David Betteridge

David Betteridge

David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.

Reading Marx
Saturday, 31 March 2018 13:52

Reading Marx

Published in Cultural Commentary

David Betteridge gives a personal account of reading Marx, with drawings by Bob Starrett.

Fifty years ago, when I was training to be a teacher at Neville’s Cross College of Education in Durham, I had the good fortune to be tutored in Sociology and supervised on school practice by Maurice Levitas (or, to give him his Hebrew patronymic, which he sometimes used, Moishe ben Hillel). Here was a veteran of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War, a stalwart of the CPGB and the Connolly Column of the International Brigade, a former furniture-polisher and upholsterer, a plumber, a latrine-digger (with the Royal Army Medical Corps in India and Burma), a teacher of English (with plenty of Drama, in secondary schools in London and Louth), and now, in his middle age, a teacher-trainer appointed to the staff of the college where I was a student! He was just what we needed.

Seeing how green I was, with my head full of Red, Black, and Green ideas, and also some plain daft ones, loosely cobbled together, if cobbled at all, Morry (as he was widely nick-named) felt moved to educate me, and to educate me in more than Education.

He told me, I remember, in one of our tutorials, to question the Registrar-General’s designation of some workers - those in Social Class V - as “unskilled”. No, said Morry, all Labour requires skill, including mental skill. Try using a pick without knowing what you’re about, or a scythe! He himself had an impressively wide skill-set, acquired in his wide experience of work. He took pride in all of it, keeping into old age, for example, his curved needles (some semi-circular) from his time as an upholsterer, and losing none of his ability in sewing.

He told me also to be wary of the claims of psychometrics. Certain forms of it, he argued, were based on bad science, and served bad politics. Labelling some people sheep and others goats on the evidence of spurious tests was pernicious. He spoke with a mix of academic rigour and passionate engagement, referring me, I recall, to Brian Simon’s critique of Cyril Burt’s famous (or infamous) work on Intelligence, while at the same time citing personal experience. As a prisoner-of war in Spain, in one of Franco’s camps, Morry had been subjected to batteries of tests by visiting Nazis, keen to use him (and others) to further their racist, specifically anti-Semitic anthropology.

Educational failure was another topic that Morry opened up for discussion. When pupils fail an exam, he asked, is it their own failure alone? Could it also be the failure of hostile teachers, or careless schools, or impoverished homes, or an unjust society dedicated to maintaining its class distinctions?

I did not know then that Morry was busy putting his insights and knowledge and combative spirit into a book. This was published in 1974, with the title Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education.

Supplementary to my college curriculum, and just as important, were the demos that Morry took me on, and the lists of public meetings that he said I must attend, and the books on political theory that I must read (and read systematically), starting with Marx’s early MSS dating from 1844 (The Paris Notebooks) and his Theses on Feuerbach from the following year. He thought it best that I start my journey-of-ideas there, where Marx started his.

DB marx cartoon 2. jpg

See how the young humanist stood Hegel’s idealist philosophy on its head, making it materialist, Morry explained; see how he went beyond Feuerbach, committing himself to changing the world, not just interpreting it; see how he identified the deep structures and movements of history, class against class; see how he laid bare the alienation that workers experience under Capitalism, as they lose control of the products of their labour, and even lose contact with their own true selves.

This programme of accelerated learning that Morry set in train coincided with the crisis days of 1968, when the “evenements” in Paris (and beyond) shook Capitalism, and shook Socialism, too. Morry was charged with a great energy by these events, as if they spoke directly to him. He saw in the students’ movement a proto-revolutionary situation that cried out to be joined, and widened, especially through working class solidarity. I heard him argue this case again and again wherever people would listen, cheerfully rebutting the charge made by others in the CP that he was suffering from a rush of ultra-Leftism to the head. He was mistaking Paris for Barcelona, they said, and 1968 for 1936. Unabashed, he himself looked further back, to 1848, and directed me to read The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s other writings from and about that year of revolutions. Reading them was a revelation.

It was as if I had been given a three-dimensional model showing the layers of rock lying beneath a large and complex landscape, and giving it its shape. How swiftly the Manifesto opened up new understandings for me, and established new connections between things I had previously only half-known! How gleefully I embraced its use of strong metaphors, from a “spectre haunting Europe” early on in the book (that is to say, Communism), through “heavy artillery” (commodities being traded overseas), “fetters” (the constraints of the Feudal System), a “robe of cobwebs” (false consciousness), ending with “grave-diggers” (the forces of organised Labour burying Capitalism at some future date).

