“Behold Ye Ramblers” A new play by Neil Gore at the Alma Theatre, Clifton (14 May 2024)

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This was a warm and extraordinary performance. It captured the spirit of the Clarion clubs, a nearly – but not quite – lost world, dear to the hearts of many radical historians. It was brought to us by Neil Gore, a man of many parts it seems, actor, songsmith and musician, dramatist, compere, promoter, ticket collector, programme seller, lights technician, and slide projectionist.

This summer, Neil is AKA Robert Blatchford (1851-1943), likewise a man of many parts, and the hero of the piece. Blatchford was a working-class autodidact who became a successful journalist, affable to workers but pugnacious to the owners of the means of production, and an all-round force of nature. A memorable episode is where this doughty campaigner against injustice set the sights of his pen against the frivolous excesses of the rich, on one occasion particularly singling out the Countess of Warwick as a figure of pity for her sense of entitlement and decadence. When the furious socialite confronted him in person, our “ill-conditioned dreamy socialist” somehow so far won her over to the cause that she became the Red Countess, a passionate supporter of radical socialism for the rest of her life.

We are reminded that Blatchford’s censure was well targeted when counterpointed with the cheapness and horrors of working-class lives as revealed in The Clarion. Publishing the results of early investigative journalism, he raged against the intolerable conditions of chemical workers, toiling more than 70-hours per week in the toxic industrial furnaces of St Helens, or garment workers imprisoned in miserable factories where they paid for the materials, heating, and light to undertake piecework for a pittance. Yet “Behold Ye Ramblers”, tells a more joyful story of the Clarion movement with its sociable socialism. offering its followers an alternative world of rambling, cycling, glee clubs, and choirs in the present, and hope for the future. The Clarion paper inspired and coordinated this movement across the country, with its hearty combination of ideas, liberty, and pleasure. Julia Dawson’s celebrated Clarion van travelled the land spreading the message that “fellowship is life”. Here in Bristol, clarionettes would take off into the countryside on mass cycle rides, stopping for picnics, games, and to paste up the odd poster, proclaiming such truths as “The paradise of the rich is the hell of the poor”, and ‘Socialism means peace, Competition means war”.

The Clarion movement is deservedly celebrated in this play, and not just as a historical curiosity. While Blatchford is often overlooked, he was perhaps one of England’s most successful propagandists for moral-force socialism. He was able to present an aesthetically attractive vision in books such as Merrie England (1893), essays evoking a Victorian utopia which sits alongside William Morris’s News From Nowhere. He wrote in prose that was accessible, good-humoured, and life affirming, although it must be acknowledged, that was often uncomfortably nationalistic, especially in his later years. With weekly sales that rose to nearly 70, 000 at its peak, The Clarion was one of England’s best-selling socialist newspapers, at least until the appearance of the Daily Herald. The Clarion movement has been successful in its influence and longevity too. The Clarion newspaper continued for more than forty years, from 1891 to 1934. Its rambling clubs and campaigns for the right to roam pre-dated and led to the famous mass trespass at Kinder Scout of 1932. The expeditions celebrated in “Behold Ye Ramblers”, continue in the form of the present-day Red Rope. The National Clarion Cycling Club continues to thrive, and there is still a Clarion House at Pendle, Lancashire.

Disappointed that you missed this performance? We are reliably informed that there will be another opportunity when Townsend Theatre Productions return to Bristol on 29th-30th October 2024. Check out their website for further information about repeat runs of “Behold Ye Ramblers”, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, and other plays. The petite, 48-seater Alma theatre also deserves a round of applause.

Actor Neil Gore on stage aside old-style bicycle
Neil Gore of Townsend Productions as Robert Blatchford, Alma Theatre. Photo: Steve Hunt

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