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.

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture
Monday, 01 October 2018 20:55

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock exposes the hypocrisy, classism and elitism in contemporary liberal attempts to edit, erode and police working-class participation in the arts, and she calls for the radical, systematic democratisation of culture.

Here she goes again!

Over the last few months I have been asked to contribute to or participate in four separate projects exploring working-class creativity and voice. Being the Millwall FC of the London poetry circuit (no one likes me, no one likes me, no one likes me, I don’t care) it’s a rare pleasure to be taking part in anything, but these projects are exciting in very particular and important ways, in that they are conceived and driven by working-class people, and that they extend the possibility of an expanded and polyvocal concept of community. This is timely. And it matters to me enormously on a personal as well as a political level. It should matter to you too.

It’s timely, and it matters because the old rhetorics of representation and cultural inclusivity have often led to a selectively edited picture of working-class identity in literature and the arts; a situation in which one or two – usually white, usually old, usually male – voices become icons and ambassadors for a complex network of cultures and experiences. To give a recent example close to my heart: it didn’t matter shit one to me that Simon Armitage became Oxford Chair of Poetry. Nothing against Simon Armitage, as a poet or a person; he’d more than earned his right to be there as far as I’m concerned. What is troubling about his appointment is the way in which it has been uncritically trumpeted as a triumph of working-class representation. And it’s not, it’s really not. A post-war northern male version of working-classness is one of the few acceptable faces of working-class identity permitted to proliferate across mainstream media platforms. This is deliberate: the poetry’s distance from the material realities it describes presupposes and encodes a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or poetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status-quo.

Don't mention the word class!

This creates a dangerous situation, and here I think about something that the trade union leader and activist Bob Crow once said in response to a shitty tabloid heckle about how his taking a holiday in France was somehow antithetical to his left-wing politics and his working-class “credentials”. What do you want? Crow asked, for me to spend my holidays crouched under a bridge reading Das Kapital? This makes us laugh, but it’s also telling about the bind in which working-class cultural creators continually find ourselves: expected to conform to and to constantly perform a very narrow, very specific version of working-class identity. Power elites pick their icons and ambassadors with care, using them as standards against which to weigh, measure and validate our authenticity. We are expected to relentlessly enact somebody else’s idea of what we should be. And if we’re not being and doing that, then we are found to be “inauthentic”, we are dismissed, and our exclusion from any meaningful cultural conversation about class is effectively engineered.

This matters, because the people traditionally holding the purse strings, controlling the presses; the people responsible for funding us and publishing us, are the same power elites who decide what constitutes a valid working-class voice, and an acceptable working-class identity. Arts Council England, for example, has nothing to gain from supporting people and projects who challenge or threaten their traditional business model, and most major publishers are wary of a working-class poetics that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. To have your work “out there” in any meaningful sense, to secure the invaluable financial assistance by which a creative project lives or dies, is to accept that your work, and that you, as a person, will be mediated, filtered and enmeshed, by and in the machinery of a grossly unequal hierarchy. By this method we are compromised. We tailor and shape our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us, and our working-classness is depoliticised and de-fanged through an act of caricature. By this mechanism is the triumph of working-class representation transformed into the tool by which working-class participation in the arts is edited, eroded and policed.

When I hear arts and poetry organisations talking about the importance of “accessibility”, and of writing in “the language of the people” it drives me absolutely bat-shit. Firstly, because who says “the people” shouldn’t find poetic difficulty stimulating and inspiring? And secondly because my poetry is perfectly fucking accessible; it’s the way in which education circumscribes and abbreviates working-class imagination that’s at fault, the way poetry is taught in schools, hand in hand with a hidden curriculum that tells kids like me this is not for you.

The onus shouldn’t be on the poet to limit their field of expression to cater to the imagined ignorance of people who were never given the opportunity to understand or enjoy poetry in the first place, particularly not when the poet herself is from those same social margins. The pressure should be on governments, funding bodies, and on the same organisations making these asinine pronouncements, to implement real, radical systemic change to the way resources are allocated, to the way poetry is taught, to the provision of not merely equal but fair access to creative cultural participation.

Co-opt their language before they win the argument!

When I hear organisations and publications bigging up the “accessibility” of a particular artist, text or movement like that’s the be-all and end-all of existence, what I hear is the desperate attempt of an out-dated and culpable power elite to absolve itself of responsibility for the grinding inequality and misrepresentation that faces working-class people as a class within the arts and literature. What leaves a truly special cat-shit taste in the mouth is when the language of radicalism is used to prop up the status-quo, usually at the expense of the communities and movements whose fearless campaigning and artistic activism generated this language. What is worse is when they use the deployment of socially conscious buzzwords as a way of silencing criticism.

For a prime-rib example of the former we need look no further that ACE’s recent publication of the mildly nauseating “Cultural Democracy in Practice”, which appropriates and misapplies the language and concepts of the Movement for Cultural Democracy without ever once acknowledging the relationship of cultural value to the exercise of power and authority.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

ACE's vision of Cultural Democracy in Practice

Despite Cultural Democracy’s absolute embeddedness in ideas of class struggle, ACE’s document ignores class altogether and minimises the relevance of race, gender or age to cultural participation. It has been suggested that ACE’s paper is more about shoring itself up against probing questions surrounding equity, distribution of power, and the redistribution of funds, than it is about challenging or changing these things. In other words, ACE has co-opted community engagement in order to perpetuate the economic and cultural status quo.

There’s a wonderfully perverse bit of manoeuvring here, and it’s typical of the systems inside of which art and literature are expected to operate. An organisation – in this case ACE – pays vocal and public lip-service to the idea of “cultural democracy” or “social inclusivity”, or any the hell else other thing, without ever acknowledging or altering the inherent inequality at the heart of its deep structures. Rather, the language of radicalism and social justice is cynically exploited to legitimate that organisation’s attitudes and behaviours, and any criticism of the way they interpret or deploy this language becomes a de facto criticism of the things for which those words and phrases stand. An organisation that wants to present itself as progressive, equal and inclusive, can then wheel out one of its safe icon-ambassadors as a kind of human-shield: look, we can’t be institutionally racist, sexist, or classist because here is a black, female working-class spokesperson, and if you criticise us, you criticise that person, and if you criticise that person it is you who is racist, sexist, and classist.

Pretty sneaky. Sticking with poetry and class it’s easy to see how figures like Armitage function like the One Black Friend of the idiot who just made that unspeakably racist joke: his mere presence categorically proves there is no problem with systemic classism in the arts, and that absolutely no one has to take any responsibility for the shit they say or the things they do.

But there are so many difficulties inherent in bringing any kind of systemic critique to bear upon either the arts in general or the “Poetry Community” in particular. It’s a small community, after all. Insular, pretty incestuous even, and the exercise of applying analysis has a way of making waves few at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder can afford. Dissent is neutralised by creating dependence (the elites run everything from major presses, to courses, to competitions) and ensuring complicity (we need to play nice to get our work out there, to keep our heads above water), which ultimately compromises our credibility as critics.

Either that, or the act of criticism in invalidated via the expedient route of dismissing the individual critic. There’s an awful Catch-22 here which goes something like this: if you are un- or under-published, if you have little by way of formal education, then you forfeit your right to be taken seriously and your criticism amounts to nothing. However, if you are published, and you are educated, then you have no right to complain, your criticism is so much empty histrionics – worse, you are biting the hand that has so consistently fed you.

We need more acceptable faces of feminism!

