teach as many people as possible the songs our ancestors sang to raise their spirits when challenging unjust laws and actions that threatened their lives, livelihoods, health and communities. It also seemed important to explain the songs' contexts as many writers had to hide their messages in imagery to communicate their radical ideas, whilst other lyrics seem devoid of historical importance until certain ideas or phrases are picked out and explained. It was with these motivations that 'Three Acres And A Cow' was born; the show taking its title from a name given to the 19th century land reform movement.
Local History, Local Performance
In some instances I could not find songs connected to historical events and movements, as often people would have been imprisoned for writing or printing anything critical of the status quo. It soon became obvious that adding poetry and storytelling into the mix would provide the best format as well as filling in gaps! As the show has travelled around Britain, this flexible design has allowed a wide variety of performers to contribute, each bringing their own local knowledge of the area’s history to the performance for added resonance and relevance.
After all performances, audiences have been invited to add to the show by hanging slips of paper with comments, books, suggestions and historical events onto a washing line (which is used as a visual aid during the show) or by writing in our guest book. Thus much wonderful content has been crowd-sourced over the last two years.
After the initial show, all performances have come from contacts and leads given at the end of shows. I have even been lucky enough to be sent old folk songs by elderly collectors from the 17th and 18thcentury which have never been published and are now getting their first public airing for centuries.
By keeping the set and props to a minimum – a guitar, a washing line and slips of paper to hang on it – touring with a light footprint has been possible, travelling largely by train, bus and bicycle. Amplification has been used on the odd occasion when needed for larger spaces but the vast majority of shows have been acoustic, thus enabling the show to be performed without electricity.
In the 18 months since its inception, ‘Three Acres And A Cow’ has been performed 20 times to over a thousand people and been hosted in pubs, cafés, festivals, community centres, a church, squats and universities around the country. Over 40 people have taken part, bringing their local songs, stories, poems and networks to the performances.
Many shows have been put on in partnership with groups involved with permaculture, food growing and land/housing activism. Starting the evening with a meal prepared with seasonal, locally grown food has been a wonderful way of instigating conversations and sharing ideas about how and why we choose to grow food, work the land in our localities and campaign for reform. Many people who have attended shows might not have been exposed to such ideas previously and perhaps shied away from anything that looked too political or radical.
Recently I have started to devise an Open Source, Creative Commons performers’ kit that will enable any group to take ownership of the show, add local relevance and to perform it independently in their communities. With the support of Arts Council England, I have been working with critically acclaimed storyteller Rachel Rose Reid and a team of eight musicians, poets, actors and actresses from Peterborough to test and develop the kit.
There are also conversations afoot about working on Irish, Welsh and Scottish versions of the show which would share the format but take a very different route through the narrative.
Robin Grey is a folk musician and radical historian based in east London. He completed a market gardening apprenticeship under renown London permaculture teacher Ru Litherland at ‘Growing Communities’ and enjoys playing with mattocks and wheelbarrowing compost around OrganicLea’s Hawkwood Nursery whenever time allows.
You can find out more via the website www.threeacresandacow.co.uk which includes audience reviews and the performers’ kit, as well as many resources that have been useful in researching and devising the show.
Come and share in these tales as they have been shared for generations.
STOP PRESS - Performance in Hampshire UK!
Featuring critically acclaimed storyteller, poet and musician Rachel Rose Reid and radical historian and folk singer Robin Grey, 3 Acres & a Cow will be at The Sustainability Centre.
The pre-show supper is cooked with locally sourced and grown ingredients and the bar will be serving the best of local refreshments.
The doors open at 6.45pm Saturday 11th October, with the pre-show supper at 7.00pm and the show starting at at 8.00pm.
Tickets are £8, £6 Concession, £4 for Supper and can be booked by calling 01730 823166 or visit HERE to book online.