smokestack

Carrion Song for Major Tom by Bob Beagrie

post modernPost-modernists are smug bastards. They sit on their upside down, inside out sofas opining about how terrible things still are, with that ‘I told you so. Now come here, put this bandage round your bloodied head and get in the car, I’ll take you to a therapist.’ Enlightenment chaps, such as the voluminously silver-haired Steven Pinker, all ivory-towered up to in his corduroy trousers and leather padded elbows, will say, ‘hold on a minute, we are a much less violent society than we were. Yes, there was the First World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Cambodia, Rwanda, Syria, the Yemen, blah-di-blah, but in modern day developed countries, things have never been so peaceful.’

Are we regressing or progressing? This is the existential question of our hyper-modern times. How best are the world’s problems solved, in a time when the post-modern chaos-loving theorists can draw on the fact that since the turn of the millennium, unpredictability is very predictable (from the Internet to climate change). And yet, we are living longer, child mortality is at its lowest level, and viewing figures for Strictly Come Bake Off X Factor showdowns, are through the roof.

We may not be experiencing any civil war in the historic sense in our centrally heated hegemonic states, but it does seem our societies are more riven than they were just twenty years ago (I’m glad Rahul won GBBO, but was hoping for Kim-Joy – now, who wants a fight about it). I am not a pacifist. If the fascists come knocking on my door, I’d be up early ready to spurt CS gas through the letter box at them. But then I would probably just go and write about it.

FB_IMG_1537989936577We look back at history and essentially try our best to understand what went wrong (and right). And here in the United Kingdom, as it heads into another era of reformation, it makes sense to go back to other times for insight. This doesn’t mean rewriting history in the logic of revisionism, but more like putting another layer on the cake and seeing how it tastes now. Bob Beagrie does this in much of his writing (both page and performance) and like the best historians he brings it to our contemporary porches. In today’s poem ‘Carrion Song for Major Tom’, (which can be heard here) Bob takes us back to the febrile 17th century of the English Civil War, when the baddies had the world revolving around its empiric urges, but couldn’t keep its own house in order, so decided to turn it all upside down. This was a star-studded battle for the governance of the Isles, the Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Diggers and Levellers (of Winstanley), and the emergence of forms of anarchism (the good kind) and socialism, and some say the making of the English Working Class.

The ecology of conflict resolution, involves barrel bombing civilians, dictates from narcissistic bulbous men, to high teas at high tables, then back to bombing. We no longer fight with long staffs, pikes, trebuchets, and the like, but still we fight. Poverty may be relative, but like discrimination, it is still poverty and until the bottom of the pile is catered for, and not looked down upon whether it be by King Charles I or Elizabeth II, there will be struggle and possibly violence. Whether this is modernity or post-modernity is academic, for the thread of inequality remains as does the fight against it. But if I had to choose, I would go with Bob’s Bowie lyric reference at the start of his poem – ‘All the nightmares came today/ And it looks as though they’re here to stay’. If that makes me a smug bastard, I apologise from the bottom of my modernist heart.

 

Bob Beagrie is a poet, performer and occasional playwright. Born in Middlesbrough he has worked as a literature activist and as freelance writer with community groups for 20 years. He co-runs The Electric Kool-Aid Cabaret of the Spoken Word and is a founder member of the experimental poetry and music collective Project Lono. This poem is from ‘Civil Insolencies’ which is due to be published by Smokestack Books in 2019 and will be his eighth collection.

 

Carrion Song for Major Tom

“While men are gazing up to Heaven, imagining after a happiness, or fearing a Hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they see not what is their birth right.”
          Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1652

“Look out my window and what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay”
          David Bowie, Oh! You Pretty Things, 1971

They took me in under the storm cloud’s wing
fed me on fire, bid me level these barren heaths
with spade, rake, hoe
          with spade, rake and hoe
in joined desire, we remove rough stones,
our fathers’ scattered groans
layers of self we’ve sloughed off in growth,
dismembering ourselves, to stand alone
          as Osiris or John Barleycorn
We turn, together, the soil of memory
compact years, smell ripe turf
          Whatever shall we find as we finger the dirt?
spend hours sowing suns in common ground
to grow the pillars of Eden before sin,
as before my fall,
in rhymes of dipping scythes
sacks of sweat-won grain
and scarecrow grins wide as a rolling moor
          Remember when, remember
          when remembering
this remains an old battle scene,
a place for levelling men on points of swords,
over the fence we’ll forever tear down
undermine, come each month’s curdled cream,
through distances drawn up in murky pails
to our long-lost hanging grounds:
          Doggerland,
          Avalon, Lyoness,
          Albion

poaching trails and corpse ways
still lead stray quails toward a mythic
sleeper dreaming under the golden hill –
not our King, divine, with his head lopped off,

his blue-blood-spill soaked in strips of cloth
and sucked on to ease a blight or bitter ache
          to bring prosperity
          to reverse a curse
but some starveling sovereign, low itinerant,
peasant-born pilgrim with a leaking song,
ear clipped, pilloried, with branded cheek,
or a departed starman crowned on Mars
          with nothing left to lose
So, halt one moment in manuring, hear
those mouldwarps scurry to their Lazarus Palace,
secreting treasures beneath the grasses
shadow-cast by our booted soles
by our spades, rakes and hoes.

