Andy Croft offers the latest - and last - instalment in his long-term project of memorialising the neglected life and poetry of Randall Swingler.
Although these days the poet Randall Swingler (1909-1967) is a largely forgotten figure, he was one of the most prolific and public British writers of his generation. Few English writers worked so hard to mobilise public opinion in the name of Peace, or fought so bravely to prosecute the War when it could no longer be avoided. He was responsible for some of the most imaginative interventions of the Popular Front years, and he wrote some of the greatest poetry of the Second World War. A playwright, novelist, critic, editor and poet, his verse was set to music by many of the most distinguished composers of his generation.
In the 1930s he contributed several plays for Unity Theatre, including the Mass Declamation Spain, the Munich-play Crisis and the revues Sandbag Follies and Get Cracking. He wrote a new version of Peer Gynt for Rupert Doone’s Group Theatre (where he was assistant editor of the Group Theatre Magazine). He founded a radical paperback publishing company, Fore Publications, selling half a million books in twelve months, and edited the best-selling Left Review, where he published and helped edit Nancy Cunard’s famous Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War.
MI5 opened a twenty-year long file on him because they disapproved of a song which he and Alan Bush wrote for a concert to mark the arrival of the Hunger March into London in 1934. The two men wrote Peace and Prosperity for the London Choral Union, a radically re-written production of Handel’s Belshazzar for the London Co-operative Movement and edited The Left Song Book for the Left Book Club. When Bush’s first Piano Concerto was premiered on the BBC in 1938, Adrian Boult was so uncomfortable with the politics of Swingler’s text in the choral finale that he led the orchestra and choir straight into the national anthem in an attempt to ‘balance’ the effect of the text on its listeners.
Original film of the return of the International Brigade British Battalion, 7 December 1938
Swingler and Auden wrote the libretto of Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, written to mark the return of the International Brigades to London, and were the only English poets included (with Alberti, Aragon, Guillen, Hughes, Lorca, Neruda and Tzara) in Les Poetes du Monde Defend le Peuple Espagnol. In 1938 he took over the editorship of the magazine Poetry and the People, re-launching it as the best-selling Our Time. In 1939 Swingler filled the Albert Hall with a historical verse-pageant starring Paul Robeson. He was also the literary editor of the Daily Worker; later becoming a staff reporter, reporting on the Blitz until the paper was banned in 1941.
During the Second World War Swingler served with the 56th Divisional Signals with the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy. He took part in heavy fighting on the Volturno and Garigliano rivers, at Monte Camino (where he was buried alive for several hours), and on the Salerno and Anzio beach-heads. For his part in the battle of Lake Comacchio, Swingler was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. His collections The Years of Anger (1946) and The God in the Cave (1950) contain arguably some of the greatest poems of the Italian campaign.
After the War, Swingler was blacklisted by the BBC. Orwell attacked him in Polemic and included him in the list of names he offered the security services in 1949. Stephen Spender attacked him in The God that Failed.
In other words, Swingler’s work was clearly central to his times, and his life and writings should be central to any history of the period that is not disfigured by either carelessness or dishonesty. Twenty-five years ago, believing Swingler’s life and work to be undeservedly neglected, I began writing a biography, eventually published by Manchester University Press as Comrade Heart: A Life of Randall Swingler (2003).
Provoked by my difficulties in finding a publisher to even look at the manuscript, and then by the critical silence into which the book fell after it was published, I found myself writing longish verse-letters of apology to Swingler. The first of these was published by John Lucas at Shoestring Press in 1999 as Letter to Randall Swingler and reprinted in Just as Blue (Flambard, 2001). Letter II was first published in Comrade Laughter (Flambard, 2004).
Somehow the habit of occasional correspondence stuck. When, a few years ago, MI5 released some of their (heavily redacted) files on Swingler I realised that I was not, after all, the only person interested in his life and writings. I felt I ought to let him know what these people had been saying about him; Letter III was published in Sticky (Flambard, 2009). A fourth letter, which has not previously been published, was written towards the end of 2016, after the EU Referendum and the US presidential elections. All four letters are being published later this year by Shoestring as Letters to Randall Swingler.
Over the years Swingler has proved to be a congenial (if somewhat silent) correspondent, one who has generously allowed me space and time to reflect on some of the developments in poetry and politics since his death. The events of the last two decades have certainly given us both a lot to think about.
in memory of Edward
We woke today to find the world had changed:
An unexpected snowfall in the night
Has clarified the skyline, rearranged
The sharpened shadows in a harsh new light,
And what we thought familiar bright and strange,
Disguised in simple terms of black and white.
The phones are down, and all the roads are blocked.
We dig in for the night. The doors are locked.
How suddenly and quickly change appears.
And what a poor exchange for what it takes;
The sand falls slowly through the glass for years,
And then we fall asleep, the weather breaks,
The sky falls in, and Winter’s cold frontiers
Confront us now. The sleeping earth awakes
Beneath the sky’s restrained and muffled violence.
The dumbstruck world is suffering in silence.
