At: The Merchant Bar, 25 Peckover Street,
The Topic at 60
This is not a history of the Topic's 60-year existence. Nor even of the 35 years since the last History was written. Few people, if any, have been continuously active in the Topic even over the past 35 years. And anyway, archive research by Trevor Charnock has been organised and uploaded onto the Topic website by Nicholas Waller, and there is now as comprehensive a listing as anyone could wish of the Club's programme, its various venues, and the main officers responsible for the Club's affairs over the years. There is even an available recording of a local radio programme put together by Topic members Rob Martin and Molly Kenyon, which brings together oral reminiscences from fourteen previous and current Topic officers, some going back to the very early days. Their observations have helped shape this article.
Instead, it is more of a snapshot of the Topic as it is now, with an explanation of how those currently responsible for its management came to be involved in the Club. To survive for sixty years must imply at least one "second generation" of Club organisers. Some "younger" clubs can be (in some cases are) still run by the same people, now in their sixties and seventies, who established them in their twenties when the Folk Scene was almost entirely the preserve of Young People. Not the Topic.
In fact, the Topic has had several such new generations - not all of whom have necessarily been younger than the people they succeed. And there are still threads that go back thirty-five years. Of the members of the Committee in 1981, Trevor Charnock is an active archivist and regular attender, Dave Hamer and Ronnie Wharton also still attend regularly, Roger Sutcliffe still gives his annual performance, and Mick Walker was still on the Committee until his death last year. But the vast majority of the present active group, of committee members plus MCs, did not start coming to the Topic until well after it had already been running for forty years.
So what drew those currently managing the Topic to the Club in the first place, what encouraged them to become regular attenders, and then to take on operational duties? Of course, everyone has their own story of why they first came through the doors: though most (not all) had some form of musical connection. However, the reasons for staying on are remarkably consistent. Friendly welcome, musical encouragement (where appropriate), comfortable atmosphere (especially for single women), quality music, and very little sense of any cliquey exclusivity. [Of course, this "survey" of the currently active is bound to produce a positive feedback: there may be scores of people who came once and vowed never to come again.]
And what encouraged them to take a more active role? Usually, they were politely asked if they'd like to. Or they just decided to volunteer, if they were the volunteering kind. All in the calm context of an organisation that was running smoothly, with tasks shared and with no-one running around complaining that "they had to do it all themselves". In my experience, voluntary organisations often seem to be run that way; and the "overworked" individuals would not, actually, want it any other way. But not the Topic.
The Topic has always had a number of different people taking on different functions. Bookings, Treasurer, Publicity, Committee Chair, Committee Secretary, MC organiser, and MCs themslves. And people take them on for a few years, sometimes may undertake more than one task (but not always in the same combinations), after a few years pass them to other Committee members, all without the disagreements, divisions, rivalry, rancour and personality differences that can sometimes beset voluntary organisations. Occasional issues do surface, but they are very rare. This certainly applies to bookings secretaries: responsibility has passed seamlessly between them quite regularly over the past few years. Since this article has in part been prompted by a decision at the AGM to highlight the people who decide upon and book the professional guests to make the Topic what it is, we can start with them.
If we start at 2000, the Club has had seven different people involved with the crucial bookings process. Philomena Hingston had taken over in 1992, at a time when there were proposals that the Club should close. She and her family had already been regular Topic attenders for over 20 years, and she remained guest-booker for a further decade. In later years she was assisted by her daughter Finola, a move prompted not least by the overwhelming and intrusive volume of enquiries that bookers get as soon as their name and role becomes public. In Philomena's day, these would come in the form of telephone calls. "Oh, Finola, will you answer that?" she used increasingly to say: knowing it would be yet another unprompted request for a booking by some hopeful musician. And so Finola became involved in making booking decisions; and writing the publicity that inevitably flows from that.