We see evidence of this tactic in the media’s treatment of “instapoet” Rupi Kaur, and the serial twitterstorms and social media fallout that followed her publication by Simon & Schuster late last year. Because Kaur was continuously touted and positioned as the “voice” of young women of colour, her work single-handedly credited with making poetry “accessible” and exciting again, removing it from the “ivory towers of academia” and giving it back to a hungry general populace, to criticise Kaur’s poetry was to be racist, misogynist, or some kind of grotesque elitist snob. But it requires only the bare minimum of analytical effort to unpick this tangled tapestry of bullshit. Who, after all, was doing all this touting and positioning? Kaur’s agent, maybe? An elitist mainstream media? Her publisher? Look closer and Kaur’s publication and subsequent rise to stratospheric poetry-stardom emerges as a manipulative marketing exercise.

To acknowledge that doesn’t make a person a snob, or a racist, or a fucking misogynist. It makes a person somebody who cares deeply that marginalised women and girls have better representatives and poetic role-models than Kaur and her pallid, directionless pap. True, her subjects are vital, necessary and engaging, but that doesn’t make her poetry good. If we don’t demand rigour and richness of ourselves or our so-called “representatives”, we impoverish ourselves as cultural creators, we promote a dangerous underestimation of ourselves as artists. We have to ask ourselves why Kaur is picked up and promoted at the expense of other, better young women writers of colour, of which there are so, so, so many. Go to Rap Party, or to one of Out-Spoken Press’ live nights; take a casual scroll through the archives of Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry, read Arshi, Mahfouz, Shire, Osman, Minamore, Lola, Allen-Miller, Miguel, Sur. And understand that what Kaur represents is the co-opted and compromised “acceptable face” of feminism, a commodified, consumer-friendly feminism with the edges rounded off, a feminism that nods vaguely in the general direction of all that besets us without ever offering a meaningful challenge to or analysis of those forces.

Typing the above has made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I understand the importance of sisterhood and solidarity, and I don’t particularly enjoy trashing other people’s work. But I’ve been wondering lately if a desire to be “nice” or “supportive” isn’t killing the necessary work of criticism. Should the fact that there are so few working-class women poets, and even fewer working-class women poets of colour mean that I’m bound to support even those writers whose poetry is hackneyed, misguided or unhelpful? This isn’t a rhetorical question, it’s a genuine and pressing one. And I understand that art is subjective, and that Kaur’s poetry isn’t for me. It has a right to exist, and I’m glad, I guess, if there are young women out there who get something from it. But – and this is a big but – isn’t it possible that young women would get more from any of the other artists I just mentioned? What would happen if they were given the opportunity to meaningfully choose? If media coverage and publishing trends did true justice to the sheer depth of diversity that exists in contemporary poetry, rather than fastening on to one or two commercially viable cash-cows and milking them dry? It’s the disproportionate emphasis on a couple of big safe names that bothers me. It’s tokenistic and it’s patronising, and it’s limiting to our collective voice, and it’s diluting to our collective dissent.

Let Coke democratise culture! Let them eat McDonalds!

Discomfort abounds for me in poetry. Discomfort abounds for me in other areas too, but poetry has the upmost sweetness and meaning to me, it’s the sea I swim in, and so those anxieties are the most vivid and acute. Poetry fulfils this role for me largely because – and this is another of my oft trotted hobby-horses, so bear with me – poetry, as an artistic medium is so sublimely suited to the material conditions of working-class existence. Growing up, to do literally anything else: paint, act, sing, learn an instrument, play a sport, required time and resources neither myself nor my family could afford to commit. To write a poem all you need is an eye, a voice, and something to scratch your rage out on.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unlovable labour, by Steev Burgess

Its method of production suits a population mired in the wretched life-consuming hell of poverty and unlovable labour. It can be practiced alone, anywhere; you don’t need pricey tuition, you get better by doing it, and who, after all, is more attuned to the music of your own experience than you? Growing up, I also felt a tremendous need for poetry, its immediacy and urgency spoke to me in ways prose could not reach; it bypassed the banality and circumlocution of everyday speech and made me feel emotionally connected to people and places far beyond the narrow confines of my life. It was both a way of expressing and understanding my daily experiences, and of escaping them to somewhere different, somewhere better. And so I feel powerfully that poetry is ours, by right and by necessity both.

Which is why this sense of discomfort pervades. In the past year I have seen poetry used to advertise everything from building societies to mobile phones, from Coke, to McDonalds. Fucking McDonalds. And I’ve followed the online debates about how this is actually a good thing: poetry is the language of the people, it’s not some precious, rarefied medium that needs to be kept, protected and unsullied from the grubby hustle of commerce. It’s democratic, I’ve been told, and anyway, who died and made me moral arbiter of “the scene”? What right do I have to judge the decisions of others? People have got to eat, and you can’t claim to support working-class poetry then shit on working-class people who are selling their art to survive. Right?

Yeah, okay, up to a point, but I don’t know whether reducing art to a shitty little cash-nexus is really such a staggering victory for cultural democracy. And look, I guess it’s fine if you want to contribute a poem to an institution or a product that manages to avoid abject moral bankruptcy, but, and I feel this is true in the case of the Nationwide ads especially, what you’re selling isn’t just the poetry, it’s yourself, the poet, it’s your working-classness; you’re allowing this building society to co-opt your “credentials” as a signifier of their authenticity and integrity. You’re using your heritage, your history, your bloody accent, on someone else’s behalf. Nationwide isn’t us. It isn’t grossly exploitative, and it’s owned by its shareholders, but it still isn’t us. It’s £2.3m in chief executive pay’s worth of not us in fact, and this in a time of mass unemployment, stagnating wage growth and in insanely hyper-inflated housing market that’s making it difficult for most of us to eke out an existence.

MH the employed poor

The employed poor, by Martin Hayes

I think what bothers me most, though, is the way in which the ghosts of working-class history are summoned up in the service of this financial product. Unfairness is acknowledged, but in the most cursory way possible, as if poverty and suffering were a force of nature, something that just happened to people in the bad old days, not something done to people systemically and systematically, deliberately, continuously, still.

But shit, Nationwide are not actually terrible, so who am I to pick holes in other people’s choices? You’ll grant me I’m on safer ground with my other examples, right? McDonalds, I mean, catch yourselves on, what a crock. If I read one more article about how “populism is good” or “it’s bringing poetry to a wider audience” I swear I’ll blow a gasket. Firstly, because this isn’t poetry, it’s something cooked up by an ad agency pretending to be poetry, and secondly because this isn’t populism, its cod-populism, it’s a corporation riding poetry’s coat-tails to position itself as your mate, in order that it might more effectively peddle its deep-fried patties of eyelids and arseholes, sawdust and spit.

Poetry, the way its rhythms encode and invite intimacy, its direct address, its person-to-person quality, these things are hijacked by the God-awful “just passing by” ad. The rhymes are reminiscent of McGough or Mitchell without being written by either, delivered by Neil Morrissey in a suitably blokey brogue. These signifiers of working-class identity, working-class poetics are tactically exploited to legitimate this shitvert, and position McDonalds as essentially inseparable from everyday working-class experience. As a working-class person I call bull-crap. We deserve better. Even if you can bypass the animal cruelty, and their stellar contribution to world-wide deforestation (I can’t, but that’s just me), McDonalds are still incredibly exploitative of their working-class employees, and historically one of the most aggressively anti-union chains in the fast food industry. Their food is also linked to malnutrition and obesity among the poorest communities worldwide.

And yeah, I will eventually stop flogging McDonalds, but as a corporation it’s just so beautifully illustrative of the way not only working-class culture, but working-class identity is appropriated, distorted and exploited by corporate capitalism.

I think what grinds me most about that crappy advert is its chummy tagline: “There’s a McDonalds for everyone”. Everyone. Like there’s not a version of my existence that isn’t bound up with and tied to their substandard fast-food. As if they’re somehow emblematic of, or synonymous with my culture. I don’t know, you can over-think these things, but that “everyone” still grates. I fear it’s probably the same “everyone” that thrilled to the Olympics and its community-disrupting corporate-sponsored descent upon London, and the same “everyone” that lined the streets to wave flags with feckless abandon at the spectacle of another Royal spawning. “Everyone”. Because if they can’t co-opt you and manufacture your consent, they edit you out of the picture, out of the dominant narrative. I am so entirely sick of being edited out.

