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.

Poetry against the monarchy
Thursday, 26 May 2022 20:50

Poetry against the monarchy

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock presents four poems which capture the oddity and the horror of living in a country without class solidarity and where we are encouraged to accept a monarchy symbolising inequality, privilege and oppression. Image above: Paul Harrop

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee is looming, and my own small section of England’s Garden Coast has already witnessed worrying outbreaks of union bunting. Festivities are threatened. I’m dreading it. Having tried and failed to invite myself somewhere – anywhere – else for the entire obnoxious duration, there’s nothing left to do but watch the spectacle unfold with an appropriate mixture of anger and nausea.

I was living in London when Britain ‘celebrated’ the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. That was stomach-churning enough: a nasty little marketing manoeuvre designed to recast the monarchy as a cultural agent as opposed to a political one. The Diamond Jubilee sought to free the monarchy from its difficult, morally compromised political context, and cement it instead at the very heart of Brand Britain: a series of cultural levers – music, literature, film, sport, art, and drama – intended to evoke a nebulous though crowd-pleasing notion of Britishness with which to distract the populace at home and to woo the global marketplace. It was deeply cynical, but it did make some level of strategic sense.

London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games that year, taking full advantage of the opportunity to socially cleanse the city of homeless, poor and working-class populations, while promoting the capital as a securitised playground for the rich. The relentless frenzy with which The Games were hyped was matched by an equally zealous clampdown on any potential unrest. Protest was denied through preventative policing, and by a virtual blackout on dissenting voices across the mainstream media. Coverage of the Olympic Games encouraged a profound and disturbing disconnect between the feelgood spectacle and its grim political underpinnings.

A particularly egregious example was Paralympic sponsorship by ATOS, the outsourcing giant and ‘health care’ provider whose infamous fitness to work tests caused wave upon wave of often fatal misery to be visited upon those with physical disabilities and mental health issues alike. How was it possible for the public to be so inspired and galvanised by the achievements of disabled athletes, yet happy to ignore the injustice meted out against other disabled people, or to accept the cruel irony of ATOS as a ‘proud’ and prominent Paralympic sponsor?

Irrational jingoism

Noam Chomsky describes sport as a crucial component of the ‘indoctrination system’. In Manufacturing Consent, he states that sport functions as ‘a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And you know, group cohesion, behind leadership elements. In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism. Which is not to decry sport in and of itself, or those who follow or participate in it. It is rather Chomsky’s call to be conscious of the way notions of ‘patriotism’ and belonging are manufactured and exploited: by companies like ATOS who hijack the achievements of athletes to rehabilitate their damaged public image, or by nation states and governments to create an uncritical consensus reality.

The Diamond Jubilee rode the surge of nationalistic sentiment stirred up by ‘Team GB’ and the Olympic Games. What was being celebrated was not so much the Queen herself, and certainly not the monarchy, but the amorphous sense of Britain or Britishness, an idea of which Elizabeth Windsor is the kitsch and endlessly marketable signifier. A symbol, in other words, ripe for reproduction across one hundred thousand souvenir keychains. The flag-waving spectacle created by mainstream media discourses empties the monarchy of historical and political context, allowing them to become a hollow receptacle for whatever idea is expedient to government. Cultural discourses have tended to heavily moralise the monarchy through representations of nationhood, philanthropy, and family, effectively masking their relationship to centuries of exploitation, accumulation, corruption, and conquest.

Fast forward to 2022 and the monarchy seems symbolically shaky. The glorious moment during Liverpool’s FA Cup match against Chelsea on the 15th of May, when fans booed the National Anthem, seems to suggest both a disillusionment with these British figureheads, and an abiding frustration with the ‘values’ they are supposed to represent. It isn’t only that the royals themselves have shrunk in the public estimation, as indeed they might, but that government propaganda has welded the idea of Britain to these fallible individuals too successfully for either party’s good. What, after all, are we being summoned to celebrate with ‘God Save the Queen’?

The leak of the ‘Paradise Papers’ way back in 2017 revealed the extent to which the Queen’s private estate used offshore private equity funds to avoid paying tax on its holdings. Not exactly a scrupulous move, especially when you consider that the Crown is already exempt by law from taxation, and also from inheritance tax on ‘sovereign to sovereign’ bequests. As Laura Clancy has pointed out, the royal family ‘relies on the (uncodified) British constitution and political custom to play the same game’ as corporate tax avoidance giants such Amazon and Facebook, thus the monarchy ‘stitches together historical customs with financial capitalist logic.’ The scale of this corruption is immense, and sharply felt by the poorest amongst us during times of austerity. According to findings published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2019, Austerity caused 130,000 preventable deaths. As the cost-of-living crisis escalates, this terrible toll can only increase, blighting the families, communities, and individual lives of our most vulnerable citizens. Under such conditions why wouldn’t a hymn of subservience to monumental privilege be booed?

But if obscene wealth corruption weren’t enough, over the last couple of years we have also witnessed the sickening sexual assault allegations against the walking disgrace that is Prince Andrew, alongside the ongoing and surpassingly tedious saga of ‘Megxit’ with its troubling overtones of racism and misogyny. I could go on. But it begs the question: if we’re not evoking love for Britain’s ruling elite when we broadcast ‘God Save the Queen’, what are we evoking? Britain itself? Britishness? What’s that? A country in which food banks are now forced to provide kettles and cold boxes, for those who cannot afford to use their cookers. A country in which Tory MP, Lee Anderson, felt secure enough of his position to brag that people in his constituency are now required to sign up to ‘budgeting’ and ‘cooking’ courses when they register at a food bank. Anderson is the same hypocritical toad who claimed £222,000 in expenses last year. Just saying.

Partygate, pandemics, profits and poverty

Britain is the Britain of Partygate; of the callous and incompetent handling of a global pandemic that exacerbated the shocking extent of inequality between rich and poor. It’s a country in which energy companies and supermarkets are currently enjoying treble profits, profits that the Tory Government are monumentally reluctant to tax. It’s a country with an asylum policy so staggeringly inhumane as to draw condemnation from every quarter; of wrongful deportations enacted against those who have made Britain their home for decades, and illegal detention of those recently arrived and fleeing from violence.

There is little there to be proud of. So why should fans passively condone the achievements of their team being yoked to dynastic wealth by a bunch of gilded hypocrites? The team weren’t playing for ‘Queen and Country’, but representing a city that has a long, bitter association with poverty, hunger, state violence, and the remorseless grinding of the class system. That sport might be activated as a place of protest is a potentially mighty thing. Grassroots initiatives such as Liverpool and Everton’s Fans Supporting Foodbanks scheme suggest that rather than an indoctrination tool, sport might provide a space of solidarity and shared social consciousness. Once, that is, it is stripped of its tired, jingoistic trappings.

But jingoistic trappings die hard, and here on the coast I have a close-up view of the way in which national identity is selectively edited towards political ends. The Border Force patrol boats frequently mar an otherwise idyllic view of the Channel, and the hateful Napier barracks, where asylum seekers are detained under the most appalling conditions, are a stone’s throw from the gorgeous rolling hills in which I walk my dog. In the build-up to the EU referendum in 2016, the White Cliffs across which I often hike had become symbolic in the debate over immigration. It is difficult to square such stunning natural beauty with their difficult legacy as icons of British insular exceptionalism and racially exclusive identity. As you walk into Dover there is no shortage of racist and anti-immigrant graffiti, no shortage of union flags, no shortage of embattled border mentality. The paraphernalia of the Platinum Jubilee merges with and glosses these more overt forms of racism, a racism that Tory Brexit legitimated and exposed.

Dover and Thanet voted overwhelming to leave the EU, a campaign that recruited the Cliffs and the town’s historic status as a defensive stronghold to project an image of Britain besieged by menacing ‘others’. There’s a sad irony here: according to the Centre for Progressive Policy, Dover and Thanet are likely to be ‘pushed into poverty’ by the Tory government’s failure to tackle a cost-of-living crisis they themselves created. Dover, hit by P&O’s sudden sacking of 800 seafarers, is especially suffering. The town has become, in recent years, a post-Brexit carpark, and this chaos seems set to continue indefinitely. These towns are not served by the class system, by the ruling elite, or by the monarchy that is their symbolic head. Britain needs better symbols, and a more inclusive, empathetic vision of itself.

A good place to start in creating that vision would be in ridding ourselves of an institution whose wealth and history is inseparable from the depredations of colonialism, and whose cornerstone is inequality. In recent months, many former British colonies in the Caribbean have declared their intent to abolish the monarchy and remove Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Kitts. Barbados has already cut ties with the British monarchy to become the world’s newest republic, and to rightly pursue reparations for the horrors of the slave trade. Campaigners are right: an apology is not enough. Prince Charles ‘acknowledging’ the ‘atrocity’ of slavery isn’t enough. An institution whose wealth was built on and maintained by slavery telling the descendants of slaves, whose families, cultures, and communities were scarred by colonialism, that they feel their pain is frankly insulting. You cannot cherry-pick which parts of Empire to whitewash and to fetishize. The foundation of Empire is slavery; slavery is the direct consequence of empire. The same applies to hierarchy, poverty, and gross inequality at home.

Much of the criticism levelled against the monarchy – at least much of the criticism that is allowed to be heard – has been rather toothless in nature, preferring to focus on the monarchy as an irrelevant and anachronistic institution, rather than a powerful political tool, enmeshed in the structures and the logics of capitalism at its absolute worst. I think that poetry can provide a place for wrestling with these thornier complexities; to resist and reshape notions of identity, solidarity and belonging. The four poems I want to share today achieve this through very different, but interconnected strategies.

Al Hutchins’ ‘Jubilee’

Al Hutchins’ ‘Jubilee’ emerges from the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 2012. It tackles the callous criminalising and forcible removal of homeless populations from city centres in the run up to planned ‘festivities’. In hounding the suffering and destitute from sight, class war is enacted even as its evidence is erased. The homeless protagonist in Hutchins’ poem is a ‘Jesus, shoeless, on the London Orbital’. He is a subject: subject to and under a law that carts him around like freight. He is not, and never will be, an implied audience, or ideal citizen. Throughout the poem, his erratic movement across the city is embodied by the staggered, halting line. Hutchins’ distinctive use of minimal punctuation gives the poem a provisional and precarious feel, emblematic not only of a difficult and marginal existence, but the way in which that existence always teeters on the brink of invisibility; the wilful blindness with which such lives are met.

The poem makes reference to food waste with great effect. It begins with the lines: ‘It is still daylight and the string/ Round the meat has been thrown’ and later evokes ‘Good food thrown for/ Spite/ Meat and eggs crumped/ Like old letters’. The discarded food in these lines does double duty: it signals the wasteful attitudes and behaviours of those with a degree of privilege, but it also associates Hutchins’ protagonist with the detritus and trash that are aimed at him and alongside which he is forced to subsist. He too is considered waste. He too has been discarded. Hutchins uses meat and eggs specifically to summon an image of the suffering animal bodies that provided the food. An image of slaughtered cattle closes the poem, the sound of the rain evoking the ‘clatter’ of their hooves. No one wishes to be reminded of where their food comes from or what happens to it after it has been thrown away, but Hutchins’ poem exposes both those things as it exposes the fact that immense wealth can only exist by metaphorically cannibalising the bodies of the poor and desperate.

I think the most haunting passage of this poem is when Hutchins’ speaker breaks the mood of internal reverie to ask the reader a direct question that contains both imploring and accusatory elements: ‘What is the merriment of/ 60 years like this?’ Here Hutchins’ contrasts the sixty years of grim endurance suffered by his homeless protagonist, with the sixty years of privilege and ease afforded the Queen. The survival of homeless persons is a miracle of resilience and resourcefulness. The survival of a person born into obscene wealth with access to the best of everything is hardly surprising. Why should the Queen’s longevity be feted, and Hutchins’ ‘Jesus’ scorned? Further, the speaker summons his own sixty years like a sentence, inviting us to empathise with his long experience of abjection, but also to reflect that a sixty-year reign in which conditions such as his persist is a mark of shame, not an occasion for celebration.

P. V. Tims satire on the reptilian royals

P.V. Tims takes an entirely different approach to protest in the poem ‘If David Icke was Right’. On the surface, this whimsical piece imagines what our society would look like supposing Icke’s crackpot conspiracy theory of a blood-drinking ‘reptilian elite’ in Buckingham Palace was literally true. Tims has a light, humourist’s touch, accentuated through the use of a simple alternating rhyme scheme with an easy, mostly regular meter. The poem can be enjoyed as an absurd satire on Britain’s slavish attachment to the monarchy: not to be discouraged by the fact that the entire royal family have revealed themselves as a race of vicious space lizards, ‘Blighty’ loses no time in converting Buckingham Palace into a spacious reptile house, opening it to the public, and generally ‘Flaunting our cold-blooded monarchist grace’.

However, there is a violence lurking within the poem: the ‘flies and raw gizzards’ that have replaced the twee Victoria sponges of The Great British Bake Off are funny in context, but also repellently visceral. The juxtaposition of raw offal with the kitschy TV show suggests something disgusting and lethal hidden just beneath the surface of its carefully stage-managed, people-pleasing Britishness. Tims furthers this unsettling ambiguity by use of the phrases ‘cold-blooded’ and ‘forked-tongued’, which we are used to encountering in their figurative sense as applied to people who are ruthless, glib, and deceptive. Because the poem is placed in the present active tense, Tims blurs the line not only between reptile and human, but speculative future and lived present, implying that those qualities of cruelty and deceitfulness belong equally to our human royal family.

The final stanza concludes with the hapless ‘silver-lining’ that at least in their lizard form the royal family make more attractive stamps. This weak justification is reminiscent of the arguments often offered in favour of the monarchy: that they are ‘harmless’, ‘amusing’, ‘good for tourism’, as if any of those things excuse or balance the towering inequality and historical violence they represent and preside over.

Sabrina Lyall's evocation of class-based oppression

In Sabrina Lyall’s ‘The Subject’, both Hutchins’ bleak realism and Tims’ gleeful absurdism meet. As the title implies, the poem presents us with a portrait of the ideal royal subject. Lyall uses a surrealistic turn to create a grotesque and troubling image of an obedient model citizen, ‘white/ as a weak emergency’, who thinks ‘Kate Middleton/ looks beautiful in green’ and that the Queen is ‘doing a marvellous job’.

Lyall’s images are suggestive, rather than declarative, and she builds her picture by small self-contained increments, offering strange and unsettling glimpses of her poetic subject. The third stanza is particularly disturbing: ‘The subject’s body/ is a neat briquette,/ catching fire// (nobody minds).’ Here Lyall plays the shocking violence of a woman being burnt against the banality of a tidy suburban barbeque. Even in an extremis of pain and suffering the subject is ‘neat’. The parenthesised ‘nobody minds’ is chilling: so long as the subject suffers tidily, nobody need take offence at her distress. That this is her priority recalls Steve Biko’s dictum that ‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’ Lyall is repeatedly signalling throughout the poem that what allegiance to monarchy and empire requires of us is to be bland and self-effacing to the point of our own destruction; to ignore our self-interest and that of our class cohort in favour of identification with those who seek to exploit and control us.

Lyall’s subject apes the behaviours of her social “betters” in the hopes of passing as one of them. While she is permitted to exist within their orbit, she is never quite accepted, she ‘has a permit/ for her face’, is ‘allowed/ to park here’, is ‘trusted/ with the key/ to the community/ allotment.’ These mediocre privileges are only accorded to her because she has made of herself an insipid mask of conformity, acceptably middle-class and feminine in her appearance and opinions. Her life is small, ‘a tiny Hell/ enclosed inside/ a Margate snow globe’; she is forced to live inside ‘a wicker hamper’. These metaphors conjure the restriction and claustrophobia of working-class life, especially during the pandemic. Margate, with its large Tory majority, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The poem captures the dislocation of a working-class subject hemmed in and stifled by an experience of class-based oppression with which they cannot identity. Rather, the poem ends with Lyall’s subject stuffed like so much dirty laundry into her hamper, still mouthing platitudes about the ‘marvellous’ Queen.

