As performance poet Attila the Stockbroker heads for the North West, MALCOLM WYATT discusses life on the circuit with the tireless campaigner for social justice
It’s been some journey for Attila the Stockbroker, who publishes his autobiography Arguments Yard this September.
This is a poet who toured East Germany before the Wall came down and was part of the first punk gig in Stalinist Albania, yet also once stood in for Donny Osmond at a gig.
Times have changed, but Attila – real name John Baine – has at least two more pressing live ambitions after 35 years on the road: to play Pyongyang and Southport.
Initially championed by legendary DJ John Peel, Attila continues to tour the world as a self-sustaining one-man cottage industry. He’s performed more than 3,000 gigs in 24 countries, releasing around 20 LPs and CDs and seven books.
Reviewing his first album, the NME’s Don Watson said he’d rather gnaw through his own arm than listen to it again. Yet that was water off a duck’s back for this Morning Star columnist and ex-NME, Sounds, Time Out, Guardian and Independent scribe.
He describes Arguments Yard as ‘social history and personal story combined: an activist’s journey through great political battles and movements of recent times’.
From Rock Against Racism to the Miners’ Strike, Wapping, Red Wedge, Poll Tax and Gulf War campaigns, he’s ‘been there, done the benefit and worn the t-shirt’.
Tours have taken him all over the UK, Europe, Australasia, North America and the old Eastern bloc, and he’s played every Glastonbury since 1983.
Attila organises his own festival, Glastonwick, and recently helped save his beloved Brighton & Hove Albion FC from oblivion.
“I don’t have much of a relationship with the conventional entertainment industry. I do everything myself, book my own gigs, put out my own CDs and books,” he says.
“I still do around 100 gigs a year, all over the world. Most mainstream media is scared of my politics and general volatility. But I have a great time.
“I’ve never played Southport before. I’m fascinated to see who turns up, then see how many of those who do have any idea what they’re coming to. They’re possibly going to get a bit of a shock.”
There is another reason for his visit (and Saturday’s Glossop date) – Brighton are at Blackburn Rovers tomorrow: “I organise gigs around my club!”
His first gig as a poet was in Harlow, 1985, at the age of 22.
He says: “I’d been a bass player in punk bands, but had always written poetry and songs on the mandolin and wanted to earn my living off it.
“I got this idea it would work getting on stage between bands, shouting poetry. I was doing this job in the city for a stockbroker, hence the name.
“I went down quite well and it wasn’t long before I was on the front of Melody Maker and getting sessions for John Peel.
“I don’t have a self-doubt gene. I’m incredibly motivated. Help from Peel in the early days and a deal with Cherry Red ensured albums came out.
“That set me on my way, and when I was at uni in Kent on the ents committee I learned how to organise gigs.”
From Albania and East Germany to gigs for his mum’s WI and the Oxford Union, he’s played some bizarre shows. Anywhere still on his list?
“I’d like to play Pyongyang. Normally 50 to 100 people turn up. All I ever wanted to do was spread ideas, meet interesting people and make enough to live on. I’m happy with that.”
“I describe myself as a social surrealist. One of my favourite quotes is from Mary Poppins, ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’.
“I aim to give people a good evening, but lots to think about. The best compliment I get is ‘you made me laugh and cry in the same hour.’”
Attila’s dad, who died when he was 10, introduced him to Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and that fuelled an interest in poetry.
“My first real gig was at primary school, doing a Belloc poem and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Augustus is a Chubby Lad. I always loved words.
“I’m fired up politically, but there’s no way I aim to shove ideas down people’s throats.
“I want to make people think, then draw their own conclusions, at the same time having a bloody good time!”
His more personal work includes a tribute to his Mum’s fight against Alzheimer’s, The Long Goodbye, and the similarly-poignant Never Too Late, about a difficult relationship with his stepfather.
“Until two years before he died we just didn’t get on, but his efforts to look after Mum brought us closer together.
“However long it takes – in our case, 37 years – it’s never too late to tell someone you love them.”
For the latest from Attila, go to www.attilathestockbroker.com. And for ticket details for The Hungry Monk show, call 01704 809355.