A Blakean Radical: R.I.P. Niall McDevitt, poet  22 February 1967-29 September 2022
Friday, 14 June 2024 06:52

A Blakean Radical: R.I.P. Niall McDevitt, poet 22 February 1967-29 September 2022

Published in Poetry

Almost incomprehensibly, radical poet, psychogeographer, poetry historian, activist, visionary and devout Blakean, Niall McDevitt, passed away on Thursday 29 September 2022 at just 55 years of age.

I had the privilege to have met Niall on several occasions over the years, I always invited him to read at any book launches or readings I did in London, a city whose rich literary and artistic history he came to be an expert on and something of a psychical curator through his legendary literary walks. Niall was also an indefatigable campaigner for the preservation of literary sites, including the Rimbaud/Verlaine House at 8 Royal College Street, and the Bunhill Fields graves of Blake and Daniel Defoe.

A self-described flaneur, anarchist, and republican, Niall was unafraid of ruffling feathered nests and throwing down gauntlets before establishments of all kinds. His poetry was richly figurative, deeply polemical; it had Symbolist aspects, and often incorporated pidgin, portmanteaus (‘luxembourgeois’, one of my favourites) and linguistic experimentation reminiscent of such diverse poets as Arthur Rimbaud, DH Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, ee cummings, and Allen Ginsberg.

Niall managed in his poetry to merge the historical and contemporary in an almost mystical, shamanic alchemy. This mystical aspect was Niall's own particular Blakean spark, his having been a lifelong admirer, champion and, one might almost say, poet-apostle of Blake, grasping the immanence and sempiternal qualities of his timeless poetry.

There was something mediumistic about how Niall spoke and wrote about Blake, almost as if he actually, somehow, knew him personally, or at least on a spiritual plane. When I mentioned to him in an email of my move from Brighton to Bognor Regis in 2016, he wrote 'you'll be nearer to Blake now', referring to Blake’s Cottage in nearby Felpham. That was the setting of my penultimate encounter with Niall for his talk and reading during the 2018 Blakefest.

Where I felt a commonality was in our serendipitous dovetailing on themes such as the impecuniousness of poetic occupation and unemployment—his poems ‘Ode to the Dole’ and ‘George Orwell Is Following Me’ (which he performed to the accompaniment of his drum) were staples of his repertoire. Our approaches were very different, but our sentiments chimed. There were sometimes vocabular crossovers in our verses—terms like ‘thaumaturge’, ‘colportage’, ‘grimoire’, ‘tetragrammaton’, ‘euergetism'—almost like poetic telepathies.

Niall’s self-described ‘anti-Tory poetry collection’ and testament to the early austerity years, Porterloo (International Times, 2012), was a satirical masterwork, which I reviewed in detail in 2014 in a three-part monograph on The Recusant titled ‘Illusion & Austerity’. I made sure to include Niall in all three Caparison anti-austerity anthologies: Emergency Verse (2011), The Robin Hood Book (2012) and The Brown Envelope Book (2021). I recall, too, after wrapping up the launch of Emergency Verse at the National Poetry Library in early 2011, Niall spontaneously presenting me with a Blake print in recognition for having put the anthology together.

The last time I saw Niall was at Bognor Blakefest in 2019—it was fairly fleeting, as on most other occasions, an affectionate half-hug or light part on one another's shoulders, and polite exchange of words. A softly spoken Irishman, there was something unassuming about him when one spoke to him up close, which seemed in contrast to his always impressive performance persona.

Niall was a poet who really did live poetry, not only through his prolific readings and performances, but also through the posthumous poetries of those he most admired and championed: Blake, Swedenborg, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Swinburne, W.B. Yeats, David Gascoyne, John Ashbery. Niall was also a champion of close poet-compatriots Heathcote Williams, Michael Horovitz, and Jeremy Reed.

It’s heartening to reflect on the wide and diverse dissemination of Niall’s poetry through numerous imprints and auspices: Waterloo Press (for his debut collection b/w), the aforementioned International Times, the avant garde New River Press (Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage) and Ragged Lion Press (Free Poetry Series #1. Albion), the prestigious Blackwell’s Poetry series (No. 1), articles and poems in the Morning Star, The London Magazine, and many other journals, even History Today (a fascinating scholarly piece on Blake and Thomas Paine), and his engrossing blogsite Poetopography. In many ways dissemination via pamphlet was fitting for Niall’s spirit of colportage, as well as suiting his innate anti-establishment and anarchist sensibilities.

Niall had a prodigious track record of radio appearances, video documentaries (a significant archive on Youtube), and street theatre—having performed alongside such luminaries as Ken Campbell, Michael Horovitz, Iain Sinclair and Yoko Ono. Had the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia (1977-80)—of which his late associate Heathcote Williams had been Ambassador—retained its sovereignty into Niall’s time in London, he would undoubtedly have been its poet laureate.

There were aspects of the poète maudit to Niall but his gregarious Muse kept him at the centre of a community of poets, writers and artists. Niall's trademark chalk-striped suits always seemed a sartorially ironic anti-complement to his demonstrable bohemianism but then they were often combined with gold-coloured trainers.

