Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

The Labour Manifesto and cultural democracy
Sunday, 16 September 2018 21:31

The Labour Manifesto and cultural democracy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille outlines what should go into a democratic, socialist Labour manifesto for the next election

MQ LP

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Those words are from the Labour Party Manifesto of 1945 (see above). What does culture mean to us now, and what should the next Labour Manifesto say about it?

Culture matters to everyone. We all develop and flourish as social, human beings through engaging in cultural activities. We play sport, watch television and films, go to pubs and restaurants, listen to music, meet together for religious or spiritual purposes, and communicate using social media.

We get all kinds of exercise, entertainment, and enlightenment from cultural activities. They make life meaningful and enjoyable, and are essential for us to live the ‘full, happy, healthy lives’ that the 1945 Manifesto promised.

But corporate capitalism, with its restless search for private profit, stops us accessing and enjoying culture fully. Just as private ownership and control of the means of production prevents the enjoyment of the full fruits of our labour, so private ownership and control of the means of cultural satisfaction prevents the full and equal enjoyment of culture by everyone.

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'Culture is BAE Systems Britain', appropriated Government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.

That’s why the Labour Party needs to present radical and comprehensive culture policies in its next Manifesto. It needs to commit to cultural democracy – to democratic management and social ownership of all the cultural activities that working people need.

Massive problems currently flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of culture.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible and affordable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercialisation of most major sports causes regular scandals involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of human communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human communication without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial, capitalist interests.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities. We eat and drink in company, with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt and fat, and unhealthy amounts of alcohol. Their profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

MQ pi 04 2016 map 

In the arts, there are long-standing problems of inaccessibility, irrelevance and inequality, which ACE is spectacularly failing to solve. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet money from taxes and Lottery tickets funds massively unequal cultural provision for residents and tourists in the London area, and for the better off everywhere.

It’s harder to become an arts practitioner – actor, writer or musician – or to get your work published, performed or filmed, if you’re from a working class background. There are no legal barriers to class-based discrimination in the arts – or any other cultural activity, for that matter.

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Finally, the Tories’ failed policies of economic austerity have also led to libraries, museums and other cheap or free cultural facilities being cut back across the country.

So what should the next Labour Manifesto commit to? What would be the modern equivalent of its 1945 Manifesto?

Firstly, it should cover all the cultural activities which matter to working people, not just the arts. An inclusive approach to culture is essential if we want to transform the world for the benefit of the many, not the few.

Secondly, it should enable social ownership and democratic control of all the institutions and agencies which fund, manage and deliver cultural activities.

Detailed commitments in the Manifesto should include:

– Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners

– Embedding cultural education (both appreciation and practice) into the national curriculum

– Reclaiming the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) by reforming its funding, ownership and control, and providing space for working class voices and community-based providers.

– Shifting public spending on the arts and sport towards more support for grassroots participation, more support for working class communities, and more support outside London

– Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions (especially the arts, sports, religion, and the media) in terms of content, audiences and practitioners

– Regulating, taxing, and democratising relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, media and broadcasting corporations, arts facilities, sports clubs etc.

– Applying more democratic and accountable social ownership models to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities, and local community co-operatives

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945, and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a democratic and socialist culture policy in the next Manifesto – because culture matters to the many, not the few.

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
Saturday, 28 July 2018 08:19

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.

Introduction

The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on

- What culture means and why it is so important

- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own

- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities

- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.

What culture means and why it is important

What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.

So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.

Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Culture, politics and class

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.

So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.

Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.

Current Cultural Issues

It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.

Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:

- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.

- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.

- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.

- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.

- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.

- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.

- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.

General principles for a culture policy

In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:

- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.

- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.

- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.

- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.

Specific Policy Proposals

The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:

- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.

- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.

- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.

- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.

- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.

- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.

- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.

- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.

- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.

- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.

- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.

- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.

- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.

- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.

- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.

- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.

- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

 The media
 
- Reclaim the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) for the people by reforming its funding, ownership and control. Promote democratic accountability and pluralism in order to prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of monopolistic interests, and create space for progressive and alternative providers capable of criticising and holding power to account.

- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society

- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.

- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.

Sport and Leisure

- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.

- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.

- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.

- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.

- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.

- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.

Conclusion

The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.

With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 16:59

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018

Published in Poetry

Thanks to all of you who sent in poems this year. We received over 800 poems, so we're very grateful to all the contributors, and to Andy Croft from Smokestack Books and Mary Sayer from Unite for doing the difficult job of choosing the winners and the other poems to go into this year's anthology.

The five winners are Helen Burke; Martin Hayes; Fran Lock; Alan Morrison and Steve Pottinger.

All the poems will be posted up shortly. Mary Sayer said this about the competition:

This is my second year judging this much-needed and extraordinary competition. Again, I was struck by the passion, the urgency and the sheer hard work driving people to write these poems. So many of the entries were beautifully put together, often with a story that demanded to be told and with artfully refreshing humour.

The poems all reflected the fact that we find ourselves in such bleak and alienating times – making this type of competition more crucial than ever. And this year we had a particularly healthy number of entries from women and from young people – again, a reflection of deep, unvoiced feelings from those hardest hit by today’s increasingly rampant inequality.

