Does History repeat itself . . . . . .? In the past, heroes used to do the undoable to become the savior of their time. Today however humanity is at risk from a virus which is overshadowing the planet and killing many innocent people. Scientists are the heroes today, just as Arthur pulled the sword to get rid of this monster from our life. If science is making the vaccine, let's all have it for the common good.
Anthony Squiers reviews an astonishingly relevant production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, performed on Zoom by the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts School of Theatre & Dance, Texas Tech University
An Enemy of the People is one of Ibsen’s most famous works and one of the 19th century's most enduring pieces of political theatre. This new adaptation by Brad Birch performed at Texas Tech University under the directorship of Bill Gelber, a seasoned director and Brecht scholar, couldn’t have made its continued relevance clearer.
It is the story of Dr. Tom Stockmann (Steven Weatherbee) a man who attempts to use science and empirical evidence to prevent a potential public health disaster by reporting contaminated waters at the local spa baths. These efforts, however, are impeded by his brother, the mayor (Caleb Ranger Lowery) whose political and economic interests are threatened by this truth.
The public health crisis in the U.S.
The fact that this particular story is presented exactly at a time when the United States is suffering perhaps its worst public health crisis in history, and that this crisis is fueled by political interests who deny empirical evidence and scientific reasoning for their own benefit is an infuriating, grotesquely tragic amplifier of the play’s central themes, and served as an organizing principle of the production.
Recorded and then streamed via Zoom, the actors performed from separate locations at disparate times to maintain social distance, and appeared on screen individually, in their own windowpanes. Scenic cohesion was maintained through identical backdrops in each staging area and at times matching tables which created the appearance that they were in the same location. Indeed, the cast and technical team should be lauded for their efforts here. With only minor exceptions the players responded to each other with perfect timing and with exacting emotional intensity, reveal and gestures. Ranger Lowery and Laureen Karichu who played Hovstad, a journalist who tried to help Dr. Stockman make his findings public, were especially authentic in this regar,d rendering strong performances in a technically difficult situation. The result was an unorthodox theatre production which was nevertheless surprisingly easy to watch.
Furthermore, the show in some ways benefited from this pandemic-driven delivery method. While confronting the technical challenges of trying to present the appearance of scenic continuity while working with separate spaces, scene designer/prop master Grace Wohlschlegel opted for an exceedingly minimal aesthetic that had what might be termed a digital black box feel because of its simplicity — a desk or table, a typewriter, a handheld prop here and there, but little else. This was a remarkable level of humbleness and restraint which served the production immensely by forgoing pretence and letting the players use the text tell the story.
The Zoom delivery method also gave the production a voyeuristic tinge as if the audience was given a peek at the private lives of people tangled up in a political drama who just happened to forget to exit out of their last Zoom meeting. This gave the impression that the audience was penetrating the backstory of a politically relevant tale, without having to rely on the superficial treatment of such a story as filtered through the news media.
The economy or health?
But the real achievement of the production was the full-on embrace of the social reality that necessitated this type of delivery method in the first place by turning the pandemic into a permeating subtext of the visual representation. Accompanying the windowpanes of the performers were panels exhibiting mannequins seated in theatre rows and draped in cloths as if they were ghostly spectators, lifeless spectres in humanoid form who testified to the horrors of public health disasters — the potential disaster awaiting the town, in the play and the one lurking outside the audience’s doors. They were haunting, lingering reminders of what happens when public health is ignored for economic motives. The issue at hand (in both the play and the social ethos in which the viewers encountered it) is one of profit vs health. “Is the economy more important than people’s lives?” pondered Gelber, continuing “It really is economy or health, so we pushed that [theme].”
In the end, the production lands firmly on the side of health and its corollary scientific, empirical evidence-based knowledge. Dr. Stockman’s attempts to reveal the truth are met first with pseudo-scientific argumentation. When that fails, appeals to a false universalism are relied on, i.e. opening contaminated baths will be good for everybody. When this proves ineffective, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, and ideological appeals ensue. When these don’t work, the political elite embodied in the character of the mayor turn to economic coercion — persist and I will ruin you.
The truth, in the words of the mayor, is just “too expensive” to accept — too expensive for those who are financially invested in the baths. This idea of a truth too costly to speak was elevated through the censoring of the audio every time a character uttered what Dr. Stockman discovered about the bath’s water. The lines were obfuscated with auditory distortion and accompanied by a ‘technical difficulty’ message on the screen. The message was hidden until the very end when, having endured threats from his brother and faced with the prospect of financial devastation, Dr. Stockman refuses to capitulate. Agitated, desperate but still with conviction and fidelity to empirical observation, he screams his sharable truth: the waters are poisoned.
In this gesture, this final revelation, the audience is given hope of a world where science matters and profit and political expediency don’t outweigh public health and people’s lives. This hope took on further significance by encountering it the day after the spontaneous eruption of revelries all across the country celebrating the defeat of Donald Trump, a politician with a history of appeals to a false universalism, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, ideological fantasy, threats, attacks on science and the flaunting of public health to advance his own political fortune. In the show (as with the election results) one can just start to feel the slightest burgeoning sensations, faint reverberations of optimism.
With this production, Gelber and his cast and crew have delivered a resounding, socially relevant, politically salient success.
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, in a new adaptation by Brad Birch, directed by Bill Gelber, was delivered via Zoom by the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts School of Theatre & Dance, Texas Tech University.
Michael Jarvie reviews From the Plough to the Stars
Something remarkable happened a few years ago on social media and in those bastions of the bourgeoisie – The Guardian and BBC Radio 4. The middle-class gatekeepers suddenly realised there was a glaring deficiency in the UK publishing industry. We can express this deficiency in the following manner, by stating that it amounts to nothing less than the exclusion of working-class voices. For the avoidance of doubt, by ‘working-class voices’ we mean writers who are themselves working class, not middle-class writers whose subject is the working class.
