Christopher Norris’s new collection of political poems take aim at some monsters of our present bad times, among them Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Theresa May, George Osborne, Benjamin Netanyahu, and assorted hangers-on.
These politicians act as if they have said to themselves, like Milton’s Satan, ‘Evil, be thou my good’. They are held to account here in verse-forms that are tight and sharply focused despite the intense pressure of feeling behind them. The satire is unsparing and the dominant tone is one of anger mixed with sorrow, compassion and a vivid sense of the evils and suffering brought about by corruptions of political office.
The influence of Brecht is visible throughout, as is that of W.H. Auden’s mordant verse-commentary on politics and culture in the 1930s, along with the great eighteenth-century verse-satirists Dryden, Pope and Swift.
Norris leaves the reader in no doubt that we now face a global, European and domestic neo-fascist resurgence. It won’t be defeated unless we act together to defeat these right-wing monsters.
A unique combination of political anger and poetic ingenuity
From Aberfan t Grenfell shows that Mike Jenkins’s sublime skills in dialect poetry continue to shine as brightly as ever, as he evokes a bravura array of voices from his Merthyr bro. Using his work to give speech to people without power, Jenkins’s poetry dramatizes the characters and struggles of a community – but also a community’s surviving capacity to raise its voices against the power-structures which cause it to suffer. Compassionate and incisive in equal measure, From Aberfan t Grenfell is required reading in an era of austerity.
- Professor Matthew Jarvis, Anthony Dyson Fellow in Poetry, University of Wales Trinity Saint David
These poems locate the poetry freighted in the rhythms and rhetorics of daily speech and everyday conversation, and subtly tool them up and sharpen their purposes with punchlines of dark wit, love and anger in equal measure. Superbly illuminated by Alan Perry’s artwork, this book shows that, in Mike Jenkins’ hands, poetry is not only an unflinching mirror but also a righteous hammer. - Robb Johnson, singer-songwriter
Alan Morrison’s Shabbigentile is a counterpoint to his Forward Prize-nominated Tan Raptures (Smokestack Books, 2017), many of its poems having been written during the same period and on complementary polemical themes. These range from the ominous economic stormclouds of the banking crash, and eight years of scarring austerity cuts, to the potentially catastrophic cross paths of ‘Brexit’, Trump and the insurgent European-wide right-wing populism of the present.
Shabbigentile is populated by assorted grotesques, memes and leitmotivs, distinctly native to the turbulent and polarised Noughteens: the sweatshop barista, the coffee bean Corbynista, the Dole Jude and Welfare Jew, the Five Giant Shadows and Five Evil Reverbs, and the homegrown ogre of the title.
These part-organic, part-figurative amalgams inhabit the wastelands of asset-stripped Britain, where Tory and red top propaganda against the unemployed is a scapegoating pseudo-science (Scroungerology), and the DWP’s weapons of brown envelopes are transposed as Salted Caramels. From such hostile environments we jump to the dystopian atmospherics of a post-Brexit tinpot RU-RI-TANNIA which sees Easter Island heads sprouting from the white cliffs of Dover.
Mike Quille reviews an exhibition of photographs of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside.
In honour of the shipyard workers of Tyneside, Chris Killip recently gave a set of over 30 stunning, monochrome images to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Last Ships exhibition of photographs, taken by Killip over just three years, captures the awe-inspiring scale and beauty of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside in the nineteen seventies. It documents the resilience but also the desolation of working-class communities, destroyed along with the industry by capitalist economic forces and government policy.
End of Shift
The large exhibition prints, with their striking, powerful images, dominate the walls of the gallery. The massive, sleek black hulls of tankers like the Tyne Pride, the biggest and also one of the last ships to be built on the Tyne, loom over the regular terraced streets where their builders lived. Children stand in doorways, dwarfed visually and protected economically by the vast bulk of newly-built ships. The confident, energetic geometry of angular industrial cranes seem to balance and guarantee the everyday, regular domesticity of workers’ houses. Those workers stream out of the shipyards, and their children play in the streets.