Kevin McCann's mirroring of privilege and poverty

A different kind of willed inattention is the subject of Kevin McCann’s ‘Jubilee’: a direct address to the sanctimonious and smugly complacent. When I read it for the first time, I found myself thinking again of Lee Anderson, forcing his constituents to enrol in “budgeting” courses because there is, as the poem states, ‘no money tree’. I thought about Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden auctioning off a champagne bottle signed by Boris Johnson as a “souvenir of partygate”, and of other acts equally devoid of empathy. McCann’s opening lines are chilling, his subject wakes up, ‘dry-eyed with excitement’ on their ‘special day’. This image is immediately followed by the parenthesised lines ‘This morning another ex-squaddie’s/ Found dead in another doorway’. The brackets function as an afterthought or aside, performing the pushing away, closing off and containing of this unpalatable piece of information. It isn’t allowed to intrude upon a scene of happy anticipation, and the poem’s subject will not allow themselves to perceive its relationship to their own privilege and pleasure.

‘Dry-eyed’ is telling, unblinking and unaffected. ‘Your special day’ is telling too. It conjures both a hopelessly self-involved narcissism and an absolute identification with the Queen, whose ‘special day’ it really is. The repetition of ‘another’ achieves two effects: to signal the dailiness of what should be a shocking and nationally shaming incident, and to dramatize the numbness with which such news is actually met. In this context ‘squaddie’ feels sneering, a way of reducing the human being at the centre of the tragedy to a faceless and expendable unit. The irony is sharp: how many times have British soldiers been – often posthumously – recruited for the purposes of jingoistic propaganda and monarchic spectacle? Is working-class life only valuable if expended in the service of the military industrial complex? Are those who have survived such service not worthy of care?

Throughout McCann’s poem repetition is used to superb effect. Lines five to eight lead us through a litany of delightful surprises, from the ring at the doorbell, to the appearance of guests bringing wine and beer, linked together in rapid succession with the conjunction ‘and’. Lines thirteen to sixteen mirror this listing, but link their incidents with the phrase ‘out there’: ‘Out there the cupboards are empty,/ Out there someone takes their own life,/ Out there every state celebration’. The effect is to contrast what is happening ‘inside’ the subject’s insular and insulated bubble of privilege with the horrors visited upon those who struggle to exist outside of it, while also signalling the entanglement of these two worlds. Because both sets of repetition have the same metrical structure with the same number of syllables, McCann creates the sense that the events they describe are unfolding at the same time; that the latter is the consequence of the former.

In the second poem of this short sequence there is a powerful shift of perspective, also achieved through mirroring. The poem still uses direct address to an unnamed ‘you’, but one who wakes up ‘hungry and tired’. The bracketed thoughts this poetic subject wishes to push away and enclose are those that bring despair in their wake, ‘Every morning’s the same’, tea and toast for breakfast ‘Ditto lunch and your evening meal’. This shift from privilege to poverty is both an accusation and an invitation towards empathy: imagine this was you, waking up cold, tired, broke, with little to look forward to. It asks the cold, complacent middle-classes evoked in the first section to make the imaginative effort to see themselves in another’s skin. Lines seven to nine repeat McCann’s list formula, connecting this time a terrible set of circumstances through the conjunction ‘and’. The subject aches and is exhausted; they cough but they cannot afford to turn on their heating. This is the most affecting point in the poem. While the Queen celebrates seventy years on the throne, many elderly people in Britain are living in dire poverty, undeserved but unlamented. It is a moving contrast. It reminds us why we should be – and remain – furious.

All four poems in their various ways capture the oddity and the horror of living in a country without class solidarity, encouraged to identify instead with an elite authority who could not give a toss about you. But the poems also provide a strategy and a space of speaking back to that experience, of holding it to the light and exposing it for the cheap trick that it is.

Jubilee (01.06.12)
By Al Hutchins

It is still daylight and the string
Round the meat has been thrown
Under the bridge all the blood
And water went
Drawn down to a bead of
Before the avalanche of toil:
Jesus, shoeless, on the London Orbital

My desire for drink
Has gone
Oblivion will not mend
I dream of a ha ha
And howl
Good enough for a plague of kings
Hard pretend to happy
Ape interest in the regular
While the water levels in me
like a duel

And my birds lose wing…

What is the merriment of
60 years like this?

Good food thrown for
Meat and eggs crumped
Like old letters
Red rude
Ruby lips
Pressed against us while
We try to sleep?

…Well, that was extensively apologised
There were logistical errors…

I listen

And the rain slaughters
Its cattle down

Al Hutchins is a West Midlands-based poet, performing “stuff” since 1997. His rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. His poetry and fiction have been published by New River Press, Eccentric City, Tindal Street Press, and by Culture Matters.

If David Icke Was Right
By P.V. Tims

Our grey, grieving Liz, tired of the lie,
Shuffles old Buck’ to a room filled with sun;
Takes off her skin with a lingering sigh
And admits to herself the deception is done.
In place of a Queen, a monitor lizard!
In place of a palace, a reptile tank!
In place of the Bake Off, flies and raw gizzards!
This is now Britain; we have Liz to thank!
What is unleashed by our scuttling Empress?
What fresh nightmare does Blighty now face?
And must we still court the hordes of tourists,
Flaunting our cold-blooded monarchist grace?
They queue round the block to see the glass wall,
Of Buckingham’s new hothouse renovation,
Where Princes and Dukes are having a ball.
Forked tongues and tails! All pomp and elation!
Not much to choose twixt a Prince and a gecko.
For either specimen, what price is fair?
“God Save The Queen” still resounds with an echo.
But at least with the reptiles our stamps have flair.

Paul Victor Tims is a Durham based sci-fi writer, cultural pundit and die-hard socialist. He sometimes does poetry (not very well).

The Subject
By Sabrina Lyall

is white
as a weak emergency.

The subject
has emptied her eyes
into ashtrays.

The subject’s body
is a neat briquette,
catching fire

(nobody minds).

The subject’s blood
is a meek scouse broth,
is a milky supper,
is a pale tea sucked
through a crazy straw.

The subject
is a bird
with lectern wings.

The subject
has a permit
for her face,

she is allowed
to park here;

is trusted
with the key
to the community

The subject is
a little latte-stripling,
takes selfies in a Starbucks,
lengthens her lashes,
blogs about saving the bees.

The subject is
a twelve yr old girl,
trapped in the body
of a 53 year-old
daily mail reader

(she has hussy eyes).

Her world is a tiny Hell
enclosed inside
a Margate a snow globe.

The subject thinks Kate Middleton
looks beautiful in green.

The subject trails
her cursor
like a planchette over
the day’s indifferent news.

The subject is
in therapy,
but not really.

The subject is
kind to animals,
but only some animals
and not when they shit
on the floor.

The subject is
on a diet
since 1982.

The subject pretends
to have a peanut allergy
so people will think
she’s interesting.

The subject lives
in a wicker hamper,
she says doesn’t the queen
do a marvellous job?

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

By Kevin McCann

(Jubilee: from the Latin Jubilo = to shout)


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


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

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children: Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris Publications). There is also a book of ghost stories: It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder), co-written with the playwright Tom Green. Ov (Beul Aithris Publications) is a fantasy novel for children.









Poetry for the State We're In
Sunday, 20 March 2022 08:44

Poetry for the State We're In

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about the current economic and political crises, and introduces poetry that constructs a 'socialist imaginary', a space for hope and protest, against the distractions of nostalgia and the numbing exhaustion of working-class existence. Image above: Unloveable labour by Steev Burgess

There are times it is hard to imagine an adequate response – poetic or otherwise – to the state we are in. According to a recent report by the housing charity Crisis, over 66,000 more people will be homeless by 2024, with 8,000 more sleeping rough, and 9,000 forced into unsuitable temporary accommodation. These figures are driven by benefit freezes, towering food and energy bills, and the winding down of both Covid eviction bans and the widely praised “Everyone In” initiative that housed homeless persons in hotels throughout the pandemic. But these things aren't causes in themselves. Rather, they are the inevitable result of Tory economic policy, of a failure to regulate the energy market, the baffling decision to close gas storage, their absolute disinterest in insulating homes or investing in renewable energy. They are the result of a disastrous Brexit deal that has created disruption, delay and scarcity, hitting the poorest amongst us first and hardest.

Many people I speak to these days – friends, family, students – feel as though they're barely hanging on. The reasons are obvious: according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the recent hike in energy prices will squeeze low-income households to their limit; some of our most vulnerable citizens could be forced to spend over 54% of their income on bills. Inflation is now at its highest level in three decades, and wages are stagnating. For the lowest-income families, who are already spending predominantly on essentials, there is nowhere to cut back, no savings they can make. Keep tightening your belt, these people are told. Until it cuts you clean in two.

Meanwhile, new Universal Credit rules have significantly reduced the amount of time those claiming benefits are given to find work: from three months to just four weeks, forcing people into poorly paid jobs, however unsuitable, under the threat of financial sanctions. The new rules mean sanctions could be imposed four weeks after people make their initial claim, i.e., before they even receive their first benefit payment. This hideous scheme is dubbed Way to Work, and it is designed to fill the estimated 1.2 million job vacancies largely created by government incompetence over both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.


Johnson launched Way to Work in the wake of “partygate”; it is the emergency manoeuvre of a Prime Minister and indeed a party desperately attempting to regain control of the political agenda. It has zero to do with helping people to secure work or with leading a sustainable economic recovery. Welfare experts have stated that the use of sanctions could have dire implications for low-income families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, and the government's own National Audit Office had already found in 2016 that there is no evidence at all that benefit sanctions work to fulfil their stated aim. In fact they are as likely to deter people from claiming benefits without getting a job as they are to force them into employment. To put it another way: sanctions are punitive and persecutory in nature. They work both to demonise and punish those already suffering.

What are we to do with this? A walk through any major city these days is a walk through the wastelands of a neoliberal apocalypse: estates, neighbourhoods, and the communities that once thrived there are left to languish in a state of “managed decline”, where “managed decline” is Tory-speak for wilful neglect. The roots of this neglect are deep and old. Their origin is Thatcher's poisonous Right to Buy scheme, where home ownership was only made possible for comparatively affluent council tenants off the backs of their poorer neighbours: rents for council tenants rose dramatically throughout the life of the scheme, while the rate of construction slowed to a crawl. Successive Tory governments have evinced a similar lack of commitment to the provision of social housing: only 1,650 council homes were built between 2020-21, and maintenance of existing properties has been woeful.

'You feel expendable', a student of mine said recently, 'you feel forgotten.' This is a heartbreaking thing to hear, and in a sense he's right, poor and working-class people bear the brunt of austerity measures in a variety of ways: firstly as scapegoats in a narrative of personal responsibility that presents the feckless, scrounging and profligate poor as a drain on national resources, and where individual acts of economic prudence are supposed to balance out or compensate for decades of systemic waste and failure. Secondly, in that the needs of poor people are the first to be reclassified as optional extras during times of austerity. So mental health services are cut, and free childcare is cut, and local authority spending on property maintenance is cut. But I don't know about 'forgotten', which implies that poor people are the collateral damage to government incompetence and greed. I don't think they are. I think it's worse than that. I think the poor are targeted victims of government greed. I think the basis for this is ideological.

I've been reflecting on this a lot lately, talking with an online class about Charles Eisenstein's book The Ascent of Humanity (North Atlantic Books, 2013), and revisiting some of its gloomier chapters. Specifically, the section in 'Money and Property' where Eisenstein talks about the separation that is built into the social and physical fabric of neoliberal society. Eisenstein states that those of us now living will never experience community because community is 'incompatible' with the highly specialised work and estranged faceless dependence of modern capitalism. 'The groundwork of life' he writes, is 'anonymity and convenience.' But poor and working-class people do build strong, mutually supportive communities. Or we do up until the point those communities are dispersed, our neighbourhoods gentrified, our districts socially cleansed.

Doubtless, there is an economic basis for neglect and “managed decline”, but there's a political and ideological basis too: scatter and disrupt the association of poor communities and it becomes harder for those same persons to recognise themselves as a class cohort. On a practical level, how do you come together and organise when there's nowhere for you to meet? Equally as important, how do you develop affinities for an area and the people who live in it if your own existence within that space is precarious and temporary? How do you apprehend your struggles as part of something bigger if your closest neighbour is not – for example – another working-class person, but someone who gives you a filthy look as you enter the tower block you happen to share through the specially designated poor door? They occupy the same building to you, in the same area of town, but their life never touches or acknowledges yours. It never has to. Gentrification displaces persons. It forces the marginalised out of even the margins.

A space for solidarity

I've written before about how poetry might offer a space for a network of solidarities to form, might function as a wide imaginative community that allows us to recognise ourselves as a class cohort and to extend our solidarity to others whose experiences are different to but intimately linked with our own. I still firmly believe that poetry, at its best, can offer us a space of sustained attention and mutual care seldom afforded us as citizens or as subjects. Yet how can poetry speak to a cultural moment that feels so violently opposed to poor and working-class life it is prepared to consign vast numbers of people to hunger, homelessness and untold misery? How does poetry address the political reality of living under a government so grotesquely corrupt that they lie, obfuscate, and indulge in the worst kind of spineless self-protection, securing their careers at any cost while people starve? The poems I want to share today were solicited and chosen with this question in mind. They represent various strategies or approaches for writing this reality: with admirable directness, with verve and energy, with knotty and resistive language; with humour and with hope.


David McKinstry's 'Borisocracy' tackles a premiership so uniquely awful that the poet coins a new name for this grotesque political reality. The repeated refrain 'Welcome to Borisocracy' works to perform the false bonhomie and smiling hypocrisy of a country in which so few are truly welcome. It becomes particularly chilling in the context of the third stanza, where McKinstry evokes the Home Secretary, a woman with 'ice in her veins' who has made it abundantly – and for some, fatally – clear, just how unwelcome many people are within Tory Britain, whether those people are fleeing persecution in another land or born on British soil. The refrain could also be read as a form of rhetorical shrug, the kind of helpless 'that's life' statement we often make in the face of Tory awfulness. Within this context the final 'Farewell to Borisocracy' is especially heartening, imagining a turning of the tide and a gathering of courage in the midst of despair.

In the opening stanza McKinstry makes use of numerous half and internal rhymes, for example 'mythical', 'mists', 'cricket'; 'morning', 'worn', 'laundered' and 'Tory', both to create chains of association across lines and to achieve a rapid and deceptively musical cadence that belies the poem's darker content. Just as Johnson attempts to paint a rose-tinted and superficial portrait of a 'mythical' English past and to present himself – as somehow emblematic or representative of this past – as essentially kindly and benign, so the poem adopts and satirises his use of easy cliché and glib language to expose their devious underpinnings. My favourite moment in this stanza is McKinstry's use of 'laundered' and 'spun': a vivid physical description that nevertheless holds the metaphorical connotations of those words, so that the English national story, symbolised in an image of white-washed linen, becomes invested with numerous kinds of political and financial deceit.

This is a theme that McKinstry develops within the second stanza, which offers a clear-eyed assessment of Tory tactics. Specifically, their weaponising of nostalgia as a distraction and an anaesthetic. The poem presents nostalgia as a vague 'fog' peppered with unspecified glorious deeds, given a gloss of respectable authority by Johnson's Classical education. Nostalgia functions as a denial of the past in order to cope with an unendurable present. It numbs us, and it's meant to. It saps us of the will to move forward and to organise. McKinstry captures this sense of paralysis and the contempt our government holds us in within the lines 'Whilst the plebs look/ on with vacant faces'.

But we are not so vacant, as McKinstry's portrait of corrupt power shows. While setting out the grimness of contemporary Britain, the poem also has a sharp eye for humour. The image of Johnson and Rees-Mogg vying with each other in a game of nostalgic one-upmanship is funny, and the poem indulges in gameplay and puns, as in the fourth stanza with 'Etonian Brexit Mess'. I think the poem's refusal to take these leaders quite seriously is in itself a serious and important form of resistance.

