The interview: Mike Harding
Comic, folk singer, author, broadcaster and playwright, Mike Harding is Lancashire-bound to talk poetry and more, prompting MALCOLM WYATT to ask a few tricky questions – not least about his Roses allegiance
From Keswick to Barnsley via Pocklington, Mike Harding has a busy few weeks ahead of him, with 17 dates in the diary for May alone.
It’s not a case of ‘folk singer-songwriter does stand-up’ though. Instead, the 71-year-old is offering poetry readings alongside excerpts and tales from his forthcoming autobiography, The Adventures of the Crumpsall Kid.
With his CV also mentioning plays, radio and TV broadcasts and a passion for fell-walking and fly-fishing, it’s hard to pigeon-hole Mike.
Once described by Billy Connolly as the ‘funniest man in England’, you can add multi-instrumentalist, photographer and filmmaker to that resume.
Drawing upon four published poetry anthologies, the ‘Grandfather of Folk’ is off to a number of small venues in the north of England, including Chorley Little Theatre.
“This isn’t my usual stand-up, although I did four of those a couple of years back – 20 nights each – and it was fun, great to be back on the road.
“It was also effortless. My friend Geoff did the driving while I got the train. It’s no fun anymore being on the M6 for three hours on a Friday for a half-hour journey.
“I had a new poetry book out a year or so back and did a couple of festivals. Geoff was impressed, said, ‘This show’s got legs’, and we decided to do this tour.
“In the meantime I signed a contract to write my autobiography with Michael O’Mara Books. I’ve done 106,000 words, have 4,000 to do, and I’m only up to my A-levels!
“It could end up being a trilogy, at least a duology. I’ll be reading from that, mostly funny stuff, and reading a few poems – a mixed evening of anecdotes and readings.”
Has Mike played Chorley Little Theatre before?
“Yes, way back, with Hamish Imlach. If I remember right, that night there were 30 glasses of brandy lined up in front of him, and he worked his way through. Amazing.
“This was the late ’60s. I didn’t drink before a show then and couldn’t drink during a show. I don’t know how he did it. You wouldn’t have thought he’d even had a drink.
“The folk scene in those days was full of characters like that. All very anarchic.”
It was in 1967 that Mike started telling jokes during a gig at Leeds University, filling in a few awkward gaps while his band, The Edison Bell Spasm Band, tuned up.
That patter became part of the act, and when the jokes dried up, he delved into a few real-life stories.
“The band came from the Radcliffe area, smashing lads, really good musicians, with a mate called Stef Hoyle on jug, now living around Chorley, John Hemingway on guitar, and Dave Hardy on washboard, who sadly died recently, far too young.
“We’d do university and pub gigs with this little jug band and John was taking a long time to tune up for Davey Graham’s Angi, so I started chatting to the audience.
“I told jokes, then ran out and started ad-libbing. That was the light-bulb moment when I realised, ‘This works’.
“I went on the road as a solo act and the first couple of gigs were dire. I was rubbish. I was so used to having the band behind me as a foil.
“I’d say, ‘Dave only discovered last week you should play washboard with thimbles, which is why he’s got such incredibly short fingers’.
“I soldiered on though, running a folk club in Blackley, working in a bookshop, eventually going back to university as a mature student.
“I had kids by then and paid my way through college working in folk clubs at night. By 1971, I’d got to the stage where I could either have gone into teaching with my degree or on the road.
“I gave teaching a year because I did enjoy it, but then I had a full diary for the next year, so it made no sense to pack it in. I was enjoying it, building up a following.
“Then in 1975 I made a ridiculous single about the Rochdale Cowboy….”
That was 40 years ago this August. So is he a one-hit wonder and proud?
“Aye! People ask if I get fed up being called the Rochdale Cowboy, but I remind them of George Formby being asked if he got fed up of being associated with Wigan.
“When George headed home from Blackpool, he always made a dog’s leg to go through Wigan.
