Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

Friday, 11 August 2023 09:57


Published in Poetry


by Fran Lock

and what of them? hardy stragglers
between wastelands, waste lanes
with the weather wetly trepanning
the factories. by junctions of squat
hope, the stooping of resolute
chimneys, i saw them: thin enough
to pass through the slit in a cat's
eye yellowly. a salute, an assault,
the meadow's broken heil! how
nature tightens her failed telepathy,
frail masturbator's grip on our
fancy. fancy. poets, those grim
custodians of oath, tending
the cut and sober fiefdoms
of the field. we are picking
away between panels: tablets
bearing the ten commandments
of solarity. we have filled our
mouths with the burst blue flame
of aftermath. we have come to
collapse here, lie down our
numbered days amid the tepid,
bending farce of them. here,
with what the birds beat out
between a tatty governance
of wings, with the end times
motto the snake rolls up in
the black phylactère of his
tongue. here they are, swollen
with staying power. immortal
hosts. we are dying. we are all
dying, but they did not get
the memo.

But Billionaires are People Too!
Tuesday, 11 July 2023 15:48

But Billionaires are People Too!

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces her quarterly poetry column

Amidst rolling news coverage of the Titan sub disaster, I scrapped the first draft of this quarter's column, and began again, forcibly struck as I was – as I continue to be – by the alarming differential of media attention, public sympathy, and international aid between those with money and those without. While futile search and rescue efforts were underway for the OceanGate submersible, a tragedy of arguably far greater magnitude was occurring off the coast of Greece, where a fishing trawler carrying more than 700 “migrants”, including over 100 children, capsized. At time of writing, 82 passengers are confirmed dead, and over 500 people are still missing. The UN reports that since 2014 more than 26,000 people have died or gone missing in desperate attempts to migrate by sea. It felt important to address the inequality of response afforded the poor and vulnerable, on the sea and on the land.

First, to briefly recap: the Titan sub was an unregistered, unregulated experimental craft, operated by OceanGate, and running $250,000 “tours” to the wreck of the Titanic for its billionaire passengers. Among the dead were French explorer Paul-Henri Nargeole, British born billionaire thrill-seeker Hamish Harding, British-Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood, along with his 19-year-old son, Suleman. Last on the list, the CEO of OceanGate and developer of the sub, Stockton Rush.

Rush might politely be referred to as a “character”, one with an almost breathtakingly reckless attitude toward health and safety. As Ash Sarkar among others has reported, Rush gave a telling interview with the Unsung Science Project in 2019 where he described safety concerns as, after a certain point, “pure waste”, claiming “it really is a risk reward question […] I think I can do this just as safely while breaking the rules.”

Others vehemently disagreed, included David Lochridge, former director of marine operations at OceanGate, who was reportedly fired after raising concerns about Titan's safety in 2018. According to numerous sources, OceanGate refused to have the testing of the experimental vessel monitored by an independent organisation that would have ensured it met accepted technical standards. Lochridge claims OceanGate were “unwilling to pay” for such an independent assessment, and that Rush ignored repeated warnings that the sub's viewing window was safe only to a depth of 1,300 meters (the Titanic rests at nearly 4,000 meters below the ocean surface). In 2018 over 40 deep-sea explorers, industry experts, and oceanographers signed a letter to Rush, urgently requesting that experts be allowed to monitor testing of the Titan. Rush declined to comply. Instead, he continued to make public pronouncements about the ways in which regulation “stifles innovation” with an unshakeable and utterly misplaced confidence in himself and his untried technology.

We now know that the craft imploded shortly after it began its 2.4 mile descent to the wreck of the Titanic. The US Navy reports that it picked up sounds of this implosion on Sunday, soon after the sub lost contact.  A horrible, but mercifully quick way to die, with those on board probably having little time to register what was happening to them. Yet the media continued to breathlessly cover the multinational “rescue” efforts comprising teams from the US Navy, the Canadian and US Coast Guard, a French Remote Operated Vehicle Team, a British Royal Navy submarine expert, and specialists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The search involved classified undersea listening equipment, a deep-sea winch, search planes, numerous ROVs and a submarine, to the tune of over one million dollars. Over the last couple of weeks, as “rescue” turned to recovery, and debris from the sub was bought to the surface, the mainstream media's gaze was once again directed towards the gruesome tragedy.

The worst excesses of capitalism

This recap serves to illustrate a number of different points, depending upon the angle you approach it from.  Mostly, the loss of Titan has been pitched as a morality tale, where a monumental sense of entitlement and a fatal lack of humility met in a moment of catastrophic and vividly embodied hubris. It provides yet another example – if any were needed – of what happens when companies prioritise economic success over safety, where “innovation” becomes the fig-leaf covering cut-throat financial competition. What happened to the Titan is an exemplum and a microcosm of deregulation, the worst excesses of capitalism in action. It's a story – to quote Sahkar – about “the judgement-warping nature of extreme wealth”. Rush believed he knew better than all of those experts; his passengers believed their money gave them safe and privileged access to the outer edges of experience.

What else is there to say? I was contemplating this as our morally compromised ex-PM weighed in via his Daily Mail column to describe the passengers of the Titan as “heroes”, who died while “pushing out the frontiers of human knowledge and experience” and that their tourist trip to the wreck of the Titanic filled him with “pride”. Curious, even by Daily Mail standards.

But the Tory government – and economic elites generally – desperately need the irresponsible personal choices of privileged individuals to be rebranded as in some way inherently beneficial for wider society. With equal desperation they need a mainstream media content to peddle the myth that when rich people do it, “risk-taking” is, in some nebulous and ill-defined way, noble, brave or glamorous. They need this toxic ideology to legitimate their daily gambles with financial markets, health and housing infrastructure, and with our very lives. Such logics brought us the housing crisis of 2008, the callous mishandling of a global pandemic, and the heart-rending tragedy of Grenfell Tower, where the foolishness and greed driving deregulation meant that working-class people could be legally housed in fatally unsafe properties.

In this way the rich have always recuperated their stupidity and failure as value, however many of us (or each other) they kill along the way. The double standard is astounding. I find myself thinking about the way that victims of the Hillsborough disaster were blamed for their own deaths and injuries, by government, by the police, and in the press. We saw this victim-blaming post-Grenfell too. We see it every day in the demonisation of the most vulnerable amongst us, whose “lifestyle choices” are repeatedly figured as solely responsible for their poor health outcomes. If you're rich you can do no wrong, money sanctifies you. If you're poor, you can never be innocent or suffering enough not to be blamed for your own sad fate.

I am thinking once again about the impossible choices people make when they undertake a small boat (sometimes a trawler, more often just a dinghy with an outboard motor) crossing for the chance of a better life. Many are fleeing war, persecution, and various registers of abject poverty in their own country. They get on those boats, not in the confident expectation that some aura of specialness will protect them, but because the slim chance they have in the water is better than the no chance they have back on land.

Research conducted earlier this year by Liberty Investigates found that in November of 2021 hundreds of vulnerable migrants appear to have been abandoned to their fates when the UK coastguard “effectively ignored” reports of small boats in distress. Around 440 would appear to have been left adrift after the coastguard failed to send any rescue vessels to 19 reported small boats carrying “migrants” in UK waters. While government rhetoric paid lip-service to concerns by denouncing smugglers and traffickers for “endangering lives”, it is telling that in four cases from November 2021, 'reconnaissance planes and drones entered the airspace' near the vessels in distress, but that these aircraft were incapable of providing direct assistance to those aboard. They did nothing to prompt assistance to be sent either.

According to Tech Monitor, in the five years to 2022, the UK had spent more than £1 billion on surveillance technology for use in the Channel. None of that was earmarked towards rescue efforts. Right-wing discourse surrounding “migrants” entering the country on “small boats” often centres on the irresponsible nature of their “choice”. Alive and well is the argument that if people undertake such a dangerous and “illegal” journey, they must face the consequences and expect little or no help.

So what makes five individual members of a wealthy elite “heroic” protagonists in a tragedy, and the “migrants” aboard small boats an expendable mass of illegal personhood in which no one face is distinct or memorable? The Right – in the UK and abroad – operates a sick hierarchy of grievability that says some lives are worth neither saving nor mourning. I make this observation in the context of the so-called Illegal Migration Bill working itself through parliament. The Bill sets out a plan that will effectively render the asylum claims of anyone who arrives “irregularly” into the UK “inadmissible”. The Refugee Council quite rightly points out that there is little or no evidence that the measures set out in the Bill will act as an effective deterrent to those crossing the Channel in small boats. The Bill does nothing to tackle the reasons people undertake such dangerous and difficult journeys, it merely criminalises and further persecutes those who have lost everything.

Meanwhile Tory talking heads have apoplectic Twitter-fits at anyone who dares to point out the unequal sympathy with which sinking billionaires and capsizing refugees are treated, decrying any such statement as poor taste “political point-scoring” driven by an absence of “compassion”. The billionaires are “human beings”, they bleat. Billionaires are people too! We also saw this after the queen died. Republicans were exhorted to remember her “humanity”, as if humanity were some miraculous quality and not the generic condition of everyone alive from Vladimir Putin to Britney Spears. Furthermore, it's worth remembering that theirs is a Schrödinger’s humanity: an arbitrary rhetorical expedient, it phases into existence at the precise moment that scrutiny is applied. We're constantly told that the rich and powerful transcend our mere mortal existence; they spend their entire lives within the hazy, elevated aura of economic privilege, with all the exemptions and special dispensations that implies. They're not us. They are better than us. But if that is the case, then it's a bit much to expect readmission in the final extremis.

“Sympathy” and “compassion” are infinitely renewable resources. They are painfully finite. An investment of effort and attention is required to bring them forth, and the burden of this giving is not shouldered equally by the rich and powerful. I've said it once, I'll say it again: our sympathy simply cannot stretch to meet the irrational demands of our oppressors and class enemies to be loved. Sympathy extracts energy, it requires courage. It is an expression of solidarity and care. It isn't equivalent to good manners or tact. It does not mean agreeing to be silent in the face of injustice. And when we do feel and express sympathy with the rich, what happens to it? It is swallowed up by an enormous void, a void that doesn’t recognise our humanity, or the humanity of the most vulnerable amongst us. Whose humanity is fit to be recognised?

Poetry that insists on a reckoning with power and the powerful

The poems below make room for a radical expression of sympathy. They do so in various ways: through the direct and compassionate acknowledgement of the lives that have been lost; by affording those lives the space of the page; and by foregrounding them in consciousness with a meticulous care seldom afforded them as human beings. These are also poems of accounting, poems that insist on a reckoning with power and with the powerful, as the chief duty that we owe to the dead. All perform the special dual operation of poetry: addressing two audiences simultaneously, so that at their most furious and excoriating they also give us their most tender expression of care.

Sunken Levels

By Jim Aitken

It was the first item on the news
for days, the Titan submersible
taking a group to see the Titanic wreck.

The loss of life was indeed tragic, as was
the £200,000 fee charged to those on board
to view the wreck and never return home alive.

Less newsworthy was the unnamed boat
that sunk in stormy seas off the Grecian coast
with the loss of eighty lives, mainly Pakistanis.

And less newsworthy the thirty-nine Vietnamese
lives lost, found inside a container lorry. Neither
the Pakistanis or the Vietnamese had names, it seems,

Unlike those in the Titan submersible who were all
named. The difference was all to do with wealth,
with class status, for the migrants were simply poor

And those in the submersible had cash to throw away.
It reminded me of Bezos and his rocket into space
thanking his Amazon workers for this unseemly waste.

With a media that worships wealth and despises the poor
both at home and abroad, though especially abroad,
the difference in coverage was class-ridden and predictable.

Yet they say that class is over these days; that it doesn’t
matter anymore. Yet, there is no level to which the wealthy
will sink to stay wealthy – should this not be learned anew?

Or do we all sink together so that the wealthy can
continue to be wealthy at the expense of the world’s poor
as the land burns and the sea levels rise to sink even them?

Or do we instead talk of rich and poor all over again and give
place for egalitarian dreams to flourish; to challenge the all-
consuming, insatiable appetites of the few and raise the many?

'Sunken Levels' by Jim Aitken addresses the sinking of the 'unnamed boat' directly. The poem is a meditation on the backgrounding of individual lives (and deaths) that reduces poor, brown human beings to absent subjects within wealth-obsessed neoliberal culture. It also calls our attention to the invisible nature of class itself, and the ways in which a collective denial of its existence only serves to perpetuate harm. The poem takes on the idea of sinking in both its figurative and literal sense: poor people sink beneath the threshold of attention; class is a submerged but ever-present threat to life. One of the most striking things about Aitken's poem is the way in which it recognises the passengers on board the Titan as fellow victims of this mindset. Only in a society that venerates money, and where the glamour of wealth is allowed to generate its own aura of invincibility, would you find those willing to pay £200,000 to descend 4,000 metres below the ocean surface.

Aitken's poem operates with deceptive simplicity: the reader is lowered down through levels of newsworthiness, from billionaire submarine passengers to Pakistani refugees, to ‘the thirty-nine Vietnamese / lives lost, found inside a container lorry.' By expanding the focus of the poem to encompass those lives, Aitken shifts the poem from the binary of basic comparison to evoke a more complex global enmeshment in the machinery of capitalism.

In the eighth stanza the poem performs a reversal and begins to engage with the act of restitution and 'raising'. While individual lives may be irrecoverable, the poem dares to hope that as a society we are not beyond redemption; that we might be propelled to the surface, might 'raise the many', through a vigorous and collective questioning of the systems that dominate our lives and the cultural myths they spin around us.

Land Law in England 1070-1890

By Patrick Davidson Roberts

Four years from the battle they cut the fields with salt.
The terror-tongue amongst us and our own old words burned out.
They held us down as numbers: our lives, our homes, our cattle.
They bound us in their catalogue, ten years from the battle.

These few months from Smithfield, where his promises made fools.
So you are you shall remain and worse. The law of rule.
They broke upon us as a curse. We broke ourselves to yield
and the rain fell all the harder, these few months from Smithfield.

Weeks on from St George’s Hill; our work there done in vain,
our captains sent to silence, the gangs and mob both came
to meet the spade with violence and beat us down until
it is only words that grow there, now, on St George’s Hill.

Days toward the devil’s smoke, our lives lashed as our harness.
Their rents and fences hammered in, they pointed us to darkness.
Named it law and rightly done, to send us from the fields to choke.
To slum and factory, illness, death, in the devil’s smoke.

'Land Law in England 1070-1890'  by Patrick Davidson Roberts takes a different approach. The poem engages the broad sweep of history: using the cadences and rhythms of an early-modern folk ballad, it tells the story of how the rich cement their will to power as written law and moral right. They do this to crush generations of working men and women, from agrarian commons, through enclosure and privatisation, to the Industrial Revolution and the grim reality of work in factories, mills and mines. As with Aitken's poem the poor are disappeared: physically removed from the land they used to tend, but also 'held down' as numbers, bound 'in their catalogue', reduced to statistics, figured as faceless economic units to be administered, or as problems to be solved within the language, apparatus, and collective imagination of the state.