The Clash's EP, 'Cost of Living'

Humour is also a central component of 'The Clash's Cost of Living EP' by Peadar O'Donoghue, although it is humour of a far bleaker order. By referencing the 1970s punk record O’Donoghue summons then instantly undermines an image of youthful fire and political rebellion with one of grim subsistence living; of struggling just to get by. This is something else deliberately engineered into neoliberal poverty: the anxiety and the exhaustion. While McKinstry's poor are kept from political consciousness by a drip-feed diet of toxic nostalgia, O'Donoghue's are kept from revolution through abject fatigue.

The poem is saturated with stress, which O'Donoghue builds skilfully through the use of repeated and interrogative questions: 'Are you cold/ want the heating on?', 'Do you really need that light?' What is both fascinating and horrible is that midway through the second stanza the speaker internalises his interlocutor's questioning and there is a shift from 'do you' to 'do we'. The speaker seems, as many poor and working-class people often do, to have absorbed by dint of repetition the relentless querying and criticism of themselves.

By the short third and fourth stanza the questions have bred more questions, opening the poem up into a fevered stream of consciousness. There is a moment of unsettling humour here, where the solution to being unable to turn on a light becomes developing 'night vision'. The speaker asks, as if musingly, how much would a pound of carrots cost these days? It's as if even ludicrous fantasies must be weighed against the limits of an ever-shrinking budget.

The image of discount supermarkets as 'sacrificial alters, all/ to the blood letting of our impecunious demise' is both surreal and unsettling. The use of 'impecunious' imparts a slightly whimsical tone that sits uneasily alongside 'sacrificial', and the phrase 'impecunious demise' has an almost Dickensian flavour. There's a false jollity there, a sense of effortfully maintained normality in the face of horrors. To be 'sacrificial' someone must be sacrificing us. And this is where the poem introduces the idea of a perpetrator, before pivoting again in the fifth stanza back to musing humour. This combination of bleak humour and barely suppressed fury is a constant current in the lives of poor and working-class people. Being powerless, we make jokes out of our struggles in order to get through the day, all the while alive to the grinding unfairness that keeps us struggling.

In the final stanza the poem finds an outlet for its undersong of rage in an expression of violent intent: by reinvesting a worn slogan with renewed urgency; mock-positing the eating of the rich as a serious solution to the problem of a hunger they themselves created. 'we fatten them all the time' states the speaker, reminding us that the wealth of the few has always and always will exist at the expense of the many; that in order to survive we are forced into a mode of existence that props up and perpetuates the system that exploits us.

I do a job I hate

This sense of being caught in the perpetual motion machine of neoliberal capitalism is something profoundly captured in Wendy Young's poem 'I do a job I hate' where we accompany the speaker and her snow-balling thoughts on a bus ride to a job she desperately longs to escape. The poem is a spiralling stream of consciousness, gaining in momentum and intensity as it progresses. It provides a vital insight into the position of many working-class and poor creatives: square pegs hammered into the round holes of McJobs and shift-work, forced by economic necessity to suppress or expend their creative energies on mere survival.

What is sad, striking and ultimately resistive about the poem is how absolutely irrepressible the speaker's denied creativity is: it bubbles up in her quick-witted lateral leaps of logic; in her spoofing of patronising aphorisms, her riffing on well-worn phrases, her incorporation of song lyrics and cultural references. All of which is evidence of a mind alert, awake, and full of play.  Two strong examples of such pressured play come in the second stanza: 'toe the (bread) line/ follow the (bread) line/ don’t eat the bread/ save some for/ rainy days may come – they have/  on a drizzling Harrow Road mounting the 36/ (wheels on the bus go round and round)/ to a job I hate' and in the final stanza: 'hurry up Harry we’re going on the merry go round ‘roll up, roll up yer sleeves, roll up yer genes, grit yer teeth, Northern’s gonna rock yer'.

Throughout the poem, stanza structure and line length are breaking down and overspilling, performing a mounting anxiety and tension, but also the impossibility of containing or repressing working-class creativity. Such creativity is stifled not merely through the drudgery of poorly paid employment, but by a culture that recasts systemic inequality as personal failure. To begin with the speaker complies with this version of reality, attempting to conform to the normalising aspirations of the self-help industry, but ends by breaking out of its prison of stale phrases and prescriptive living in a hilarious and vivid way: 'be transcendental/ say ‘I can’ until I’m blue in the face/ Smurf of the turf flagging in the rat race'.

By the end of the piece Young's speaker is at her most rhapsodic: the poem breaks out of its left-lineated form altogether to become prose; it is punctuated only by commas, giving it a breathless quality, and the lines pull together a chaotic mix of references and allusions. The final 'take a ride on the eternal abyss of existence' is a sudden chilling stop. It suggests that the reality of such soul-deadening exploitation is as inescapable for working-class people as their creativity is irrepressible within that same system. In Young's poem an immovable object (capitalism) meets an unstoppable force (working-class creativity) and the two are held in a tension that the poem refuses to resolve or to release.


This tension permeates our lives and art. It is a significant feature of the fourth piece I want to share. 'Full-Grown' by Al Hutchins is an oblique and unsettling poem, eloquent of dereliction and amorphous ruin. It begins 'Sometimes after a full-grown night/ Mangled out of sight or reach' but does not clarify what or who is 'mangled', what or who is 'out of reach'. The night? The speaker? Some third quantity? All of the above? The poem does not immediately resolve this question, rather, it collects small, prosaic details, arranging them into something more ominous than the sum of their parts: 'The witnesses of buses and wet cut grass and spent outcomes, thrown away fried chicken born to live and die and fry in fridge and bin'. On a sonic level the sibilance of 'witnesses', 'buses' 'grass' and 'spent' creates the suggestion of hostile hissing, like the spitting of hot fat or of a feral animal. Placing 'spent outcomes' within a list of concrete descriptions likens human destiny to dog-ends, litter, or discarded chicken bones, something thrown away, used up and hopeless.

What strikes me most, however is the use of 'live' to describe fried chicken. It signals an inevitability to the fate of being consumed, and – yet more troubling – a consciousness of being fried, consumed, and then discarded. This is a key strategy throughout the poem, where Hutchins merges the human speaker with the grimness and decay of their inanimate surroundings. The poem's 'roadside laughter', for example, might equally describe in figurative terms of the sound of traffic, but it also holds associations of human mockery for the vulnerable position of the speaker.

Hutchins’s use of the phrase 'these heaved stacked questions' also feels significant. Labour, effort, and precariousness are inscribed into these lines. Yet for all of that, no questions have been explicitly voiced within the text. Instead, unexpressed questioning saturates the poem. The open-ended lines, minimal punctuation and unusual syntax create spaces of discomfort and anxious expectancy where the reader is forced to work to interpret a landscape both threatening and abject. The reader is forced to experience, in other words, something of the confusion and misery experienced by the speaker. That these questions 'do not adjust or needle or play about with form' signals the impossibility of resolution or change; these lines suggest an inability to parley this discomfort into a trite moral message or a creative resource.

The Economy

‘The Economy’ by Pauline Sewards is the final poem I want to share. This poem also wrestles with the capacities and limits of language. Specifically, it bears stark witness to the fatal consequences of yoking human communication and care to the economic objectives of government within the context of addition treatment.

Sewards piece unblinkingly exposes the human cost of an economically driven shift of emphasis from ‘harm reduction’ to the unrealistic absolutes of ‘recovery’ or ‘abstinence’ within addiction treatment services. She registers this damage through the institutional apparatus that records and manages it: chronic and escalating need becomes multiplying ‘caseloads’, and death is plotted and recorded onto ‘the death graph’. In presenting human suffering as remote and mediated through impersonal bureaucracy, Sewards shows us how such suffering is systematised and the human edged out of official rhetoric, a process of willed amnesia that leaves the misery of human beings unattended to: ‘a scandal/ hardly mentioned on the news.’

Against the increasingly instrumental underpinnings of this system, the poem places a compassionate human listener. ‘For years I sat in rooms/ where people told me…’ begins the speaker in the first stanza, situating the reader as witness in their turn to the speaker’s accounting. The phrase is repeated in the eighth stanza; the receptive listener is constant, but what she hears subtly shifts over time. In this way Sewards charts changes to the program in which she works and the effects of these changes upon people. In the first stanza she is told ‘the narrative/ they thought I wanted to hear/ so that they could get treatment’, and by the eighth people tell her that ‘prison/ saved their life’. It is a sad and chilling indictment.

The poem’s title, and the repetition of ‘recovery’ throughout the piece conceptually link the nebulous much-touted notion of “economic recovery” to the rehabilitation of persons. The poem demonstrates the way in which mental health outcomes are now tied to the notion of economic productivity and a idealised “return to society” as obedient consumer subjects. By these metrics any therapeutic intervention is bound to fail. These goals are unrealistic: they do not account for either the recursive nature of trauma or the myriad emotional and material factors that drive addiction. How can anyone so much as begin to heal without stability or a place of safety? Or, as Sewards writes: ‘Recovery means many things./ Means nothing unless you stay alive.’

Persons struggling with addiction often already inhabit an endurable reality. Addiction is ‘a solution made into a problem/ by criminalisation.’ The ‘edict of abstinence’ kills people because it leaves them without recourse in a world in which they are already marginalised. Further, it places undue pressure on individuals without seeking to address the causes of addiction on a societal or systemic level. This pressure erodes and warps the spirit of those on either side of the treatment encounter as well as the relationship between them.

Rage is the undersong of Sewards’ poem, often signalled through subtle sonic linkages between lines and stanzas, for example the short sharp vowel sounds joining ‘stigma’, ‘pretty shit’, ‘prison’, ‘shifted’, ‘edict’ and ‘abstinence’. However, piece remains restrained throughout and does not rely on flourishes to achieve its effects, refusing to cannibalise the suffering of others into lyric spectacle.

A socialist imaginary

These five poems demonstrate the capacity of poetry to formulate a socialist imaginary against the distractions of nostalgia and the numbing exhaustion of working-class existence; they can create a space for both hope and protest. Equally as important, they can wrestle with the limits of language, tell us about what language cannot solve. If the state were a body, then poetry can show us where it hurts. It is a diagnostic tool, yet it is also a step towards a cure.

It is often difficult to sustain a belief in art in the midst of despair. We write our poems and we ask ourselves 'so what?' But I think this is because no one poem and no single type of poetry can adequately address the state we are in alone. Poems need and create communities, where many different voices and strategies can exist together. We need realism, humour, rhythm, difficulty. We need a poetics every bit as diverse and exuberant as working-class life itself.  These poems are ways in, acts of reaching out and across. They can connect, move, provoke and inspire. They can incite action. They can be the moment that reading ends and action begins. Not every poem for every person. But as part of whole, stronger together.


by David McKinstry

Climbing Disraeli's greasy poll
whilst spouting a mythical past,
of morning mists, churchgoing
cricket and warm beer. All a well-
worn story, but ironed, laundered
and spun. By a sham One Nation

Welcome to Borisocracy.

In a verbal duel with Rees-
Mogg, of competitive nostalgia
and reminiscence fog, peppered
with imperial battles and Latin
phrases. Whilst the plebs look
on with vacant faces:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Appointing a Home Secretary,
claiming that taking the knee
is no more than a convention.
With ice in her veins, and self-
advancement her intention:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Playing high politics
is a game, he couldn’t car eless,
be it Covid or Etonian Brexit mess:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Peering from number ten
To survey the national horizon,
The Irish are talking unity
The people are slowly rising:

Farewell to Borisocracy.


The Clash Cost of Living EP

by Peadar O'Donoghue

Are you cold,
want the heating on?
No, not yet,
wait a bit. Let's put
jumpers on.

Do you really need that light?
Well, only to see. But do we
really need to see? And what
are we looking at anyway?

Maybe we need night vision,
how much is a pound of carrots these days?

Oh, Aldi! Oh, Lidl!
Do you even remember Netto?
Sacrificial altars all, to
the blood-letting of our impecunious demise.

That energy saving light bulb
we invested in uses less power,
but costs more, is that
a Commie plot?
Or a Capitalist trope?

Maybe we really should eat the rich.
After all,
we fatten them all the time.


I do a job I hate …

(After Billy Childish)

by Wendy Young

I do a job I hate
when I should create
because deep down inside’s a
love hate divide
a chasm holding my fear

a working class adage
toe the (bread) line
follow the (bread) line
don’t eat the bread
save some for
rainy days may come – they have
on a drizzling Harrow Road mounting the 36
(wheels on the bus go round and round)
to a job I hate
for money enough
when times get tough
they always will be
‘cause I do a job I hate
when I should create.

Guilt is reading self-help books
no such words as should or but
find other words like can or will
be transcendental
say I can until I’m blue in the face
Smurf of the turf flagging in the rat race
I will until the cows come home
and roam back into the field again – There Will Be Cud!

I’ll still do a job I hate – my fate
in this world of go-getting shafters
you mean you didn’t buy? – too late – be young, gifted and affluent?
not if you went to the wrong school
in the wrong time
in the wrong place
where they geared you up
lambast the wrong caste
survive by taking the piss
cast out Benevolents – the Benvolios

hurry up Harry we’re going on the merry go round, roll up, roll up yer sleeves, roll up yer genes, grit yer teeth, Northern’s gonna rock yer, we’re gonna Chase yer, we’ll take Manhattan then we take Berlin, not Irving, just the rummaged bricks of the wall – here we go – it’s all we know - take a ride on the eternal abyss of existence’



by Al Hutchins

Sometimes after a full-grown night,
Mangled out of sight or reach-
The witnesses of buses and wet cut grass and spent outcomes, thrown away fried chicken born to live and die and fry and fridge and bin-
Sometimes when these heaved stacked questions do not adjust or needle or play about with form,
The roadside laughter can be heard,
High above the hem,
As derelict as broken pipes and clay;

First a peal,
Then a shrug of bellow,
Thrown braised and blinking like a chewed Slazenger,
Down into the tall sad side of days.


The Economy

by Pauline Sewards

For years I sat in rooms
where people told me the narrative
they thought I wanted to hear

so that they could get treatment
without too many barriers
or too much stigma.

I knew that drugs were often
a solution made into a problem
by criminalisation.

I knew that our services
were often the only revolving door
that was open and welcoming.

The word Recovery
was welded to our job titles more tightly
every time cutbacks were made.

Recovery means many things.
Means nothing unless you stay alive.
Caseloads multiplied.

Deaths multiplied.
Xanax - ten times stronger
Than ordinary blues

who would take a chance
on that escape route
If life wasn’t already pretty shit

For years I sat in rooms
Where people told me prison
saved their life

and they’d buried more friends
than I could ever imagine.
When the mantra of harm reduction

shifted to the edict of abstinence
the death graph started rising, a scandal
hardly mentioned on the news.

David McKinstry is a schoolteacher and poet who lives and works in Glasgow with his wife Margaret and son Gabriel. He has been widely published in newspapers and magazines and is currently working on his first collection of poems with the working title: Viral Verse. In addition to writing poetry, he has published books and articles on the American Civil Rights Movement.

Peadar “King Badger” O'Donoghue dearly wishes he was an actual badger. He writes, takes photographs, and co-edits at Poetry Bus Press with his wife, Collette.

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

Al Hutchins has been described by Stewart Lee as a “howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary”. Al is a West Midlands-based poet, performing “stuff” since 1997: his rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. His poetry and fiction have been published by New River Press, Eccentric City, Tindal Street Press and Culture Matters.

Pauline Sewards is a former health-worker and is currently writing a collection of prose and poetry basedon the known and imagined lives of her forebears who were agricultural labourers. She has two poetry collections published by Hearing Eye and Burning Eye books, most recently Spirograph (2020) and work included in The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty (Culture Matters, 2021).

This article will appear in print as Fran Lock's Soulfood column in the forthcoming issue of Communist Review.