So, thanks to all of you passionate poets out there – keep them coming! If I had my way, it would be like Alice in Wonderland: “All are winners and all should have prizes”

And Andy Croft said this:

At a time when the British poetry world is sinking under the weight of so many self-promoting vanity projects, it was a pleasure and a privilege to able to read so many moving, witty and well-written entries to the Bread and Roses competition. While the poems ranged in subject-matter, voices and styles, they shared a radical common-sense that social inequality is worse than ever, that government is remote and hostile, and that only in collective work and struggle can we begin to imagine another way of living.

The best entries try to describe the tectonic historical plates beneath the surface of everyday life, making connections with other poets, other readers, other histories and managing to avoid nostalgia, helpless anger or generalised pity. I really hope that Culture Matters is going to publish a big anthology of the best of these poems as a follow-up to last year's wonderful On Fighting On anthology.

 On Fighting On is still available for sale here.

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!
Friday, 06 July 2018 13:37

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille interviews Paul Summers, including extracts from a major new poem which is published by Culture Matters. It will be launched at the People, Pits and Politics festival in Durham on Friday 13th July, the day before the Miners’ Gala, and is available for purchase here

Paul Summers is deeply rooted in the working-class pit communities of the North East, and the poem was commissioned from him by Culture Matters. Its aim is to show, as a poetical and political statement, the growing political importance under Corbyn’s Labour Party of the socialist values and politics of the old mining communities – the women as well as the men – who struggled for a more caring, collective and co-operative way of life through their sheer hard work, their trade unions, and their political affiliations.

This heritage is celebrated and recreated annually at the Gala in Durham, one of the world’s biggest working-class cultural festivals, and the poem links the processions at the Gala to the rebirth of a more class conscious, socialist politics in the labour movement and the Labour Party.

MQ: To start with, can you tell us something about yourself? What's your background, and how did you come to appreciate and write poetry?

PS: I was born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1967. We lived in an old 2 up 2 down terrace in a place called Cowpen, half a mile west of Bates’ Pit (the last working pit out of the 10 or so that had existed in Blyth) where both my grandads had worked and half a mile east of Bebside village, where my great and great-great-grandads had settled in the 1850s to hew coals.

It was a lovely old working-class community: we had all the romantic clichés of back doors left open, borrowing cups of sugar or coal from the neighbours, a wash-day chorus of gossip in the back lane, as well as the less romantic realities of the domestic violence, the alcoholism and the undercurrent of racism. I suppose it was quite an anachronistic place on reflection; whenever I recount it to people now it feels as though I was brought up in Beamish Museum or on the set of When The Boat Comes In.

Most of the people in the street were old, retired miners, their wives or widows and they were all good talkers, fond of a yarn or a song and a bit of reminiscence about ye olden days, the hardships they’d endured and the mischief they’d got up to. They were an oral historian’s dream. I was captivated by them, seduced by their stories, and I think that’s what sowed the seed of me being a yarner of sorts too.

Class, politics, social history and cultural identity were ever present, all wrapped up in their tales of extraordinary ordinariness. I think I decided quite early on that I fancied being a south-east Northumbrian version of John Boy from The Walton’, documenting the place I lived in and the characters who I shared it with. To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve just about succeeded in fulfilling my career model. I’m not sure that being a poet featured highly in that plan but it’s what I’ve found I’m probably best at, despite still occasionally dabbling in bits of prose and drama.

I had a great comprehensive education too, and was encouraged by a few ‘special’ teachers to take my writing seriously and to keep on being in love with history and peoples’ stories.

I was 17 in 1984, when the Miners’ Strike started. It brought politics with a capital ‘P’ to our front door. It highlighted both the unities and divisions within the community, in opinion, ideologies and realities. I remember the pragmatism of some of the older fellas, like my granda, saying that most pits were like men and if you got 3 score and ten years out of them you’d have been lucky.

I remember the ferocity of support for Scargill from many others who were fighting for their futures (or their children’s futures) and who could foresee the coming desolation of a town without industry or opportunity. I remember witnessing the heavy hand of the police state first hand for the first time – waking up to find a long line of South Yorkshire SPG riot vans parked up along Cowpen Road, in readiness for any bother on the picket line.

I remember a few (slightly drunken) mates getting viciously beaten up by the coppers on the night that Scargill spoke at Croft Park, the home of the mighty Blyth Spartans. I remember the tales of hardship and suicidal depression you’d hear around the doors, the hate-filled stories of scabs and Tory vindictiveness, as well as the stories of incredible resolve, resilience and solidarity.

Anyhow, the strike was defeated and in a few years the pit was closed. Blyth didn’t fare too well for a decade or so after that. I think at some point in the late 80s we had the dubious honour of being voted the most depressing place in the country twice in a row, and being labelled as the heroin capital of the north.

Plenty to bear witness to, plenty to educate you in social injustice and existential torment, in defeat and optimism, in nihilism and hope, in grief and joy, in laughter and tears, plenty of complex stuff that a person could easily spend their entire creative life trying to unpick & make sense of.


MQ: Can you tell us something about your poetic career, what you've been trying to achieve and how that's changed over the years?