While Roberts' poem covers a wide span of historical ground, from the Norman Conquest, by which the king acquired (stole) the ultimate title to all land in England, through the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where King Richard II met with Wat Tyler at Smithfield to make promises he would not keep, and where Tyler was killed by the Mayor of London, up to the Diggers' Occupation of St George's Hill in 1649, where they began to cultivate the common land in contravention of the law and to pull down enclosures. But use of the personal collective pronoun 'us' , and the centring of the poem within particular local places, creates a sense of continuity within a class struggle that is more usually framed as a series of disconnected incidents. This allows us both to apprehend the deliberate steps by which the poor are divested of their rights, and by which the rich and powerful naturalise their superiority and dominion. While the poem's trajectory is ultimately despairing, its uncanny temporality calls forth a solidarity with our foresisters and brothers, stretching back into the past. It provides us with a vision of our history that is seldom taught and often hidden from sight.

The language of 'Land Law in England' is authentically Blakean. The final lines of the fourth stanza could equally belong in Winstanley's 'Diggers' Song' or Blake's 'Jerusalem'. This feels vitally important: the poem is proposing poetry and song as an alternative account and way of reading history, a language of reply and resistance to that other, official language of the law.


By Bridget Frances Keating

frontier of fog, distance
and depth. the shattered
caress of an oar, a claw.

here, in this conceit
of stricken timbers,
this nursery of tempered

you have squared the odyssey
inside a bottle; foreshortened
the mariner's monologue into
a drunken text.

silent now. handmaidens all,
coronate damsels, the long
anguilliform thrust of them.
eels, like sullen ladles, spooning
the futureless sea into every
broken mouth from port to

no, we are not all equal, but
we are all changed. and we –
aphotic sticklers, the lanterns
and the hatchets – were once
like you.

silent now, and fathom-gilded.
a shoal, a raving multitude. silvered
coin of our own realm.

The title of 'Salvage' by Bridget Frances Keating is an eerie riff on the idea of maritime salvage. In this poem the sea-changed voices of the dead extend a sinister welcome to a group of unspecified addressees numbered amongst the recently drowned. In the opening two stanzas the sunken wreck of a ship is evoked with the macabre theatricality of a haunted mansion in a Victorian Gothic romance: 'This frontier of fog', 'this conceit / of stricken timbers'.

The word 'conceit' in particular creates a sense of fun-house unreality, as if the wreckage were a ride in a theme park, and not a real, historical grave site. In the third stanza the poem breaks into accusatory direct address, with the use of the heavily emphasised 'you' to lay responsibility for the diminishment of the ocean, its dangers, and its tragedies firmly at the feet of those recently arrived interlopers.

The most disturbing and arresting lines of the poem come, I think, in the fourth stanza where eels (presumably pelican eels that can live at depths of up to 3000 metres) are ' spooning / the futureless sea into / every broken mouth from port to starboard'. Invoking the 'broken mouths' reconnects the dreamy unreality of the poem to the literal bodies of the dead, and the idea of 'the futureless sea' suggests both the irrecoverable permanence of the sunken state, and the strange simultaneous time of the ocean, where all disasters occupy the same endless and uncanny 'now'.

In the final two stanzas Keating seeds references that suggest the central theme of the poem is the circular hubris of the rich and powerful. 'We were once like you' say the dead, now transformed into shoals of fish, the 'silvered coin' of their 'own realm'. These signifiers of riches suggest that the speakers of the poem may well be the Titanic's wealthy passengers. Their addressees could be the crew of the Titan, but equally they could be any wealthy seafarer whose arrogance and entitlement proved terminal. The reader is left wondering who or what is 'salvaged', rescued, retrieved or preserved? As all are 'changed' into the members of a more diverse and equal biotariat, perhaps what is salvaged is something like the soul.

Control Town

By Peadar “King Badger” O' Donoghue

See y'after!
After what, Armageddon?
See y'later!
Not if I see you first, Landlord.

Sun Tzu told me what to do,
I'd like to fish your bones
from the waters, lattice them
on the boggy bank that they
might feel their first bite of frost,
form an arched sepulchre for greed.

I see rooks, ravens, hear
foreboding cackles from the trees,
I see shopping trolleys in the pond,
I see the latest politician
hands in someone else's pocket,
I see the discarded needles,
I see a used condom on a dog turd,
I see nobody has any time for anything.

I see record profits are on the up,
bonuses ballooning,
I see half price food half rotten
in aisle twenty, those yellow
labels, if you have too many,
label you at the checkout,
other, poor, unclean, leper.
I see I have to quit this poem.
I see it's gotten me nowhere,
perfect. Let's just sit by the river,
and wait.

 'Control Town' by Peadar O' Donoghue, adopts a similar stock of Gothic-inflected images to Keating, but filters them through a striking tone of despairing rage. In the arresting second stanza, the bones of the wealthy dead are fished from the water, latticed 'on the boggy bank that they / might feel their first bite of frost, / form an arched sepulchre for greed.' While the image is both surreal and macabre, the setting is resolutely ordinary: a choked tributary river in any unlovely working-class town. The driving conceit of the poem is that in death the rich wash up amidst the muck and debris of the world they made, forced at last to inhabit the inequality they helped to create.

There is no “sea-change” in this poem, no possibility of redemption. Instead, the speaker is focused on a recitation of poverty's material traces: 'shopping trolleys in the pond', 'discarded needles', 'a used condom on a dog turd', the 'yellow labels' of half-price food. These mundane, daily reminders of classed life and landscape are interwoven with the insubstantial or concealed nature of extreme wealth: 'record profits', 'bonuses ballooning', 'the latest politician / hands in someone else's pocket'. The dead in O' Donoghue's poem are not ghostly, because wealth and power are already spectral. In this poem their fate – and their punishment – is to become solid bodies, waste amongst the waste.

Again, similar to Keating's piece, the poem has an enigmatic title that might be read a number of ways. The speaker exercises control when they decide to 'just sit by the river, / and wait', but the speaker is also subject to control as a citizen, a worker, and a classed body whose movements, choices, and opportunities are governed by economic inequality. The wealthy dead experience a loss of control – in the sense of autonomy over their own fates – but also they become subject to controlling forces as they are inexorably borne downriver by the tide. It is the indifference of nature, its relentless, motiveless mechanism that ultimately undoes and degrades them, and not the poem's hedged attempts to exert imaginative control over the fates of the rich and powerful. This bleak conclusion has a flip side: the hope that with watchful patience, old orders may be both literally and figuratively swept away.


By Tom Bland

The Playstation controller made Andy Warhol blush:
watching from the moon, Titan, he knew one of the bolts would
go, the pressure imploding, instantly
killing them all, and he knew nothing about science.

The rich are idiots and idiocy is currency
in a world of shock of breaking down
stability for robbing the eruption of
that flows out of governments from nonsensical schemes only the
would or

But in nature,

the deep is full of aliens who have a way to break the
unbreakable, those sun-soaked Gucci-wearing humans who
use physics as a game, thinking immortality comes from a
Bitcoin wishing well they control.


and Titan drowns the blond haired idol of
capitalism and the ghosts of the Titanic still

as they endlessly drown under champagne bottles and sharks
endlessly shatter the ice cutouts of the Titan billionaires

in the ice cold dark…

'OceanGate' by Tom Bland is the most explicitly confrontational poem I want to share, but it is also perhaps the strangest, the most camp, and the most absurd. The speaker begins by evoking the discarnate, omnipresent spirit of Andy Warhol, watching the tragedy of the Titan unfold from the nebulous ether, a distant moon base. This choice of detached supernatural observer is not random, Warhol being one of Western culture's best-known commentators on consumer excess, his legend and image now synonymous with the same forces his art sort to engage and critique. The line 'The rich are idiots and idiocy is a currency' might well have issued from Warhol himself as originated with the poem's speaker.

 I'm reminded especially of his famous line that “buying is much more American than thinking... and I'm as American as they come”. Here Bland (and Warhol) taps into and dramatises the way the rich recuperate their stupidity and failure as cultural value. The presence of Warhol transforms the catastrophe aboard the Titan into a perverse version of the “15 minutes of fame” – a quote often misattributed to Warhol, describing the phenomena of instant and short-lived celebrity – so that death itself becomes part of the same shallow, endlessly scrolling media circus.

The poem is loosely punctuated, with irregular line breaks that allow the stanzas to bleed in and out of one another. In this way the text performs an uncanny suspension – perhaps in water, perhaps in the gravity vacuum of space – on the page. The effect is dislocating. Phrases and ideas drift and surface, violently surprising the reader, as with the stark, capitalised 'KILL THE RICH / MEANS JUST THAT'.

As with O'Donoghue's poem, Bland is concerned with the waste and detritus of capitalist culture, but he is less interested in the material traces of poverty, than with the lunatic signifiers of obscene wealth: 'Gucci' and 'Bitcoin', 'champagne bottles and sharks'. The poem asks us to consider the sheer absurdity of the death, which, in a saner political and social climate, would not only have been preventable, but unthinkable. It takes a special kind of irrationality to undertake such a journey. It is a symptom of our prevailing sickness, a disease characterised first and foremost by florid delusions of grandeur and invincibility.

However, what I like about Bland's poem is the space it creates to acknowledge our class enmity: to say the unsayable. In this way it is the poetic equivalent of the near-to-the-knuckle memes that did the rounds immediately after news of the sinking broke. It aligns itself with those memes, with all the throwaway and reviled forms of cultural expression, and with sentiments few wish to acknowledge or bother to unravel.

Poetry, labour, and the dream of a General Strike
Friday, 24 March 2023 16:48

Poetry, labour, and the dream of a General Strike

Published in Poetry

The last – the only – general strike to take place in Britain was in May 1926. The strike was called by the TUC in support of miners, who were mired in a bitter dispute with mine owners, demanding longer hours for less pay. While initial support was strong (over 1.5 million workers joined in solidarity with the miners) after a gruelling nine days the TUC ended the strike; the miners fought on alone, and ultimately returned to work in November. A painful and palpable defeat. In 1927 the Trades Dispute Act (repealed in 1946) banned “sympathy strikes”.

But the idea of the general strike continued – and continues – to haunt British political imagination: fearfully, on the part of elites; for the rest of us, as an expression of hope. We have come close so many times. For example, in 1972, following the arrest of the Pentonville Five who refused to recognise the legitimacy of a court injunction to stop picketing. Their arrests prompted a wave of solidarity strikes, and mass walkouts by dockers, virtually creating an unofficial national strike. The TUC invoked the spectre of an official one day general strike unless the men were freed, and this idea proved so potent and so threatening to power that the five were released within a week of their arrest.

Pentonville Five

More fatefully, there is “the Winter of Discontent”, the period between October 1978 and February 1979 when Ford workers, lorry drivers, council workers, and NHS staff all walked out, causing major disruption to public services. In all, around 4.6 million people were involved in strike action. This action has left an indelible mark on public consciousness, but one that has been tailored and shaped to serve the aims of government. Politicians and their media mouth-pieces are still peddling the legend of a country run by greedy and corrupt unions, permanently on strike, with electricity rationed and garbage piling up in the streets.

Yet, most of the groups involved in the action were far below average in terms of how often they went on strike. The relatively weak collective strength, for example, of public sector unions, was largely responsible for their living standards being so badly hurt by rising inflation in the first place. The strikes were disruptive precisely because those involved were not previously strike-prone. And what is left out of the narrative is just how desperate the economic situation was for these marginalised and poorly-paid workers. NHS support staff, working in roles such as catering, cleaning and portering services, began the 1970s with average pay lower than the average unskilled worker. Callaghan's government held pay down, ensuring that real wages for NHS and local council employees dropped a staggering 19 per cent, pushing workers further into poverty. Many of these jobs were being performed by black and brown women who were not only economically but socially vulnerable. This a far cry from the popular image of hardline union militants, holding the country to ransom. Yet the image has power, and the image persists. It has been cynically deployed to roll back workers rights and inoculate against empathy for those who strike.

Nurses St Andrews Newham 1979

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, with a ruthless determination to crush organised labour. Amongst numerous mechanisms for achieving this end, the 1982 Employment Act substituted the meaning of trade dispute as occurring “between employers and workers” to “between workers and their [emphasis added] employer.” Thus, the act further curtailed secondary actions or sympathy strikes, rendering them unlawful. Previously, union members could take industrial action against their own employer in support of union members engaged in industrial action against a different employer. Further, this legislation narrowed the parameters of what counted as a trade dispute, excluding the possibility of a strike for “political” reasons. Which, when you thing about it, is the acme of absurdity: strike action is, definitionally, political.

The UK is in an unusual (and unenviable) position with regards to our right to strike, in that no single right to strike exists. Workers are instead afforded various scant protections, assuming their industrial action is deemed lawful. If found to be unlawful, an injunction could be sought against the union. If the union then flouts or refuses to recognise the injunction, it could be found in contempt of court, and its funds sequestered. Or else,  it could be sued for damages. In July, the Tory government increased the upper limit for damages, from £250,000 to a whopping £1m. To put it bluntly, there exists no legal mechanism by which unions can declare a general strike.

Yet, the idea of such mass action is alive and well. I Googled newspaper articles from December last year to the present day, and I counted, without even really trying, six comparisons between our current situation and “the Winter of Discontent”, from publications such as: The Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Observer, The Financial Times, The New York Times. All of these conjure an image of strike conditions in their most negative and disruptive aspect. Some of them sympathetically acknowledge the grim economic and ideological causes of the strikes, but none of them really address just how difficult it is to meaningfully commit to and coordinate industrial action under current legal conditions. For all the anxious whispers about a return to the bad ol' days of 1979, or potential escalation towards a general strike, as of December last year around 822,000 working days had been lost to industrial action, compared with 12m days in 1979, and 162m in 1926. If anything it seems as if scaremongering around industrial action has increased in inverse proportion to the rights and powers unions actually have.

I was thinking about this, and about the potential for coordinated action between the TUC's 48 member unions, when the news broke of the government “climb down” over NHS pay, with the promise of a one-off payment for the current year worth up to 8.2 per cent for the lowest-paid workers, and a potential above-inflation pay rise of 5 per cent for 2023-24. There was a rush to herald this news as some kind of a victory, with the Guardian stating that although this still leaves NHS staff below where they were in 2021-2022, it is 'considerably more than the government wanted to give.' Strike action continues across other public services, including eduction, and, at time of writing, “intensive talks” are underway between government and teaching unions. That's a testament to those on the picket lines, but it's not an uncomplicated cause for celebration. NEU are recommending their members reject the teacher pay offer, and there's a real danger that as workers are worn down they become more willing to accept whatever scraps government cares to throw them. If this happens those left will be further isolated and hedged in any legal attempt to meaningfully strike. So far, the  small gains strikers have secured are concentrated in isolated economic pockets, and any concessions to individual unions takes place against a backdrop of curbed rights for striking workers more broadly.