The middle class is just better at acting!

This brings me back – somewhat less than neatly – to the arts and literature in general, and to poetry in particular. There’s a vision of working-class culture at work in these spheres that I can only describe as blinkered, monolithic and homogenous. Sorry, I’ll rephrase that: blinkered, monolithic, homogenous, and ubiquitous. This shit is everywhere. And once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it, it’s in every advert, every book or television show. It follows you around out the corner of your eye, a very bad case of Baader-Meinhof complex.

I noticed it first in the vox-pops, those little segments of the news where some poor beleaguered reporter has to go out and canvass the general public, get their take on the burning issues of the day. Why were the working-class people they picked to interview invariably inarticulate? Or ignorant? Or prejudiced? Maybe because most populations are inarticulate, ignorant and prejudiced in ways and for reasons entirely unconnected to class? At first I was able to tell myself I was being paranoid. But then came that slew of shit social-safari television: Benefits Street, Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! and my own personal bête–noire, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Here we come, the undeserving poor, an eternal cast of either criminals or victims, an undifferentiated mass of scrounging, skiving profligates. I’d see this and I’d think about my childhood, about the lives of my family and my friends, and I’d think: okay, but where’s the rest of it? Where are we?

Programmes like Benefits Street and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings are problematic in so many ways, but chiefly, I think, for the way in which they present carefully – and highly selectively – edited footage as documentary fact. Because how do they choose which families, which “characters”, and what stories to film? And how is the way in which these stories are framed, and cut, and scored contributing to a skewed and generally inaccurate representation of working-class people? Further, and more germane to this discussion, what kinds of narrative are these portrayals propping up? Whose interests do they serve?

Let’s face it, when we appear in the mainstream media at all it’s generally in the form of cynical copy-paste poverty porn, and this is absolutely strategic. It’s a way for our cultural elites to have their cake and eat it: they’ve included working-class characters and working-class voices, they’ve included working-class lives, and working-class experiences, and for this they earn a nice big box-ticking pat on the back. But they’ve included them within very narrow, tightly circumscribed parameters: striver or scrounger; the bluff northern male or the brassy cockney blonde; the swaggering black yout’ in a gang, or the fist-fighting congenitally sexist pikey.

This kind of phoney representation extends to fiction too, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sat through some middle-to-upper-class actor doing us pikey in different voices until I wanted to punch holes in concrete. They put us on like working-class drag in order to to flex their hip credentials, to win awards and plaudits for being socially aware, and worse, they do this at the expense of real working-class actors with just as much talent, who don’t have the recourses to compete in the incestuous, nepotistic snake-pits of film and television. Further, cultural expectations of the working-classes have been so successfully engineered, that we are no longer trusted to be the authors, spokespeople or archivists of our own experiences. Instead I’ve got Brad Pitt in Snatch, Michael Fassbender in Trespass Against Us, and the always heartwarming news that everybody’s favourite posh twit Benedict Cumberbatch is going to play Mikey Walsh’s father in a forthcoming screen adaptation of Gypsy Boy.

And poetry’s the same. And I spent such a long time hearing that my voice and my background were unacceptable, that they were things I’d have to minimise in order to “get on”, only to catch people doing me back at me, ventriloquizing me and my life, rocking up to my stages squatting in my postcode, forcing the rent up, garnering right-on points from my edgy poverty but bearing absolutely no responsibility towards the communities and cohorts they’d come crashing into. It pissed me off so much, in fact, I wrote a poem about it.

And you know, there’s what you’re allowed to say, and then there’s the way in which you’re allowed to say it. It isn’t that poetry has a problem with the working class, but it only wants us in certain venues, in particular enclaves whose borders it can effectively police, keeping us away from the business of “serious” cultural labour. “Slam”, for example, is increasingly hyped as “the poetry of the people”, imposing a false dichotomy between page and stage, and drawing an ugly, somewhat arbitrary dividing line between “elite” and “street”. This is patronising, disingenuous and gross. For all the paraded “right on” status of slam and spoken-word, it too has its regular staple of middle-class practitioners. And to assert that it accurately or completely represents working-class poetry is to pretend that there is one singular definitive voice of working-class experience. This is arrant nonsense.

Nothing wrong with slam, of course, and there’s so much about its ethos of community engagement that’s laudable, vital and exciting, but its over-emphasis as somehow exemplary of working-class poetics risks irreparable damage to the complexity, diversity and nuance of working-class poetics and working-class voice. A great deal of the slam I have encountered is – and I’ll admit, my experience might not be typical – samey, in terms of its thematic concerns, syntactic structure, delivery, and in the rhythmic formulation of the work. This only bothers me because the “poetry of the people” label is often used to sententiously confer moral status on personal, stylistic choices. Further, I think there’s an argument to be made that a strong moral agenda is sometimes used to legitimate or excuse lazy-arsed writing.



Again, I’m not lumping all slam poetry together, or saying it’s lazy and bad. SLAMbassadors, for one, is a mad-exciting project, full of promising, talented young poets from every walk of life writing and performing hair-raisingly good material. What I am saying is we have to be so wary of any attempt to homogenise working-class poetics, or any other aspect of our cultural production under this or that banner, particularly when it risks dividing us from wider cultural participation and contribution, and especially when it means uncritically feting work just because it ticks the right boxes. What I am saying is we need to be on our guard against attempts to regiment and codify working-class poetry under the guise of challenging the dominant culture – page is x, so stage is y – it weakens working-class imagination and sets proscriptive limits on the way we are allowed to access poetry.

The working class mustn't become class-conscious!

But what even is “working-class culture”? As a phrase I find it condescending, dismissive and descriptive of nothing. At best it lacks nuance, at worst it becomes a way of corralling together a disparate collection of traits and customs, reducing them to a few tired tropes, and kicking them to the kerb, out of sight, out of mind. This is one of my most recursive and enduring rants, so bear with me while I hammer this sentence out again: there is no single “working-class culture”, and the idea that there is is a deliberate and insidious lie.

Working-class experience is, rather, characterised by its hybridity, its intersectionality. It is a melting and merging of cultures and customs under the impetus of overwhelming economic and social pressure. It’s what drives our creativity and resilience, our flair, our beautiful shoe-string inventiveness with language, with fashion, with music, with food. And it’s this that’s under threat: our image of ourselves as capable of embodying all of these things, and our right to know them and claim them as ours.

During my teenage years one of the hardest things for me was understanding where I fitted in, feeling mongrel, partial, neither one thing nor the other. At school my image of myself oscillated wildly between the belief that I was some kind of sub-genius, and the paralysing certainty that I was fraud, a fuck-up, and a failure. This is because the adults I encountered in the institutions I passed through either wrote me off as soon as I opened my mouth, or were so astonished that I could so much as string a coherent sentence together they immediately began weaving my fairly mediocre abilities into a narrative of individual exceptionalism. Reason being, neither side could accept someone like me had exactly the same capacities and potentials as the assimilated middle-class kids. Nothing they had seen or read or allowed themselves to experience had prepared them for the surprising possibility that I was a normal adolescent with a fairly decent brain. It just did not compute. So, when I bollixed something up it confirmed the worst suspicions I had about myself, and when I did something right I felt like a freak. Two years into a Ph.D. and I still struggle with this. What helps is understanding how this situation was engineered. How cultural elites operate to exclude, omit or erase the stories and voices of people like me, to wipe out our sense of ourselves as active participants in the cultural sphere. How these elites create self-loathing, how these elites create shame.

