Fran Lock attacks the Government's policies towards asylum-seekers, Travellers, and Black Lives Matter protesters, and shows how poetry can be a site of solidarity, community, and challenge. Image above: Pigeon Proletariat, by Steev Burgess
I no longer hate Priti Patel. Wait, I'll unpack that statement: hate has an edge and an energy to it; you can do something with it, it's a fire you feed. I dread Priti Patel. I dread her like the weather, like a cyclone or a storm. I dread her like an earthquake, like a flood, as something inevitable and utterly exhausting; something that can neither be evaded or withstood. Each time Priti Patel appears on my screen, every time she opens her mouth a little more poison seeps into the world, and a little more light is leached out of it.
For instance, when she bragged last September about removing asylum seekers while targetting the legal teams who offered them support: 'Today we removed people who came here via small boats,' she tweeted:
They had previously claimed asylum elsewhere and had no legal right to be in the UK. Removals continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers, but I will not let up until this route is unviable.
As refugee charities were swift to point out in a letter to the Home Secretary:
Government rhetoric falsely suggests that asylum seekers’ travel routes can invalidate their claims for protection, and denounces lawyers for doing what the law requires of them.
Indeed. There are two things worth hammering home here: seeking asylum is not illegal. Anyone seeking protection is entitled to stay in the UK while awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. It makes no difference how they entered the country. The right to claim asylum is enshrined in international law. The second thing we should hold onto is that in the aftermath of Patel's inflammatory tweet solicitors at Duncan Lewis, a London law firm offering legal support for asylum seekers, were attacked by a knife-wielding racist.
During her tenure as Home Secretary Patel has been responsible for closing some of the last remaining safe and legal routes for asylum seekers into the country, and has refused to open new ones. She has also brought back banned refugee child detention by stealth. Last year the Government's own watchdog conducted unannounced inspections at a number of detention centres, where they found children locked up. In August last year the Home Office wrote to councils, incentivising them to carry out rushed age assessments on refugee children, offering money for legal challenges to individual age assessments. We have already seen the consequences of such actions, with children being sent to adult detention centres at catastrophic risk to their mental and physical well-being. Again, the Government's own watchdog found conditions in these detention centres unsafe, and 'unfit' for human habitation.
The immigrant mother raises her sons for industry, by Maxo Vanko
COVID-19 is a boon for the likes of Patel: the virus acts as an invisible and invading enemy. It plays into English cultural narratives of stalwart isolationism; an island redoubt against hostile outsiders. The threat of contagion allows the Government to reposition human beings as disease vectors; to herd, detain, control, and deport them in the name of public health. The Tories are adept at recruiting the language and iconography of wartime Britain in order to present Coronavirus as a purely national crisis, one that can be withstood by means of exemplary British virtues such as fortitude, endurance, stoicism and sacrifice. By continually yoking those qualities to a nebulous notion of small-island nationhood the Government ensures that those persons not comfortably accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness are excluded from the precincts of human consideration, are alien and suspect by default.
It's this attitude that led the Home Secretary, in August last year, to so much as fleetingly consider the idiotic, inhumane, and unworkable suggestion that asylum seekers be sent en masse to one of the South Atlantic islands. It is this attitude that led Patel to appoint a former Royal Marine to the role of 'clandestine Channel threat commander' and to call upon the Royal Navy to 'tackle' the growing number of small boats crossing into the UK. It is this attitude that has led, inexorably, to an increased military involvement in the detention and 'processing' of asylum seekers; that has led to the ongoing horror that is Napier Barracks in Folkestone.
The former barracks is the UK's first modern-day refugee camp. It differs from other detention centres because newly arrived asylum seekers are being sent there in large numbers before any determination on their status has been made. Conditions are abject, and during a global pandemic the health implications are dire. Meals are served communally, and, according to a recent Guardian article, up to twenty-eight people 'share a single sleeping area and two bathrooms, making social distancing impossible.'
A little more poison, a little less light. Patel and her twisted tribe cynically exploit the virus and the fear-of-the-other that it brings to justify their hard-line immigration and asylum policies, while ensuring the very persons and communities they blame for the pandemic are those left most vulnerable and at risk. Raising the Immigration Health Surcharge from £400 to £624, while simultaneously restricting access to most hospital services for migrants without visas or those whose claims for asylum have been denied, has created, in effect, a healthcare underclass. The Government's own equality impact assessment warned that the NHS charging programme could lead to discrimination against BAME people. But the risk was deemed 'acceptable'.
Other Lives Don’t Matter
There are those whose lives are deemed worthy of preservation and care by the current Tory Government. And there are those whose lives are not. Refugee lives do not matter. The majority of BAME lives do not matter. The lives of Travellers do not matter.