This aspect of booking comes as a shock to everyone who takes on the role. Almost every booker comes to the job with the idea that they have to take a lead in identifying and approaching potential artists, and inviting them to come to perform at the Topic. Thirty slots a year, thirty telephone calls or emails ... job done. The reality is very different: as soon as the name of the person responsible for bookings becomes known, he or she will receive a virtual tsunami of unsolicited approaches from (usually perfectly worthy) artists seeking bookings. Since the dawning of the new century, the internet and email make it even easier for artists to unmask and approach hapless bookers. Having said which, email is a more user-friendly means of communication than the telephone, as the recipient can choose when to read it and when (or even if) to respond.
These issues are relevant. Every recent booker spoken to while researching this article (bar one - who had had booking experience elsewhere) mentioned the unexpected and unwelcome volume of unsolicited enquiries . And all but (the same) one admitted that the majority of the bookings they actually made, came from these enquiries. So from the artists' point of view, these unsolicited approaches worked. Booking artists becomes a process of deciding who, amongst the plethora of plausible enquiries, one chooses to book; and who one has to decline. Far from being a process of approaching people one wanted to book, and feeling good about it, bookers find themselves spending most of their time writing "sorry, but we cannot fit you into our schedules" responses. And dealing with the hurt, and sometimes persistent, further entreaties. Which could sometimes become quite unpleasant; especially from artists who had appeared before; and seemed to assume they had a right to a repeat booking.
Philomena (and Finola) finally gave up booking in 2002; though the programme they bequeathed was fully booked up till well into 2003. John Waller came to the job having first come to the Topic in 1996, despite having lived in Bradford since 1971, and having been active in the Bristol Troubadour in the late 1960s as a performer / songwriter. He (ok, I) had no background in booking; indeed, I had been out of the folk world entirely for twenty-five years. I therefore knew few of the regular names on the folk circuit - I had heard of Vin Garbutt, for example, but had never seen him, and had no idea what he did. But what I did have, after spending 25 years heavily involved in running Bradford Playhouse and Film Theatre, was a very acute sense of performance quality, be that theatrical or musical. And maybe that helped me select artists irrespective of reputation. I did not overtly try to target a different type of artist, but maybe the absence of a pre-conceived list of people who had been to the Topic before and would expect to come again meant that effectively, I did.
What I did do, largely in response to demand, was to introduce (or, probably, re-introduce) the concept of Featured Support. There were many artists out there who lacked the skills and variety to carry a whole evening; but who deserved better than just the two-song floor spot; and who were very grateful for the kudos of a formal booked and advertised gig. Soon, just about every guest evening had a Featured Support, and these slots were booking six months in advance. This, plus the Double Headers, meant that in 2006 (the Topic's 50th anniversary year) no fewer than 73 musical entities had formal bookings, featuring over 120 musicians. It added to the bookings workload, of course; but it also provided a ladder for new performers, or those just starting on the professional circuit, to rise from appearance at a Singers and Musicians evening to full guest booking in carefully graded steps. Among those to follow this route during my time as booker were Tom Bliss (in various collaborations), Duncan McFarlane, Gerry Cooper and Roger Davies.
I gave up responsibility for booking in 2008, partly because five years is a long time to be doing it; and partly as the day job was increasingly taking me abroad for weeks at a time. But not before Simon Alexander had had a six-month guest period doing the bookings, bringing in big names like Allan Taylor. By now the Topic had moved from the Melborn to the Cock and Bottle, and was in the process of moving from there to the Irish Club. I was proud to have done my bit in keeping the Club going (and there were some quiet periods in the later Melborn years) and bringing so many performers through, almost all of whom were grateful for the opportunity. I was extremely pleased to have booked Julie Felix; and perhaps most gratified at the success of the Bisserov Sisters. And for having overseen the Topic's 50th anniversary season without losing any money.
Rahel Guzelian took on the mantle of booker from the start of 2008 to the end of 2009, though as always it was the best part of a year before her booked acts started to appear. She had been coming to the Topic since 1997, having been a folk enthusiast, and even a song-writer, for some years without actually having been involved with any folk club. She remembers her bookings policy as trying to strike a balance between new young acts and established ones, between male and female artists, and of not having the same style of act two weeks running.
She too found the process of receiving and responding to the weight of booking requests wearisome, and perhaps as a result the programme of Featured Support artists was scaled back. Unlike her predecessor, but like most of her successors, she attended Festivals, though not specifically for the purpose of identifying potential acts for the Topic. Like all bookers, she used agents if they approached her with a good name, or if someone she wanted to book insisted we went through their agent.