“When he got to the middle of town, he pressed a button on his Rolls Royce window, stuck his head out and shouted, ‘Thanks very much Wigan!’
“I’ve not got a Rolls Royce, and don’t want one, but thanks very much the Rochdale Cowboy, which put me on the road doing theatre and TV and paid for my kids’ education. I’m very grateful for that.
“It was a daft summertime single, like Benny Hill’s Ernie. The b-side got more plays, Strangeways Hotel, but not on the radio – it was too bawdy for the average punter.
“It would have gone even higher in the charts if not for Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and huge confusion – people coming out of shops with the wrong song.
“Actually, I was on the island of Benbecula trout-fishing a couple of years back and in the pub that night this fella told me a woman at the post office wanted a word.
“Word had gone round. I went down and she said, ‘You got me in a lot of trouble. My husband sent me – and bear in mind it was a seven-hour boat trip from there – to get him a copy of Rhinestone Cowboy’.
“She said, ‘I went back with your single, and he was no’ pleased!’ I think they probably turned that copy into a plant pot with some hot water.”
I tend to associate Mike with a group of folk-singers-turned-comics who broke through around then, including Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Max Boyce and Chorley’s Phil Cool.
“It seemed to me we were there at the right time. TV is a monster that eats you up and spits you out and I think people were fed up of men in the velvet smoking jackets with big floppy ties and mother-in-law jokes.
“Some were absolutely brilliant, but audiences – as they always are – were looking for something fresh.”
Mike added that he was proud to have played a part in Phil Cool’s ‘discovery’.
“He’s one of the most talented men I’ve come across in my life. I saw Phil at the Band on the Wall in Manchester on this punk night, and he was just brilliant.
“I was living between Manchester and the Dales at the time and would often go for a last pint at The Band on the Wall, one of my favourite haunts at the end of the night.
“He followed this terrible punk band called Housewife and the Burglars. I was so knocked out.
“There were no props, but he could just do that with his face and his voice was perfect, with all the intonation and accents spot on.
“I went to the BBC a couple of days later and was friends with a producer there, Barry Bevan, and said, ‘You’ve got to go and see this bloke’.
It was the likes of Lonnie Donegan and the early skiffle bands that initially made Mike realise this was the life for him.
“Absolutely right, that and the Bert Weedon play-in-a-day guitar book.”
Does he have any memories of sharing a bill with The Beatles in those days?
“Well, it was obvious there was something incredibly different about them and bands like The Hollies.
“We also played with a band featuring Shane Fenton, who became Alvin Stardust, and he was a great man and a good entertainer.
“With The Beatles, it was obvious they had star quality and were very special.
“Even though we were on the same bill and they were only getting paid slightly more, they’d gone that extra mile.”
Did this Crumpsall lad ever think he’d still be out on the road doing something he loved at the age of 71? If he’d have carried on teaching, he’d have long since retired.
“I don’t want to put my feet up. I was up at six this morning working on the last bits and pieces of the book. I don’t ever want to retire.
“I’ve done books on photography, fly-fishing, walking the Himalayas and in Ireland, all things I enjoy doing. It’s tiring at times, hard, frustrating, but never felt like work.
“Married with two kids before my mature student days, I’d been doing various jobs – digging holes in the road, steel-erecting, boiler-scaling, dustman, road-digger, bus-guard, carpet-fitter, and got this job working in a chemical factory.
“I was sweeping the floor one day in my overalls in this big storage depot, and this foreman in a brown coat, a pocketful of pens and a clipboard was watching me.
“He said, ‘Who taught you how to sweep a floor? That’s not how you hold a brush’. He put his clipboard down, took the brush out of my hands and started sweeping towards him rather than away.
“I thought, that’s daft, you’re putting chemicals all over your feet. I copied him until he’d gone, then did it my way … Frank Sinatra worked at that factory as well.
“I thought no matter what happens to me in my life, I’ll never again be in a position where someone can come and take a brush out of my hand.
“It took a while, but I got there in the end. I’ve been very lucky. Since 1971 I’ve never worked for anyone else.