When I listen to a lot of the conversations about the “theft of working-class culture”, I feel this is an element that’s missing. It isn’t that the middle-classes or any group of power elites want to monopolise a particular uniform territory or set of traditions, it’s that they appropriate and cherry-pick arbitrary elements across a broad set of cultures and practices, exploit those elements for kudos and cache while telling us that we, our cultures, our lives, are the shit that’s left. Scrap. Offal. They sneer at us for not speaking well, but selectively adopt our linguistic ticks and flourishes to enrich their own verbal excursions. They steal our music and our clothes, they gentrify our dancehalls and our mosh-pits and our open mics, then they sell the resultant mess back to us at inflated prices, forcing us off of our stages, out of our mouths, out of our own skin.

Long live mainstream capitalist culture!

To take a non-poetry example that’s still very near to my heart, look at what happened to punk, to ska and to two-tone; look at the way in which the music was stripped of its radical political message, how the low-budget nuttiness and fevered invention of working-class kids was hoovered up, homogenised and returned to us as white male junkies in studded leather jackets. Same with hip-hop, how intense, socially conscious lyric flyting of kids with jack shit was sucked in and spat back out as slick misogynist crap, underscoring the same acquisitive, competitive, toxically masculine values as main-stream capitalist culture.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Betrayal of Christ, by Caravaggio, c. 1602

And here, on this weird cultural margin, as a working-class, culturally “other” poet, you’re told there’s a part of you that’s defective or offensive, and if you want to get anywhere, you need to scrub that part out. I tried, I really tried, to my eternal shame. When I first come to London, because my image of myself and any pride or joy I might have taken in my heritage – ancestral or familial – had been so effectively destroyed, I negated myself: I wrote these terrible, monumental Fruit & Fabre-y poems, and I poshed my voice when I went on stage and read aloud. When this became too great a schizoid betrayal of everyone and everything I ever loved, and I started to write and speak as me, I was told I was “fetishizing” and exploiting my past. In time I realised that there is no version of my work that would be acceptable, that wouldn’t be used as a stick to beat me with. If I write my culture then I’m “playing the race / class card”. If I choose to write about anything else then I’m inauthentic, failing in my duty as ambassador apologist for “my people”, a sell-out and a fraud.

This is how elites and their cultural structures and institutions contrive to obliterate working-class voices, and tactically remove working-class people from the arena of literary and artistic participation. If they can’t control or co-opt you they make the effort of expressing yourself so exhausting, confusing and dispiriting, you just want to give up. And I have really wanted to give up this last year. Academia is horrible, exclusionary, alienating and fatiguing. My life is hard in material and emotional ways ninety-nine percent of my peers have absolutely zero hope of understanding, and the loneliness of that, of being a statistical freak inside a system designed to exclude me is really starting to take its toll. Nevertheless –

Oh no, they're waking up!

I will keep going, because working-class people are waking up to the urgency of this situation, because for the first time in a long time it feels as if we are galvanised and primed to become the authors and the archivists of our own experiences and stories. I am excited to be a part of this. I am excited to show people the sheer breadth and depth of what we can do. I’m excited that this could mark a genuinely significant turning point: no longer obsessed with defining or defending some invented and illusory idea of “the culture”, singular, we’re expanding, extending, exposing and evolving the notion of what that might be.

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast.

B and R award

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast, by Anon.

our mother's day will come
Sunday, 11 March 2018 16:43

our mother's day will come

Published in Poetry

our mother’s day will come

by Fran Lock

my mother’s face exists in the space between
kaijū and sphinx. she’s wearing clothes that hold
her body in contempt. her breath, imperfect
peppermint. she has to go to work. her earrings
are obols, shorn of their funerary usage. palest
flirtation of dubious gold. unclaimed merest
flick of skin, the seldom-surfaced self. our
mother holds down several jobs, like righteous
men might trample serpents underfoot. she
works in the kitchens of holiday parks, spiting
her wrists with the ambergris of hot fat; salt
in the cut to her thumb. she works, waitressing
tables, while little kids scream with tactless
joy, engineering ice-cream headache, on
and on. our mother’s scanned your hummocks
of steroidal meat for hours, her hands making
a dumb-show of séance. she cried like a tangled
cassette in the night when she thought we
couldn’t hear. our mother worked lates with
the cold coiled inside like a sharpened spring
at the twenty-four seven garage to tight to pay
for heat. she gritted her teeth through gregarious
sleaze in the small town slur of the local bar.
and she came home and kneaded the bread
like she was thumping breath back into
a stopped heart. she held me through all my
recalcitrant havoc, the voices we heard in
our heads between god and the vomit, our
gremlins and lurgies and rages. my mother
studied. in those hotbed-of-non-event towns,
she dug in her heels, and she bit back her
anger. not a shoulder to cry on, a human
shield, her backbone a needle of lightning.
she studied, defended, and cleaned on her
knees till she bruised. my mother, our mother,
unfolding the joke from a book that the world
had kept from her. my mother, coming
sudden on the mind’s reckless hieroglyphs:
i finally understand. my mother’s face exists
between the strange and the wise. and we catch
her sometime, when she’s only herself, dreaming
her private tumult. my mother works, tilling
the stony earth until a word strikes water
and everything wickedly greens for a moment.
this is the grace that shit is grist to. it’s thanks
to her we are free.

Votes for Women
Wednesday, 07 March 2018 12:07

Creativity unites us: poetry for International Women's Day, 2018

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock has curated this year’s compilation of poetry for Culture Matters, to mark International Women’s Day. There are poems by Jane Burn, Sogol Sur, Joanne Key, Julia Bell, Anne Pelleschi, Beri Allen-Miller, and Fran herself, ending with a prose piece, On Fighting the Disconnect.


When you put out a call for poetry submissions, you never know what you’ll get back. It’s a dangerous game, like asking questions of the Ouija Board, inviting a strangeness into your life, something maverick, haunting and twisted. This time was a little different, though; the women I reached out to being writers I’d admired for long time, and people I knew would have something to say on a subject that’s extremely close to my heart.

In the approach to International Women’s Day I started thinking about poetry’s potential as a kind of counter narrative, a way of exposing the hidden histories of women, stories and experiences that are erased or ignored by the general discourses of everyday life. When I asked these poets to contribute to Culture Matters, I suggested they send something that speaks to the material reality of being a working-class woman, of the struggles and joys that are uniquely ours, of the headspace those struggles create, of the ways we find to navigate the world and understand ourselves.

Which is easier said than done. What does it even mean to be “working-class” and a woman, here and now, when “work” itself is a vexed notion? How does gender interact with labour? How does labour interact with sexuality, ethnicity, disability, and with the hundred-billion other ways the world has of defining us?

These poems don’t answer all those questions. What emerges instead is a polyphony of voices across a wide range of cultures, experiences and generations. These poems, I think, exist as a proof that imagination takes root here, in us, in however inauspicious or infertile seeming the ground of our daily grind. Creativity unites us, and creativity is our best form of resistance and resilience.


Jane Burn

 Jane Burn has had poems in The Rialto, Under the Radar, Butcher's Dog, Iota Poetry as well as anthologies from The Emma Press, Beautiful Dragons, Emergency Poet & Seren. She is the author of three books: Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen), Tongues of Fire (BLERoom), and nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams).

Jane writes:
The seed of this poem, Let me tell you about, was sown late last year when I attended a local poetry night. One of the open mic poets was a young, very well-spoken man in his early twenties. His poem was about a sexual encounter he had had (for real or imaginary, I do not know) with a woman he considered less than himself. They did what he imagined were the usual 'roughing-it' things like going to Lidl. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas in his poem and when he spoke the line, 'chav girls need love too' which was meant to justify his 'slumming it', I walked out. I have been so angry about it ever since - the very idea that someone is to be treated thus because of where they were born is abhorrent. That they are just a 'girl'. As if there is a better class of person that can dabble with those who are lesser human beings. Oh yes, you can screw the common women for a laugh but you sure wouldn't take them home to meet the folks.

