Written before last night’s atrocity.
Deference. That key ingredient for soft power, even if it is enforced by hard methods (think of Putin or Trump). A lot would argue that deference is in decline. Figures on trust in public individuals, such as politicians, but also the media, are in decline. The internet allows for a greater challenge to authority than ever before (notwithstanding the ongoing battle over who controls it). Still, I think deference has a lot to answer for when it comes to injustices meted out by those who hold power.
When the archaeology of child abuse is finally dug up, a lot of what was allowed to go on, could be put down to deference. When I was at school, I was once hit on the head with a toffee hammer by a PE teacher for suggesting we play football instead of rugby for a change (this was a Hogwarts type grammar school, that allowed a few of the likes of us in). He cut my head and left a large lump. But I never thought to report it to anybody (not even my parents) because given the regime, I didn’t feel anyone would believe me. But this is such a minor example, given what is now being uncovered in other schools, churches, and institutions where children are under the tutelage of adults (scouts, football). Trust and deference go together.
In the past there were never the type of safeguards that are in place now. An authority figure, be they a priest, teacher, or coach, would command a level of trust given the position they held. But challenging that position, especially when your own values (e.g. religious) are invested in such people, meant that many were afraid to speak out. I know this from the experience of my local community growing up where the priest was a paedophile. Today, many of those parishioners can no longer look at photos of the happiest days of their lives (weddings, christenings, confirmation) because he is in the picture.
It seems there are never ending examples still emerging; in just the past week I have read reports of alleged abuse of children at a ‘therapeutic’ Christian farm in the US state of Georgia, and the discovery of mass graves of young children by unwed mothers in Tuam, Ireland. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s haunting but beautifully written poem, At Letterfrack is an account of similar abuse at the Industrial School in Ireland that went back to the 1930s. It was so bad that boys would try to escape. “Ice grows on dormitory windows. Inside, rows of snores./Together, two boys whisper and dress in the dark. Hand in hand,/they run through white fields towards home.” But as the Ryan Report found, “they would usually be apprehended, sometimes by local people, and returned to the school.” On return, “they are beaten and sprayed with a hose.” One can hardly imagine how the perpetrators could defend such treatment. But people have great belief in the Faith and the institution of the Church; this trust is passed onto those who represent it, and were thus rarely challenged or questioned about their cruel practices.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual writer working both in Irish and English. Among her awards are the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Michael Hartnett Prize, and the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary. Her most recent book is ‘Oighear’. www.doireannnighriofa.com
From the Ryan Report on Industrial School Abuse, Volume 1,
Chapter 8, paragraph 162: “The children would run away at night
but they would usually be apprehended, sometimes by local people,
and returned to the school soon after.”
This bog of flattened bracken was once a vast forest,
filled with wildcats and wolves.
The bog still dreams of trees, buried deep, unseen.
Centuries ago, people build tougher roads here —
slats of wide wood hauled up and laid side by side
so treacherous wetlands of bog could be crossed.
These roads remain, far below the surfaced,
where years of peat grow over the past like scabs.
The bog swallows people and their paths.
The bog swallows itself.
Later, few trees grow
so people hunt the wood that lies below,
trunks of sunken forests buried in the bog.
At dawn, they seek patches of peat
where dew has disappeared, then pierce
the surface and push long rods deep,
deeper, through gulping ground
until they strike solid wood.
They pull chunks up and make rafters,
doorways, window frames.
From this land, a school and a spire rose.
Behind the school, a path ends at a small gate–
small plot, small stones, where smalls letters spell small names.
Leaves whisper: there is nothing here to fear.
The earth holds small skulls like seeds.
Ice grows on dormitory windows. Inside, rows of snores.
Together, two boys whisper and dress in the dark. Hand in hand,
they run through white fields towards home.
Does the land betray them?
No, a wizened hawthorn holds out hands to try to hide them.
In winter, runaways are easily found. Even in the dark,
small bootprints break through white to the ground below.
Does the land betray them?
Yes, it shows their path through snow.
They do not cry as they are dragged back, stripped of clothes,
pushed against the wall, their small feet sinking into snow.
There, they are beaten and sprayed with a hose.
Does the land protect them?
Yes, it holds their hands in the dark?
In dormitories of sleeping boys, they shiver and bleed
and weep black bogwater tears. Overhead, rafters dream
of their sunken mothers, submerged still,
deep in the bog.
Does the land protect them?
Yes, it stays under their fingernails forever.
By March, the snow has returned to air, the footprints
disappeared. From the earth, buds open white petals to light
where wood anemones fill bog-paths with stars.