‘Persona Non Grata’ anthology edited by Isabelle Kenyon, with poem ‘The Refugees’ by Jennie E. Owen

HandsThe other week, I was helping out Culture Matters at the Poetry Book Fair, hosting a reading with the wonderful Fran Lock and Nadia Drews, both of whom have upcoming collections with the press. Mike Quille and I shared the space with Andy Croft of Smokestack Books, and Isabelle Kenyon of the relatively new press, ‘Fly on the Wall Poetry’. Isabelle has been a tour-de-force on the poetry scene recently, first of all editing the mental health anthology, ‘Please Hear What I am Not Saying’, in support of the charity MIND. It was awarded ‘Runner Up for Best Anthology’ at the prestigious Saboteur Awards this May and to date, it has raised £500. (more…)

‘Precarious’ & ‘The Combination: a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto’ (please scroll down to exit via the gift shop)

PRECARIOUS

Precarious CoverPrecarious was published by Smokestack on April 1st this year, and I have been on a Precarious Tour around the country, with the novelist and poet Richard Skinner (whose book The Malvern Aviator is also published by Smokestack) . So far we have read in Oxford, Huddersfield, Newcastle, and London – with Bristol and Swindon to come later in the year. I have also read in Derby, St Albans, and London (at the launch of Jane Commane‘s book launch of Assembly Lines), and later at Ledbury Poetry Festival, Cork, and Merthyr Tydfill. (more…)

New Book: The Malvern Aviator by Richard Skinner

malvern aviatorToday may be Easter Sunday, and it may be April 1st, but in this wonderful 24 hour 365/6 day year casino online economy, you can’t be fooled out of finding buds of goodness shooting up (even if it is snowing up North). Richard Skinner’s collection, The Malvern Aviator is one such bud which is published today and available from Smokestack Books. I am proud to say Richard is a Stablemate and for a number of gigs, will be my poet bro’ as we embark on our Rollercoaster tour promoting our books. You can buy Richard’s book from Smokestack here.

Below is the poem ‘Dark Nook’ by Richard from the archive, about the working conditions down the mines of the Isle of Man in the 19th century.

Publicity photo

Coal has received most historic attention in terms of industrial development and of course industrial strife. Less is known of the importance of tin mining. There is a certain awareness of its history in Cornwall, but as Richard Skinner’s poem Dark Nook, and the research behind it shows, it was a feature in the Isle of Man as well. And unsurprisingly, like the experience of the coal industry, conditions were just as bad. However, you had to be lucky in the first place just to get the job. “I am Egbert Clague./I come every morning from Agneash/hoping for the nod from the bargain man.” When you did get the ‘nod’ it took you, “two hours to descend the ladders,/…The hole to go down is just two foot by two,” It was dangerous work and there was no compensation for accidents, so when Egbert’s legs are crushed, his wife has to work on the Washing Floor, sorting the ore from the stone. “It’s worse work than the mine—/she has no more feeling in her hands./I’ll be joining her there soon.”

Richard explains the research he carried out on a recent trip to the Isle of Man:
11010594_10152971672946169_8033033697610363003_oI found the island to be a beautiful place full of myth and folklore but I hadn’t realised how much mining had gone on there, and over such a long period, too. The Great Laxey Mine was by far the largest on the island and comparable to some of the famous Cornish tin mines. The first shaft was started in 1824 and sunk to a depth of 247 fathoms (1482 feet). The next 30 years saw a further three shafts sunk. Miners worked two shifts—6am-2pm and 2pm-10pm—but when production peaked in the 1870s, mining carried on 24 hours a day. Cheap foreign imports hit the company hard and the mine eventually closed in 1914.

Miners worked in a team of six led by an ‘elder’ who would agree an amount per day with the ‘bargain man’, who represented the mine, and would split the money with the rest of his team. If you were ill or injured, you didn’t get paid anything. Gunpowder explosions were the most common cause of accidents. Some miners fell down shafts, others were killed by falling rocks or timber. Carbon dioxide—or ‘blackdamp’—was a constant threat. Heavier than air, it would settle at the bottom of the mine. Explosive methane, found in coalmines, was not present in the Great Laxey Mine so the miners could carry candles, the flickering of the flame alerting them when oxygen levels were running low.”