For instance, the Minimum Service Levels Bill, currently wending its weary way through the House of Lords, aims to make effective strike action across a number of sectors illegal by requiring unions to negotiate 'minimum service levels' with their employer before every strike. The Bill affects railway workers, hospital workers, teachers, firefighters, ambulance workers and border staff. Under the terms of the Bill an employer has the right to name individual workers who have then to break their own strike. This has the potential to be weaponised against shop stewards and branch officials, victimising union activists. Further, the minimum service level could be set anywhere: at 50 per cent, 80, 100. If the union does not agree with the employer's demands, government can intervene to set the level. The implications for chronically underfunded services – for example paramedics – are dire: they cannot provide a service to “prevent risk to life” under present non-strike conditions, so how could they ever legally strike to draw attention to those conditions?

The Bill has now come under serious scrutiny from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as impinging upon the right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) so perhaps there is some possibility of curbing its worst excesses. Yet the tactical nature of the Bill is telling – and troubling. It is a link in a long chain of Tory legislation attacking the practical and legal mechanisms by which class solidarity is fostered and finds organised active expression. By doling out limited and circumscribed gains to individual sectors against a broader backdrop of reduced rights the government hopes to break the bonds between cohorts of striking workers; a carrot and stick approach that uses small concessions alongside fear of legal and economic sanctions to engineer compliance. What we needed – need – from the outset is strong, mass coordinated action, but this looks less likely by the day. That said, some comfort can be taken in the fact that the government must resort to laws to forbid the expression of solidarity; it shows precisely the strength of our tendency to stand in sympathy with one another. This thought should galvanise us.

So what about poetry?

But what does any of this have to do with poetry? And what can poetry usefully contribute? Here, I am wary of bold claims. Art is not a substitute for legal protection or economic justice, neither can it be said to effectively deliver those things. However, as the poetry I want to introduce today amply demonstrates, it does have an absolutely vital role to play in building the foundations for collective class struggle, and I think it does so in three distinct ways. Firstly, as a space of counter-narrative testimony: poetry erects an alternative history against the reductive and damaging narratives the government and mainstream media have tried so desperately to cement in cultural memory. As cultural memory scholar Astrid Erll has noted 'there is no collective memory without individual actualization' (Memory in Culture, 2016). Poetry attends to the individual memories of striking workers, particularising collective struggle in vividly embodied ways that complicate the vision of unions as a homogenous organisation with identical aims and experiences, and feeding these more nuanced representations of ourselves back into wider culture. Poetry can be a site of infiltration into public history for those of us who are denied access to that history by other, more direct routes. It is, then, both a means of preservation – of archiving and transmitting our own stories –  and a form of resistance to – or subversion of – the narratives others make around us.

Secondly, poetry offers an alternative scene of imaginative solidarity, one that is untouched by the legal, temporal, and geographical restrictions hedging our free association in the physical world. Again, because of poetry's intimacy and its focus on close, sustained attention, it allows us to perceive and to foster the connections governments have tried so hard to practically prohibit. Further, because of poetry's special atemporal quality we can apprehend the threads of connection between our own, present experience of class struggle and those of our forecomrades and cross-cultural counterparts. Finally, poetry provides an opportunity to imagine an otherwise, beyond the necessary restrictions of practical organisation. In its potentially infinite spaces we can dream what must be dreamed before it can be enacted. These poets dream of a global rising that brings about liberation for all. It is my pleasure to share these poems with you.

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A call for solidarity with the exploited 

In Fred Voss 'Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?' from the recently released Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses  (Smokestack, 2023), the speaker places us alongside him, in front of the 'washroom mirror', confronting the scars – bodily and emotional – of dirty and difficult manual work: 'all my life' he tells us, 'I've seen the working man beaten down/ unions broken/ wages falling/ as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich'. The linking alliterative whoosh of that long line, especially of 'skyrocket' and 'stockbroker' through their internal rhymes creates an image of acceleration and ease of movement, of a wealthy elite bound not even by gravity. In contrast, the earth-bound lives of the workers feel laboured and heavily embodied. Voss shows how work – and the inequality that structures the experience of that work  – takes its toll in material and daily ways: the heartbreaking image of 'Earl on the turret lathe', retying 'shoelaces that keep breaking' and blinking through '30-year-old glasses', or 72 year old Ariel, 'with swollen arthritic fingers and joking/ about working until he drops', or Teddy, who operates the gantry mill, washing 'stinking black machine grease' from his hands. I think what gives this poem its unusual power is its particular and striking portrayal of vulnerable working-class masculinity. Without resorting to sentimental appeal, the poem shows us how intimately inequality operates on the lives and bodies of these men, but also the dignified stoicism and quiet solidarity expressed by those who labour under such conditions.

Voss's poem  articulates a wish for revolutionary praxis, transforming Teddy's comment that the management owner of a new Jaguar parked outside is 'making too much money!' into 'the musket shot/ that set off the storming/ of the Bastille.' In that instant, the survival strategy of deadpan humour is transformed from a coping mechanism to an inciting and radical one. Throughout the poem, Voss interrogates both personal responsibility and social conditions; when the speaker despairs that he has 'never heard one word/ of revolt' despite all that the men have endured, we understand that the 'silence' of these workers exists within a context of mental and bodily exhaustion. These are men who have 'twisted chuck handles' until their 'wrists screamed', leaned their 'bodies against screaming drill motors meeting/ cruel deadlines until we thought/ our hearts would burst.' These conditions might provoke revolutionary anger, but they also wear out bodies and minds for the fight. That repeated use of 'scream' to describe both men and machines is telling: so much of the men's lives and identities is swallowed by their job. Teddy's words, then, the 'musket shot' is not meant first and foremost for the workers on the job. They are meant for us, a call to stand in solidarity and strength with the overburdened and exploited.

Machine Language cover resized

The constant bleakness of work

'Work' by Martin Hayes is taken from the forthcoming pamphlet, Machine/ Language (Culture Matters, 2023). Similar to 'Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?', the poem is concerned with our enmeshment in labour; its toll on the body and mental landscape of the worker. But 'Work' shows us this intimate (and insidious) entanglement by other means: personifying work as an uncanny stalking presence, or a predatory threat, figuring it both as a hand-holding whisperer, who 'speaks to you in your ear/ about the things you should’ve done/ the things/ you shouldn’t have done', and a 'pack of  hungry dogs', snapping their jaws. For Hayes' speaker work is not merely a job with a clearly delineated beginning and end, for which the worker receives economic compensation. It is, rather, 'constant', 'behind you/ in front of you/ circling around you'. It's where you're from and where you're headed; it has infiltrated your memories, colonised your imagination, stunted and sucked the colour from your engagement with the world. What makes this poem so chilling, and so important is the image of work 'still there/ staring at you/ wanting to know/ this or that' even after the speaker has come home, taken off their boots, switched on the television and opened an can of beer. Work's presence is inescapable, and it alters even our relationship to few simple pleasures we are able to afford.

So with deft understatement, Hayes shows us that the burden of work extends far beyond the nine-to-five of the job we do. The poem is purposefully vague in its definition of work, and its use of direct address places each and every reader in the position of beleaguered worker. This is not, as with Voss' poem, an affecting portrait of particular work and workers, but a stark look at the mechanism by which the capitalist labour market operates. 'there is no respite from it' writes Hayes, isolating that one line within the blank space of the page, allowing the full gravity of that statement, and its frightening implications to sink in and settle. It is a statement that applies to all of us. It is utterly bleak, but in its universality there is the possibility of understanding and connection between all of us who labour, however different our struggles may outwardly appear.

The history of class oppression

'Once Upon a Time (Grandad tells a story)' by Kevin Patrick McCann distils the age-old cycle of criminalisation, poverty, and despair, that has haunted working-class people since time immemorial. The poem's power comes from its pairing of the standard fairytale formula ('Once Upon a Time) with the grinding injustice of grim economic reality: its very simplicity is the source of its horror. The reason injustice persists is not complicated, and the poem follows its workings – its stepping stones of cause and effect –  through the course a single human life. The unnamed subject begins as a 'Union man', is sacked by his boss for his activities, and becomes a 'jobless man' who cannot pay rent to his landlord and is evicted from his home, then a 'homeless man' who cannot secure other work because he is 'blacklisted'. By the fourth stanza, when McCann's subject is forced to beg on the street, he is no longer awarded the epithet 'man' at all, but is now recognised only as a 'a beggar', a 'work-shy scrounger' and ultimately an 'ex-con' by the magistrate who administers him. There is such a freight of past and present pain at the back of this poem: the gradual dehumanisation of workers who lose not only their jobs, but their identities, their dignity, their families, and their homes.

This loss of livelihood, community, and self is relayed over the course of five stanzas implying a long, slow historical – as well as individual – diminishment. The sixth stanza, however, sums up the relatively static destiny of the rich: 'There was this Boss/ Who was also a Landlord/ As well as Local Magistrate/ And now, Upon a Time, still is.' While the downward potential of the working-class is bottomless, the upper-class stay still, consolidate their power. Your boss might not literally be the same person as your landlord or local magistrate, but they belong to the same class cohort, and they act against you accordingly. They always have. The poem is as bleak as it is historically attentive, but it carries with it the promise of oral transmission between and across generations. The 'Grandad' who is telling this story is surely passing on the history of class oppression to future generations, who, better armed with understanding can locate themselves in a continuity of struggle, and arm themselves for the ongoing fight.

Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?

By Fred Voss

I’m standing
in front of the washroom mirror washing up
after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich
and politicians talk of ‘trickle down’
and ‘the land of opportunity’
and ‘the American way’
and Earl on the turret lathe
keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car
to ride the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72
heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles
until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting
cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big
cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed
and our workloads rise
I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator
walks into the washroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips
and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
‘Hey which front office person is driving
that brand new Jaguar I see parked out there now?’
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
‘Well, whoever it is,’ Teddy says,
‘They’re making too much money!’

After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of the Bastille.



By Martin Hayes

it is constant
it walks beside you
when you should’ve left it behind

it sits next to you on the tube
holds your hand
speaks to you in your ear
about the things you should’ve done
the things
you shouldn’t have done

along the Edgware Rd up to home

like a pack of hungry dogs
trying to keep your arse away
from its snapping jaws

inside you take your boots off
switch on the tele
open a can of beer

it is still there
staring at you
wanting to know
this or that

there is no respite from it

it is the only thing that pays for the rent
the food the electricity the toothpaste
the plasters Bonjela codeine and wine

without it
you are homeless
with it
you are a slave
and constantly
it reminds you of this


Once Upon a Time (Grandad tells a story)

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There was this Union man
But the Boss found out and sacked him.

Once Upon a Time
There was this jobless man
Couldn’t pay the rent so him and his family
Were swiftly evicted.

Once upon a Time
There was this homeless man left his wife
And kids in the workhouse while he went
On the tramp but couldn’t find work
Because he was blacklisted.

Once upon a Time
There was this beggar collapsed in the street
And was soon up before the Beak
Who told him he was a work-shy scrounger
And gave him hard labour
For twenty-four weeks.

Once Upon a Time
There was this ex-con, newly released,
Finds out his wife and son both died
In the workhouse so was dragged off
To the Asylum where he dies as well.

Once Upon a Time
There was this Boss
Who was also a Landlord
As well as Local Magistrate
And now, Upon a Time, still is.

Fred Voss has written several collections of poetry, including The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand (Culture Matters, 2016), Robots Have No Bones (Culture Matters, 2019), and the recently released Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses (Smokestack, 2023).

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Ox, (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021), Underneath (Smokestack, 2021) and the digital pamphlet Machine/ Language (Culture Matters, 2023).

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children, as well as the recent digital pamphlet, The Haunting: Deleted Scenes (Culture Matters, 2022). Kevin is the author of It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books, 2020) a collection of ghost stories, and Ov (Beul Aithris Publications, 2020), a fantasy novel for children.

Why Birkbeck Needs To Nurture English Literature
Saturday, 18 February 2023 09:48

Why Birkbeck Needs To Nurture English Literature

Published in Cultural Commentary


by Fran Lock

This story both is and isn’t about Birkbeck. On the one hand, it is absolutely particular to an iconic institution that recently celebrated its 200th anniversary as a radical space offering accessible higher education previously beyond the reach of poor and working people. It is the story of how, in the midst of those celebrations, the aims and ideals of that institution were – and are – being aggressively undermined by major restructuring, with proposed cuts to more than 80 academic and over 50 administrative and professional services jobs across the College. In English alone 50% of academic staff are faced with redundancy.

This story matters: it matters because English research at Birkbeck is world-leading, ranked 2nd in the UK and 1st in London by the Times Higher Education. It matters because of the vital role the department plays in widening participation in English studies, creating a unique space with one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, among them many mature students, and many working-class students, often the first in their families to enter higher education. Most of these students are studying after or around the working day. I can attest from personal experience both to the pressing need for such spaces, and to the rich, polyphonous creative and intellectual communities they help to foster and create. This story matters. And it matters to me, personally.

On the other hand, this is also a story with much broader implications. It is a story about the managed decline of the Arts and Humanities across all levels of education. It is a story about the marketisation of the academy towards the exclusion of poor and working-class people. It is a Tory Story, about the way in which successive generations of Tory governments have used so-called educational “reforms” to routinise and shrink the teaching of English in schools, producing a loveless conveyor belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature.

Michael Gove did a tremendous amount of damage as Education Secretary in 2013, and Ofqual's 2020 decision to make poetry optional at GCSE level is part of this same ongoing process, which is, to my mind, ideological and deliberate. To put it plainly: the skills that the study of English develop in us – nuanced and analytical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration – are not skills that those in power would like to see evenly distributed. The cuts taking place at Birkbeck are disturbing not only because they impoverish and scar a pioneering Arts and Humanities curriculum at an iconic institution (although they do), and not only because they are symptomatic of the government’s myopic and grimly utilitarian focus on STEM subjects within the academy (although they are); the cuts taking place at Birkbeck are disturbing because they concentrate the burden of that skewed focus on poor and working-class people. A move every bit as wrong-headed as it is political.

In 2022, the Office for Students announced plans to remove funding for “low quality” courses, which they defined as those where less than 60% of participants go into “good” jobs or further study quickly after graduating. This has led to a number of universities – among them Sheffield Hallam, Cumbria, Roehampton, and UEA – suspending or cancelling Arts and Humanities courses amid budget cuts and spiralling redundancies. The idea seems to be to strongarm universities (with a particular emphasis on non-Russell Group universities) into vocational courses, thereby shrinking at one stroke the pool of contributing talent to the artistic and cultural life of this country to a small group of privileged graduates. Yes, this is a miserable denial of working-class creativity, but it is also monumentally self-defeating: the arts and entertainment industry is one of the few areas of the British economy that can still claim to be thriving. Its reputation and success is, in large part, due to working-class creatives.

We need Birkbeck. We need literature and the arts. I needed it. It is far from perfect, but the level of cultural and intellectual participation I now enjoy, I owe to being able to complete my doctorate at Birkbeck. As a mature student. Around my existing jobs and elder care commitments. This would not have been possible for me at any other academic institution. And that’s important. In that it is important to acknowledge that significant and original contributions to knowledge are lost when we exclude poor and working-class people from educational opportunity. Because when we exclude them, then talent is frustrated and futures are curtailed. It is important because working-class people are as capable and deserving of knowledge, literature, art and culture as our more privileged peers.

