Month: May 2015

John Clare, Helpston c.1820 by John Mole

The final years of the last millennium feel like a febrile time now. Although the US and UK governments were far from being left wing, after 18 years of Conservative rule beggars couldn’t be choosers. Blair had come to power promising progressive policies (warmongering wasn’t in the ’97 manifesto), a Democrat was still in the White House, and 9/11 was beyond the horizon. I was working for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which promoted a more social and environmentally responsible economy to the one that had emerged in the slash and burn free market of the 1980s. NEF’s philosophy was founded on the principle of ‘small is beautiful’, which grew out of the eponymous book by EF Schumacher. Here, the maxim was ‘act local, think global’; if small businesses, community organisations, individuals, acted together in consideration of the planet before profit, then we all could thrive. Such think tanks were flavour of the decade and we entered the corridors of Whitehall and the World Bank as well as big business with a collaborative, more pragmatic approach to change, which reflected the political zeitgeist.

Much of this commercialisation began in the late 18th, early 19th century, at the time of the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the birth of the modern era of capitalism. The poet John Clare (“The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”), grew up and lived in the epicentre of this quake. The common land from which his family had eked out a living became enclosed and privately owned as did much of the country. The historian EP Thompson described this time as the making of John Molethe English Working Class; Thompson said of Clare, “that he ‘conveys with extraordinary sensitivity the ways in which the psychic landscape of the villager was savagely transformed by the enclosure of the commons and open fields’.

John Mole’s poem ‘John Clare, Helpston c1820’, conveys this situation of landowner and worker superbly. ‘With their golden notebooks/they stop to watch him carting hay’. Clare was a worker and a poet, one who witnessed the end of common land first hand and what it would mean. ‘He watches the future drive off/in its shining hatch-backs/down Heritage Lane/then, seized by love and anger/takes up his pen to write.’ The hedgerows and fences that scar the countryside today began to be drawn at this time; John Clare was the poet who described the impact it had on the poor in many of his poems. John Mole’s poem shows why and is a great homage to the man. (more…)

Decline and Fall, and On Guillotines by Fran Lock

This is for those of us still licking our wounds in the fallout from the General Election; at the fact that Labour was seen to have lost because it was too Left wing (I know, don’t you love the media and those that lapdog them); and trying not to think too badly of those who ‘silently’ not only voted Conservative, but twisted the knife with an large overall majority.

Succour has been hard to come by. I migrated to Al Jazeera as I do when domestic news is too, well, domestic, and I felt guilty when perspective was given to me with migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, and the continued war in Iraq and Syria, and the Yemen, and the secondary earthquake in Nepal.

But though certain things are relative, there has still been a need to seek solace from friends and networks. I tried to believe in the more nihilistic anarchistic view that it wouldn’t have mattered who got in, but that just made me angrier. Then there were blog posts from the poets Jo Bell, Clare Pollard, and Josephine Corcoran, who bound their anger and hurt in a constructive and humanist approach. And inevitably there have emerged poems in response, from the Stare’s Nest, Well Versed, and the new blog, New Boots and Plantocracies, which I highly recommend.

10881278_965132330180995_1124375228_nI have taken my own time to think about how to respond on the site, and I have to admit a defeatist lethargy was still getting the better of me, until I received an email from Fran Lock this morning. I met Fran after the launch of the latest issue of the Poetry Review, where she read some fantastic poems. I gave her my card (yes, got cards now for PP – getting almost corporate), and she contacted me offering some poems she has written in response to the election (poets really are the people that keep on giving). I could have chosen them all but I’m not greedy.