Culture Matters presents: A Fish Rots From The Head
Thursday, 03 March 2022 10:31

Culture Matters presents: A Fish Rots From The Head

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to announce a special event in our digital reading series: the online launch of the free flash anthology A Fish Rots From The Head, with selected readings from our contributors.

Featuring artwork and poetry from over 100 contributors from England, Scotland and Wales, the anthology is a creative expression of fury and betrayal in the face of government hypocrisy, corruption and cruelty.

A Fish Rots From The Head challenges, satirizes, despairs, and even dares to laugh at our morally compromised leaders, whose malignant mixture of callousness and ineptitude has made life so hard, in so many ways, for so many people in this country. Through its demonstration of compassion for the suffering of others, and its protest against wrongdoing by those in high office, this collection of poems and artworks provides a very necessary space for solidarity and resistance. Let's hope the removal vans come soon!

Please do join Culture Matters' host Fran Lock in welcoming the contributors from this timely anthology on Sunday the 20th March, 17:00 GMT.

The Facebook link is here and the zoom link is here

Here are 2 posters with the line-up.....

Copy of Instagram Book Promotion Ad Story Made with PosterMyWall 19

Copy of Copy of Instagram Book Promotion Ad Story Made with PosterMyWall 1


What is History, Discuss?
Sunday, 26 December 2021 10:36

What is History, Discuss?

Published in Poetry

What is History, Discuss?

“History is and was and so is that patch/ of pavement” begins 'What is History, Discuss?', the poem that opens Whatsname Street (Smokestack Books, 2021) by Anna Robinson. The collection provides an account of a Lambeth housing estate across the generations. It is a work that combines oral history, patient archival research, and deep sustained attention to the fleeting stuff of memory. In this poem, which I am sharing with you today, Robinson performs a gathering together of the fragmented and ephemeral “bits/ and bobs” from which we make a life. It is a history of remnants (“the loose change in my pocket”) and absences (“the fact that there is never any/ loose change in my pocket”). It is a working-class history.

By focussing on “that patch” of pavement, Robinson situates the reader within the poem. We see in real time what the speaker sees, the world, our world, mundane and material. This is the challenge implicit in Robinson's poem: we could occupy that patch of pavement; we could – and we do – occupy history. For working-class people this is a profound thought. History, as it has typically been taught and transmitted through neoliberal culture, positions poor and working people as a motiveless mass at the mercy of and subject to social and economic forces we can neither resist or comprehend. Robinson offers the poem as a place of retuned attention to the small and ordinary details of daily life. In doing so, the poem asks how we define history, and raises powerful questions about what – and who – is worthy of preservation.

The rich live on through their monuments, architectural and cultural. Buildings, statues, and street names all serve to capture the continuity of their lived experience, inscribing their memory onto public space; canonical art and literature archive and enshrine their histories and perspectives. They accumulate things, a legacy of silverware and fine china; leather-bound books and family portraits. These possessions come to constitute history: they're what museums are full of, just as literature is thick with their narratives, their ideas, their ideologies. How the rich lived and thought become naturalised as The Past.

Poor and working-class people have few enduring possessions, they have fewer opportunities to access art or literature and intervene in culture; they are excluded from the long posterity those things engender. How are their experiences to be stored or celebrated? This is where Robinson's poem is at its most radical; by evoking the perishable and the intangible (“a Brussels sprout”, “a bumble bee”, “a brown-tail moth”), the poem locates history elsewhere: vividly embodied, kept alive through word of mouth, through the sharing of our stories. The poem, like the Lambeth housing estate itself, is a layered, communal space. Unlike the mansions of the rich, history is not entombed there, it is created and negotiated. It is a continuing conversation.

'What is History, Discuss?' invites us to consider that what distinguishes working-class history from canonical history is its deep collective sensibility. Robinson's poetry does not create a monumental space, but a relational one. Perhaps there is no “History” as such, but a collection of vivid histories, plural, spun from the long threads of intergenerational memory.

Robinson's poem so struck me because history, and our place within it, has been much on my mind over the last few months. Participating in discussions at a number of working-class studies events, it has become clear to me that we are still grappling with what are frequently touted as these “unprecedented times”. I dislike that phrase intensely. Although our contemporary moment is chaotic and scary, it is hardly without precedent. It is, in fact, part of an endlessly repeating pattern. Our current crisis, reaching as it does across multiple axes of oppression – social, economic, ecological – does so in an acute causal relationship to capitalism. Where we are now is the logical conclusion to where we've been; it is the end result of prioritising money over the health of poor and working people, over our shared environment, our rights and our safety.

This is far from new: when a third of Europe's population was lost to the bubonic plague – itself spread through burgeoning channels of trade and military conquest – Europe's largest and wealthiest companies responded by concentrating their assets, allowing them to gain a greater share of the market and a deeper influence within governments. This historical situation has strong parallels to the mess we're in today: while struggling smaller businesses and individual persons in poverty must rely on the vanishingly scant support offered to them by the state and (more and more frequently) the charities that have all but replaced state assistance, large companies – mainly those involved in home delivery and contactless payment – are profiting greatly from the new trading conditions. It is the most vulnerable amongst us who suffer, whether in the Middle Ages or the twenty-first century.

Defusing challenges to the cultural status quo

What has also become clear to me is that there are few spaces within mainstream neoliberal discourse that openly discuss or acknowledge the recursive nature of working-class exploitation and suffering. Worse, there are precious few spaces that acknowledge the working classes at all. This is another of neoliberal culture's two-faced manoeuvres: the working class have no part in history, and yet we are routinely consigned to it. To be poor and working-class within neoliberal culture is to occupy the position of the absent subject. We are frequently told that the class system no longer exists, or our “credentials” as working-class people are continually questioned because we do not present as “typically” working-class according to tropes that others have invented about us.

Middle-class cultural elites filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic people, while refusing to acknowledge the role racism plays in the perception and treatment of white working-class others. Through a representational model of cultural inclusion these same elites select their working-class ambassadors to comfortably confirm existing tropes: the older white male from the industrial north, for example. These tropes, as they appear in poetry, are often characterised by a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or aesthetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status quo.

Martin Hayes' poem 'where are the working class now' from his most recent collection Underneath (Smokestack Books, 2021), takes this blinkered representation of class to task. As with Robinson's poem it opens with a challenge: “imagine if all of the workers in this city were white”. The first twelve stanzas are a list of working-class trades practised by non-white persons, from “the Uber driving Somalian cabbie” to the “Ghanaian road sweeper”. These short stanzas have an incantatory quality; they serve not only to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of working-class experience, but to emphasise just how fundamental these workers are to the operation of the city, any city, and to society at large. Each short stanza ends on the single word: “white”, performing an almost uncomfortable act of erasure that reflects the way in which the classed experiences of these workers is erased from history and within culture, even at the moment it is enacted.

The repeated refrain “imagine if” is both an invitation and a provocation. It extends to Hayes’ worker-subjects the space and consideration seldom afforded them as citizens. It also forces the reader into a confrontation with their own unconscious assumptions. It requires an enlarging of our world-view, our solidarity, our empathetic reach. In the final six stanzas, Hayes repeats the lines “who would/ then/ be able to split us/ apart/ see?” The lines themselves are split apart into short, jagged syllabic units, serving to create a tremendous amount of emphatic force. Each word is given its own weight, articulated like a fist thumped into a palm. The language is blunt, but it needs to be: this is important. It is also simple. If it feels complex or difficult, then that is a measure of just how successfully we have been divided. Hayes' use of both “imagine” and “see” is the necessary balance between close attention to material conditions, and the vision and the courage to picture them otherwise.

The poem ends with the question: do we see “why/ they did that?”, evoking the age-old divide and conquer tactics of moneyed power elites. There is rage in these lines, but there is also hope and defiance: disunity is not inherent or natural. If it was, they wouldn't have to work so hard to create it. Change begins with a simple act of recognition, an expression of class solidarity. When we acknowledge the class-based oppression of non-white persons our sense of history also expands; our history is intimately and vividly local, but it is also wide, networked, and global; multiple and intersecting.

Struggle and the UCS work-in

'Struggle' by Jim Aitken, the final poem I want to share with you today, echoes the hope and defiance of Hayes' piece. The poem was originally written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.C.S. (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) work-in. On July 31st 1971, over 8000 shipyard workers took possession of the four biggest shipyards on the Upper Clyde, to stage not a strike, but a work-in, organising and working together to run the yards themselves. Heath's Conservative government planned to close the shipyards, making 6,000 of the 8,500 shipyard workers employed by U.C.S. instantly redundant, and causing untold misery for their families and communities. So workers fought back, supported by marches, concerts, public collections and other fundraising activities. A support fund of nearly £250,000 was raised, and reports of workers' meetings were broadcast around the world. The work in continued into February and March of 1972, when the government reversed its decision not to support UCS.

This was a pivotal moment in the story of working-class resistance, so it is hardly surprising that it remains spectacularly unattended by mainstream historical discourse, or absorbed into a broader narrative of repression, fragmentation and failure within the labour movement. And yet our history survives. Reading Aitken's poem I was reminded that as a child, before I ever knew what the U.C.S. was, I could give you the chorus of the Matt McGinn song, 'Yes, yes, U.C.S.': “Yes, Yes, U.C.S./ Tell them on the radio, tell them on the press/ Want my job and I want no less/ No more dole day doldrums.” It is often through such subaltern cultural forms: the chant, the folksong, the poem, that our history persists and is handed on.

What is immediately striking about Aitken's poem is its focus not on explaining or detailing the U.C.S. work-in but in attending to the subjective and collective experience of the work-in for those within the labour movement. This is important because it challenges the implied audience for poetry. It tells us something of the social life of the poem, how it is to be circulated and shared, and by whom it is to be received. 'Struggle' has been published in the anthology A Rose Loupt Oot, in celebration and commemoration of the work-in; by the Scottish Socialist Party, and in Community Education newsletters. In addition to which it has been read at various events. It has a lively, politically engaged public life. It is not merely a place of preservation, but a site of potential reactivation, affirming and invigorating shared political commitments.

The poem proceeds slowly, in self-contained three-lined stanzas, each one encapsulating a difficult thought, as the speaker weighs their reasons for participating in the work-in. The “struggle” is not only a class struggle, fought in the shipyards, it is a mental and emotional struggle, a raising of consciousness that must begin within the self. I believe it is this negotiation between inner and external struggle that makes Aitken's poem so interesting and important. The fourth stanza of 'Struggle' marks a shift, a pivotal realisation that it is not whether the action is won or lost, but how it changes those within it, and inspires those who come after that matters. This is a brave and difficult thought. Social and political change are often slow. Our sense of ourselves as part of history must account for this fact, must reckon with the idea that we will not be the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts, but that we are links in a long chain. We do what we do not to secure a place in some dusty posterity for ourselves, but to make the living present better for future others.

In the fifth stanza Aitken uses simple but finely wrought organic imagery: “They awaken and grow/ like desert seeds/ receiving rain” which frames the experience of political solidarity as necessary, natural, and nourishing. What I find so affecting about this piece as a whole and this stanza in particular is its lack of clamour or aggression: “struggle” is understood first and foremost as an innate desire to live and to grow, and it happens in slow-time, across generations. It is as immediate and visceral as a strike or a work-in, but it is also the building up of movements over years, the seeding of ideas, the changing of minds. Again, the poem frames the actions and history of working-class people as part of a living and interconnected whole.

All of these poems complicate and extend our idea of what history might be, of what our history is. These poems show us that it is not a smooth progressive arc, but that it is entangled, recursive and complicated. It is also created by people within social contexts, not merely something we are subject to or excluded from. We are capable of making history as well as experiencing it. We are not only witnesses; we shape and tell our own stories. Although poor and working-class people have not typically been trusted to be the authors and archivists of our experiences, we carry within our communities and within ourselves an incredibly rich fund of memories and embodied knowledge. These memories and this knowledge surface within our poetry, which offers us an important place of infiltration into the historical record. Poetry also extends a space to others, offers a lens through which to apprehend the myriad networked connections between poor and exploited people globally.

A wise friend of mine recently told me that “history tells us the facts, poetry tells us how it feels”. If we are to understand our own history, we need testimony as much as we need evidence, and poetry combines these facets more than any other art form. In the last decade or so, working-class histories have increasingly become the objects of study, but through poetry and song they also have the potential to be the means of resistance, to strike a light for others.


What is History, Discuss?

by Anna Robinson

History is and was and so is that patch
of pavement where one tiny leaf shape
is never wet no matter how much rain.
It’s in the shards of clay pipes on the banks
of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments.
It’s in the loose change in my pocket
and the fact that there is never any
loose change in my pocket. It’s in the bits
and bobs, the fairy on the rock cake,
at the foot of our stairs. It’s t’ick
as a coddle and mild as milk.
There’s a king and queen and offspring
and they’re effing and blinding or not –
‘cause that’s common! It’s in the darkness,
the rose moon, a clear deep navy sky
and a box of Price’s candles to light
the longest street market in London
where we ply, plight and sing a bit.
It’s in the pain of home and the urge
to command that pain with real true facts.
It is what it is, although that’s contentious.
It’s a bumble bee, a Brussels sprout,
and sometimes, even, a brown-tail moth.

Reprinted with kind permission of Smokestack Books


where are the working class now

by Martin Hayes

where are the working class now
by Martin Hayes
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
imagine that
the Uber driving Somalian cabbie
the Filipino nanny
the Columbian cleaner
the Brazilian courier
imagine that
the Nigerian traffic warden
the Afghan phone repair stall owner
the Indian corner shop owner
the Thai manicurist
if all of the workers in this city were white
the Lebanese kebab seller
the Syrian car washer
the Ghanaian road sweeper
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
who would
be able to split us
why they did that
made believe
that words
said often enough
could separate us
if the colour of our blood
and the stench of our sweat
was more important
than the colour of our skin
who would
be able to split us
they did that?

Reproduced with kind permission of Smokestack Books



by Jim Aitken

Not to certainly means
worsening conditions
inevitable defeat.
To engage in action
even if you lose
means dignity at least.
It also means
just could mean
that you actually win.
But it’s more than that
for in the process
people change.
They awaken and grow
like desert seeds
receiving rain.
And give to others
a sense of vision
and possible dreams.


Anna Robinson's publications include Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye, 2006), The Finders of London (Enitharmon, 2010) – shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize – Into the Woods (Enitharmon, 2014) and Night Library (Stonewood, 2015). She teaches at the University of East London.

Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His books include Letting Loose the Hounds (2001), When We Were Almost Like Men (2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (2018), Where We Get Magic From (2021), Ox (2021), and most recently Underneath (2021)

Jim Aitken is a poet, dramatist and essayist. He also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh and works with the Council's Outlook programme for people with mental health issues. He has several literary and cultural essays on the Culture Matters website. In 2020 he edited A Kist of Thistles: radical poetry from Scotland and in 2021 edited a companion prose version called Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift. Both books are published and available here.

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:37

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Books

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, is selected and edited by Fran Lock, and features poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world.

This ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature.

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. Throughout each of the five sections of the book, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual. The reader is offered provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, but there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows', or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse'.

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6. Available to purchase here.

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:33

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is proud to announce the publication and launch of The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock.

Featuring poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world, this ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature; for the “unseen, the in between” ('My People', Tracey Pearson, p.22).

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. It is divided into five sections: 'Who We Are: Writing about daily life'; 'What we do: Writing about work, working, and not working'; 'A Place for Us: Writing about home, homelessness, exile and belonging'; 'With a raised fist: Writing in rage, protest, and defiance'; and 'In solidarity and in sorrow: Writing about loss and despair, hope and faith'. 

Throughout each section, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual, so that James O' Brien's grimly topical 'The Suicide Sanctions: “A parish bier burdened with the ghosts of capital,/ Eking out a funeral pace to the food bank” (p.162) shares space with Sarah Wedderburn's melancholic and subtle 'Sleeping Pilgrim': “Paths are my grace,/ their end a cathedral of stars” (p.199).