Wallsend Housing Looking East, 1975
Then suddenly, the industry and the community are destroyed. In the above photograph, Wallsend Housing Looking East (1975), Tyne Pride towers over a group of young girls playing at the end of Gerald Street. The photograph below, taken just two years later, Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977) shows the same street demolished. There are no large ships being built on the Tyne, no children playing in the streets – and no workers streaming out of shipyard gates. A few walls remain standing forlornly amidst the rubble, with spray-painted graffiti on them reading ‘DON’T VOTE. PREPARE FOR REVOLUTION’
Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977)
The exhibition is a fitting and just memorial to the lives, energy and strength of Tyneside workers – but it is also much more than that. Killip’s photographs document the productive force of capitalism, the monumental achievements of heavy industry and the close-knit proletarian communities created alongside it. And he also caught the bleak desolation resulting from de-industrialisation, from the sudden, brutal withdrawal of capital, and the historic – and ongoing – economic and social murder visited on Tyneside working-class communities by the rich and the powerful.
The exhibition thus sums up, in a particularly graphic and visually arresting way, a process which has affected most of the British population in one way or another for the last 50 years. It helps explain why so many people voted against the out-of-touch ruling elites of Westminster and Brussels, causing their current political chaos. Is it any wonder that our trust in them disappeared along with the industry, the jobs and the communities they destroyed?
Perhaps, then, we should vote AND prepare for revolution?
Ruses and Fuses, by Fran Lock with collages by Steev Burgess, is the follow-up collection to Muses and Bruises.
Fran Lock is one of the most prolific and outstanding poets out there today, fighting with her writing. Bristling with multi-bladed language and an anger born of compassion, she takes poetry in directions the mainstream dares not take.
Her first collection with Culture Matters, Muses and Bruises, brilliantly juxtaposed the lives of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, with a vivid, grotesque imagining of a grimy, glittery place called Rag Town, and the working-class girls who inhabit it.
In Ruses and Fuses, Fran Lock takes us to the rebellious, inspiring heart of English dissent with her portrayals of Levellers and Diggers such as Gerard Winstanley and Ned Ludd, and their fight with authorities over property rights. She also writes of witches, workingclass suffragettes, and the unsung, unlovable labours of working-class women. Her poetry conflates historical detail and present crisis to highlight both the continuation of violence against women, and the continuum of solidarity and sisterhood that exists despite this abuse.
Ruses and Fuses, like Muses and Bruises, is adorned with the poignant, sensitive collages of Steev Burgess.
One of These Dead Places is a collection of poems and images by Jane Burn.
One of the voices rarely heard in modern poetry is that of working-class women, in terms of both the impact of major historical events on their identity, health and happiness, as well as their day-to-day experiences of work, men and motherhood.
In this remarkable, powerful collection, Jane Burn has told her story and more, in a series of poems which are both personal and political. She has also illustrated the poems with a beautifully imaginative series of illustrations, which add depth and detail to the collection.
This is a vital collection for our time. Are things worse than the 80s? Have a read, then decide — you won’t be disappointed. As one of the titles says: these poems are ‘Sentences to Survive In’.
We Will Be Free! is an anthology of poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018, sponsored by Unite.
This is my second year judging this much-needed and extraordinary competition. Again, I was struck by the passion, the urgency and the sheer hard work driving people to write these poems. So many of the entries were beautifully put together, often with a story that demanded to be told and with artfully refreshing humour.
The poems all reflected the fact that we find ourselves in such bleak and alienating times—making this type of competition more crucial than ever. And this year we had a particularly healthy number of entries from women and from young people—again, a reflection of deep, unvoiced feelings from those hardest hit, by today’s increasingly rampant inequality.
- Mary Sayer Judge of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award
We must take heart from the response in this competition, as well as more widely, that the working class are continuing their fight for justice, equality, and freedom—be it the economic struggle on the picket line, the political struggle through the ballot box, and the cultural struggle through poetry, the arts generally, and other cultural activities.
Society cannot be changed solely from the top, even with a progressive Labour government. It needs strong unions, not an add-on to government but to assist in building the foundations of a more just and equal country. None of this can be done without socialist culture policies—for the many, not the few.
A new collection of poems by Mair De-Gare Pitt, with accompanying paintings by Jill Powell.
