On Alan Morrison’s Shabbigentile (with poem, ¡Viva Barista!)

shabbigentileIn novels and films, plays even, there are state-of-the-nation portrayals aplenty; from Dickens to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem the rich and the poor are double acts of a political stage that is the United Kingdom. In poetry? Not so much. The Waste Land comes to mind of course, and the writing of such poets as Fran Lock, and performances by Luke Wright, tell of the political scene in different forms (historic & contemporary). So, in reading Alan Morrison’s brilliantly titled ‘Shabbigentile’ you will be bowled over by the constant stream of anger-flecked images, which properly reflect the ill-state-of-the-nation we find ourselves in today.

Titles such as ‘Viva Barista’, ‘The Battle of Threadneedle Street’, ‘Wood Panel Parliament’, ‘RU-RI-TANNIA!’ and ‘A Modest Proposal by the DWP’, give you a clear idea of the mix of satire and political insight that much of the collection contains. His long poem towards the beginning of the collection, ‘Not Paternoster Square’ (i.m. Occupy London, St.Paul’s 2011-12) is a good example of the slice and dice stream of consciousness description of this country as it stands on its wobbly plinth.

‘A Portcullis Corporation struts its peacock tribunes
In a coruscation of Ruritanian spectacle,
State-sponsored pomp that puts our Duchy
Of Grand Fenwick-cum-Camberwick Green
Back on the map of postprandial naps,
And travesties the need for cuts: austerity’

This is a collection about the lack of accountability and concentration of power of a country held up as a shining light of capitalism and liberal democracy. One struggling to still fit into its shrunk-in-the-whitewash emperor’s clothes. There are many declamatory poems which address this imperial struggle. In ‘RU-RI-TANNIA!’, this is given in the melodic refrain,

How can ya’ now complain?
We’ll make Great Britain Great all over again!}

Such anaphora is put to good use in other poems, as in ‘Thirties Rut: Clocks Back Britain’ about austerity and Brexit.

Lies told for long enough become the truth they say;
Even a stopped clock shows the right time twice a day…

And the cultural references are as wide and deep as Alan’s imagination; so we have characters from Baron Rees Mogg, to Noggin the Nog, Baden Powell to Enoch Powell, and the mouse that roared to the lion that squeaked. The blurring of real/imagined lines is perfect for our times; postmodern or not, the poems smash the pallid news of stereotypical skinheads marching on Washington DC or Westminster. In the aptly named, ‘Drain the Swamp’ for example:

Now white supremacists doing Nazi-style salutes
To Donald Trump, sieg heil-ing in Washington DC
Openly for all to see on mobile phone footage–
Not blue collars or rust-belt rednecks but dapper
Men in sharp suits, Hugo Boss wardrobed
Businessmen –self-made plutocratic products
Of the globalization of capitalism

It is they who are to blame for fomenting the currency of hate – they have their central casting foot soldiers, but it is big money interests who hold the power – some things cannot change when in the framework of corporate capital. Workers are numbers to exploit and influence through ‘brand value’ and the fetishisation of commodities, and in a brilliant metaphor, the homeless are pigeons, treated like shit on the streets.

Alan sweeps history up in many of the poems and gives it a good dressing down with all its malcontents of privilege and the harm and influence they have had on working class culture. He calls for a return of books that properly reflect the culture of struggle and which give us the intellectual grounding to fight fascism and right wing populism on all fronts.

Now once more books need to be mobilised
Against the oncoming monsoon of moral
Panic and scapegoating, in the face of a new
Gentrified fascism, a bespoke chauvinism

It is within this book that the richness and inventiveness of language is used to such great effect. Skewed words, new words, old words with new meaning, all are here – taking them back from the right wing media demonization of the poor:

With cloven hooves and “workshy” horns,
Striking Right-twisted attitudes
On plateaus of pack commonality, spice up
Copy till it’s piquant with Scroungerphobic
Soupçon soaking up our lexicon

The state of the nation we are in, with all its uncertainty, chaos, pork barrel stomach churning venal governance, is covered in this collection of searing poems; poems that will make you burn with anger but also with hope. Hope, that the richness of working class culture, with its ability to get beyond conservative notions of an olde englande lost, has always had to adapt, so will always be revolutionary in ways the powerful will never be able to overcome.

You can purchase a copy of Shabbigentile here

alan morrison

¡Viva Barista!

No one notices the poets muttering in mute
Pentameters as they sip cappuccinos,
Oval visages scooped up in coffee spoons,
Like cameos –foam-moustachioed;
Few of them have nerves for revolutionary views,
The politics of Castro aren’t accommodated
At Costa (though Guevara’s an Argentine blend
Finely ground as a goodwill gesture) –
Customers must choose between Trotsky and coffee,
You cannot consume two masters,
Bolshevik subscribers forfeit loyalty cards;
Baristas and Corbynistas rub shoulders
In café chains’ centrally heated exchange…

Capitalism’s spick and span in the polished
Many-levered silver Hydra, a gleaming
Meme machine, alembic altar-piece
Dispensing potent sap in a mystifying
Eucharist of alchemy and cream, worshipful
Suffusions and strange occulting symbols
Embossed on froth tops from milky outpourings
At the twirl of a wrist; Precariat
Of the world, unite!
–and percolate!
Have a cup of coffee on the welfare state
Before it’s finally dismantled into myth
Or picked up by the slate out on the patio,
Endorphins, serotonins, topped up while you wait,
Consumerist prescriptions, snowflakes alfresco…

It’s not religion but coffee that’s the opium
Of the people –French peasants sipped it for centuries
Mistrusting tea as a noxious luxury
Which turned the rich mad, so they stuck to their mud
Under Napoleons; and still today
Coffee is the tipple of the proletariat,
Most popular poison of public opinion…

Whoever would have thought that a bitter brown brew,
Arabic ambrosia, could come to undermine
Democracy, make us accommodate complacency?
Could Karl Marx have predicted capitalism
Embracing the bean and stamping its triumph
Through coffee-fetishism…? The West expresses
Its freedom with coffee in all its dizzying
Varieties and soupy nuances –espresso,
Cappuccino, frappuccino, Americano,
Macchiato, flat white– and endorphin-
Percolating properties that grease anxieties…

Ah! Kierkegaardian granules! Existential
Demitasses!    And the sweating barista
Is a living advert for individualistic
Service, for sacrifice of benefits in fellowship
For tariffs of the self –an embodiment
Of liberty in lubricated labour, Bartender
Of Arts, battery-acid libation bearer…

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