Once the nature and scale of the problem had been identified, several initiatives were proposed to redress the balance. In 2019, Unbound published an anthology of working-class writing entitled Common People, edited by Kit de Waal. After the success of Common People, Unbound slated another book for publication entitled The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh. Like Common People, the aim was to include the work of established and so-called ‘emerging’ working-class writers. This procedure was not as straightforward as it might seem. One of the established authors scheduled for inclusion – Roddy Doyle – describes himself as having been brought up in a middle-class household. As we mentioned earlier, he is by definition one of those people who write about the working class even though they belong to the middle class.
This new collection from Culture Matters entitled From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell, has a more radical aim. Rather than trying to repair the faulty machinery of the publishing industry, it is a genuine attempt to build a new machine, one which specifically showcases the output of working-class writers. It builds upon the companion volume – The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, also edited by Jenny Farrell and published in 2019 by Culture Matters.
From the Plough to the Stars is a marvellously diverse collection that embraces fiction and non-fiction. Amongst the former, we find examples of flash fiction, short stories, poetry and drama. In terms of non-fiction – for which we prefer to use the more specific category of ‘life writing’ – it comprises blog pieces, diary extracts, memoirs and essays.
One of the themes explored in this volume is the devastating impact of COVID-19 on working-class communities. Attracta Fahy’s memoir ‘Mothering Through the Pandemic’ is narrated by a mother, concerned about the welfare of her son, who is working on the front line as an anaesthetist in a hospital in Los Angeles. As for lockdown, which has become a part of the fabric of all our lives, Rachel Hegarty’s ‘The Dodgy Box’ shows how one resourceful woman seeks to resolve the inevitable friction caused when families are confined to their homes. Hence the narrator is presented with no other option than to invest in an illegal set-top box to keep the family entertained with a wide variety of TV programmes during lockdown.
Maeve McKenna’s nostalgic memoir ‘I Want To Go Home’ demonstrates the verbal inventiveness of one of Rimbaud’s prose poems. It is the outpouring of someone who yearns for Dublin as a source of spiritual nourishment, despite no longer living in that city. Speaking of Dublin and linguistic fluency, there’s a direct homage to James Joyce’s short story ‘Eveline’ in Jim Ward’s similarly titled ‘Evelyn’. But where Joyce’s young woman was Irish, the Evelyn of this contemporary story is a Polish immigrant. As for the Irish language itself, there are several works which reflect on that topic, such as the fascinating scholarly memoir from Tomás Mac Síomóin – ‘A Ballyfermot Enigma!’ And for the reader proficient in Gaelic, there are a number of occasions where the authors have included both English and Irish versions of the same piece.
Direct political action also plays a significant role – especially in ‘Vigil in Support of Irish Water During Seanad Vote on Wednesday’ by Kevin Higgins. The same subject is covered in the delightful short story ‘They Also Serve Who Only…’ by Moya Roddy and in Kevin Doyle’s ‘The Water War’. ‘The 1970 Cement Strike’ by Seosamh ó Cuaig is a personal response to yet another industrial conflict.
Religious oppression is the subject of Patrick Bolger’s story of child sexual abuse, perpetrated by a member of the priesthood (‘Revelation’) and in Anne Water’s ‘St. Stephen’s Day’, with its tale of the notorious Magdalen laundries.
The Troubles, and the brutal oppression of the Irish Catholic population by the forces of English imperialism, are vividly brought home in Sean Maguire’s ‘Window Pain’, set in Belfast during the 1970s. Conflict, whether overt or repressed, is a common ingredient. There is, for instance, the dangerous life of the loan shark, as recounted in Edward Boyne’s short story ‘Local’, and the senseless violence that erupts in Karl Parkinson’s ‘Deano and the Boys From the Block’. Then there is Seamus Scanlon’s ‘On the House’ – a veritable tour de force of tragicomic dimensions, that grows darker and darker by the minute. Meanwhile, Anne Mac Darby-Beck’s ‘Sick Day’ is a tale of pent-up aggression lurking just below the surface.
Although drug addiction, abject poverty, illness and death are frequently dealt with, lighter themes are certainly not discounted. For example, Gráinne Daly’s piece ‘The Dublin-Meath Saga’ is devoted entirely to sport – in this particular instance Gaelic football. Woven side by side with this narrative of long-standing football rivalry is a story of possible familial reconciliation.
Given the wide-ranging topics and genres on display, there are even two works of science fiction in this anthology: ‘King of the Concrete Jungle’ by Ross Walsh and ‘Token House’ by David Murphy.
One can only scratch the surface in a brief review of this nature. Because of the sheer variety on offer, there is something here for everyone. From the Plough to the Stars is therefore a work that demands your attention.
From the Plough to the Stars is available here.
Razia Parveen reviews Arundhati's new book of essays
This is a hugely stimulating collection of nine essays of varying length which focus on issues related to the domestic and foreign politics and culture of the Indian subcontinent. Amongst the political ponderings, the world-renowned author explores the process of how the external world merges with the internal psyche for literature to occur. Arundhati Roy discusses the backdrop to her novel-writing and her increasingly powerful political essays, making it clear that both genres blend into one another, and that any supposed binary relationship between the two does not exist for her.
The first essay is from a 2018 lecture called ‘In what Language does Rain Fall over Tormented Cites?’ This was delivered at the W.G. Sebald Literary Translation event at the British Library. Although much of this essay focuses on the political situation in contemporary India, it also asks the question “which language should a non-English writer write in?”. Roy tells of interesting encounters she had while promoting her pioneering first novel The God of Small Things. The writer tells us how the colonial past still haunts the country today:
Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and delivered by Delhi, which for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole (p.11).
Critics of Roy have said traces of colonialism are there for the whole world to see within the writers of India today. Roy, however, sees her writing as a political act of challenging the postcolonial status quo.
The politics of writing and the writing of politics
These essays entwine the domestic politics of India with the art of writing, which she sees as an implicitly political act. This is a book essentially about culture: about the art of writing and how to write whilst living through times of political destruction. Roy has interwoven the personal and political spheres of human existence – a radical stance which also underpins her two great novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She states in the essay ‘Language of Literature’ that:
the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter (p.78).