They made me angry, but this time in a positive way because of the language; they articulate my frustrations with Labour, my contained anger at the invisible voters, my uncontained anger at the media (I keep trying to believe we have a free press, but can only see it as free to keep feeding us its elitist bullshit). I decided on two poems, “Decline and Fall”, and “On Guillotines” because she captures all of the actors involved in the democratic farce and even manages to fit in some humour, “Ed’s head like a Pez dispenser, shot/from the neck up and wearing puzzlement/like loss of blood. Cameron, of course,/pinkly inevitable. He pokes through his suit/like a big toe.” (more…)

Andrew’s Corner by Kayo Chingonyi

I have just finished reading Selina Todd’s amazing “The People: the rise and fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010”, which wasn’t the best of reads in a run-up to what turned out to be a disastrous election result. Some of her detailed research of the first half of the 20th century, was drawn from the Mass Observation project; this was set up by a group of volunteers who wanted to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ and so carried out interviews with people about their daily lives. It was stopped in the 1950s then revived in the 1980s and continues today. There is also a similar project in the US called Humans of New York.

It got me thinking about how we observe people in their daily lives. One aspect, which Kayo Chingonyi’s poem Andrew’s Corner revived in me, was observations by sociologists in the US of street corner life. One of the first that I know of is William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, which mapped the lives of poor Italian Americans in a Boston slum in the 1940s. Then a more famous study, Eliot Liebow’s ‘Tally’s Corner’ which has sold over a million copies. Liebow sought to show another, more positive side to the way in which African American men responded to poverty during the 1960s. It showed them not to be feckless and non-caring parents; “Leroy bathed the children, braided the girls’ hair, washed their clothes at ‘the Bendix’ (laundromat), played with them, and on their birthdays went shoplifting to get them gifts.”

 kayo chingonyi picObservation is a key quality of a poet, and Kayo does this so well in Andrew’s Corner that maps the generational experiences of a particular corner of London, “Where an old man comes, to practise/standing still, tutting that the street he fought to keep is gone.” And we are given all of the senses of change, “the world of bass,” “the smell of weed and too much CK One” and the detritus of objects that tell their own stories, “condom wrappers, kebab meat, a ballet pump”. Then finally the crossover of night to day, where “joggers dodge a dead pigeon, offer wordless/greeting to the night bus’s army of sanguine-/eyed ravers, nursing bad skin and tinnitus.” Top notch. (more…)

Hungary 1956: from a Woman in Exile by Anne Cooper

On a train at the Romanian border, two Iraqi Kurds jumped into our carriage and sat facing each other as though they had been there for the whole journey. Two Romanian border guards entered soon after. They were not interested in what four ceausescu husseinBritish men were doing visiting their country a year and a half after the fall of Ceausescu. They thought they would have fun with the Kurds; but these boys had crossed a number of borders already and were no match for the guards who had little history of dealing with foreign visitors. After what seemed like a heated exchange to us, ended in almost friendly banter, as the four of them laughed at each other’s dictators.

After a few days in Bucharest losing count of the pepper of bullet holes from the revolution, news came through that there was a coup in Moscow by hard-line communists against President Gorbachev. We sat in our rooms listening to events unfold on the World Service; the mood of local people was complete fear bordering on panic. They thought the Soviet tanks would roll in as they had done after the Second World War staying for over forty years, and that their revolution was over.

We saw the aftermath and fear that remained during those years after 1989 when we went through Bulgaria, Romania, The Czech Republic (as it still was) and Hungary. And it was in the latter country that one of the few uprisings took place against Soviet rule, and is told in Anne Cooper’s poem Hungary 1956: from a woman in exile. Here Anne explains the story behind the poem:

Shrop 015“I wrote this poem in 2006, 50 years after the uprising in Hungary that was mercilessly crushed by the Russians, a turning point for many on the left in Europe who had refused to believe news that seeped out about Stalin’s massacres of the Russian people. The spectre of tanks crossing borders and crushing a people literally and metaphorically raised the question – could this be socialism and led to the disillusionment of a generation of people who had been inspired by Russia and hoped for a better world. I wrote it following a conversation with a woman I ran into on the way back from the supermarket in Clapham. She was struggling with her bags, I offered to help. When she told me where she was from, when she arrived, I asked, “Did you come here after the uprising?” Her story tumbled out, here it is. She wishes to remain anonymous. I have written it as a poem of witness. A story of the incredible heroism shown by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances; people fighting for democracy and the right to run their own lives, paying such a high price, yet lighting a flame of inspiration for the struggles that followed across the Eastern Bloc and beyond. (more…)