Happy Republic Day!
Wednesday, 19 June 2024 21:10

Happy Republic Day!

Published in Poetry

The campaign group Republic, working towards the abolition of the monarchy and its replacement by a directly elected head of state, have organised a day of protest and celebration on the 5th of May, the first anniversary weekend of Charles' coronation. Republic Day will be marked by a major event in Trafalgar Square featuring a wide range of speakers including Culture Matters' very own Martin Hayes! Sock it to 'em, Martin!

To lend solidarity and support across the digital ether we are also collecting and “curating” a host of Republican content from a number of our contributors: poems that scrutinise and excoriate the monarchy, poems that apply pressure to the highly suspect nationalist scripts in which they are involved; poems that fight the erasure of our own working-class heritage and history.

It's toothless and sweaty!

The monarchy is not merely a toothless anachronism. It is not (despite what the strenuous exertions of their PR department would have us believe) a harmless cultural agent. It is a profoundly political one. The last ten years have seen increasingly desperate and sweaty attempts to free the monarchy from its difficult, morally compromised history, and cement it instead at the very heart of Brand Britain. There’s been a series of cultural levers – music, literature, film, sport, art, and drama – intended to evoke a nebulous though crowd-pleasing notion of Britishness with which to distract the populace at home and to woo the global marketplace. It was/ is deeply cynical, but it was/ is deeply strategic.

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The flag-waving spectacle created by mainstream media discourses empties the monarchy of political context, allowing them to become a hollow receptacle for whatever idea is useful to power. Cultural discourses have tended to heavily moralise the monarchy through representations of nationhood, philanthropy, and family, effectively masking their relationship to centuries of exploitation, accumulation, corruption, and conquest. The death of Elizabeth II sent this PR machine into overdrive: a daily torrent of sentimentalising guff that sought to silence debate about the future of the monarchy by equating pro-republican criticism with a hard-hearted absence of “sympathy”; exhorting would-be protestors to remember the late Queen's “humanity”.

As if humanity itself were some vaguely miraculous quality, and not the generic condition of everyone alive from Vladimir Putin to Britney Spears. No, theirs is a kind of Schrödinger’s humanity: an arbitrary rhetorical expedient that phases into existence at the precise moment scrutiny is applied. We're constantly told that the rich and powerful transcend our mere mortal existence; the monarchy spend their entire lives within the hazy, elevated aura of hereditary, institutional, and economic privilege, with all the exemptions and special dispensations this implies. They're not us. They are better than us. The rules do not apply to them. But if that is the case, then it's a bit much to expect readmission in the final extremis. Sympathy is a finite resource; our sympathy cannot and will not stretch to meet the irrational demands of our oppressors and class enemies to be loved. Especially, when history has shown us that they do not return the favour.

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Republic are doing good work exposing the secrecy of the royal family. And of course they have much to hide. In 2017 the Paradise Papers revealed the extent to which the Queen’s private estate used offshore private equity funds to avoid paying tax on its holdings. The Crown is already exempt by law from taxation, and also from inheritance tax on 'sovereign to sovereign' bequests. As Laura Clancy has pointed out, the royal family 'relies on the (uncodified) British constitution and political custom to play the same game' as corporate tax avoidance giants such Amazon and Facebook.

We fund this shit!

In the monarchy, historical custom and capitalist logic meet in the worst way possible. And we – that is PAYE workers – fund this shit, through the Sovereign Grant. As austerity bit, and the cost-of-living crisis escalated, causing upwards of 130,000 preventable deaths in 2019 alone, this was the thought that stayed with me: Britain needs better symbols, and a more inclusive, empathetic vision of itself.

A good place to start creating that vision would be by ridding ourselves of an institution whose wealth and history is inseparable from the depredations of colonialism, and whose cornerstone is inequality. In recent years, many former British colonies in the Caribbean have declared their intent to abolish the monarchy including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Kitts. Barbados has already cut ties with the British monarchy to become the world’s newest republic, and to rightly pursue reparations for the horrors of the slave trade.

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Campaigners are right: an apology is not enough. King Charles “acknowledging” the atrocity of slavery isn’t enough. An institution whose wealth was built on and maintained by slavery telling the descendants of slaves, whose families, cultures, and communities were scarred by colonialism, that they feel their pain is frankly insulting. You cannot cherry-pick which parts of Empire to whitewash and to fetishize. The foundation of Empire is slavery; slavery is the direct consequence of Empire. The same applies to hierarchy, poverty, and gross inequality at home. You cannot honour the victim if you are actively sympathising with their abuser.

To jail with you!

The ascension of Charles zipped past with indecent haste, ensuring that no conversation about the necessity for a monarchy could even intervene. Stability is the status quo, and not everyone benefits equally from preserving that. Republican protestors were arrested. A woman in Edinburgh for holding a sign reading Fuck imperialism, Abolish monarchy, and a man in Oxford who shouted “who elected him?” during a reading of a proclamation. Both protestors were arrested for a ‘breach of the peace’. This is where we are, and this is what accretes around these figures, what concentrates within them, this is the state that they legitimate. Not sufficiently respectful? To jail with you. The state is criminalising protest. The monarchy lends tacit approval to this project.