“I never had an agent, never had a manager, and my relationship with Geoff is one of friendship, working together on various projects.”
That initial hit single effectively gave him the springboard to play all over the world and go on to make more than 20 albums.
Others might know Mike better for work on cult children’s cartoon Dangermouse for Cosgrove Hall. And again he has a story about that.
“I had a cottage in Ireland and was asked to open an arts festival out there. I said no one will know who I am, but they said Seamus Heaney couldn’t come as he was ill, so I agreed to go along.
”There were around 600 people, mostly kids from sixth form down, and first I mentioned how I worked for the BBC and a folk programme and made various films.
“Then I said I also wrote the music for Dangermouse, and they went wild!”
Wasn’t he involved with Count Duckula too?
“Indeed, in fact it’s my voice at the end that says, ‘Duckula … Count Duckula!’
There’s the broadcasting too, and his BBC Radio 2 folk, roots and acoustic show won a huge audience.
And when that ended after 15 years, he started his own weekly internet show, seeing 500,000 downloads from more than 120 shows as of last year. It now goes out live across the airwaves in Canada, Australia and Ireland as well as on the web.
“Our show is the number one folk show in the world on Podomantic … and all done from a shed in Yorkshire”.
He clearly has an affection for his adopted Yorkshire – as he should after 40-plus years, although that might not go down too well in these parts.
“I’ve been there on and off since 1971. I’m what they call an agent provocateur, a Lancastrian in their midst.
“But Yorkshire folk are like Lancashire folk – north country, and there’s a marked difference between that and the south”.
He didn’t get the best start in life, and one of his more poignant songs, Bombers’ Moon, is written about his father, killed returning from an RAF mission just four weeks before Mike’s birth in 1944. He wrote a related play too.
“This wasn’t just morbid curiosity. There’s always been a sense of loss in my life. When I was a kid everyone else had a dad. Thankfully, their dads made it back.
“After 30 missions you were usually stood down. His crew was due to come off but then volunteered for a mission, and were shot down coming back.
“I’ve been to the aerodrome where they flew out. It was a curious thing standing in that RAF control tower in Lincolnshire thinking back to that night he went down that runway right in front of me.
“I thought about this phrase Bombers’ Moon. It hadn’t occurred that was double-edged. You could see the landscape but it gave the enemy clear sight of you.
“I sat at the piano and ’44 in Bomber County’ came to me along with the tune. I had it down in a short space of time, but really it took half an hour and a lifetime.”
Mike reckons that it was his Mum’s resilience and neighbourhood community spirit that helped get his family through.
“My mother was one of that band of women that mourned and grieved but then got on with it.
“We had it tough, but there was a great atmosphere and sense of community. Those who came back from the war just wanted a decent life for their children.
“That’s how we ended up with our NHS and education system, for those who had given six years of life to defeat Hitler and now wanted a different world.
“My mother was on a war widow’s pension and my Irish grandmother, also living with us, also had one – neither of them very good.
“We slept under overcoats and I never had a holiday with my family before I left home at 18. When I joined the scouts, my Mum made my uniform.
“There’s a piece in the book about going to Whittle-le-Woods, Chorley, for my first scout camp, having to carry my stuff in a kit-bag, as we couldn’t afford a rucksack.”
That spirit remains in Mike, who seems to have worked hard for his success.
“Years ago I was having a pint with Billy Connolly after a play. We were talking about someone who’d not quite made it, despite being in the same situation as us.
“Billy said, ‘Yeah, he was incredibly talented, but he never went that extra mile’.
“The difference between genius and being very good is sometimes 10,000 hours of practise. I’d work really hard at what I was trying to do with a show.”
Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, with his own blog at http://writewyattuk.com/
Mike Harding – An Evening of Poetry is at Chorley Little Theatre on Wednesday, May 20 (7.30pm), with tickets £14/£12 from Malcolm’s Musicland on 01257 264362. For more details about Mike Harding and his work, head to http://www.mikeharding.co.uk/