The act of writing becomes a political one which cannot be separated from fiction, so literature and the political become irrevocably connected. One cannot survive without the other from her perspective. The great Marxist critic, John Berger, once said to her:
Your fiction and non-fiction, they walk you around the world like your two legs (p.79).
Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? Literature for everybody – including for people who couldn’t read and write, but had taught me how to think, and could be read to? (p.87)
Roy clearly sees her political writings as an important form of narrative which is firmly embedded in the heart of literature. In order to fully appreciate these essays, the reader would be advised to become familiar with her two novels:
I knew that if The God Of Small Things was about home with a broken heart in its mists, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness would begin after the roof had been blown of the home, and the broken heart had shattered and distributed its shards in war-torn valleys and city streets (p.88)
Roy uses her novels to amplify her political voice. She gives a voice to the voiceless – the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts of society surviving in the margins of the Asian sub-continent.
In the novels, Roy addresses the politics of the war-torn region of Kashmir:
The story of Kashmir is not the sum of its human rights report…For a writer Kashmir holds great lessons for the human substance. About power, powerlessness, treachery, loyalty, love, humour, faith. What happens to people who live under military occupation for decades? What happens to language? The narrative of Kashmir is a jigsaw puzzle whose jagged parts do not fit together. There is no final picture (p.89).
Geopolitical hotspots become Roy’s characters and are given voices. She not only inhabits these worlds but almost becomes them, through the process of character-building.
The architecture of Indian fascism
The next two essays, ‘The Silence is The Loudest sound’ and ‘Imitations of an Ending’, explore the dire situation in Kashmir and the rise of Hindu nationalism within the wider Indian state. The recent set of legislation surrounding citizenship known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are compared to the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1930s Germany. Roy informs the reader of the lives of people living under fascism and the BJP-inspired mob mentality daily. She chillingly writes that:
As the world looks on, the architecture of Indian fascism is quickly being put into place. (p.105)
By directly comparing Modi’s India to Hitler’s Germany, Roy not only jolts the attention of the reader, but also hands responsibility onto the reader to help avert another genocidal catastrophe. She is accusing Western powers of standing by as the Rome of secular India burns in the flames of sectarian hatred.
Roy recounts the case of a young man, falsely accused of a crime, who was murdered in broad daylight by a mob wielding sticks and axes:
The lynching of Tabrez Ansari illustrates just how deep the rot is. Lynching is a public performance of ritualized murder, in which a man or woman is killed to remind their community that it lives at the mercy of the mob. (p.122).
According to government records, lynching is becoming another pandemic in the country. The act of lynching demonstrates a terrifying balance between inclusion and exclusion of the mob and the community.
The smoking debris of Modi’s India
Why does Roy devote so much of her writings to explain in detail the politics of India? The reason which becomes clear is that her surroundings are the backdrop in her novels. Very much like nineteenth-century English writers such as Dickens and Gaskell, who depicted characters with a commentary on the Industrial Revolution, child poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, Roy creates novels out of the smoking debris of Modi’s India.
Another essay is the 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature which Roy delivered earlier this year. This essay is entitled ‘The Graveyard Talks Back’. It is where her second novel is situated and is also a pun on the influential 1980s study of colonialism, ‘The Empire Writes Back’. Roy discusses how the geography of space can shape a novel. She writes:
I have given about the place for literature in the times in which we live, and about the politics of language, both public and private. (p.151)
In this essay, she shines a light on the physical act of writing. She explains the importance of her view from the window:
Some writers may wish to shut the window or move to another room but I cannot so you will have to bear with me, because it is in this landscape that I hear my stove and store my pots and pans. It is here that I make my literature. (p.153)
In the rest of the essay, Roy describes what is happening on the ground in Kashmir, which is integral to the narrative of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy also explains in detail the caste system, which remains a hugely controversial aspect of Indian society:
The principles of equality, fraternity, or sorority are anathema to the caste system. It’s not hard to see that the idea of some human beings are inherently superior or inferior to others by divine mandate slides easily into the fascism of a master race. (p. 163)
Roy writes in this essay of how the internal and the external worlds of human experience are fundamentally connected:
We keep our complicated world, with all its seams exposed, alive in our writing (p.177)
She talks again of the many similarities of the European fascism in the 1930s to the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 21st century. In her final essay ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal’ Roy, is optimistic for the future, not only for India but the world. She writes powerfully of how:
Covid-19 has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could..…in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves (p.214).
Roy ends this collection on a note of hope or at least the possibility of hope for the post-pandemic future. By referring to this pandemic as a chance for us to ‘let go’ of:
The prejudices and the hatred our dead rivers and smoky skies..(and be)…ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (p214).
After all the despair and sadness discussed in this highly readable collection, Roy is refreshingly optimistic that a better world awaits us on the other side of the portal.
Karl Parkinson presents The People Died, published in his recent collection Sacred Symphony (Culture Matters)
The poem has been made into a video by poet and videographer Dave Lordan, and performed by myself. It's a danse macabre, an avant-garde videopoem for the 21st century that looks back on the poetic tradition, and to our present situation.
I received an Arts Council Covid-19 response award, to make spoken word video poetry for people during the pandemic, and this is one of the pieces I made. It was sparked off from listening to Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri, and with the phrase the people died running through my head, I went on a poetic run, adding more lines and extending the poem with relevant unpublished pieces I had, resulting in a ten page poem. Please share.
If you would like to read the text of this and other recent poems, you can buy Sacred Symphony here.
Theresa Easton, Northern Organiser for Artists' Union England, shows how the Covid crisis should be tackled by applying the principles of cultural democracy. The image above is by David Shrigley
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the cracks in the arts sector, which is supported by a freelance workforce that has few employment rights and protections. Many supplement their poorly paid freelance art practice with part-time jobs, zero-hour contract work and precarious, casual employment. Artists’ average annual income from their art is only around £6,000.