There is still a divide - there are still children growing up with less opportunity than others and judging by people like the man I mentioned above, there are still people growing up with the attitude that they are a better class of person. Perhaps he thought his poem was a witty little joke - perhaps he would be suprised to discover how offensive I found it to be.

Let me tell you about

potatoes bought by the sack
leaving school still not being sure what a noun is
trying to fill the gaps left by a crap education
hand-me-downs from them up the street
Jan’s, where you asked for a bob and came out looking like your nan
licking the back of Co-op stamps
paddling in the slipway at Thorne, avoiding a floating shit
dipping in Kayli’s rainbow and puckering at the taste
auntie’s handbags full of copper-filth tuppence smell
contemplating the scrapyard’s matted dog
my mother selling her rings
the cliché of three inches of bathwater each
knowing absolutely nothing about wine
the uncertainty of pasta
the raw song of the siren’s end of shift
being made to wait on doorsteps while other people went in
a boy with fists
the oompah band and how I loved The Floral Dance
the horse with strangles on the dealer’s yard
how my parents were never sure if they should take off their coats
curdles of Artex on every ceiling and wall
the fear that I might end up in the sewing factory
how a lathe is softened by a fascination of swarf
how I felt when I discovered that anyone can be an archaeologist
the first time I ate a courgette
calling lunch, dinner and dinner, tea
how it feels when someone mimics the way you speak
being good enough to fuck but not good enough to date
ending up working a supermarket till
feeling the smoothness of others snag upon your scuff
being haunted by your rough-built self
watching people hide what they really think
knowing there is nothing more ahead than there is behind.

Jane writes:
Horses have been the most important thing to me for as long as I can remember. At four years old I used to balance on a precarious stack of buckets and try to scramble upon the fat roan back of a pony who lived on a nearby farm. I walked for three miles to where the local show was held throughout the summer and stood until the last horse had gone. From the age of twelve I worked evening and weekends in a dealers yard - I was not paid for the huge amount of work I did but I got to ride and be with the creatures that were the most important things to me.
One of our 'treats' was to sometimes be taken to Pannal Sales, Yorkshire. I had such fantastical ideals when it came to these beloved animals. The reality of the sales was something I have never fogotten.

A Day at Pannal Sales

These are not the horses of your dreams.
These are pens of steaming piebald hides,
tangles of splaying legs, shit-spattered hocks.
Ears back, too afraid to come to you over the gates –
throats raw with heaved wind, bellies fat with worms,

ridge tile spines, a din of screams.
These are not the horses you usually see.
These are hunters, jumpers too long in the tooth –
foundered ponies, sadly outgrown mother’s dreams,
cuckoo bolters, biters, buckers, lame ducks

doped on bute. Stallions, cresty, frothed and raked
about the lorry park to flash a high-kneed step.
You will sit at the ring and wish you were rich.
Guineas are bid over whipped-up hides
and the gibberish hubbada hubbada dubbada

auctioneer’s talk litters the day with hope
or hopelessness, depending on whose hand is raised.
You will not forget the gated ramp
of the meat man’s truck, nor the weanling Shetlands,
small as dogs, furzy as teddies, eyes like

portions of God walking mildly up it.
You will not forget the sound of a mare’s grief,
udder bagged for a foal’s milky crave.
The hat-rack shire with a Father Christmas beard.
These are not the horses of your dreams.

The witch who lives on the hill

Maybe there is something of the wanderer in me –
I have this problem with rooting. Not tree but tumbleweed,
rolled into corners, bumping its fragile netted head.
Dust settles on me, weighs me down. I wish I knew
my history – I wish I knew who I was. I don’t fit –

my dogs are cut from patchwork cloth, bite slow fingers.
My ponies is feathered and splotched with white.
He only needs a wagon, Tommy-The-Tooth-Man said –
he ran racehorses in Ireland, is bones like a bird, fears nothing.
I’m always after seeing their souls – horses will show

them to you, given time. You ought not to be on their backs
until you are in their hearts. I see those neighbours,
clocking my trousers, muddy-wet bum from sitting
low, learning their unicorn talk. I hope their curtain twitching
brings them what they wish for. Her garden. Looks like

a rubbish dump. Why would you want rusty things?
I got to keep my eye out for the scrap-man, sneaky bastard –
he’s got a right lust for my stuff. Bucket rotted to its scaffold form,
horseshoes, iron rabbit, old pot-belly stove. This clutter,
in its corrosion was a shiny something once. The beauty is in how

it changes. Shells everywhere, bleachy bones, pebbles.
Badger skull in a plant pot – I’m a-gonna use ‘em
for casting spells, come round yer ‘ouses, sell you pegs.
My gay abandon of lavender bothers them. Her
with that camper van parked on the street. Like a gyppo.

I lost count of the times folk have tried to insult me with this.
I’ll wish on clover for them – fuckers. I know they peep
through my windows, mutter at my Dead Man’s Swag.
I crave cabinets, the kind that you filled with china birds.
I have to scrub the stink of ciggs from, smelling like memories

of failed lungs and death. Roam the car-boots for bits
to fill them – then they are bright as bowtops, spangle of chintz,
porcelain birds. I look at a plate on a stall. Bloke says
hurry up and buy it – if you won’t, the Syrians will.
They pause to tut outside my house. Pretty soon

they’ll be genuflecting, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch,
calling to the Saints to preserve them. Why don’t you park
down your own end? The phone-wire box on the street corner
is opened, wires spilled – this man in his fluoro tabard,
crouches in front, confused at the spew of guts. At the tip

of every one, a voice – if you could press your ear to the mass
you need never be lonely again. There’s Betty, face like a wasp,
pressed to the glass, wishing me ill and I am meant to be the witch.
Her mouth is a poisoned bud. This used to be a nice street.
Starlings roost on her ridge tiles. Kids kick balls in her hedge.


Sogol Sur

Sogol Sur is the author of  the poetry collection, Sorrows of the Sun (Skyscraper, 2017). She is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Birkbeck, and working on her debut short story collection.


One presumes one has everything to lose
One enters the office, the bureau for bureaucracy, an embassy, a ministry, a roomful

You have to prove to them why
you exist; why you need your inheritance
although the term and the concept soil your mouth
newly-shed blood in a lucid lake spreading, an indestructible virus
this money, two-thirds of a professor’s salary is the only thing you have inherited
from your mother - apart from her lust for the impossible,
unacceptable ambitions, and sudden-death genes.

You need the money, you tell them, your mouth
churning, turning, withering, a diseased flower in garbage.
Your father has sent you. He is pulling invisible strings.
What strings? What country? What inheritance?
Why do you think you exist? What mother? What father?
They don’t utter this, but you can hear it
for by now you know a motherless woman is not a woman
but a rootless tree, carved and scarred by a myriad of artless passersby,
its branches cut and thrown in a deep swamp.

They shout at you without uttering a sound:
Your country does not exist. It died with your mother.
We don’t owe you any money. You don’t have any power
How would you pull strings? Which strings? Why do you think
you’re special? All the strings were buried with your mother
in that grave. In that crowded cemetery where your body bent
without your involvement and you heard a man - a far relative - say,
‘she’s okay, it’s probably just stomach ache,’
and you were surprised by your lack of desire to beat him to death.

But you did wish god or something like that
existed and could resurrect your mother instead of
ordering you to look chaste and you glanced
at your mother’s sister in her black chador, praying
at her sister’s tomb.
And for the first time in your life you envied her
you needed something, anything to hold on to
but there was nothing.

When they collected you from your
mother’s grave, you couldn’t hold on to them because
you knew they were nothing. And there was nothing again to hold on to.

