J.B. Barrington is from Salford and is equally blessed with a warm charm, a rapier wit and a real appreciation of the value of words. He has a distinct and unique style which comes straight from the heart. JB’s knack for reflecting the thoughts & feelings, highs & lows and hopes & dreams of working class Britain can be felt through the lines of such wonderfully penned poems as ‘There’s A Reason’, ‘When The World Was Young – And So Was I’ and ‘Spanish Dolls’.
JB Barrington’s live performances have all received great reviews and he’s he’s managed to create a fresh buzz for the spoken word among fans of poetry new and old.
In the interview below JB talks about his poetry, his inspirations, his favorite music and his life, as well as his future plans…
Louder Than War: Hello JB. Can you tell us initially what it was that inspired you to write poetry, how you were moved to pen your first poem?
J.B. Barrington: It was probably my love of the written word which, initially, came from reading the lyrics to songs when I was a kid. I can distinctively remember the first time I was moved by a line, or should I say a couple of lines. It was Little Boy Soldiers by The Jam off the album Setting Sons.
The lines were:
‘…they send you home in pine overcoat, with a letter to your Mum, saying found enclosed one son one medal and a note to say he won’
…I was only 8 years old, but those lines affected me and I remember not really knowing what was meant by a pine overcoat so I asked my Mam and she said it probably means a coffin. (I can remember her saying it actually!) Even at that early age those lines made me aware of the horror of war and the expendability of human beings, if you know what I mean. I reckon it was that that made me want to write, I wanted to do the same for someone else, give someone the same feeling and evoke similar emotions to the ones I’d experienced to those lyrics and others like them.
Writing stuff down, whether it be in a verse, song or story format is something I’ve always done, but I didn’t really do anything with it until a couple of years ago. I’d tried my hand at writing songs but I couldn’t sing and it was my Girlfriend that found some old books of mine full of poems (ramblings of a mad man I call them) and she encouraged me to go out and perform them.
Where would you say your writing and poetry mostly comes from? Is it personal, political, humorous, all three or more?
It’s all of them … my live set has been described as a ‘roller coaster of emotions’ because its starts humorous, moves into my politics, takes you into some personal stuff, then brings you back into the humour (or so one review said). I don’t really have a particular genre I tend to favour, it’s generally what’s in my head at the time. I can have a line, or maybe two or three lines for a while about something, maybe something that’s pissed me off, something that’s tickled me or even something that’s affected me personally, either recently or at some point over the last 42 years of my time on this planet.
From where do you draw your inspiration? What influences your style of writing or subject matter?
That’s a tough question … there’s tons of inspirations and loads of influences but definitely I’d say my Mam is an inspiration, her humour and her kindness, coupled with her strong work ethic (before she retired) and her outlook on life gives me so much material. When I ring her up you can’t a word in edgeways … only the other day I rang her and it seems every time I ring her someone’s died and she’s tells me about it. She said ‘everyone’s dying ya know … next time you ring me it’ll be me’ which is awful but in the context of the conversation so funny if you know what I mean. She’s brilliant, a true working class hero.
As I say, there were loads of other inspirations growing up on the Madams Wood estate in Little Hulton, where I’m from, in Salford. I remember getting a job collecting glasses in the Armitgae Labour Club, I’d be about 15 or maybe 16 and it was around 1986 / 87. Just listening to the ex-dockers in the club, taking in their stories and the way they went about their lives … I remember these guys were literally slung on the scrapheap under Thatcher and I remember seeing a kind of role reversal where the wives were suddenly the breadwinners cos these blokes just couldn’t get work … I’ve a poem called The Vault in my book that was written from lots of little notes I’d made just listening to them. Little things, like I remember one of the wives walking into the Vault in the club with a fur coat and someone shouted ‘Alright Sheila, new fur coat? Has your Graham had a Yankee up’ … twenty odd years later and it’s in the poem!
Yes, but it’s not just music that inspires me or has inspired me. There’s also people like Malcolm X who I found by listening to Public Enemy. The lyrics of Chuck D opened up a whole new world to me that no teacher at any school I went to ever taught me about. Tony Benn is another inspiration and as I got older it was Bill Hicks, George Carlin and more recently Doug Stanhope.