We know this because the Home Office consultation on criminalising trespass and increasing police powers against unauthorised encampments comes hard on the heels of a report exposing the enormous unmet need for pitches on public Traveller sites in England. According to the report, released by the leading national charity Friends, Families and Travellers, over 1696 households are currently on waiting lists for pitches on public sites. There are a meagre 59 permanent pitches and 42 transit pitches or halting sites available nationwide. The new laws mean that families living on unauthorised encampments could face fines, prison sentences, and removal from their homes, simply for having nowhere else to go.
The number of caravans deemed to constitute an unauthorised encampment has been reduced in number from six to two. Two. Police will direct these caravans from any site on which they have no permission to stay, even when there are no alternative stopping places. The right of British Ethnic Nomads to live in a caravan home is recognised by the European Court of Human Rights and protected in the UK courts under the Human Rights Act 1998. Yet the Tories do not care. Patel does not care. Her now infamous comments during an online meeting with Jewish leaders last September, branding Traveller families as inherently 'criminal and violent', are now well documented.
During the Tory clampdown in the early 1990s two thirds of traditional, informal halting sites for Travellers were sealed off. In 1994 the Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide official sites for Travellers. An obvious solution to unauthorised encampments would seem to be to return this statutory duty to provide sites. If nothing else it would seem to be the cheaper solution, demanding less enforcement and provoking fewer legal challenges. It would seem to make damage to public land less likely too: much of this happens due to deliberate obstacles being placed in the way of access points, and to a lack of public amenities at these unauthorised sites. Most importantly, it would protect one of our most vulnerable social groups, and allow Travellers and their families to access vital public services. But Patel doesn't care about that. Traveller people are yet another convenient Tory scapegoat. As the threat of eviction undermines the ability of Traveller communities to comply with Coronavirus regulations, many are asking themselves how long before the pandemic is utilised as an irresistible argument for forced assimilation, and the dispersal of communities?
Traveller children. Image courtesy of Knickerbocker TV
Existing sites, whether privately run or managed by local authorities, are likely to be located close to motorways, major roads, refuse tips, industrial estates or sewage works: undesirable locations all, and damaging in unique ways to the health of the Travellers who live there. Ethnic Nomads in Britain die on average between seven and twenty years earlier than the rest of the population, and their health outcomes are significantly worse. A 2016 report sponsored by the National Inclusion Health Board noted that 66% of Gypsy, Roma Travellers had bad, very bad, or poor health; poor air quality, proximity to industrial sites, asthma and repeated chest infections in children and older people were noted in nearly half of all interviews. Health access has always been complicated and fraught for people living in Traveller communities. This has led to a lack of early diagnosis, resulting in poorly managed chronic conditions. COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease. This renders Travellers especially vulnerable.
A little less light, a little more poison. This evening Patel described the Black Lives Matter protests as 'dreadful'. Interrupted, and asked to clarify she claims that of course she's not against people's right to protest, just this specific protest, and the way in which it was conducted. This is a typical Tory manoeuvre: agree to fundamental human rights in principle, while stripping them away from us in practice. And of course the Home Secretary is bent out of shape about the toppling of statues: memorial emplacement isn't just about honouring the memory and legacy of individuals, it's about inscribing continuities of power onto public space. It is also about normalising those continuities of power, so that racism becomes an invisible and ambient feature of our cities, part of their cartography. We live with its traces every day, it's so pervasive and embedded we don't question it, we don't even notice. That's true power. It is your stamp on the architecture of the everyday: buildings, statues, street names. The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK rendered those power structures legible, and the black lives impacted by those power structures visible. The Tories, very obviously, don't want that.
For secure and sedentary communities history is written large across public space. Buildings capture the continuity of collective experience; they stage a shared cultural heritage. But for those without settlement, whose lives are transitory and provisional and leave no corresponding trace on the physical landscape, history, memory and suffering are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. Traveller histories, lost to dispersal and coerced assimilation. Refugee histories, fenced in behind barbed wire, billeted in grim buildings at the edge of public attention. Working-class histories priced out of presence. The same applies to queer histories, homeless histories, and BAME histories.
Coronavirus throws these reflections into sharper relief. Isolated from each other, we lose our sense of ourselves and our communities as visible and connected. As our worlds shrink, so our sense of solidarity and effective agency suffer. In the wake of COVID-19 comes austerity, and beyond austerity, gentrification. The global pandemic both exposes and exacerbates inequality, magnifying the already glaring disparities between those with enough and those barely scraping by. And 'when all this is over' where will we even go to grieve, to create, and to organise, when our communities are concreted over, our sites broken up, our squats torn down, our social housing sold off, our bars and dancehalls gentrified, our vital services pushed further to the margins, our districts socially cleansed. Where communities are decimated by Coronavirus, developers will move in. It is opportunistic, but it is also deliberate: a willed amnesia, an act of violence. BAME communities are disproportionally affected by Coronavirus. Working-class communities are disproportionately affected. How can those communities come together to resist and sustain when there is nowhere left for real communities to form? When we are isolated and scattered and kept apart, from each other, and from others.