PS: I’d left school at 17 and motivated no doubt by TV lawyer Petrocelli, I started to work as a trainee legal executive at a solicitors’ office in Newcastle. It was a thoroughly Dickensian institution which paid us less than the dole for working from 8 till 5.30, and it fuelled my dislike for the upper classes, my hatred of privilege and my growing sense of social injustice. Luckily for me (in retrospect) I was sacked in 1987, for playing snooker when I should have been at Newcastle College doing my afternoon-release Legal Executive’s course.

If nothing else my dismissal encouraged me to go and do my A Levels and to start thinking about getting a degree. In the process of the former I met three literature lecturers/poets called Brendan Cleary, George Charlton & Tony Baynes. All three were interested in and supportive of my writing and at that moment in time that was the only motivation I needed. They introduced me to literary magazines and the work of other writers and they encouraged me to start submitting stuff myself.  

By 1990 I’d had bits and bobs of stuff published and had, by a strange fluke of history, found myself co-organising the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle. The tragic suicide of my fellow co-organiser left me, the anxious rookie, at the helm. It was an interesting time – I met some great poets and my poetic education continued, and I made some long-lasting allies and friends. I also learned what a self-interested viper’s nest the creative world could be, and how the world of literature was still fairly bourgeois and unwelcoming to a working class man. All good lessons for a naïve, small-town boy.

I’d published a few little chapbooks through Brendan Cleary’s Echo Room Press in the nineties, and picked up a couple of writers’ awards from Northern Arts, but the last bus was my first proper collection. Iron Press published it on May 1st 1998, and luckily it was well received and reviewed. It even got the title sequence from the book in that year’s Forward poetry anthology, and a brief but favourable mention in the broadsheets.

the last bus was all about growing up in Blyth, all about the micro-universe of Cowpen, all about family, friends and acquaintances, all about love and loss. But it was also, by default, about the bigger stuff: about class, politics, identity and history, dead-set on exploring the tensions between romanticised and realistic representations of a working-class community. I was already tired of unquestioningly romantic Geordierama versions of working class existence in the north East. It created my version of Walton’s Mountain, not pre-war Virginia but Thatcher era, post-industrial Northumberland – and hopefully not just sentimental and eulogising. It was full of rage and love, the complexity of identity and familial relations. It was me trying to tell the truth, or my truth anyhow, to be authentic, to tell it how it was, warts and all.

The next few books just picked up the baton – any street, any town, ‘all human life is here’ (and worthy of poetry). In fact, I don’t think I’ve veered that far from that way of thinking in the following twenty years of writing. The focus on community or geography might occasionally shift, town to city, macro to domestic, Britain to Australia and back, but the desire to report, document and interrogate people and place remains the same. My muses or motivations to write remain the same too: rage and outrage, confusion and bewilderment, love, rapture and grief, all of them demanding the need to bear witness.

MQ. There are a number of issues around poetry and politics that I'd like to explore with you. What are your own political beliefs, and how do they influence your choice of poetic subject and approach?

PS: I like to think that I’m a compassionate socialist who isn’t averse to most of the core values of communism. I’d very much like to see the end of capitalism and neo-liberalism and for them to be replaced with a more equitable, just, democratic and sustainable model of society free of class division, elites, patriarchy and hierarchies.

Much of my poetry is shaped by this political positioning and my experiences as a working class, comprehensively educated bloke from the post-industrial North East of England. A reviewer once said that my work ‘wasn’t political in the way Brecht or Neruda’s was, but that it was full of politics nonetheless’. My granda, who was fond of a proverb, used to say it was fine to wave the flag but a different thing altogether to hit people over the head with the flag-staff. I think I try and do precisely that.

I hope I authentically and empathically represent and document aspects of my community, I hope I display compassion and care. I hope the questions I occasionally pose on our behaviours are relevant ones, and that my frequent outrage is well placed. I hope that me bearing witness to the things which appal and enrage me occasionally impacts on other people’s thinking.

I hope I occasionally encourage an intellectual or ideological response from people as well as an emotional one. I hope people find the beauty and tenderness in my poems which might re-energise them or keep a darkness at bay. I hope I model being a ‘decent’, compassionate person in my work. I don’t think you’d have to work very hard to establish my politics – I hope you can see the flag even though I am not always whacking you with it.

MQ: What's your view on the history of poetry, and its close historical association with politically dominant and leisured classes in society?

PS: Poetry may have been genuinely popular in the British Isles at several moments of history, when an oral tradition was dominant amongst largely illiterate societies. Whether it was a population transfixed by the retelling of a Viking saga or the romans of the troubadours and minstrels, folklore and song, to the doggerel of the music hall and the gin-house balladeers, or Kipling’s imperial jingoism. Oral transmission popularised poetry and made the form more accessible to all classes, not just the book-owning, forelock tugging, velvet-suited elites.

This all seems to have changed with the advent of modernism, when for one reason or another, poetry seems to have retrenched itself as a ‘difficult’ or ‘high’ art and retreated back into the confines of its ivory towers (or red brick university towers). And the upper classes asserted a new set of conventions to make the canon more exclusive and impenetrable, and by turns less human and engaging.

This position wasn’t really challenged in Britain until the 60s, when a generation of baby-boomer, working-class, grammar school kids started to introduce poetic narratives and styles that were more familiar and engaging to the broader population. This coincided with the Beat movement in the US, with May 68 in Paris and the Summer of Love in America. Poetry had a brief renaissance, existing happily alongside the words of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and their like. Even then though, the reach of poetry into the world of the working classes was miniscule in comparison to the gin-house days.