The Cry of the Poor offers the reader provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, as in Neimo Askar's beautiful 'Dua for Black boys': “this world holds/ an awaiting cemetery for Black bodies” (p.26) and in the vivid and arresting extract from Karl Parkinson's The Blocks: “Neighbours on top uv ya, each side uv ya, underneath ya. Weird single men wit beards n stinkin hallways, dirty curtains not washed in ten years, windows always gettin broken. Small grey concrete pram-sheds wit wooden doors dat held bikes n prams in dem, sum turned inte pigeon lofts n dog sheds n smoke dens n sex dungeons” ('Georgie', p.179).

But there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows': “From this view, the falling leaves look like fluttering butterflies. Rose knows that when she comes down she’ll be in a lot of trouble. So she squints up at the sun and gives the balloon some more power.” (p.198), or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse': “Poverty made you thrill at the mining/ of a table top’s rummaged vein eyes out/ for Taccini Tammy Girl Sweater Shop Squashed pixie boots/ Something a bit Bananarama Something mohair/ batwing stonewashed Something nice” (p.19).

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

Poverty is not a tragic accident or a force of nature. It is caused by a lack of love, the love, care and compassion we should feel for one another as suffering mortal beings, which is the foundation of both true communism and basic human decency. Heed The Cry of the Poor, for it is the cry of all of us.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6. Available here.

Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:49

Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity

Published in Poetry

As I sit down to write this column the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp is fast approaching, with hundreds of women planning to retrace the 130 mile march from Cardiff to Greenham in order to honour the legacy of those who founded the camp, and who spearheaded one of the biggest – certainly one of the most culturally conspicuous – women-led protests in the UK since the campaign for women's suffrage. A number of discussions surrounding the march have framed it as an act of solidarity with both our radical activist foresisters, and with women living under conditions of armed occupation, conflict, and the threat of war globally. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reaffirm the aims and objectives of the original camp, the ultimate goal of which was not only the removal of missile silos from Greenham Common, but a radical dismantling of the military-industrial complex worldwide.

While this last ambition remains unrealised, the legacy of the Greenham Peace Camp has continued to serve as an inspiration to future generations of activists and artists, offering a powerful model for non-violent direct action, and for collective creativity. From the earliest months of the camp, the women at Greenham Common produced their own newsletters, booklets and broadsides, incorporating and merging an array of forms from analysis to anecdote; to sketches, songs, drawings and poetry. These publications served a variety of purposes both inward and outward-facing: to circulate information, to generate discussion into demands and tactics, and to persuade and inspire new participants. These various projects also provided the women with an opportunity for creative expression often lacking within other contexts. They situated and prioritised the women as a cohort of thinkers, artists and makers, fostering a sense of shared identity.

Poetry was integral to this creative outpouring. One of the most iconic and arresting images to emerge from the camp is 'Dancing on Silos' by Rassia Page. The photograph features a ring of women in silhouette, holding hands and swaying on top of the missile silos while two police cars idle ominously in the foreground, and a cordon of barbed wire stretches off beyond the edges of the image. Page's poster appeared in City Limits magazine with the poem 'Life Against Death' by Dinah Livingstone superimposed onto the picture. Livingstone's poem juxtaposes the prosaic details of camp life: 'soggy sandwiches, brandy, ox tail soup' against the enormity of the threat of nuclear war: 'seeds of destruction whose sorrowful journey/  is speedy doomsday'. Faced with the might of the military industrial complex, the women in the poem appear immensely vulnerable, and yet it is the 'uneasy personnel' in 'sinister looking vehicles' who are 'protecting themselves from the women'. Livingstone's poem shares an intimate and detailed experience of camp life; it also provides an eloquent rationale for the actions of the protestors. It contextualises Page's photograph, offering a visceral and immediate insight into what it was like to be at the camp and exactly what was at stake for the women in protesting. It communicates both the shared vulnerability and the collective political power of the protestors in a way that straightforward reportage may have struggled to articulate.

Women and war

Throughout history women and girls have suffered – and continue to suffer – disproportionately at the hands of the military-industrial complex. The experience of women during and after war is particularly grim: existing inequalities are magnified as social institutions break down, rendering them ever more vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation. Among the most traumatic of these is sexual exploitation and gender-based violence, which have profound and long-lasting psychosocial consequences. Other gendered effects include the recruitment of girls as child soldiers, girls and women becoming internally and externally displaced refugees, and the collapse of public health services rendering reproductive health care inadequate or unavailable.

Because of the central role of women in maintaining the fabric of family and community through times of war, they become tactical targets of some significance during armed conflict. Owing to their unequal status within the majority of patriarchal societies women and girls of all ages share a uniquely sharp experience of displacement, loss of home and property, the involuntary disappearance of relatives, poverty, rape, sexual and other forms of slavery, and sexual abuse. All of this while their responsibilities toward family and community remain formidable. Armed occupation and economic sanctions hit women hardest, while their gendered suffering is symbolically deployed as the justification for both these strategies.

With the Taliban now firmly in control of Afghanistan, the immediate future for women and girls in the country appears monumentally bleak. This bleakness is not unfamiliar. Following the overthrow of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1992 by the western-backed Mujahideen, the situation for women and girls in the region deteriorated rapidly: treated as second-class citizens by successive regimes, women continue to be the foremost victims of western aggression.

It has always been with us, across the globe and throughout recorded history, in Western Europe past and present, as well as the Middle East. Talk on social media turns on the need for feminist solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, but what does that look like? And how do we meaningfully and practically manifest this solidarity through cultural activity? In broad-left discourse, the notion of solidarity is everywhere invoked, but what do we actually mean when we use that word? And how might we achieve a measure of it through poetry?

These are big questions, without one single easy answer, although every so often I am fortunate enough to glimpse a possible route through the fog. For example, I have recently completed a project, working with Hari Rajaledchumy, for Poetry Translation Centre, to translate into English a collection of poems by the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Anar. Anar was born in 1974 in East Sri Lanka, and her early childhood was marked by intense outbreaks of ethnic violence that would later push the country into civil war. During this period education was not considered a priority for women and girls in general, and for the daughters of orthodox Muslim households in particular. Anar’s own education was interrupted when her home town of Sainthamaruthu was caught up in the chaos of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s withdrawal from the region.

Her family’s attempts to obtain the necessary paperwork for Anar to sit her O Level exams were consistently thwarted by military-imposed curfews and civic disarray. As a result, her schooling stopped, and she became confined to her home from the age of sixteen. Throughout these difficult and precarious years Anar’s one outlet was the radio, on which she would listen to poetry being recited. It stirred something in her, and eventually she began to work in secret on poems of her own, submitting her work under pseudonyms, gathering inspiration and encouragement from an emerging cohort of writers.

I don’t intend to share Anar’s biography in its entirety here, but it does feel important to talk a little about her life and work in the context of ‘sisterhood’, because it offers proof, if any were needed, that the oppression of women and girls is a global continuum. How many girls like Anar are now living in Afghanistan? Or in Palestine? How many girls throughout the world and throughout history? It is enough to make your head spin.

I also wanted to share something of Anar’s story because it speaks very specifically to poetry: what it can do for us, and what we can do – through poetry – for each other. It speaks to the idea of solidarity, and how this might be forged and encountered on the space of the page and within the breath of the poem. To talk about this, I'm going to invoke one of feminism's most radical and compassionate foresisters, the black lesbian activist and poet, Audre Lorde.

A communion of compassionate subjects

Lorde insisted throughout her life as a writer, thinker, and political activist upon sustained attention to the granular particularities of women’s experience, and upon the recognition of “the fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic”. It is a demand for otherness and diversity of voice within activist cohorts and within art and poetry as a precursor to radical change, and it stands in defiance to the homogenising inclination of mainstream white feminism, which used a white, western subject-position unreflectively as a model for all human experience.

Crucially, this does not mean that Lorde foresaw feminism’s collapse into a morass of oppositional interests, but rather that she dared to envisage feminism as a network of varied experiences and positions, coalescing around the common goal of liberation for all women. Lorde’s writing about her own struggle with illness is telling in this regard:

The women who sustained me [...] were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence. They gave me strength and concern without which I could not have survived intact. Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge – within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not – I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

Lorde’s suffering becomes an occasion for discovery, a kind of self-revelation within a community of female fellow sufferers, a communion of compassionate subjects. To speak and act out of our experience of suffering, acknowledging that this is something we share – this is the measure of true solidarity.

From casualty to warrior

Which is all well and good, but how do we transform this feeling from a vague rhetorical gesture into meaningful practical action? How do we move – in Lorde’s words – from casualty to warrior? This is a timely and pressing question. Speaking to a Palestinian friend over social media we got into a conversation about how “solidarity” had become the left-wing equivalent to the Christian right’s familiar “thoughts and prayers”, ie aimed in the general direction of any person or group experiencing hardship, as a substitute for actually having to do anything. Solidarity as a noun, my friend said, is no use to anyone. For solidarity to be meaningful, to be worthy of the name, it has to be a verb.

And for poetry this raises a difficulty. In recent history, at least in the west, poets have not had a great deal of political or economic power. We cannot impose sanctions or meaningfully withdraw our labour. Our work is largely solitary, our wider “communities” disparate and scattered. If we went on strike nobody would notice or care. Our ability to affectively mobilise and protest is limited. Our field of cultural activity is so specialised, subjective and personal, that we often fail to form recognisable labour cohorts. This is not to say that poets are not politically engaged and active as individuals, but that collectively the pressure we are able to exert is minimal.

Or is it? I find myself returning to the work of Anar, to our translation project, and to the story of Anar’s girlhood, listening to poetry on the radio, the volume turned down low to avoid detection. Poetry was not inconsequential for Anar, and the act of writing poetry was not for her an absorbing hobby, but a life-sustaining necessity that grew out of the particular pressured context of a country in tumult. There might have been grave consequences for her daring to write, but she wrote nonetheless, and in turn inspired others. None of this would not have been possible had she not apprehended first, through the airwaves, that community of compassionate subjects to which she could aspire and belong. I also find myself thinking that translation at its best can enact a form of reflective solidarity: furthering the reach of voices and experiences that might otherwise have been excluded from national poetic canons. This matters because it allows us to understand ourselves as women as part of a global struggle. It allows us to see each other and ourselves in all our difference and collective strength.

Preservation, relation, radial witnessing

Poetry, and literature more broadly, may also work through archival research to construct counter-narratives, undermining the willed collective amnesia that attends both the history and rights of our most vulnerable and exploited citizens. The University of Glasgow’s interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery is a fine example of such a project, but we might also consider the work of Jenny Mitchell, whose previously unpublished poem 'Shades of Jamaica', I am sharing today. Mitchell's work combines patient historicity with intense lyric writing to create a work of preservation, relation and radical imaginative empathy. Her 2019 collection 'Her Lost Language' (Indigo Dreams Publishing) traces the impact of British transatlantic enslavement on black lives and family dynamics. As Helen Hayes MP has noted of Mitchell's work, her poems “articulate the deep and long lasting impact of the horrific and shameful history of slavery on individual families, communities and relationships, and especially women.”

Mitchell and Clare Shaw, whose poem, 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape', I am also sharing today, are united by a belief in the power and potential of language not only to express the self and make sense of the world, but perhaps also to liberate and heal. In 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' Shaw expands the definition of 'information', embroidering the unadorned rhetoric of the institutional guide, with arresting lyric images; using metaphor and rich figurative language to broach an experience that often feels resistant to articulate disclosure: 'There are many reasons/ survivors do not tell.' writes Shaw, ' Most whale song cannot be heard/ by the human ear, yet it travels for/ ten thousand miles, which is more than/  the world, and it sounds like dreaming.' Shaw's poetry is underpinned by her work as a mental health educator, and across both contexts her faith in language – and poetry in particular – as a transformative tool for individuals, communities and societies is paramount. Hearing 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' for the first time I was reminded of the Adrienne Rich quote that “Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.” I am also reminded of a quote from Anar that Hari Rajaledchumy shared in the introduction to our translation project: “My poetry is about that fire known as language, which a woman carries under water.”

Poetry can offer support and form alliances. It can also be a tool in and of itself. Anthologies in particular create a diverse and intersectional poetic commons. Solidarity, frequently, is less about the noise we make than the space we afford for the stories of others to be heard.

The poems I am presenting today stage an important act of witnessing, offering an opportunity to connect and to be inspired through the empathetic reach and lyric energy of three very different poets who nevertheless share and articulate an experience of oppression as women. In sisterhood and solidarity,

Shades of Jamaica

by Jenny Mitchell

1. negro: dark, sable, dusky

sun licks me in the master’s field like fire whipped down by their god       my hands are blood from chopping cane till day turns rock          we women in a row              all starved to work 

the overseer shouts you slaves are devil made         i the blackest prey beneath him in the dark he has the nerve to kiss my mouth          his skin is shaped like death              black he calls again hush said to my child left in the shade with other pickney to grow wild            she calls him sir when she is his still       my body smiles to see her cheeny face    she’ll serve the master under his red roof like flame                    i pray he learns her books                                cave headed girls who scribe their english words are close to free           i pray she sees me wave bent in the crop

2. mulatto: mixed breed; young mule

House maid like it doesn’t hurt cleaning all of master’s rooms.
Ornate he calls a cuckoo clock, red sofas and a walking stick.
I have to clean ornate with care or feel the stick across my back.
This English man is dirty skinned though money laden.
He has me on my knees to polish marble stairs into a looking glass.
I see my mother’s face, too fini-fini though she smiles.
When polishing the banisters, I whisper how he names my legs
good thighs, strong calves. Red meat chopped for his larder
can’t breed a child as pale as him. He named her at my breast.
Raised to a dandy girl, serving gift for his new wife.

3. quadroon: a quarter negro; offspring of a mulatto and a white

Preparing mistress for her bed, she cries
Your hands do not look clean when they’re scrubbed raw.
I show my palms, begin to brush her hair.
She slaps me hard. I know the reason why.
My shining locks outrank limp curls.
I dare not call the master to be saved.
He always says how beautiful I am.
She takes it out on me when we’re alone,
prays for God to save my half-breed soul.
I want to scream a quarter black, no more.


Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape

by Clare Shaw

Though sexual abuse takes many forms,
salmon will find their way home, I have seen them
leaping up falls, there was nothing calm
about them, the current and cold
could not stop them, they were sky-born
and silver. There are many reasons

survivors do not tell.
Most whale song cannot be heard
by the human ear, yet it travels for
ten thousand miles, which is more than
the world, and it sounds like dreaming,
like wolf and bird.

Flashbacks are recollections from the past
and in Tromso, the sun will not rise from
November to January.
You may feel you are going crazy
but the worst is over,
and though you are very afraid

when their oxygen tank blew apart
a quarter of a million miles from earth
the crew of Apollo 13 made it back
unharmed. Remember to breathe.
The Shaman travels beyond the ordinary
and an animal walks beside you,

you are power
and though you couldn’t remove yourself
from the situation you were in,
there are 7.422 billion people in the world
and rising, you are not alone.
The sun will not set in Tromso

between May and June
but it’s the winter that people love
when the ice glows blue
and the night is a colour of its own.
Sometimes lights will dance in the sky
and though it’s minus thirty

it will be enough to warm you,
to sustain you, enough
to convince you to stay.

Taken from the forthcoming collection Towards a General Theory of Love (Bloodaxe, 2022)


Killing a Woman

by Anar

Here is a battlefield,
a convenient clinic, a silo
of superabundant supply,
a permanent prison.
Here is a woman's body,
a sacrificial slab.

The heart’s ache, the pulse
of life, belongs to us both, but

for women it will not take root.

Before my eyes
my murder is happening.

Translated by Hari Rajaledchumy and Fran Lock from the forthcoming collection Leaving (Poetry Translation Centre, 2021)

Jenny Mitchell's debut collection, Her Lost Language, was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. Her second collection, Map of a Plantation, was published this year. She recently won the Folklore Prize and the Ware Poetry Prize.

Clare Shaw is a co-director of the Kendal Poetry Festival. She has three poetry collections with Bloodaxe - Straight Ahead, Head On and Flood: her forthcoming collection was awarded a Northern Writers' Award and will be published by Bloodaxe in 2022.