I want to be part of a country where everyone has a right to be heard. I want to live in a country that faces its difficult history head-on and with humility. I want to be part of a country where my head of state is accountable; where the most vulnerable citizens are treated fairly and with dignity, and where those in power are not so terrified of a dissenting opinion that they'll do just about anything to stamp it out. I believe that ridding ourselves of the monarchy has the potential to catalyse more radical and egalitarian demands. If we can question the power of the monarch, we can also question the power of bosses, politicians, economic elites. It is a beginning, but it is a hopeful and necessary one. One that is not only anti-monarchy, but pro-republic.

I hope you enjoy the parade of poems below, collected for Republic Day. If you would like to support this branch of our cultural struggle please consider buying our anti-monarchy anthology Dungheap Cockerel, edited by Rip Bulkeley and Mike Quille and/ or the republican-themed Wolves Come Grovelling by Alan Morrison.

Wolves CG cover         Dungheap Cockerel cover jpeg

If you are interested in joining Republic and finding out more about their campaigns and how  you can join the fun, please visit them here.

Make way for more polemic! 

The monarchy is the pinnacle of the British state and that state’s increasing authoritarianism has been on full display since Charles came to the throne. Police swooped on peaceful protesters at events proclaiming him king in several British cities. Some were arrested simply for holding up blank pieces of paper. Royal assent has just been given to the Public Order Act, the latest in a long line of repressive laws passed since the 2019 election.

The thuggish intimidation of republicans is inseparable from the project to shrink the range of permissible political opinion after the shock the Corbyn surge gave the ruling class. [...] The character-assassination campaign against Corbyn himself regularly involved allegations of disrespect towards the monarchy—and the monarchy’s place above Parliament was cited by generals briefing the press that the army might have to remove an elected socialist government.

Nor should it be forgotten that the monarchy, greedily supported by a sycophantic aristocracy, is the main foundation of the inegalitarian and corrupt system of land ownership in Britain, an outrage that is centuries overdue for reform.

So the monarchy is not neutral. It can appear so when the status quo is not threatened, but its undemocratic state power will be deployed if the ruling class consider it necessary to prevent radical change. And the growing opposition to monarchy should not be separated from wider political trends either. It is bound up with anger at an unrepresentative and oppressive British state and an economy rigged against ordinary people.

- Excerpt from the Introduction to Dungheap Cockerel, by Rip Bulkeley & Mike Quille

Stand clear! Watch out! Here comes the parade of poems!

To Crown It All

As far as the news went, all the wars
in Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen, and anywhere
else were suspended; no one whatsoever
died of Covid; no celebrities did anything
remotely celebretitious; no crimes were
committed, whether violent or otherwise;
there were no major accidents and no
natural disasters; nothing went extinct;
bizarre coincidences failed to coincide.

The glaring shortage of factoids left
the media havering between panic and
a self-destructive blamefest. But someone
had happened on an interminable ceremony
in a minor, post-imperial European nation.
The vultures descended, gorged for hours,
regurgitating regularly for an audience
denied any choice of infotainment.

Next day people went about with a strange
look on their faces, a blend of shame,
bewilderment, and momentary flashes
of relief as they realized that neither they
nor anyone else were ever going to say
one word about the orgy of inanities
from which they were slowly coming round.

By Rip Bulkeley

*

I don't care whether the monarchy stays or leaves but I wish they wouldn't be presented as a Godly power one minute, and human beings/an ordinary family the next. I also wish people would ask simple questions like 'Why do the “royal” family need so many houses when there are children in the UK who don't have beds to sleep on?

- Jenny Mitchell

The Queen is Black

The Queen Turned Black

When granny dies, her skin transforms,
not limb by limb but all at once –
dark brown becomes red, white and blue.

Her hair has lost its kink, becomes a stately crown.
I’m not surprised. She loved Great Britain
even when in ’56 a turd slipped

through her letterbox. Neighbours called police
in ’58 to say her bible class – loud prayers
to a blond-haired Jesus – sent them mad.

More than once in ’63, the local press reported
that her house became a den of vice – Black
Madame Must Be Stopped!

She used the settlements to build a large extension.
Most recently, the man next door, caped
in a Union Jack, ordered her to go back home

with the other immigrants. Home was called
the Mother Country where the Queen
once welcomed her, waving from a balcony.

Now ever since she died, the Queen has been
transformed, her skin turned black,
her hair a tall, soft afro. She lies

next to my granny in a special plot, white
roses planted close. Are they holding
hands, having shared so much?