And every time you go to a sweaty office to claim
her money you wish you were buried
with her in that grey cemetery
for you know there is nothing to claim, nothing
to hold on to when you’re a motherless woman
in your twenties with a painful passport and
you hear voices in your head that logically you are aware don’t exist,
yet they are as deafening as the rain knocking on your window during
Tehran winter showers. And the vociferation:
Take off your fake hijab
Who do you think you’re fooling?
We know you
You’re not meant to exist.


Joanne Key

Joanne Key lives in Cheshire where she writes poetry and short fiction. She recently returned to university as a mature student to complete an MA in Contemporary Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University, Cheshire. She has previously been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize, Mslexia Poetry Competition and The Plough Poetry Prize, and her poems have appeared in magazines including The Interpreter’s House; Ink, Sweat and Tears; and Nutshells and Nuggets. She won second prize in The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2014.


At fifteen, my wires trailed
behind me like loose shoelaces.
Despite the cable, snaking
under my ribs, the feathers
started to poke through the cuffs
of my school jumper. A danger
to myself, the men said
I could take off anytime
and should be sent to the factory
where my mind would be occupied
with minding the machines,
tending them, mending my ways.
The factory and its banner:
Set Aside All Thoughts of Flight.
My father gave it the green light
as he sat on his rusty throne,
flexing the hinges of his fists,
smoke and booze flowing
through his steel tubes.

And so they squeezed me
into line with the other women,
side by side, forced in
as tight as batteries.
The siren howled.
A door clanged shut.
That was that.
The machines ate everything:
days, words, music, news.
I watched them swallow
some women whole.
We called them Sleepers.
I saw my mother slip away
until all that was left
was her voice humming
in the drum of its stomach.
The factory took the sun,
the doves cooing on the roof,
the chatter and laughter
and pitter-patter of rain,
leaving us only with the sound
of crying on fire escapes
and the moaning of Sleepers
trapped deep inside the machines.

Nothing lasts forever.
Many years have passed,
but on lonely nights like this
my mother often flits back
into my life. Owl-eyed
and full of light, she sits
on the windowsill,
preening her feathers,
before disappearing again,
her shape fading from view
as she circles the ruins
of the factory, picking over
the bones of those old
worn-out systems.
So many times I have tried
to call her back, my face
at the window – pale
and plain as a blank clock.
Mouth clicking. Open. Shut.


Julia Bell

Julia Hephzibah Bell is a writer and Course Director of the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She is the author of three novels and the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook. Currently she is working on lyric essays and poetry. Hymnal is a verse memoir about growing up in a religious family in Wales. And she is currently working on a sequence of essays about Berlin. Two of these essays will feature in forthcoming editions of Wasafiri and The White Review. She currently divides her time between London and Berlin.

The Visiting Speaker

But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? - Luke 10:40

Typical. The minute there’s a man about the house
she’s off, leaving me to get on
with the gutting of fish, the buttering of bread.
Sitting there, simpering, playing with her
beads in that idle, flirty way that makes her look cheap.

Five loaves and fishes and then some
piled on the table, there’s at least fifty people coming,
it will take a miracle to get this done in time.
And all she cares about is boys, boys, boys,
turned into a simpleton the minute they arrived.

Our hands butterflied across the table,
slicing, dicing, picking bones, tossing salads,
while we debated the various defences of Kierkegaard,
and the finer points of the theories of mind,
and then when he arrived she emptied like a drain

quite the coquette, while I sit here steaming
Pollack, getting grease stains on my blouse.
So many exceptions: Peter who’s vegetarian, Matthew
the wheat intolerant, Mark who can’t stand fish.
Wet drips together dripping. Especially him.

When I went out to complain all he could say
was there were more important things than cooking
in that kind of hippie, dreamy way that she believes
is a substitute for thinking. See here, he said,
picking a flower, consider the lilies of the field.

And she lay next to him, giggling, rococo,
as if posing for a Titian. God, that made me mad.
Here I am up to my eyeballs in dishes,
and all she can think about is sex. What good are flowers
when the clock is ticking on the Sunday roast?

He’s no idea what it’s like pulled every which way,
clean this, cook that, where’s my clean shirt?
He might have time for stargazing, but me,
I have to keep the carrots from boiling over.
A martyr? Don’t be soft. I’m losing my mind in here.


Anne Pelleschi

Anne hails from Swansea, South Wales, and her life and work have evolved from her Welsh origins. She is the organiser of international literary events and an international creative writing competition. Closer to home she established Dylan Thomas's birthplace as a successful centre celebrating his early life, and for holding workshops and events, including poetry readings. She is a regular speaker on Thomas' life nationally and internationally. Anne has organised arts festivals in local parks and created 'Welsh Mams' Day. Her work is drawn from her lifetime experiences in which people and place provide centrality to her sense of iterative historical and emotional consciousness.

1832, for a mother

They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.
My role was not to take a life but to record one that was brutally shortened.

I am so tired, worn out, worn down,
my once loud voice has disappeared, gone.
I am a pock marked slab of misery where pointing fingers chiselled into me.

They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.

I was chosen, hand-picked and quarried in Mawr,
there is no-one alive to remember why now,
so I must tell you before I fade,
before the earth re-claims me and becomes my grave.

My role was not to take a life but to record one.

I am weak and leaning on an old chapel wall.
As your feet pass by or your car engines thrum,
you do not notice me yet I am the one who remembers the truth.

They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.

Look for me in Felindre, look for me.
Find me and discover about an unborn child,
about Eleanor, its mother



On that sultry, weeping-cloud day, I watched her sitting room's
furniture be moved and switched, re-switched, re-moved.
I saw pain take control of a face that was drawn, a soul that
was torn between despair and survival.

                        A blank worn canvas
                     outlines of deep silences
                        tears left un-spilled

Gasping breaths were her voice as she paced and twitched,
stood still, sat down, opened cupboards, slammed their doors,
apologised, searched, spinning round and around.

                       Those old training shoes
                      trying to make sense of it
                          a tongue sticking out

Into a quiet, whimpering stillness, words emerged from their
swallowing, smothering cocoon and filled the room.
Whispering into her neckline, she spoke about that morning, the
hat mis-shaped, the ugly morning and the note that was left by her

                                 Now only shadows
                     quick silvered running footsteps
                                 a broken marriage


Beri Allen-Miller

Beri Allen-Miller is a poet and photographer currently living in Hertfordshire.

Commuter's Flu

hammering nails into my head to let the pain out
i’m tired of being ice picked
chipping holes into cold
cold cold
melting little drips
into the eyes
of wiser guys

“peanut butter mix it up
mess with me ill kick your butt”
i’m never going to let my heart shed
ive got a brain i hide
use it selfishly
they say i was born in soft focus
a little vaseline on the lens
a little tinsel around the eyes.

i put my hood up
relax my accent
hiss into a blunt little minute
70 70 70
tangled up in my hair
i was rocked by smoke
finding with my fingers
my core centralising light
she a peony
prototype power
i sit with it
let it alight
get off of the brim of my hat
covering my eyes with your tiny palms
i am pushing out noises
in breathy punches
scaling through vowels.