Do they hold onto this land?
No, they forget. They let go.
They boys grow up. They walk away.
They leave Letterfrack, and go to London, Dublin, Boston.
Through their dreams, the mountain cuts a stark shadow.
Do they hold onto this land?
Yes, it holds them hard always – as a scar silvers from a red welt,
it tightens at the throat like the notch of a belt.
At Letterfrack is from Doireann’s collection Clasp, published by Dedalus Press
We have two types of salt dispenser in our house. One is the traditional one with holes in the top, which you shake over your food, the other is a small pot with a lid and a tiny wooden spoon on the side. I call the first one our working class salt, the other our middle class. I am fully aware of the madness of this categorisation, which I am sure has not been part of any analysis of social stratification. However, when it comes to food more generally, the divisions in class are legion. Getting beyond the vital mushy peas/mashed avocado debate, food is political in many ways. But it always seems that it is the working class whose eating habits are under scrutiny and held as being essentially unhealthy. In recent times, the fat-tongued mockney Jamie Oliver (who I concede did a good job when it came to school dinners), decided to highlight the ‘poor’ diets of the poor, suggesting they get creative with stale bread.
One point I did agree with him on though was, “going to your local market, which is cheaper anyway, but also they don’t dictate the size.” The supermarkets have recently been criticised for the convoluted way they price their ‘offers’. But like a lot of big capital, supermarkets are winning the day, and local markets are in decline (setting aside the rise in higher priced farmer’s markets, which the supermarkets have cottoned on to). And with that decline comes a loss of community cohesion; a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that markets were a significant site for social interaction of communities and could play a role in promoting social inclusion and healthy eating.
Catherine Graham’s poem Market Scene, Northern Town evokes this scene of bustling activity and its mix of goods: “The lidded stalls are laden with everything/from home-made cakes to hand-me-downs.” This is a tradition that is woven into daily activities: “They’ve/spilled out from early morning mass,/freshly blessed and raring to bag a bargain,/scudding across the cobbles, like shipyard workers/knocking off.” And from the food bought, you will “smell the pearl barley,/carrots, potatoes and onions, the stock bubbling/nicely in the pot.” We shouldn’t be too doom laden when it comes to the decline in markets, because they haven’t died out altogether, and I’m not sure they will. I for one would miss the market trader shouting, ‘Come ‘an ‘av a look. Pand a bowl!’
Catherine Graham grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne where she still lives. Her poems have been published in magazines and anthologies in the UK, USA and Ireland as well as online. Catherine’s first full collection “Things I Will Put In My Mother’s Pocket” was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2013. The featured poem Market Scene, Northern Town is taken from Catherine’s pamphlet Like A Fish Out Of Batter, ‘Poems that bring Lowry’s paintings to life,‘ also published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2016.
Market Scene, Northern Town
The lidded stalls are laden with everything
from home-made cakes to hand-me-downs.
Just gone eight bells and the church clock
grinds to a tock. It must be Sunday,
women are wearing hats. They’ve
spilled out from early morning mass,
freshly blessed and raring to bag a bargain,
scudding across the cobbles, like shipyard workers
knocking off. One woman bends over to take
a closer look; holier than thou, she’ll pinch the goods
between finger and thumb in gloves she has
worn in bed since that night on her honeymoon.
Note how ‘the hats’ keep their backs to the woman
in the shawl. Martha, mother, sister,
miracle worker; she can turn bones into broth.
Walk by The Dwellings tomorrow and you will know
her home: the polished letter box, sash windows,
open just enough to let you smell the pearl barley,
carrots, potatoes and onions, the stock bubbling
nicely in the pot; steam rising up like a prayer.
Let’s start with a joke: “There’s a black fella, a Pakistani, and a Jew in a nightclub. What a fine example of an integrated community.” Here’s another one for ya, “Two homosexuals in the back of a van, having sex. They’re over twenty-one! What’s wrong with that?” These are the anti-stereotype jokes of ‘Bernard Righton’, a character acted by the comedian John Thompson in the Fast Show from the 1990s. The second joke in fact shows how far we have come as the age of same sex consent is now 16. Although progress has been made in challenging stereotypes, many still exist, and often they target the working class.
The latest to be challenged, is that of the Essex girl; Essex is a county in England, and the stereotype is that it is populated by bleach-blonde, high-heeled, promiscuous women of low intelligence. This has gone on for years and has been promulgated by such TV shows as Birds of a Feather and The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE). Although some people might argue that it’s only a laugh, for many women it is a real problem. Sadie Hasler is a playwright from Essex, who left acting because she was only offered roles that involved wearing cat suits, going topless and always being sexual. A number of initiatives are ongoing to challenge the Essex Girl tag; these include a petition, social media campaign, a walk (The Essex Way), and a charitable foundation, the Essex Women’s Advisory Group.