By Jenny Mitchell

*

That decade in the middle of the 17th century seems to have been airbrushed out from our royalty-dominated history. But republicanism has remained, among a significant minority, as an enduring dream of generations who have dared to imagine a true democratic society with no hereditary head of state and whose sovereignty is properly represented by Parliament, and implicitly in the People.

- Alan Morrison

Wolves Come Grovelling 

With a video by Vanessa Sadri:

Out of the forests of towns & hovelling,
Wolves of poverty, howl out in worship,
Bow to your Wolf-queen, wolves come grovelling.

Away from your wolf-fare of food bank shovelling,
For one weekend, share in wolf-fellowship,
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling.

Her crowned head, minted on our pound sterling
& postage stamps, shadows our hardship—
Bow to your Wolf-queen, wolves come grovelling.

Believe or get even, there’ll be no levelling
Up, except in Uxbridge & South Ruislip—
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling;

It’s all just so much Cat-Rat-&-Lovelling
Of Big Hog’s nodding-dog dictatorship—
Bow to your Wolf-queen, wolves come grovelling.

Come famished & homeless join the street-revelling,
Come unemployed, lumpen, unpaid internship—
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling,
Bow to your Wolf-queen, wolves come grovelling.

Wolves Come Grovelling (Again)

Out of the forests of towns & hovelling,
Wolves of poverty, howl out in worship,
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

Forget soaring bills & the cost of living
For one weekend, spaff on wolf-fellowship,
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling.

His crowned head, minted on our pound sterling
& postage stamps, shadows our hardship—
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

Grab the bank holiday, string out the bunting,
You’re Subjects of strung-along citizenship—
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling;

It’s all just so much Cat-Rat-&-Lovelling
Of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha & kingship—
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

Or mark the Coronation by protesting,
Yellow placards packed up in creeping censorship—
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling,
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

By Alan Morrison

*

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Weekly Briefing

Starving children trudge to school
while I serve tea to his Majesty
and the Prime Minister.

The King urges his PM to
try his new range
of Duchy biscuits.

As the meeting closes,
the PM plucks a gift bag
from his case.

For your dogs, your majesty.
Fresh bones
of your starving subjects.

Collected this morning.
Children’s, I believe.

By Owen Gallagher

*

The Thread

Every man born in England cannot, ought not, neither by the law of God nor the law of nature, to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws for him to live under – and for him, for aught I know, to lose his life under.
- Thomas Rainsborough

We fastened a stretch of thread to the front gates of your palace,
and took the other end to town, where we tied it up in the square.

The first night, as the guard changed, we heard the grind of the thread
as it began to wring itself. The fastening bled, and all along
its length the wraps dropped scarlet, damson, crimson: the dead
who any measure from the gates of your palace
must contain in the telling.
The tightness held all night, and the noise of their blood rose.

The next week, the clotted length gave forth
a sickening green that dropped from its weft in odour, rancour,
connivance and hoard. Such rancid riches dripped along
every step of the line, and we noticed that the guards were gone.

It was seven days on when the end of the line led half of the crowd
from the marketplace where the knot we had made had turned black.
Along the long road to the gates of your palace,
where those petrified reds had withered to dark
and the heavy green was now trash in the wind,
the black thread tied to the gates of your palace
pointed us all to the no-light beyond,
to the darkness and quiet that now filled your palace,
the bags left half-packed and the horses long gone.

It took only one child
to twitch on the red thread
and laugh at the crash and the fall of those gates.

You needn’t return, to where you left your palace,
we’ve more than enough things to do with the space,
and should you turn back, to where once stood your palace,
there’s a thread that we’ve kept, just for you, just in case.

By Patrick Davidson Roberts

 *

 Big Issue on X:    Picture10

Jubilee
(from the Latin Jubilo = to shout)

1.
Wake up dry-eyed with excitement
On this your special day
(This morning another ex-squaddie’s
Found dead in another doorway)
And now there’s a ring on the doorbell
And the first of your friends are here
And she’s brought a bottle of Moet
And he’s brought some rather nice beer
So you nip out and fire up the Barbie
And then pour a large G and T
And talk of the need for harsh measures
Because there’s no money tree:
Out there the cupboards are empty,
Out there someone takes their own life,
Out there every state celebration
Is another twist of the knife.

2.
You wake up hungry and tired
(Every morning’s always the same)
Make teas and toast for your breakfast
(Ditto lunch and your evening meal)
Then have a quick flick through the Ceefax
Because daily papers aren’t free:
And all of your bills have just doubled
And you can’t seem to shake off that cough
And though your cold bones are aching
You’ll still keep the heating switched off.

By Kevin Patrick McCann

*

The thinking behind this poem is that the monarchy receives £86.3 million each year through the Sovereign Grant (it is fixed until 2025 then will go up to £123 million from 2026) which is directly funded by the tax taken from the wages and salaries of PAYE workers.