The lockdown resulted in all work being halted. Members of Artists’ Union England have reported that all exhibitions, projects, and commissions were abandoned, delayed indefinitely or cancelled. Government support packages excluded many artists – because so many artists are forced to seek other kinds of paid work, they fall outside the government’s categories for self-employment. So many artists have been forced to sign on to the pitifully inadequate Universal Credit scheme.
Arts Council England’s emergency financial support of £20 million for creatives turned into a lottery. Keep it Complex, an artist-run group of cultural workers described the response from ACE as ‘business as usual’, creating competition between cash-strapped freelancers in a time of crisis. Keep it Complex kicked back against ACE’s proposal, organising artists into syndicates, working collaboratively to share any winnings. AUE recently launched its Solidarity Fund to support those in financial hardship, supported by artists contributing some of the proceeds from sales of their work.
Overall support from government for freelance and self-employed artists has been inadequate, with many falling into debt, struggling to pay bills and worrying about the future.
The announcement of a ‘rescue package’ for arts, culture and heritage has been launched to much fanfare. Typically, comments from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about preserving the ‘crown jewels’ of the arts sector, along with similar statements from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, have revealed the limits of ministers’ understanding of the arts, and their inability to look beyond buildings and institutions.
There is only 7% grant support for freelancers to apply for, after larger institutions take their cut of the pie from an allocated grants budget of £880 million. Some of these institutions are currently making staff redundant while receiving handouts from government.
Tackling precarious employment in the arts
So what are the answers to this crisis? One suggestion from one of our members to tackle a long-standing problem was for more equity in spending between London and the rest of the country. The arts and culture are not funded adequately or fairly, and so have become irrelevant to many people’s lives – particularly outside London and in less well-off communities everywhere.
Trade unionists from Yorkshire and Humberside TUC have highlighted “the disparity of DCMS and Arts Council England funding, at £69 per head for Londoners and £4.58 per head for the rest of England”. Investment in the arts, they argue, should not be driven by economic considerations, but by its social benefits, and it should be accountable to local communities, not imposed on them.
We need to tackle precarious employment in the arts sector. A group of Northern based AUE members have been working on a charter of minimum standards of employment for visual arts freelancers working in the sector, which needs to be widely promoted and adopted by employers.
Work in the creative and cultural industries should be accessible and feasible for everyone. But there is plenty of evidence that the precarity of contract work, the informal networks of institutional gatekeepers, and discrimination on the basis of class and race make it harder for people from working-class and BAME communities to access and progress equally in the arts and culture sector.
Working-class voices and experiences are increasingly absent from the professional arts sector. The most recent official analysis of employment in the cultural sector finds only 13% working in the sector to be from working-class backgrounds. Social mobility in the arts, as in many other areas of British life, has stalled.
The fundamental problem is that years of cuts to local authorities, austerity, and ongoing privatisation have created a sector with an unsustainable, capitalist business model. It relies far too heavily on commercialisation, corporate sponsorship and market forces to fund people’s cultural experiences. But the arts and culture, like health and education, are just too important to be left to the market.
The pandemic has meant that institutions are struggling to cover building costs and management roles, while cutting the jobs of creative workers. And the reality is that apart from TV and cinemas, most people have limited access to the arts, both as consumers and as creative workers.
Shared ownership and control
So Covid-19 is also a chance for us all to rethink what kind of culture we want.
It's time to radically change the way that cultural provision is planned, managed and delivered. Democratic principles of shared ownership and control need to be applied.
We need a radical rebalancing of provision towards less well-off communities. Local authorities and communities need the funding and power to develop culture hubs which can stimulate and encourage local cultural production. We need democratic accountability of cultural institutions.
Finally, there needs to be close involvement of trade unions in the strategic planning and delivery of cultural experiences, so that working people, both as producers and consumers of culture, have fair access to all the benefits that the arts and culture can deliver.
Artists’ Union England is a relatively new trade union representing visual artists which emerged from the 2012 anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement. The trade union is a grassroots, members-led organisation campaigning for better working conditions, pay and equality in the arts sector. This article is the latest in the series of articles on Covid-19 and culture, jointly published with the Morning Star.
Adam Stoneman explains how the Covid crisis is an opportunity to share digital cultural experiences more freely. The image above is 'Hands', by Theresa Easton
Kneeling on Mount Alvernia in prayer, hands and feet freshly pierced with stigmata, St. Francis faces the apparition of Christ. Zoom in and you see his eyes fixed in stoic determination, lines of flesh in furrowed brow, a body transcending mortal pain. Zoom in further and spidery lines of cracked paint appear, flecked and damaged. Zoom in further still until shimmering waves of light disturb the vision; rows and rows of LEDs break the surface. Zoom out, blink and rub your eyes, sit back in your chair.
During the long days and nights of lockdown, many of us reached through our screens for culture, quenching our emotional and intellectual thirst in isolation. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions and tours (you can see St. Francis in glorious macrophotography as part of a virtual Van Eyck exhibition); theatres and opera houses streamed archive performances; JSTOR expanded free access; the Internet Archive created a National Emergency Library of free e-books. UNESCO, which launched a #ShareCulture campaign to promote online exhibitions of world heritage sites, proclaimed that culture must be “accessible to all, and that the full diversity of humanity’s cultural expressions can flourish, both online and offline.” The proliferation of initiatives like this during lockdown arose from a recognition of the important role that art plays in sustaining us and the universal right to culture.
Knowledge, art and culture held in common
Despite the limitations of experiencing certain forms of culture through digital interfaces, along with the individualised nature of online engagement, digital access to art is enriching. From the confines of our houses, access to performances, films and music was a lifeline to a world of ideas and emotions that helped to guard against the darkness of isolation. The sharing and free access to digital culture during the lockdown provided a glimpse of a future in which knowledge and art are shared freely and in common.