She remembers the pleasure of seeing her programme come together, and the worry on the night as to whether enough audience would come; and whether they would appreciate her choice.
Rahel was followed in the booking role by Joe Grint at the start of 2010. He alone amongst recent bookers came with experience in the role, having organised folk events, and run a folk programme at the Raggalds Inn for 15 months. He also had a longer association with the Topic, having been a regular attendee in the 80s, though with a bit of a hiatus during the Melborn years. In consequence, he was more proactive in his booking than the rest of us: with a significant majority of his bookings arising from his approaching the artist, rather than through just selecting the most suitable from the people who approached him.
He remembers booking a number of acts before they started performing at much larger venues: Lucy Ward, and O'Hooley and Tidow in particular having gone on to be major artists on the festival and theatre / arts centre circuit. And taking a risk on a Danish band Faerd, who were looking for a Thursday gig between two bigger gigs on a UK tour. And booking both Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy in the same season. But his artistic policy was similar to everyone else's: trying to get a good mixture of acts, helping to bring on younger and lesser known acts such as Sail Pattern, Rebekah Findlay and Luke Hirst and even booking artists from outside the mainstream of folk music.
Joe had agreed to do the job for just over a year, and was duly followed by Tony Charnock at the start of 2012 through to September 2013. Tony had been to the Topic once in the later Star years, and deemed it to be "just another folk club". He only started coming regularly in 2002, after he and Rahel got together; and was very impressed with the quality of the performers.
His professed artistic policy was very much the same as all of us: get a good mixture, help bring on new acts, be they young or just starting out: and welcome international artists when available. He makes a specific point, which others do too, that the Topic does seem to have a more adventurous artistic policy than many of our other local clubs. Partly this is because we have a higher proportion of guest nights than most clubs, so there are more slots to play with. But also because there is, and it seems always has been, a greater willingness amongst bookers, committee and audiences, to seek out the new, take a chance on an unknown, encourage a newcomer - and for our audience to turn out for them. He remembers with pleasure those nights when a new, untried or unknown act went down well in front of an audience.
From September 2013 to December 2015 responsibility passed on again, this time to Sue Gaffney. Sue had only started to come to the Topic in March 2008: to our first night at the Irish Club. Though she and her family had enjoyed folk music in a broad sense, the specific reason was that she had a 14-year old daughter who was looking for an opportunity to play and sing to an audience. And the Topic fitted the bill, especially through its welcome and encouragement. So when Sue took on booking, she wanted to provide similar encouragement to young, lesser known and emerging acts, especially if female.
Sue probably made greater use of agents than the majority of bookers; though we all did to some extent. She also booked more acts through (or after) seeing them at festivals. The trick, as she sees it, is to try to please all of our regular audience, some of the time.
Sue relinquished booking responsibilities (maybe temporarily) at the end of 2015, and Rahel has taken it on for a second stint. So that means we have had five bookers in the last eight years. [10 in 35] Many other local clubs will not have changed their booker even once in that time. To some outside observers, such a rapid turnover in such a crucial role might be seen as an indication of a club in crisis. But far from it. Four of the past five bookers are still on the Committee, and the one who isn't only stood down as he was moving to York. Not only now, but throughout the Topic's recent history (and possibly before) there have been very few if any major disputes, disagreements, rifts, arguments, fallings-out over artistic policy ... an ever-fluid group of people, usually built round a solid core of regulars, have collaborated in taking on the various tasks associated with running a club of this nature.
Though each booker professes to have continued the policy of their predecessor, there have undoubtedly been differences. Would anyone else have picked up the Bisserov Sisters? Would I have picked up Sail Pattern, or O'Hooley and Tidow? Who else would have gone for Faerd? The changes may be subtle, but there is no doubt that the marginal choices made by different bookers will have refreshed the programme, and avoided it from falling into an unconscious repetitious rut.