So the poem is written as a kind of collective voice against that tax money being given to the monarchy instead of being given towards the essential infrastructure to help the country run. The NHS mainly, but also education, youth clubs, aspiring musicians/bands unable to play live because of the cost, painters who, armed with the right mind to create, can't afford a canvas and a room to just sit there and contemplate their next masterpiece; the reintroduction of inter-school sport where you could play against the young men and women that lived in the block away from you and you could frame your interaction in football, cricket, basketball, netball, rounders, rather than in postcode defining wars and kebab shop scuffles... them... they could do with a bit of that 86.3 million a lot more than the King could... and our world – their world – would be better for it.

- Martin Hayes

the people kept on yelling

the Monarchy said
work
and the people said back
work, yes, but let it be fair
and then the Monarchy said
shut up and just work
we need your tax pounds coming in to help fund us
but the people said back
work, yes, but let it be fair
so the Monarchy sent its attack dogs in
to slap them across the back of their legs
with a baton
but the people took it and said back
work, yes, but let it be fair
and then the Monarchy’s attack dogs said
Fair!? I’ll show you what’s fucking Fair!
and so they invented their legislation department
to try and crush every uprising with its rules
but the people kept on yelling
work, yes, but let it be fair
and the moon kept on coming and going
and the sea was always there
and nothing could kill what was in the centre of the people
which was work and love
and the attack dogs understood this
so they came in the end in their billions to the power of 10
to protect the Monarchy
they did
from the people who wouldn’t stop yelling

work, yes, but let it be fair!

work, yes, but let it be fair!

By Martin Hayes

*

By way of a note on the poems: the Jack Cade Rebellion, which took place over the summer months of May, June and July in 1450 was arguably one of the most important popular uprisings to take place in England during the long Middle Ages. It began as an orchestrated demonstration of political unrest by the inhabitants of south-east England (Kent) against the mismanagement and oppression of Henry VI's government. Its participants, both and women, mostly labourers, artisans, yeomen and farmers expressed concerns over unfair wages and taxes. Their Bill of Complaint also attacked the cronyism and corruption they perceived at various levels of government and within the church. The Complaint included an extensive catalogue of judicial misconduct: selling the goods and property of those accused of treason (before they were convicted), leasing of judicial offices to those who used them to gain money through extortion; bringing default judgments against defendants who had been neither summoned nor notified of suits pending against them, and the illegal eviction of people from their property. While little is known of the historical Jack Cade, we do know that his insurrection was popular and initially successful: the Rebellion brought London to a virtual standstill and caused Henry VI to flee the capital for the relative safety of Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, some one-hundred miles from the city.

If people have heard of Cade at all, it is usually as an antagonist in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part II (first performed in 1592), where his portrayal is complex but not exactly kind. While the grievances of the rebels are presented within the play as deeply serious, and would have resonated powerfully with its first audience: by 1570 the purchasing power of agricultural wages was 40 per cent lower than it was in 1450, as a result of which it became near-impossible to support a household containing young children or infirm adults on wage labour, and by 1592 acts of enclosure had begun to be roundly and publicly condemned), Cade's revolutionary message is continually undercut by his presentation as politically crude, megalomaniacal and bloodthirsty.

Living in Kent, I have become increasingly absorbed in researching Jack Cade, and thinking about the lost link in our radical heritage that he represents. The Cade Rebellion did not seek to overthrow the crown; rather it sought relief for the 'extraordinary distresses' of the populace. Which the monarchy – who do not love their subjects, true to form – refused to recognise. For me, Cade stands for the history of the commons, a story that elites have sought to bury and revile, overwriting us with the infinitely more “glorious” history of Kings and Queens. It's a moment in time where radical energy erupts from the hard-pressed, and people – the people – attempt to take their fate into their own hands, a cry that says – to quote Martin – Let it be fair!

Here's to fair......

- Fran Lock

Public lecture

“The purchasing power of agricultural wages was 40 per cent lower in 1570 than in 1450. As a result, it became impossible to support a household containing young children or infirm adults on wage labour...”

she says. i dream of martyrs' mischiefs. things
remote and then revealed: jack cade, quartered;
the poor commons of kent, routed and scoured.
fanatical attentions, folded-faces. you, hanging
listless in the pillory of a poorly pressed suit,
the airtight turmoil in my gut. give the century
its skirmishes, incite and license all collapse.
we coin new crisis hourly; ply our riot against
misrule, your catalogue of crowns. we are
stuck, sessile and assailed. i dream of ceded
fiefdoms, of precedents, repeals. our long, cold
night is sectioned into sieges, or the claims
of rival roses; your extraordinary distresses,
kent. your brutalist's warrant of chalk. this is
my dream: penury portending insurrection,
the lightly reckoned necks of vagrants
and of traitors. emaciated labour, leagues
and guilds. and men, syndicated bitterly,
execute routines: the hokey-cokey of execution,
execration, the tyrant's damp alas, the bigot's
sour amen. i dream a dream of righteousness,
riddled into writs, writ in a calfskin codex.
the pig who is stretched into velum; the goose
plundered for primaries: scribal and flightless.
clerks, who fabricate feathers; informers,
foremen, forgers. i dream of wat tyler, tilling
the tax collector's head, the wrath of roseate
angels whose hour is at hand. kent, you are
slashed in the neck, paraded on pikes,
dragged like a plough behind horses. this
crew of skulled dunces, dancing. on hot
coals, on livid cinders of conscience. stop.
these are tiltyard retributions, tournaments
and courses, antics for ascension days. but we
will bury all errants, beneath the conjuries
of commonweal. their distorted law, and our
extinguished skin. kent, like a loafing ghost will
rise. cuckoos of the calendar. sing, dream. you
mendicants, you miscreants, you louts of rebel
decibel. give the populace its knives. bright
knaves. you plebs of brimstone and fidelity.