Throughout the first few months of the lockdown, most moves to extend free access to online culture were billed as temporary, ‘emergency’ measures in response to the crisis and most have since ended as institutions have opened up again. Emergency or not, copyright holders were not slow to act when they felt their intellectual property was being infringed. The Internet Archive’s free library of e-books was shut down after only a few weeks on threat of a lawsuit from publishers.
As with changes to remote working, the extension of access to digital culture is unlikely to disappear now that it has been established. Though the crisis has accelerated the trend, digitising and opening up collections had started long before the virus struck (Europeana, for example, is an online platform that hosts over 10 million cultural artefacts from 3,000 European institutions for educational and non-commercial use). The question is how expanded digital access can be integrated within a rehabilitated cultural sector. Facing a cultural industry ravaged by the virus, if not quite a “cultural wasteland”, institutions are under enormous pressure to increase revenue, and subscription and paywall models are already being trialled. The Met Opera in New York, which had streamed archive performances for free during lockdown, is now testing a pay per view model.
The success of Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - and other streaming platforms is held up as a model for emulation. But the commercial logic of algorithmically designed streaming services like Netflix and Spotify privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘binging’ and repeated playbacks and therefore trades better in mood and affect than intellectually demanding culture. At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.
It is clear the Covid-19 crisis will be used by corporate interests as an opportunity to further entrench the neoliberal privatisation of the cultural sector. The Southbank Centre recently announced plans to make 400 of its 577 staff redundant this week and when it reopens in 2021, to model itself on a start-up enterprise, with 90% of its spaces for rent and only 10% for art. While these moves must be resisted, there is the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding and democratise access to and participation in the arts. Indeed, this pandemic has helped arguments for a publicly funded cultural sector. The model of private arts funding dominant in the United States, in which institutions rely on philanthropy and earned income rather than government funding, has left cultural institutions especially vulnerable; the American Alliance of Museums reported to Congress in March that as many as a third of museums could fail to reopen their doors - compared with one in ten globally.
Reward the artists, not the shareholders
Rather than finding new ways of monetising digital culture, our recent collective experience of free online art can lead to fundamental questions about access and ownership. Copyright is usually framed in terms of the individual artist or author; in practice, copyright is typically ceded to publishers or studios, who exercise these powers and get most of the benefits, sharing only a small portion with the creator. It is usually publishers that lobby to increase copyright powers. Yet corporations spin and hide behind the image of the penurious artist to defend their extraordinary profit ratios. It is not illegal file sharing that has increased that has made the cultural sector so precarious, but a system which rewards the shareholders of Spotify while the company pays artists as little as $0.0032 per play.
The paradigm of free digital culture can challenge and expose the lie of neoliberalism. The internet has opened up new possibilities for cultural exchange, both in terms of sharing existing content and also finding platforms for one's own work that are not mediated by institutions or corporations. The persistent popularity of file sharing networks demonstrates a social desire to share and exchange culture; as filmmaker Shekhar Kapur quipped, "In India we see copyright as the right to copy".
Cultural producers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic cultural landscape is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. In France the system of financial support for artists and technicians, known as intermittents du spectacle, has just been extended into 2021, despite years of government attempts to end it (after one such attempt in 2003 actors and technicians went on strike, leading to the cancellation of a major festival in Avignon and sacking of the culture minister). The artists' unemployment insurance system, paid for by employers and workers' contributions, an artist or technician must work for a certain number of hours during high season to gain benefits for the fallow periods between intermittent contracts. Models such as this can be taken up by artists’ unions to shift the balance of power back towards artists and cultural producers.
Free access to digital culture need not threaten cultural producers; digital culture is not a replacement for the physical experience of art but complements and enhances it. Rather than build walls around online culture and knowledge, we must work on expanding free access. Let the harm of the pandemic spur us to build a society in which culture and knowledge are freely shared in common.
13th October 2040
I know it must be weird and more than slightly disturbing to receive a ‘letter from beyond the grave’, but I trust you won’t be seriously spooked by it, not after all those years as a hospital doctor like me and some of the strange, last-minute revelations we both got to hear from time to time. I’m writing because I have something to tell you which I’ve never spoken of to anyone else although it has been on my conscience for the past twenty years and I’ve been half-minded to tell you about it many times.
The whole thing will probably come as a bit of a shocker and I leave it to you whether or not to make the story more widely known. I still feel justified in what I did and hope that you’ll agree in thinking it was for the best, everything considered. You’ve been a great friend through various thicks and thins over the years and I hope – really hope – this won’t lead you to change your opinion of me or make you wish we’d never met.
I shall lay out the facts as ‘objectively’ as I can but will need to bring in some stuff about how my mind was working at the time in question and what sorts of moral consideration came into play. You took that ‘Medical Ethics’ course with me when we qualified back in the day so maybe the moral philosophy bits won’t seem quite so dry and unappealing. Some of it did strike us both that way at the time but the topics came back to me and really helped to clarify my thoughts during the short period – just a couple of days in 2020 – that I want to talk about here. Anyway my blessings on you, friend, and I sincerely hope that being singled out for receipt of this ghostly communication won’t prove too burdensome or curse-like a privilege.
They brought him in around 3 a.m. with lots of security and a flurry of medics and senior admin people, all trying to look calm and commanding on their home terrain, but constantly jostled by the bodyguards if they got too close. None of the usual signing-in stuff, the standard formalities or pleasantries. Straight off to Intensive Care it was, with me following on since that was my ward and we’d had advance notice that a ‘special patient’ was about to come in, someone with advanced symptoms and a severe lung infection.
I’d not thought any more about it – too many other cases to cope with, quite a few of them just as bad – until he actually turned up and I realised who it was. No mistaking him then, even looking like that, clearly in a very bad way, what with constantly fighting to breathe and the wild, frightened eyes of someone who’s been in denial for days but now knows it’s for real. For the rest of that night-shift I just got on with it, looked in on him twice but had more to do with the other patients. Besides, they seemed to have drafted in a small team of unfamiliar medical staff, specially trained maybe, who were always in and out of his side-room. Just as well – us regulars had our hands more than full.
