A 17-year-old who ‘couldn’t find Spain on a map’ walked across the Pyrenees to join the Spanish civil war’s freedom fighters. Folk trio the Young’uns explain how Johnny Longstaff’s extraordinary life inspired their latest album
It began nearly four years ago in Clevedon. We were in the North Somerset coastal town to do a gig. After the show, a man approached us. People often do; we love to hear their responses to our songs. The man introduced himself as Duncan and handed us two pieces of paper.
One was a photograph from the 1930s of a scruffy teenager selling newspapers on a street corner. “That’s my dad,” he said. The second was a list. “That’s what he did.” It read like a checklist of working-class struggle in the 20th century. Hunger marches, mass trespasses, the Battle of Cable Street, travelling to Spain to fight against the fascists in the Spanish civil war.
Because the three of us in the Young’uns shared the same birthplace as his dad – Stockton-on-Tees – and because we’d sung about the fight against fascism there, Duncan hoped we might be inspired to write a song about his dad, Johnny Longstaff.
It felt like we’d discovered a forgotten working-class hero. We wanted to know more.
Duncan bombarded us with treasures from his father’s life. Johnny Longstaff’s entire library of Spanish civil war literature arrived at my door, his name and rank written neatly inside every cover and the margins filled with his furious “corrections” – typically “That didn’t happen – I was there!”
Next came his dad’s unpublished memoirs including stories of childhood poverty in Stockton – imagine being so hungry that you steal candles from a church to eat them. Johnny’s photo archive brought the people and events we’d been reading about to life. I loved that because he’d learned to drive in the desert in a tank during the war he was a menace on the roads well into middle-age.