A recent article by the poet Andrew McMillan, with echoes of Richard Hoggart some fifty years ago, forcefully argued for the need to hear more stories of working class lives in order to counter the void filled by the far right: “There must be an urgency, now, to help disenfranchised communities of all different types express their identity, to celebrate their history, to see themselves as belonging to part of a bigger picture, and this must include a refocusing on the working classes.” Similarly, another article called for politicians to better understand the working class vote, getting away from the belief they are only white; “mixed-race is the fastest growing demographic category, and that the growth is largely among the working class.”
If this site does one thing, I hope it shows that the working class are not a one dimensional, culturally barren, single type of person. Poems from Kim Moore, Dean Atta, Jacob Sam-La Rose, and many more have debunked such stereotypes. Josephine Corcoran’s “Working Class Poem” strongly adds to that story, because “This poem went to a state school and a university. This poem left school at 16. There are no whippets in this poem. This poem isn’t going down a mine. This poem doesn’t buy The Sun.” Josephine wryly highlights the cultural stereotypes, “this poem doesn’t recognise itself in soap operas,” and debunks them with “This poem goes to art galleries, museums, poetry readings,” spelling it out succinctly, “There is no tick box for this poem.” But going back to our start, there is also humour in, “this poem is an embarrassment” and ending, “this poem doesn’t have a glottal stop.” There is no cultural coagulation that defines this large swathe of people; and this goes beyond a joke when such stereotypes are used by the powerful dictate the life chances of those they employ or represent.
Working Class Poem
This poem was born in a council house, rented flat, NHS hospital, caravan, servants’ quarters, bed and breakfast, children’s home, mortgaged house. This poem went to a state school and a university. This poem left school at 16. There are no whippets in this poem. This poem isn’t going down a mine. This poem doesn’t buy The Sun. This poem had free school dinners and uniform vouchers. This poem got into trouble. This poem went to night school. This poem had a social worker. This poem has no formal qualifications. This poem has a PhD. This poem was top of the class. This poem was a teenage parent. This poem is childless. Little is expected of this poem. This poem is framed on its parents’ living room wall. This poem works as a university lecturer, shop assistant, hairdresser, teacher, call centre worker, filing clerk, police officer, bricklayer, food scientist, teacher, software consultant, sales person. This poem hasn’t disclosed its occupation. This poem is unwaged. This poem likes films by Pasolini, Truffaut, Rohmer. This poem reads The Beano. This poem’s father was a gas fitter. Its mother washed other people’s floors. This poem watches live opera and ballet streamed to cinemas. This poem doesn’t play football. This poem drinks beer, wine, spirits, tea, cappuccinos, is teetotal. This poem has never eaten mushy peas. This poem does not recognise itself in soap operas. This poem goes to art galleries, museums, poetry readings. This poem is an embarrassment. This poem goes to the pub. There is no tick box for this poem. This poem grew up on benefits. This poem pays higher rate tax. This poem isn’t in an anthology. This poem doesn’t have a glottal stop.
(Working Class Poem was previously published in Under the Radar)
The footballer Colin Kazem-Richards was born thirty years ago in east London to a Turkish/Cypriot Muslim mother and a West Indian Rastafarian father. He has played for 13 clubs in as many years, in seven countries, winning titles in Turkey, Greece and Scotland. He currently plays for the Brazilian team Corinthians, is married to a Brazilian woman with whom he has two children, who are their mother’s nationality. His national team is Turkey. Kazem-Richards is an embodiment of what the philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah (himself of mixed-heritage and has lived on three continents) calls ‘cosmopolitanism’; being a citizen of the world through shared values and culture.
It could be argued that today’s elite football at least, is one of those shared cultural experiences, being played and watched by billions of people across the world (China is the latest country to spend big on the game). In the UK, the Premier League is a polyglot of players from different countries (in 2015 it was 64 countries, compared with 50 in Spain’s La Liga). But whilst this is a positive illustration of cosmopolitanism, it is also a negative illustration of globalisation in terms of the economic foundations that prop it up. If the Premier League is the London Square Mile of football, the lower leagues are the forgotten inner city and rural pockets of deprivation (ask any fan of my team Coventry, or Leyton Orient). Where players in the Premier League can command long and rich contracts (they are paid five times more than a Championship player), a League Two player will not only be paid much less but will have much more precarious employment conditions (short-term/loan). And then there is the totem ‘tea lady’, who is barely paid a living wage.
