Peter Raynard introduces the new collection of poems by Jane Burn.
How much does history affect individual lives? How much of it is mere backdrop – a news item, a documentary, film, book, etc. you see or read after dinner or before you go to bed? If you are a middle-class white male, the shocks of change are rarely felt personally, and your story has well and truly been told. But if you are a working-class person who lived during the 1980s or who is experiencing austerity in the 2010s, your history is being repeated. It has rarely been told outside the smattering of kitchen sink, social realist dramas on TV – documentaries the middle class commission when an historical event is far enough away for a mainstream sensibility.
But who tells your story if you are not one of this privileged demographic? One of the voices rarely heard is that of working-class women, in terms of both the impact of major historical events as well as their day-to-day experience. There have been films and books such as Educating Rita, Made in Dagenham, or Brick Lane, and plays by the likes of Shelagh Delaney, but compared to the morass of other such stories, these are a drop in the ocean.
Society is designed for men and boys – just look across playing fields at weekends, in pubs, at sporting events, and you will see the majority of participants are men, there to enjoy themselves ‘after a hard week’s work’. But where are the facilities for girls and women? How did women live and enjoy themselves against the expectations of being a housewife during the latter half of the 20th century? How do they live now?
In a remarkable, powerful collection, Jane Burn has told her story and more, in a series of poems (as well as through her beautiful illustrations) which are both personal and political. Her story is of a love of horses (‘You ought not to be on their backs until you are in their hearts’), of drawing, writing, reading (even though told, ‘reading would just make me fatter’). Growing up working class in Yorkshire during the 1980s, the miners’ strike defined your experience and how you saw the world from then on. Like war, capitalism is cyclical, and political struggle, equality and poverty are again in the news – even though for many, it never went away.
Jane’s poems cover the last few decades in the portrayal not only of her own experience but of those around her – friends (‘My friend lives hand to mouth, down on the bones of her arse’), family, bosses, animals. But the poems also cover issues of female identity (‘I still dream of flying from it – of unzipping my skeleton, letting loose the bundle of bones, limbs shaken loose’), mental health, motherhood, work (‘Life is a tatty string of hours – of shifts, shops, driving, dusting, cooking, collecting the kids’), and ‘knick-knacks’ bought and turned into beautiful things (‘This clutter, in its corrosion was a shiny something once. The beauty is in how it changes.’). The language is razor sharp and fresh as a handpicked strawberry you eat before paying.
This is a vital collection for our time. Are things worse than the 80s? Have a read, then decide, you won’t be disappointed. As one of the titles says: these poems are ‘Sentences to Survive In’.
One of These Dead Places is available here.
Peter Raynard is a writer and editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives. He has been widely published and his debut collection Precarious will be published by Smokestack Books in April 2018. His poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto will be published by Culture Matters in May, 2018.