Since then, you could argue there has a been a painfully slow democratisation of the form. As Sean O’Brien suggested in The Deregulated Muse, the last thirty or forty years has undoubtedly seen a more diverse range of voices appear, denting the glass ceilings of gender, class, race and sexuality, and there are probably more physical and virtual platforms for dissemination than ever before. However, it’s still a long way from reaching mainstream status, where it’s readily consumed by the masses.

Despite the perennial broadsheet hype suggesting poetry is the new rock and roll, book sales and audiences suggest the contrary. It’s still a fairly marginalised artform with a limited reach, and limited opportunity for it to be a sustainable way of making a living, unless you find a niche in academia or socially engaged activities.

Some of the indie presses are trying their damnedest to increase this diversity and readership but mostly they do it without resource or capacity to impact on the already flooded cultural arena.

The premier publishing houses still have limited sized lists and equally limited marketing capacity and generally speaking they are still, in my opinion, fairly bourgeois and unchallenging in their choices of poets to champion.

Then we have the various splits & factions within the poetry world itself: around aesthetics, regional identities , our various sociological classifications and identities, the ascendancy of stage and page, the academic and the ‘popular’, the ‘majors’ and the ‘minors’, the left and the right, the ‘art for art’s sake’ mob and the politically engaged creative utilitarians.

We poets are a very disunited and disjointed village and fragmentation, as anyone familiar with leftist politics will tell you, has never been a strength in terms of furthering your message or realising change.

MQ: How do you think poetry can contribute towards making a better, juster, world?

PS: We as poets can bear witness to and challenge atrocity and social injustice at every level we find it, we can be moral arbiters and polemicists, agitators and rabble-rousers. We can flag up the experience of the marginalised and forgotten. We can be conduits for the telling and re-telling of histories, and the dissemination of alternative ideas and ideologies.

We can remind people of the things we share, our commonalities, as well as celebrating our difference. We can validate experiences and create a sense of universal interest. We can celebrate beauty, compassion and altruism. We can provide a space of sanctuary, delight or quiet grieving. We can make people laugh as well as move them to tears. We can remind each other of our humanity and of the responsibilities that goes with enacting and facilitating that humanity. We can encourage broader participation, be brave enough to take our work into non-traditional environments, we can be educators and facilitators, we can organise events and publish.

We can collaborate, collectivise and work cross-form. We can actually start to think like cultural democrats and political activists, rather than wallowing in our garrets or talking only to our respective choirs. We can do whatever our motivations, confidence and energy levels allow us. We can all be subversives if we understand what and who we are fighting against.

fish quay fugues

  1. i. doggerland

the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

- antonio gramsci

& the way will be perilous;
black ice & shark-eyed smiles,
several heaps of hogmanay vomit,
a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,
its palimpsest of feast & greed,
bleak litany of the new & old,
dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,
the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,
the endless cycle of peddled fact.
& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;
its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,
the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.

kick off your shoes my love & walk;
due east, towards the burgeoning sun.
plough on through the grave mounds
of haddock-frames & listless kelp,
tread slowly on the pebble field,
avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;
then walk & wade & catch your breath,
beyond the bar where codling lurk,
let swell becalm your troubled blood,
squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;
the rapture of tectonic plates entwined
in acts of violence & of love, the red raw
ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,
each jolt, each breathless force exerted
sees citadels emergent from these waves,
a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,
its strongholds of hope re-rendered
now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,
their gates agape, their monsters slain;
each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.

 

MQ. Can you say something about how you wrote this poem and what it means to you?

PS: doggerland is from a new sequence of poems I’m working on called the fish quay fugues. The poems document the flights of my imagination as I walk by the river.

Walking has become part of my creative practice. I walk every day, rain, hail or shine. Usually it’s the same route: from my house in North Shields down the bank to the River Tyne at the Fish Quay, then eastwards towards the Spanish Battery Prow, onto the Haven Beach at Tynemouth, then back home to Shields via Collingwood’s Monument, Knott’s Flats and Northumberland Park.

At low tide I walk out on the rocks in a vain search for sea-borne archaeological treasures and a high tide along the promenade. It’s become a form of meditation, sometimes a head-clearing exercising, sometimes a thought-refining process. Lots of creative ideas are polished and there is much philosophising en route.

I have spent, and continue to spend, a great chunk of my life trying to negotiate with myself over a position of continued optimism for humankind and for the arrival of some sort of socialist utopia: the great & ponderous dialectic between hope and despondency. History proves that I am more than capable of the latter path, the path of perpetual moping, angry cynicism or even nihilism, but it’s not a version of myself I’m particularly attracted to. It doesn’t seem like a very sustainable model for your general wellbeing or that of those around you.

So, I continue to dredge my psyche for a semblance of hope. I do this even though throughout my adult life, it has often seemed as if we have stumbled from one period of Brechtian ‘dark times’ to another, without any real or sustained recourse to any ‘light times’. I do this even though reality tells me I have experienced lots of ideological defeats and disappointments and very few victories.

Now that I am a decade into being a parent, I feel even more of an obligation to be hopeful, at least within my outward looking face. Otherwise, the prospects of my children’s futures are just too difficult to contemplate. It is because of this, I genuinely feel we must remain stubbornly optimistic, we must remain robustly hopeful that the ‘glorious day’ will come, equality & peace will prevail & that all the evils of capitalism will be kicked into touch for good.