But that’s not the whole story. What is happening at Birkbeck is inseparable from arts funding cuts, inside the academy and out, that ensure inequality of access and provision. Elites will always try to marginalise or underfund any cultural activity to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. And when they do invest, they tend to invest in the kinds of cultural activities that automatically exclude working-class people. For example, literature is underfunded by ACE in proportion to ballet, opera, and theatre. Put simply, as the academy closes its doors on the study of English, there are fewer and fewer outside opportunities to help fill that void.

How do ascribe worth? Can the cultural and intellectual pulse of a country really be reckoned by labour market outcomes? Whose value system is that, and is that a world any of us would seriously want to be a part of? Culture is the medium through which the work of ideology flows. It's also a place – and a language – where those ideologies can be met and challenged. We’re fighting for our right to broach those challenges, and the ability of future generations to think them into being.

Literature is for Working People

by Craig Smith

During lockdown, book sales boomed. Many of us who were forced to work from home found we had an extra couple of hours of free time per day because we weren’t commuting. We read. We watched movies. We binge-watched TV series. Isolation was tough, and we reached for works of imagination to escape our confinement, to bring light relief, to help us understand what was going on in the world.

The English language is fundamental to British culture, and English literature is the English language at its finest. Directly or indirectly, it filters through everything we think and do, and imbues our daily lives with a richness that sometimes we don’t appreciate. When literature matters so much to us as a nation – to our view of ourselves, to the world’s view of us – why would we not encourage students to immerse themselves in its variety and glory, to understand it thoroughly, to carry its message forward? But that is what Birkbeck University is planning to do.

The founding and growth of Birkbeck University – the Mechanics’ Institute – is testimony to a sane and civilised society providing opportunity for working people to engage with the world around them and to better their lot in life. Birkbeck offers opportunity for working people to grow, to challenge themselves, to follow their dreams when their circumstances mean they don’t have the luxury of ditching the day job, when they still need to earn a living.

We would not have been able to continue our studies had it not been for Birkbeck’s unique operating model. We are each in the second year of a two-year part-time MA in Creative Writing. English literature and creative writing go hand in hand. Understanding literature is fundamental to better writing. So we don’t just write, we also read, for the course and for the love of it. We are both from working-class backgrounds, we both work for a living, and it has always been our dream to sit within an ecosystem that revolves around written works of the imagination. Birkbeck allows us to do that.

You don’t have to study English to degree level to enjoy works of literature, but it’s a cornerstone of any worthwhile institution to offer an undergraduate course in the written word of our native language, to offer the opportunity to understand our shared body of literature. It speaks to the aspiration of your student body, of the students you wish to attract, to present English literature as an option. For Birkbeck, of all places, to walk away from English literature, or to downplay it, is to suggest that literature is not for working people. At least, that’s how it feels.

As writers of fiction, we are on a perpetual lookout for the reasons behind human behaviour, for the motivating factors behind a given course of action. We want to think well of the people around us, to search for resolution, for the satisfying ending. We believe in redemption. And so it is with the plight of English teaching at Birkbeck. We have faith that a solution can be reached that allows the English Department to survive and to thrive. But as we are not party to the discussions as to department’s future, all we can do is add our voice to the multitude of people who know that closing the department (or downgrading it, which is tantamount to the same thing) would be an error. English literature sits at the heart of British culture, and Birkbeck needs a thriving English department to support working people who love our language.

Craig Smith is a novelist and poet from Huddersfield. Craig was recently a winner of Poetry Archive Now! Wordview 2022 with his poem, 'The Great British Insurrection'. Other poems have appeared in The North, Atrium, iamb, Writers Rebel, The Interpreters House, among others. Rue Bella published his long poem, 'A Quick Word With A Rock and Roll Later Starter', and Smith/Doorstep published his pamphlet, L.O.V.E. Love. Craig is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. He tweets at @clattermonger.

Christmas poetry round-up, 2022
Saturday, 24 December 2022 08:53

Christmas poetry round-up, 2022

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock unleashes her annual round-up of outstanding poetry collections; image above by Imtiaz Dharker

So here it is, “merry” Christmas? Or not. Not a lot to be joyful about, is there? As the Tories inaugurate their own personal Nightmare Before Christmas. Which feels like it has been going on since summer. 2013. But in the midst of despair, let’s take a moment to cheer cultural production, in the form of six variously playful, provocative and acutely awake poetry collections. Collects that prove it is our creativity that raises, unites, and sustains us in the darkest days.


Impure Thoughts by Golnoosh Nour (Verve, 2022)

This is the second poetic offering in as many years from twice Polari-shortlisted Nour, and while it retains the baroque stylistic flourish that characterized 2021’s Rocksong, it is, in so many ways, a far stranger, more intellectually driven beast.

The collection stalks ‘impurity’ across its many incarnations. Nour interrogates its operation within political space and upon the subjectivities of those branded or embraced by it. Throughout the course of the collection the notion of impurity pivots from glorious self-dramatizing defiance to a generous and embracive recognition of the other: impurity as both an aesthetics and an ethics of queer care.

‘Ode to Courage’ is particularly haunting in this regard, as the poem invokes a complex solidarity with an addressee returning to their country (Ukraine) at time of war. Admiration and wounded ambivalence mix as the speaker is forced to confront their own vexed relationship to national belonging: ‘I was born to leave; I left to escape, no love was drunk/ enough to keep me in a country that was falling away from me./ It is true – I threw away my country like used condoms.’ In this last image Nour concentrates disgust for self and country, and a bottomless sadness for the failed possibility or wasted potential of both. While Nour’s ‘Ode’ is an expression of genuine respect for the bravery of a loved friend, it is also an act of mourning for a political territory that violently forecloses the possibility of such an act for the speaker. Many levels and registers of loss meet in this poem. How should one grieve for a country that refuses to love you back, that would evict or destroy you, that will not recognize your full humanity? Nour’s writing here is fierce and muscular; it avoids conventional sentiment, creating instead a deeply moving portrait of female friendship. This friendship exists in irreconcilable tension with the ‘violent shame’ of the political – and politicized – subject. That Nour distills this tension with such clarity is a testament to her skill as a poet.

Elsewhere in the collection, such as in ‘Curious Circumstances’ and ‘Reliquary’, Nour plays with the troubling connections between carnal desire and consumption, colliding images of fruit and flesh, cake and orgasm, signalling predatory instincts and carnivorous appetites. A number of the poems inhabit the intersection of consumption, carnality, betrayal and trauma, exploring the ways in which desire is performed and warped through (and by) the distorting lens of consumer culture; mediated by its technologies, susceptible to its logics. A number of the poems see the speaker identify with the discards and detritus of late-stage capitalism, only to use that very media to stage a counter performance of trademark bravura. ‘Cheap Tricks’, for example, is horny, hungry, and unapologetic in its pursuit of a pleasure so often denied to its poetic subjects.

Nour’s writing owes much to a queer lineage that includes writers such as Georges Bataille and Dennis Cooper in its preoccupation with forms of perverse and polymorphous bodily abjection, yet this concern is also tempered with a strong streak of feral feminism, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the collection’s shape-shifting animal motifs. These weave through Impure Thoughts and its predecessor, Rocksong in forms at once monstrous and ghostly. Nour constellates ideas of extremity, excess, queer desire, sickness and animality in a variety of arresting ways. ‘I desire so hard I give/ myself migraines’ she writes. This desire is both an animal search for satisfaction, and an intensely political yearning for a home that evicts or serially abuses and betrays. The body is a territory, a border, an autonomous republic of one. It is an untamed and frightening space, a site of escape, belonging, and resistance. So too the body of the text, which Nour reconfigures in a host of dynamic forms, full of libidinal energy and oracular fury.


Loading Terminal by Danny Hayward (87 Press, 2022)

We live amidst a ‘carnival of state reaction’, in the global welter, writes Danny Hayward, of ‘basically the most intense state violence you can imagine’. Very little recent poetry gets into the gears of that meat-grinder with as much acuity or force as Loading Terminal, which collects three long poems together with a selection of shorter pieces and essays, all concerned with the distortional stresses of late-stage capitalism on the substance and structure of thought and speech.

There is no catharsis in this book. You cannot, Hayward seems to suggest, resolve crisis in language, rather language dissolves in the acid bath of contemporary disaster. The language of Loading Terminal is compulsive, impeded and repeating; it hiccups and collapses, glitches, stutters and loops. Hayward is very much occupied by the limits and failures of language; its obsessive and neurotic qualities, the ways in which it reproduces the very conditions it attempts to disclose. The commonplace that poetry – that any writing – is intrinsically therapeutic or improving turns on the notion that language exists apart from the events it describes, the emotions it seeks to express. Our language does double duty: as diagnostic and surgical tool. We can tell each other where it hurts, we can “heal” through the articulate transfer of emotion.

Except we cannot. Language is infected and infectious; not the end of alienation but its instrument. Rather than connecting, it becomes the crucible in which we ‘harden’, our ‘solipsistic anger cut off from reality don’t/ care about the dead/ pretense of sympathy for the dead worse than none at all/ I feel none today so that is better’. What do we think we’re doing when we are doing poetry, when we are doing culture, when we are doing language? What gets under my skin about Hayward’s work is how inseparable this doing suddenly feels from everything I call my ‘real’ life, how susceptible our poetry is to both the linguistic shrapnel and the zombie logics of neoliberalism; permeated and hijacked on every level. ‘Hysterical middle class poetry sleeps in the same room/ as unrecognisable reality’, writes Hayward. In the early hours of the morning an uncomfortable idea enters my head: that hysterical middle class poetry is a large part of what keeps reality ‘unrecognisable’.

None of which seeks to capture the rhapsodic urgency of Hayward’s language, his syntax of alternately loose connection and cutting precision. It’s not the smug moral inertness of ‘innovation’ for innovation’s sake. It feels driven by a desire to get at what’s at stake for all of us who ‘fuck around with phrases to understand this/ world’. We know any such attempts at understanding will fail, and that ‘fucking around’ is all we are doing, yet we’re still compelled, it’s all we have.

In the midst of which, moments of tender solidarity break through. I was struck in particular by ‘Elegy’ and ‘Letter to Sophie’, poems where the most vulnerable and intimate address intersects with poetic tradition, the mediation of received forms, and digital technologies. There’s a passage in ‘Letter to Sophie’ that I think it is worth quoting in its entirety:

Some other things I wrote down in my phone while I was sitting in hospitals: “Poetry is inhibited by the desire for knowledge. The desire for knowledge is insatiable. It tells you you’re not ready to begin yet. But that’s not right. When you sit in a hospital and listen to people talking on the phone about the cancer surging through their bodies you know there is no time to wait, and that poetry is the only thing there is.”

These gleanings feel radical, wakeful, too hot to handle, which is perhaps why they come to us third hand, doubly delayed – through the letter – which form of communication already embeds the possibility of delay – off the phone screen, from the limbo of the hospital. Mediated, pre-digested, yet still unsettlingly vital. It’s not that poetry is a less a failure than other forms of language, but that poetry is a superb attempter. The attempt is frigging everything.

What do I mean by that? I was reminded, reading Loading Terminal, but something the poet Lisa Robertson once said: that she doesn’t know how to write, each time, and then begins. Writing is the attempt itself, assuming the risks and vulnerabilities of failure. Writing is persistent failure, persistent process in a move toward an other, others. ‘I resolve to drastically lower the bar for expression’, writes Hayward, ‘All my most instinctive sympathies are with people who don’t know how to talk anyway’. None of us do, but the effort is a profound act of solidarity.


THE AUTISTIC-MEMOIR-MANIFESTO OMNIBUS, by Zak Ferguson (Sweat Drenched Press, Forthcoming)

When reviewing Ferguson’s The System Compendium in 2021, I described it as a book both impressive and surprising in extent, scope, intensity, and ambition. This is equally true of this genre-bending, experimental opus. The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus collects four previously released volumes– ‘White Font on Obsidian Sheets’, ‘U N R U L Y Black Stains on The White Page’, ‘T H E A U T I S T I C ( " = " )’ and ‘The Full-Form’ –  into one gloriously disobedient, gleefully irreverent, fruitfully disorienting package.

It's not often you encounter a writer – or indeed a press – who really knows how to play; who understands play as a provocation, both political and intellectual. Rarer still to discover a writer who is able to communicate this without sucking all joy and juice right out of their text. These aren’t arid little arty-farty “games” calculated to confirm writer and reader alike in an over-inflated estimate of their own intelligence. No, this is something else: the text kibbitzes, heckles, goads, teases, pranks and punks you. It is as if Harpo Marx – the character, not the actor – had written a book, by way of Antonin Artaud, Hannah Weiner, Valerie Solanas and SpongeBob SquarePants. There are what readers might recognise as typically Fergusonian flourishes: a restless shifting between genres and modes, a concern with typography and the structural stuff of the text, those jittery, innervating jumps between points of view, and the rhapsodic runs of language that drive Ferguson’s interrogation of language, literature, and neoliberal cultural production.

Because, while this book is undoubtedly both a manifesto and a memoir, it is also a mode and commentary on those things, perhaps even a deconstruction. Certainly, Ferguson takes to task the notion of ‘memoir’ as it emerges from the bland imaginarium of mainstream publishing: a polite and politically neutered confessional space. Such literature works to absorb, revolve and narratively package neurodiverse struggle within a linear trajectory, one that is firmly in step with the normalising aspirations of western capitalism. The dictates of this form demand nothing less than the banishment of all that makes autistic thought unpalatable, gritty, lively and strange from the space of the page. There is no room in this marketized crap for recalcitrant anger, social criticism, or textual difference. Autism becomes a story, a narrative motor divorced from the bodies and brains that live, think, and feel it. Ferguson’s ‘memoir’ is the best antidote to this nonsense I’ve ever read. I see myself in this text: in the obsessive, rapidly cycling autistic creativity that drives it. This challenge to an implied neurotypical audience for autistic literary production feels necessary and refreshing.

It is the collision of memoir and manifesto forms that gives Ferguson’s omnibus its raw power. I previously compared The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus to the work of Valerie Solanas, and this is not a comparison I make lightly: Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto uses the manifesto form to stage a feral burlesque of queer rage, to embody the too-muchness the world hates in women, queers and poor people, and turn into a hyperbolic, excessive and polarising mode. Ferguson’s writing has much the same spirit.  It is iconoclastic in the best sense, razor sharp on the machinations of the literati and on publishing culture. Incendiary, and unafraid to be thought of as ‘petulant’ – Ferguson’s own phrase – bratty or hysterical. Both writers speak frankly about shame in ways that transmute that shame into its absolute refusal. There’s no meekness, no phoney-baloney gratitude for table scraps. Ferguson’s text gives the middle finger to the script that says we should play nice, eat our greens and accept our place. Such a refusal has greater potency, existing within the frame of vulnerable – often abjected – autistic subjectivity.

What stays with me about this work is indeed its sense of vulnerability and risk – which is both a mode of existence and a manner of writing. It is ‘edgy’ in the sense that Ferguson’s textual practice is exiled to the margins of literary culture. It is ‘edgy’ because as a citizen and social subject the author is excluded or disenfranchised. But it is also ‘edgy’ because it is inspired by and emerges from those liminal spaces in art and consciousness where the sparks fly. It is writing ready to expose itself, to assume the risks of failure and break new, uncharted ground. The result of this process is a profound consideration on what it means to live, create and contribute, not only as a neurodiverse artist, but as a member of the suffering human community.