Before I left college, I was inspired to have a go at crystallising what I had learned so far from Marx and Morry, in the form of a short poem. I did not have the confidence to show it to my tutor, but here it is (below) for Culture Matters readers. Note: the “old mole” motto-text was added later:

Open Sesame

Well grubbed, old mole!

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Under the furrows of old Europe lay
the ruin and the saving
of its steady, backward way: coal,
coal upon coal.

In banks’ vaults,
as if an ocean underground,
full-fed by trade and the world’s toil,
a second Flood backed up, and broke,
of brutal gold.

the anarch Progress forced its change,
all-consumingly on every land
and every suffering folk
that came within the rampage
of its rule of smoke.

Breaching all norms and bonds,
the iron masters and their human tools
exhausted Europe,
then went on to wreak their marvel
on the other continents of plundered Earth.

Their legacy to us:
they redefined and laid to rest
the past that they inherited,
and brought our doomed dystopia
to the titan fury of its birth.

Getting to grips with Marx’s later works took me longer. I approached them by a zig-zagging route of theory and practice, practice and theory, over a period of several years.

DB marx cartoon

In the case of Capital, I made the initial mistake of trying to speed things up by reading other people’s summaries of Marx’s conclusions, without working through the real-life evidence and explanations and interpretations that Marx himself required, and provided in great quantity in his book. Only after campaigning on issues of economic justice in Scunthorpe, where I went to teach, and helping to organise a cross-party, cross-union Left Action Group, only then did I begin to build up the key-concepts and, just as importantly, the structures of feeling that Capital demanded.

A crucial stage in that process of building-up was attending a WEA class organised by John Grayson, and tutored by Michael Barratt Brown. Michael adopted a quite brilliant teaching strategy. He asked the steelworker members of our class to provide him with information relating to a pay claim then being negotiated with the employers. He showed exactly how certain costs and profits that were essential to a full social and economic audit never found their way into any published annual report. The employers’ so-called “balance sheets” were not balanced. Michael’s book What Economics Is About served as a primer for our class-work. Here was Economics, not as a ”dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle called it - he should have known better, given the great contemporaries of his who were working in that field - but as a weapon in the struggle.

What a broth of a book Capital proved to be, when I came at last to immerse myself in its heights and depths and great length i.e. the teeming volume of Volume One. I found that it was, in some places, to some extent, exactly as Francis Wheen described it in his celebratory Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. It was “a vast Gothic novel... a Victorian melodrama... a black farce... a Greek tragedy... [and] a satirical utopia”. These ingredients were mixed together in profusion, and richly interspersed with hundreds of quotations from (and allusions to) works of World Literature, factory inspectors’ reports, trade statistics, etc. How many square miles of printed matter did Marx have to scan, how many years of sitting and making notes did he have to put in, how many headaches and heartaches did he have to go through, before this epic and epoch-making piece of “congealed labour” was ready for publication?

Wheen reminds us that Marx was a failed poet, a failed dramatist, and a failed novelist, all these failures being accomplished before the end of his student years at Berlin University. “All my creations crumbled into nothing,” Marx wrote; but his literary ambitions did not crumble. He redirected them. The work in which they came to most vigorous life was Capital.

A good example of Marx in novelistic mode is his deployment in Capital of a large and varied cast of characters, reminiscent of Dickens. Here is one, a juvenile worker in the Potteries:

J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.”

Regarding this wretched way of life and place of work, a local doctor, quoted by Marx, observed: “Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one.”

Turning to Marx in dramatic mode, we can cite his use of a device similar to that deployed by Dante in his Purgatorio.

Let us leave the noisy region of the market, Marx wrote, casting himself in the same role as Vergil in Canto 5 of Dante’s epic. We shall follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production... Here we shall discover, not only how Capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value.

Just as Dante did before him, Marx summoned up a succession of witnesses, in his case witnesses for the prosecution, from these “hidden foci of production”. His guiding principle was borrowed from Dante: Let the people speak. And speak they did, as in the case of J. Murray (above) and many more. (What a good template we have here, by the way, for readers of Culture Matters to use, by which to present your own present-day selection of witnesses for new prosecutions.)