I think these new poems are all addressing this nagging question of hope and despair, and generally speaking – up to now anyway – they are leaning towards optimism, even if that optimism is slightly metaphysical.

It strikes me that both optimism & hope may both be forms of necessary denial: essential parts of the toolkit of any forward-looking socialist trying to keep the red flag flying and the black dog at bay.

Extract from arise!

by Paul Summers

‘they being dead yet speaketh’

so history is done,
the shafts capped,

the breathless heaps
erased or made-over:

a short-cut to asda,
a low gradient jog,

somewhere for the dog
to take a shit.

no monument
save memory,

save anecdote
& frail romance,

no rusted remnant,
no totem mark,

only nature to sing
their hymn.

a broken picket-line
of hunch-backed thistles,

a huddle of poppies
in a fly-tipped fridge,

summer’s shrill birdsong
captive in a cage of gorse,

three score years & ten
of spoil beneath our feet,

our antecedents
rendered mute & obsolete,

our pasts & present
wedged asunder,

their marriage annulled
by devious progress.

history is done
the cynics proclaim,

they do not hear it
nagging in our veins,

they do not hear
the bitter wind

hiss its litany
of familiar names.

they do not hear
the whispered yakka

echo in the helix
of our complex genes.

they do not hear
the roll-call

of redundant lives,
of prospects slain

at altars of profit
& heinous spite.

history is done
the sages refrain,

they do not hear it
niggling in our veins.

 

MQ. Can you tell us a bit about what the Gala and mining history means to you?

PS: As I implied earlier, my family has had a connection to coal-mining since the late 1700s. The Summers ancestors started out working in the bell-pits of north Northumberland then migrated southwards towards Newcastle and south-east Northumberland as the process was more industrialised. Other branches of the family migrated eastwards from Cumbria or northwards from Cornwall into the Durham coalfield before they ultimately ended up in Blyth. My dad was the first man in his direct bloodline in over a hundred and fifty years never to work down the pit, choosing the relatively safety of the Town Gas Yard and a fitter’s apprenticeship instead. It’s safe to say that coal, and the traditions that go with mining it, is firmly embedded in our genetic make-up.

As a Blyth boy we always went to the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic at Attlee Park in Bedlington. We’d march from Blyth behind the Bates & Cambois Banner. It was similarly rousing but only a proportion of the scale of Durham by the time I can remember it. I’ve fond memories though, good rousing speakers, brass bands, abundant ice cream & candy floss. My mam had even been a Picnic Queen in the late fifties, representing West Sleekburn Colliery. It still exists today to a greater or lesser degree, and happens at Woodhorn Museum in early June.

I‘d never been to the Big Meeting in Durham until the early nineties but now I try to get there whenever I can. It’s an amazing spectacle and still incredibly moving I think. There were a quarter of million people there last year, and it’s still regarded as the biggest trade union event in Europe – and that’s despite the fact that we’ve got no deep-mines left in either the Durham or Northumberland coalfields.

arise! by Paul Summers is available here10% of sales income will go to to the Durham Miners’ Association, towards the restoration of Redhills and its development into a cultural hub for the area.

CM book Arise cover

arise!
Tuesday, 26 June 2018 15:50

arise!

Published in Our Publications

£5 including p. and p.

ISBN 978-1-912710-03-4

arise! is a new long poem by Paul Summers, which is both a celebration of the past, and an inspiration for the future. The pamphlet was commissioned by Culture Matters for the Durham Miners' Gala this year, and it is sponsored by the Durham Miners' Association.

The poem celebrates the rich heritage and culture of mining communities, which is expressed so vibrantly and colourfully in the marches, the banners, the music and the speeches at the Durham Miners’ Gala. It invokes the collective and co-operative spirit of past generations of men and women who worked and struggled so hard to survive, to build their union, and to organise politically to fight for a better world.

arise! also celebrates the new, resurgent spirit in the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, and the renewal of support for socialist solutions to the country’s growing economic and social problems.

It's wonderful to see the proud history of the Durham Miners' Gala represented in this powerful poem. Paul Summers has managed to capture the spirit of the Miners' Gala and its central place in our movement's mission to achieve 'victory for the many, and not the few'. – Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party.

A powerful, rhythmic and inspiring poem – Alan Cummings, Secretary, Durham Miners' Association.

‘arise!’is a full-throated song of defiant hope, seeing in the history of the coal industry much to mourn, yet much to celebrate. – Sean O’Brien, Professor of Creative Writing, Newcastle University

10% of the proceeds of sales of this book will go to the DMA Redhills Appeal, to help turn Redhills into a cultural hub for the area.

Poetry of the working class at the Torriano Meeting House, 22nd July
Thursday, 14 June 2018 22:08

Poetry of the working class at the Torriano Meeting House, 22nd July

Published in Poetry

On Sunday July 22nd, live at 7.30pm at the Torriano Meeting House, Kentish Town, five great London-based poets, all published or about to be published by Culture Matters, will read their poetry.

They are Fran Lock........ Peter Raynard........ Martin Hayes........ Alan Dunnett........ and Nadia Drews. You'll hear some rather special poets read some very special words......so be there!