There is only so much a voice can do
the girl piercing the old men whispering about her brain
I dart into myself - a bee
a bug
with an eye for contagion
keeping my teeth aligned is
harder than holding a drill into skin
- a bee direct but fatally scared
- a bug with a dark glint and quietly amber in
temper and colour
amber in coffin

I can hear the flesh of all of the sewn together men
they don’t fit me well
I can’t speak or talk
Take me in your car
park us near the seaside -
the sea is our bedroom
It’s a chore to roll over if I don’t have two small pulses to encourage
one eye or both
you see in me, a bracing for potency

You strain to make me larger
this splinter is no good
it has ruined to such impossible depths
tweezers will not do they become too foreign at the side of my skin

I draw my family tree on my stomach, it’s all images written in flexing marks and I am told I am lost, love is recycled into threads


Fran Lock


our mother’s day will come

my mother’s face exists in the space between
kaijū and sphinx. she’s wearing clothes that hold
her body in contempt. her breath, imperfect
peppermint. she has to go to work. her earrings
are obols, shorn of their funerary usage. palest
flirtation of dubious gold. unclaimed merest
flick of skin, the seldom-surfaced self. our
mother holds down several jobs, like righteous
men might trample serpents underfoot. she
works in the kitchens of holiday parks, spiting
her wrists with the ambergris of hot fat; salt
in the cut to her thumb. she works, waitressing
tables, while little kids scream with tactless
joy, engineering ice-cream headache, on
and on. our mother’s scanned your hummocks
of steroidal meat for hours, her hands making
a dumb-show of séance. she cried like a tangled
cassette in the night when she thought we
couldn’t hear. our mother worked lates with
the cold coiled inside like a sharpened spring
at the twenty-four seven garage to tight to pay
for heat. she gritted her teeth through gregarious
sleaze in the small town slur of the local bar.
and she came home and kneaded the bread
like she was thumping breath back into
a stopped heart. she held me through all my
recalcitrant havoc, the voices we heard in
our heads between god and the vomit, our
gremlins and lurgies and rages. my mother
studied. in those hotbed-of-non-event towns,
she dug in her heels, and she bit back her
anger. not a shoulder to cry on, a human
shield, her backbone a needle of lightning.
she studied, defended, and cleaned on her
knees till she bruised. my mother, our mother,
unfolding the joke from a book that the world
had kept from her. my mother, coming
sudden on the mind’s reckless hieroglyphs:
i finally understand. my mother’s face exists
between the strange and the wise. and we catch
her sometime, when she’s only herself, dreaming
her private tumult. my mother works, tilling
the stony earth until a word strikes water
and everything wickedly greens for a moment.
this is the grace that shit is grist to. it’s thanks
to her we are free.


On Fighting the Disconnect

The teenage girl on the bus is wearing a white T-shirt with the words I AM A FEMINST printed on the front in stark inch-high black letters. It’s dark outside and she’s travelling alone, so, when a group of boys get on at the next stop and bundle upstairs into the seats behind her, making the usual lewd and nonsensical comments, I swap seats to sit with her. I don’t want to come off like a dick, or imply that she needs protecting, but I want her to know she’s got help if she needs it, so I ask her if I can sit down, and to make conversation I tell her I like her T-shirt. “Thanks”, she says, and drops the name of a thoroughly ubiquitous online retailer whose ethical policies might want a bit of rethink, their supply chain having been linked in recent years to the labour of refugee children; with their British-based warehouses the subject of widely reported exposés into exploitative and dangerous working conditions. I don’t say anything, but it does give me private pause. The workers in sweatshops and warehouses are typically women and girls, and it’s hard for me to imagine anything more cynical than the way consumer culture regurgitates this cosmetic and morally-compromised feminism to idealistic young women.

Somewhere there’s a disconnect. But maybe it was ever thus. Take Rosie the Riveter, that oft-copied icon of female “empowerment”. Rosie was designed by J Howard Miller, and her purpose wasn’t liberation, it was propaganda. Rosie was supposed to mobilise a workforce, and she did: between 1942 and 1945 over six million women in America alone took up new jobs to further the allied war effort, many of whom started work in the factories before their employers had issued standard uniforms and safety equipment. Before 1943, for example, steel-toed boots weren’t made in women’s sizes, and women welders regularly sustained injury working in their everyday clothes without proper protective gear. Agencies that could have stepped in and stepped up to outfit women with safe and appropriate clothing didn’t consider it worth their while. They were only temporary, after all, an expendable substitute for male workers drafted overseas.

In the U.K, the women working in munitions factories turned yellow from exposure to TNT, earning them the euphemistic nickname: the canary girls. Although this discolouration was temporary, other side-effects were far more ominous. Women developed bone disintegration, throat and lung problems, and a fatal liver disease known as toxic jaundice. All this to earn a scant half the amount of their male counterparts, and while being expected to conform to an idealised and unobtainable standard of beauty that was considered as much a part of their “duty” to the war effort as the factory work in which they were employed.

Rosie’s a suspect symbol, the acceptable face of female labour; she isn’t jaundiced or exhausted or malnourished or maimed. She’s a fetish, a wet-dream, she’d working-class drag with the edges sanded off. She obscures not exposed the complex reality of what it means to be a working woman.

Somewhere there’s a disconnect. As IWWD rolls round again this year I find myself dwelling on this disconnect more and more. As a buzzword feminism is everywhere, and I want to take comfort from that, but I’ve seen a lot and I’m naturally wary. When companies and celebrities position themselves as “feminist” in order to encourage consumption or legitimate their views, I am wary. When conversations about equality are reduced to a grubby little cash nexus, I am wary. When the idea of real and necessary systemic change is diverted into the celebration of spurious cultural “gains”, I am wary.

Fundamentally, I don’t give a shit if L'Oreal or any one of its feckless spokespeople think I’m worth it, because “beauty” as an arbiter of personal worth is meaningless to me, especially when “beauty” means relentlessly performing some grotesque notion of exploded femininity twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, something that isn’t remotely practicable for most working-class women with dirty and difficult jobs.

Fundamentally, I think there are more urgent and important issues at work right now than whether a boardroom Tory earns the same amount as her male equivalent. Yes, of course, we should work towards parity of pay in business, but this can’t be the only measure of whether feminism is succeeding. The question of economic equality needs first to consider the working conditions of the poorest in our society; needs to start with the fruit-pickers and warehouse factory packers, needs to understand the connection between the convenience of your next-day delivery and the woman in Grimethorpe breaking her back on minimum wage to make that happen.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference if Jodie Whittaker is Doctor Who, or if we have a gender-flipped Ghost Busters, when women in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre are still on hunger strike for being detained unfairly and indefinitely in demeaning and dangerous conditions; when cuts to Child Benefit coupled with restrictions to access of Legal Aid trap threaten to women in poverty and domestic abuse.

My point, I suppose, is that wearing the T-shirt is fine, idealism is fine, but feminism isn’t a slogan, it isn’t an aspirational brand, and wearing the T-shirt isn’t fighting the patriarchy. Feminism requires something of us, requires joined up thinking and a sense of our responsibility to each other. Feminism requires class-consciousness, an attentive listening to the varied voices of working-class experience.



universal credit
Friday, 17 November 2017 11:32

universal credit

Published in Poetry

universal credit

by Fran Lock

statues wake, and yawning, scrape
the birdshit from their tongues. london
drags a dirty nail across her fibroid lungs.

the hoodies and the halfwits are disporting
on the green. their smiles are shallow gashes
like the slots of fruit machines.

the silent politicians brush their dandruff
from their suits. rehearsing alternate careers
as undertakers' mutes.

work and pensions perverts, and the l.s.e's
pet boffins, offer thrilling opportunities
in made to measure coffins.

Muses and Bruises
Wednesday, 11 October 2017 15:27

Muses and Bruises

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters has published a brilliant new collection of poetry called Muses and Bruises by Fran Lock, an activist, writer and illustrator, and one of the finest political poets writing in Britain today. Her feminist and socialist poetry weaves psychological insight and social awareness into themes of poverty, mental health problems, sexual abuse, domestic violence and political struggle. Vivid, lavish and punchy, her writing combines a smouldering sense of anger and injustice with a deeply humane and vulnerable empathy and compassion. The poems are complemented by the collages of Steev Burgess, whose images dance with the poems, deepening their meaning.