And though this article has been prompted by an AGM discussion on how best to celebrate the contribution that our succession of bookers has made to the progress of the Club into its 61st year, this sense of evolving collaboration infuses the whole club. Take the role of MC - for the past 30 years this has almost always been a shared, rotating activity. In the mid-nineties people such as Adam Russell, Pete Mitton, Ian Gobbi and Finola herself shared it out. David Kidman, a regular at many local folk clubs over many years, has occasionally assisted. John Waller did most of it in the early 2000s, but soon recruited people like Wayne Stote, Tony Levy and Simon Alexander, with Rahel Guzelian and Joy Leach helping out. Neil Etherington started around that time, and is still on the list today. Joe Grint, after initially demurring, joined the team, as did Rob Martin; and John Waller rejoined once he retired from his heavy-travelling day job. Chris Hyland is the latest recruit. And while the contribution of MCs to the overall Topic experience is perhaps not as fundamental as that of the bookers, they are the public face of the Club, for audience and artists alike. Having a rotation of people in the role, each with their different style, also helps keep the club fresh.
Other roles do seem to have a greater degree of permanence. Philomena patiently sat on the door taking the ticket money and selling Tykes News almost all the time she was also doing the bookings; and maybe before. Others helped out on occasion. When she retired in 2005, various people shared the duties, including Treasurer David Robey, Rahel Guzelian and Guy Killingbeck. These days, it is mostly Guy who does it, with Rahel assisting until Guy can get to the Club; and sometimes Stephen Harvey if Guy is away.
Whoever is on the door also plays an important PR role: they are the first person to greet anyone coming to the Club for the first time, and can help set the right tone. They are also in a good position to monitor audience reaction (and, sadly, sometimes behaviour) from their position at the back. And whoever is on the door is effectively Assistant Treasurer. With the door money going to the artist in cash (the basis of the overwhelming majority of our contracts), whoever is on the door has not only to make up the artist's fee envelope, but also keep accurate records of the source of all money taken - not just ticket sales, but raffle income and cost of prizes, membership fees, sales of Tykes News and other merchandise - and make the night's income and expenditure balance. All to be done silently in near darkness while also trying to enjoy the concert that they have also paid to attend. All the Treasurer has to do is copy the resulting figures into the official Ledger, and take any surplus to the bank.
Treasurers tend also to do the job for extended periods. Current Treasurer John Waller took the job on in 2013 when David Robey retired due to ill health (he was to pass away only months later). David had held the position since 1992. Prior to that it had been Malcolm Gardner from 1988, and he had taken over from Joy Crampton who had started in 1983/4. Joy remembers taking over from Bob Wright, who had himself taken over from Frank Cahill, who started in the 1970s. The Treasurer's job, though essential, is one of the least time-consuming, as the bulk of the work is done by whoever is on the door. If the door is organised and accurate, there is really nothing much to it other than keeping accurate records and having a reliable calculator at the end of the year. Though Joy Crampton recalls traipsing round all Bradford's banks in her lunch hour, trying to find one that would service our account without charging a fee.
In the 80s and maybe early 90s the Club did occasionally lose significant money, usually on very ambitious concerts to celebrate anniversaries - including a three-day event to mark the 30th. These were often held in larger external venues such as Windsor Baths, or Shelf Village Hall. But for the past two decades we have been financially stable. The financial model of the entrance ticket money going to the artist subject to an agreed minimum guarantee means we break even or make a small surplus most nights - the raffle surplus providing the oil in the system if the doortake doesn't quite reach the artist's minimum guarantee. And this has been achieved despite ticket prices having only risen by £1 since 1995 (from £4/£5 to £5/£6), while the basic minimum guarantee has just about doubled. A cautious (but not too cautious!) approach to risk over the years has meant that our bank balance is currently adequate to hedge against foreseeable circumstances: and also to allow us to subsidise bigger events featuring expensive artists without raising door prices.
And in order to ensure that artists and audience alike get the benefit of our financial stability, we have recently been able to offer the artist a complimentary drink when they arrive (though some decline!), rounding up their fee to the nearest £5, and giving away extra raffle prizes. Of course, we are very grateful to the enthusiasm of our various venues in allowing us to use their space free of charge - even now, when for various reasons folk audiences spend less over the bar than they did in the past. And to artists, for their continued enthusiasm for coming to perform for us.