From the very first poem this collection focuses on the human and, through its brilliant lyricism, elevates the experiences it describes into something like beauty. The collection understands that the real way to political change is by moving people, by getting hold of their hearts, and by writing memorably, which the poems do again and again.
I’d say this collection is important because it’s political. But I’ll say more. It’s important if you’re human. It is wonderfully illustrated by Jill Powell, the images and poems now endorsing each other, now opening each other up to new possibilities. It’s a great thing to see a publisher putting together a sequence now of beautifully written, wonderfully produced pamphlets, which seem to be doing something important and different in British poetry.
Mike Quille reviews Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, and interviews the editor, Paul Sng.
Paul Sng’s films – Sleaford Mods, and Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle – have explored the lives of working-class people who have been ignored, marginalised or demonised by mainstream media, and who are protesting and challenging the status quo in some way.
In this new book of documentary photographs, the portraits and accompanying text tell the untold, invisible stories of people who have been targeted by austerity economics, left behind by cuts to public services and excluded from mainstream media narratives.
Corinne, by Jenny Lewis
The subjects look out at us in a dignified, equal way. They’re not case studies of despair to grit up a superficial TV drama, nor are they illustrations of some story about benefit scroungers. They are sensitive, revealing and empathic portraits – some inspiring, some heartbreaking – of ordinary people with stories to tell us.
Carl, by J. S. Mottram
Their stories are about their setbacks and suffering, and the various ways they persist in fighting back. Not just through political campaigning, but through voluntary caring work with prostitutes, disabled people, ex-offenders, drug users, and other poor, oppressed and exploited groups in modern capitalist society.
These people have all experienced suffering, exploitation and discrimination, against themselves and those they care about. But their determination, resilience and sense of solidarity shine through both their portraits and their stories. It is striking how much their experiences and values have made them politically aware, quite conscious of the punishment handed out to them by a rigged economic and political system.
Karen, by Jon Tonks
The value, beauty and power of this book lies in its creation of an alternative narrative that challenges all the stigmas and stereotypes that have been generated by the de-industrialisation, discrimination and class conflict of the last few decades of neoliberal capitalism. It is a fine example of the art of photography being used not to fool us with glossy photoshopped adverts of skinny models and shiny cars, but to tell the plain truth of people’s lives these days, and to stimulate our compassion, empathy and desire for radical change.
Ken Loach has said this about the book:
This book illustrates a truth we cannot ignore. Class conflict is at the heart of our society, the inevitable consequence of this economic system. This should be the first principle of our politics. Paul Sng also shows another eternal truth: in the end, people always fight back. Our task is to ensure that their resistance is not in vain.
It is indeed a vivid and truthful account of contemporary class conflict and struggle. But as well as its value as a document, it is also itself part of the cultural struggle – a protest and an inspiration to us all to join and help achieve a better life for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed – and ourselves.
Q. Can you tell us about your films -- Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain and Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle?
I fell into filmmaking at the age of 38. Until then I'd worked in a series of office jobs, and before that in bars and shops. I was inspired to make my first documentary after interviewing the band Sleaford Mods in October 2014. They mentioned that they were going to be doing a tour of small venues around the UK in places where a lot of bands don't usually go, some of which were in deindustrialised areas like Barnsley and Stockton-on-Tees, and inner cities that had suffered heavily from government cuts to public services.
It was one of those lightbulb moments. I thought, 'That would make a great documentary'. The idea was developed to be part band doc, part state of the nation film. In each place we visited, we met with people in the local community to ask them how austerity and other unpopular government policies had affected them. The film was shot in the run-up to the 2015 General Election and came out in cinemas in October 2015. 11 months from concept to theatrical release, self-distributed. It's very raw, and perhaps too polemical, but it got noticed and gave me a new career as a filmmaker.
I made my second documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, in 2016/17. I made it to examine the neglect and mismanagement of social housing over the past few decades, and how this had affected residents in various areas and council estates in London, Nottingham, and Glasgow.
It came out on 8 June 2017, the day of the last General Election. Five days later, the Grenfell Tower fire happened, which made the film even more relevant. We ran a campaign in tandem with a nationwide tour of Q&A screenings to try and raise awareness about the issues, which was well received.