Anar (Izzat Rehana Mohammed Azeem) is a distinguished voice in the Sri Lankan Tamil poetry scene with 5 critically acclaimed collections to her name. She has been contributing her poems and articles to literary magazines and national media since the early 90s. Her books have won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka's National Literature Award, the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award, Aaathmanam Award (Chennai), SPARROW Award (Mumbai), and the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award.

Hari Rajaledchumy is an artist/writer currently based in London, UK. Some of her recent writings have appeared in Manalveedu (India) and Aaakkaddi (France). She previously worked as a translator on Kim Longinotto’s 2013 documentary film ‘Salma’, based on the life and works of Indian Tamil poet Salma. In 2021, she co-curated the inaugural edition of QCSL study programme aimed at strengthening queer cultural production within Sri Lanka.

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:25

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison about Anxious Corporals, a polemical and poetic history of post-war working-class culture, which can be ordered here

Fran Lock: Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Anxious Corporals. The term ‘anxious corporals’ was first coined by Arthur Koestler to describe working-class servicemen with a need to ‘satisfy some/ Vitamin deficiency of the mind’, not for the purposes of self-advancement, but to fill some kind of existential void or to make sense of the fragile and threatening world around them. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about this feeling of anxiety, which is communicated in the language and restless lyric flow of the poem. Do you have any thoughts about why, at a contemporary moment that is surely ever more precarious and insecure, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding drive or thirst for knowledge?

Alan Morrison: Anxiety is underneath everything I do, particularly creatively, it’s the conductor of my thoughts and words and ideas; also an obsessiveness, which very much comes through in the obsessional pull of this poem, of the phrasings punctuated only with commas, giving a breathless almost panicky quality.

Creativity and self-expression are essentially anxious acts. Arguably life itself is a state of anxiety, of anticipation, apprehension, excitement, dread, I take quite a Kierkegaardian angle (which can also be exhausting). But on a more personal level, I’m a lifelong sufferer of anxiety so I suppose this comes through in what I write, and what I write about.

My tendency to compose in an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of lines and phrasings with only commas is something that’s crept into my poetry in the last couple of years. It’s not really a conscious thing, it just feels natural to me now, and more liberating, to write in this way, for some reason I’ve come to hate full stops, even to the point that I end stanzas and poems with ellipses (i.e. dot dot dots) – full stops look too final, and it feels absurd to me that any thought or thoughts, often profound, especially as expressed in a poem, for example, ever have a definitive end as signified in a full stop: thoughts and feelings and sensations are continuous or recurring, they are tortuous, they loop, they collect and disperse and collect again, like starlings, hence for me it feels completely inappropriate to end a verse or a poem with a full stop.

Within verses and poems I find commas less intrusive, and occasionally I use semi-colons as stitches between different trains of thought; but commas seem to me the most poetically accommodating of punctuation marks, helping the poem keep a constant cadence and flow, each line, phrasing seeping into the next, like thoughts, like feelings…

On the other part of your question, I think the irony today is that with ever greater resources for communication and information the novelties in those areas have diminished rather than expanded, the sense of curiosity blunted, it’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in, you see perhaps the ultimate triumph of commodity-based consumer capitalism in the sight of families and friends sat at cafes scrolling through their phones rather than conversing properly, the ultimate individualisation, almost a form of mass-solipsism - but which ultimately is just another form of conformity. 

It’s impossible to generalise of course. No doubt there are sections of society, certain types of people who do still thirst knowledge, but a lot of the time the knowledge sought might not be the most enlightening. But ultimately what such vast archives of easily accessed knowledge such as on the internet seem to have achieved is an increasing craving for instant gratification, an impatience, a poor concentration, an attitude that seems to expect everything to be immediately explainable at the touch of a button. But most things aren’t instantly explainable, many things require very active application, long studied reading and processing.

FL: Related to the last question, it occurred to me that we have unprecedented access to all kinds of knowledge today, and that in theory at least, education – both formal and informal – is more readily available to us than ever before. Despite this, Anxious Corporals is excoriating about the demise of critical thinking among working-class cohorts, and I think one really significant aspect of this book is its understanding of this demise as something that is also done to us, deliberately, politically, over time.

I was particularly struck by your critique of relativist or postmodern discourse, which tries to ‘prove/ Everything is relative, ultimately subjective, intrinsically/ Ironic, endlessly reductive’.  I’m reminded of the ways in which these ideas were used cynically within the space of the university to re-establish the status quo, following decades of radical ferment during the sixties and seventies. Throughout this period there was a great deal of on-campus activism, but also a profusion and merging of solidarities inside and outside of the academy, with a huge rise in worker-student alliances.

Postmodernism was deployed in this context to convince students that nothing is true. If activism begins with the basic assumption that some ideas and actions are right, and that others wrong, then undermining this conviction removes the motivation to protest. Being heavily jargonistic, postmodernism also undermines the ability of those inside the academy to speak clearly and coherently to those outside, reinforcing a sense of elitism and hierarchy. Finally, there is the attack on kinship through an absolute insistence on identity-driven subjectivism. Nauseating, and I think one of the things Anxious Corporals is really acute on is articulating how this toxic creed spills out of the academy and is deployed by neoliberal culture more broadly.

Could you say something about how this kind of neoliberal postmodern malaise has affected the way in which working-class cohorts understand ‘knowledge’, how we access knowledge, and how postmodernism has whittled down and shaped the value placed on intellectual curiosity, education, and ‘facts’?

AM: Yes, absolutely, when we think of the internet and its vast repository of information readily available for pretty much anyone to access today (bar maybe those families at the lowest economic scale who perhaps can’t afford phones or computers), a greater democratisation of knowledge if you like, then the past arguments that whole sections of society are unable to access these areas and are thus significantly handicapped in attempts at self-education (though there have always been libraries!) would seem less credible, ostensibly.

I say ostensibly, since of course one has to some extent to know or have some clue as to where to look for certain types of knowledge; okay, so Wikipedia is very prominent and easily accessible on pretty much any subject today, but there still might be barriers of literacy, and domestic demands on time and concentration in those families that are materially impoverished; as I learnt myself as a teenager struggling to learn anything much at school, poverty is not very conducive to learning.

However, in spite of growing up in relative poverty, which had been the result of lots of bad luck on my parents’ part, I had other advantages that many of my working-class and disadvantaged schoolmates didn’t have: my parents were both essentially middle class, they’d not been educated at public schools, but my father had been to a good quality grammar school, while my mother, though from a more working-class background originally, had been partly educated at a convent school, and then had had elocution lessons when she was a young aspiring actress (though she didn’t in the end pursue that career, instead deciding to settle and have a family; she had at one point been a teacher at a fairly prestigious primary school but thereafter had worked as a dental nurse, dinner lady, auxiliary nurse).

So my brother and I grew up in an atmosphere of educational and cultural aspiration, encouraged by fairly well-educated parents, and in my father’s case, well-read. The atmosphere of our upbringing was bookish. But materially we were pretty impoverished for the entire period of our secondary education, during which my father through no fault of his own suffered periods of unemployment. After leaving the Royal Marines in 1967 (AC is part-dedicated to him since he was a Corporal, and an anxious one at that!),he had gone into the civil service and worked in London in different government departments, but after our move from Worthing to Cornwall he had found it extremely difficult to get back into the civil service and eventually ended up working as a security guard for the rest of his working life; he was what sociologists would call a ‘skidder’, someone who has skidded down the occupational ladder. My mother worked as an auxiliary nurse in an old peoples’ home. Both of them were on very low wages and worked punishing shifts.

I suppose I’d describe my family background as lapsed middle class, one of faded gentility, the perennial shabby-genteel; financially and materially we were very much on the working-class level, if not actually below that at various periods (sufficiently poor that I have memories of often going to bed hungry).

So it wouldn’t be entirely accurate for me to claim to speak on behalf of the working classes since mine was a mixed-class background: I think this is a category that even sociology has yet to fully get to grips with. It meant that our kind of poverty was particularly severe in terms of social isolation, since we were not part of any broader and similarly disadvantaged community and lived in a small hamlet which only added to our sense of remoteness from everything. But suffice it to say that I agree that much of this cultural deprivation is ‘done to’ people and of course we see this mass effort of ignorance-promoting misinformation deployed daily through the right-wing red top press, which also completely corrupts our democratic process through its mass hypnotism of vast sections of the population towards voting Tory or the nearest equivalent. Tabloid editors would argue it’s patronising to say so, but what could be more patronising than the presumption that the working classes want to read the anti-intellectual, culturally philistine and politically reactionary tripe that they spoon-feed them?

When I wrote AC I was very angry, perhaps not completely fairly but I felt I’d lost a lot of sympathy with certain sections of the working classes for voting for Brexit in the Referendum. Back in the Eighties many had fallen for the false promises of Thatcherism, which resulted in the spiritual crippling of our culture and society and lasting scars that have still yet to heal; so when so many seemed to fall for the xenophobic populism of Farage, Johnson and Vote Leave, I just felt so frustrated, betrayed and, well, just angry, angry at what I saw as seeming mass ignorance. And then the final nail in the coffin was the ‘red wall’ in the Midlands and North turning blue in December 2019 – how could such huge swathes of the working classes vote for someone so transparently dishonest, unprincipled, unscrupulous and out of touch as Boris Johnson…? How on earth could they perceive an upper-class narcissist like Johnson as representing their interests…?

Of course the red top press has much to do with this, targeting the working classes as it does, but does there come a point when the Left has to stop and ask, to what extent can we blame the tabloids for proletarian attitudes and voting choices? Is there an element on the Left of our sometimes infantilising the working classes by perceiving them as constant victims of circumstances, and assuming to abdicate all responsibility on their behalf, treating them like overly impressionable children who are easily ‘taken in’? (I say working classes as opposed to working class since they’re/we’re not a homogenous mass of course). The Sun and the hard-right Daily Express might well be daily appealing for their attention in every newsagent, but there is also the Daily Mirror, also a tabloid, but a Labour-supporting one, which has a similar ‘celebrity gossip’-pulling power as its right-wing competitors; and the Morning Star, though not available everywhere, is ostensibly presented in an accessible tabloid format. These are just things I’m throwing in the air, they’re open for debate, I’m ultimately still in a quandary about it all.

The study in working-class Toryism, Angels of Marble, which I excerpt extensively in AC, provides us with many depressing and uncomfortable answers to the conundrum of blue-collar Conservatism, and it really is vital information which still applies today and is something so fundamental to British society that it has to be understood and combated by the Left into the future if we’re ever to break the right-wing hegemony of our political system (though personally I think the only real solution to neutralising the Tory monopoly in the long term is proportional representation – something which might come in time through petition, protest and perhaps an electoral referendum, and maybe one day will be rooted out just as rotten boroughs were in the 19th century).

FL: I also wonder to what extent you think that capitalism – and Thatcherism in particular – has succeeded in devaluing education in and of itself, if it is not connected to some kind of quantifiable economic ‘success’?

There’s a kind of grotesque instrumentalisation of intellectual effort at play within capitalism, which goes hand-in-hand with a carefully cultivated suspicion of – and hostility towards – ‘knowledgeable people’ from those organs and institutions supposed to represent working-class interests and ideals. This is beautifully and bleakly communicated by both yourself and Richard Hoggart, who you quote from extensively throughout Anxious Corporals, in section XII. In this section you also talk about the general distortion of working-class values by capitalism and through culture. Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, but this process is horribly ongoing.

Could you speak about this process of distortion and some of its most recent manifestations? Is it a trend that you also see reflected in contemporary poetry?

AM: Oh absolutely, the primary preoccupation of capitalism and all capitalist governments is economic productivity and this is why there is such lack of interest in and low tolerance of Tory ministers towards the Arts and Humanities in academia, as these areas are not perceived to be particularly productive economically nor geared towards capitalist/Tory notions of societal progress which they see as almost solely invested in the sciences and technologies – this betrays the philistine materialism of much Tory and capitalist thought (if it can be called thought at all).

This is why we’re now seeing governmental disengagement with the Arts and Humanities, not only in terms of funding in the universities but also in wider culture. Moreover, the Tories tend to also see the Arts and Humanities as an intellectual threat to capitalist dogma and hegemony, particularly subjects such as Sociology and Cultural Studies. To use the old adage, capitalism ‘knows the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

There is definitely a cultural hostility towards ‘knowledge’, to some extent there’s always been a philistine seam to the British mentality, but our society became very actively anti-intellectual since the Thatcherite revolution, neoliberalism is the ultimate bourgeoisification of culture in terms of promoting mediocrity and banality (e.g. celebrity culture), imagination is distrusted, everything is trivialised to the lowest common denominator, individualism encouraged but individuality mystified and even stigmatised.

I think this anti-intellectualism and, indeed, anti-idealism, has permeated contemporary poetry for some decades now in the postmodernist mainstream, there’s long been a culture of stylistic policing which increasingly homogenises the medium, and so one has to look elsewhere, to the fringes, the small presses, to find the most interesting and authentic poetry being published. For a long time, certainly through the Nineties and Noughties, political poetry was generally frowned upon and belittled by the literary establishment and shunned by mainstream imprints (notable exceptions were presses such as Smokestack, Five Leaves, Flambard and a few others).

It took the financial crash and the onslaught of Tory austerity, then Brexit, then Trump, to jump-start the poetry mainstream into more active political consciousness, but even then it’s been on catch up. As I’ve written before, in a polemical monograph ‘Reoccupying Auden Country’, published at The International Times in 2011 ( and then reproduced in The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, postmodernism is peculiarly ill-equipped to tackle socio-political topics.

But there has been a slow continuing politicisation of poetry over the past few years, something like a depth-charge, which is has infiltrated the mainstream to some extent, though nowhere as markedly and authentically as through such auspices as Culture Matters, Smokestack Books, the Morning Star, the Communist Review, poetry journals such as Red Poets and The Penniless Press, and other such politically engaged outlets, that have been doing this since long before the mainstream picked up the scent. Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the poetry scene, the trend is still, stubbornly and increasingly towards social irrelevance, individualism, poetic solipsism, and attitudinal narcissism – selfie-poetry.

FL: Following on from that last thought, I wonder to what extent you see poetry as a potential site of resistance to this distortion of working-class values by capitalism; a kind of redoubt against mass or – to quote Hoggart  ‘synthetic culture and intellectually-vetted entertainments’?

AM: Yes I think poetry can be a form of creative resistance, of polemical response through poetic self-expression to political events, but at the same time it can also end up being co-opted by the capitalist powers and upper echelons, and there are excerpts I include in AC from Ken Worpole’s exceptional polemic Dockers and Detectives that specifically touches on this phenomenon. Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, too, is an extensive polemic about the dumbing down of mass culture which he documented way back in the late 50s, which was still well within the post war social democratic consensus. I’ve yet to read any of Hoggart’s later writings but I can only imagine his sense of complete despair at how things sped up in these respects through the Eighties and beyond.

But to return to poetry: in a sense, being arguably the least economically productive or enriching artistic medium, it has nothing to lose in being as political, as oppositional as it can be (and yet so much of it is so conservative!); it’s a medium belittled by the capitalist establishment, if not openly despised for its impecuniousness, and thus deeply distrusted. Poetry can be weaponised, more spiritually than politically I think, in the sense that it is something materially transcendent, since it has such little material incentive, and this gives it an unpredictable power all its own. Most of this power is in metaphor – metaphor is both weapon and camouflage. 

FL: My own take has always been that poetry requires of us – both as readers and writers – such deep, sustained attention to the operations of language, that it offers a kind of antidote to the passive content-imbibing we’re encouraged to participate in by other forms of literature and media. This leads me with a numbing inevitability to Insta-poetry, and the commercially successful pap that’s pumped out in its name.

