“This area has a history of people looking out for each other,” explains Ross Cameron, guitarist with pop-rock behemoths Bang Bang Romeo, who recently toured with megastar Pink. Cameron hails from the recently flood-hit Doncaster: he grew up – as did I – down the road, past the Royal Infirmary, then the rugby ground, in the village of Armthorpe. People here know all about people getting though things together.
“It’s just the way it is and the way it always has been,” he says. “Maybe we don’t think anyone else is looking out for us, so we try much harder to have each other’s backs…”
Extreme weather has decimated vast areas of this proud part of south Yorkshire. When the River Don burst its banks two weeks ago, more than 1,200 houses and businesses had to be evacuated as a months’ worth of rain fell in 24 hours. When residents and business owners were allowed to return, they did so to carnage. Furniture and possessions ruined. And the damage can’t just be viewed as monetary. Just this Saturday gone, as water begins to return to regular levels, the body of an as yet unidentified man was found near Barnby Dun. He’d be submerged for two weeks.
The crisis isn’t yet over. Heavy rainfall is expected for the rest of the month. You might not have heard. If this were happening in Tunbridge Wells, you would have.
Doncaster has a motley roll call of showbiz alumni: Jeremy Clarkson, ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’ singer Tony Christie, opera singer Lesley Garrett… More recently, NME fave Yungblud broke out, but it’s rare for a band from these parts to do so – despite Doncaster being spitting distance from the Sheffield streets that bore the Arctic Monkeys and Pulp, or the myriad of bands that call Leeds home. I mean, even York had Shed 7.
At this moment, though, Bang Bang Romeo are this town’s local heroes. Debut album ‘Heartbreakers Guide To The Galaxy’ is out now. Tonight they’re hosting their own festival of sorts to – as Cameron puts it – “help our town rebuild itself.” They’re calling it ‘Flood Help!’
“It says what it is,” laughs Ross. “And besides, all that matters is that we help people…” They’ve had some help themselves, calling in favours from those they’ve crossed paths with on their travels. Kasabian donated gig tickets for a raffle, as did fun punks Idles and rapper Example, who recently guested on Bang Bang Romeo’s song ‘Love Yourself’. The festival is taking place in Armthorpe – which makes sense, as you’ll learn.
And it couldn’t come at more important time. This is a town on its knees.
In Bentley, a particularly affected Doncaster neighborhood, lives local resident Kevin, who is aghast by the turn of events. He describes residents of the area as “forgotten people”. He and his neighbors have been here before: 12 years ago in 2007. People here are furious that promises to build flood defenses last time round seemingly have been broken.
“It has been totally devastating again,” he says. “We are back in that same place again of losing everything. There is some frustration about how much support we got compared to other communities.” As he shifts from one foot to another, bubbles emerge from beneath his feet. “But we have shown that we can get through this together…”
Between 1916 – when the local pit, Markham Main, was first sunk – and 1996, when its gates were finally shut, Armthorpe was a pit village. Many conflicts of the strike were played out here.
Ross Cameron attended Armthorpe Comprehensive. On his way there each morning, he’d see reminders of the conflict for dignity and for a future that had once taken place there. There was the building which, for decades after, bore the slogan, ‘We will not forget the scabs’, daubed on the wall in white emulsion, an ominous hangover from the days when picket lines formed in and around communities.
After Michael Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade, announced in 1992 that the pit would be closed, protesting women would guard the gates until that day came. Ross would see them most mornings on the way to school, too. The fight for the pits is now over. As a population ages, it is to many a dwindling memory. But Ross remembers enough to be confident that the community would similarly unite in the face of floods.
“When the rain started falling and the banks of the River Don broke,” he says. “I knew instantly we were going to have to do something to help people out. There’s been proper devastation there. People’s lives have been affected in the worst ways. People have lost everything…”
As guitarist in Bang Bang Romeo, Cameron is in more of a position to help than most. There’s a joke within the local scene that most bands from Doncaster rebrand as being from Sheffield at the very first opportunity, but that’s far from the case with his band
That they’ve done this – let alone how they’ve done this – is remarkable. This summer they were personally invited by Pink to support her across Europe, including at her Wembley Stadium shows. The sight of the band’s singer Stars, lungs like giant fireplace bellows, belting out unashamedly pop songs about queer pride and transphobia – think Beth Ditto meets locally born Brian Blessed – was the sort of sight anyone who cares about the subversive power and the mighty glory of pop music should cherish.
And so to the festival, the most exciting thing to happen to Armthorpe since a local lad claimed he’d seen a tiger running loose in nearby fields (an actual thing that happened and that resulted in the local newsagents selling toy tigers for a strange few weeks).
Before Bang Bang Romeo take to the stage, punters congregate at the venue, Armthorpe’s Coronation Club (or the “bottom club” as Ross and others from the village prefer to call it, that being roughly where the club lies in the metaphysical map of the village that exists in their minds). On the street outside, a pigeon is trying to eat a Lucozade bottle. A man on a mobility scooter attempts to ascend a curb 10 times before finally giving up and driving away.
Kids are running around in face paint. Skidding on their knees across the dancefloor. Then the local football team, Doncaster Rovers, pop in. There’s a brilliant moment where first team manager Darren Moore goes to talk about the importance of local institutions helping the community they exist within. Just as he does, someone wins on the fruit machine. It’s a big win.
But people are spending money, donating money and bidding on the aforementioned prizes in the charity raffle.
“This is what it’s like up here,” says Ross, “we try to look out for each other. Pitch in. Communities matter. It’s been proven time and time again that we have to look after each other and if anyone else helps it’s a bonus…”
This, coming days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was chastised by a local woman for “taking too long” to arrive and lend his support to the town, feels especially poignant.
The evening ends with Bang Bang Romeo playing to a packed ‘bottom club’ – and with £8,000 in the bank to be shared with those who needs it in the days to come. The day has been testament to the eternally inspiring nature of music, bringing people together, for the common good.
“That’s exactly it,” says Ross as we catch him packing up his gear, a far cry from backstage at Wembley Stadium. “Music has allowed this to happen today,” he says, while Stars poses for selfies with a bunch of little girls. “It’s given some people a bit of hope and brought them together. There’s a lot about music that highlights the best that people can be…”
If you want to donate to Bang Bang Romeo’s appeal to help those affected by the Doncaster floods, you can do so here