Nadine, by Nicola Muirhead
Q. What have been your main political and artistic influences?
I've not really thought about political influences before. If I'm influenced by politics it comes through in the issues my work has focused on: austerity, deindustrialisation, housing. Grassroots campaigns inspire me more than politicians, people like Focus E15 and The United Voice of the World union. Artistically, as a documentary maker, my work is influenced by Patrick Keiller, Michael Grigsby and Julien Temple.
Q. What was the background to your move to documentary photography, and this book?
I was in touch with Alison Shaw from Policy Press via Twitter and she mentioned that she'd be interested if I ever had an idea for a book, so I pitched the concept behind Invisible Britain, which is essentially a book of stories and portraits from people who we don't often hear from directly in the arts and media. I then met Laura Dicken, who curated and project managed the book, and we set about finding photographers and people who were up for sharing their stories. I didn't take any photos for the book, as I'm not at that standard yet.
The ethos behind the book was to amplify unheard voices and provide a means for people to speak in their own words about a specific issue or something that had impacted on their life. Direct testimony, with only minimal editing for length. Everyone got to approve the text before it was published. I enjoyed the challenge of working with the photographers – to capture someone's character or an element of their story or personality in a single image shows incredible artistry.
Q. The book seems to be a good example itself of cultural democracy. Many of the photographers are relative newcomers; the focus is on ordinary working-class subjects and their lives; there is a clear egalitarian ethos in the portraits; and the images and text together represent a clear protest against capitalist economics and a longing for a fairer society. What are your views on class, politics and culture generally, particularly in the visual arts?
I think the arts has become too middle-class, and too nepotistic. I see so many examples of people who have very little ability, but very good connections. There's not enough inclusion, and that's across both social class and ethnic background. A lot of organisations have diversity quotas, but I think there's a danger that it becomes a box-ticking exercise.
The book is intended to be the first step towards setting up an Invisible Britain platform that will work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to tell their stories in the arts and media. We would also run creative workshops in various areas of filmmaking and a training and mentorship scheme, as well as offering paid work placements on film and television productions. It's in very early development, but I'm hopeful we can do something to make the arts and media more inclusive of people whose voices aren't heard often enough.
Sé, by Cian Oba-Smith
Q. What would be your advice to an incoming Labour government on its priorities to address the issues raised by this book and your work generally? What would a socialist culture policy look like?
I think the priority for any new government should be much greater investment in areas of the UK that don't have any facilities for the arts. More funding for libraries should also be a priority. Labour councils in London are closing libraries by the dozen, which is terrible. More funding for the BFI to build more regional hubs in rural and remote areas. State funding for arts and culture has shrunk over the past decade, and entry to these industries is becoming more and more off limits to working class people. I'd like to see more paid scholarships for exceptional students from disadvantaged backgrounds of all ages to study creative arts courses. There also needs to be greater scrutiny of how and where the funding is spent, to prevent nepotism.
Poetry on the Picket Line is an anthology of poetry by a group of activist poets. It sounds a bit unlikely, but it works. It’s a squad of writers prepared to turn up on picket lines and read poetry. Something a bit different, and it usually goes down pretty well.
The poets do what it says on the tin. They turn up at pickets and demos and read poems—with a mic, without a mic, through a bullhorn, whatever. Pickets are generally pretty pleased and surprised to see them. They appreciate the support, and some of them even appreciate the poetry!
Plus, it’s unusual. So pictures get taken and videos get made and shared on FB, Twitter and other social media. That helps raise the profile of the dispute. And it helps to raise the profile of the poets too. Then, when they do gigs the poets talk about the work, pass the hat round, sell T-shirts and badges, with the money going back into the various strike funds. It’s all about the solidarity, and it works. It matters because it brings poetry onto picket lines and picket lines into poetry. Real people connecting with real poetry in the real world. That’s got to be a good thing!
It is not merely the job of art to hold a mirror up to society from a distance, the best of it needs to engage with hearts and minds on the ground. Poetry on the Picket Line is a perfect manifestation of this. - Phill Jupitus
Poetry with principles. Poetry with a point. Poetry on the picket line. That’s where it should be.
- Billy Bragg
The anthology is sponsored by PCS, RMT and the TUC London, East and South East Region. All proceeds of sale will go towards strike funds.