Musically my first love was The Jam, then from that I got into the Small Faces, The Kinks, The Who, Tamla Motown etc etc … as a kid I got right into the Mod thing during the revival period post-punk (I wanted to be a punk but my Mam & Dad wouldn’t let me wear the clothes) plus Mods looked better, much smarter ha. For me though I wanted my bands to say something to me lyrically, The Jam did this perfectly, then I remember Billy Bragg coming along and his lyrics opened up a world of politics that resonated with me and made sense of the world and surrounding I was living in. Then along came The Housemartins and the lyrics of Paul Heaton which spoke volumes to me also and I would say my writing became more and more political. Public Enemy, as mentioned earlier, and the writings of Chuck D, plus the lyrics of KRS One also had an effect on me. Between that time and more recently I felt there was a void, a lack of bands and / or writers with something to say. I never really got the ‘Madchester’ thing and I didn’t really care for ‘Acid House’ and smiley t shirts, although I went along with it cos it was a buzz driving from service stations in a Ford Cortina to find a warehouse in Blackburn whilst trying to dodge Police roadblocks … it was fun for a while.
Recently though, especially in Salford & Manchester, something exciting has began to happen, something I am proud to be a part of. Salford City Radio has been brilliant in supporting and playing my poems and there’s been some great support from the DJs on there like Tony Thornborough, Zac Peach and Daz Earl. Bands like The Moods, who if I’m honest, should have all their lyrics on the national curriculum, are finally putting out fantastic music and they talk about what’s happening in the world and why we should wake up. The Joint and Death To The Strange are another two bands with great lyrics and wonderful melodies that excite me, as are The Minx who are like a goody bag of The Clash, SLF, The Jam, The Pistols and The Ramones all rolled into one. I’m proud to say I’ve performed alongside them all doing poems in between their sets. Exciting times indeed … sorry, what was the question again? Ha, I do tend to go off on one!
Both you and John Cooper Clarke hail from Salford, do you feel, like JCC, that you’re introducing poetry to some people for the first time, like he did with that late 70s punk crowd?
Introducing people to poetry for the first time yes, that’s one of things I like. I did a gig in Wakefield on Friday just gone for the GMB Union, it was an event for their young members and quite a few of those in attendance came up to me afterwards and said when they saw a poet was on the bill they didn’t fancy it, but after hearing it they loved it, which is great. I’m the same if I was to be honest. I’ve only been out and about performing my poems over the last 18 months or so and before that you would have never got me to a poetry night and I would have rolled my eyes had I seen a poet on a bill, especially on a band night. I think the perception of poetry is it’s all middle class Marks & Spencer frocks, corduroy slacks and Aran jumpers and it’s not … well it can be, depends where you go.
We’re in a totally different era now to the late 70s when J.J.C. started. This is an age of the internet and trash TV so do you feel poetry as a whole still has a future among the x-factor generation of today? Is it all about presenting it in a different way, something more updated and relevant to them, much like your own work?
For me it still works in the same way as I’m sure if worked for John in the 70s, in fact it’s much easier now to promote your work with social media etc. etc. etc. The live performance side of it is the same except there’s one downside for me in that when people watch your gig they do it through the back of a fuckin mobile phone! I wanna stop and shout:
‘This is live, this is now, watch it now not through your camera, is this gig gonna be better when you get home on your laptop’
…but it’s politeness, of which I still have some left, that prevents me (almost). I appreciate technology and I get that people like to ‘record the moment’. We’re living in a big YouTube / Facebook / Twitter world and I suppose recording a gig on your phone and putting it on your channel is like when we bought a tour t shirt or a programme (remember them) to say we were at that gig. I also like to think that poetry can and should encourage critical thinking which for me is hugely important, for example, if critical thinking was as popular as X Factor then bankers would go to prison and Marijuana smokers would be set free.
I guess you can also argue the internet is a great platform for any artist as people from all over the world can find your work?