There are moments of biographical disclosure (particularly within the ‘Gay Friction’ section of ‘The Full Form’) that are distinctly uncomfortable. Yet despite this, Ferguson’s blend of incisive thinking and self-awareness prevent the events he writes about becoming sentimental or sensational story-fodder. Instead, the text shows its working, the inseparable mesh of experience and theory that form the basis of his cultural analysis. This analysis is wide-ranging, rangy and compelling. Ultimately, The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus seduces and confronts us with how one singular vision was shaped, and how it negotiates the dystopian landscape of a culture and a society not of its choosing.


Grace Note, by Peter Godfrey (Smokestack Books, 2022)

Smokestack have had a good year, bringing us a rich array of titles from contemporary poets and long-neglected radical forerunners alike, including an important collection from lesser-known Soviet poet Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts (The Blockade Swallow, 2022). These are poems of unflinching witness, and their English translation is disarmingly direct and assured. Berggolts writes of starvation, siege, and almost unimaginable cruelty during the Stalinist terror. Yet at her most compelling she is a poet of practical necessity and daily life: the mechanisms by which mourning is forestalled and compassionate political conviction survives in the midst of persecution and fear. This collection deserves a far more sustained critical treatment than I have space for here, so for now I will note it as a welcome edition to Smokestack’s catalogue of radical women writers, placing women and girls at the forefront of both revolutionary activity and literary production.

Other honourable mentions include the zeitgeisty, engaging and hilariously sharp The Love Songs of Late Capitalism by Martin Rowson, and The Knucklebone Floor by Linda France, which bristles with intelligent and riddling artifice. France’s collection is in part a verse-biography of Susan Davidson (1796-1877) who spent thirty years landscaping the grounds of Allen Banks near Ridley Hall in Northumberland. It is also a complex meditation on nature, patriarchy, time and memory.

Yet my favourite collection from Smokestack this year has to be the consummate and painterly Grace Note by Peter Godfrey, for Godfrey’s uncanny ability to bring a single, small moment into dazzling focus with the subtlest of strokes. A poet who shows more than he tells, Godfrey conjures his scenes and subjects through the judicious arrangement of fine detail. For instance, in ‘Recife café’, an encounter between a young homeless subject and the poem’s comparatively affluent speaker is brought to life through sparing yet freighted lines: ‘the comfort of my pocket’, ‘a white tooth in her smile’. This could so easily have been a sentimental poem, yet Godfrey’s awareness of disparity is matched by a patient and attentive regard for the humanity of his subject. The young girl is held by the text, compassionately acknowledged.

We might think of this compassionate regard as a form of grace, and grace in its various guises – as eloquence, as good will, as virtue, as prayer – is the organising principle of the collection. The poems move through place and time touching on moments of spiritual quickening, quiet resolve, revelation or crisis in the course of each unique life. Godfrey’s evocation of Jacques Brel is particularly effective: an understated chanson of a poem, capturing both something of Brel’s supple half rhymes and his deflationary deadpan: ‘Low horizon a monotone/ pierced by a church spire like a needle./ A desk, a lamp, a single bed,/ my glass of Orangina.’ However, it is when breathing life into unknown figures that Godfrey’s writing is at its best. I do not, for example, know who ‘Morag Ann’ is, yet by the end of the poem I feel I am intimately acquainted with her. Hers is a hard life, beset by the elements and by the grim vicissitudes of fate, yet born with patience and almost infinite stoicism. ‘Morag Ann’ is one of many poems in Grace Note that savours of place, of woodsmoke and the sea. It captures two things not often seen in contemporary poetry: the resilience and quiet courage of rural working people, and the inscrutable workings of the human heart.

If one thing unites Godfrey’s poetic subjects it is their status as outsiders, as those who go against the grain, often out of step with the aims and aspirations of capitalism while in tune with rugged nature and native place. The poems set in Scotland and the Hebrides in particular are written with obvious relish, and contain almost exultant descriptions of the landscape, and the people who live and work it. ‘In a Hebridean cemetery’ is my personal favourite: a poetic declaration of solidarity, extending backwards to ‘the people of Scarp’ who ‘hauled our boats up the shore,/ fetched water at the well,/ combed the beach for driftwood, and sang./ MacInnes, MacLennan and MacLeod/ by runrig furrows and the purple hill/ that rang with schoolhouse voices./ Our names kissed others’ lips before we went.’

This last line is haunting, and it provides, I think, a key to the heart of this collection: to sing and celebrate our unlikely tribe, both near and far; to uncover our affinities across time and place and lift their names to the light.


The Shouting Tories, by various, ed. by Mike Quille, winners chosen by Andy Croft (Culture Matters, 2022)

Where would my round-up be without a Culture Matters anthology? And as it celebrates its sixth year, it seems right to take stock, not only of this year’s Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology, but the prize as a whole. And the first thing I want to note is that it is an ‘award’, and not a ‘competition’. While the prize seeks to recognise and celebrate poetic merit though publication and a small cash prize, it also attempts to acknowledge and bring together a cohort of working-class writers on the left; to foster participation and broaden networks of solidarity.

A tall order, perhaps, but over the last couple of years I think this bold ambition is beginning to be met. This latest anthology is proof, bringing together an impressive roster of new and familiar faces, united by the urgency and energy of their poetic mission. This is all the more impressive for the difficulty of their task: to meaningfully respond to a social and political reality that seems to obliterate the very possibility of meaningful response; a grotesque reality in the face of which language seems unequal. The problem is two-fold: where do we even find the words to encompass the scale of this crisis, and if we had the words, what would be the point? The poets collected in The Shouting Tories are savvy strategists who erect against defeatism a lively and pressured engagement with syntax, structure, and the blank space of the page. While these voices are united in their preoccupations and concerns, they are also various, as in life they use whatever comes to hand, and these poems are by turns lyrical, satirical, declamatory and compassionate, most often choosing to zero in on small moments in the lives of those so often seen as little more than faceless economic collateral.

While this iteration of the anthology is necessarily full of rage, it is also a celebration of those same lives, and a hopeful recognition of their capacity to challenge and to change the state of the world, for all of us.

On Poetry and Working-Class Joy
Wednesday, 07 December 2022 09:35

On Poetry and Working-Class Joy

Published in Poetry

As odd as it might sound – given the present state of the world – this article is all about joy. Before anyone starts to wonder who I am and what I’ve done with Fran Lock, I’ll explain: I began working on this article as I usually do, scrolling the rolling news and noting its reception and appearance in the comments and creative output of my friends and fellow poets. Which stories strike people as particularly vivid? Which seem to demand or incite that deeper investment of attention, an artistic response as opposed to a visceral gut reaction? Lately I’d noticed that art – mine and others’ – had stalled at this blank wall of awfulness; that there was something about this particular social and political moment that seemed to preclude the possibility of meaningful poetic response.

This feeling began for me with the coroner’s verdict that two-year-old Awaab Ishak died as a direct result of prolonged exposure to black mould in his family’s flat in 2020. It began with a rage that felt quite literally unspeakable. When I say ‘unspeakable’, I am evoking two distinct silences: the first is the silence of being unheard. It is the silence of the “other” whose voice does not register on the instruments and apparatus of the state. It is the silence of Awaab Ishak’s parents before their social housing provider. “We shouted as loud as we could”, they said, but they might as well have been screaming in space. Too poor, too brown, their words carried no weight, transmitted no sound. The second silence is the silence that results when articulate language crumbles in the face of our rage and sadness; when miseries proliferate faster than our ability to name them. It’s a defeated silence. It’s the silence we retreat into when we know that to speak would be a waste of breath. It’s an inability to catch our breath, to organise or formulate a response. Too beaten, too reeling, we stagger from indignity to crisis to tragedy and back. The world provokes a response but denies our right to reply. It is infinitely frustrating and confusing.

Perhaps this is tactical. Not just the terrible things themselves, but the endless and malignantly rapid succession of them: iterative, accumulative, daily. Michelle Mone and her children received £29 million on the quiet from the profits of a PPE business that was only awarded such lucrative government contracts after she pushed it to ministers, an article alleges. The equipment provided by that business was deemed unfit for use. NHS staff – among them the nurses currently being denied a decent pay rise – were donning DIY PPE to protect themselves and the public while Mone posted pictures of her jet-set life on Instagram. Nauseating. But hardly unique. And a drop in the ocean compared to the 37 billion wasted on Test and Trace under Boris “Partygate” Johnson. Energy bills have quadrupled. Over two million people are using foodbanks. Tenants face eviction. I watch footage of police brutality. I see images of our dying planet. I engage with the news in spasms of violent anger, and I’m not the only one. Social media shows us lives destroyed and taken, globally, moment by moment.

It is overwhelming, and there is a deadening of ethical nerve that results when oppression and corruption are reduced to a litany of interchangeable instances. Calls for our compassion or outrage are so swift, numerous, and diffuse that meaningful dedication of focus and effort become a challenge; people feel bewildered and exhausted. You can’t fight it all, so you feel like fighting any of it is futile. And while injustice without redress is naturalised as the new normal, so too is our image of ourselves as helpless and victimised. Poor and working-class people become those the world happens to, at, and working-class identity is fused inextricably to sorrow and impotent struggle.

Somewhere in the midst of all this our creativity disappears. Why wouldn’t it? It seems inadequate, even indulgent to write amidst the suffering of a people, the death of a child. And why bother? What’s the point in diagnosing the problem again and again, when we already know, when it changes nothing, when we’re just – and I hear this one a lot – “preaching to the converted”? What is restored or solaced in writing? Either we end in an apolitical catharsis that lets us off the hook, discharging potentially radical discontent in a vague gesture towards empathy, or we contribute to the performance and consumption of working-class pain without so much as touching the systems responsible for creating and maintaining that pain. It's easy to discount ourselves. It’s easy to believe that our art doesn’t matter.

But it does. More than ever. Perhaps it helps not to picture our own small acts of creative resistance as purely unilateral. Although we often work as individuals, our many gestures of articulation and defiance have accumulative power, form a network of responses in solidarity with others. You can’t change everything, but you don’t have to: there are a million or more points of focus, there are thousands of approaches or methods of engagement. You are not alone, you are chipping away, in concert with others, at different facets of the same edifice, until cracks appear and the monolith falls.

Strengthening friendship and community

As for “preaching to the converted”, who says that the primary purpose of your writing is to persuade those opposed to you? Isn’t art also for strengthening the bonds of friendship or community? For remembering? For mourning? For holding space for each other? Critics on the Right are always using this one to belittle and discount Left-wing and working-class art because their experience of the world doesn’t admit to the power and importance of testimony, of witnessing. Of course we’re talking amongst ourselves, nobody else is listening. Don’t discount the power of our talk, the sheer gift of it. Listening is one of the most important things we can do for each other. We gain strength from it. We also share information and find common ground. It allows us to recognise and care for ourselves in a way that society does not and never has.

It is true that when we speak about our pain and sadness, we leave ourselves vulnerable to misrepresentation. So often working-class pain is co-opted as narrative freight by the culture industry; representations of our lives are narrowly focused and selectively edited in ways that deny us our full humanity. Here are stories of poverty, addiction, violence and abuse. But where is the music we make in the teeth of these things? Where is the love? Where is the joy? Our silence will not patch these representational lacunae, it will only ensure that others speak for and about us. And so often the making of our art, the writing of the poem, is how joy is accessed and born.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness, which is fleeting and interior. Joy is a made thing. Often, although the subject matter of our work is bleak, in the language of our texts – their wit and liveliness – they manifest models of resistance, they carve out a scene of refusal. The poems I want to share in this column enact this resistance in different ways. In Sab Lyall’s ‘I wanna live with common people like you’ the poem echoes the coda to Pulp’s 1995 working-class anthem ‘Common People’ at the precise moment when Jarvis Cocker’s lyric pivots from an ironic address to a privileged pretender to – in Lyall’s imagination – a sincere expression of care for his working-class community: ‘all-firming. Firm’ writes Lyall, which functions as both a description and celebration of Cocker’s voice, and of the community Lyall dares to image. ‘Firm’ is informal British slang for a group of (working-class) football supporters, typified in popular (middle-class) imagination by aggressive and hooligan behaviour. Lyall’s poem turns this stereotype on its head, giving a two-fingered salute to the judgement which sees any group of working-class men as inherently violent and dangerous. Her ‘firm’ is a place of solidarity and mutual support, and the ‘fist’ is formed not in an act of menace or destruction, but of cherishing and protection.

In ‘Lumpen Broadcast Connotation’ Wendy Young takes a playful, performative, and linguistically knotty approach to parody, challenging the ‘repetitive banality in querulous bollox – borne of ye olde BBC’ with iconoclastic zeal. The poem tackles the treatment of working-class and left-wing political figures by the mainstream media through the person of Mick Lynch. Young’s poem captures that sense of a hectoring and unsympathetic interview in which “questions” are used to accuse and bludgeon rather than facilitate genuine exchange. When Young gives voice to her BBC interlocutor, the speaker indulges in a monologue that forecloses the possibility of meaningful reply: a mixture of stale refrains, click-bait phrases, and irrelevant non-sequiturs: ‘What will YOU do if agency workers cross the line MISTER Lynch?/ Isn’t your social media profile The Hood from Thunderbirds MISTER Lynch?’

Often, Young’s interviewer is so carried away by their own rhetoric that their questions take on an absurdist stream of consciousness quality, delivered in one long breathless rush of words, blurring the line between private thought and public utterance: ‘Let me get on with my chauffeur driven car to work my holiday home my several annual holidays my kids in private school while I bandy about your 130K salary MISTER Lynch?’ In this way Young exposes both the ideological and self-interested underpinnings behind the speaker’s bland façade; the working-class audience of which Young is part has spotted the dodge, and more than this, they are capable of giving back as good as they get. Young’s poem relishes wordplay and pun, taking pleasure in the rude and brazen buzz of language, which she uses to lampoon her targets to hilarious effect, running verbal rings around those stolid apologists for the awful status quo. There is rage in this poem, but there is also a healthy strain of ridicule, that takes on the powerful with spoof and swagger.

‘THE WHITE NATIONALISTS ARE STONED ON THEIR OWN BALL SWEAT AGAIN’ by Paul Corman-Roberts is a State-side burlesque on a racially polarised and increasingly totalitarian vision of Christian-conservatism. It is a frightening world in a which an atavistic urge toward power and violence – ‘the blood of the vulnerable/ makes them hot with lust’ – is cloaked in the legitimating veil of patriotism. Corman-Roberts’ images are driven by a farcical and excessive juxtaposition which would be funny if we were not already living with their fatal consequences: ‘Teenage martyrs/ rifles strapped to their bibles’. The power of this poem, however, is not in its accretion of grotesque images of white conservative power, but in their contrast with the vulnerable dignity of America’s “others” – ‘God’s beautiful queers/ black and brown families in perpetual mourning’. While the image of an historically suspect ‘white Jesus’ rocking out to Ted Nugent is horribly comic, the poem’s moral bite comes from his being set against a ‘dark Jesus’ who is depicted as miserably enmeshed in the apparatus of immigration detention. Throughout the poem Corman-Roberts weaves the nebulous threads of conspiracy culture, so that the final lines depicting a world ruled over by the ‘will of invisible men/ who live in the sky’ signal not only a hazy grasp of the life hereafter, but an approximate knowledge of reality itself. ‘Dark Jesus’ is persecuted by indifferent oppressors without a will to recognise him. Yet, he is aligned in the poem with those who mourn and suffer, and in this way the poem sounds one sweet, low note of radical hope.