And what of Marx’s exercise of his poet’s craft in the writing of Capital? We find no shortage of examples of metaphors here, and other forms of poetic imagery. Metaphysical poets of any era would be proud to have used them so creatively. Here is one: vampires. Marx wrote: Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

It does not matter if the vampires, imagined or real, feed on others’ blood or others’ labour, the phenomenon is the same: it is a ceaseless and exponential series of acts of taking, of expropriation, and sometimes of killing cruelty. We see it in the busts and booms of the markets, in the losses that many suffer that others might profit, in the recurrent immiseration of whole sections of a country’s population, sometimes of whole populations, while the elites and their darlings flourish, and we see it bloodiest of all in the almost permanent state of war that so unstable an economic order (or disorder, rather) gives rise to. Marx’s metaphor is precise and complete. It conveys the essential motive force that rages at the heart of Capital.

To sum up: Marx and Morry: two warriors, both engaged in their own times, but aware of all times, past and future; both embattled thinkers as well as thoughtful activists; both possessing a warm-heartedness as well as a hard-headed realism; both exponents of an integrative vision, in which no aspect of human enquiry or interest is deemed alien; internationalists; dialecticians; passionate wordsmiths... Getting to know the former warrior through the good offices of the latter was the best part of my student years.

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 Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.




Flight and Fall
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:33

Flight and Fall

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge has written a commemorative work of prose and poetry especially for this Russian Revolution section of Culture Matters. An extract from the poetry is given in ebook format here, along with some illustrations by Bob Starrett.

Flight and Fall looks back at the events of 1917 from the standpoint of Glasgow in 2017.


Flight and Fall
Friday, 03 November 2017 18:17

Flight and Fall

Published in 1917 Centenary

David Betteridge has written a commemorative work of prose and poetry especially for this Russian Revolution section of Culture Matters. An extract from the poetry is given in ebook format here, along with some illustrations by Bob Starrett.

Flight and Fall looks back at the events of 1917 from the standpoint of Glasgow in 2017.


Grenfell: 'social murder' is that crime's name
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 19:48

Grenfell: 'social murder' is that crime's name

Published in Poetry

A Blaze That Did Not Need To Burn

by David Betteridge

I am nothing and I should be everything... - Karl Marx


The best part of the building was the people in it.

They made of its doomed fabric, homes:

homes that for many, at a stroke,

in an upward avalanche of fire,

became their graves. 

                          One dead

in a blaze that did not need to burn

would be a great crime; but there were more,

choked and charred, beyond counting,

every death foreseeable and forewarned.

They were killed by neglect’s slow hand,

in contempt’s quick flame.

Social murder is that crime’s name.

Who but madmen clad a building

in a stuff that burns, and airily dismiss

their tenants’ grounded fears?

Who - unless a cold, self-serving class that,

counting others nothing, ranks itself supreme?

Grenfell: say the word quick, and we sense

“green” and “field”: but there is nothing here,

now, that speaks of any bright

and pleasant thing.

                       Black is the colour

of this towering monument to corporate wrong,

this pigeon-loft for people and their rich dreams,

this block of execution cells, this funeral pyre,

this place of long mourning and sharp ire.

You who designed this wreck,

look on the evidence stacked up that proves

your complicity in taking, with your profits,

lives: you stand condemned.

                                      We, the many,

who are nothing in your unjust land,

also look; we learn from Grenfell Tower.

Its black text reads:

We should be everything, authors of our own ends

in our own names, seizing and holding,

in our own safe hands,


Author's Note

The motto text for my poem is taken from Karl Marx’s An Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). Of course, when Marx wrote, “I am nothing and I should be everything”, he was waxing a bit poetical himself. The “I” that he propounded was not himself, nor any individual, and certainly not the ego that Max Stirner was soon to write about in The Ego and Its Own (1845). No, the “I” that should be everything is the mythic voice of Revolution, as is made clear when the motto is put in its proper context:

It is only in the name of the general interest that a particular class can claim general supremacy... that revolutionary daring which throws at its adversary the defiant phrase: “I am nothing and I should be everything.”

In the poem, I have changed “I” to “we”, to make its collective nature doubly clear. In the thirteenth line of the poem, I level the charge of “social murder” against those who designed, built and mis-managed those aspects of Grenfell Tower that contributed to the catastrophic spreading of a fire in one of the Tower’s constituent flats to so many others, with so many deaths. The charge is carefully chosen, being used with the meaning given to it by Friedrich Engels, in his classic work of investigation and analysis, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written during his stay in Manchester from 1842 to 1844. A lot has changed since then, but some things remain the same:

When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.

I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men's organs, with perfect correctness, characterise as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions. That it knows the consequences of its deeds; that its act is, therefore, not mere manslaughter, but murder, I shall have proved, when I cite official documents, reports of Parliament and of the Government, in substantiation of my charge.