Not every duckling comes back as a swan;
A test result, a scan, a sudden frost;
One minute friends are here, and then they’re gone,
And now it feels as if we too have crossed
The woeful waters of the Acheron,
And change is just another word for lost.
We wonder how we could have missed the clues,
The zombies howling on this morning’s news.
No-one can say we couldn’t see this coming,
Or that we’re not familiar with defeat;
By now we ought to recognise the numbing
Pretence that every rout’s a planned retreat;
Somehow we did not understand the drumming
Of hatreds boiling over on the street
Against all those who do not talk the same;
And did not know to call it by its name.
We crawl out of the womb toward the grave
And warm ourselves at night by hungry fires
Inside the strange and amniotic cave
Of sleep and paint our primitive desires
Upon its walls; by morning we are brave
Enough to understand what day requires.
But then, beyond the cave-mouth, what we know
Is silenced by a sudden fall of snow.
In case you’re not sure where this letter’s going,
Or if you think I’ve woken you once more
Because I want to tell you that it’s snowing,
I guess it’s time to drop this metaphor
(Which has already s-s-started slowing
My t-t-typing fingers) and restore
The circulation to my freezing brain
While there’s still time. I think I’d best explain.
The problem is, I don’t know how to put it,
There are some things much better left unsaid,
And every writer should know when to shut it,
Especially when they’re talking to the dead,
But more than this, whichever way you cut it,
Of all the stanza forms I’ve ever read
This damned ottava rima’s not much cop
For channelling low-level agitprop.
To nail this form a Byron’s skills are needed
(His nibs could churn this stuff out by the yard),
In every form he handled he succeeded
(And how his panting readers oohed and aahed);
If I but had the stamina that he did
Perhaps this stanza wouldn’t seem so hard;
But then his lordship never had to worry
About the bills (nor, thanks to him, did Murray).
Pentameter’s at least a foot too long
To reproduce the beat of modern speech,
Two sets of rhyming triplets are too strong
(It always sounds as if you’re trying to preach)
And quite unsuited to the English tongue
Where half the rhymes you need are out of reach;
And if this final couplet lacks a joke
Your chances of a prize go up – oh fuck it.
These days I much prefer a fourteen-liner –
Onyeginskaya strafa to be precise.
It may be bonkers, but its faults are minor
Compared to this Procrustean device:
More leg-room, fewer murders, less angina,
And words you only have to rhyme with twice.
Instead I’m forced to march beneath the banner
Of what you might call Byron’s donnish manner.
A handy form, perhaps if you are flyting,
Though not, it’s fair to say, quite á la mode;
No-one would ever call a form exciting
Which trudges in the steps where Byron strode,
Or take delight in any kind of writing
That even Auden drop-kicked down the road,
And chose instead a form much used by Chaucer,
Less difficult to write, if somewhat coarser.
You must forgive me taking this excursion
Regarding stanza-forms; it’s apropos
Of what I’m trying to say about the version
Of demagogic violence now on show:
When reason’s threatened daily with coercion
It’s not enough to say with Cicero
Tempora mala sunt, and shake one’s head,
The issue’s how to say what must be said.
This question would be easier, no doubt,
If years ago we had not sold the pass,
Pretending to have nowt to write about
So long as there’s some well-heeled Maecenas
With barrowfuls of prizes to hand out.
But now the sand is slipping through the glass,
And poetry is more than just a selfie
And art’s not just a tax-dodge for the wealfy.
I don’t know if you’re following the story,
Or if you get much news in Death’s abyss;
For all I know, today’s red-top furore
Before you get to hear of it in Dis
Is wrapping chips on Proxima Centauri.
So though I’d rather give this stuff a miss
To understand this note you’re going to need
A bit of help to bring you up to speed.
So much has happened since my previous letter
I’m not sure how or where I should begin;
What started as a comic operetta
About the ins and outs of Out and In
Has turned into a poisonous vendetta
Which only the most venomous can win.
I cannot be the only one who’s weary
Of trying to conjugate the verb brexire.
Brexeo, brexis, brexit may sound cheerful,
But seems to be derived from britimere
Which means to be both British-born and fearful,
Or else brodire – hating those who vary
From low-browed Brits, who thus deserve an earful
Of tabloid-Latin cockney-scarecrow scary –
Or else the evil liberal élite.
(Bramo, bramas, bramat is obsolete.)
It really isn’t hard to get the hang
Of what you might call basic Ukipese:
A kind of ugly patois bar-stool slang
That’s eloquent with hate for refugees,
Resentful and self-pitying harangue
Part Mr Toad and one part Thersites,
Afraid and full of hate! Who gives a toss?
And who dare say, brerubescamus nos?
This bitter lingua franca is now spoken
By foaming, feral packs of the Undead
Surprised in violent dreams from which they’re woken
By slavering dog-whistles in their heads,
To smash the world and then complain it’s broken;
The old palingenetic virus spreads,
A plague of raw stupidity and malice
From Washington to the Élyseé Palace.
The monsters that your generation fought
And left for dead have recently escaped
From unseen Hades’ dim and dismal court;
Now suitably repackaged and reshaped,
They’re cultivating popular support
And so far seem to think they’ve got it taped
Appealing to the meanest and the basest –
Though nobody’s allowed to call them racist.