‘Post-Covid’ by Kevin Patrick McCann is less an expression of joy than it is an indictment of the way that joy is coerced and manipulated by politicians and by culture. From the beginning McCann implicates poetry in this exercise, introducing the ‘smooth poet to/ Chant an In Memoriam/ At fifty quid a line’, a public figure bought in (and bought off) to mediate and manage our collective experience of grief; to absorb it back into a politically expedient nationalistic script. The poet speaks on our behalf, over-writing the choppy textures of our difficult mourning with his own nicely modulated voice from which every ounce of anger has been purged. McCann’s poem has no time for this voice. His bracketed asides puncture the fluent operation of his poem, as if providing interruptions, tears, sudden glimpses into the world as it really is.  ‘Post-Covid’ is a poem that says ‘don’t take my word for it’, it is sleight of hand slowed down to half the speed to show its workings. It provides – then deconstructs – a recipe for misdirection: ‘Re-arrange the past’, ‘Invoke the Dunkirk Spirit’, ‘Slow-mo footage of crowds’ etc. It shows us how art can be used to depoliticise tragedy; to strip it of its long biography – its precedents and legacy – by providing a neat (false) resolution ‘End with happy children playing’. I offer McCann’s image of a sinister contentment as a counterpoint to the real joy we can access through working-class art and poetry. A joy that sees the world as it is but finds both courage and pleasure in fighting and writing back.

“I wanna live with common people like you”

(After ‘Common People’ by Pulp)

By Sab Lyall

The first is
a sneer, wiped
off on the back
of the hand.
The dreggy taste
of closing time.

The second is
yearning. our
fingers inch
toward the fire.
Our itch to
confirm a blue

The third is all-
affirming. firm.
The fist you form
around your key –

To live.
To live with you.
With all of you.
So common.
So rare.


Lumpen Broadcast Connotation – the Paxman Cometh

By Wendy Young

‘when the hurlyburl(e)y's done, when the battle's lost and won’ ... (not MacBeth Rigby)

So what if Mick Lynch gets 130K a year!?! In my workplace the pay for non-medical consultants is phenomenal – and we're informed endlessly that good negotiators and brains should be paid a good remuneration... guessing (well knowing) they get far more than Mick Lynch. Worth it just to see him make the lumpen press splutter!

Pompous lump
The spoilt lump on news channel conniving, emphasises MISTER Lynch emphatically
Proving their worth – repetitive banality in querulous bollox – borne of ye olde BBC
happenstance – coined by established – frankly bored – interrogator seeking a “straight” Tory answer

Why don't you just do as you're told MISTER Lynch?
Why don't you just stay in your place MISTER Lynch?
People going about their daily BIZ-ness MISTER Lynch?
People getting to work MISTER Lynch?
You can ridicule me all you want MISTER Lynch!

Behind this Botox facade is an older person who remembers the Miners’ Strike MISTER Lynch?
And of course those burly beastly Miners were pure selfish and out for a fight MISTER Lynch!
What will YOU do if agency workers cross the line MISTER Lynch?
Isn’t your social media profile The Hood from Thunderbirds MISTER Lynch?

Let me get on with my chauffeur driven car to work my holiday home my several annual holidays my kids in private school while I bandy about your 130K salary MISTER Lynch?

MISTER Dempsey why did you walk out of talks with the shit-shoveller – worker turned management kowtow bower? 
I ask as a once-council-house-dwelling done-gooder – worst of the bunch – part of the Press who pressures plebs – who now calls dinner a champagne lunch
Maybe even a Mone muncher!  A PPE perpetuating prick emanator! Hey, don’t bring up the “scum” remember what happened to Ms Rayner?
Awh but int she gorgeous – blonde bimbo incumbent – a “laydeee doncha know” ooh an offshore public money dumper!

Let me tell you how it is and cut the crap chat pleasing Shapps chap down to spouting media dolly lumpens:

The RMT represents flexible workers who are willing – though you flex us vex us – try to shake us your nexus – slit our throats – pay us groats – in it up your necks –

It would be helpful if you stopped spewing like barrow-boy bankers – to ignoramuses’ – our loyal supporters – it’s basically a fantasy that being said ‘Hello’ to by managers, our workers will restart their break – they serve the public 24/7 – stop dragging up old laws spreading them in treacle –
We have a skilled work force who deserve protection – a decent wage – it goes for every worker who ticket – collect – clean – shunt – tap – drive – operate – help – because people want humans not automated chastity – our Members don’t want charity – food banks – income support – just clarity – plain and simple guaranteed futures – for their well-being and families!




By Paul Corman-Roberts

It was neocons eve last night
fight or flight now for God’s beautiful queers
black and brown families in perpetual mourning
protection gun rackets for sale
on every corner

QAnon is the new Ministry of Information
Prince DeVos smells broken glass
smells fire
the blood of the vulnerable
makes them hot with lust.

Teenage martyrs
rifles strapped to their bibles
matching uniforms
while white Jesus
rocks out with Ted Nugent

all making sure dark Jesus
knows which side of the room
to line up on
don’t get too close
to the right saviour

everything is on the table
United States of Russia
flat earth-centred cosmos
will of invisible men
who live in the sky.



By Kevin Patrick McCann

And when it’s all over
(By Christmas) find
Some smooth poet to
Chant an In Memoriam
At fifty quid a line,
Re-arrange the past
(Johnson moved swiftly)
Invoke Dunkirk Spirit
(Slo-mo footage of crowds
All masked) morph
Surmise into facts,
Montage rainbows
(Avoid corruption)
Doorstep clapping
(Don’t mention useless PPE)
End with happy children playing:
Fade out on Our Own Dear Queen

Sabrina Lyall divides her time between Clonmel and London. She is new to poetry but is currently working on her first collection.

Wendy Young is a poet/ performer, whose publications include Living with Ghosts (Natterjack Poetry, 2015), Ooetry (William Cornelius Harris Publishing/London Poetry, 2015) and The Dream of Somewhere Else (Survivors Press, 2016). Her poem ‘The Time is Ripe and Rotten Ripe for Change’ was selected for Handbook for 2021, the anthology of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2020 (Culture Matters).

Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of the CLMP Firecracker nominated Bone Moon Palace from Nomadic Press (2021.)  A co-founder and co-director of Oakland’s Beast Crawl Literary Festival, he teaches with the Older Writer’s Lab of San Francisco, the San Francisco Creative Writing Institute and with the Oakland Unified School District.

Kevin Patrick McCann 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. Shirely Jackson is a new e-pamphlet from Culture Matters.



Tuesday, 13 September 2022 18:28


Published in Poetry


by Fran Lock, with image above by kennardphillips

after the acrostic Floral Tribute, by Simon Armitage

heave, between the balms and banes, the hoods, the wryts, the resinous salves.
our home hangs on a nettle's dead hospitality, a creeping thistle's milky fáilte;
ragwort's wastrel stammer frames these thoughts. and grip-grass' weak amours,
rotting. all things must, each redolent blade, bruised. the tepid musk of ending.
orris writes the ominous biography of power, its bitter tumult trampled now.
rain, among the binds and twitches. pain, stepped into the trite spiral of a snail.

temper's undertakings laid on stale rushes; garlic's laden stink for succour.
eglantine, our sweetbrier, sweet bier bearing your weight in hips and haws.
rosebay, speedwell. arrows of indifference, mellow sceptres of salute. cold
ruin breathes from loch and loam, from all the lime pits of our grieving. no,
our asphodels won't meadow you. a common keening coined in chalk. leave.
riverrisen, tenderturfed. mossy herb and mist. sealed inside her brackish fist.


Floral Tribute

by Simon Armitage, with image below by Matthias Ripp 

Evening will come, however determined the late afternoon,
Limes and oaks in their last green flush, pearled in September mist.
I have conjured a lily to light these hours, a token of thanks,
Zones and auras of soft glare framing the brilliant globes.
A promise made and kept for life – that was your gift –
Because of which, here is a gift in return, glovewort to some,
Each shining bonnet guarded by stern lance-like leaves.
The country loaded its whole self into your slender hands,
Hands that can rest, now, relieved of a century’s weight.

Evening has come. Rain on the black lochs and dark Munros.
Lily of the Valley, a namesake almost, a favourite flower
Interlaced with your famous bouquets, the restrained
Zeal and forceful grace of its lanterns, each inflorescence
A silent bell disguising a singular voice. A blurred new day
Breaks uncrowned on remote peaks and public parks, and
Everything turns on these luminous petals and deep roots,
This lily that thrives between spire and tree, whose brightness
Holds and glows beyond the life and border of its bloom.


the limits of (my) sympathy
Tuesday, 13 September 2022 09:01

the limits of (my) sympathy

Published in Cultural Commentary

the limits of (my) sympathy

by Fran Lock, with image above by kennardphillips

exhorted to remember her humanity, as if humanity itself were some vaguely miraculous quality, and not the generic condition of everyone from vladimir putin to harpo marx. humanity is so what? is factory settings, the bare minimum requirement. or, because this is schrödinger’s humanity, an arbitrary rhetorical expedient, it phases into existence at the precise moment that scrutiny is applied. that’s cake-and-eat-it talk, and it’s much too late for that. to have lived as an idea, within the hazy, elevated aura of institutional privilege, is to die as an idea. no readmission. no exceptions. and no compromise.

i close my eyes and i see her cold, abstracted stare glyphed big onto shankill terraces, and some bellowing ’ead-the-ball going grey-shush!!!! into my terrified ten-year-old face. or i see a mainland they measure in parade grounds and playgrounds, where all the anthems of unwelcome bare her likeness. so of course, i would be like this, wouldn’t i?

yes. but i know well enough what rational, reasonable people are wont to say: that testimony isn’t evidence; that your grievance invalidates your grievance: chippy little mick, little pikey, little sympathiser. where my sympathy is the negative of sympathy, a perverse inversion of sympathy, its doppelgänger, its creepy, haunted twin. when we mourn, when we sympathise, our mourning is a morally obnoxious act, inseparable from our politics. no humanity ’ere, missus. just boggarts and monsters. psycho-killers, qu'est-ce que c'est? what i can’t stop thinking about is the denial of our humanity – those boys, those boys, the older i get the younger they were – by the british state and the british press, how pitiless that was. why does the brain return to and circle that terrible year? why, in 2022, am i making this obsessive mental pilgrimage to 1981? how to say? here is an incomplete list:

acceptable sadness

in an editorial, four days before his death on may 5th, the sun describes bobby sands as: ‘a common criminal who is being treated better than he deserves’. john junor writes in the sunday express that ‘i will shed no tears when sands dies, my only hope is that if and when he does every other ira terrorist will go on the same sort of hunger strike in sympathy. and stay on it until they are all in wooden suits’ on the 66th day of the strike when sands finally succumbed, the daily mail branded him ‘a moral fraud’, the telegraph fog-horned that ‘blackmail has failed’, and the sun that ‘the society which has stood firm against violence in [these] long bloodstained years will remain unshaken.’ futile deaths cynically staged on behalf of a spurious cause by men who were – simultaneously – violent criminals, delusional zealots, pathetic pawns. the mind is halted here because this characterisation of the long kesh hunger strikers coloured the way in which our grief was framed, interpreted and held. for many years after. what it was acceptable to say, permissible to feel, the forms your sadness was allowed to take, the space it was allowed to take up. in england.

the oldest of those men was joe mcdonnell (29), the youngest thomas mcelwee (23). they had done terrible things. but their world was full of terrible things. to grow up poor, under occupation, as a second-class citizen. to live with and inside of violence, the claustrophobic pressure of it. the fear, the stress. no exit. whose lives – whose conception of what life even is – must necessarily be abbreviated, stripped back to a few desperate gestures. what i’m driving at is the question of how sympathy will be accorded. who has earned and who deserves their humanity back in their final extremis?

when i think about humanity in its most spirited sense, i think about us, and the hysterical strength our survival demanded – demands. the humanity, that is, that does not inhere, but that emerges and becomes, is made by a thousand tender recognitions of the other in our midst. i am thinking of a vigilant and principled forgiveness in the face of occupation, poverty, exhaustion, and loss; acts of daily rededication: to gentleness, to perseverance, to each other. i am thinking of the effort required to bring forth such nectar, how the burden of this giving is shouldered by those who have least. sympathy is a precious emotional resource; it is painfully finite. it simply cannot stretch to meet the irrational demands of our oppressors to be loved. what i mean by this, is that my sympathy is a gift, an expression of solidarity and care. i will it into being against a long, sad history of intergenerational trauma; against grief, fury, and the immobilizing melancholy of absolute burnout. it extracts energy, it requires courage. it renders us uniquely vulnerable. when i bestow sympathy – when we bestow sympathy – it is intentional and meant: i choose to risk this openness with you because you are worth this risk. i have not seen one thing she’s done that merits this recognition from us, our colonised peoples, their prole-grace.

malaya; kenya; yemen; chile; nigeria....

if you like (if you don’t) put it another way: you cannot honour the victim if you are actively sympathising with their abuser. do i know what i mean by this? not quite, but there is something like betrayal in it. when does an expression of sympathy become an either-or proposition? it has something to do with choice, maybe. it has something to do with power, that fatal imbalance. here is an incomplete list:

the malayan emergency (1948-1960): as a consequence of a guerrilla war between the british armed forces and the malayan national liberation army, the british authorities declared a state of emergency, initiating a twelve year long campaign in which the british military set fire to the homes and farmland belonging to those suspected of having ties to the mnla. during this period they relocated an estimated 400,000 people into concentration camps and sprayed crops with agent orange in order to starve out insurgents.