This just leaves Publicity as the major external function. The earliest records we have show that in the early 80s Geoff Gilday, Andrew Day and Andy Fieldhouse were all involved, and responsibility passed to Joy Crampton in 1983/4. She in turn handed over to Philomena Hingston in 1988. In those days, and ever since, the bedrock of any local folk club's publicity has been Tykes News: with their comprehensive listings and practice of turning every Club's quarterly advert into an A5 flier. In the eighties this was complemented by a typed Newsletter mailed to members; and a weekly short advert in the Telegraph and Argus. The typed newsletter had disappeared by the 90s, after some controversial attempts to make it "funny", which met with a mixed response. The T&A notices also lapsed, as its circulation fell: not quite sure when.
Philomena (aided by Finola) saw publicity as part of the booking function: indeed, apart from the extra workload it entails, who better than the person who has chosen to book an artist, to extol their qualities? John Waller re-introduced the Newsletter in 2001, this time delivered by email to what was to become a growing list of email addresses of anyone who attended a concert, not just members. He took over responsibility for all publicity when he took on booking in 2003. When Rahel started booking in 2008, she and Tony Charnock took on the publicity; and, after Joe Grint's tenure, when Joe prepared most of the publicity himself, Tony worked on the publicity again to support Sue Gaffney, and has continued right up to the present day.
And of course, there is the Topic's Website. This was initially set up by Pete Mitton in the mid-90s; but it never really took off until Nicholas Waller took over in 2002. He developed it into the wealth of current and historical information, updated weekly, that it now offers - receiving 65,000 hits in ten years. As social media became ever more prominent, the Topic acquired a Facebook page and group, started and initially maintained by Joe Grint until summer 2016, and since run by Sue Gaffney. The Topic is also active on Twitter. Tony makes the effort to ensure our listings are publicised on local radio stations such as Bradford Community Broadcasting (BCB) and details are sent to local papers. We have had various opportunities to be interviewed by BCB and the T&A. The Topic has been represented at local events such as Bradford Festival, Shuttle Shuffle and Raise Your Banners, all in an attempt to raise awareness of our existence.
This article has, so far, concentrated on the period broadly since the mid 1990s: mostly because that was when I became involved; and it lists the people I met, knew, and eventually took over from. So I am very grateful to Joy Crampton, who was active in the 1980s, for filling in some of the gaps prior to my involvement. These were, of course, the Star years: 22 years in the same venue. There were regular discussions about finding somewhere else, but staying at the Star always seemed the best option until the Club finally, and to some members, controversially, did make the move in 1991.
Most of us newcomers have images of the Star years as having packed audiences of 100+; and there were indeed some of them early on. Trevor Charnock remembers one night in 1975 when Mike Harding was the booked guest. The room was packed with 170 people and they were still queuing down the stairs. After that, the Committee decided to place a limit of 100 on admissions; a figure the room could easily accommodate. But by the mid 80s, audiences were not always adequate to cover costs. The possibility of the Club having to close was always there in the background. Interestingly, even then there were discussions about how to attract a younger audience. Attempts to do so by bringing in (on one occasion) the girlfriend of a New Model Army member to do poetry somewhat backfired - plenty of NMA fans attended (but only for that event) while loyal Topic regulars were terminally put off by the - er - direct nature of the language used by the performer. Other initiatives included encouraging a group of adults with learning difficulties to attend; and painting the chairs red to brighten the room up. Some worked, some didn't.
Ronnie Wharton was doing the bookings over this period. Artists booked included Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, Dave Swarbrick's band Whippersnapper, Dead Sea Surfers, Strawhead, June Tabor, Jake Thackray, Martin Carthy ... they are all listed on the Topic website if you want the full list.