An irreplaceable presence in contemporary literary culture, Niall’s spirit will live on through his exceptional poetry, his prodigious contribution to a countercultural poetry narrative, and in the certainty that there will be many of us who will wish to ensure his legacy is kept alive just as he helped keep alive the posthumous reputations of so many past poets and writers.

Niall is survived by his mother Frances, his brother Roddy, his sister Yvonne, his partner Julie, and her son Heathcote.

Alan Morrison

Niall McDevitt’s new and final collection, London Nation, is now available from New River Press (www.thenewriverpress.com).

This obituary has previously appeared on The Recusant, and in the Morning Star 11 Oct 2022.




The Proletarianization Of The Bourgeoisie

By Niall McDevitt

Regularly, in the newspeak of the class-ridden state,
we’re informed of an all-encompassing sociological theory:
‘The Bourgeoisification of the Proletariat’
i.e. how the galley-slaves these days are happy as Larry,
weighed down with swag, Marx-free, nay, at long last
‘indistinguishable’ from their middle-class betters
and how all we have to worry about’s the underclass
of crims, sluts, schizos, beggars, junkies, poets etc.

Yet all I see’s the proletarianization of the bourgeois,
media-brainwashed and work-programmed boot-licks
into computer games, suntans, tracksuits, soap operas,
office parties with strippergrams, cakes like chocolate dicks.
Codes of etiquette are those of the ‘tough’ not the ‘toff’
and stats show they increasingly resort to violence:
headbutting, glassing, biting people’s earlobes off.
They too are being successfully schooled in the new science.


George Orwell Is Following Me

By Niall McDevitt

in the moon under water 
he’s slumped at my table with a bargain bitter
heavily disguised as a member of the proletariat

george orwell is invigilating my existence
in the bleak streets and bombsites
I feel the force of his eyes
from where he stands tall thin intent as a surveillance camera

george orwell is insidious and ubiquitous
in one of the bookshops of obfuscation
he was stocktaking on a metallic ladder
false moustache (over his own tory anarchist moustache)

orwell is always busy on the next bowl
of the public urinals
sniffing his piss-steam with scientific disgust
and debating the merits of the henry millers

the most remarkable people turn out to be orwells
I threw a couple of twopenny coins
to an old etonian in a cardboard box
who said: ‘what do you do in this shithole with five pence?’

at night when I’ve made it to my safehouse
again the whirring of lenses
and he’s standing over my bed with a birch
keeping me awake (i.e. protecting me from sleep)

george orwell is following me 
in the wetherspoons boozer
he’s slumped at my table with a bargain bitter
heavily disguised as a member of the underclass
Both poems are from Niall's debut poetry collection b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010). 
The Beatle, the Bankie and the Bouquet
Friday, 14 June 2024 06:52

The Beatle, the Bankie and the Bouquet

Published in Music

Chris McGachy uncovers the full story behind Lennon’s donation to the workers as he transformed from affable moptop to militant activist following the breakup of The Beatles.

50 years ago – in the summer of 1971 – John Lennon was putting the final studio touches to his global anthem, Imagine. At the same time the Government announced the imminent collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. Within weeks defiant workers had seized control of the yards.

'Killed by capitalism': The UCS Work-in

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ (UCS) stunning victory against Ted Heath’s Tory government in early 1972 has become the stuff of political legend. It was a time when ordinary workers and communities united in solidarity to demand the right and dignity to work.

With mass redundancies already on the cards, UCS shop stewards led by Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie knew conventional strike action would not win this battle. Their ingenious idea was for the workforce to take control of the yards and continue to produce the ships for which the River Clyde yards had become world-famous.

On 30 July 1971, the famous work-in began with 8,000 men seizing control of four giant shipyards on the Clyde. Heath’s Tory government had come to power in 1970 refusing to prop up ‘lame ducks’. Cashflow issues at the Clyde yards early in 1971 had caused panic among creditors.

When Parliament heard on 29 July 1971 that liquidation was the only option, Clydebank was described as a town in mourning.

A devastated Jimmy Reid was haunted by memories of the 1930s, when three of his sisters died in infancy. It led to his scathing accusation they were ‘killed by capitalism’. That memory propelled Reid to life as a communist activist.

Perhaps the most famous supporters of the UCS were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who sent red roses and a huge financial donation to support the workers struggling to keep Clyde shipbuilding – and their communities – alive.

From moptop to militant

On 25 November 1969, John Lennon visited his Aunt Mimi's bungalow in Bournemouth where he removed his MBE medal from her mantelpiece. Back in London, he dispatched his chauffeur with the medal to return it Buckingham Palace, in protest in Britain’s involvement in the Nigerian civil war and its support for the US in Vietnam.

It was one of many stunts Lennon and new wife Yoko devised as he stepped away from the lovable moptop Beatle and transformed himself into a celebrity activist with global appeal.

Lennon was liberated by the sudden death of stuffy, conformist manager Brian Epstein, and fired with radicalism through his burgeoning romance with Yoko Ono. He grabbed the chance to escape the claustrophobic rollercoaster of Beatlemania and touring.

