Seventy Years a Showman

During the autumn I came across a book, long out of print, that blew my socks off. I’ve republished it, and now you can enjoy it for yourself.

It’s the 1910 autobiography of a circus showman called ‘Lord’ George Sanger. Born into an early Victorian family of travelling showfolk, he went on to become Britain’s biggest circus entrepreneur, as famous as PT Barnum – and the American’s equal in skill, pluck and cheek. Find out more and read extracts here.

In one show alone, Sanger gathered on stage 700 actors, 13 elephants, nine camels and 52 horses, plus ostriches, emus, pelicans, kangaroos, buffaloes and, at the centre of it all, two African lions.

But it’s his early years that most enthrall. Life was violent and lawless for travelling showfolk. And here’s the key – Sanger is a master storyteller. Each short chapter is honed to shock and surprise.

One minute Sanger is bare-knuckle fighting in an East End pub, the next he’s recruiting a fake tribe of red Indians from Liverpool slums, dodging the fury of a Chartist riot or chatting with Queen Victoria about elephants.

This is real-life Dickens, and a wonderful counterpoint to the sanitised splendour of that recent film about PT Barnum The Greatest Showman.

I’ve added some illustrations, thanks to my pal John Foreman, the great printer and music hall singer, written a new introduction – and I’m proud to have published the book through my company Muddler Books.

It’s £10.99 in paperback from Muddler Books. There’s a Kindle version too.

Go on, treat yourself to a wild read this January.

Stop press. First review out this morning from the Camden New Journal. They love it.

Hi there.

As the Windrush scandal shows, migration remains a faultline through this nation’s psyche. So it’s timely that Human Cargo hits the road next week.

Why not join me and Jeff Warner as we take our story&song show round the country. Check the route – maybe you have friends along the way who’d be interested to hear about it?

MAY 11 ST ALBANS Maltings; 12 BLACKBURN Mellor Brook CC; 13 SETTLE Victoria Hall; 16 CARDIGAN Mwldan; 17 BRISTOL St George’s; 23 TORRINGTON Plough Arts; JUNE 2 NEWCASTLE Gosforth Civic Theatre; 3 BEVERLEY East Riding Theatre; 5 LIVERPOOL Phil; 7 SHOREHAM Ropetackle; 12 EXETER Phoenix; 13 DORCHESTER Shire Hall; 14 HALESWORTH The Cut; 15 LONDON Kings Place; 16 MATLOCK Florence Nightingale Hall; 17 BEDFORD The Place.

Tickets for London are selling fast – and we advise you to book soon elsewhere. Lots more about the show here.

BBC R4’s Front Row came to record us working on Human Cargo. Here’s Jeff, just hours off a flight from Boston, doing some mighty fretwork.

After months of collaborating long distance, it was great to put the show together, in the same room.

This is an ambitious production. After all I’ve learnt on The Transports, and other shows, I’m keen to weave words and music in new ways … so Jeff and I work intuitively, telling stories together.

Plus, believe it or not, there’ll be jokes. In a show about slavery and forced migration, we’ll include music hall, spoons, bones and other japery … and there’s religion too. We’ve got some old gospel songs of journey and redemption, so come prepared to sing along.

New Human Cargo video

I went to Bristol to make a short two-minute film about Human Cargo. Do take a look – and thanks to Kat Macaulay for filming it.


Amazing venues for the tour

This is the actual courtroom in Dorchester, where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were unjustly tried in 1834. And on 13 June it’s the setting for Human Cargo – an ideal venue for Jeff and I to perform stories of transportation, slavery and emigration. They’ve just turned the Shire Hall into a venue/museum after a fab refurb. We can’t wait to play there.

We’re playing other amazing places too. St George’s, Bristol on 17 May has one of Britain’s finest acoustics – and was a church attended by many wealthy slavers. On 13 May we play the lovely Victoria Music Hall in Settle and on 5 June we’re at the Liverpool Phil.

I’m back to my old stamping ground in deep Suffolk at The Cut, Halesworth on 14 June (round the corner from where the story of The Transports started). We play lovely community centres like Blackburn and Matlock, local arts centres like Cardigan Mwldan, Beverley East Riding Theatre, Torrington Plough Arts, Bedford The Place and Gosforth Civic Theatre in Newcastle, plus I’ll be revisiting where we took The Transports to Exeter Phoenix and Shoreham Ropetackle. Next Friday 11 May we start the tour at The Maltings in St Albans – handy for Londoners who can’t make King’s Place.

If you know anyone in these places who’d like the show, do let them know. Thanks!