John McDonnell levelled this charge of “social murder” against the guilty parties in the Grenfell Towers case, notably on TV (16 July, 2017), and so did others, most importantly the Grenfell Action Group, who wrote in their blog that,

What happened wasn’t a ‘terrible tragedy’ or some other studio-sofa platitude: it was social murder.

Engels’s criteria, spelled out above, apply with horrible force to the killing of the Grenfell Tower residents. They also apply to the multitudes of lives diminished, hurt, exploited, and truncated over many generations, both before and after Engels’s time - victims of an economic “order” that puts its own requirements first, and beggar the rest.

DB engels ancoats in the 1870s 2


Profit and Loss: a drawing by Owen McGuigan
Saturday, 28 January 2017 16:55

Profit and Loss: a drawing by Owen McGuigan

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge introduces a drawing from Owen McGuigan which 'takes a line for a walk'; and a song on the same theme of shipbuilding on Clydeside.

Watching Owen McGuigan taking photographs is an eyeopener, especially when he is at work among a crowd at a public event. It is like watching a snooker player lining up a shot, or a footballer, seen in slow motion in a video, moving with expertise to be in the right place for a good kick or header, at the decisive moment. Strangely, Owen manages to do this almost unobtrusively, despite the fact that his shock of white hair acts as a flag. It is a flag of peace, perhaps, signalling a quiet professionalism.

Behind Owen’s skill in taking photographs lies something equally important for understanding his genius, and the genesis of his huge archive of images (including videos) that document the life and soul of his native Clydebank. See www.myclydebankphotos.co.uk. That “something” is a habit of looking at the world and the people in it sympathetically. He looks with a feeling eye, and a democratic one.

Besides photography, Owen works in other media too - fretwork, for example. A piece of his combining several iconic images from the Clydebank Blitz has pride of place in an exhibition in the Town Hall, commemorating that dreadful episode in the town’s history.

Drawing is another outlet for his vision. Sitting with a sheet of paper in front of him early in the New Year (2017), and with a pen in his hand, Owen began to “doodle”, as he puts it. One part of the drawing led to the next, until, by an uncanny process, the drawing reproduced above was completed. Owen calls it “Profit and Loss”. It represents, in a complex and beautifully ordered way, the industry that put Clydebank on the map, shipbuilding.

Paul Klee famously described drawing as taking a line for a walk. Owen’s “Profit and Loss” does something similar. He takes a scene for a walk, or maybe a selection of themes from a scene, namely a composite shipyard, and takes them for a walk; or, viewing the drawing from a different angle, you might say that the drawing takes the observer on a conducted tour of the scene, starting where Owen started, namely at a magnificent great girder at the centre of the page. From there our eye progresses, from detail to detail, following a roundabout route to the drawing’s edges and corners.

You might object that we should start by looking at “Profit and Loss” in the round (or rectangle), as a whole, enjoying the strength and coherence of the overall design first, and only then zooming in on the details - and what details there are, of various sizes, shapes and textures! There is a pint of Guinness on the pub bar, ready poured, waiting for the drinker’s arrival soon from the yard; there are palm trees in a holiday resort that the builders of cruise liners that take folk there will never themselves visit; there is the lovely contour of a ship’s keel driving into waves; there is a man falling; there is blood.

In fact, there is no single way of looking at this, or any drawing. There are several ways, and they are complementary, and different people will see different significances in the selection and combination of pictorial elements. If you know about shipbuilding, you will see more in “Profit and Loss” than most. You will see, for example, references to the deadly phenomenon of asbestos, which has hit Clydebank as badly over the generations as anywhere.

Regarding this killer, Owen has written:

There are several asbestos references in the drawing. Although the shipyards have long gone, we are still living with the legacy of asbestos. Many workers have died as a result of asbestos-related cancers and diseases. Below is a copy of “Profit and Loss” with some reference notes to asbestos.

Profit and loss notes

Here is a bit of info about Marinite board used on the ships: Marinite Insulating Panels are 4-foot by 8-foot sized boards that are currently sold as an asbestos-free product, but that was not always the case. For many years, these panels were made with the naturally occurring mineral, because it can control heat and even help stop the spread of fire. This made it ideal for use in industrial settings, and also for homes, schools, churches and most any other standing structure. Aside from its heat-resistant capabilities, asbestos was also extremely durable, so products made from it can last for decades. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a negative trait. The International Asbestos Memorial is down at the bottom left of the drawing.