One of the things I love about Anxious Corporals is that it is the absolute opposite of Insta-poetry. It’s knotty and complex, rich, allusive, rigorous and dense; it demands and rewards the reader’s non-trivial attention. It doesn’t offer these neat little parcels of peaceable catharsis. It’s troubling and difficult on the level of ethics and ideas. I suppose what I want to know is to what extent you see the cynical and sinister operations of capitalism through the rise of Insta-entrepreneur figures like Rupi Kaur and ‘Atticus’? Do you feel that the commercial ascendancy of such figures under the banner of ‘poetry’ is capitalism’s attempt to colonise or absorb the one form of literature it hasn’t yet successfully assimilated?

AM: I’ve no problem with accessibility and even simplicity in poetry, when it is appropriate for the subject or the tone or purpose of the poem, but I think people have the right to expect from apparently simple poems that, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence, there are other levels which the closer reader can discover under the ostensibly accessible surface.

Complete simplicity in and of itself in poetry –and any medium– inescapably morphs into the commonplace, quotidian, banal, into truism or platitude; there needs to be something else to it, engagement with language, symbol, metaphor, aphorism, something that lifts it beyond the trite or trivial. Ultimately I’m much more exercised by dumbing down or casualisation of literature.

But yes, capitalism absolutely tries to absorb or colonise any artforms that otherwise might pose some sort of threat such as becoming widespread or popular outside of its control. You see this increasingly in bank and building society adverts using spoken word artists, often from BAME backgrounds, in order to give the impression these corporate organisations somehow stand for inclusivity and are there to serve ordinary people, as opposed to profiting out of them.

FL: Connected to this last idea, I wanted to ask you about the notion of ‘accessibility’, both in terms of literature in general and poetry in particular. One of the beautiful things about the Pelican imprint – which is evoked throughout Anxious Corporals as both an emblem of working-class intellectual curiosity and a visual metaphor for the loss of this vital drive – was that it placed the tools of education within the working man’s material reach. These books were readily available in places working people were likely to frequent; they were easily identifiable, they were portable, and they were cheap. In other words ‘accessible’ in the truest sense.

One quietly disturbing trend in contemporary culture has been this shift in emphasis from ‘accessibility’ as equality of opportunity in terms of affordability and distribution, to being ‘accessible’ in terms of content, style or form. This has allowed any work that is challenging or nuanced or risk-taking to be positioned as ‘difficult’ or wilfully ‘alienating’, and this stance meets demands for richness, rigour and innovation with accusations of elitism. Is this something you feel aware of, maybe even write against? Could you tell me if it is something you have experienced in terms of the critical reception of your own writing? And to what extent do you see publishers like Smokestack as inheritors of Pelican’s mission?

AM: Yes, as AC pays to tribute to, Pelicans were originally sold in outlets such as Woolworths, purposely to target working-class readerships – this was a huge part of the Pelican ‘brief’, it was at the core of its publishing mission: to make knowledge, and mostly that hitherto perceived as ‘highbrow’ knowledge, readily available to the masses, cheaply priced, and accessibly communicated, but in no way that meant dumbing down, Pelican books were usually very well-written, often by leading thinkers and intellectuals of the time, but they were presented in an accessible and affordable format so as to attract the ordinary person on the street and give them access to hitherto cordoned-off rooms of information. Pelicans gave opportunities for true self-education on a wide variety of subjects. I agree with you that the perception of what ‘accessibility’ seems to mean today is in terms of over-simplifying. Crucially Pelicans still required intellectual effort from the readers, but glossaries elucidated all jargon.

Yes I suspect that much of my poetry is perceived as a bit ‘difficult’ at times, and on precisely this subject there was one review of AC which was generally positive but in which the reviewer took me to task for not making the poem a bit more accessible, mostly in terms of its presentation, density and, presumably, the absence of any glossary or notes. So perhaps with AC I didn’t quite hit the ‘accessibility’ mark of the very Pelican mission it’s partly paying tribute to.

If so, this was not a conscious thing, but basically down to space restriction, page count limit, and having already practically cut the poem by around 50% believe it or not – it was originally of truly epic proportions, now it’s a mere epic poem

And yes, absolutely, presses like Smokestack, and Culture Matters, and a handful of others, are indeed the poetry-equivalent to Pelican in many respects, and of the Left Book Club, while in the wider polemical field there are presses like Zed Books, Verso, Pluto, Lawrence & Wishart et al, and, indeed, a newly resurgent Pelican and Left Book Club. And online we have Prole, Proletarian Poetry, Poets’ Republic, Culture Matters, and of course my own The Recusant and its imprint Caparison, and Militant Thistles.

FL: Something else I’d like to ask about is the lack of funding this project received. I mention this because a bugbear of mine over the last few years has been to witness a number of poetic projects that were researched and written with assistance from ACE or like organisations. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but I always end up reading the declaration that ‘This book could not have been written without the generous support of blah-de-blah’ and thinking ‘Really?’ Because I think very often working-class writers are performing that work totally unacknowledged and unsupported because it doesn’t even occur to us to ask for help, or because we wouldn’t know who to ask or how to apply. And there’s a sense in which this is totally unfair, but there’s also a sense in which it produces rare, exciting and autonomous thought.

It proves that we can be the archaeologists, archivists and explorers of our own history and collective experience, without any mediation between ourselves as writers and the knowledge we seek, and the community of readers we are striving to reach. And in that sense, I think Anxious Corporals is not only a didactic work, it is also a hopeful example of what we can learn and what we can create under our own steam. Can you tell me something about your process for writing and researching this book, and share any thoughts you have about the differences between funded research projects and the kinds of self-directed autodidactic research you were engaged in with this book?

AM: I know exactly what you’re getting at here. You’re right, this particular work wasn’t funded in any way, it was a long-standing labour of love researched, written and painstakingly redrafted (over 100 times!) throughout the last three or more years. Having said that, I have received funding for some of my previous poetry books, two Arts Council G4A Awards in consecutive years for Blaze a Vanishing and The Tall Skies (Waterloo, 2013) and an online-only epic polemical poem Odour of Devon Violet (2014-) which has been an ongoing work-in-progress.

I’ve also over the years received grants from other bodies such as the Royal Literary Fund and the Society of Authors, not to work on particular books but as general subsistence support, and I did also acknowledge the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust for its financial support while I finished Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, India/US, 2020). But certainly for my earlier collections I was fairly unaware of any opportunities for support and it took many years of completely unfunded writing before I came to find out about some of these, mostly through tips from other poets and writers more adept at finding and applying for such things. But it’s not really a creative instinct, I think, to seek out support and funding for your work, even if it becomes a financial necessity (such as ‘time to write’ grants) – poets are perhaps particularly ill-suited to anything so rational and practical as filling out funding applications (though you might be surprised just how adept at this some are!).

It’s also difficult not to be sceptical about the poetry prize culture, since for so long it appears to have been monopolised by a relatively small grouping of perceived ‘top’ presses, which stretches credibility, the best work can’t always be being published by the same six or so imprints (out of tens of dozens), surely…? But there are pecking orders. Certain expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Less than transparent protocols. There’s also the Oxbridge dimension which has never gone away and which has if anything become much more prevalent in the past decade (in every area of culture).

These prizes not only bestow prestige on recipients but also in some cases considerable financial reward, so it can be a double bitter pill for those struggling working-class and marginalised poets who feel they keep missing out on them. (And when I say ‘marginalised’ this also covers those with disabilities, whether physical or mental health issues, which significantly impact on their access to opportunities; ‘underrepresented’ is the term applied today, and I myself have been described before as an ‘underrepresented poet’). Then there’s the domino effect whereby scooping one prize seems to act as a passport to scooping more, often in fairly quick succession. One of the things I’ve observed over the years is that the best networkers, the pushiest, tend to get the best opportunities; it’s all as much to do with first come, first serve as it is with merit. Many of the most gifted poets I’ve known have often been the least pushy and thus the ones who have languished the longest in obscurity with few breaks or openings – perhaps that’s because they’re more focused on their craft than on its marketing.

Walter Gallichan (writing as Geoffrey Mortimer) in his brilliantly witty The Blight of Respectability, which I excerpt extensively in AC, coined some excellent adages on precisely this theme, one which touched on the ‘shy genius’ being shunned by the establishments while the ‘author of mediocre ability’, the ‘adept of claptrap’, gets all the opportunities and plaudits, just as in, as I also mention at this point in AC, the characters of Edwin Reardon (impoverished authentic writer) and Jasper Milvain (networking hack-writer) in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a novel Gallichan would have no doubt been aware of and probably would have read. So little has changed since their time of writing in the 1890s!

AC was created out of self-directed research, it’s one of the ways I come to poetry, as a response to wide reading on certain subjects, the sources are books I largely sought out or discovered by chance, one of them was on my father’s bookshelves, he being a keen amateur genealogist with a strong interest in social history, and particularly that of the lower middle classes – I might point out here, too, that AC is not only or entirely focused on the historic working classes, it also takes in the lower middle classes, particularly clerks, much of the information sourced from David Lockwood’s rather dry but informative and compendious The Black Coated Worker. As mentioned before, I’d describe my own background as mixed class: materially and financially working-class (even at times underclass) but educationally and attitudinally middle-class, if that makes any sense.

FL: One of my favourite passages from Anxious Corporals contains these elegiac lines for the Pelican imprint:

Turn at ever more frequent intervals to silent trickles
Of the written page, and in those captivating lakes
Of meaning-making, of careful thought and crafted phrase,
Empathetic pools of escape, come to expand their mental plains

There is so much of note in these lines, which read in the first instance like both an elegy for and a celebration of print media itself, for a particular tactile experience of reading. There is also the real sense of the Pelican imprint’s value being in its empathetic reach, its capacity to expand horizons and connect working people in a kind of felt mutuality. This is exactly opposite to the cynically exploited ‘brand’ value of Pelican as a fetishised commodity, a hollow simple, emptied out of meaning, deployed in the service of a weaponised nostalgia.

What I really relish about this final section of the text is how the old Pelicans, surviving in ‘charity shop surplus’ become sources of solidarity and sustenance for the ‘amputees of new/ Imperialism’, for a new vanguard of ‘anxious corporals’.  There is deep sadness towards the end of the book for a loss of Pelican, and for the aims and aspirations of an intellectually curious working-class, but I also have a sense of hope: Pelican – like the working classes ourselves – persists, endures by other means. This is also something that is communicated in your muscular and resistive use of language. Would you mind finishing by talking about this germ of hope, and where – if it is coming from anywhere – you see it as coming from?

AM: Where there’s humanity, compassion, and spirit, there’s always hope, in the spirit of poetry, of creativity, of giving, of unconditional love – in this spirit of compassionate opposition, whether it manifests politically in socialism or communism, in liberation theology at the fusion point of Marxism and Christianity, in Christianity as the religion of the poor and oppressed as it was originally, and all other likeminded religions, where there’s imagination and compassion there’s always hope for something better to come, and if we are to save humanity and, indeed, the world on which we depend, then we need to become more compassionate, empathetic, communitarian and, of course, more nurturing of the planet which supports us.

Capitalism, materialism, consumerism all stand in the way of this, and so they must be swept aside, in time they will have to be, simply, if humanity is to survive into any future worth having, whether through human means or those outside of our control.  

FL: Thanks so much for talking to me, Alan! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

AM: Not at all, it was a pleasure answering such incisive questions.


This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle
Friday, 18 June 2021 08:37

This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about Thatcher and her legacy. Image above: Steev Burgess

Not quite a decade after her death, and already cultural depictions of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher are everywhere in evidence, most recently in the hit Netflix TV series The Crown, where she is played by Gillian Anderson. Anderson's portrayal is by no means flattering; it has, in fact, received a great deal of vitriolic backlash from the right-wing press. Good. Except the problem of representing this most bloody and divisive of prime ministers goes far beyond the degree of sympathy with which she is characterised. It has to do with what happens when we translate political figures from the muck and mess of immediate history into slickly produced packages of self-contained narrative. It has to do with what happens when the pain of living memory becomes popular entertainment.

Where Thatcher is concerned, there is so much pain, persistent pain. One significant discomfort I have with The Crown and with similar docudramas is that it relegates the events of Thatcher's tenure to a finite and clearly delineated past, when the horrors she inaugurated and presided over are not, in any meaningful measure, 'finished'. As an example, we might consider Orgreave and Hillsborough, and the long and difficult struggles for justice endured by those affected.

The violence that took place at Orgreave was not merely the worst example of police brutality ever witnessed in a modern industrial dispute; it was the culmination of a concerted campaign on behalf of Thatcher's government to diminish the strength of the trade unions. In the years before Orgreave the Conservatives had planned to face and to defeat a strike by the NUM, or by another of the mass-membership unions; to that end they had inextricably allied themselves with the police, awarding pay rises for officers, while workers in nationalised industries were forced to live at the sharp-end of redundancy and privatisation. In the wake of the violence, where mounted police charged protesters, attacking them without justifiable provocation, Thatcher's private secretary wrote to a Home Office official that 'The prime minister […] agrees that the chief constable of South Yorkshire should be given every support in his efforts to uphold the law.' A note by her policy advisor, David Pascall, expresses a similarly swift and absolute judgement, describing the miners as a 'mob' and as 'Scargill's shock-troops'.

Police brutality

The legitimation and bolstering of police brutality as policy could be said to lead inexorably to events at Hillsborough. In not holding the South Yorkshire police force to account for Orgreave, in frustrating inquiries into police violence, and in refusing to implement reforms, Thatcher's government saw Peter Wright, the chief constable who had overseen the operation at Orgreave, still in charge some four years later. Wright was responsible for appointing David Duckenfield to police the match at Hillsborough, and for heading the campaign to deny responsibility for the disaster, blaming and slandering the victims. The treatment of football supporters at Hillsborough was given official sanction by the brutal policing of the miners’ strike. It is all connected, and the search for justice and accountability is ongoing. The repercussions ripple out for years, across generations. The complexity, specificity, and interrelatedness of this pain is not easily accommodated within the docudrama format, which relies heavily on resolution within neatly determined narrative arcs.

An even greater level of unease exists for me around the issue of focus. The Crown and similar shows are top-down dramas: we see the subjective effect of the decisions Thatcher made upon herself and her immediate circle. We do not see the wider consequences of those decisions for the thousands of people who suffered them, or we see those consequences only in the broadest possible brush strokes, and not with the nuance and granular particularity of real experience. This creates a vague nostalgic haze around events such as the miners' strike or the invasion of the Falkland Islands. These are cultural milestones, they feel known, but they are little understood; they have become the depoliticised stuff of zeitgeist, emptied of content and of true human cost.

The screen transmits personality, it cannot credibly render the difficult and shadowy reasoning of ideology, which is where Thatcher's murderous toxicity truly lived. How can an actor hope to convey this through gesture and tone, within the limits of an accessible light-entertainment script?

They can't, and so viewers are either hoodwinked into a sympathetic identification with the Thatcher 'character', or they may come to relish Anderson's performance as a kind of cartoon Ice Queen, an exaggerated parody of awfulness. At a cultural moment where the line between politics and entertainment is already dangerously blurred, and where political careers rise and fall on the strength of 'personality', this should give us pause. Yes, politicians are people too, but it isn't who they are as human beings that is relevant to us, it is what they do. Learning to read politicians as characters, and political careers as stories of individual exceptionalism, of private triumph or failure, is a disturbing trend with grave implications for our future as voters and citizens.

The Ballymurphy Massacre

This has been much on my mind of late. The recent conclusion of the long-awaited inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre has had me thinking about hidden continuities of state violence. Mrs Justice Keegan delivered a savage indictment of both the British army's actions and the subsequent state-sanctioned efforts to depict the deceased as IRA members. The attack in 1971, is one in a long line of historical injustices that are only now, after decades, beginning to be addressed, including those that took place during Thatcher's tenure.