Tsetse thumb

or the repression of the mau mau rebellion (1952-1960): in which the anti-colonial uprising by kenyan militants saw a counterinsurgency campaign that condemned more than a hundred thousand kikuyu, neru and embu kenyans to detention camps where many were tortured, beat, and sexually abused. by 1960, according to the kenyan human rights commission, over 160,00 kenyans were detained in the camps, and an estimated 90,000 had been maimed or tortured.

or selling weapons both to royalist forces in yemen (1962-1969) and to pinochet’s brutal fascist dictatorship in chile (1973, and throughout the 1980s). or siding with the nigerian forces against the attempted biafran secession (1960): in which some one million members of the ibo ethnic tribe were killed or starved. or –

....and northern ireland

A Para grabs a youth by the hair as he arrests him in Derry on Bloody Sunday.

of course, it is the north of ireland that haunts me. to the extent that i can’t separate this empire from its living symbol. stability, they said, continuity. she stood by us. no. she just stood by. indifferent, disinterested, utterly removed. a contradiction, perhaps, a paradox: potent yet powerless. that is, without any real agency of her own, born into the stifling lockjaw of decorum, the isolation and estrangement of hereditary status. and yet, how vivid and compelling as a symbol, as the kitsch and endlessly marketable signifier of britain, or britishness. the acceptable face of. when i think of her it is as something shiny and hollow, a receptacle for whatever idea is expedient to government, to empire. liz without context or depth, a heavily moralised mask, a cartoon, a cardboard cut-out made of herself. oh nationhood, oh philanthropy, oh family. if i could feel, i would feel for this. but to be used in this way is also a choice, isn’t it? an act of moral abdication, a failure of both imagination and ethical nerve. what duty do we owe to humanness? to the humanity of others?

i don’t dispute the sincerity of my friends, or deride their often-troubled expressions of kindness, but this sympathy is being swallowed up by an enormous void, a void that doesn’t recognise their humanity or their effort. for the abused, abjected or oppressed person sympathy is a discipline, for the powerful and the privileged it is a luxury. to afford her this humanity now is to divert and misdirect our difficult love; is to convert that love into an ugly, homogenous expression of obedience. all of england mourns. no. what does it mean to mourn? who is this england? to find ourselves once more outside the imaginative limits of the state, or to be laboriously and imperfectly absorbed by it. they are trying to assimilate us, to perpetuate an illogical and emotionally sensitised state.

who elected him?

in this atmosphere the ascension of charles zips past with indecent haste, ensuring that no conversation about the necessity for a monarchy can intervene. stability is also status-quo, and not everyone benefits equally from preserving that. republican protestors are being 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 in oxford on sunday. both protestors arrested for ‘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, and it is criminalising undesirables, and will any of them lift a finger to help us? make a statement? raise an eyebrow? or does love only flow to model citizens, loyal subjects? to the perfectly respectful? to the quietly compliant?

refusing to honour her life and legacy is not the same as celebrating her demise. i reserve the right to confused feelings, and to complex feelings, and to no feelings. i keep the solidarity pact of my sympathy for other recipients.


The dread poems

i will not
say that you are better off, despite
this year of serially stomached dread,
the radio narrowly maundering,
awfulness passively partnered: once,
twice, three times around, achilles’
heel caught in the rigging of a blue
waltz wigging out. i will not say it,
my tearing wastrel, our sackcloth
scoundrel, scuppering and thrawn.
once, twice, three times: your pain
drawn up from the dull well
of an important love. and all your
footery fondnesses, gathering bad
faith to themselves. even so. even
now, as the world steadies itself for
worse: our solvents, our fallouts,
the fumbling troth of our hexanes,
gold in its lustrous dogma; the war’s
shrewd workings. a crust is thumbed,
and a begging lung is bleating out
the blether of its foulness. but i will
not, despite the thinning wheat,
the ergot in our meted grain. a plight
of sparrows, a slow defeat of thrush,
a harm of tender starlings. finally,
the eye, milked of its insolence,
poorly starred. one, two, and ready
or not, into the pockets of their
gombeen ilk go all the witty
usuries of capital. monsters, crudely
silkened. but i will not. in a time
of wild garlic. in a time of slender
pickets. in a time of absent hands.
in a time of mouths, hot and bloody
with the susurrus of eviction.
and we will sell, first our trifled
then our treasured, then ourselves.
but never each other. so stay, return,
pluck a sweet needle of grass,
the scrumpy tang of pilfered fruit.
and watch the sky. how like yourself,
to shimmer like a solved ghost
and move towards the raving light.

black 22

in the end they will eat their own, glaikit
and railing. if you think they won’t, you
are so wrong. never mind, you are tired
all the time. your name is leaking from
the sly, puckered mouths of your affluent
frienemies. there is an obscure pain, a hot
obstruction. in the mouth, in the bowel.
how to go on? the peeling skin of you
is socially sewn, you sweat this winter
undertaking. i swear these english eat
their own. oh, starry-eyed economies,
the forced spite swallowed in a wimpy
text. doubled up, to the bent scope
of a wiry tory thought. you bank their
dirty normal, take it inside, save it for
later. your hunger is climbing the black
rungs of an onion while jamie net worth
oliver tells you how to break yourself
up over a blue flame for under a pound.
you will scrape the spent heat from your
duvet, as the nightmare exceeds your
defeatist thrashing. you are tired all
the time, so graciously mortgaged, so
softly despairing, in the silk pyjamas
of your dead zeal. you carry your rage
on your back like a failed parachute,
falling, like a failed suicide, drifting to
earth, a determined feather, you weigh
next to nil. there is no food, they
have sharpened the songbirds, the sob-
birds, the weasel teeth of ego,
the bagging hook’s patient caresses.
in the end you will slump in the dark,
strewn and rouged, staring the pin-
hole down. you will open yourself
like a bloodshot eye, cabbage-white
cursors flicking all over you. you are
the pre-loved coin of your own realm,
dry-humping your nothings to sweetness.
oh, metered screw. oh, sundered flop.
oh, dusty byword. if you can, you will
glow the machine to tokens, spooning
the ready honey of yourself into
their holes, the failed claims dug
in your goldrush. if you can’t, then
on: to the side-hustle of a stopped
heart. to the amazon mantras
of a mindfully-fucked. doomed
as food. and jeff net worth bezos is
your personal fucking raincloud. is
your household god, curling
a jewelled shit in your hearth. i’m
not trying to frighten you, but you
must be ready, your stomach spilling
open its warm rake of ash, its scald of
air, its sawdust mountain of mouldy
bangers. oh, cadaver girl, we were
lions. we could fit this lightbulb
moon in our mouths. now look, this
angerlund, this nasty salivatrix,
smoothing her hair, dressed in
a mail of cancelled onesers. they are
not men, they are zombies in heat:
they don’t eat because they are hungry,
they eat because they can. and we are
hanging like cured meat inside
a life of airless, viral humiliations. we
were warriors. would trample them:
all open foes, all sugared sneaks. in
a gown of heaving weather, be the
dressed axe, enter this cutting fold.

you were crying because?

for Rish

it was dr net worth caligari and her
cabinet of sinister ironies, the light-
bulb’s hot indecent for the last time.
how do they sleep, and where will
we? go to the green wood, rip up
the drear, untimely scuts of salix.
crack willow, goat willow, white
as any hastened bride. it was this
face, the raw farce of her smart-
arsed gamine sapped. you are old,
both sundered and glut. i say my
circling over and over. twitching
phlox, a pox rose. i wept myself
shut. soiled hellebore. wet
anemones. these days of sweet,
hysterical remark. darling, did
yous know, i’m a sparrow? my
little beak is all business. yes, i
am the crack of sparrows,
concocting a climax of worms in
my mouth. yes, i’m the asbestos
sparrow, a ghetto suggestion
of bird, i have swallowed this
trippy scald of morning – sky
on fire – and shit out song. he
called me sparrow, so i must be
this funerary ninja, this hedge
figment, the sun a scarlet
machination, the sun my scarlet
enemy. a beautiful punishment
dries out the ground. it was
the heat, dear, and who wouldn’t
cry for the birds? jaws of a chorus,
wired unsaid. it is this scraping age.
the alt-right, cathode-eyed and empty,
who people else this trending war
with booted ludder-logics. it is men,
route march of interloping meat. is
the left-right-left of a yomping
song, and all their scunnered
slogans meatballed into meaning.
yes, i am crying for the girls:
morsels skewered on a porcelain
fork. yes, it’s the pain, being
daintily voided, day after day, my
skin routine is a bowl of shards,
i am fat with bleeding and you
can’t help me. darling, did yous
know, i’m a dirty word for
the worst kind of animal there
is? my howl is a hail mary, our
lady of atresia, of imperforate
syndromes abnormally closed,
seal me against this tribunal
of giants whose hands are a bad
day idly gentling. no really, i’m
a pall of euphemistic fur. dog-
head, queen bitch in a room
of prayerful hostiles. girl is
a wolf-thing, a lunar rejoinder,
the moon, her moon, this hooligan
cherry. it was the water, of course.
it was the war. it was the formal
dread and metered leccy. but yes,
it was also my heartbeat balanced
in a spoon. it is the present,
feebly mischiefed. was. how there
is a snake in my belly forever,
a rope of uneaten liquorice.

The climate, capitalism and poetic resistance
Sunday, 04 September 2022 11:48

The climate, capitalism and poetic resistance

Published in Poetry

As I started planning this column the temperature outside was 35 °C, and the surrounding fields like tinder. I had been in Cambridgeshire less than a week. I’d seen one fire already and witnessed the smoky remains of another: burnt verges, scorched and sooty fields. Out walking, a fine brown dust worked itself into my skin, through the soles of my shoes and into my socks. I took photos of the sunset, an angry yet tremulous red. I shared them online. “Where are you?” A friend of mine asked, “Australia?” The news was full of dire predictions, drought and famine. I read that the river Elbe had dropped so low near the Czech town of Děčín as to reveal a centuries-old “hunger stone” – a hydrological marker commemorating and warning of previous droughts – which bore the ominous legend: Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine (when you see me, weep).

We might well weep. Europe is currently in the midst of the worst drought in five hundred years. Food prices have seen a stark increase as the result of extreme inflation, and now the harvests are shrinking due – in large part – to the ongoing effects of climate collapse. Even in Norway the reservoirs are now at 60 percent of capacity, with the knock-on effect that their hydroelectric generators have been asked to cut down on the amount of energy they export. The war in Ukraine has already resulted in a hike in food and energy prices. According to the World Bank’s own predictions, this sad state of affairs is likely to persist for at least three years.

In the UK, households have been hit with a staggering rise in both the cost of energy and daily essentials; the former is set to push 8.9 million homes into fuel poverty. I’m hearing friends and family tell me they won’t be switching the heating on this winter – yet energy suppliers are announcing mammoth profits, record dividends, and enormous share buyback schemes as the price of oil and gas climbs. Maybe we’re better off screaming than weeping.

Fiddling while England burns

In the midst of this misery, parts of England burn, and I keep thinking about when the water was privatised in 1989 and Thatcher transferred ownership of our public water utilities to the private sector, writing off their debts and gifting them “seed money” to boot. According to a recent article in the BMJ: ‘Most water companies are now owned by private equity investors who have used financial engineering to boost shareholder returns via complex corporate structures that often involve tax havens. The companies have borrowed heavily – it is reported that current debt levels are in the order of £56bn for the nine companies in England. Interest payments (£1.3bn in 2019) are passed on to consumers.

Meanwhile, £72bn in dividends have been paid to shareholders of parent companies since privatisation.’[i] To break the situation down even more starkly, not a single reservoir has been built since privatisation, and underinvestment in infrastructure led, in 2020, to more than three billion litres of water being lost to leakage every day. If that wasn’t enough, in 2021 the Environmental Agency called for prison sentences for the chief executives of England’s water and sewage companies, responsible for numerous serious incidents, raising grave concerns about public health.

FL Picture2

I’ve not been able to get this out of my head. Returning to Kent from Cambridge I was confronted with an illustrative example of this disregard for public health when our local stretch of coast was declared unsafe due to the pumping of raw sewage into the sea. The consequences were visceral and immediate: murky, grey-brown water, an unholy stink. According to the Labour Party’s analysis of Environment Agency data released under the Freedom of Information Act, water companies have pumped raw sewage into Britain's seas and rivers for more than nine million hours since 2016.

Local protests were quickly formed, demanding both legal action and that water company bosses be stripped of their multimillion-pound bonuses (something the Tory government has refused to do). One of the surreal highlights of these demonstrations was Sally-Ann Hart, the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, turning up “to support the people of Hastings and Rye” despite voting for an amendment to the Environment Bill that removed a requirement for water companies to not pump sewage directly into our waters. Her attempts to defend her vote to protestors and media is a masterclass in cringeworthy obfuscation that would be hilarious were the consequences of her vote not so dire.

The truth is, the Tories have never cared about our shared and vulnerable world, and this is only a logical extension of not caring about those of us who actually live in it. If further proof of this fact were needed, we might revisit David Cameron’s 2013 instruction to aides to “get rid of all the green crap”, which in practice meant cuts to onshore wind projects, solar subsidies and other energy efficiency schemes. According to a recent New Statesman article, those decisions now cost every British household £150 a year.[ii] Quite apart from the potential environmental impact, solar power is now 88 percent cheaper than the government expected it to be a decade ago.[iii]

Meanwhile our new PM is proposing to ditch green levies, which make up less than 3 percent of energy bills, and to remove solar panels from farmland. Liz Truss has further pledged to overturn the ban on fracking, deploying a nauseating piece of twisted logic whereby the results will somehow be cheaper and more beneficial to the UK electorate. This is the same distorted argument driving the sinister Net Zero Security Group’s claims that the government’s own plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050 will impoverish working people, “making them colder and poorer”, attempting to link the government’s net zero agenda to the cost-of-living crisis and calling for cuts to green taxes and a marked increase of fossil fuel production.

Climate change is class war

The Tory leadership elections meant that 0.3 percent of the electorate chose our new prime minister. Out of ten policy areas net-zero came bottom in a YouGov poll of Conservative members, while seventy-five per cent of adults in Great Britain are very or somewhat worried about the impact of climate change, according to the Office for National Statistics in October 2021.[iv] Climate change is worrying. Climate change is also class war: it is poor and working-class communities who are disproportionately affected, their livelihoods threatened, their homes destroyed by extreme weather in all its manifestations, and by its less immediate economic aftershocks. Poor infrastructure is more prevalent across poorer areas, which includes everything from the maintenance of sewages systems, roads, and public transport to reliable access to health care.

People living in these areas suffer hardest when the storms come, or the crops fail; when the reservoirs dry up, when fires break out, and when transport links go down. Social housing is often poorly insulated and badly maintained, and so the poor are colder, subject to rising damp, mildew, and mould. In urban areas those in social housing are frequently situated near the most polluted roads, so occupants suffer the worst effects of airborne pollution too. We live, in every way and every day, with the tangible traces of climate deterioration. It is the poor who go without, who bear the brunt of rising costs and spiralling inflation. It is poor and working-class people who are subject to shortages. Further, climate change creates an exploitable labour pool of displaced persons without rights or protection.

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In the UK, so much of the rhetoric surrounding climate change has been directed at working-class people. Many of those I have spoken to feel alienated from environmental protest cohorts because of a perceived discourse of judgement that tends to individualise climate change responsibility and is not fully empathetic to the realities underpinning many of the “life-style choices” of the poor. While we are all caught within capitalism’s destructive vortex, we are not equally culpable for climate damage, nor are we equally effected by it. It’s worth remembering that the top one percent globally emit as much as the bottom 50 percent. Climate change is a systemic problem, enmeshed in and emerging from the fossil-burning machinery of capitalism itself. Marx and Engels recognised this, and wrote movingly of the way in which capitalism disrupts the link between human beings and the natural world to the irreparable harm of both. This passage, for example, by Marx, from his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

Man lives on nature - means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.[v]

Here, Marx diagnoses the estrangement and alienation at the heart of our relationship to nature under capitalism. It isn’t merely that capitalists exploit, and consequently wreak havoc upon, the natural word. It is not even only that they profit and profiteer from the problems they create. It is also that capitalism destroys the relationship between human beings and nature, creating what Marx refers to in Capital. Volume 1 (1867) as a “metabolic rift”. Due to the appropriation of land through its enclosure and conversion to private property, people no longer have a direct relationship to the means of subsistence, the result of which is that we are alienated from the products of our labour, that is, they do not contribute directly to the satisfaction of our needs. We are alienated from the labour process, and since labour is one of the criteria for humanity, we are thus alienated from ourselves.