“Profit and Loss” benefits from repeated looking, I believe; and it makes a good companion to certain poems and songs on the same subject of shipbuilding, considered in the same complex way. One such song is a brilliant and moving piece called “Song o the Yard”, written by the late Leo Coyle, who said of his work:

Much has been written and sung in praise of the Clyde and the great ships built there, but little written or sung are about the hellish conditions endured by the workers who built them. Since I served my time in the shipyards, I lived with the unique humour and tenacity of the Clyde shipyard worker to overcome and survive in spite of so many betrayals. The song is self explanatory and is supported by guitar accompaniment that echoes the tragedy of the loss of a proud industry. 

Here is “Song o the Yard”, performed by Leo’s daughter and son, Leanne and Eddie, followed by the lyrics:

 From Clydeborn, a CD collection of Leo Coyle’s songs, sung by Eddie and Leanne Coyle, available from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Tune: “The Laird o Cockpen” (traditional)

Through the eyes o a young man born on the Clyde,
When the pulse o humanity turned on the tide,
An a nation that depended on ships for its trade,
Turned a blind eye on the price that was paid.

Raw cauld is the mist on the river at dawn,
Wi coat collars up, the men hurry on;
The keel maun be laid ere a new ship is born,
An yae might lose a shift if yer late for the horn.

The frames o the hull in the cauld mists are lost,
A skeleton dressed in a mantle o frost,
A spectre sae drear t’would daunt even the brave,
For there’s nae caulder place tween the womb an the grave.

Wi the reek o steel burnin an the clangin o plates,
The choking on fumes an shoutin o mates,
Wi the din o the caulkers vibratin the shell,
A ship on the stocks is just organised hell.

But there’s aye caustic humour an witty retort.
An endless comment aboot wimen an sport,
For it’s wimen an horses an who scored the goal
That sustain men in life such conditions tae thole.

On Kilbowie Hill the beeches stand tall,
Oer men frae the yards who hae given their all,
One moment alive and the next just a wreck,
Covered oer wi coats on a cauld rusty deck.

They were aye in the news when the critics cried oot,
Just countin up hours that’s lost in dispute;
An I wonder, did they earn their livin as hard
As the men that were buildin the ships in the yard?

Noo, there must be oer many who think they were daft,
Takin pride in oor labour, oor skill an oor craft,
Buildin luxury liners, empresses an queens,
That ever tae sail on was far yond oor dreams

Through the eyes o an auld man, I gaze on the river,
An the young jobless men, wonderin if it’s for ever;
Wi Scotland united, we’ll still turn the tide,
An return tae its glory, the Valley o Clyde.

One last reference cries out to be given, namely a collection of poems springing from a similar experience and culture and ethos as Owen’s and Leo’s, namely Bill Sutherland’s A Clydeside Lad. Three of these poems are included in A Rose Loupt Oot, an anthology published by Smokestack Books of various materials inspired by the great UCS Work-In of 1971-72.

In one of them, the poet characterises a ship under construction as being both a “beast o steel” and a “beauty”, and wonders, in the voice of childhood, “whit god’s, whit divvil’s beast is this?” What contradictions there are here, as in Owen’s “Profit and Loss” and Leo’s “Song o the Yard”!

Maple Leaf
Wednesday, 18 January 2017 09:39

A Coverlet of Green: In Memoriam John Berger

Published in Poetry


by David Betteridge

The bare and barren tree
can be made green again...
- Antonio Gramsci

¶ A boy cried.
His bedside cup,
brimful with milk
before he slept, was empty
now, at morning-time.
Not one drop he'd drunk.
How, then, no milk?

The culprit mouse,
her creamy lips a give-away,
felt sorry for the boy.
And still he cried.

She thought:
I'll get the cattle
to make good his loss.

But no: Today our milk's
dried up.

Field, asked the mouse,
have you some juicy grass
to give?

Sorry, the field explained,
I'm parched.
Will you fetch water
from the well?

Brokenly, the well demurred.
My rim's caved in;
I need repaired.

¶ Mason, will you take the job?

I'm short of stone,
the mason said.

¶ Next, to a bleak hill.
I've granite here
enough to build a town,
but not a single sett will go
to humankind.
Aggrieved, the hill refused
the mouse's plea.

Imagine -
mouse to hill -
imagine that you feel
the balm of maple trees
where you are bare.
If you give the mason stone,
the boy whose milk I took
will come to you a man -
you have my word -
and he will work for you
this remedy I plan.