In particular, I have been thinking about the atrocities carried out by the notorious Glenanne gang, to which is attributed some 120 murders. The Glenanne gang were an informal alliance of ultra-loyalist groups, run with the collusion of the British government. It comprised roughly 40 men, including members of the British police (the RUC), British soldiers, and paramilitary groups such as the UDR and the UVF. When the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre reported, the papers made their usual noises about how the findings could pave the way for prosecutions of armed forces veterans for historical abuses in the North of Ireland. Government and armed forces spokespersons were quick to shout down any such suggestions, highlighting once again the statute of limitations that covers both members of the occupying British forces and paramilitary groups. The argument being presented is that such a statute of limitations is fair to 'all sides'. It is not. There is an enormous difference between those actions carried out by local paramilitaries, and by those of an occupying nation state. And with regards to collusion with loyalist groups, the British government clearly has much to lose should the extent of that collusion become known.

What these reflections reveal, I think, is that history is still being made; that it is in a continuous process of painful negotiation and discovery. For that reason there would seem to be a greater duty of care attendant upon the treatment of recent history in art and culture. This kind of careful and pressured attention is something lacking in the mainstream media's recent depictions of Thatcher. Depictions in which her flawed humanity becomes the only necessary apology for the violent racism, classism, and homophobia of her politics, or in which she becomes a sort of grotesque scapegoat: the embodiment of the worst excesses of neoconservative ideology. Thatcher didn't happen out of air; the ideas she instituted did not disappear in a puff of smoke as soon as she was out of office. Look at Tony Blair and Keir Starmer. Her legacy is a living one, as viscerally present as it is vile. Look at the North of Ireland, and the blatant disregard for Irish life that Tory Brexit has exposed. Look at the victims of police brutality and their families, still waiting for justice after all these years.

The poems I want to present  address themes around Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle.  Unpacking a language for talking about the trauma of Thatcher and Thatcherism will take time and effort, but these poems, with their meticulous attention to sound and to the texture of particular, lived experience are a vivid and important beginning, a necessary counter-narrative.

The day she died

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There were fireworks,
Dancing in the street,
Ding-dong the witch is
Dead blasting out of stereos
But I stayed in our house,
Curtains closed
That day they went back,
All brass bands and banners,
Lives in flinders,
Faces clenched like fists
How she closed down the mines
And him sat in that chair
For weeks at a stretch
His thousand yard stare
At the end.
So no, I didn’t join in.
Just sat here alone.

they want all of our teeth to be theirs

By Martin Hayes

they want from us total commitment
they want from us our blood and our hunger
they want our flesh
inked with the company’s logo on our chest
they want our knuckles to our brains
and all the nerve-ends in between
switched off
they want our sinews and our muscles
sewn together with steal thread
so that we can only move
when they pull their levers
they want all of our teeth to be theirs
so that we can only chew when they chew
ache when they ache
they want us to show them where we keep our guts
so that they can sneak in under the radar
and pull them apart
angry thread by angry thread
until nothing is held
or stitched together anymore
they want us like robots
sat at our workstations every day
not wanting or able to think
of anything other than what their virus
has burrowed into us
and malfunctioned us to think
and what do we want?
we want to be able to walk through the park on a Saturday afternoon
without feeling anxious
we want to be able to lay out on the grass
drinking ice cold beer
while looking up into the sky
without worrying about office politics
we want to swim in the ocean once a year
and know how we are going to pay for it
we want a mouth full of teeth
that we know we can afford to get fixed
or capped
if ever they should go rotten
we want to be able to enjoy the laughter and song
that comes from having food in the fridge the electricity bill nearly paid
a car taxed and full of diesel
a medicine cabinet full of floss sticks and Sudocrem
paracetamol and hand cream
Bonjela hair bands
Diazepam and Ansol

we want to be able to live in our block
without the threat of being redistributed
hanging like thick drool dripping from a councilor’s panting mouth
because an entrepreneur took him for a £500 dinner
and promised him a place for his kid in the prep school
that will take our council flat’s place
alongside the £65-a-month gym business units
and 1.5 million-pound lofts
we want to feel
be able to say to ourselves
that we are human
and not have to give everything of that away
just so we are allowed to work
just so we are allowed
to exist

Milk Snatcher

By Julia Bell

Father thinks she’s great. He tells us so at tea.
He enjoys the nightly news where rabbles
of dirty miners have it handed to them.
These Marxists with their utopias, need to get real.
She is bringing back stability, certainty,
to a hairy country, old and badly clothed,
with naïve teeth and a childish sense of
pageantry. She is telling us
who we are again. And even those
most disinclined to listen to a woman,
love her matronly, no nonsense ways,
and the righteousness of her hair.
I do not like her, and I do not understand
why she is so popular round here.
Jesus said we should love the poor,
not tut at them on the news.
I will live long enough to know that
I am witnessing the slow death of South Wales.
The sick, sliding slag heaps becoming
deep valleys of generational despair.
I have started blushing every time I get upset
and at the tea table I wear a NUM badge sent to me
by the miners, my cheeks on fire. I wrote to them after the news.
Father thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poems for adults, and one for children, Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris), a book of ghost stories, It’s Gone Dark, (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder) co-written with the playwright Tom Green. He is also the author of Ov (Beul Aithris), a fantasy novel for children.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collections are Ox, published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck where she is the Course Director of the MA Creative Writing. Her work includes poetry, essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. Her most recent book-length essay Radical Attention was published by Peninsula Press.

This article will also appear in the next issue of Communist Review.

Spirograph: an interview with Pauline Sewards
Monday, 04 January 2021 09:50

Spirograph: an interview with Pauline Sewards

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Pauline Sewards about Spirograph, her latest collection of poems

FL: Hi Pauline, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your latest collection of poems, Spirograph. The title poem uses the conceit of the Spirograph Set to explore those moments of 'not quite repetition' in language, life, and loss. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about the title, especially as it relates to the themes of dependency, change, and recovery that run throughout the collection?

One of the reasons I was keen to do this interview with you, was that so many of the poems in Spirograph reflect on or are informed by your experience of work as professional carer – if that isn't an oxymoron. In light of the present government's refusal to acknowledge writers and artists as workers, the collection feels especially timely, not least because it provides an eloquent testament to the mutual indebtedness of your writing and working practices. This is especially evident – it seems to me – in the deep, sustained attention you afford your poetic subjects. Could you tell us something about the relationship between your work as a poet and as a person working in care? Are there skills particular to poetry that feed into – for want of a better word – your professional life?

I also wanted to ask about forms! That is, the paperwork and paraphernalia: the rhetoric, routines and official formulae which delineate and compress the experience of administering care. In poems such as 'After Burnout', 'Assessment' and 'Day's Work' the language and machinery of this administration seems to infiltrate the space of the poem and the consciousness of your speakers and subjects alike. There's a kind of instrumental anonymity at work, which the poems – with their generous attention to detail – debate and resist. Reading Spirograph, I was struck by how few spaces there are within language and literature for precisely that kind of resistance. How conscious were you when putting the collection together of writing against various kinds of reductive or instrumental language, and to what extent you see that as explicitly political?

PS: I like your description of language as ‘delineating and compressing care’. Sometimes the drug and alcohol field (a jargonistic phrase in itself) seems to be always about language. The use of the term service user, client, patient, drug or alcohol user and so on - each carries a different judgement. Harm reduction and recovery focus each carry a different weight. There has been a move away from psychological language to business-speak which can sound quite ugly – ‘outcoming’, ‘moving forward.’  Language always encodes an attitude to the work.

When I wrote about my job I was keen not to represent myself as a hero or saint. I worry everyday that I’m not completely successful in meeting the aims of the organisation and  I worry far more that I might depart from my own values. I wanted to take the reader into the day to day processes of the job, as in the poem ‘Drug Service’. The poem ‘Farweltering’ is also intended to do this and was written about an experience of work which was much more focussed on quality of human interaction. In writing about colleagues and service users there is obviously an obligation to defend confidentiality by merging and altering details. This parallels the nursing code which I’ve internalised over the years which enshrines the keeping of professional boundaries.

The poem ‘Assessment’ was inspired by a colleague from many years ago who wrote up as his assessments as a flowing narrative full of quoted speech and detail about the service user. Today’s pace involves a more tick-box risk-focused process, but the paperwork doesn’t give a sense of the person in the way my colleague’s write-ups did.

The use of language is always very political in these services. The Harm Reduction banner was surprisingly taken up by the Conservative government in the 1980s. This compassionate and liberal approach was a public health response to the HIV crisis. Deep funding cuts lead to the reframing of the work during the last decade or so as Recovery Focused.  In reality both approaches can exist together and be seen as a continuum. Scandalously, drug related deaths rose exponentially from 2012 until plateauing recently (the full effects of the pandemic aren’t known yet). During this time caseloads rose from an average of 30 to over a hundred. By a sleight of hand the workers' job titles are different – they become co-ordinators rather than key workers, so it hard to compare like with like.

You were recently described as “one of the foremost poets on women and work in Britain today”. Obviously, work is very far from being your only poetic subject, but I do get the sense that it is an essential and lively concern in your writing (I know, for example, that in addition to your own creative practice, you recently co-edited Magma 74 on the theme of work). I don't know if you would agree, but I've often felt that, historically, the kinds of work that tend to be performed by women – whether that's clerical work, or work in the service industry, or in different professions of care – are also the kinds of work routinely excluded from a poetic account of labour. Do you feel that women are still under-represented with regards to work-writing, and do you have any thoughts on how publishing cohorts might challenge – or, more hopefully, are starting to challenge –  that lack of inclusivity?

That was a kind description by Kate Fox. So many poets write brilliantly about work. I’d like to mention some writers on nursing - Sally Read who published a few years ago, Romalyn Ante’s ‘Anti-emetic for Homesickness’ and Helen Sheppard, whose extraordinary collection focused on midwifery will be published next year. I definitely agree with you some writing about work may be devalued because it reflects women’s experience. I remember Fiona Moore did an analysis of the number of books published by women on her blog a few years ago which showed a lot of inequality. I get the sense that things have changed quite rapidly but I don’t know how much of this is window dressing. Publishers including Burning Eye Book, Verve, Bad Betty, Outspoken, Culture Matters and others are going some way to address this. Co-editing Magma was an amazing experience, if I had the opportunity again I’d want to elicit more voices from care and service industries, Ben Newbery and I tried hard to do this (but still got a huge proportion of submissions from retired male professors in the US). I think there is a whole anthology to be collated and this might start by encouraging people to write about their experiences and may need to extend beyond print platfoms.

I know this interview has been very work-focussed so far, but of course, the collection is about more than just work, at least in the narrow sense of “employment”. You write movingly about girlhood, about the shaping of a self from formative experiences, not of all of which are necessarily benign. You also attend to the continuity of shared female experience: what it means to be a mother, what it means to grieve, what it means to create. Throughout the collection your poems feel united by a common expression of care, and by a sense of vulnerability. The speakers in the 'Work' section of Spirograph are literally and psychologically vulnerable because they administer care at the sharp end of human need; those subject to their care are vulnerable in a different way. The mothers in 'Mother's Day at Roll for the Soul' are also vulnerable, vulnerable in front of each other as socially awkward strangers; the women swimming on Hampstead Heath are similarly exposed, to one another and to the elements. The girls in 'The Town Abuser' are vulnerable in quite another sense again, and often the bodies of your poetic subjects are frail or failing. Would you mind speaking a little bit about this idea of vulnerability in your work? Do you think perhaps that the act of writing and reading poetry creates in itself a condition of vulnerability?

Paradoxically poetry is the means by which I have become less socially awkward. I am in awe of younger poets, in some cases very young poets who have spoken about trauma and honed their craft very quickly on stages. Two Bristol poets, Malaika Kegode and Aiysha Humphreys, come to mind. For various reasons it took me decades to speak in front of room full of strangers and I found small social gatherings were even more daunting. I’m not sure that has entirely gone away, and I do feel nostalgic for the adrenalin terror of performing. There are a lot of very personal poems in the book - Premonition/Hindsight, which I’ve only read in public once, is probably the most direct confessional one. I like to have a mixture of inward and outward focus.

Staying with the previous thought briefly, I know that the idea of being vulnerable is generally figured in quite negative terms, and certainly there is a perception that to work in care a person has to harden themselves to a certain extent. I love that the poems in Spirograph seem to offer a counter-contention to this idea. There's real receptivity and openness to others and to experience in this collection, and its this openness that is ultimately restorative; that allows the work of care to continue. Is preserving that sense of openness difficult? And is poetry helpful in that preservation?

At work I think preserving a sense of openness and flexibility is essential. There is also a tension between a planned diary and what will actually happen during the day. When working with people who may be chaotic it is seen as important to present consistency and routine. Work has a lot in common with performance and writing as it often requires a persona and relinquishing the need to be liked. Work requires being in a role, a conduit for service delivery, and in the same way that a poem is a conduit to expression. There is often a lack of time to respond to people on a human level. I’m interested in the way colleagues manage these contradictions of the work.

The collection is divided into four sections, beginning with 'Work' and ending in 'Wonder'. In between there is 'Where' and 'Who', providing poetic explorations of place and identity. Could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book? Did it evolve organically or was it consciously shaped over time?

I was quite naive at the beginning of the process. In my first collection I had a sort of overture of poems where the first few pages set out the themes and the following poems were in an intuitively coherent order. This time I had some mentoring from the poet Lucy English. It was her suggestion that I consider having a much more explicit structure. Based on the Spirograph image, my intuitively chosen title for the collection from the early stages, I chose to divide the poems into roughly equal sections. I’m aware that many poems could slip into different sections and I hope readers find and enjoy certain symmetries and images. There are a lot of poems about women including After Burn Out, My Grandmothers, and Pride but there are also poems about cult male artists Jazzman John, and Molly. It is an imperfect Spirograph though and one day I’d like to make something more structured as I’m fascinated by patterns and creativity emerging from rules although that is the opposite to the way I write at the moment.

Staying with form and structure, I wanted to ask about the sense of questioning within the collection; about the poems as places of enquiry and investigation. This sense is generated not only through the use of direct questions – for example, “Who will tribute these women?” in Ivydean – but also the way in which you avoid offering any kind of pat resolution or punchline to the experiences you describe. Was this a conscious poetic strategy on your part, because it feels very natural?

For me poetry is way of diving in to make sense of the world, a rebellion against solution-focused processes, a way of retrieving and celebrating memories and of honouring people. I studied history many years ago and my mother is a self-trained historian who left school at fifteen; the book is dedicated to her and other female ancestors. I want to archive experience of work and beyond in my poetry.  I’m aware this could be seen as whimsical or nostalgic, but want to fight against this reductive view.

Yikes! I get the sense that those were all quite heavy questions, so I wanted to end by asking if you could talk a little about place in your writing, both as a subject and as an influence and inspiration. Bristol feels very present in these poems, and I'd love to know a bit about your relationship to the city and the way it's shaped your writing.

I moved to Bristol thirty years ago and was lucky enough to land in an inner city area, St Werburghs, which has its own identity, resisting gentrification and contains a lot of  countryside. Bristol has a rebellious reputation and it seems surprising that it took so long for that statue to be pulled down. But of course it has taken a very long time for Bristol to face up to its history and question the foundations that have made it a wealthy city.

I was raising my children and studying when I first arrived there so I missed the trip-hop years, more than compensated by going to toddler parties where lovers' rock and reggae were played.  The poem My Bristol is about arriving in the city and sense of things opening up as my role in life changed. I’m pleased to have experienced a city for such a long period of time and seen changes and celebrations that people who live outside may not be quite so well aware of it. For example there was briefly a music festival called Venn Fest in Stokes Croft which featured all sorts of types of music in different and repurposed venues, with an overlapping audiences wandering between the different gigs. I have also spent a lot of time away from Bristol, through work and other reasons. I love discovering new places, especially places that aren’t outwardly glamourous. My heart aches for Bristol as I’ve been away for months now due to the current situation. It is one of the places I feel a creative buzz both just walking and being in cafes, and in the poetry scene there which interacts with the musical tradition and street art of the city and was explosive before this year, but has always been healthy. Being away helps me appreciate the city and see it more objectively and I think the same process will happen with work soon!

Thanks so much for talking to me, I hope that wasn't too painful!

Thank you Fran, for your questions and time, always great to speak to you.

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