Rishi Dastidar gives us a wonderful carousel of images of today’s modern Premier League players in his poem “We are Premier League”. The lines “We are Nando’s skin on X-box wings/We are charitable visits, making dreams come true”, shows the seeming contradictions of characters who command such wealth but still enjoy the ‘finer’ delights of chicken shops whilst visiting hospitals and schools. Many of these players themselves come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with little education (they were too good at football in their teens to worry about A levels, if not GCSEs) and travelled little. But like a lottery winner, the money can go to their head, and without proper guidance, they become: “We are court appearances in Armani suits/We are playthings of offshore corporations.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say they should be the foundation of a social mobility strategy, but neither should they be made the scapegoats of global capitalism. Many of the leading players, when retiring do a lot of good work supporting different communities. But there should be a way in which the benefits of cosmopolitanism can spread the income from globalisation more equitably; the football authorities are in a position to show leadership here, especially in these times of a resurgence in reactionary nationalism.
Rishi Dastidar’s poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others, and has featured in the anthologies Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins) and Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe). A fellow of The Complete Works, the Arts Council England funded programme for BAME poets in the UK, he is a consulting editor at The Rialto magazine, a member of the Malika’s Poetry Kitchen collective, and also serves as chair of the writer development organization Spread The Word. His debut collection, Ticker-tape, is published by Nine Arches Press.
We are Premier League
We are Nando’s skin on X-box wings
We are charitable visits, making dreams come true
We are role models and bandwagon drivers
We are baby Bentleys on private roads
We are gold tattoos on choking necks
We are orange spider mohicans on the backs of heads
We are dating on TOWIE and fit well jel
We are boys made good on our roasts
We are court appearances in Armani suits
We are playthings of offshore corporations
We are sponsored elite, and we are endorsed
We’ve parked the bus and we want more
We are the wages of underachievement
We are 17th place and we are class
(“We are Premier League” is taken from Rishi’s debut collection, Ticker-tape, published by Nine Arches Press)
To paraphrase an old REM song, “It’s the end of work as we know it. But I feel fine.” In the not-too-distant future, this will be the end game for politicians. Although there is a continuance of, and even in the case of President Agent Orange, a revival of the policy of creating more jobs, the reality is that under the current capitalist trajectory, there aren’t enough to go round. We are already seeing it with the rise in automation and the precariat and gig economy; people are scraping around for part-time jobs that are unsustainable economically. Politicians will have to find ways of keeping people happy (however that is defined) outside of work.
Some commentators are beginning to write about the post-work economy and how today’s politicians are wrong in their promise to create more jobs. In a provocative essay, “Fuck Work!” the historian James Livingston claims that the belief in work as a central factor of what it means to be human, “has become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.” Similarly, Yuvi Noah Hariri describes this situation in a more apocalyptic fashion, “The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose.”
The poem, The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand by Fred Voss, laments the state of the capitalist economy at a place he has worked for over thirty years; even though “it’s a pretty good job we have /considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories /in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker /but paradise? /and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 / hours inside tin walls /as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian / beaches /and billionaires raise martini glasses.” But in response to an ironic comment (“Another day in paradise,”) from a workmate, he asks the question: “why not a job /joyous as one of these poems I write /a job where each turn of a wrench /each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each /drop of sweat /rolling down my back because the world has woken up and /stopped worshiping money.” Everyone needs a sense of worth, even in a mundane job, where they don’t feel exploited and undervalued. For as Fred beautifully writes, [there is] “nothing more noble /than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson /reaching for the moon and men /dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their /machines /like the sun /couldn’t rise /without them.” The challenge now is create a sense of this nobility both inside and outside the workplace.
38 years ago Fred Voss walked into a steel mill and put on a hardhat and picked up a torch and a wrench and then a pen to write of souls sold in the job market, lives fed into time clocks, men owned and ordered like they were hardly men at all, by bosses and owners too good to shoulder a load or grab a pickaxe, as the earth is covered with concrete and the trees and tigers die. Fred Voss looks for the day when all this will be changed when women and men with dirt on their hands and gold in their souls will no longer be treated like children but given the power and respect the true makers of this world deserve. Voss has published three books of poems with Bloodaxe: Goodstone(1991), Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls (1998) and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods (2009).