John had a unique ability to compose global anthems, beginning with All You Need Is Love and then Give Peace a Chance. His songbook was adopted by peace campaigners and football fans alike.

Signs of a more political phase were also seen in his track, Revolution, and by publicity stunts such as a honeymoon ‘bed-in’ for peace reported by the world’s press to a global following. These successful publicity campaigns spurred John and Yoko to develop their radical agenda, assured of worldwide media coverage.

Lennon’s first solo album, including the track Working Class Hero, sealed the transformation. It was brutal and bleak, personal and political.

Power to the People

 Since Revolution and the creation of Apple, Lennon had been forced to defend himself against criticism from left-wing radicals who viewed him as a capitalist sell-out. In January 1971 he invited Red Mole editors Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn to his mansion for an interview.

It was Red Mole’s coverage of the UCS dispute which sparked Lennon’s interest in the Clydeside workers.

The next morning Lennon went into the studio and recorded a new political anthem: Power to the People.

Donation fuels worldwide solidarity

 Lennon’s subsequent donation to the UCS fighting fund helped propel the local struggle to a sympathetic international audience.

Yard stewards – mainly Communists – tapped into widespread national support from workers, unions, suppliers, local traders, councillors, politicians, community and religious leaders – even creditors, and the liquidator himself.

A day after Lennon started work on his new album, Imagine, on 23 June 1971 around 100,000 Scottish workers downed their tools in solidarity with the UCS workers.

It was followed up the same week as the donation, with another half-day walk-out on 12 August by 200,000 workers – the largest Glasgow demo since the 1926 General Strike.

The joint stewards persuaded a mass meeting to reject a divisive government offer to save just two of the four yards. The workers held firm and completed a dozen ships before the government capitulated in February 1972.

Having originally refused a £6 million loan, Heath’s government agreed to invest £35 million to keep all four shipyards afloat, with only voluntary redundancies. Two continue to this day.

A spokesperson for revolution

It had generally been assumed that John and Yoko became aware of the dispute through television news reports.

But in his updated autobiography (Streetfighting Years), Lennon interviewer, Tariq Ali, revealed that it was his publication Red Mole which brought the UCS to the couple's attention.

UCS 2 it was red moles coverage

In his interview for the newspaper John explained that through his latest musical material he was trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image. The ex-Beatle confirmed he wanted to transform himself into a serious spokesperson for the revolutionary movement.

“I want to get through to the right people, and I want to make what I have to say very simple and direct,” he insisted to Red Mole. “I've always been politically minded…and against the status quo.”

Imagine a bunch of red, red roses

In the first week of July 1971 – as Lennon flew to New York to complete Imagine with producer Phil Spector – Red Mole published a special issue dedicated to the Clydeside dispute.

Recalling the events of the summer of 1971, Tariq Ali explained how the UCS story in Red Mole had caught Lennon’s attention: “Our cover was a reprint of a 19th century caricature of a fat, ugly, bloated capitalist confronting a strong, handsome and noble-looking worker. He loved that cover more than the convoluted articles on the inside and later showed it to Phil Spector and others at Tittenhurst.”

UCS 3 Recalling the events

Undoubtedly inspired by the Red Mole cover and workers seizing control of the yards, on the 9 August John and Yoko sent a bunch of red roses which were delivered to the gate of John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. At the same time a cheque for £1,000 (worth around 15,000 today) was sent to the unions’ fighting fund.

Underlining his solidarity with the workers and their tactics, the dedication card repeated the lyric from his recent hit: “POWER TO THE PEOPLE with love from JOHN AND YOKO, AUGUST 9th 1971.”

By the end of the August, John and Yoko had flown to New York to take up permanent residence, in order to secure custody of Yoko’s daughter. He would never again set foot in England.

The dedication card became a rare and valued souvenir from this world-famous event sent by the superstar couple. Jimmy Cloughley was an engineer who was on the co-ordinating committee of the work-in. For many years this collectors’ item lay boxed among Jimmy’s papers along with his audio recordings of meetings, photographs and press reports.

UCS 4 with many of those

With many of those involved either elderly or passed away, a 30th anniversary exhibition was hosted in 2002. Jimmy Cloughley donated his personal papers, including John and Yoko’s dedication card, to a special UCS archive curated by Glasgow Caledonian University, where it remains to this day.

Working-class heroes

Recalling his deep connection with Lennon, Tariq said: “He wanted to leave Britain because he and Yoko were repulsed by its provincialism and by the tenor of tabloid racism that was directed against her. I last spoke with him in 1979 when we discussed the likely impact of Thatcher's victory. He didn't sound too unradical in that conversation,” Tariq tellingly recalls.  

“Clearly, his views changed somewhat but I can't see him as a neo-con supporting the wars and occupations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. The loss of his voice was a tragedy for millions.”

And in this world of war and global injustice, both men remain icons and rallying figures in the respective worlds of politics and music, working-class heroes whose lives have touched me and many millions of others – all the more today as our heroes are dead and our opponents are in power.

Read the full story and multimedia timeline at www.globetrotsky.com/lennon.