This was all twenty years ago and I don’t now have any detailed memory of what happened over the next two days, or exactly what stages my thinking went through before I reached my decision. There was one conversation I do recall having in the hospital canteen during the evening after the night of his admission. It was with two friends, both nurses, one male and one female, and they were talking about a bunch of related topics – the pandemic, the NHS as it then was, the government cutbacks, their likely effect on our ability to cope with the crisis, that sort of thing.
I started off just lending half an ear and thinking more about how tired I felt, having slept very patchily during the day and not made up for several days’ cumulative deficit. What drew me in was their brief but lively discussion of where the blame lay, how ‘he’ – the guy lying upstairs in our ward with all those tubes and pipes and monitors attached, all those doctors and nurses looking after him – was one of those Tories who had hugely worsened this crisis, who’d cut public spending to the bone, privatised whole chunks of the NHS, flogged them off to their fat-cat friends, and were even then planning to cut a huge deal with US Big Pharma. Their talk stopped there, with both of them expressing their anger but not drawing conclusions, not suggesting there was anything we could do. . . . I had to go back on my rounds then but the talk had set me thinking and I needed more time to sort my thoughts out.
I’d next be working on Intensive Care the following night and one of my assignments given the shortage of staff was to check his oxygen levels, make sure his respiration wasn’t too spasmodic or effortful, and run all the usual measurements – pulse, temperature, and so forth. It was routine stuff, if anything could really be called ‘routine’ in those crazy times, but of course we were all very aware of those jumpy-looking security people and there was no pretending, management pretences aside, that he was Joe Public and to be treated on a par with everyone else.
Maybe that’s what first really got to me, the sense of how unjust it was, how monstrous, that a man like that, a creature of wealth and privilege who’d done such harm to the country and would soon very likely go on to do a whole lot more, should now have this ultra-special treatment while thousands of others fought for their lives in hospitals, homes and social conditions severely impacted by policies like his. And then I thought, or the thought came to me: what had I learnt from those few classes in medical ethics that we went through as part of our training? Is the issue quite as clear as surely it ought to be if the Hippocratic Oath has the kind of straightforward, unambiguous force it’s meant to have, according to longstanding tradition and present-day orthodoxy?
I slept intermittently the next day, waking up each time with a sense that I’d been churning things over in my sleep, coming up against the barrier of something unthinkable, and jolting awake with the urgent desire to sort myself out. I remembered enough of the medical ethics stuff to know pretty much what the big questions were and what kinds of answer they’d received from people who appeared to have a good grasp of them. There was the debate around ‘causing death and letting die’, the difference (which most people think is a real one) between actively or deliberately killing somebody and omitting to save his or her life, whether through negligence or refusal to intervene. That’s ‘most people’ in a broad sense, by the way, not ‘most philosophers’ or ‘most people who’ve done a few classes in medical ethics’. They often got into a bit of trouble when asked to justify their view but the intuition ran deep and there were arguments to support it.
I thought: would letting this man die be morally unacceptable given how much harm he has done to so many lives, not to mention how many people have died during the pandemic as a result of his incompetence, indolence, arrogance, and downright wickedness? And given the prospect of his otherwise surviving, remaining in office and inflicting future harm on even greater scale? The more I thought about it the less monstrous it seemed, the idea of (as orthodoxy would have it) betraying my medical vocation, my professional duty, and indeed the basic principles of right conduct enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath.
But then: might there not be another, more specific reason for believing that Oath to have more than one interpretation and for thinking that it could – on a longer, larger, you might say more socially responsible view – suggest a very different view of things? Again, I kept running through the arguments and counter-arguments and kept coming up against the same obstacle. On the one hand I couldn’t overcome the feeling that failure of care toward any patient – for that matter, any human individual whose well-being or very survival depended on it – must be morally as well as, in my case, professionally and legally wrong. That means a strict, no-exception understanding of the Oath and a belief that acts of omission are morally as culpable as – or fully on a par with – acts of commission whenever those acts knowingly entail or might foreseeably cause harm to another person.
On the other hand the person in question here was one whose future life, if his record to date was anything to go by, would be spent doing harm to a great many people in a great many ways, among them people placed in his own desperately needful situation but enjoying nothing like his advantages of power, wealth, and unearned social privilege. On this view the Oath could be justifiably be taken to allow for the sort of case where a medical worker in my position reviewed his choices, consulted his conscience, and decided that an act of omission – involving, say, the patient’s breathing apparatus or some other vital arrangement – was morally in order. It took me many hours of concentrated, sometimes agonised conscience-searching to work myself around from the first to the second way of thinking.
Another thing I learned from that medical ethics class was the difference between deontic and consequentialist accounts of moral responsibility. The deontic view, simply stated, is that there exist certain absolute moral imperatives, that they have to do with unconditional rights and wrongs, that they are strictly universal (hold good across all situations, cultures, or belief-systems), and that departures from them admit of no exculpatory factors, such as pleas in mitigation or extenuating circumstances. This position tends to go along with an abstractly high-minded morality and a punitive attitude in matters of legal or judicial practice. This follows from the fact that deontic ethics makes the reasoning individual and his or her conscience, motives or deliberations the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. It leaves them without any recourse beyond that universalist tribunal, no leeway to claim ‘I did it for the greater good, even though it involved an acknowledged lesser harm and even if that harm would count as grievous on a deontic account’.
The other main approach – flatly opposed in most ways – is the consequentialist view whereby motives will (indeed must) come into it although what really matter are the consequences of an action, its outcome in terms of overall benefits to those concerned, or those whose lives would be adversely affected by the agent’s choice not having gone that way. If anything, this puts greater strain on the agent’s conscience or their effort to think through a complex situation because they can’t fall back on the routine application of pre-existing rules. But it allows them scope to steer a conscientious way around the deontic call for actions or choices that might be so rule-bound, counter-intuitive, or repugnant as to leave them feeling utterly revolted by their own ‘principled’ conduct.