We are also alienated from each other, because rather than engaging in a communal project to satisfy our needs as human beings, we are forced into endless competition with each other to secure access to the means of production from capitalists, labouring for their profit. Because we are by nature social, we are thus once again alienated from ourselves. Finally, we are alienated from nature itself. Alienation of humans from their labour is, according to Marx, inseparable from their alienation from nature. This must be doubly true in our disembodied and digital age.

So what can poetry do?

But where is poetry in all of this? What should – what can it do – to address this estrangement and alienation? We are, after all, far beyond the stage of mere “awareness raising”. The fact of climate change is no longer a complex enormity unobservable within the precincts of an individual life. It is, rather, local and daily. And capitalism’s predation and despoilment of the plant has practically become a trope: a T-shirt slogan, a commonplace, a meme. Yet, if this is all so painfully obvious, why should we need a poem to tell us about it; to mediate and frame the grim reality of it, and to discharge its horror in self-contained parcels of individual catharsis? Poetry has, perhaps, greater immediacy and empathetic reach than does simple reportage, but I think it is more than that. I think language freed from the constraints of linear narrative has the capacity to shock us into retuned attention, to sensitise us a fresh to ideas and experiences we have come to accept as normal.

It has been said that while people – and ruling elites in particular – can imagine an end to the world, they cannot imagine an end to capitalism. Poetry might just leap this imaginative void, where all our solutions and escapes must fall within the same market system that exists in such a painful and inherent antagonism to the preservation of nature and to the dignity of human life. Poetry, thriving on leaps of logic, associative connections, and visceral imagery, offers us a way to vividly conceptualise our entanglement in capitalism’s awful and seemingly inescapable machinery. In doing so it does not simply diagnose a problem, but extends the possibility of radical change.

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Hunger Games

In Martin Hayes’ poem ‘Hunger Games’ human bodies are connected to the body of the state: in ‘the binding tendons of a shopping mall/ the pumping womb of a maternity hospital’. Hayes literalises and distorts the connection between organic and inorganic worlds to signal the all-consuming nature of capitalism. The poem brilliantly frames workers as both the lifeblood of our society – the best of its animating energy – and its food, cannibalised and ruthlessly consumed. One of culture’s most potent metaphors is the body, and this device has often been used to conceptualise human relations in merciless, social-Darwinist terms, furthering the ends of laissez-faire capitalist ideology. One of the ironies of capitalism is that while society itself is often figured as a living and frequently besieged organism, individual human bodies are more and more frequently treated as blunt instruments or faceless economic units. The human beings in Hayes’ poem are identified with inanimate objects,  ‘with wooden brains and marbles for eyes’ and a cold, congealing spaghetti central nervous system.

Such images are redolent of the way working-class human life is conceptualised under capitalism. They are also a window into the numb, immobilised nature of late capitalist consciousness itself. Desensitised, Hayes’ figures ‘flop into their tissue-paper armchairs/ to sit in front of the news’ watching atrocities unfold before them, without either the agency or the energy to do anything about it. Instead, they are captured at the end of the poem ‘shedding before bed/ the next tear of their ascendancy’, capturing the despair at the heart of human supremacy, a supremacy not experienced by all humans equally. ‘Hunger Games’ functions as a mirror held up to our own moments of miserable and abandoned fatalism. Hayes’ human figures are ‘kind people’ but they have allowed themselves to become puppets. The poem is a call to reawakened consciousness.

Goddamn us

In ‘Lines by Kenneth Patchen #5’ Katy Evans-Bush brings together the material wate of our disposable culture with other, less tangible forms of waste, from wasted time to the under-nourishing junk of shallow social media relationships: ‘We built this disembodied world, this loneliness,/ we made the weather angry, we dug these holes in the ground,/ we pulled the dinosaur ether into pipes & turned it into/ the fusspot flame under last night’s so-so supper.’ In these lines the poem acts as connective tissue between a mundane and impoverished experience of alienation, and the large-scale destruction of the planet. The loneliness that divides us from each other is also that which divides us from the world. In places the poem is almost shockingly tender, shocking because this tenderness arrives though a fog of frustration and despair, exploding in Goddamns. ‘Goddamn us’, because the speaker is neither aloof nor immune; use of the collective pronoun ‘us’ signals the inescapable complicity by which capitalism binds us.

It is also significant that the poem uses lines from Patchen, an American poet of the 40s and 50s who wrote his own laments to an unjust and destructive society. While ‘us’ signals the ongoing and recursive nature of this destruction over time, it is also an act of imaginative solidarity across generations and cultures. While there is heartbreak and fury in the lines, ‘What we use is already rubbish’, the propulsive urgency of this poem and its escalating litany of accumulated crap and moral failures creates the momentum needed to make it to the other side of this all-encompassing wrongness. A wrongness that bears upon the poetic subject and upon the tenuously enfolded political citizen alike. What we feel subjectively is part and parcel of what we experience – what is enacted against us –  systemically. As with Hayes’ poem, this work is an accounting and a holding to account: ‘No one will save us’ is both the anguished cry of a species that has doomed itself, and dispatches from the class war in which we could – still might – rise and save ourselves.

The anxiety of the worker under capitalism and climate change

‘You may not realise you are thirsty, so please remember to drink during this horrifying, terrifying heatwave’ by Jane Burn also acknowledges complicity, but does so by addressing both the guilt and the anxiety of the working-class consumer subject, in a moving act of poetic witness to the local effects of climate change. The poem begins with the speaker putting on a new pair of clean, cool socks – a small act of pleasure and reassurance in an otherwise difficult life – which she describes with relish and in detail: ‘I snapped the plastic tag that held// their flat leaves together, rolled them into gaudy roses. Gorged/ the factory-fresh aroma. Their tightness made my feet feel loved, contained, protected’. There is so much going on in this short passage, most compelling perhaps is the image of the socks as something living, growing, both a substitute and salve for the pain of disappearing nature. The idea of ‘protection’ is also significant: the flimsiness of the socks serving to underscore just how vulnerable and defenceless the speaker actually is, and how illusory this offer of comfort. From the description of tactile pleasure the poem swerves into self-recrimination: ‘I shouldn’t have bought them. I shouldn’t shop in cheap places,// should go without even more than I already am […] I’m sorry. I offer/ the Earth this guilty consumer’s prayer.’

This prayer captures perfectly the position of the working-class subject under capitalism and climate change, condemned to guilt for the small comforts they can afford, and the dissonance between desperate caring and forced inaction, forced enmeshment. Throughout the poem Burn oscillates between the embodied effects of the heatwave on the speaker, and the environmental impacts the speaker observes. In doing so, Burn situates her speaker not merely as a poetic witness, but part of nature, subject as much as the birds ‘dried up like tears’ to the ecological collapse unfolding around her. The poem ends with an act of withdrawal that is both symbolic and literal: drawing the curtains, sitting in the dark, and imagining the end of the world. This is such a familiar part of the alienated human condition in our present moment that this image resonates hauntingly. Yet I am drawn back to the title of the poem, to the expression of care it offers, the tenderness is extends. Burn’s speaker may be cut off but she is still concerned with life, and because of that concern, that connection, there is hope.

Poetry may offer hope, then. But not of an easy, succouring sort. Rather, it can diagnose and challenge. It can both signal and – if only briefly – bridge the multiple and interconnected alienations of capitalism.






[v],is%20a%20part%20of%20nature. Also see Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production · Volume 1 (1867):


Hunger Games

By Martin Hayes

over the kind earth the kind people walk
dumb as a thumb
without the rest of it attached
with strings connected to their arms
with wooden brains and marbles for eyes
with a moral compass like that of a chameleon-shaped windsock
a plate of last night’s spaghetti
congealed through them as like a nervous system
heaving themselves
from one experiment to another
from one orgasm to another orgasm
from one history lesson to another history lesson
they return to their boxes
flop into their tissue-paper armchairs
to sit in front of the news
watching the skill and wizardry of scientists
drop their dreams from the sky
exploding apart the atomic construction of a grandmother’s heart
the binding tendons of a shopping mall
the pumping womb of a maternity hospital
the surprised face of a child
holding everything left it has
in a pink hippopotamus rucksack
shedding before bed
the next tear of their ascendancy
from the swamps and the seas

From Lines by Kenneth Patchen #5

By Katy Evans-Bush

I pick up the evening as dusk falls, pick up fidgets
as the storm hits. Here’s a letter about the weather
to all you so-called liberals. Goddamn us all & our
carefully sorted recycling, & the freezer’s friendly hum,
our ice-makers & our accounts at H&M.
We hate the frackers & we run our mouths off
on their hot old gas. It should be sufficient, what’s
in front of us, food in the cupboard and garden,
the friends we live (if we’re lucky enough) among.
But here I am, peering over thousands of miles
to a webcam, again, watching another hurricane.
Mom? It’s just a street. You can’t see anything really.
A webcam won’t show you your mother, your friend,
or Dorothy. You have no magic powers. Goddamn us
with our throwaway utensils, joke presents, foil balloons,
goddamn our future. What we use is already rubbish.
Goddamn our frets, our ennui, our dissatisfaction.
Going on trips & calling it a ‘staycation’. Marvels!
We live scattered. Friends are everywhere:
under water, breathing smoke. We sit alone in our rooms.
We built this disembodied world, this loneliness,
we made the weather angry, we dug these holes in the ground,
we pulled the dinosaur ether into pipes & turned it into
the fusspot flame under last night’s so-so supper.
Life itself should be the miracle! We house the spirits
of a thousand sermonising Lutherans in the bodies of the
Genghises, the Carnegies — the Gates of Hell. Goddamn our
empty words, our plastic applicators. No one will save us.


You may not realise you are thirsty, so please remember to drink during this horrifying, terrifying heatwave

 By Jane Burn

I got up this morning and it was adorably cool. How wonderful,
after the swelter, to put on a pair of socks again. 80’s neon-style
ankle ones, brand new—a pack of 5 bought in hope against
this blazing weather. I snapped the plastic tag that held

their flat leaves together, rolled them into gaudy roses. Gorged
the factory-fresh aroma. Their tightness made my feet feel loved,
contained, protected—they veiled each heel’s rough globe.
I shouldn’t have bought them. I shouldn’t shop in cheap places,

should go without even more than I already am but I hardly
ever see socks sold on second-hand. I have walked my last ones
into holes. My toes pop out like potatoes. I’m sorry. I offer
the Earth this guilty consumer’s prayer.

A November baby, I wasn’t born for this heat. My feet have
prickled with livid welts. I have cried at least twice during all
of these burning days and I guarantee that I will cry again.
It’s this enforced sloth, this claustrophobia, clinging flesh—

the hot, insufficient breath. But this morning, 6 a.m., fog lowered
its damp, delicious mist. I lifted my face and opened my mouth.
It’s over, it’s over, I said—at least until the sun boils everything
away again and I can be something useful, stop melting down

because I am sluggish, sweaty, overwhelmed. Give me cardigans,
mild spring days, snow and lakes, draughts and gales. Bergs
and glaciers, waterfalls, zephyrs and rain, rain, rain—for the flowers,
the leaves, the creatures I cannot feed. Did you notice how birds

just disappeared, dried up like tears? Did you notice they didn’t
come to your table of seeds? Didn’t sing? Yet, in the promise
of this morning’s early cool, sparrows, tits, robins and a thrush
all came to drink. There was even the ghost of a gull, high up

in the pale air. Then the fire came back and burned them away.
I miss the comfort of clothes that do not cling to hypersensitive skin.
There is no way to bear my bed. The curtains are closed—I must sit
in the dark and believe that the end of the world has come

Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His other books include When We Were Almost Like Men (Smokestack, 2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (Culture Matters, 2018) and Ox (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2021).

Katy Evans-Bush’s latest poetry publication is Broken Cities, from Smith|Doorstop, and her essay collection, Forgive the Language, is published by Penned in the Margins. A polemical memoir on hidden homelessness is forthcoming from CB Editions. She lives in Kent where she is a freelance poetry tutor and editor.

Jane Burn is an award-winning poet and illustrator based in the North East of England. She is working-class bisexual with a late diagnosis of autism. Her work has been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prizes. In 2019, she co-edited Witches, Warriors, Workers, a volume of contemporary women’s poetry and essays with Fran Lock for Culture Matters. Her most recent collection is Be Feared (Nine Arches Press, 2021). She lives with her family for eight months of the year in an off-grid wooden cottage, as she cares deeply for nature and the environment.

queeny land / ’er indoors
Friday, 10 June 2022 10:28

queeny land / ’er indoors

Published in Poetry

queeny land / ’er indoors

by Fran Lock


coined us a country. ’er indoors
is a branked scold crowned
at the kirk, hands in the hinged
pillory of power, confession’s
fork between breast and neck.
’er indoors is milking a shrew’s
fiddle into music. smiles as ’er
writhes, is kitsching the gilded
freight of flame, frocked for
the fire, us sinew passed
through a calyx eye. crewel-
work crochet, corded lace.
into the gown’s embroidered
yoke: couched loops, golden
bugle beads. into the fust
of coming dread. and birdsong
stilled, the clocksong whirs.


for the long-winded letting
of blood. priests, roused to
procession, routed from holes
in the snug dust blown from
a family bible, ’er writes
the tidings of us sect, will
carry this in ’er tyrant’s circlet,
sprouting narrow horns of light.
pageant, whose sleeves the gory
oriflamme of agincourt; banderols
of famine cut from sack. ’er
trodden hem is red, is rot’s musk
wafting. partition’s plough. us
am the offals of empire. awful
treyf. us camps. us cargoes. us
wealth of nations. silent. but ’er
indoors is a stunt ghost, draped in
glory. majesty grows over ’er
like briars. ’er bows ’er head.
they quack their raving magic
for the crowds: pinched faces,
plebby-gobs, round around
their bent pennies.


littled to a sufferance of souvenirs,
’er husky rumour bates the racist
breath of cabbies; face franked
onto shankill terraces, hooky curios.
’er rise remade in the blue tattoos
of cheap fidelity. bargains binned.
is hanging in the smallest rooms
of east-end gangsters. ’er face in
the saturated glyphs of pure slogan.
is hoary and floral on netflix. is
camping through tabloids, lights
up the iphones of touristing teens.
hands flap at ’er like gulls. ’er
closes ’er grim endorsement
over them, a smiling arcade claw.


the slow orbital warp
of decay will scatter us
stars. the sundered wold
in flood, a beast’s last
cunning trumped by
gun or hunger. this,
’er world. the stale
vow grafted into iambs
by poets in love with
the sound of their own
entropy. ’er does a fucked
mysterium, an end times
charleston of musical chairs.

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