Perhaps there’s other ways we should describe
This atavistic fear of those in need,
The hatred of all those outside the tribe
That looks uncommonly like common greed:
But since good manners means we can’t ascribe
To them such terms, perhaps we might proceed
By calling them (I hardly think they’ll mind!)
Ungenerous, ungracious and unkind.
Arise ye starvelings, eat your fill of hate,
The age of cant and superstition’s here,
The empty promises that fill your plate
With others’ crumbs will quickly disappear;
Unreason in revolt must always wait
In servile chains of hatred, greed and fear
Until the day the human race has sussed
We need not spurn the prize to win the dust.
In case you think I overstate the threat,
I’m writing this from Richard Desmond’s Britain,
In which The People’s Will’s a household pet
(A cross between a Pit Bull and a kitten)
That wants to do its worst, videlicet,
Let off the leash when someone must be bitten;
A dog who doesn’t know his master’s tricked him,
A bully who believes that he’s the victim.
From Golden Dawn and Jobbik to Svoboda,
Alternative für Deutschland, all the way
To Dacre’s acres there’s a noisome odour
Of something dead, the perfume of decay
And atrophy, a repetitious coda
Of ancient music that won’t go away,
But lingers like the primitive refrain
Of fear and hatred pumping round the brain.
These days the Walking Dead are all the rage,
(And rage, of course, is crucial to their style),
From Wilders to Farage they’ve fouled the age
With ignorance and bigotry and bile,
And yet there’s something of the panto-stage
About the neo-fascist reptile smile:
Pure Captain Hook, but with a generous sprinkle
Of Davros, Vader, Mekon, Ming and Hynkel.
Stage villains such as these, of course, provide
Material for the best of our lampoonists,
And broad-sheet leader-writers may deride
These cynical and clever opportunists,
But nothing seems to stroke their oafish pride
So much as when they’re skewered by cartoonists;
Their critics are the mirror on the wall
That tells them they’re the smartest of them all.
The Donald may be madder than a hatter
(This man would make Caligula look sane)
But mocking Donald only seems to flatter
The fragile self-love of the Donald’s brain.
In other words, it ain’t no laughing matter
(It’s hard to ridicule the King of Spain)
And nobody dare say if, how, or when
The pen will prove as mighty as Le Pen.
This toxic mix of violence and vanity
That marches to the beat of threats and lies
Delirious with fear of all humanity,
The rhetoric of hate that glorifies
The stirrings of a popular insanity
Is one, alas, I think you’ll recognise,
Who understood what you were fighting for
At Anzio in 1944.
This is the reason why I am pretending
To write to you again. It makes no sense,
I know; you’re dead, and not, I think, intending
To join this correspondence; my defence
Is simply that, now Fascism is trending
It’s time that we abandoned the pretence
That what you thought the struggle of the age is
The property of History’s unread pages.
Although I know I’m talking to myself
(So no change there then) this device allows
At least a semblance of my mental health
To be preserved, while you and I can browse
The annals of our broken commonwealth
And try to understand how History ploughs
Boustrophedon, from left to right, once more,
And what’s left of your anti-Fascist war.
When you came limping home from Anzio
And felt that you had come back from the dead,
Though there were still so many miles to go
Through months of mud and blood, the road ahead
Was clear, from there to Lake Comacchio,
And as the tyrant monster, wounded, fled
It knew in every mile of its retreat,
The certainty of Fascism’s defeat.
I’m older now than you were when you died –
Which is a somewhat bleak and chilling notion.
I was still in my thirties when I tried
To excavate your tomb. With what devotion
I dug among your ruins! With the pride
Of Cortez glimpsing his Pacific Ocean
I pulled you out from underneath the rubble.
I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.
It’s fifty years next Summer since you copped it,
That’s fifty years of spiralling dismay;
What’s left of what was left has been co-opted
To manage change (and increase bankers’ pay)
So now the cause of change has been adopted
By those who wear the mask of Castlereagh.
In short, the world your victory helped construct –
As people say these days – is proper fucked.
Although our culture’s still obsessed with wars,
Your war’s routinely gutted of its fury,
An episode that merely underscores
The insular and sentimental story
About this blessed island and the cause
Of Britishness (a synonym for Tory)
Against the rest – viz anyone wot does
Not seem to be prepared to talk like us.
I’m sending this from Y2K16,
A UK of know-nothing and poor taste,
An infantile and brain-dead zombie scene,
Of greed and famine, glut and pointless waste,
In which the flags of ’45 have been
Forgot for so long that they’ve been replaced
By shiny baubles, trinkets, tinsel, trash,
The world’s one hope reduced to dust and ash.
On which depressing note I’ll say good day;
I’m tired of this ridiculous endeavour,
I’ve other things to do, and anyway
You’ve put up with this long enough. Whatever.
Some day the freezing snows must melt away,
And Winter’s darkness cannot last forever.
But how long till the morning that will bring
The lenitive, warm promises of Spring?