This is all very heavy and not what you’d expect from me, even in a letter written, as I hate to say (such a cliché, for one thing) ‘at death’s door’. But it’s stuff we both heard about and then promptly forgot, me at least, since on the whole – in the normal run of cases – we had few choices but got on and did our jobs the best we could do and left hard cases to the guys on the ethics committee, or (more often than most people realise) to medics and relatives in an urgent huddle over some poor suffering soul. But then it all came back, that ethics stuff, when I found myself faced with a real choice and one that left behind any rule-book, moral or professional, for dealing with hard cases. I’ve said how my thinking went in that terrible time and you’ll certainly have figured out by now which way I decided. Still I’d better be a bit more explicit about it in case the choice I made might appear too quick or straightforward.
I didn’t want to fall back on the idea that omissions are less blameworthy than commissions since I took full responsibility for not performing certain of my professionally and (on the narrow view) ethical responsibilities. To pretend otherwise would be to shuffle off any burden of guilt by effectively declaring myself not fully accountable for my action and hence unfit to exercise any kind of genuine moral agency. No: my omission was a full-fledged commission and subject to no such get-out clause. Where I did part company with what many people would no doubt think my plain moral obligation was with regard to both the interpretative scope of the Hippocratic Oath and – closely related to that – the deontic versus consequentialist debate.
They are related because the Oath is mostly read, in broadly deontic terms, as addressed to the individual doctor’s or medical worker’s conscience and as bearing primarily on their obligation to the patient, likewise conceived as an individual bearer of certain strictly inalienable rights. I agree with this view in so far as it applies to persons as persons, that is, as individuals conceived quite distinct from certain roles they may play in contexts – like that of politics – where their beliefs, policies, and actions can have consequences far beyond the private-personal-individual sphere. Shifting from one perspective to the other entails some large changes of moral reckoning, among them the shift from a strongly individualist or person-centred to a longer-range, more socially responsive and collectivist view.
Along with that goes a much greater emphasis on the weighing-up of bad against good consequences, a process that has the beneficial effect of bringing us rapidly down to earth from the abstract universals of deontic precept. In simpler terms: when times are bad or perilous, as they were twenty years ago when all this happened, then it may be commendable to act on the maxim ‘do whatever serves to create the best outcome or cause least suffering to the greatest number’. This might entail an action at odds with some more specific rule, such as ‘act always in the interests of the patient and, above all, for the preservation of his or her life’. Then the consequentialist is entitled to reply ‘but that precept may be suspended or overridden if the result of its strict application is to bring about the kinds of larger-scale social or collective harm that will, very likely, follow from its being applied without reference to context or consequences. And there is another point here about the agent’s motives and the conception of justice they involve. For it is in no sense a retributivist conception, one that conceives the act as a right and proper punishment, whether exacted by the agent as self-appointed minister or carried out in their (again self-appointed) role as instrument of justice in its social or communal form. Rather, the act is performed purely for the sake of averting bad – humanly undesirable – consequences, and not out of any hankering for retribution, for payback time, or any such punitive aim.
Of course my assessment of the situation took account of the man’s character, his many amply documented vices and weaknesses, as well as his proven record of incompetence in office and the effect of an Eton-Oxford education in bolstering his native arrogance and strongly marked sociopathic traits. After all those considerations had a lot to do with the case – the strictly consequentialist case – for what had by now become something very like a fixed intention to act according to my new-found ethical lights. But, equally important, they didn’t involve any idea of his having deserved such treatment at my hands, or his having behaved in such a way that punishment of this sort is justified. Consequentialism applies more than anywhere in the context of political judgement since here we are concerned with the consequences for better or worse in a great many lives when individual politicians with great power in their hands enact policies that impinge directly on those lives.
So you can’t exclude assessments of moral character from a consequentialist reckoning but you can – and must – be absolutely clear that any practical conclusions arrived at have nothing to do with just desert, retribution, or other such punitive concepts. I won’t pretend that all this reasoning went through my mind during those incredibly stressful and often, to be honest, horribly confusing times. I’m doing a sort of rational reconstruction, arranging my thoughts so far as I recall them into something like an ordered sequence. But of one thing I’m certain: that I somehow made the journey from thinking it monstrous, that idea of mine, to thinking it not just compatible with but actually required by my ethical and professional commitments.
I know it’s the biggest of asks to send you this letter now, when I’m safely beyond worrying, and leave you stuck with the decision whether or not to make the facts public. Believe me, you’re the only person I could possibly have trusted to take it on, both on account of our shared medical background and our friendship having held up so strongly over the years. Besides, there were times after the event when we talked about related matters – politics, ethics, social justice, and of course the NHS, still there now in more than name despite all those decades of chipping away by Tories, fat cats, Branson-style carpetbaggers, assorted rippers-off and US Big Pharma.
Once or twice I almost let slip what had happened, or perhaps did let it slip when the drinks had loosened my tongue and slightly befuddled your brain. Perhaps it won’t come as such a huge surprise or shock after all. Let me say, in case you’re wondering: I do feel regret that it fell to me, at that time and in that situation, to make the choice that has since weighed heavily upon me and occasioned many moments of painful, even guilty recollection. But let me also say that when I manage to focus and think things through once again, as I did during those extraordinary days, then the regret comes apart from the guilt and my conscience arrives at the same conclusion.
Goodbye, my old friend.
Jenny Farrell gives the historical background to Boccaccio's work
The Black Plague was the most devastating pandemic ever recorded, resulting in the deaths of between 75-125 million people. It peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, having come on Italian merchant ships from Asia via the Silk Road. In fact, the idea of quarantine originates in plague-stricken 14th century Italy, when ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to wait offshore for 40 days before docking. The word quarantine derives from the Italian quaranta giorni, 40 days.