I’m not so sure about “all over the world” although I have sent a book to someone in Argentina. Yes, the internet via social media is great. However, like everything else it has it’s downside. For example, getting people to get off the settee and come to a live experience when they sit at home and hope it turns up on YouTube or Facebook. For me the old fashioned way of getting out performing live still works the best because people are there and they’re listening – and word of mouth is still the best way of getting your work known. I’ve lost count of the miles I’ve driven over the last 18 months or so, driving up and down motorways for 5 minute slots at an open mic, but each and every one of them has been worth its weight in gold. See, for each of those few minutes performing you might get one or two, maybe three or even more people into your work and they tell one or two or three people more, but you have to put the effort in! It’s a working class thing as well I feel … if you want something you get off your arse and go out and get it, nobody’s gonna knock on your door and offer you the world.
So what have been some of the most popular and memorable poems you’ve written would you say? My personal faves are ‘The Painter (Poem For Fathers Day)’, ‘When the World was Young – And So Was I’ and ‘Me Mam Dunt Like To Text’ which is funny but true, some thing that most of us can all relate too … but which poems have had the biggest reactions as well which are the poems you’re most proud of writing?
On a personal level First Of The Ninth chokes me every time I read it, whether as part of a live performance or just to myself. She Holds His Hand has had audience member in tears, including my Mam, my Girlfriend and her Mam when I first read it to them. Spanish Dolls is probably my favourite as it takes me back to the front room I grew up in and the idea around the poem is if the room and all its ornaments over the years could talk, what stories could they tell … type of thing … you’d have to listen to it.
Don’t Look Down and There’s A Reason are popular from a political viewpoint and go down well wherever I perform them, but Things Me Mam Used To Say seems to be a crowd pleaser … primarily because I think everyone can relate to it.
There’s a strong Manchester / Northern vibe about your poetry would you say, more so when you deliver them yourself … how important is delivery to your poems and poetry in general?
My Salford / Northern vibe? Dunno really, I just deliver my poems with the accent I’ve acquired due to where I was born and brought up. Image to me is important, clothes etc, the look … it’s a Mod thing. I think coming from a working class background clothes and looking smart is an important part of our culture. Remember, we dress down for work and dress up for leisure, whereas the Middle Classes dress up for work and down for leisure.
I also like to link up the poems in a performance with a few stories in between. I’m by no means a stand up comic but I try and add some humour along the way.
This summer has seen you play a number of gigs, from the pubs to the festivals, but where are the best places to have a night of poetry and what have been some of the highlights live so far … you’ve just done a show with Terry Christian haven’t you?
Yes, I supported Terry on his Naked Confessions of a Recovering Catholic stand up show in York just recently. It was a great night, his show is brilliant and very funny. As for best nights for Poetry there is ROMP (Rotherham Open Mic Performance) run by a great poet called Gav Roberts and my mate Jim Higo runs a great night in Hull called Away With Words at Union Mash Up on Princes Ave. I also run a night in Manchester called I Swear I Was There at The Nags Head just off Deansgate, the next one is end of Jan 2014.
There’s been lots of highlights for me and each and every gig is just as special as the next. Cheltenham Poetry Festival and the Wytchwood Festival were good, as was my recent performance as part of the Humber Mouth Festival in Hull. My best achievement so far, for me, was my Greater Manchester Fringe show back in July at The Kings Arms in Salford. The show was called Words For Class Heroes and it was a collection of poems and stories telling tales of Salford dockers of the late 70s, the terrace fashions of the 80s and the chemical explosions of the early 90s in gritty yet heartwarming poetry performance of love, life and loss. I will be doing it again in the new year at different venues.
I played Salford Music Festival earlier this year and that was fantastic … it’s a superb event run by Ed Blaney, a fellow Salfordian and great musician.
I already have two books available, the most recent is called Words For Class Heroes and it was put together initially to sell at my Manchester Fringe show of the same name. I still have some copies left if anyone would like one.
Hopefully I will do some more support slots for Terry Christian and I will definitely be playing in support to The Moods, Death To The Strange, The Joint and The Minx in the new year.
I’m currently in talks with Cheltenham Poetry Festival for a headline slot there sometime next year and as mentioned previously I plan to take my Words For Class Heroes show to some venues starting in Manchester in January.
For a recent review of JBs live show check out ‘Greater Manchester Fringe‘.
All words by Carl Stanley. More writing by Carl on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.