The History of the Old Kent Road resized

Cade's chroniques

tight-lipped light tipped down toward
bank and fen, the yokeman's meadow.
sodden skies will tutor me to brood. yr
den of nettles, kent. the muddy bulge
and muddle of u. there is a little bird
that sits in scrub and sedge and sings
its hedge-invective. teach me this, yr
sparrow's gammon. sauntersick, i am,
and thistle-billeted. they scant yr right
of shack, and laugh to see yr manhood
thatched with spit and twigs. they call
u rabble kent, tap-shackled obstinates.
rascal kent, u rakes of affray. they call
u kent of mongrel measures, mulling
yr dull wits to malady; pot-plateaued
kent, whose livery is ditches. they do
not love u, mullocked sons of chalk. I
know. oh, u chronics of kent, hold me
up! they have their law, and it comes
in swinging its chancer's mallet. men
there are, who live to heap yr head
with conqueror's calumnies, a mean
encoffined logic under which we lean
like wheat. kent, they shall kill me. u,
must be free. in the vigour of yr sling-
shots. rēsen, rise. the brawny disarray
of u. blackthorn, cockspur, purging
buckthorn, quickthorn, firethorn, all
the thorns of thrusting fief. on yr hind-
legs through the wet hush. to file yr
teeth. tight-lipped light tipped down
toward the samphire bank where cade
has crept. will pierce the very varying
moon in its emphasising eye.

By Fran Lock

Hurrah for the contributors!

Rip Bulkeley is a more or less retired political activist, peace researcher and historian of the Cold War, the earth sciences, and Antarctica. He has been trying to write better poetry for 68 years. His début as an organizer was the 1960 Adelaide students’ ‘Prosh’ (rag day), and as a protester, the 1962 Aldermaston March. He founded Oxford’s thriving Back Room Poets in 1999, and published War Times with Ripostes in 2003. He speaks 5½ languages, has lived in four countries, and edited seven anthologies including Dungheap Cockrel (Culture Matters, 2023), Poems for Grenfell Tower (Onslaught, 2018), Rebel Talk (Extinction Rebellion Oxford, 2021), and A Fish Rots From the Head (Culture Matters, 2022).

Jenny Mitchell is winner of the Poetry Book Awards 2021, the Bedford Prize, the Ware Prize and joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. Her poems have been widely published and she has been nominated twice for the Forward Prize: Best Single Poem. The best-selling debut collection, Her Lost Language, is ‘One of 44 Poetry Books for 2019’ (Poetry Wales). Her second collection, Map of a Plantation, has been chosen as a ‘Literary Find’ (Irish Independent), and both books are on the syllabus of Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest collection is called Resurrection of a Black Man.

Alan Morrison is a Sussex-based poet. His collections include A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (2009), Keir Hardie Street (2010; shortlisted for the 2011 Tillie Olsen Award, Working Class Studies Association, USA), Captive Dragons (2011), Blaze a Vanishing (2013), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (2015), Tan Raptures (2017), Shabbigentile (2019), Gum Arabic (2020), Anxious Corporals (2021), Green Hauntings (2022), and Rag Argonauts (2024). In 2018 he was joint winner of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award, and was highly commended in the inaugural Shelley Memorial Poetry Competition 2022. He edits The Recusant and Militant Thistles, and is books editor and book designer for Culture Matters. 

Owen Gallagher is the author of four poetry collections, the most recent being Clydebuilt (Smokestack Books, 2019). The Sikh Snowman, a children’s picture book, was published by Culture Matters in 2020 and his poem 'Straight Up' was a Guardian Poem of the Week.

Patrick Davidson Roberts was born in 1987 and grew up in Sunderland and Durham. He was editor of The Next Review magazine 2013-2017, co-founded Offord Road Books press in 2017 and reviews for The Poetry School and The High Window. His debut collection is The Mains (Vanguard Editions, 2018) and a chapbook, The Trick (Broken Sleep Books, 2023) was recently published. His work has been published in 14 Magazine, Ambit, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, The Rialto, and on Bad Lilies, The High Window, One Hand Clapping, and Wild Court.