Finally, don’t think that tin mining is any less important today and that it doesn’t have a large social and environmental impact. As a report by Friends of the Earth stated: “If you own a mobile, it’s probably held together by tin from the Indonesian island of Bangka. Mining is wrecking the environment and every year it claims dozens more lives.”

Richard’s poems have been widely published. His full collection, ‘the light user scheme’, was published by Smokestack (2013). His pamphlet ‘Terrace’ (also from Smokestack) was published in April 2015. He is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy and has published three novels with Faber and Faber.

Dark Nook

I am Egbert Clague.
I come every morning from Agneash
hoping for the nod from the bargain man.
It takes two hours to descend the ladders,
our tallow candles round our necks
like white asparagus.

The hole to go down is just two foot by two,
the spokes like blunt knives,
the blackdamp smelling awful. We chip
and hack until we see the sparkle
of the rich extraordinary,
haul it up through smoke to the adit.

One day, they brought me up
in the dead box, my leg crushed.
The Captain of the Mines
came in person to the cottage and said,
‘We can’t give you anything
and that will have to keep you.’

My wife Brenda is on the
Washing Floors now, sorting ore from stone
ready to ship to Swansea.
It’s worse work than the mine—
she has no more feeling in her hands.
I’ll be joining her there soon.

Meantime, I grow veg, read and
visit the village chapel on my sticks
to pray our Sooki will one day flee.
When I’m alone, I kneel and whisper,
‘The affection you get back from children
is sixpence as change from a sovereign.’

Three Books from Smokestack in April: Stephen Sawyer, Richard Skinner, and Peter Raynard

Radically good poetry from Smokestack, April 2018

Stephen Sawyer, THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE

Stephen Sawyer’s debut collection is a book about public dreams, private desires and common fears. From a Merseyside housing estate in the 1960s via Pinochet and Thatcher to the floods in Sheffield in 2007, these poems trace the sutures of power and resistance on the body and under the skin through the mediations of love, death, class, art and oppression.

Paperback £7.99 – ISBN 9781999827601

Richard Skinner, THE MALVERN AVIATOR

Novelist Richard Skinner’s third collection tips certainties on their heads, making familiar objects in the world unfamiliar. From the Lollards to Saint Fabiola, questions of faith run through these poems as they engage with different poetic forms – the cento, the cinquain, the unrhymed sonnet, cut-ups and free verse.

Paperback £4.99 – ISBN 9780995767584

Peter Raynard, PRECARIOUS

A book that  tackles questions of masculinity, class, mental health and work head on. Rosa Luxembourg, Orgreave, 11-plus failures – it’s a book about precarious times, hard lessons and fragile lives, a defiant celebration of British working-class life and the people ‘who make the wheels go round’.

Paperback £7.99 – ISBN 9780995767591

peace by martin hayes

This week the BBC did an experiment. They got five young British people to work on a farm for a day picking cabbages – although not mentioned, the wrappers they were putting the cabbages in, were heading for Tesco, ironically in a bag of a non-existent farm; (as I’ve mentioned before on the site, Tesco started packaging meat and veg in bags that said Woodside Farm and the likes, which may exist somewhere but in this case are an invention to make us feel their produce is more local).

MigrantWorkREX_468x281Anyhow, these workers were doing a job previously undertaken by workers from other EU countries. You can guess what happens; they find the work really hard and although do the job required of them, say they wouldn’t do it for a living. The farmer says that he is struggling now to find workers; Polish and Lithuanian workers have gone home because of the exchange rate, and the Bulgarian and Romanian workers who remain, are too few to take up the slack. And all this, when the majority of farmers voted to leave.

(more…)

Kinmont’s Bairns by Jon Tait

No Tenemos Miedo’, is the status many Latino young people have been using in the US; they are undocumented and unafraid to say so. They, and others who support them in their now precarious situation, have been turning to art to protest against the rise in hatred towards them. In the past week we have seen the terrible scenes in Charlottesville, where the worms of fascism have come out of the rotten word they have been living in to spread hatred. This has undoubtedly come from the permission gave them by Donald Trump, and his rhetoric against the Mexican people and his ‘promise’ to build a wall.

mex borderThere is already a wall along the US/Mexican border, and in many parts there are works of art protesting against what it stands for. One exhibit has a series of day-of-the-dead like mannequins, hanging from the wall. It is a powerful image. Across the world, where walls have divided people, protest art has inverted the purpose of the canvas. From the Berlin Wall, to the Israeli Wall, and the Peace Wall in Northern Ireland, there are beautiful but at the same time heart-rending images to remind people, either of the reason they are there and/or the damage that they do, e.g. in cutting off families, or families from their land, etc.. (more…)