Solidarity through poetry
In the face of this, the page can offer us a vital site of practical solidarity. What poetry can, and must be for us, is a place of counter-preservation. It is also a place where the choppy, difficult textures of our lives are registered in community with others. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: poetry at its best is not merely memorial but relational. It demands and bestows that deep sustained attention seldom afforded to us as citizens or subjects. It is the one territory still open to many of us.
The poems I want to share today confront the inequality that besets us head on. They lead us through cities and towns made hostile to our existence, and they wrestle with a language that is heavily implicated in our containment and erasure. These poems are about language, the way we're spoken to and talked about, and what happens to us, what capitalism does to us at the level of language: the jargon, cliché and tabloid slang we're obliged to think in and through; the way we come to think and talk about ourselves as a result. Here is the strike-through or the scoring out. Here is rupture and compression of syntax and of grammar: textual bodies crushed and maimed, as the living bodies of working people are also crushed and maimed, reduced to a punchline, to muttered and incoherent 'prole-whispers'.
In these pieces poetry wants both to signal and resist its incorporation inside of the system, inside of capitalism. The rhythms of working-class life are viscerally present in the text: against the relentless routinized scheduling of unloveable labour there is ever conceivable kind of disruption or incursion. This affects what is written, what is thought. The default for working-class life is not silence and space, and this translates onto the page in a variety of 'difficult' or innovative ways.
Unloveable labour, by Steev Burgess
We might say these are challenging poems. But 'challenging' is the entire point. These are not scenes of vague catharsis, but work sites: in a world not made for working-class people, not made for the marginal or the vulnerable, poetry provides a place to appropriate and repurpose language, to make it our own, to dismantle and subvert it. It is this reclaiming of language and renaming of experience that makes poetry a political act, an integral part and precursor to the real-world radical actions that are bound to follow.
Parliament House or Dung Heap
By Cole Denyer
Like Today’s Story of the Shirt
a plateful of sundry wretches
in such a way that they could
only have endured it, but ask
on about villages?
Middlesex and Epping forest
happy people like pilchards in bottom
cask under cook the dome of sky,
nothing is wasted nothing is spoilt
bar frizz salver piss in a pot look on
or hang off spit and ill-blood
even if you have no property
by the nightshirt liniment
yr enjoying the anon?
No actual mention of sausages, however.
Squabbling on a livelihood
I don't much care for beautiful
buildings run over with flowers,
Bastion builds flashing on and off
as ward-mote leads to Garden BridgeTM
bibbing in sun before looting scaffold goes up.
Dear Adrian Glasspool,
Last resident we cannot maintain ‘26 acres of land for one person’.
stack commuter sprawl in w/ broken
statist one by one for flogging on out
down the metropolitan line
mortarboard tradition staggers
to a croupier fireside chewing
nothing much but embers
By Dom Hale
It is good to be inferior and appalling.
The countryside stinks of ancient money.
Petrol sings in the night. O reiver, what are you searching for
With that silver toothpick in your hand?
I look over my shoulder and the city sort of breaks.
The reader is usually an informant. Bewildering Pacific
Plagues attrition’s skies, the updraughts, a drunk broadening
In the infinite musical regression of these times.
Thus one of you must up the ante or become a pillarist.
Risky, true, and not in aid of an idiom cribbed for
Tepid summits or committees and the scenery’s group hug.
A nauseating civil servant, a devout tech worker,
Those bureaucratic cults hassling whatever ground
You suppose you might have left to trudge on. Embarrassing.
I’m retraining as a poet. As for the elect, the leaders
In their field, they only make the whole endeavour sound
Kind of like a Universal Credit meeting. So fucking strenuous.
The vilification of the lazy who, just think, might have
Something pivotal yet to communicate with them. Yes,
To be half-cut and full of spite is a delirium
We may afford ourselves, at least for the slipshod moment
When everything is recorded and means more, determinedly.
Are you decent yet? Further oracular warnings from SAGE.
The only wage is a dying wage. And I almost considered
Myself a balladeer. Imagine that. Eternal earache.
Well, thanks anyway for having us. At last
The opportunities are equal. Now what?
They were always aware this situ was icecap unbearable.
Still it seems a trust fund beneficiary actually counts as a person.
Budding aeronautics of the prolific jobless. Bruised
Coccyx and a will-o’-the-wisp glinting at the crossroads.
And music squats in me this weekend. Sum up:
Big deal. Crashing torrents. Signing in at once
I present my scarlet guitar to the administrative staff
With nothing else to declare, beleaguered on arrival,
Bustling inanely, fumbling about mortality. The point
Is to pick up the crayon and fill out the form. Don’t
Talk to me about constructive criticism.
Convert the life in fucking tatters. I’ve never been less torn.
Cole Denyer (1994) is an artist and writer based in the gut of class treachery and watching over his shoulder for every budding cop.
Dom Hale wrote Firewall (Distance No Object) and Scammer (the87press). Before the pandemic he helped to organise the Edinburgh reading series JUST NOT, and is currently co-editing the magazine LUDD GANG at poetshardshipfunduk.com. Civilian Lyrics is out from Veer in 2021.