Kevin Patrick McCann is a poet, novelist and educator who has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children: Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris Publications). There is also a book of ghost stories: It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder), co-written with the playwright Tom Green. Ov (Beul Aithris Publications) is a fantasy novel for children. Deleted Scenes: Poems i.m. Shirley Jackson is a new pamphlet from Culture Matters.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His collections include The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (Culture Matters, 2020), the critically acclaimed Ox (Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press, 2021), and most recently Machine Poems (Smokestack Books, 2024).

Fran Lock is an editor, essayist, the author of numerous chapbooks and thirteen poetry collections, most recently Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. She is a Commissioning Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review.

Dungheap Cockerel
Wednesday, 19 June 2024 21:10

Dungheap Cockerel

Published in Books

The mission of Culture Matters is to promote cultural democracy. This means providing articles and works of art for people whose views and voices go largely ignored by the ruling classes of late capitalist Britain. We aim to be a platform where the oppressed and exploited can develop and express their own intellectual and artistic output.

In the summer of 2023 no minority was more brusquely and effectively suppressed than republicans. Our new anthology, Dungheap Cockerel, has been created in a few weeks to counter that injustice with satires on monarchy in general and its latest incumbent in particular. It is available as a free downloadable pdf in the Poetry section, and we have also printed a few books, which are available at £9 each plus £2 p. and p. using the button below.

Dungheap Cockerel
Wednesday, 19 June 2024 21:10

Dungheap Cockerel

Published in Poetry

The mission of Culture Matters is to promote cultural democracy. This means providing articles and works of art for people whose views and voices go largely ignored by the ruling classes of late capitalist Britain. We aim to be a platform where the oppressed and exploited can develop and express their own intellectual and artistic output.

In the summer of 2023 no minority was more brusquely and effectively suppressed than republicans. Our new anthology, Dungheap Cockerel, has been created in a few weeks to counter that injustice with satires on monarchy in general and its latest incumbent in particular. 

We are grateful for the massive response to our callout for poems, which has now been edited by Rip Bulkeley, illustrated by Martin Gollan and Mike Dicks, and made into a free downloadable pdf (attached below) by Alan Morrison. Because of the quality of the poems and illustrations we have also decided to hang the expense - or do I mean guillotine the expense? - and print a small batch of books, which are available at £9 each plus £2 p. and p. using the button above.

Wednesday, 19 June 2024 21:10

Culture and barbarism: the work of Walter Benjamin

Published in Cultural Commentary

Culture Matters is pleased to present this short film by Professor Esther Leslie, Carl Joyce and Mike Quille. Professor Leslie's text is below.

Walter Benjamin was interested in the ways in which art, culture and politics flow together. He made a connection  in a line he used a couple of times:

‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

This signals an insistence that all of our forms of culture are simultaneously politically, or socially, enmeshed, in the broadest sense. All cultural documents – artworks, films, novels, poems, statues – are produced within the prevailing barbaric circumstances of class-divided society. That something beautiful or awe-inspiring might be made by an artist relies on a social division of labour that denies most people any permission to be creative. The existence and persistence of culture confirms the validity of the production process that brought it into in being. Cultural documents of all kinds thus work to embellish the rule of those in power, justifying their elevation above the immiserated and disempowered.

The Colosseum is an example of real barbarism taking place in cultural form – for example, in gladiatorial battles, staged to underline the power of privileged families, or in the real executions of condemned people as the climax of stagings of myths. But there are more subtle ways in which culture hinges on barbarism. Cathedrals, full of artworks, carvings, opulence, do not glorify those who built them, but rather give consolation for ongoing suffering and the promise of something better to come.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - November 18: Official Portraits for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall November 18, 2019  AUCKLAND, New Zealand. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/ http://marktantrum.com)

There is no such solace apparent in the oil paintings of the wealthy, those who are ‘long to reign over us’, – the canvas simply covers over a world of immiseration experienced by those who are not expected to leave any traces of themselves to posterity.

The cities are littered with relics of individuals who are immortalised in granite or bronze and who gained from a barbaric system. Sometimes the wrong is righted, the barbarism inherent in the artefact exposed, the statue brought down, as when the late Victorian statue of Bristol-born merchant and transatlantic slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in 2020.

Art and Politics

Walter Benjamin lived through varying types of barbarism – coming of age in the years around the First World War, when experimental and avant garde art movements thrived, often alongside left wing and communist movements. He also lived through the years when the Nazis took power in Germany, fascism  dominated various parts of Europe and a Second World War broke out. One of his interests was in how art and politics worked together across time. There is a line in his programmatic essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ from the mid-1930s:

'Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.'