The Italian territories were the cradle of early capitalism. Lombardy and Tuscany were the most advanced cities. Trade and industry developed here in the 13th century, favoured by their trade routes to the Orient. Venice had possessions in Greece, Crete, Cyprus and on the Dalmatian coast. Venetian ships called at European ports, and Venetian ducats became an international currency. With 200,000 inhabitants, the city had a surprisingly large population.
The social order of the Venetian state was determined by its economic interests and the nobility, so its constitution remained aristocratic. This was different in Florence, the second most powerful city in Italy. Florence had a constitution since 1293, which excluded the nobility from the government and transferred its administration exclusively to the patricians. Its council, however, excluded small craftsmen and the common people. At that time, Florence was unique in Europe for a constitution based on bourgeois democratic principles.
This newly developing society brought with great changes in the way people understood the world and their place in it. In the arts, the humanists of this early Renaissance began to rediscover the books and art of the ancients, their focus on this world, the world that the new class, the bourgeoisie, were about to take on. This new focus on the merchants, artisans, patricians brought with it the growing importance of their vernacular. Dante (c. 1265 – 1321), who represents the transition from medieval to Renaissance writing, penned his “Divine Comedy” (1308–21) not in Latin, as might have been expected of a work of this scope at the time, but in Tuscan or Florentine Italian, which helped make that dialect the standard one for Italy. Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375), following Dante, are firmly established Renaissance writers, both of them also writing in the Florentine dialect.
Writing during the Plague
Boccaccio witnessed these momentous times and gave the world one of its most well-known and widely read books, “The Decameron”. This is a book written and set during the Plague and its introduction and frame story bring it to life. Given the present circumstances, I’ll refrain from delving into the gruesome details of Boccaccio’s introduction, but leave this to the interested reader to do for themselves.
The idea of a great many stories collected within a frame story was not altogether new. Centuries earlier, the Middle East had produced “One Thousand and One Nights” (in Arabic alf layla wa layla), the earliest manuscripts of which date back to the 9th century. These reflect a different kind of society, a feudal society, and yet they do this with as much vividness and cheekiness as Boccaccio would describe his world. The Persian poet Hafez (1315-1390), on the other hand, wrote satirical and love poetry that finds a parallel in Petrarca.
Boccaccio’s frame story goes like this: ten wealthy young people leave Florence in order to escape the plague, moving to a country villa, not without with some servants. They decide that they shall each rule for a day and preside over a set time every afternoon, when each one tells a story on a different theme. What unfolds is a panorama of 14th century Florentine life, with some of the stories told originating in different cultures. With Dante’s Divine Comedy in mind, Boccaccio’s has been called a Human Comedy. Many of the stories satirise clerical lust and greed, the adventures of traveling merchants – and their wives at home, tensions between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families. Quite a few of the stories are explicitly sexual. However, while this doubtlessly contributed to the book’s enormous popularity, it would be wrong to reduce the book to just its sexual theme.
In fact, it became a rich source for writers of world literature. One example is the third story of the first day, a story with origins preceding Boccaccio. The great German Enlightenment poet Lessing discovered the story and based his famous play “Nathan the Wise” on it. This play about the equal value of all religions and cultures was the first play staged in many German theatres after World War II.
The fifth story on the fourth day is the source for Keats’s poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”, a poem about which Shaw said that had Marx written a poem instead of Capital, it would have been this.
All this said, it does not do the work justice either to simply view it as a repository. In fact, the way in which it was most richly emulated was by Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer had visited Italy on royal business and was very well read. His marvellous Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, take from Boccaccio the idea of a frame story – the ride from London to Canterbury with thirty pilgrims telling stories to pass the time. Indeed, they are similar in their often bawdy content and satire of the clergy.
Canterbury Pilgrims, by William Blake
Yet there is a difference. Chaucer’s pilgrims come from three distinct classes of society (the nobility, the clergy and the common people), and all are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual concerns. Had Chaucer completed this project of thirty pilgrims telling two stories each on the way to Canterbury and two again on the way back, we would now have 120 stories. It was a very ambitious project, one Chaucer could not complete. He finished 24 of them, and others have come down in fragments. Nevertheless, the tales we do have paint a similarly vivid picture of 14th century England as Boccaccio’s do of Florence. And while it took the plague to unite the young Florentines in their country refuge, here it is the pilgrimage that unites these diverse English to be in the same place at the same time.
Writing in the language of the people
Chaucer’s plan differs from Boccaccio’s also in that the prologues to the tales characterise the teller of the story in detail, in particular linguistically. As pointed out, these come from the spectrum of classes in medieval England. For example, the Wife of Bath uses only Germanic adjectives, while the Prioress uses mainly adjectives with a French etymology, reflecting on the one hand a person from the ordinary people, on the other a woman from a noble background.
Like Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, Chaucer wrote his masterpiece in the vernacular. It is hard to imagine today just what a new departure this represented. For over 300 years, since the Norman invasion of 1066, English had not been spoken by the nobility, the upper classes in England. English, specifically Anglo-Saxon, was kept alive by the common people of England as their vernacular. Given that this was no longer a language of education, reading, etc, the English language developed like wildfire over the historically very short period of 300 years into Middle English, a form of the language that we can still understand, with some effort.
The “Canterbury Tales” is the first great work of English literature, establishing the artistic legitimacy of vernacular Middle English, as opposed to French or Latin. At around the same time, John Wycliffe, a very early religious reformer, translated the Bible into vernacular English (1384). This challenge to Latin as the language of God was considered a revolutionary act at the time, and the Church banned the translation. Access to the Bible in the vernacular was key to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, where one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon: “When Adam delved and Eva span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.”
The vernacular was crucial for social change. Using it meant identifying with the people, it meant standing up to an elitist and exclusive ruling class and empowering the people to understand the injustice of their situation, thus giving them a prospect for change. This use of the language of the people, which the Renaissance brings us, is deeply connected with the struggle for a new era.
Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore
History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?
However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.
For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.
As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.
Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.
Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'
We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.
Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.
It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.
Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:
So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening
under wings, the noise of discord
clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea,
its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.
In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it.
As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.
Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.