Parallel Lives – bigger than ever

25 different refugee support groups partner us on the Human Cargo tour – one or two in each town – as part of the Parallel Lives project. They’ll be there in the foyer at gigs, so you can learn about the amazing voluntary activity across Britain … collecting clothes for camps overseas … supporting Syrian families as they settle … or giving legal advice to asylum seekers.

At the snazzy new Parallel Lives website you can meet the groups – and see local migration stories I’ve gathered town by town across the country.

Plus, the tour builds up to Refugee Week (18-24 June). This annual celebration of all that migration brings to Britain has become a remarkable array of events around the country. We’re delighted to contribute to it.

In other news…

A Ford salesperson was recently checking over my car as a trade-in for something newer. She was a lot of fun. When we got to the boot, she asked if I had a body in there. The boot opened to reveal a single square box. ‘No, just a head,’ I said. She laughed, then noticed the box had Human Cargo written on it. She nearly jumped out of her skin…

Living by the Sea

Are you going to Sidmouth FolkWeek in August? This seaside festival is always a joy … pasties & beer, swimming in the sea, sessions everywhere, a bit of fishing, and lots of good music. But it will be a bit busier for me this year, for I’m co-creating a show called Living By The Sea, which we’ll perform over two days at the Manor Pavilion. This involves Paul Sartin and Faustus, and a scratch choir, and me telling tales – like a Radio Ballads – with stories and songs all about coastal communities.

That’s it for this monthly dose of news. Do check out my new Facebook page – or keep in touch with Twitter

May and June is such a lovely time in Britain. Enjoy it – and maybe I’ll see you out on the road somewhere.

Best wishes, Matthew

Trust me, cooking’s even more enjoyable when you’re serenaded by Jeff Warner on banjo.


I’d not recommend you open up your airwaves to any guest for 90 minutes, least of all a man with a banjolele in his hand, a flood of tales about sweet-making, refugees and music hall, AND a new tour and album to sell. But that’s exactly what the mighty Dan Carrier did last Friday with his 5pm Friday slot on Boogaloo Radio. It got serious. It got silly. It went other places too. And you can hear it here (I emerge after 26 minutes).

Dan’s a brilliant man: a journalist on the world’s best local paper – the Camden New Journal – a DJ with the Dig It Sound System, and a font of good stories about the world. He’s a massive fan of reggae, with some treats you’ll enjoy throughout this show. Plus some songs from the Transports which I got him to play.

Boogaloo Radio beams out of a pub garden in North London, 24 hours a day. There’s a comfy shed, housing all you need to broadcast chat and toons. People in the pub can listen while they drink (and sometimes you can hear them back during the show). It was a very pleasant place to spend an early Friday evening.

We chatted about my book The Trebor Story, then The Transports, Human Cargo and music hall. I sang bits of some songs, including The Press Gang, Riley-O, New York Gals and, later, a full version of Your Baby Has Gone Down the Plughole. Dan’s folks used to perform with The Lissenden Players, where I got my first break in Music Hall, so he shared a few choruses from distant memory. Then, before it all got a bit too nostalgic, Dan rushed off to perform at a gig, and I trudged back through the streets of Highgate, banjolele in my hand and a faint fear of ‘Did I really say that?’ Ah, live radio. Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, playing a musical instrument, guitar, beard and indoor

We’re very excited to be taking The Transports out on the road again in January. You can see why from this five minute highlights video of our show in Shrewsbury last August. It captures the energy and joy in the room. If you’d like to catch the show, you’d better get your tickets soon – we’ve nearly sold out at some venues.

(To be more precise about my excitement for touring again in January – performing the show HIGH, hanging out with a lovely bunch of people HIGH, sleeping on a tour bus with them around Britain NOT SO HIGH)

Well, it’s now my old band. I was only in it for one day. Actually, one ten minute performance, but what a thing that was. For some people, it’s exciting enough to say this was a secret return appearance of the KLF/Justified Ancients of Mu Mu on 23rd November in East London. But most need more explanation. Suffice to say, it was a ‘happening’, held in secret, for 99 selected people to walk the streets of Dalston with smokebombs and flyposts, engage with theatrical ‘interventions’ in places like McDonalds, then gather late evening for the re-emergence of the famed band Badger Kull – who had transmogrified into a shanty crew singing South Australia with its words rewritten around the theme of Burn The Shard. A night, it is fair to say, like no other.

Here’s something I wrote about the experience.

A few weeks ago I was watching a film called Detroit, about the 1967 explosion of anger which set that city alight. The film is so violent, so real, it feels like the Saving Private Ryan of civic protest. It strips riot of any cool, or humour.

