Helen McCookerybook isn’t exactly a name you’re going to forget in an instant, is it? Especially if it’s been bandied about on the UK’s punk scene since the 1970s. Growing up in the North East of England, a young Helen Reddington headed south to study at Brighton Polytechnic where she joined motley bunch The Chefs on bass and vocal duties. And this shift from the river to the sea feels very poignant for an artist who released a record of the very same name — the Sea — earlier this year. This evening, however, she is settled in on land amongst the dark wood of a North London boozer with a bowl full of chips, a hot cup of Yorkshire tea and a soft mustard knit. It’s here she begins to reflect on the past few years and her break from performing some ten years ago; a feat hard to envisage with a new record tucked under her belt.
“I was living life as a suburban housewife really, I hadn’t played for 25 years. My guitar was hidden under the bed covered in a layer of dust,” she admits. In the time the dust had been building up, Reddington had been writing and lecturing in production and cultural theory on popular music, and it was one of her students who tempted her back onto the stage: “I made a decision I was going to see every single band the students played in. This student, Jamie McDermott of The Irrepressibles, calls me up and I say, ‘When are you playing next, Jamie?’ and he says, ‘Oh, two weeks time. Get your guitar out and we’ll play some tunes.'”
Taking to the stage with a trembling hand, this impromptu performance led to another gig offer; a familiar feeling to Reddington, who had encountered such spirit back in Brighton: “It was just like punk. You play one accidental gig and then get offered another.” From tentative opening act to setting these skeleton tracks to tape, Reddington captured an album’s worth of material, and then went onto the next. Meeting another musician, Helen toured for the next seven or so years until that broke early last year: “I was heartbroken, but I knew the thing that had always rescued me was writing and recording.” Sending herself back to the studio, Helen finished the last of these most recent tracks around Christmas, posting on Facebook in January to ask if anyone could think of any suitable places to do a solo tour and couldn’t believe the response: “I was just inundated. Some people were saying come and play with us, quite a lot of it was here’s this venue and so I got to work. I just thought no one’s going to do this for me, I’ve got to do it.”
This DIY attitude has been a constant for Reddington. Indeed, feeling empowered to effect change is nothing new for someone who saw Rock Against Racism in the making back home in Brighton. “It was a culture of misfits. There were university students, art school students like me. There were lots of black punks. There was a whole generation saying we reject all of these things and we don’t think it’s right. And of that, I feel really proud of our generation.” Back then in 1970s, race relations in Britain were in crisis. This was a real surge of power towards the far right and immigrants lived in fear of violence. Not too dissimilar to some of the sentiments being felt some forty years later. “What makes it so impossible for us to sort our human race out? It shouldn’t be so hard?” questions Reddington, as she takes another sip from her mug of tea. It’s something the artist knows the power of as a performer: “That’s very important to have running alongside what you do, if you are lucky enough to have people coming to a gig. To keep a perspective on it and think is there anyway I can utilise this.”
Reddington’s resilience is a driving factor to all of her projects. And like any good Chef will attest, she has her fingers in many pies, everything from book writing to film directing. Indeed, over a fresh brew, Helen explains her recent foray into directing with long time friend and fellow post-punk alumna, Gina Birch of ’70s noiseniks The Raincoats.
“Gina had been making a film about the Raincoats for ages, and it was proving very difficult to finish. We were talking and she said, ‘Well, I’ve got all this extra footage where I’m asking people all kinds of things about punk and there’s nowhere else for this footage to go, why don’t we interview some of the women?’” Fired up by the prospect of a new project to lend a hand to, Reddington channeled some of her own entrepreneurship teaching into getting the film out. And if it’s one thing entrepreneur’s pride themselves it’s aiming high: “I thought right, let’s go to the British Library and let’s ask Andy Linehan if we can show our film’, she recalls. “So I wrote to Andy, we have this film ‘Stories from the She Punks’ — I made up a name — and he said, come and talk to me.”
Unknown to Reddington and Birch, 2016 was the 40th anniversary of punk, and the pair’s work-in-progress documentary would appear as part of the Punk London listings, a year of events, gigs, films, talks and exhibits celebrating its heritage and influence in London. Chaired by broadcaster and writer (Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits) Zoë Howe and with panelists Jane Woodgate (the Mo-Dettes) and Tessa Pollitt (the Slits), Reddington admits they weren’t really sure of the reaction the film would received: “It’s such hard graft, and I think we were so absorbed with making it, we had no concept of what it would be like. These people started coming in and we thought ‘Oh, there’s actually quite a lot of people here’ and you look, and the place is nearly full. People started laughing and you could feel all this warmth. It was like a radiator.”
Reddington emits that very same warmth when you sit with her, rapt as she recounts stories from the road (“When I am driving to the venue at this age, I just think what the fuck am I doing. I don’t know if anyone will come”) lifelong friendships (“For all of Ari Up’s feistiness and fierceness, there was a side of her that was really well brought up and wouldn’t trash somebody’s party”) and the real changemakers on the scene (“Quite often guys trumpet their feminism. The best male feminists don’t need to talk about it, and Robert Lloyd (The Nightingales) is one of those”). Talk turns to the new record, The Sea, and her relationship with water stemming from her youth up the River Tyne: “I love water and even when I’ve had a bad day teaching, sometimes I would just get a train down to Brighton and sit on the beach in the winter, with a cup of tea. And just look at the water, it’s so wild. I love the wilderness. I love untameable things.” Unsurprisingly, The Sea is soaked in aquatic allegories; the upstrums of “Bird Talk” conjuring up waterfall blues and babbling brooks while “Women of the World” — a cry for sisterhood — beckoning in the sea change on the horizon.
In fact, this sentiment of sisterhood is probably the thing that you take away from meeting Helen McCookerybook. It’s palpable. You can see it in her daughters’ cover design and custom embroidery or as she expands about her new books plans focused on women in production. Reddington has been a lightening rod for other women through the years and continues to emit that light. “I have learned how to do these things so I’m not going to be frightened of how I am going to manage putting them into operation. I want to encourage and inspire people by showing them what other women are capable of and how they overcome the obstacles,” she admits, matter-of-factly. It’s unsurprising then to find “Women of the World” rings out as a peaceful call to arms with Reddington’s crips and candid vocals over blissful fretwork: “Sail a sea of change, sisters / Join in our song, it’s a song of hope, for together we are strong / Reach out your hands because the future is here, it’s ours to have and hold.” As our time with Reddington comes to an end, we muse over this quiet uprising: “I call it DIY, but it’s not just me. If I get to the age where I am sitting in an old person’s home, there’s an awful lot of thank you letters I am going to need to write.”
Multi-tasking to the bitter end, Reddington is a tour-de-force in spirit and strength. A change is in the air, sisters, and there’s an artful Chef ready to cook up a storm.
The Sea is out now via Helen’s Bandcamp page along with a 16 page Illustrated A4 chord/lyrics book. Catch Helen McCookerybook supporting The Nightingales at Seabright Arms, London on Wednesday, October 18th.
Top photo by Ruth Tidmarsh
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