Many on the Left in Scotland voted for independence from the United Kingdom in last year’s referendum; and many of those of the same persuasion in England supported that position. I didn’t, but fully understand why the Scots wanted away from Westminster control. I tend towards a more internationalist, even idealistic/impractical anarchist position – given their history, I am not a great fan of countries, especially when it comes to abstract notions such as pride, which often lead us into wars.
Nationalism tends to have two political faces united by a strong feeling of injustice. In developing countries throughout Africa and Asia, this injustice was real and came from a position of weakness and disenfranchisement. But the other nationalistic face, comes from a position of power, where they feel either under threat, or in the case of the Nazis, was deeply ideological and needed to be perpetuated throughout the world.
My fear for Scottish independence was that it would give rise to this second type of English nationalism, and the bull necked, shaven educated view that comes with it (as well as the possibility of a permanent Tory government in England). That doesn’t forego any discussion about England’s position in the world by the Left. Billy Bragg for example, has been doing this for years, and has even called for an English parliament. Poets have also been part of that conversation, as highlighted in a great review by Peter Riley, of Simon Smith’s Navy and Steve Ely’s Englaland.
It is most often individuals, who have influenced the history of a country; and sometimes ones who have not garnered great attention. Matt Duggan’s two poems, The Wake, concerning the almost mythological Hereward, and I, Agitator about Wat Tyler, nicely illustrate the lives of two men involved in different periods of English history. The Wake, takes the turbulent time of the 11th century during the Norman Conquest and resistance led by the likes of Hereward the Wake. “My country crippled under ember skies/land courted in blood and black bile,/the last king of England has died/a battle paced on my brethren isle.” As Matt explains, “I am drawn to characters from history that we rarely hear about these days, so, I wanted to write a longer piece about Hereward and how he became ‘The Wake’. Even today people know very little about his life, was he just a myth or was Hereward a real man bent on revenge, or maybe, just a story used to scare children?” And Matt takes a similar approach when portraying the life of the infamous Wat Tyler, who led the Peasant’s Revolt against the original Poll Tax of Richard II some three hundred years later. “On horseback I heard jingles of blood coins/like marching death in sacks of human snouts,/bowing to the King’s groin/our collector – a man of debt and gout.” Hereward was fighting against a foreign invader with due course, where Wat Tyler was one of the original resistance fighters whose legacy is still acknowledged among those on the Left.
Both were driven by a common sense of injustice about changes being made to England. Tyler’s in particular, is a model for the working class struggle across the Union today. It would not be best served by an independent Scotland, because along with Wales, it is a countervailing force against a Tory England or a possibly worse alternative that would be more violent and divisive, especially towards minorities. Matt Duggan’s poems help us reflect on our position today, as any good poem should.
Born 1971 Bristol, Matt Duggan is winner of the erbacce prize for poetry 2015, with his collection Dystopia 38.10 (erbacce-press). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines in the U.K and U.S such as The Journal, Ink, Sweat, and Tears, Yellow Chair Review, Lunar Poetry Magazine, New Boots and Pantisocracies project, Militant Thistles, The Dawntreader, Poetry Quarterly, Jawline Review, and many more.
As a child they sent me away
far from my fenland to Flanders,
where I chiselled my outlaw ways
on evening doll and headless salamander.
Though I the caller of the flawless
son of Leofric – Earl of Mercia,
the confessor deemed me lawless childhood in opened Arcadia.
My country crippled under ember skies
a land courted in blood and black bile,
the last king of England has died
a battle paced on my brethren isle.
I ride on the swallow my brain-biter to the left of me,
remembering the land of tomorrow a white cliff and soaking green sea.
Homestead was curled in deadened grey entrails
hitched on poles of blood reed,
my red breath appeared in the launch of day,
I’ll scatter those that make my kin bleed.
I waited in the dark alley of fallen trees slept with the secrets of the fens,
knowing I would find the bastard of Normandy
then unleash the power of my revenge.
When one evening a cold wind highlights
a burning glimpse of padded white smoke,
I hide and listened in the dead of night, their tales of killing by sword and rope.
On this night ‘The wake’ was then born as I draw my Brain-Biter
as quietly as I could
I slayed fifteen men who I shall never mourn
who now walk for eternity within these woods.
On horseback I heard jingles of blood coins
like marching death in sacks of human snouts,
bowing to the King’s groin
our collector – a man of debt and gout.
Those hooves of dread are approaching
rapid knock, knock, at the front door
a Royal jester collecting the unpaid taxes from the poor.
On this day I would for once stand tall
against my opulent master and enslaver
I, agitator – victim of the polls,
peasant rebel and the people’s saviour.
So I refused to pay my unpaid tax
that would only fund another foreign war
send me to the tower for the axe,
bludgeon me on your royal floor.
THEY CAN only pay for their gentlemen’s war
these thieves of continent and grain,
by rising the taxes on the poor
to conquer, rape, and maim.
They said that this was my rebellion
I fought for my brothers- in- arms,
against those rich Machiavellians
dead soldier of the embalmed.
At Smithfield they called my bluff
stabbed in the back wounded I bled
I gave them my honour and my trust,
‘We’ll abolish serfdom they said’.