On the bus home I found a piece of paper in my pocket. This held the lyric for a song called Burn The Shard, which I was learning for a gig a few days later. I’d put together a scratch shanty crew to provide entertainment for an evening event I knew little about. We were to sing only one song – a version of the classic halyard shanty South Australia, but with new words. Instead of ‘We’re Bound for South Australia’, we’d sing ‘We’re bound to burn the Sha-ard down’.

Don’t get me wrong. I despise that temple of mammon as much as anyone. Looking like Barad-Dur – Sauron’s duplex – the Shard is a sort of Dubai in the Sky, and if any edifice demands contempt, it does. But having witnessed the sober reality of civic inflammation, fuelled in Detroit by righteous resistance to oppression, I now felt uneasy to be party to what whiffed somewhat of art school onan. I didn’t want to play with fire.

But a paying gig’s a gig, and the man who’d brought me in is a lovely, genuine fellow. I was due to get a free jumper, and cap. Plus, onan or not, it looked like fun. So on I jumped.

We crew gathered in a hipster bar by a canal in Dalston, East London. This was base for the evening. 99 vetted volunteers were the night’s audience/congregation, the process of their inclusion carefully managed to maximise excitement. When we arrived, the volunteers were already out doing their stuff, leaving a couple of hours for us to rehearse. It was our first time singing together, though we knew shanties well. The only place to practise, away from music or punters, was a thin passageway leading to the bar’s store cupboards. There was just enough room to stand in a line, except when staff appeared to get stock or have a fag. Which they did every few minutes.

We sang through the shanty about eight times, working out a routine, settling into our parts and getting tighter. We went back down to the bar, with 90 minutes to spare before our due time of appearance. Suddenly the bar filled up, first with people, then the stench of spent smokebombs. These were the volunteers and they carried the smell in their hair and their clothes. They’d been out across local neighbourhoods all evening, flyposting, letting off smokebombs, I wasn’t sure exactly what. There was a Ronald McDonald among them. Now back at base, they looked excited and tired. Those in charge seemed desperate to appear disinterested in what was happening. We were told we would perform earlier than planned. Apparently a poorly-briefed security guard at the Arcola Theatre had not allowed 99 strangers to waltz through the property, so the evening was taken short.

No matter. We returned to our passageway and dressed up. Once in costume, I was delighted we looked like something out of a Wes Anderson film, particularly my favourite The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I proposed we maintain that classic male gaze of Pointless Grandeur. Apparently we were a band called Badger Kull – the words were woven across our white fishermen’s rollnecks – but for only one night.

I had a panic trying to put on my wellington boots. I’d had an operation to rebuild my ankle five weeks beforehand and, while I was fine for standing and singing, I’d not realised my ankle could not bend itself into the shape required by a long boot. That hurt.

The brief was to sing the shanty and get the room to join in. No problem. As folk singers, that’s what we do. I was to say a few words. Again, something I’m perfectly used to. But I wasn’t sure how to calibrate the tone for this gathering. It was tempting to surrender to the Too Cool For School vibe. But fuckit, I thought, that’s stupid. Just do whatever you need to get the room singing. If you’re booked as a shanty group, that’s what you do.

We hid out of view, upstairs. We heard ourselves announced, then a mighty cheer. We processed halfway down the stairs at the end of the room, fully visible to all – an excellent stage, it must be declared – and sang our first two verses. These went down well. Then I spoke, announcing we were Badger Kull for just one night and inviting people to prepare themselves for shanty in the best way possible – to find the smell of the sea, and to sniff their neighbour, closely, to source that stench of herring, salt and sweat. This people did. Then, after a brief guide to what they must sing, we started the shanty proper. The volunteers sang along. Cameras appeared. When we finished, there was more cheering. We departed upstairs with rehearsed sneers. Five minutes later we were back at the bar, beaming, beer in hands.

Truth be told, the volunteers’ joy for the performance seemed disproportionate to our effort. Clearly Badger Kull meant more to them than us. The mood was happy, the organisers pulling careful strings behind their studied nonchalance. Here’s a description of the evening by one of the volunteers.

Was it all a wank? No – there was plenty of wit, effort and good humour. Did it insult real civic protest like Detroit? Not really, because it was so low-key. Was it art – I’ve no idea.

We came, put on some jumpers, sang a song, drank a beer and went home. Safely.



Photos courtesy of D. Hopkinson, K. Woods, L-13 Light Industrial Workshop and H. Jupiter.