¶ The hill relented;

the mason fixed the well;

water by the bucketful
      was raised;

the pasture greened;

the cattle's udders
    swelled, and cups
         and bellies
             soon were filled.

Strong as a bull,
     the boy grew,
          a farmer-forester.

The mouse, her children,
    and theirs as well,
        in turn, each year
            reminded him:
a promise had been made.

¶ Hectare on hectare now,

gladdening the hill,

a coverlet of green extends

its shade, a living tribute

to the mouse’s will.

A note on its sources, which are a Sardinian folk-tale, Antonio Gramsci, Hamish Henderson, Gordon Brown, and John Berger.

“A Coverlet of Green” is derived from a folk-tale from Sardinia. This folk-tale was written down in the mid-1930s by the Marxist philosopher and political activist, Antonio Gramsci, in a letter to his son. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s gaols, where Gramsci had been imprisoned, “to stop his brain from functioning”. (In fact, his brain functioned all the more powerfully.)

Later, during the Second World War, Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet, singer, folklorist, teacher, and lots of other things, came across Gramsci’s writings, including his prison letters. Henderson was at that time an intelligence officer in the British Army, and one of his duties was to make contact with Italian partisans opposed to Mussolini. One such group called itself the Antonio Gramsci Brigade. It was they who acted as the link between the philosopher’s ideas and the soldier. Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s letters were published two decades later by a students’ printing press at Edinburgh University, edited by a radical (even revolutionary) student leader who went on to pursue a noteworthy career in politics, although rather less radical, one Gordon Brown.

Later still, John Berger discovered Hamish Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s re-telling of the Sardinain folk-tale. He so liked it that he re-told it himself in an essay about Gramsci called “How to Live with Stones”, published in an essay-collection The Shape of a Pocket. He also re-told the tale in a radio interview on BBC Radio 3. It was this broadcast version that sparked my own attempt at a re-telling, in “A Coverlet of Green”.

John Berger’s death on 2nd January, just two months after his 90th birthday, leaves a great gap in literature and cultural politics. My poem, with Bob Starrett’s lovely green evocation of new growth - maple leaves lit by sunshine - was intended for publication as a birthday greeting, but it missed that deadline. Now it can serve as an In Memoriam.

John Berger: an appreciation
Wednesday, 04 January 2017 17:06

John Berger: an appreciation

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge offers an appreciation of the late, great John Berger.

There are some authors whose way with words not only reflects a way of living, but also excites it. It has a moral force as well as an aesthetic sense. John Berger, who died on 2 January, was an author of this kind.

Year on year, since he began his writing career with art criticism for the New Statesman in the 1950s, an increasingly wide world of readers has been delighted as his latest essay, article, review, novel, memoir, letter, play, film, tale, poem, or whatever was published. I say “whatever” because it is a feature of Berger’s work that it is varied in its scope, and more than that: it is also varied in its mixing of genres within a single text. A novel may contain drawings; an essay may do the same, and then veer into memoir; philosophy and politics crop up everywhere, as do poems, in glorious profusion.

Looking back over Berger’s career, which included such notable achievements as Permanent Red (1960), a collection of the first decade of his art criticism; A Fortunate Man (1967), a study of a country doctor, including photographs by Jean Mohr; Ways of Seeing (1972), a TV series about art history, and also a book, never out of print; G (1972), a novel, winner of that year’s Booker Prize; A Seventh Man (1975), the most mixed of his mixed-genre books, “composed” jointly with Jean Mohr as an investigation into the lives of migrant workers in a Europe that was hungry, and is still hungry, for cheap labour; To the Wedding (1995), a story of multiple loves, lived under a sentence of death from AIDS; and, fast-forwarding to 2016, A Sparrow’s Journey, a study of, and celebration of, and continuation of the storytelling genius of Andrey Platonov - looking back over this career, I am reminded of Coleridge’s wild fig-tree, its old roots deep in a rock, “still starting up anew, with the playfulness of the Boy...”

Berger achieved his evergreen feat “amid the profoundest and most condensed constructions of hardest Thinking.” And not just thinking: feeling, too. Both are in constant play in his writing, each animating the other. There are times when his prose has the articulate energy and sensuous beauty of poetry. Take this little extract (slightly edited), for example, from his story “The Accordion Player”, from Once in Europa (1983), which is the second of his Into Their Labours trilogy, set in the mountains of Haute-Savoie where Berger spent much of the second part of his life:

The milking finished, he entered the kitchen. He had closed the shutters... to keep the room cool. Light from the sunset filtered between their slats. On the window sill was the bunch of flowers he had picked. On seeing them he stopped in mid-stride. He stared at them as if they were a ghost... He pulled a chair from under the table, he sat down and he wept... Odd how sounds of distress are recognised by animals. The dog approached the man’s back and, getting up on its hind legs, rested its front paws on his shoulder blades. He wept for all that would no longer happen...