CM booklet FL Muses cover

Fran Lock: "...in those hotbed-of-non-event towns, / she dug in her heels, and she bit back her/ anger..." - From ‘our mother's day will come.
Fran is the author of four books: Flatrock (Little Episodes, 2011), The Mystic and the Pig Thief (Salt, 2014), Dogtooth (Out-Spoken Press, 2017) and Muses and Bruises (Manifesto Press/Culture Matters, 2017). Her work is concerned with the unlikely strategies for resistance in the lives of working-class women and girls. 

CM book Raynard cover for promo 2


Peter Raynard
: ‘some of us are trench-foot perfect-fit coffin fodder taken in by the pointed finger of men bred from a moustache to dig a scar down France to bury ourselves in’ - From Tommy and the Common Five-Eighters.

Peter is the author of two books: Precarious (Smokestack, 2018) & The Combination: a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018).

Martin Hayes cover

Martin Hayes – "...because in the end/ don’t we need these jobs/ for more than just their money don’t we need these jobs/ so that we can stand in front of mirrors/ and look at ourselves/ without feeling worthless/ or disconnected..." - From stitching this Universe together 

Martin has worked in the London courier industry for over 30 years. He is the author of four books: Letting Loose The Hounds, (Redbeck Press). When We Were Almost Like Men,(Smokestack). The Things Our Hands Once Stood For, (Culture Matters) and Roar! (Smokestack, 2018)

CM book Alan Dunnett cover for promo


Alan Dunnett
: “Crucifixions on either side and winter coming on although it is still warm. In the streets are banners and megaphones sounding through open shop doors, marching, democracy, discussion, disagreement. Let me help you up. It's not too late.”– From When The Well Runs Dry

Alan works mainly at Drama Centre, CSM, where he is also a UCU rep. His poetry has appeared online and in print including Culture Matters, Stand, Skylight 47, The Rialto, The Recusant, The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 (Eyewear). A Third Colour is Alan’s debut collection (Culture Matters, 2018).

Nadia Drews: “It was in the way she spat./Jutting jets, tongue-funnelled,/Through a rizla-thin grimacing gap./Like a mill-misting drizzle.”– From The things she did not say.

Nadia grew up in San Francisco sun and Greater Manchester mizzle. She is a former Farrago Poetry Slam Champion who protests through songs and plays including the pub-staged I Love Vinegar Vera (What becomes of the Broken Hearted). She is currently working on a collection for Culture Matters to be published later this year.

In bed with Macbeth
Friday, 01 June 2018 07:56

A Third Colour: A protest against the world we live in

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille introduces a new collection of poetry from Culture Matters.

Housmans, the not-for-profit radical bookshop, is at the foot of the Caledonian Road near King's Cross station in North London. It was the venue for the recent launch of A Third Colour, Culture Matters' new collection of poems by Alan Dunnett with accompanying images by the artist Alix Emery.

Films made from the poems were screened, including Interrogation: https://vimeo.com/271818949 and Brother and Sister: https://vimeo.com/271823547

Music from Dungeness, Niobe, Pumajaw and Love, with their fractured, dystopian concerns, was played, echoing and complementing the themes of the poems. Readings with other Culture Matters poets will follow in the summer

‘These are poems of the first importance by the least self-important of writers’ says Bernard O’Donoghue in his introduction. Through the sheen of vivid, simple narratives and vignettes, we glimpse more disturbing, ambivalent themes of alienation, dislocation and suffering, the psychological fallout of anxiety in modern capitalist culture. These are serious, quietly passionate poems, about topics that matter in life: love and hurt and justice. Some are masterpieces of humanity and compassion, concerned with mothers and daughters, and with brothers and sisters. Others are bitterly ironic commentaries on politics and modern government.

The subtly expressed unease and angst is perfectly complemented by the restrained, fractured images by Alix Emery, which add depth, colour and enhanced meanings to the poems. Feelings of disorientation and existential aloneness run through the images, and the repetition of red dots in the images - and throughout the beautifully designed book - hint at the underpinning network of cultural control and surveillance which facilitates our exploitation and oppression under capitalism.

A Third Colour is a book of visionary, poetic parables and dystopian, uneasy images. It is a principled and skilful expression of, and protest against, the world we live in. 

A Third Colour is £8 (plus £1.50 p&p) and you can order copies here.

The beauty and usefulness of poetry: Teeside International Poetry Festival
Tuesday, 01 May 2018 22:16

The beauty and usefulness of poetry: Teeside International Poetry Festival

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille praises the 'subversive internationalism' of the 2018 Teeside International Poetry Festival, and presents some of the poems performed there.

250 years ago, Middlesbrough-born James Cook set sail on one of history’s iconic imperialist journeys. It was a voyage which extended scientific, geographical and cultural knowledge of other peoples. It also facilitated the violent economic exploitation of the globe, the political domination of other peoples, and massive worldwide cultural destruction, theft and appropriation by Britain’s ruling class.

fish quay fugues

by Paul Summers

i. doggerland

the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

 - antonio gramsci

 

& the way will be perilous;

black ice & shark-eyed smiles,

several heaps of hogmanay vomit,

a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,

its palimpsest of feast & greed,

bleak litany of the new & old,

dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,

the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,

the endless cycle of peddled fact.

& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;

its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,

the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.

kick off your shoes my love & walk;

due east, towards the burgeoning sun.

plough on through the grave mounds

of haddock-frames & listless kelp,

tread slowly on the pebble field,

avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;

then walk & wade & catch your breath,

beyond the bar where codling lurk,

let swell becalm your troubled blood,

squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;

the rapture of tectonic plates entwined

in acts of violence & of love, the red raw

ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,

each jolt, each breathless force exerted

sees citadels emergent from these waves,

a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,

its strongholds of hope re-rendered

now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,

their gates agape, their monsters slain;

each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.

Working women and men in Middlesbrough never benefited very much from Britain’s imperialist project. It is now one of the most economically and socially deprived areas of the UK, and has the most ethnically diverse population in the North East.

The Usefulness of Poetry

by Francis Combes

A young beggar encountered in the metro

had written these words

on a piece of cardboard hung round his neck;

‘As the burning forest

shouts towards the river’s water

I appeal to you:

Please give me

something to eat.’

And it seems

People were giving.

(Which would tend to point to

the usefulness of poetry

in our societies.)

Against this background of deindustrialization, poverty and dispossession, the Teeside International Poetry Festival, which ran in various venues in Middlesbrough at the end of April, showcased a phenomenal variety of examples of artistic, social and political engagement from countries around the world as well as from communities in the North East.

The sheer internationalism of the event was astounding. Poets came to read and perform their poetry from Iraq, Finland, Iceland, Nigeria, Botswana, Poland, Russia, India and elsewhere. The variety of the poetics on offer was astonishing, from Lev Rubinstein’s Russian conceptual poetry, with its roots in the wonderful flowering of conceptual arts in 1920s revolutionary Soviet Union……..

Unnamed events

by Lev Rubinstein

Absolutely impossible.

Not at all possible.

Impossible.

Perhaps, at some point.

Sometime.

Later.

Not yet.

Not now.

And not now.

And not now.

Perhaps, soon.

It could be soon.

Really soon.

Perhaps earlier than expected.

Quite soon.

Just about.

Now.

Pay attention.

Here.

Well, that’s about all.

That’s all.

……….to Peter Adegbie’s and Eric Motswasale’s gloriously entertaining praise-poetry from Nigeria and Botswana, interrogating the rapacious – and ongoing – effects of European colonialism on Africa's languages and peoples:

Esoobay!

by Peter Adegbie

Was a rallying cry!

When your car was stuck... Esoobay!

When friends gave a hand... Esoobay!

When brute strength was needed

all you required was a shout of Esoobay!

We will laugh and sometimes we cried,

but we always got the task done.

Esoobay was a mantra of vigour.

I thought Esoobay was Ibo or Efik

or one of those exotic dialect

of the proud Niger, rich in history and folklore.

O great bright sky, how could I

under your gaze have lived

in blindness for so long?

Apes Obey!

Who could ever imagine

that colonial abuse can become language.

This persona crept into our lives

without guns or machete.

It took on life, defying time

abusing reason until its truth shames me.

It is not the truth that hurts the most

but the emptiness that takes its place.

Esoobay... cherished chant of my youth

now lost forever, stripped like leaves

off the tree of indignity,

sounds of a fractured memory

I long to forget in the winds of history.

 

Africa  

by Keabonye Bareeng

What happened to you Africa?

You were born black and free

Yet you never enjoyed your liberty

Your hands and legs bear the marks of slavery

You were not a buyer in a slave trade market

You were never in enslaved no one

But your children are bound servants

They speak a stranger to a merciless alien chorus

Tailor made to fit his distraction aspiration

AFRICA you were born wealthy

Gold, diamonds, oil, and kinds of minerals

God planted them in the belly of your black land

Raw and indubitable for your enjoyment

Yet you have never tasted their sweetness

They are looted in the name assistance

Finished products of your own minerals

Do not bear your name AFRICA

You cannot afford to purchase them

You are poorest and survived by aids

Aids that you get in the exchange of your soul

Aids that have strings attached to

Aids that drinks the blood of your children

Who has robbed you of your dignity?

The alien enjoys your riches

The interior of your land is blessed and rich

But you are not able to feed your own children

Hunger disease swallow your children

Conflicts rooted elsewhere finds comfort in your huts

Your infants are freezing from the cold of imperialism

 

AFRICA who raped you and broke your virginity?

Your beauty that used to grasp the eyes of strangers

Has been turned into a battle field of endless wars

Who gave you AK47 to massacre your own children?

Why do you allow them to give their war tanks?

You were born peaceful and abhorred conflict

They made weapons to terminate you AFRICA

Their destructive missiles are tested in your head

At the barrel of a gun they looted your land

Why do you let them mislead you?

Who has bewitched you great land?

Stand up and open your eyes AFRICA

Certify your exploiters wrong

You are not what they declare you to be

You can clean your house without their help

Develop your culture without their rescue

You can heal your land without medication

Talk; minister to God without their medication

Breast-feed your children without compassion

Africa you the age and powerful enough to rescue yourself

Do not let them divide you and fight in your land

Do not allow them to despise you

You know their minds they cannot perceive your capability

You have mastered their language they are unable to speak yours

AFRICA you are elegant, preserves yourself that way

There is nobody like you anywhere AFRICA.