The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand
“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time
clock and the sun
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10
hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each
drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and
stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and
Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through
steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their
like the sun
Just over a year ago, Dean Saunders was imprisoned for the attempted murder of his Father. The family understood that Dean needed medical and psychiatric help as the attack happened during a bout of paranoia. He shouldn’t have been put in prison, where – as has been found – support was wholly inadequate. Dean electrocuted himself in his cell and died in January last year. The year 2016 will see suicides in prisons doubling from five years ago to a record level.
This is not the only problem that prisons face because of the cuts imposed by the government during its mania of austerity. High profile prison protests, although they are termed as riots, have taken place in a number of UK prisons over the recent past. There have also been vigils held outside prisons in support of transgender prisoners as part of the International Trans Prisons Day of Action and Solidarity. Prisoners and prison officers are in agreement, there are not enough resources, both human and financial, to support an overcrowded antiquated system. But as with most of the cuts made, it falls heaviest on those weak, vulnerable, and powerless.
Nick Moss’ two poems “Hauntings” and “Paddy”, shows a more humane side of the characters that are imprisoned, and the relations between them. In Hauntings, Nick talks about a cellmate who was recently released, although it “feels like a life ago”, and how they talked “Behind a metal door/Of all the fears of home,/Of life; of kids not seen for 10 plus years;/Adrenaline kicks and white lines crossed/And snorted; anticipation of cold beers/And family curses.” But on leaving they become like ghosts – “Carrying our souls in plastic sacks/We haunt each other for a while/Then flash away/Like shadows do.” And then there are the characters you never forget, trailing their history in their conversations and actions. For Paddy, it’s “Fragments of half-remembered rebel songs/Dentures, collapsed veins and yellowed skin/Longing for the days of/The ‘RA on the wing/And you/Vicarious/Behind the wire.” A great deal of hope is lost in prisons, coloured by the past and its repeat. But in Paddy, there is some left in the “Singing and rattling round the wings/Hoping a cracked-voiced chorus/Of the Wolfe Tones/Will bring down the walls.”
Nick Moss grew up in Liverpool but now lives in London. He was released from a prison sentence last year. He began to write poetry as a way of mapping his experiences in jail, and won Koestler awards for his collection The Skeleton Choir Singing, and his poem “Never Again?” In 2016 he was awarded a May Turnbull Scholarship, and had work featured in, and performed at, the We Are All Human exhibition at the South Bank. He performs regularly and continues to write because “if we keep shouting, eventually we’ll hear each other”.
It’s a week since Peter went home
Feels like a life ago
It happens all the time
One day here
In all our lives
The next day gone
Time up or shipped out
Another voice just echoing now
On the wing
We slip in and out of each other’s lives
Walk the landings, revenants
Carrying our souls in plastic sacks
We haunt each other for a while
Then flash away
Like shadows do
When the sun hits the yard
Yesterday we talked
Behind a metal door
Of all the fears of home,
Of life; of kids not seen for 10 plus years;
Adrenaline kicks and white lines crossed
And snorted; anticipation of cold beers
And family curses
Now you’re out again
Hoping for notoriety
But knowing you just face shame
Carrying our souls in plastic sacks
We haunt each other for a while
Then flash away
Like shadows do
When the sun hits the yard
No more real to each other here
Than we are to our lives at home.
Fragments of half-remembered rebel songs
Dentures, collapsed veins and yellowed skin
Longing for the days of
The ‘RA on the wing
Behind the wire
The days when you first reached London
Full of love and crack and E
Days turned soon to sleeping in doorways
Robbing shops at night
Six month stretches
In Wandsworth and the Scrubs
But still the rebel
Halfway between Bobby Sands
Now it’s a four year stint
A cup of the green every morning
Spice at the weekends
A letter and a postal order
Once in a while
Chance of a tag slipping daily away
On the one road to your
Bridge over troubled waters
A sweet voice
Shite skin and life-bleared eyes
Rattling round the wing
On the cadge
For coffee, burn, sugar
Wondering where that first love went
She never came home
Dead, married, working for probation
For all you know
You’ll go home soon bro
A flat and a wife in Hammersmith
A son dealing weed
An overweight staffie
And not a chance
Of a chance
People like us
If we have dreams
The dreams end up in shop doorways
Getting pissed on by strangers
Til they piss out our flame
And our legacy becomes
Shite skin and life-bleared eyes
Passed down to daughters and sons
Who carry failure in their genes
While trying to avoid
Outright defeat in a rigged, fucked game
Singing and rattling round the wings
Hoping a cracked-voiced chorus
Of the Wolfe Tones
Will bring down the walls.
*Image by Nic McPhee