Berger said of himself, in a recent interview with Kate Kellaway (Guardian, 30 October, 2016), that “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen”. Yes, he listened; and, just as importantly, he looked. He looked as intently as a field naturalist, or an artist - which Berger was, all his days – drawing someone’s portrait, or his favourite philosopher, Spinoza, practising his trade as a lens-grinder, or “la vigie - the lookout guy on a boat”, as he told Kate Kellaway. He looked, and he saw more than most of us.

The very titles of some of Berger’s books confirm this commitment to closely examining things in all their minute particulars. There is The Look of Things (1972), About Looking (1980), The Sense of Sight (1993), as well as the already mentioned Ways of Seeing.

If you have watched Berger on TV and heard him speak, you will have detected the way that so long an immersion in his Haute-Savoie neighbours’ French had inflected his native English voice. More significantly, if you have read the many poems that he translated from other languages, you will understand the way that a wide world of inspiration had inflected his thought. Aime Cesaire, Bertolt Brecht, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, and others: the labour of wrestling their meaning into alternative expression served to broaden Berger’s already broad internationalism. He was the least insular of Englishmen, the least Eurocentric of Europeans. He was a world-citizen, viewing as he did the pages of literature “as if it were a place, an assembly point”: a sort of convivial commons.

All of the titles that I have listed above, plus the many more that I have omitted that I might equally well have listed, are open doors to such places. It is sad to think that their maker and sharer has written his last.

Slave Songs & Symphonies
Thursday, 22 December 2016 13:47

Slave Songs and Symphonies

Published in Books

Poems by David Betteridge
Drawings by Bob Starrett

£5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p) 48 pp ISBN 978 1907 464164


Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour.

David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics.

Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict.

Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 14:55

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge reviews Jim Aitken's latest collection.

In the three dozen poems that make up Jim Aitken’s latest collection, Flutterings, we sense a mind fully engaged in the world. The poet’s senses, feelings and intelligence are all equally involved; and it is a large world that he inhabits, ranging from such minute particulars as the bark of a silver birch tree peeling like “paint-work starting to flake” to such over-arching ideas as “the world turned upside down”.

The viewpoint from which Jim Aitken makes his observations is, in the first instance, his native Edinburgh, but behind that, through his family’s connections, lies a hinterland extending from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands. Add to that a wide internationalist perspective gained partly by travel and partly by engagement in socialist politics.

Flutterings is organised around three themes, leaves (at the beginning of the collection), feathers (at the end), with “Unum - All One to Me” in between. So we encounter plenty of trees and plenty of birds, beautifully captured in words, in all their uniqueness. There are the “plane and palm, / their branches flapping like washing on a line”; and there are arrogant blackbirds with their “frogspawn eyes”, and gallus magpies, and cormorants doing tai-chi. Permeating all these observations and capturings, however, and expressed directly in the book’s central section of poems, is the poet’s understanding that “the One encompasses all – / one world, one race, one love for all”.

This human (and humane) understanding informs a lovely tribute-poem dedicated to one of Jim Aitken’s friends, the Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, now settled in Scotland, and recently widowed here. Its closing lines give us a good taste of what the collection offers:

Sometimes tears can fill his eyes and not just
for his wife but for the lands that are within him...

Yet he is here with us and at home with us;
he is one of us, he is one of our ain folk
extending us with his experience -
an Arab in Scotland and a home in Scotland
transported way beyond the madness of borders.

Flutterings can best be described as a book of elegies, in the full, old-fashioned sense of the term “elegies”, that is to say poems of serious reflection, including laments for the dead. Jim Aitken’s serious reflection does not shy away from looking hard at politics (“adverse governance by the few”), nor from the upsets of everyday life, but it also delights in family and friends and simply being in the world. His serious reflection includes the comic, too, and the absurd, as in a poem about his grandson, Michael, called “Running and Chasing”:

As far as Michael is concerned
all birds are essentially ducks.
Not for him fluffy cats or dogs
or even farmyard animals.

