Month: January 2016

Hall of Mirrors, 1964 by John Burnside

One of the stupidest things I have done (sorry Mum), which was brilliant, was walking through Coventry’s fairground at night, about one hour after dropping the freshly picked ‘magic’ mushrooms from the ‘Common’ land next to it. For those of you who have partaken in both activities separately, I hope you can imagine the heightened synesthetic experience that engulfed me.


Image by Sam Leighton*

I never liked the fair (maybe that’s why I did the mushies); I was too scared to go on the major rides, a poor shot with my gammy eye for the different shies, and the music was invariably shit. The main thing I found interesting were the people who worked the stalls and rides. This was before I had any knowledge of their history and what now has become a somewhat jaundiced and discriminatory view of their ‘ways’ (sic).  They were outsiders that owned this island of fun which lit the sky for a week and echoed across the city; one lad stood out, covered in Man United patches, with straggle grease hair, he spun the waltzers with the girls in, or deftly stepped between the dodgems cars to keep the traffic flowing. All of course in the days when health and safety were the antithesis of the fun and therefore ignored.

JOhnBurnsideFairgrounds have been part of the ‘bread and circuses’ of poor and working class amusement since medieval times. I think for everyone they evoke personal memories of their childhood and a shifting sense of history. This is certainly the case in John Burnside’s darkly evocative poem Hall of Mirrors, 1964, where “the perfumes that passed for summer/in towns like ours/touched, now, with the smell of candy floss/and diesel.” But this is not ‘a fairground so much’ and the colour that one associates with a fair is outshone by his mother who is wearing, (more…)

Version by Tim Wells

In 1980 I organised a short-lived reggae night on a Monday in a pub back home. We had the usual agreement with the gaffer; it was free to get in, free to have the space, and he would make money at the bar on what is typically a dead night. It was a success in terms of the number of punters (an assortment of rastas and retired punks). But everyone was skint, and those that weren’t just bought Lucozade. We lasted three Mondays. That was my single attempt to marry my new musical love, reggae, with the punk which by now had dissipated. It was a year before the riots and the scar of Thatcher’s claw.

Punk was linked to reggae at an early stage, for the two movements had much in common. After I had seen the line of punk bands that played in our town; Clash, Pistols, Buzzcocks, Banshees, etc., reggae artists started to appear. But it was still very divided. There were few white people at the gigs for the likes of Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Culture, or Prince Far I’; this was what I call the high tide of reggae, which I got into via the likes of Don Letts, Adrian Sherwood and a Mike Dread. And of course there were a number of good UK reggae bands such as Misty in Roots, Matumbi and Steel Pulse.

micyaanbelieveitSomeone who has much deeper roots in this history and whose site, Stand Up and Spit, chronicles many great moments of these times of punk and reggae, is Tim Wells. In his poem ‘Version’, he describes the time he first heard the great ‘dub poet’ Michael Smith, “That hard yard voice rumbled from the deck;/so unlike ours, but it spoke to us all the same.” The conditions of unemployment, poverty, and discrimination were described in a common situation experienced in the cities of the UK & US during the late 70s and 80s. “We were shook awake: no jobs, no money, no future./Hackney, Detroit, Johannesburg or Kingston JA.” (more…)

Blooding the Enemy by Marilyn Longstaff

There is much, probably too much, written about class and who the working class are. But class remains important; as the great academic Richard Hoggart said back in the late ‘50s’, “Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves…We shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” And academics continue this work, most recently with Professor Mike Savage and team who completed a major research project ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’. They outline seven categories of class, with ‘precariat’ being defined as the ‘bottom of the pile’.

I have it easy, as for my purposes, as I see the working classes are those who lack wealth and/or power – it is a broad church; maybe not as broad as the 99% versus 1%, although that has its place (by the way, Savage et al., estimate that the super-rich now account for 6% of the population – good to know they are sharing the wealth a bit more, eh!). But I do think it stretches into areas and professions not always seen as part of the means of production. (I am certain many poets would relate to this, given their average income, and the extent to which they wield power).

One such profession I would argue is teaching. Many teachers come from the communities they work in, their starting pay is below the average wage, and does not rise a whole lot more above £40k. Yes, they are not poor by ‘precariat’ standards, but neither do they earn similar amounts to other middle class professions in finance, engineering, or health care. Then in terms of their power, or influence, they are strapped in to the national curriculum and all the measures of performance they have to meet. Yet, they know their students more than other professionals, know their needs beyond education, and are such an important part of society’s development as a whole.

Marilyn Longstaff

Image by Simon Veit-Wilson

Teaching is tough, and Marilyn Longstaff’s poem, ‘Blooding the Enemy’, highlights what teachers, have to face, where bullying may not only be between children. “The pig king has entered my classroom/late as usual./He’s been fighting again.” I really like the way Marilyn, inverts the use of the word ‘know’ in a teaching setting. “They know/it’s my first year of teaching, know/I’m no Ursula Brangwen,/know//I didn’t show who was boss/in the beginning.’ (more…)