MC duties on the 80s were shared by Bob and Barbara Wright, Deanna and Peter Norman, Sylvia Needham, Roger Sutcliffe and Geoff Gilday. Regular floor singers included several of the above, plus Andrew Day, Joy and Stuart Crampton, Dawn Wallis, Frank Cahill, Steve Thorpe, Muppett, Frank and Brenda Baldwin and John Murray. The Committee included many of the above, plus Paul Tattersal, Eddie Power, and of course Trevor Charnock. Trevor's role as Secretary encompassed many tasks as well as booking the guest artists: dealing with correspondence, sending out press releases, and organising the Ceilidhs that were an important aspect of the Topic's programme at that time. Many of the others mentioned above are still around, call in every now and then, and some are actively involved in folk clubs elsewhere in the region.
How many names have been included in the article thus far? Almost all have played a significant part in helping make the Topic what is has been, and has become. Not to mention (in Joy Crampton's words) "shedloads of others [I've] forgotten". The fact that so many people have come, become involved, and then moved on is a strength, not a weakness. The churn of different bookers, MCs and even regular floor singers has helped keep the Club fresh, varied, innovative, adventurous, daring; and successful.
Will this continue? Well, it will as long as people want to come to listen to quality live music and song professionally performed: be that traditional or contemporary - at least that divisive distinction has largely disappeared. The lack of an obvious tranche of young audience is an issue: but every generation needs to find its own voice and style. I'm sure our parents wondered why we, as teenagers, turned our backs on Music Hall to sit in small sweaty rooms listening to angry young men with guitars singing protest songs. Just as we in turn shook our heads at punk; or do now at the slew of foul-mouthed stand-up comedians. I don't believe we should try to chase a young audience by changing what we offer. There are, after all, plenty of exceptionally talented young performers out there: Sail Pattern, Eddie and Luc, Russell and Algar, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne: and it was excellent to see our largest audience in recent years turn out for Bric-a-Brac - exceeding even the audience for Jez Lowe's Christmas show the previous week. And it is always good when younger musicians get involved in the club: like Ryan McGovern in the Melborn years, and Henry Parker at present.
People out there do know we exist. And though not everyone wants to come out every week, they will come if we provide the right guest artists: and this absolutely does not mean just the old favourites.
Two events over the past decade or so bring this home to me. For reasons too long to go into, we had to leave the Cock and Bottle in something of a midnight flit - not letting anyone know of the change (to the Irish Club) until we had completed what was to be our last night at the C&B. Giving us just six days to publicise the fact of the new venue. The first night at the Irish Club was a singers and musicians session, which normally attracts between eight and twenty performers. More than 50 people turned up - not all at once, some came early and left, others called in later. But it was a stunning illustration of how many people out there cared; and wanted to check out our new venue, and in passing, show their support.
And then there was the 60th anniversary itself, which centred on another singers and musicians evening on 3rd November 2016, which was designated as an opportunity for anyone, everyone, to perform a song they had written to celebrate the Topic at 60. The initiative had come from Rob Martin, and he had been resolutely promoting the idea for over a year, while it wasn't clear that there was going to be much response. It was, crucially, made clear that this was not a competition. And on the night, seventeen offerings were presented. One by someone who said he'd never been before (and we haven't seen him since, regrettably); two poems from people who don't write songs, some songs that had been written and even performed months before, and one that had been written in the 80 minutes immediately prior to the start of the evening. And many more. A great, supportive, communal effort. The Topic at its best.
And I trust, to complete this article on The Topic at 60, I can close with the finale to my own 13-minute epic Autumn 1956, presented at that event, detailing some of the things that were going on in the world in at the time the Topic fist started. I hope my hopes come true, and that Long may we still gather and sing.
Europe divided with brutal repression
Now sixty more years have passed on .....
And all the world's problems continue
Long may we still gather and sing ...
John Waller, March 2017
Current Committee members as at March 2017
Tony Charnock - ex booker, MC at S/M sessions, current publicity, room organiser, performer
Recent Committee members
Rob Martin - MC, ex Committee chair, BCB broadcaster, occasional performer
Other current participants
Trevor Charnock - Ex Secretary and ex booker, now archivist and club historian, T-shirt organiser
Many of the above made specific written contributions to a series of questions I put to them, on which this article is largely based. Additional material from Joy Crampton, and the contributors to Rob and Molly's BCB programme on the Topic. Thanks to all.