For him any bird means a quack
and if he can he will chase them,
possibly hoping to enter
into flight if he does not catch one...

As for laments for the dead, in a sequence of six poems at the heart of the collection, the poet commemorates his mother, Mary Aitken, placing her with great precision in her time and place (as in the poem “Dunnet Head”), and honouring her influence, after “your stem broke and fell”.

The language of Flutterings is a flexible, extended, precise, and often conversational English. In a comment on one of Jim Aitken’s earlier collections, Neptune’s Staff and Other Formations (published by Scottish CND in 2007), Terry Eagleton commended its “delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness”. These characteristics are still very much in evidence here.

The English used is the English that Jim Aitken himself speaks, learned in a family where Irish and Highland and Leith vernaculars were the norm. “You talk in the first instance as your parents’ talk,” he explains. “That is your initial linguistic sound and register. Then, of course, there was the Englishing that went on in school...” He endured this process of having “street talk knocked out of you”, but can now happily report that, “I actually love English as a language, while I speak it with an East-coast Scottish accent.” In his own work as a teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school, he supported the use of Scots as well as English, and also Gaelic, and “left teaching with more Scottish literature being more widely used than when I was a student.”

The “political toughness” that Terry Eagleton remarked on makes its bone and muscle and sinew felt even in those poems in Flutterings that begin somewhere else. “Late Leaves” is a good example:

Late Leaves
by Jim Aitken

All the leaves were later this year
with the extended cold and the snow.
And when the first buds burst open
delight and relief became one.

Now in full flush they shine and sway
in sunlight as they always should.
Yet so many seem to take this
for granted as they always do.

In a world turned upside down
by the monstrous greed of the few
there is little of permanence
and much more precariousness.

Late leaves mean zero hours contracts,
a shuffling people on the move
from one bedroom just too many
imposed by those in their mansions.

Late leaves like the merging seasons
should be telling us something true,
to challenge the drift to darkness
where stunted trees produce no leaves.

By leaves we breathe, by leaves we live
and through our dumb disharmony
we threaten the leaves’ appearance
where all their wealth then turns to dust.

It may be worth pointing out that 'By leaves we live' is a core idea underpinning the life, work and thinking of the great biologist, sociologist, geographer, town-planner and educationalist Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932). It is also a motto text that is built into the very fabric of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

Political toughness was evident from the very start of Jim Aitken’s writing career, both in his collections of poetry and in the plays he wrote for such groups as Stop the War, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish CND, and the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. These include Twelve Poems for Mikolaj (1993), From the Front Line of Terror (2002), Celta Arabica (with Ghazi Hussein, 2004), Jock Campbell’s Bairns (2008), and Leaving George (2015). He also contributed two historical poems to A Rose Loupt Oot (2011), commemorating the UCS Work-in of 1971-72.

It is sometimes asserted, against all the evidence, that poetry and politics do not mix, the assumption being that propagandist ranting is the inevitable result. The political writings of Milton and Blake and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and MacDiarmid and a thousand others contradict this assertion. Yeats made the useful distinction between poetry that is merely rhetorical, a quarrel with others, and poetry that rings true. Jim Aitken avoids lapsing into the former, and achieves the latter, by grounding his poems very firmly and consistently in the material world of particular places and trees and birds and, above all, people.

His voice is a quiet one, and a wise one, imbued with a Wordsworthian “music of humanity”. It is at the same time a voice of today. In Flutterings, the reader hears this voice very clearly. The book is attractively printed, with good photographic design work. Recommended!

Flutterings, by Jim Aitken, is published by Red Rose Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-0-9955281-0-9.

In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow
Tuesday, 26 April 2016 16:50

In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow

Published in Poetry

In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow

“The Hollow Mountain: ever heard of it?"
He placed his glass next ours, then -
"Seat taken? No?" - sat down.

"I overheard you talking.
Seems History's your thing; mine, too,
though all the dates and names
that interest me
are never put in any books at all."

His face was a crumpled grey,
the likeness caught, soon after,
in a painting,
hung now on the bar-room wall.

The big man spoke with us,
an hour or more, of tunnelling:
of howking out the heart of Cruachan
when he was young,
to hold the dynamo that feeds the country

Now dead, he is a part himself - a hero -
in the History he liked to hear.


Below is Brecht's original poem, which happens to be the favourite poem of the artist who drew the accompanying cartoon, Bob Starrett.


Questions From a Worker Who Reads

by Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?

So many reports.

So many questions.


You are invited to write a poem in a Brechtian style, and send it to us.

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