The book will be launched at The Duke Pub, 7 Roger Street, London WC1N 2PB on Saturday 14th October at 7.30pm. Have a look at these two fabulous videos made by Fran and Steev to accompany the book.

Our Lady of the Lock - from Muses and Bruises

​​Rag Town Girls do Poetry - from Muses and Bruises

​And here is Fran's Introduction to the collection.

'Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.'
- Adrian Mitchell

I've got a lot of love for the late Adrian Mitchell, but I think he was wrong about this. I didn't have much access to poetry growing up, but that wasn't because poetry was ignoring me, that was because poetry had been deliberately engineered out of my life. I had never been told that poetry was for me, that I was allowed poetry, entitled to poetry, deserving of poetry. And no one ever told me how much I needed it, and I did need it, we do need it, all of us.

I came to poetry alone, late, and by chance. My first feeling at having found this beautiful, radiant thing was a mixture of exhilaration and relief, rapidly followed by a massive sense of blind and burning rage that something so essential, so sustaining, something so rich in sweetness and in meaning had been kept from me. I carry that rage with me still.

Poetry does not ignore people, but there is a system at work designed to exclude people from poetry. People like me. People like you. It starts at school, with a hidden curriculum that attempts to circumscribe and to manipulate the cultural expectations and experiences of working-class kids by telling them what is and isn’t for them; what constitutes an appropriate and realistic interest, what counts as a legitimate achievement.

You can't be a poet, people said to me. No, because heaven forfend I should aim so high, heaven forfend I should have such an unrealistic ambition as to acquire language, to articulate and to express myself. No, because if I, as a marginalised or oppressed person, acquire that language, develop that skill, then I am arming myself.

If I am articulate then I cannot be discounted and I will not be ignored. If I have access to the written word, then I am connected to the whole world, I can build movements, I can move mountains, I can understand the nature of that which keeps me down. If I am dexterous with language, then I understand how language is used to ensnare and enslave me. If I understand how language is used then I know when I'm being lied about and when I'm being lied to. If I have poetry, I have a voice, and that voice is a sword and a shield. If I can think for myself, speak for myself, then I can define myself and represent myself. That is a dangerous and wonderful thing.

Better for some if art and culture remain behind high fences in self-policing middle-class enclaves. They'll stuff my head with shit instead, with disposable, sneerable pop and dross. They'll create a climate of bread and circuses. They’ll dehumanise the lumpenproles because all we've got are stunted words for ugly lives – because we're rough, ill-educated, stupid.

We’re not stupid. I love language. I love poetry, all poetry: the Lais of Marie de France, Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Clare, Keats, Yeats, Fiacc, Plath, Brookes, all of it. I reclaim it, I appropriate it, I snatch it back as an act of daily, defiant radicalism. It all belongs to all of us.

And language belongs to us, in all its complexity and richness, in all its rolling, roiling musicality. I was told once that my writing was inauthentic because working-class women don't think or speak that way. Bollocks. I am a working-class woman, and I do write and think and speak this way. There is no one homogeneous working-class voice, any more than there is a single monolithic working-class culture. No one has any right to set limits on the way we sound or the words we use.

The poems in this collection revel in richness and in strangeness, they positively wallow in it. I don't apologise for that. I won’t strenuously enact anybody else’s vision of working-class identity – I assert my right to be lavish, to be complicated. The poems are about beauty and meaning and the unlikely places working-class women and girls find these things, the unlikely materials from which they are composed. Steev's collages bring this to the fore, a mixture of decadence and squalor; grind and grime with a lick of glitter.

Emma Goldman is often misquoted as saying that without dancing it's not her revolution. She didn’t actually say this, but I approve the sentiment, and I'd go further. Without dancing – or poetry – there is no revolution of any description. We first have to recognise our right to joy, to pleasure. Poetry is waiting, go and claim it.

Muses and Bruises is available here.

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National Poetry Day: Vignettes of Working Class Exhaustion
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 20:25

National Poetry Day: Vignettes of Working Class Exhaustion

Published in Poetry

Vignettes of Working Class Exhaustion

by Fran Lock


Sacred, not wise, the black cat's acid
casualty stare, traversing a crumbling
cul-de-sac, under a starlessly inkjet sky.
We cross each other's path, and she
leans into my unluck, a clot of deeper
dark, unstuck from the rest of the night.
Then she is gone, the quick misshapen
sleek of her; the yellow pellets of her
eyes dissolving into distance. I am
alone on the corner, holding my shoes
in my hand. Her charm unwinds from
around my ankles. The night returns
to bind my wrists.


In the concrete playground, city kids,
the pigeon-chested victims of chimneys,
wheezing like slow punctures through
gritted teeth and cigarettey breath. I was
young. I remember well, the boy with
a laugh like a chewed-up cassette, hocking
his egg-yolk phlegm at passing girls.
It was exciting then to press my lips to
his, taste and acrid copper shock and run,
uphill, where he could not follow.
My own chest tightens now to think
of it, and his strained white face
like an old balloon.

Everything you think you know about me

At home, in my cradle of copper wire, I spin
the unvaried light into curses. I sleep on a soiled
mattress stuffed with horsehair, lucky heather,
hubcaps, stolen modems, baby's breath. I devour
men whole, licking the piquant gloss of their
blood from my scrimshawed scramasax blade.
I suck the meat from their fingers, melt
their wedding rings down for ingots of bling,
golden molars. My pit-bull dog is a brute, he's
a gallowglass with a tactical mouth. In the still
cold pond beyond the site, the babies unfold
like lilies.

You are not your nine to five prison

Monday beings and ends with the need
to numb my own desperate tendency. I keep
catching the loose threads of an old pain
on the jagged edges of the day. London,
like a hardman with hate tattooed
on the knuckles of his right hand,
and hate tattooed on the knuckles
of his left hand. There's an ant farm
under my skin, and my brain is tuned
to some bumfuck nowhere bandwidth,
all Armageddon and Christian rock.
Between work and hospital visits
I pass the same graffiti every day.
Sometimes I smile in lowercase,
but today its optimism irks me. I think,
in fact, I am the clock. I turn, but in
a circle, chase the self I can't outrun.

Sunday, 16 October 2016 14:54

'the bravest of the brave'

Published in Poetry

'the bravest of the brave'

by Fran Lock

We will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces - PM Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference 2016

you could spit this distance. a night carved up along our
wounded latitudes. these, the deathbed territories: houses
you can wake at night with howling; weekends, when flags
mutate the gaptooth terraces. blue dufflecoat, spineless in
a sightline; a black lung, obliviously butterflied, small
matters. a pristine buckle of bone; the plump dependency
of children, milk teeth courting spores in yellow bedrooms.
you could spit this distance. the engine’s wheezing sync,
the armoured pig, the gun. your anti-language gratifies
itself. the blind eye keeps your worshipful company. all
laws in accordance with screeching. curfew. groping
sorceries. the tv screen, a white sail stretched tight by
light, not air. no one is there. a smile that spreads
like an infection; your hands sculpt the flesh of us from
silence. a body’s soft reckoning. you crouch in stairwells
like botanists. we are searched out, sampled, categories
of life. vexing scent of humankind. warren. open sewer.
running sore. subspecies. the trigger bristles with fingers.
flatblocks hum with it: picturesque demises, velvety
texture of mouths you smash like oysters, plumbing pearl.
fatigue, amplified, unfocussed. a church you crumple
like an egg box. conceal a solemn promise in fist. you
could spit this distance. in your vindictive livery. we have
nothing but a vagrant immortality; insinuating holiness,
a hope that stops just short. you name the slate, the dust.
you lure the earth to language. our culture is a bitten
tongue. young girls, knotting their hair like nylon ropes.
such deeds. and who will speak of them? it is an
antique zero you are counting on. the rust around
the hole. a boot prevails upon a bending back forever;
persuades a face to open in a failure to scream.

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