Here Benjamin observes that populations are encouraged to rush headlong into war and mass destruction. Fascism speaks of the glory of war – and some Futurists wrote poems to that effect. War is presented as a dramatic sensation, an intensified experience, like an artwork or a spectacle. Political rallies and parades, uniformed ranks of people arranged in ornamental fashion, blonde housewives with children, were enacted and broadcast using the latest medium of film and radio. They became cultural events. To counter this, Benjamin insists on regarding art as political, as intrinsically political and as a place where a progressive politics of liberation might be carried out. Art and culture might be used not to service the glorification of war or the deification of leaders, but rather as weapons wielded in social and political struggle.

But what kind of art.....? 

What art then? Benjamin argues that aesthetic choices, such as the choice to paint a picture or take a photograph, to make a collage or a poster, to write a poem in obscure and high-flown language or in the vernacular discourse of the street, the decision to work as an individual artist or as a collective of makers and producers, and so on: These are all political aspects of art.

Is an artist someone who sells work as a commodity – and what sort of a commodity is art? Benjamin’s interlocutors, Adorno and Horkheimer, wrote about something they called the culture industry. This described all cultural production first and foremost for money. Financial models, questions of access, the high price of art, the return on the value of investments, all this is part of the politics of art – and for Benjamin, the work of Brecht, John Heartfield or Eisenstein would be three methods of engaging with this field, in his time, under the conditions of his time, questioning in their various ways value, circulation, ideology, the purpose of art, distraction, propaganda, the relationship of image and world, beauty, horror, lies, violence, war, social relations.

And, furthermore, who is an artist? This too is a question with political aspects – who is allowed to be an artist when the roles the artist should perform have become highly politicised, as in the Great German Art Exhibition of 1937.

The 'brutal grasp' and 'destructive character' of art

'To the process of rescue belongs the firm, seemingly brutal grasp

Benjamin wrote this line in the Arcades Project in 1931. Walter Benjamin’s aphorism advocates a sudden movement, getting the hands dirty in grasping or grabbing in order to rescue something – what? A better life? Humanity itself? Nature? Art? Benjamin is interested in salvage, in extracting from the jaws of doom, a better life, through a decisive and hard gesture – or at least a ‘seemingly brutal’ one. Sometimes, he argues, it is necessary to take decisive action – and not even to reflect on that too explicitly.

This idea of acting sharply and brusquely comes together with a figure that Benjamin invented: the ‘destructive character’. The ‘destructive character’ is a type without memory, opposed to repression in its political and psychic senses, who – causing havoc by cutting ways through, by liquidating situations – removes the traces which sentimentally bind us to the status quo. They do this in order to make possible modes of behaving or misbehaving, which are appropriate to the brutal conditions of the world and to their dramatic overthrow. The destructive character rejects past traces, has abolished ‘aura’ and with it sentimentality about things, including his own self.

The destructive character is the enemy of the comfort-seeking ‘etui-person’, who cossets everything in velveteen cases and plush, trying to individually make the hard edges of the world temporarily comfortable and for him or herself alone. In ‘The Destructive Character’, Benjamin writes about those who try to preserve the world – and art – as it is:

'Some people hand things down to posterity by making them untouchable and thus conserving them; others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called destructive.;

Benjamin is sometimes portrayed as a melancholic and fated individual who was unable to make his way in the world and prone to abstract theorizing. In actuality his writing about art was carried out in close conjunction with practice – including his own: for example he made many radio shows in the late 1920s and early 1930s – and he wrote fables and stories and poems.

He also worked with others who were questioning the ways in which art might contribute to social and political struggle, in the most revolutionary way, with implications for culture and social forms. For one, he was close to Bertolt Brecht, Marxist poet and playwright. Brecht praised a certain kind of vulgar thinking – forwarding the idea that truth is simple, graspable.

The new barbarism: shock and awe, work and war

Sometime between the spring and the autumn of 1933 Benjamin wrote a short reflection titled ‘Experience and Poverty’, which considered the new reality of world war in the twentieth century. Twentieth century warfare had unleashed a ‘new barbarism’ in which, observes Benjamin, a generation that went to school in horse-drawn trams stood exposed in a transformed landscape, caught in the crossfire of explosions and destructive torrents.

Benjamin’s was no lament for the old days, for those were unliveable for the property-less and the habits engendered by the cluttered and smothered interiors were unhealthy and uninspiring for the propertied. ‘Erase the traces!’ Benjamin proclaimed – a line he took from a poem by Brecht. Benjamin enthused about a ‘new, positive concept of barbarism’ and he championed the honest recorders of this newly devalued, technologised, impoverished experience: Paul Klee, Adolf Loos, and the utopians Paul Scheerbart and Mickey Mouse. In all of these the brutality and dynamism of contemporary existence, including its technologies, was used, abused, mocked and harnessed.

Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see it is possible for the first time to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen. Benjamin wrote about Mickey Mouse first in 1930. What fascinates him is the fact that Mickey Mouse can alienate from himself an arm or a leg, he can give up his body in order to serve the power structure operative within the cartoon. That fascinates Benjamin as an image of what we are required to do in order to survive or to live our bare lives. Experience, a sense of consistent development over time, wisdom and continuity, no longer is relevant in the modern world of shock and awe, factory work and war. These films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experiences.

Charlie Chapin

Benjamin has a very sober sense of what capitalism requires of the body, the whole thing about film and its shock aesthetic subjecting the human sensorium to a type of training – this is painful. Benjamin thinks that there is a potential there to understand how we inhabit the world with technologies that might, indeed, alienate parts of our body in order to become this partly human, partly technological, endlessly refungible and brutalised subject. Audiences flock to these films not primarily because they are artworks of the mechanical age of reproduction – that is just a condition of their existence. They flock to them because they recognise something in them that gels with their own existence:

So the explanation for the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.

History and change

The final piece of writing by Walter Benjamin, from 1940, was not published. It is a few sheets of paper thinking about history and change. Benjamin advocates a mode of thinking that could overpower the political situation. It is written at times in an elusive language and it is not a manual. It is an effort at the production of an attitude, one that is open to imagining the breaking open the continuum of history or arresting it, one that sets out from the positive aspects of shock, breaking through the picture of history – a warlike, explosive assault on the state of things, snatching an evanescent memory that flashes up at a moment of danger.

Benjamin’s strategy addressed the idea of the image or picture of history. These metaphors cannot be simply translated into practical action. Or rather they might import themselves only at specific, charmed revolutionary moments. As he put it in one of the theses in Selected Writings:

'The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action. … in the July Revolution an incident took place which did justice to this consciousness. During the evening of the first skirmishes, it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris.'

History is exploded as an act of ‘genuine’ progress, which does not move simply forwards. Revolutionary time is not clock time, but rather the time of the present, filled with the moment of acting, an acting which is then re-invoked as a conscious reflection on what brutal, disruptive act brought the new time into being. A new calendar, such as that inaugurated in the French Revolution, should mark the discontinuity that has been brought it into being in its naming, its re-divisions, its spaces of commemoration – unlike the Weimar republic, born of a compromised revolution in 1918 and 1919, and which is unable to acknowledge its own constitution as a break in time, a break in tradition – and so returns to old times, business-as-usual.

What Benjamin asserts in the essay ‘Experience and Poverty’ is the necessity to adopt brutal modes of thought and action not as a freely chosen strategy as such, but as a mimetic adaptation to the brutality that is the world and as a glimpse into what is needed to carry through a break, a revolution, a change in the state of things. Through a kind of doubling, the negation is negated.

Marchel Duchamp fountain sculpture SFMOMA 3700182764 resized     brecht play     situationist comic     Sex Pistols in Paradiso Johnny Rotten Steve Jones resized

We can find this radical brutality in various and varied documents of culture: in artworks like Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’; in Eisenstein’s montage and editing techniques; in Brecht’s plays and poems; in the Situationist ‘detournement’ of comics; in the music of John Cage or in punk.

There is also brutality in thought: a breaking with thinking as it has been thought to date, an assault on common sense, in order to annul the thinking that justifies, by not drawing attention to, everyday brutality. Brutality in action: a brutal, critical one, in which time itself might be interrupted. The world itself might stop spinning – such is revolutionary political action. The world is brutal and critique might become action on and in the world and its symbols:

‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

Sometimes the statues that glorify brutal systems and their agents are kicked over, revealing a connection between culture and the barbaric that exists usually obscured. Such radical acts direct art and politics – and life – towards other possibilities.

You can also hear Professor Leslie talk about Benjamin on Radio 4's In Our Time, here.

Igh Sheriff o Merthyr
Wednesday, 19 June 2024 21:10

Igh Sheriff o Merthyr

Published in Poetry

Igh Sheriff o Merthyr

by Mike Jenkins

Ee wuz off of is trolley,
shoutin in-a middle o Penderyn Square
like ee woz a Town Crier.

Ee ad all the regalia -
chains, fancy at , medals galore,
buh ardly spoke posher.

“Yer ye, yer ye! Good folk o Merthyr!
I’m yewer bran’new Igh Sheriff
appointed arfta givin bagsomoney.

Ower good Queen 've sadly
passed away, wavin from-a sky
on a separate cloud to er ubby.

She ave served us mos graciously,
same time lookin arfta er famlee
(speshly er darlin son Andy).

Now we welcome King Charlie III
oo once spoke sev’ral words o Welsh
an loves talkin t trees.

We say ‘Croeso!’ t Wills ower prince
an look forward t showin im round
b’fore ev’ry business shuts down town.

As Igh Sheriff I yerby decree
Prince Charles becomes King Charles Ospital
An Keir Ardie Ealth Centre’s named arfta Camilla.

As Igh Sheriff I yerby declare
this square will enceforth be named arfta me -
Josiah John Bacon Homfray Crawshay.”