Over the course of four days, the festival shaped itself into a living collage of poetics, gradually building a conversational echo-chamber of voices and languages which was as stimulating as it was energising. Diversity was also expressed and celebrated through the wide range of events. As well as readings, cabarets, and workshops, there was a launch of a book of poems by Teeside primary schoolchildren; an Urdu-Punjabi 'mushaira' or poetic gathering; and poetry masterclasses in local colleges.

There were also some excellent discussions about poetry, such as the one at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art on the relationship between beauty and usefulness in poetry. MIMA, it should be noted, is also moving forward with a responsive, civic agenda - its new mission is to reconnect art with its social function and promote art as a tool for changing the world. Like the poets appearing at the Festival, MIMA wishes to have an influence on society, and play a full part in addressing current issues in politics, economics and culture. Its current and planned programmes of visual art tackle urgent and locally very pressing themes of housing, migration, and inequality, which made it a fitting venue for Festival events.

What, then, binds together this eclectic, multi-stranded poetry festival, as it creatively scatters the peaceful light of global fellowship and community, and imaginatively shatters the violent realities of imperialism, chauvinism, exploitation and oppression?

Its gentle, insistent and necessarily subversive internationalism. Its celebration of poetry as a tool of resistance, of protest, of imagining alternatives. And its subtly suggestive but quietly powerful celebration of poetry as a fundamentally social art which makes common cause between communities worldwide, and which enables a communal imagining of a better world.

No Them Only Us
Thursday, 05 April 2018 18:39

Their walls are our stones

Published in Cultural Commentary

What would a radical, socialist culture policy look like?

Last September I reported on The World Transformed festival, organised by Momentum alongside the Labour Party conference in Brighton. It included several workshops on culture, looking at what the elements of a radical culture policy might be, building on the commitments in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.

That manifesto was a marked improvement on previous manifestos, and clearly reflected the personal vision of Jeremy Corbyn and his team. He was the only candidate in 2015 to support the role of the arts in nourishing everyday creativity, and its potential for political dissent.

The manifesto also backed policies to improve working class access to culture, both as workers in creative industries – musicians, actors, writers etc. – and as spectators and consumers of culture.

The open, participatory nature of politics which the Brighton workshops exemplified has now become the Movement for Cultural Democracy, with a new website, http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home, and a series of planned regional events to consult on what a radical culture manifesto should look like.

Culture Matters supports this movement. We believe that culture is more than just the arts. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, as Raymond Williams said. It includes all the cultural activities that are essential for our enjoyment, entertainment, enlightenment and exercise as fulfilled human beings.

Cultural democracy is about reclaiming and developing our artistic, intellectual, physical and spiritual commons. It’s about struggling in a democratic and socialist way to overcome the profit-driven pressures which make all kinds of cultural activities expensive, inaccessible or irrelevant. Or even worse, when they facilitate surveillance and manipulation – as in the current Facebook scandal – instead of nurturing human development and liberation.

As Len McCluskey said here a few months ago,

Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, believes that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, be near to them, and be able to enjoy them.
 
Most of all, we believe artists and leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – should seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off.

These radical calls for the democratisation and socialisation of culture should be at the heart of a new culture policy.

Our profit-driven capitalist economy seeks to destroy or co-opt the potential of the arts to express dissent and imagine alternatives. And it shrinks from the spectre of everyday, emerging communism, which is generated naturally when people get together in generous solidarity to enjoy the arts, sport, science, eating and drinking, and so much else. It throws up barriers between social classes, genders, ethnic groups, building divisive walls based on the private ownership of property.

We need to break down those walls. We need to reclaim and renew our artistic, physical, intellectual and spiritual commons. We need to democratise and socialise our cultural institutions – the art gallery, the football club, the newspaper, the church and the laboratory, as well as the economic and political ones – the factory, the corporation, the council, Whitehall and Westminster.

Their walls are our stones.

 

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018
Monday, 19 March 2018 17:53

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to announce that the second Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite, is now open for entries. It is part of our mission to promote a socialist approach to culture. The purpose of the Award is to create new opportunities for working class people to write poetry, and encourage poets to focus on themes which are meaningful to working class people and communities.

Submission Guidelines and Award Rules

1. You may enter up to three original, previously unpublished poems in English, each no more than 50 lines long.

2. You must be resident in the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland.

3. Entry is free, and open to anyone regardless of trade union membership.

4. There will be five prizes of £100 each.

5. Entries should broadly deal with themes relevant to working class life, politics, communities and culture.

6. Entries should be sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by midnight on Friday 8 June, or by post to Culture Matters, c/o 8 Moore Court, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE15 8QE, to arrive on Friday 8 June. No entries will be accepted after that date.

7. Please include the poem(s) and your name, address, and contact details in the body of the email.

8. All entries remain the copyright of the author but Culture Matters and Unite will have the right to publish them.

9. Due to the large number of entries we are unable to respond individually to submissions.

10. By entering the Award, entrants agree to accept and be bound by the rules of the Award and the decisions of the judges, who will be from Culture Matters and Unite.

Winners may be invited to an award ceremony in Durham on 13 July, linked to the Durham Miners’ Gala, with travel and accommodation costs paid. The best poems will be published in an anthology later in 2018.

NB The arrangements around the award ceremony in Durham have now had to be cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, but the anthology will still be published. 

Copies of the Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017 are available to buy here.

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